First, and maybe last, impressions of the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1a

Summary:I was present at Mobile World Congress in Spain last year and IMHO the device that generated the most interest and conversation was the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1. The device marked the first SE Windows Mobile device and also brought a customized user interface layer, called Panels, to Windows Mobile. In addition, the hardware looked fantastic with an 800x480 pixels resolution 3" WVGA display, stainless steel design and QWERTY slider keyboard. The device retails for a whopping US$799.99 and after spending several days with it I am not sure the high end quality alone is worth the premium price of admission.

I was present at Mobile World Congress in Spain last year and IMHO the device that generated the most interest and conversation was the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1. The device marked the first SE Windows Mobile device and also brought a customized user interface layer, called Panels, to Windows Mobile. In addition, the hardware looked fantastic with an 800x480 pixels resolution 3" WVGA display, stainless steel design and QWERTY slider keyboard. Sony Ericsson was being a bit mysterious at MWC and didn't get into details about the underlying Windows Mobile OS or even let people hold and use the device itself. Over the past year, we have seen the device being worked on and demoed in other stages of development with the official launch finally happening late last Fall. The US 3G-compatible version, known as the X1a, was available for a couple weeks in December and then shipments were apparently halted for some reason. The XPERIA X1a is now available from Sony Style retail & online stores and other online vendors for US$799. You can find the non-US 3G model for just over US$600 at places too, but be aware it won't work with the AT&T 3G data network. I picked one up from J&R last weekend when they had a US$70 off discount for US$720 and am posting these initial impressions after playing with it for several days. In addition to my thoughts and video below (having some technical issues with YouTube ATM), you can check out my image gallery for still photos of the X1 and some of the user interface.


Image Gallery:A walk around the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1a North American version.
Image Gallery: Open XPERIA X1a
Image Gallery: XPERIA X1 in hand

$799 is a LOT of money for a mobile phone, but in the past I have paid upwards of US$850 for unlocked Pocket PC devices so it isn't that shocking to me. Remember, the XPERIA X1a is only sold as a SIM-unlocked device with no carrier subsidy or associated contract requirements. In the long run, the price may be spread out over the life of its usage and you are not locked into any carrier. Then again, like car loans today you are pretty much going to be paying for wireless carrier service forever anyways so buying a subsidized phone with a contract may not even affect you. I bought the HTC Fuze with a 2-year extension for US$250 (after mail-in rebate) and it is pretty close to the same device (in terms of specs and functionality) as the XPERIA X1. The XPERIA X1 is definitely a premium phone for those who are looking for one of the best quality devices available and the buyers of the X1 are probably similar to buyers of the MacBook Air in that they want a high quality product and don't care much about the premium cost.

Speaking of the HTC Fuze that I also purchased recently, a few of the differences between that device and the X1 are as follows:

  • X1a has standard 3.5mm headset jack
  • X1a has 800x480 display compared to Fuze/Touch Pro at 640x480
  • Fuze has 5-row keyboard and X1a has 4-rows
  • Fuze uses TouchFLO 3D and X1a uses Panels
  • X1a display is 3" and Fuze is 2.8"
  • Fuze has TV-out capability, X1a doesn't
  • Fuze has an accelerometer, X1a doesn't

As you can see both of these high end Windows Mobile devices have some great features and qualities and the choice about which device is for you really comes down to personal preferences. After only a few days with the X1a, I can't yet say definitively that the X1a is better than the Fuze and worth the US$500 additional cost. Then again, it is one beautiful, well designed device that looks and feels as expensive as it is.

In the box: The retail packaging is nothing particularly special, but I do like the usage of three boxes used to hold the contents. One box filled with foam and an opening cutout for the X1a keeps it safe and protected. The biggest box on the left side contains the battery, extra stylus, USB charger and cable, stereo headset and adapter/controller, and USB to miniUSB cable. The box under the X1 box contains user documentation (includes Manuals for Panels, Getting Started, Browsing, Media), X1 support card, and a CD with Wayfinder software for GPS navigation.

Out of the box first impressions: I've seen and touched the X1 a few times over the last year so the hardware was really not much of a surprise when I pulled it out of the box and attempted to open up the back to put the battery in place and charge it up. The steel battery cover comes off by using a fingernail to insert into the small opening and pry it off. This is a bit unusual for removing the back and I hope it lasts the life of the device. The X1a is not as wide as the HTC Fuze and feels good in your hand. I bought the all silver model and there is also a black/silver model available. The brushed metal finish is classy and looks professional. The lower hardware keys are a bit different than what I have seen before on other devices, but they do work pretty well and have a bit of a surprise (as I will discuss below). The XPERIA X1a is an expensive device and I think your first impressions will leave you satisfied with your new phone purchase. However, there is a lot more to a device than just sexy hardware and it remains to be seen if Windows Mobile is up to the task to keep me extremely satisfied.

