What's hot: Top notch specs, very large capacitive touch screen.
What's not: Runs older Android OS version, battery life is so-so.
Editor's Update August 2010: The Xperia X10a is available on AT&T for $149 with contract.
Reviewed April 8, 2010 and updated August 2010 for the AT&T version by Lisa Gade, Editor
Sony Ericsson hasn’t had an easy few years; the smartphone is eclipsing the feature phone and even SE’s higher end imaging phones haven’t garnered much attention. Years ago they chose the UIQ smartphone platform which is now defunct, and then they moved to Windows Mobile for very expensive unlocked phones like the Xperia X1a. The Windows Mobile 6.x platform is on its way out as Microsoft readies for the release of Windows Phone 7 at the end of 2010, so Sony Ericsson is now trying their hand at Android. Android is a hot, fresh platform and Sony Ericsson chose well this time. The folks at SE know how to make uber-sexy high end hardware and the X10 fits into this category. This isn’t a recession-friendly phone, at least not if you get it unlocked without a contract, and no US carrier has announced plans to offer the Xperia (yet). Rogers in Canada is offering the phone and they share 3G bands with AT&T in the US. That means Sony Ericsson has an X10a model with AT&T compatible 3G, and we assume that they’ll offer it unlocked in the US sans contract subsidy. Though Sony Ericsson also lists a T-Mobile US 3G compatible version, they tell us this doesn’t mean that phone will be produced. They merely list all possible variants that they might make. Sorry T-Mobile customers.
Our review unit has final production hardware but not final production software. We found the phone stable and well-behaved overall and we’d guess the firmware is reasonably close to release candidate status. Those issues that we do have with the X10a aren’t the result of bugs but rather design choices, and we’ll detail those later. As you’d expect from a phone with a 1GHz processor, the Xperia is a fast phone, even with pre-release firmware. *Editor's note: we've updated this review to reflect the final release version that's offered by AT&T.
Specs at a Glance
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10a (the “a” stands for Americas and indicates that it has US compatible 3G bands and is meant for sale in the Americas) is an Android 1.6 (donut) smartphone. It has a 4” capacitive touch screen with 854 x 480 resolution, an on-screen keyboard and an accelerometer. It has WiFi, Bluetooth and a GPS that works with Google Maps. The phone has a gig of internal storage with approximately 425 megs free for your use and a microSD card slot (an 8 gig card is included). The processor is Qualcomm’s 1GHz Snapdragon—one of the fastest mobile CPUs available as of this writing. It’s boatloads faster than the old 528MHz Qualcomm CPU used in many Android phones like the Hero and MyTouch 3G. It’s the same CPU used in the Nexus One and HTC HD2. Sony Ericsson is known for their great camera phones and the X10 has an 8.1 megapixel camera with autofocus and an LED flash. Sony Ericsson includes software customizations that are pleasant and non-intrusive.
Wirefly price (no rebate required):
A walk Around the Phone
This is a large but not ungainly phone. Quite the opposite, it’s one of the most attractive Android handsets we’ve laid eyes on. That said, it's a plastic phone and doesn't feel quite as high end and rugged as the Nexus One. It’s available in black and white and we have the black model for review. The front face is dominated by the large 4” touch screen, with three chromed mechanical buttons below. These buttons are more like bars so they don’t add to the phone’s height. They’re easy to use and have good tactile feel. They handle the standard Android menu, home and back functions (the usual fourth Android search button is MIA).
Side controls are simple: volume buttons and a dedicated camera key on the right side. The 3.5mm stereo jack, micro USB port (under a rubber door) and power button are up top. The phone’s plastic back has an attractive matte finish and it curves at the sides to feel great in the hand. It’s a yank-off style back and there’s a small groove at the bottom where you’ll start pulling it off. The microSD card slot is under the battery door and unfortunately you must remove the battery to access the card.
