Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sony Ericsson X1 Review

In a nutshell: The Sony Ericsson X1 Xperia is a blockbuster mobile. It's a touchscreen phone with the highest resolution display available, plus an optical joystick and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. It runs Windows Mobile, making it a powerful platform for all sorts of applications, especially email and web browsing. With a 3.2 megapixel camera, Windows Media Player, assisted-GPS, 400 MB memory plus a memory card slot, quadband GSM plus HSDPA and WiFi, it's got the lot when it comes to functionality. Not cheap, not small, but very, very powerful indeed. It just loses one star because the operating system is sometimes slow to respond.
Sony Ericsson X1
Sony Ericsson have been slow to bring out an iPhone basher, but here it is: the Sony Ericsson X1 or Xperia.

The X1 is a touchscreen phone, and it's got one of the biggest and best screens ever seen on a mobile phone. At 3 inches across, it's almost as big as the iPhone 3G's 3.5 inch screen, but here's the thing: whereas the iPhone 3G has 480 x 320 pixels, the Xperia has a massive 800 x 480 pixel resolution: that's 2.5 times as many pixels. Big isn't always better, but when it comes to touchscreen phones, it definitely is. As well as providing a brilliant platform for the touch-operated user interface, the display also offers a superb environment for web browsing, video streaming, photo viewing, etc, etc.
Sony Ericsson X1A lot of thought has gone into the user interface design of the Xperia. As well as the finger-operated touchscreen, there's an optical joystick and a navigation key. To use the optical joystick you brush your finger over the touch-sensitive key to move the mouse pointer on the screen. The navigation key is a conventional 4-way key that can be pressed to select an option. Handwriting recognition with a stylus is available as an additional text-input method. But the X1 holds another secret within: a full slide-out QWERTY keyboard. With the keyboard in position and the display in widescreen landscape mode, the phone resembles a mini-laptop and offers a lot of the functionality of a real laptop - but more of this later. For the moment, we'll just say that with all the different input options available, every user should be able to find a way of working that meets their needs. This is not a difficult phone to use, although its advanced options do present something of a learning curve.

The phone feels very solid too. It uses a premium metal body and feels like it could take some knocks. But the solidity and wealth of features leads to some bulk. It's a big phone, and quite thick too, at 17mm. And it certainly is heavy. In fact it's the heaviest smartphone currently in the shops by our reckoning. At 158g it weighs more than twice as much as the Sony Ericsson W890i for example. It's not a machine for wimps, but it manages to look very nice despite its porkiness. It's available in a choice of Black or Silver, both of which look nice and businesslike.

The user interface is designed around a "Panel interface". Each panel provides an environment customised to a specific activity, such as web browsing, messaging, playing music, etc. We don't think that this is quite as revolutionary as Sony Ericsson claim, but it looks nice, works well and we have no issues with it.

The X1 is a Windows Mobile smartphone. Windows Mobile has matured a lot since its early days and is now a robust and powerful OS. It's also used in the Samsung Omnia, which has proven itself to be a very stable and robust smartphone. Running Windows Mobile offers several advantages. As well as being stable, it's a familiar environment for PC users, and brings a lot of familiar functionality from the desktop to the mobile. For instance, the X1 uses Outlook Mobile as its email application, and it uses Office Mobile to let you view and edit Office attachments. Business folk accessing their corporate mail via an Exchange mailserver can stay synchronised using Exchange ActiveSync. We hesitate to say that the X1 can match a BlackBerry for power and ease-of-use, but it's arguably true. Having said that, it isn't the fastest OS to respond, and can be too complicated for casual users.

Moving on to the camera, we have to say that this is the one area where the X1 disappoints us. A phone this big and this expensive needs the best camera available, but the X1 doesn't have it. Instead of the 5 megapixel monster we hoped for, it has a 3.2 megapixel camera instead. Instead of a xenon flash, the flash is a weaker LED one. The camera does have autofocus and a digital zoom and will take decent snaps in good lighting, but it won't replace a digital camera. This is probably the only fault that we can find with the phone. As well as taking stills, the camera is capable of recording video clips.

The X1 uses a Microsoft product as its media player: Windows Media Player. Not only is this a fully featured and user-friendly media player, but it also integrates seamlessly with Windows Media Player on a PC, so you can manage and synchronise your media libraries without having to mess about with third-party software. The media player handles most common file formats: both audio and video. A very welcome addition is the 3.5mm headphone jack which means that you can plug in third-party headphones (thanks to Paul for pointing this out to us!) You can listen via an optional stereo Bluetooth headset.

One of the features that's now pretty standard amongst high-end smartphones is aGPS, and the X1 doesn't miss out. With GPS you can find your way either using Google Maps, or with the Wayfinder Navigator software that gives turn-by-turn instructions, suitable for use when driving. Unfortunately only a trial version of Wayfinder Navigator is included, with a limited license duration. In any case, a dedicated satnav device like a TomTom will provide a more polished experience for serious satnav use when driving.

As well as the Windows Mobile software and applications that we've already mentioned, there's also a well equipped personal organiser application that includes an alarm clock, a calendar, a calculator, notes and tasks. A benefit of the Windows Mobile platform is that there's also a wealth of third-party apps available for download.

The X1 has a built-in memory of 400 MB, which is sufficient, but not as much as some rivals. Fortunately it can also accept microSD cards - a welcome change from the expensive Memory Stick Micro cards that Sony normally require.

Being a 3G phone equipped with HSDPA, a fast internet connection is possible (when signal strength is good). Combined with the large touchscreen and the optical joystick, this provides a very good environment for the mobile web. In addition, the X1 supports a range of connectivity options - USB, Bluetooth and WLAN - so you can browse the web using a free and fast WiFi connection, provided that you are in a WiFi hotspot or have a WLAN network in your home or office.

The battery life that Sony Ericsson quote for the X1 is exceptionally high - 6 hours talktime and 20 days standby! And it does have a big battery, so this is theoretically possible. However, the large display eats battery power, and when you start using apps, you'll use more power than on standby. So whilst the talktime and standby figures suggest exceptionally good battery life, the real world of clicking, browsing and chatting will reduce performance. Having said that, there's plenty of juice in the battery and you should be able to use it for a few days between charges, unless you live your life on the phone.

We are very impressed with the Xperia X1. We love the huge high resolution touchscreen and the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. We love the Windows Mobile environment and applications (although some of our users are complaining that the phone is too slow.) We love the WiFi. We quite like the memory and the GPS. We're less keen on the size and weight. And we're disappointed by the camera. But on balance, this is a 4 star phone, packed with features galore in a system that seems to be well designed and well tested. In other words, a smartphone that seems to be genuinely smart. We can recommend this one with a fair degreee of confidence.

Alternatives include the Apple iPhone 3G (rubbish camera and various other niggles), the BlackBerry Storm (no WiFi), the Nokia N96 (too many problems) or the Samsung Omnia (smaller screen, but better camera and more memory.) Looks like you're spoilt for choice - both the Samsung Omnia and the Sony Ericsson X1 are great phones, and interestingly they're both Windows Mobile devices.


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