Specifications: The specifications for the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1a include:

  • Quad-band GSM/EDGE:1900/1800/900/850 MHz
  • UMTS/HSDPA: 850/2100/1900 MHz
  • Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional
  • Qualcomm 528 MHz processor
  • 512MB ROM and 256MB RAM
  • microSD card slot with SDHC support
  • Integrated GPS/A-GPS receiver
  • 802.11 b/g WiFi
  • Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP support
  • 3 inch 800x480 WVGA 65k colors display
  • 3.2 megapixel camera with flash light
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • Stereo FM radio with RDS support
  • 1500 mAh battery

    Dimensions:
  • Weight: 5.57 ounces
  • Length: 4.35 inches
  • Width: 2.07 inches
  • Thickness: 0.67 inches

A walk around the hardware: The beautiful 800x480 resolution WVGA display is the first thing that jumps out at you after you turn on the device. It is 3 inches across and is nice and bright. Unlike most of the new Windows Mobile devices today where the displays are flush to the front of the device, there is actually a very shallow bezel on the X1. I did not find the bezel to be much of an issue though and I was able to easily tap on the soft keys, menus, and other parts of the display without issue.

Above the display on the front you will find the front facing video conferencing camera (not supported in the US at this time), light sensor, and handset speaker. Below the display is where the X1 looks a bit different with some unusual hardware buttons. There are two small rectangular soft keys, but on the X1 these are actually the two customizable buttons. I currently have them setup for the Start menu and Evernote. I then simply tap the display to activate the soft keys rather than using the hardware buttons.

There are Send and End buttons towards the outer edges of the hardware button area and holding down the End button locks the device. The two bottom hardware buttons are for the X Panel and OK functions. The X Panel button shows you the nine Panel slots that you can customize with selected Panels (I'll write a bit about those below.) The center directional pad is actually quite big with the left and right side extending out and between the outer buttons. The center also presses in for action. In addition, the directional pad is an optical interface that can be turned on or off and used for quick scrolling in the browser and other places. I like having the optical button activated and use both the optical and hardware button to navigate around the device.

The SE XPERIA X1 also makes use of colorful indicator lights that are located on the back of the display in four areas. They can be customized with the onboard utility.

At the top of the X1 is the 3.5mm headset jack (smart move SE), power button, and stylus silo top. The stylus is long and made of metal/plastic, but is quite small in diameter. The only thing on the bottom is the lanyard opening. A very small volume rocker is found on the upper right side with the camera activation button down towards the bottom. On the left side towards the top is the standard miniUSB port (again, nice move here) used for charging and syncing. The mono speaker is found on the lower left side. I would have thought we would get stereo speakers on this media powerhouse, but I suppose people use their headset most of the time anyways. Sound through my headset is FANTASTIC and one of the best sounding phones I have ever listened to.

The 3.2 megapixel camera and flash light are found on the upper back of the X1. I took a couple of outdoor photos with the camera and also some from a few other devices to compare and expected something better on the X1. They were OK, but I found the photos taken with the HTC Fuze to be better. The battery, SIM, microSD card cover takes up most of the back. A cool green Sony Ericsson emblem is present along with classy wording etched into the device.

In addition to the amazing display, the other obvious feature on the X1 is the four row QWERTY keyboard. While the keyboard has less characters than the HTC Touch Pro, I do like that there are Start Menu, OK, period, comma, and @ buttons dedicated to these functions. The space bar is huge and the numbers appear in phone keypad layout that are activated with a function key. The keys are angled from bottom right to upper left on the right side and bottom left to upper right on the left side to give you a better feel for the keyboard. I found I was able to easily enter text on the X1 using the keyboard and given how much of a fan of QWERTY keyboards that I am I think I will be just fine with this keyboard too. I don't like that there is no capability for shortcuts on the keyboard and don't understand why manufacturers won't add this type of capability out of the box. The keyboard backlight is good with white and blue highlights, but in low light the key characters can get washed out and are hard to see. This backlighting reminds me a bit of the bronze T-Mobile G1 that I recommend everyone avoid so maybe this backlight issue kills the X1 for me as well.

Panels: There are spots for nine panels on the X1 and by pressing the X Panel button you can see what ones you have loaded on your device. There are several installed by default and more that can be downloaded from the SE site. There is a SDK for creating panels and I sure hope we see more of them as developers get their hands on the X1. Then again, at the current price I am not that hopeful there will be a lot of people spending time working on panels for a device with a limited market. Panels are like custom Today screens that are easy to change depending on your mood or functional desire. I don't think it is as revolutionary as Sony Ericsson makes them out to be, but they can be quite useful. I have found some delays and lockups over the last couple of days when using and switching panels and am not that pleased with their performance.

