Sony Ericsson joins the modern era with its Android flagship. (May 16th, 2010)
Sony Ericsson's return to smartphones has been a long time in coming: after the low-key launch of the Xperia X1, many had wondered whether the company had simply conceded the market to younger, faster rivals like the BlackBerry and iPhone. But a sudden rush in the past few months has culminated in what should be one of the most advanced Android phones on the market. In our Xperia X10 review, we'll see if Sony Ericsson is back in form or if it still has catching up to do.
Product Manufacturer: Sony Ericsson
Price: $150 (3 years, Rogers)
- Elegant design; large display.
- Good photo and video quality.
- Solid call quality.
- Ample amount of built-in storage.
- Custom UI hurts much more than it helps.
- Initially stuck on Android 1.6.
- Rivals in a similar price range sometimes more compelling.
- Typical smartphone battery performance.
Design and the display
It's hard to find a Sony Ericsson phone that could be considered truly ugly, but most of its designs in recent years have been either strictly functional or purposefully flashy: think the utilitarian C905 or the light-up K850. The Xperia X10 is thankfully beyond both of these. It's an attractive but understated design with only a little use of chrome and light. It's even very practical: the back is a rubberized finish that looks attractive but keeps a stable grip.
The navigation buttons and the volume rocker are easy to understand and logically placed, with one exception: search is actually tied to the volume-down control in certain situations. It's not a fatal flaw, but it does mean having to either remember where it is or use the software alternative. We'd also recommend getting the phone in white if you can: like any predominantly black device, the X10 tends to show dust or lint on black where it's hidden with white.
As you may imagine, the design is ultimately dominated by its 4-inch display. It's not the largest ever -- that honor goes to the 4.3-inch screens on the HTC Evo 4G and HD2 -- but it's noticeably larger than on the Milestone, Nexus One or most other Android phones. It's very crisp at 854x480, but we wouldn't say it's the best display either: the Milestone's LCD is on average brighter.
What's most surprising about the X10 is the amount of storage bundled in. Android phones aren't known for having a lot of internal memory, but Sony Ericsson builds 1GB in; that's enough to hold many current apps and a small media collection. Despite the seemingly expansionless design, there's a microSDHC card slot tucked in the back that will usually come with a 16GB card built-in. That won't compete against a 32GB iPhone but, for now, will certainly satisfy most Android phone buyers.
Android, Mediascape and Timescape
The X10 is perhaps the last major smartphone to come with a pre-2.0 build of Android. Here, it's Android 1.6. That puts it above a rash of Android 1.5 devices in some ways -- it has access to the modern Android Market and certain apps like Google Maps Navigation, for example -- but without a newer version, it's missing out on a more advanced HTML5 web browser, more voice commands, Gmail undos, and the hooks needed to run newer apps like the official Twitter client. An upgrade to 2.1 or beyond could come as soon as September but won't bring the multi-touch that exists on phones like the Droid or Nexus One. Anyone who has used Android before will be at home with most of the OS and what makes it special: it's a very touch-friendly but powerful platform with simple multitasking and surprising flexibility. Apps can change parts of the core user experience if that's what you'd like, and with about 50,000 or more apps, there are enough titles that you'll find what you need.
With a 1GHz Snapdragon processor inside, the X10 is fairly quick, too. It loads pages tangibly faster than the Milestone and is more responsive overall in some areas.
Things go off the rails, however, with Sony Ericsson's changes to the core interface. We do like a few changes, such as custom clock and wireless toggle widgets on the home screen, but in most cases Sony Ericsson's custom interface, UXP, either provides little advantage or gets in the way.
Timescape is the most conspicuous example: it's supposed to be a timeline of everything of interest on the phone, such as e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and recent media captures, but in practice it seldom proves useful. It's an overly stylized single column and makes it virtually impossible to follow a thread of conversation on a social network with a reasonably large number of contacts; there's also not much point to including recent photo or video captures, since that content is usually easier to find in the media library. We can't even say that it's all that effective, either. It was extremely common to find an error warning that it couldn't update from Facebook or Twitter (whether on 3G or Wi-Fi), and the interface as it is now is fairly slow. It wasn't uncommon for us to simply launch a single-service app like Facebook or Seesmic since they displayed information in an easier-to-read format and were usually much more current with updates.
Mediascape is better. It provides a quick visual view of both recently accessed and recently added content as well as links into online services -- Facebook and Picasa photo shares as well as Rogers' urMusic store, for example. There are some distinct advantages to this for those who consider the web the home to much of their library, but for local content there isn't much of an advantage other than slightly easier control over shuffling songs.
