If you are in the market for a new Android smartphone, here are a selection that offer a level of power and performance that would give the iPhone a run for its money. ...
Caption by: Sandra Vogel
Sony Ericsson's smartphones have met with mixed fortunes recently. For example, the Vivaz and Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro is an example of the company getting things right. The handset runs Android (1.6) and presents what's arguably a new smartphone form factor — or at the very least, an interesting take on an existing one.
The Xperia X10 Mini Pro is the second example of a Sony Ericsson handset that comes in two flavours — the Vivaz and Vivaz Pro mentioned above being the first. Both 'Pro' versions have slide-out QWERTY keyboards to cater for those who make heavy use of text messaging and email.
The Vivaz is a standard-sized smartphone, but the Xperia X10 Mini Pro is remarkably small. In fact, on paper it seems too small to function as a smartphone at all. However, we were very impressed with how well the device handled in practice.
The Xperia X10 Mini Pro measures 90mm tall by 52mm wide by 17mm thick and weighs 120g, which is slightly bigger and heavier than the keyboard-less Xperia X10 Mini (83mm by 50mm by 16mm and 88g). The smartphone fits into a small pocket comfortably enough — it does feel a bit chubby, but we appreciate the solidity of the slide-out keyboard.
Screen size is obviously limited: the display measures just 2.55in. across the diagonal and has a resolution of 240 by 320 pixels. The LCD is sharp and bright, and Sony Ericsson has skinned Android to try and make the most of the available space.
Sony Ericsson has 'skinned' the Xperia X10 Mini Pro's Android OS to make the most of its small screen size — most notably with four Corner Control customisable shortcuts
The most immediately obvious effect of this skinning is what Sony Ericsson calls its Corner Control. There are four customisable shortcuts in the corners of the home screen, where they are well out of the way but still accessible. It's easy to change these, and a quick drag upwards on the home screen calls up the main apps menu that comprises four horizontally scrolling screens offering nine shortcuts each.
There are additional home screens available — you just sweep horizontally to get to them. You can put Android widgets onto these, but the screen is so small that only one widget can be accommodated per home screen (up to twenty new screens are added whenever you add a new widget).
The whole system is straightforward to get to grips with, and few people should struggle to reach across the screen for full one-handed use.
Handsets in the Xperia line all feature a curved backplate, which we're not too fond of. It doesn't make a handset any easier to hold than a flat backplate, and it means the phone wobbles on the desk if you tap at it, which is irritating.
There's a pretty standard array of side buttons: a microUSB connector on the left; on/off/lock button and 3.5mm headset connector on top; volume rocker and camera shortcut on the right. Beneath the screen are three shortcut buttons, for the applications menu, the applications listing and back respectively.
The Xperia X10 Mini Pro feels like a premium handset, thanks to its excellent build quality. The chassis is solid, and the keyboard slides in and out with a nice 'thunk'. When lighting conditions are poor, a keyboard backlight is activated.
The Xperia X10 Mini Pro's QWERTY keyboard is small, but well made and surprisingly easy to type on
The Xperia X10 Mini Pro's keyboard is much better made than the Vivaz Pro's. Keys are very small, but they're well separated from each other and significantly raised from their surroundings. You'll probably need to work a little more slowly than you normally would with a mini-QWERTY keyboard, and use fingernails or fingertips for total accuracy, but we found typing remarkably easy.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro ships with a power adapter, a PC connection cable and a one-piece stereo headset with inline music playback controls. There was no quick-start manual with our review sample.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro's headline specs are in line with what you'd expect from a high-end smartphone, with one exception. The processor runs at a rather slow 600MHz — but then, it doesn't have to drive a vast screen, and it performed well enough during testing.
This is HSPA handset with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS all present and correct. There is 16GB of internal memory, and a microSD card slot for adding more — our review unit came with a 2GB card.
The Xperia X10 Mini Pro runs Android version 1.6, putting it somewhat behind the times. Sony Ericsson has said that all of the Xperia X10 series will get an upgrade to Android 2.1 in the fourth quarter of this year. The latest version of Android is 2.2, codenamed Froyo.
For mobile email users there's support for Exchange via the third-party RoadSync software, as well as support for personal POP and IMAP email accounts. And, of course, you can sync Google Mail and Google Calendar over the air too.
At the back is a 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash. The lens is recessed, which should protect it from the worst of scratches. GPS support allows for geotagging of photos. The camera app repeats The Corner Control system used on the main screen, so you can get to various settings easily without having icons intruding on the main viewing area.
One area where the small screen causes usability problems is web browsing. You just can't see enough of any web page at once to enjoy browsing.
Sony Ericsson does try to make it efficient, though. You can pull a zoom window around on top of a representation of a full page in order to choose precisely where you want to focus your attention, and can then zoom in further by clicking on-screen icons.
As well as having a bookmarks feature, you can add URLs to the main apps menu. They are tacked on at the very end. This gives you a quick and easy way to get to your most frequently visited web sites. It's slightly more complex to delete bookmarks from the main menu than to add them, but not too much of a hassle.
There's no accelerometer to automatically switch the screen between portrait and landscape modes; to get the screen to pop into landscape mode you have to slide out the keyboard, which is rather inelegant.
Another problem is entering text using the screen rather than the keyboard. There's no on-screen keyboard in landscape mode: as soon as you slide out the keyboard in a messaging application, the screen goes into wide mode and you're ready to type. In portrait mode you have a T9-style keyboard and can sweep horizontally to get to secondary keyboards offering the numbers 0-9, punctuation and a collection of emoticons. Anyone with stubby fingers is likely to find this very fiddly indeed.
Sony Ericsson provides plenty of applications with the Xperia X10 Mini Pro. Timescape, which is a feature of the Xperia series, brings tweets, texts and Facebook messages together in one place. It looks rather more cluttered on the Xperia X10 Mini Pro than it did on the larger Xperia X10, but it's an opt-in application so you can take it or leave it.
Other preinstalled applications include Google Talk, Google Maps, YouTube, TrackID (for identifying music), an FM radio, a notes maker, a Facebook client, an alarm, timer and calculator, Wisepilot (navigation software) and some games.
Performance & battery life
Call quality on this little handset was superb, and the loudspeaker punches well above its weight in terms of volume and quality.
The original Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini had a non-removable battery. That's changed here, and the Xperia X10 Mini Pro's 930mAh cell is removable. Thanks largely to the small screen, we found getting a day's life out of it was not a problem. We'd always recommend daily battery charging, but you shouldn't be rushing for a power socket during the middle of the day unless you're a particularly heavy user of Wi-Fi and/or GPS.
For the record, Sony Ericsson claims 3.5 hours' talk time on 3G/HSPA and 360h on standby, or 4h talk and 300h standby on GSM/GPRS.
The Xperia X10 Mini Pro is quite a surprising handset. For something so small, it's remarkably comfortable to use, thanks in no small part to Sony Ericsson's clever Corner Control interface and careful skinning of Android in general.
Of course the small screen makes this smartphone impractical for some activities, notably web browsing. And the keyboard, while well built, is really very small. Most users will probably need to slow down a notch or two in order to use it effectively.
Even with these caveats, we're impressed.
Caption by: Sandra Vogel