The panels I have loaded include Facebook, Spb Mobile Shell, Google, FM radio, media player, and SE standard panel. The Facebook one is fun and gives you a pretty capable Facebook application for your Windows Mobile device. People have created panels for YouTube and TouchFLO 3D so there are some people working on different options and the fact that this is an HTC manufactured device makes this a bit easier.

Spb Mobile Shell is included as a free panel that is one of my favorites because it gives you the ability to view a ton of information and quickly access your programs with a couple taps. The Spb panel is highly customizable and will probably be my main panel over time.

The Media panel looks almost just like my Sony PSP and gives you a MUCH better media player than the aging Windows Media Player application found on Windows Mobile devices. Then again, when I switched out of the panel I found my music skipping. If you switch to another panel, the media also stops playing so you need to have it active to use it.

One of the coolest panels is the 3D fish panel that starts out with 3 colorful fish swimming around on your display. If you touch the screen they will swim towards your finger. Each fish has a different, real purpose for indicating something going on with your device. One turns red when you battery gets below 10%, another turns to gold when you get a message, another turns to silver when you turn off the volume and a fourth will appear if there is a missed call. It is actually a bit relaxing to watch the fish swim around and there are even light shadows below them and a clock/date moving slowly around the display.

Other initial software thoughts: Opera Mobile 9.5 is included as the browser, but it doesn't work quite as good as the customized Opera solution HTC has on the Touch Pro mainly in regards to the text reflow and zooming options. All the rest of the Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional bits are there like Office Mobile, Windows Live, and a Java client. Since it is SIM unlocked there is no carrier junk on it and the device is pretty clean.

Pricing and availability: I bought my Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 from J&R for US$720 during a weekend sale, but the standard price is US$799. It can be found online from a number of retailers at this price and I highly doubt we will ever see it picked up by a US carrier.

Experiences and some more first thoughts: So far I am pretty impressed with the XPERIA X1, but for over $700 it really should stand far above other Windows Mobile devices and offer a speedy, responsive experience. Music sounds excellent through the headset jack and my headphones. My test movies played very well and appeared in full screen with no lag or other issues. The camera takes fair photos, but there is room for improvement in the optics.

It takes a second or two when switching panels and just under a second for the screen to rotate when you slide open the keyboard. I like that you can assign your own functions/programs to the soft keys. You could set one to rotate the display or start your favorite application and it is simple to customize them until you get the keys that optimize your usage.

So far the only application that I haven't been able to get working is Seeqpod. Everything else works fine so far with the high resolution display. I am also testing a SanDisk 16GB Ultra microSD card in the X1.

This is definitely not a single-handed device and the touch screen is capacitive so there will be times when you need your stylus or fingernail. If you stay in the Spb Mobile Shell panel you should be able to stay out of the Windows Mobile UI for the most part. You can install Spb Mobile Shell on any Windows Mobile device though so it isn't specific to the XPERIA. I personally like using the Windows Mobile OS because of all the functionality that can be managed and settings that can be customized. With other more "user friendly" operating systems out there, Windows Mobile seems to appeal more to power users who like to tweak things.

A lot of times with a device so focused on data the phone suffers a bit, but the phone call quality on the XPERIA X1 is top notch so there are no worries here. People commented that I sounded as good as a landline and like I was right next to them. Callers sounded good on my end too. RF reception has been decent, but the bars (I know that is a lame way to compare signal strength) are higher on the Nokia E71 and HTC Fuze.

I was quite disappointed to see that SE did not include any type of voice dialing application on the XPERIA X1. With such a premium price the latest version of Microsoft Voice Command should have been included.

While looking through the list of bands in the phone settings I was excited to see UMTS 1700 MHz listed since that is what T-Mobile USA uses for its 3G network. There has been lots of talk that the XPERIA would support this frequency (was in early press releases) and if this band actually worked then it would be worth the money for me to keep it and use it with both my AT&T and T-Mobile SIM cards. Unfortunately, I think this is just some left over words since I tested my X1 in the heart of T-Mobile's 3G network area and was only able to get EDGE data speeds.

Other help and reviews: While I continue to use the device and try to decide if it is a real keeper or not, I recommend you check out full reviews on the XPERIA X1 over at Mobile Tech Review, PocketNow, and MoDaCo. I saw how excited Lisa, from Mobile Tech Review, was with her X1a at the last Mobius event and trust her judgement about phones so that got me thinking more and more about the X1a. Then they were unavailable for a month or so and after they started selling again I kept an eye out for sales and couldn't resist the J&R weekend offer.

I also highly recommend you check out Jenn's 15 tips for new X1 owners.

If there is anything you want me to test out on the device, please let me know and I'll try to respond. I may not have the X1 around too much longer though since J&R does have a good return policy that will let me send it back if I am not fully satisfied and at this time I don't see much benefit over much cheaper devices.

Topics: Hardware, HTC, Mobile OS, Mobility, Operating Systems, Software, Wi-Fi, Windows

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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