We also have to single out Sony Ericsson's custom on-screen keyboard. Simply put, it's a step back. The keys are spaced apart properly (helped by the large screen), but we've never seen such an unresponsive and unintuitive replacement for Google's own set before. It wasn't uncommon to make major typing errors because the X10 didn't recognize key presses, and the punctuation system is an odd (if still learnable) system that requires quick double-taps to insert a comma instead of a period. It's possible through software installs to override the built-in keyboard, but no one should have to consider installing a basic user interface change just to avoid frustration.
Thankfully, Sony Ericsson manages to make some amends in its choice of camera and the features that back it up. At 8 megapixels with a flash, it overcomes some of the limits of cellphone cameras, even if just through brute force. In daylight still photography, we saw clean pictures where others would have produced noise.There was also minimal softness or chromatic fringing, often the effects of plastic or small lenses. We could even get a mild bokeh (shallow depth of field) effect with the autofocus system. The only problem in regular lighting was color accuracy: hues were sometimes muted in shots compared to the real world.
Low light isn't the X10's strong point, however. While it does have a flash that will illuminate subjects at short range, the camera seems to struggle with in-between shots where it's not quite bright but yet where it's not dark enough to invoke the flash. We took a few shots on an overcast day which came out blurry despite a stable grip and seemingly decent illumination. You can get good results out of Sony Ericsson's camera, but it needs a good light source. Thankfully there is a level of image stabilization, although it's oddly turned off by default.
As you might expect given the camera emphasis, there's a surprising amount of customization for the final shot. You can't change light sensitivity, but you can adjust metering, modify white balance, and even force the flash to become an always-on photo light.
For video, the X10 is also above average compared to most Android phones today. It records at up to widescreen 480p at a smooth frame rate. The bitrate is still somewhat compressed, but it's high enough that it preserves considerably more detail than most Android phones. We noticed too that it's quicker at auto-exposure when shifting between brighter and darker scenes.
What was the most unexpected when shooting movies was the audio quality. Sony Ericsson isn't producing studio-level recording, but the audio isn't muddled or as easily overwhelmed as on many phones we've tried.
Call quality and battery life
Voice calling has been one of the highlights Sony Ericsson could usually count upon for its phones. Here, it's still good but not as clear as we can recall from past tests. Volume is good and listeners very audible, but we noticed a slightly muddled tone from incoming calls; those on the other end didn't report any significant problems. We suspect that none of this will be significant enough to deter a sale -- after all, calls are becoming less and less important on smartphones with each passing month.
How long you can keep using the phone will vary widely. Android's multitasking and notifications cut both ways; the more apps that need to update, the quicker the battery drain. With a standard, though, the X10 is still a typical smartphone. It will last through a work day of typical use, but not much more than that. We'd definitely recommend plugging in every day, and twice a day if you're either a frequent caller or constantly using features like Internet radio.
In many ways, the Xperia X10 is a classic Sony Ericsson device. As a hardware exercise, it's very well executed: it's a pleasure to hold, it's fast, it has an inviting display, and the camera is one we'd actually expect to use often.
But as is often the case, any custom software touches aren't really needed, and here actually seem to be a drawback. With the exception of some features of Mediascape, a lot of the features tend to make tasks slower and more complicated than they have to be. Much of the beauty of Android comes from loading your preferred apps to get the experience just right; Sony Ericsson's attempt to take care of every task itself spoils that, especially when features like the keyboard have been changed almost arbitrarily. Custom interfaces can make things better -- HTC has had great success with Sense UI in the past year -- but they have to either be very well designed if they exist at all.
This wouldn't be such a concern if it weren't that other Android phones are in striking distance. In Canada, the only North American country with a subsidized X10, the Acer Liquid e should be available at the same time and will bring an uncluttered Android 2.1 along with a lower price tag; we've heard $80. Those who aren't tied to Rogers also have the option of the excellent Motorola Milestone (the Droid on Verizon). Both in North America and worldwide, the X10 also has to fear from the HTC Desire and Legend, which are either at or coming to Canada and many of the other countries where the X10 is on sale.
We'd still call this a success for Sony Ericsson, but a very qualified one. If you value good design and a good camera, the X10 is a solid pick. If you frequently message others or have more than just a casual interest in social networking, however, you'll want to reconsider; especially if you're willing to look at the iPhone or BlackBerry as well.