The 4” capacitive display is very bright (once you disable the very conservative auto-brightness feature) and sharp. This is one of the larger displays on the phone market: lovely. We miss the multi-touch support and will have to wait for OS 2.1 to get it. No fault of the screen itself, the unlock screen makes us want to shriek. You must do a long arcing diagonal sweep from the bottom to the upper right section of the display (Pythagoras tells us they couldn’t have found a longer path). That’s way too long a motion and you have to do it quickly (but not too quickly) or it will bounce back. Argh! Sony Ericsson’s custom on-screen keyboard makes us want to throw the phone out the window. I have used, with few complaints, many Android phones’ on-screen keyboards and never had problems. With the SE keyboard the best we got was 50% accuracy in both landscape and portrait modes—yeegads. Switching to the standard Android keyboard helps (press and hold on the 123 button to select a different keyboard) but I still found the Nexus One and others easier to use. That’s strange since the larger the screen, the easier typing should be.
The Xperia X10a runs Android OS 1.6 which is little old since the Samsung Captivate (in fact all Galaxy S phones), Motorola Droid X and Droid 2 ship with 2.1 or newer. Not that Sony Ericsson is the only manufacturer that’s guilty of shipping 1.6 or even 1.5 recently: the Motorola Cliq XT, Motorola Backflip, and the Acer Liquid all shipped with older OS versions too. Generally, if the manufacturer heavily customizes Android, it takes time to rework those customizations to work with the new OS, hence you don’t always get the latest OS. Though Sony Ericsson’s customizations are subtle, there are plenty of them, so we’re a bit understanding. However, Sony Ericsson tells us that the Xperia X10 won’t get an OS upgrade to 2.1 until Q4 2010. At that point, the SE will still be behind Android phones running OS 2.2 Froyo.
Here's our video review of the pre-release Xperia X10. We show the hardware in detail and take a look at Sony Ericsson software such as Timescape and Mediascape as well as built-in Google applications. It's a great way to see Sony Ericsson's Android customizations in action.
In our second video review we cover the AT&T branded version of the Xperia X10:
So what are Sony Ericsson’s customizations? The most salient are Mediascape and Timescape, both of which we like. Timescape is a timeline of activities: Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, MySpace status updates, messages, call log, photos you’ve taken and music you’ve played. It uses a flappable deck of cards metaphor and is easy to use and fun. If you don’t want or need certain items, you can remove them from Timescape. You can use it as your home screen or stick with the standard Android desktop and access it via shortcuts at the bottom of the home screen. The same goes for Mediascape; it’s available as an icon at the bottom too. Even if you go with the default Android desktop, you’ll get a Timescape widget that shows the latest item. If you tap on it you’re taken to the Timescape screen and you can flip through the cards. If you don’t like the widget, you can remove it from the desktop just as you would any Android widget. Watch our video review to see Timescape in action.
Mediascape is a multimedia application that looks clean and is intuitive. It provides access to photos, videos and music. The music player has online access to PlayNow and the photo viewer has access to Facebook and Picasa. Since the standard Android 1.6 multimedia players are weak, we welcome Sony Ericsson’s Mediascape.
The web browser is the standard Android webkit browser. There’s no Flash support and there’s no pinch zooming because that feature was added in Android 2.1 unless a manufacturer wanted to write their own driver (as did HTC for the Hero and other Android phones). Likewise there’s no voice input for Google search in 1.6, but Sony Ericsson did manage to get the newer version of Google Maps on the phone so you can get spoken navigation.
Other software includes Sony Ericsson Sync (it claims to sync your PIM data to SE servers) and Moxier, an excellent MS Exchange client. Wisepilot was included with our unit and it’s a GPS, mapping and navigation application. The application is tailored for use in Europe; for distance and speeds are metric only, and only Scandinavian countries are available for business searches. But the app can download maps and POIs for US locations when using the “near me” search option and directions are clear and logical as long as you can think in meters. The AT&T version supports remote wipe and has even more robust MS Exchange syncing support that handles contacts and calendar items including meeting invites.
Phone and Reception
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10a is a quad band GSM world phone. It has 3G HSDPA on AT&T’s 850/1900MHz bands. The unlocked version of the smartphone automatically configured itself with the correct data settings when we inserted our AT&T SIM card and we were then able to use all data services. The AT&T version comes pre-configured to work on AT&T. Reception on 3G was average among AT&T phones. It has better reception than the iPhone 3GS: using the same SIM at the same location the Xperia had a -95db signal vs. the iPhone’s -101db.
Voice quality is loud and clear, and the Xperia behaved well as a phone. Data speeds were likewise very good. Here in the Dallas area we have AT&T HSPA 7.2Mbps service and the Speedtest.net app reported an average of 3,000kbps for download speed and 700kbps for uploads. The Xperia actually did better on the Speedtest.net application than did my iPhone 3GS using the same SIM at the same test location (the iPhone 3GS averages 2,500kbps down and 280 up).
It’s hard to argue with a Sony Ericsson 8.1 megapixel camera phone. As you’d expect, it takes lovely photos and it has options for single autofocus, multi autofocus, macro, face detection and infinity focus modes. You can select from a variety of scene modes such as portrait, night, beach and snow, sports, party and document and you can tweak the exposure. The camera has scene recognition, smile detection and touch capture options, and that’s it for photo settings.
The video camera can shoot at VGA, wide VGA, YouTube optimized, QVGA and MMS resolutions. That’s pretty much it for video settings. VGA video averages 25fps and as we’ve noted in prior comparisons, the Sony Ericsson does well against most phones except Nokia Nseries phones for video quality.
What happens when you combine an extremely fast CPU, large display and 3G wireless? The battery says “ouch”. The 1500 mAh Lithium Ion battery lasted us a day on a charge with moderate use (not using Moxier push email and Exchange sync). This is a phone you’ll have to charge nightly unless you’re a very light user. Other smartphones with similar specs like the Nexus One and Samsung Captivate are also battery hogs, though we found the Nexus One lasted longer than the Xperia X10a. It did last as long as the Captivate. Fortunately, you can get a spare battery and swap it in during the day if you’re heavy user.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10a is undeniably a solid high end Android phone. It’s great looking, well made and the specs are positively top notch. The camera handily beats the Nexus One and the Samsung Captivate. Our review unit had stronger cell reception than the Nexus One and similar reception as the Captivate. But the Samsung Captivate is the brighter shining star: it has a newer version of the Android OS, it's faster, it has that fantastic Super AMOLED display and it's thinner.
We like Timescape and Mediascape, and just in case you don’t, you don’t have to use them. There’s nothing like flexibility. We also appreciate the inclusion of solid MS Exchange support since Android 1.6 lacks Exchange syncing (and even 2.2 isn't a solid solution fo Exchange sync). Google Maps has navigation and AT&T Navigator are there for turn-by-turn directions. We sorely miss multi-touch support; it’s not pleasant to go back to using on screen zoom buttons and single-touch keyboard input. Speaking of keyboards, the Sony Ericsson software keyboard isn’t pleasant, but you can switch to the standard Android keyboard that isn’t tops but it works. Lastly, AT&T has locked out non-market app installations, and that means you'll only be able to install applications from the Android Market.
Pro: Top notch hardware and good looking too. Excellent 4” capacitive touch screen, top-of-the-line 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, great camera, enjoyable software customizations. Solid reception and fast data speeds on AT&T’s 3G network. Very good audio quality for multimedia and capable video playback.
Con: Ships with old version of Android OS, battery life is so-so, the unlock screen and Sony Ericsson software keyboard make us want to bang our heads.
Price:$149.99 with a 2 year contract for AT&T version.
Display:4" capacitive touch screen (scratch resistant). Resolution:
480 x 854 pixels, supports both portrait and landscape modes via accelerometer.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Performance:1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250 processor. 1 gig Flash ROM with ~ 425 megs
x 2.5 x 0.5 inches. Weight: 4.8 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz with EDGE. 3G HSDPA 7.2Mbps on the 850/1900/2100 MHz bands (works on AT&T and overseas).
Camera:8.1MP camera with autofocus lens and LED flash. Can shoot video up to wide VGA resolution.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth.
Software:Android 1.6 OS (Donut). Sony Ericsson applications and Android enhancements: Timescape, Mediascape, Sony Ericsson Sync and Sony Ericsson Home with clock widget. Standard Google Android software: complete standard package including Gmail, Google Talk, YouTube, Android web browser, email client, Google Maps, Android Market and Google media uploader. 3rd party software and AT&T software: MS Exchange sync ("Work Email" by Futuredial), OfficeSuite (MS Office viewer by Mobile Systems), MobiTV, AT&T Maps, AT&T Radio, AT&T Hotspots, AT&T Family Map, Where, YP Mobile, Mobile Banking, Mobile Video (CV) and AT&T Navigator.