Reviewed November 25, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Well folks, it’s finally here: the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1a. That’s the US version with 3G HSDPA on the US AT&T bands. The Xperia is sold in the US at SonyStyle stores in silver and at Best Buy stores in black (Fry's, J&R and other retailers also offer the silver version). Don’t confuse the Xperia X1a with the overseas version Xperia X1i (no “a” for America) that lacks all of AT&T’s 3G bands (it has 1900MHz but not 850MHz). The Xperia has a very high resolution 800 x 480 pixel 3” display, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, GPS, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, WiFi 802.11b/g, push email, full web browsing, a microSD card slot, an FM radio and GSM 3G HSDPA. Its casing is mostly metal, and fit and finish are suitable for a James Bond movie. Sony Ericsson designed the phone and its software and the phone is made by HTC. In fact, there are some HTC goodies here like their Comm Manager and Streaming Media Player.
The Xperia, though somewhat delayed, is still a cutting edge Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional phone with impressive specs and Sony Ericsson’s unique “panels”. These panels are a grid of applications in mini-view that handle the web, Sony Ericsson’s multimedia player that looks much like that found on SE Walkman phones and the Sony PSP, the FM radio, standard and enhanced Today screen views and more. Unlike Samsung’s TouchWiz UI found on the Samsung Omnia, Eternity and Behold, with its palette of home screen widgets, the Xperia’s are expandable. That means you can not only remove ones you don’t like, but you can add new ones on. We downloaded a few, including a condensed version of Spb’s Mobile Shell and a wondrously good Facebook application. Sony Ericsson opened up panels to 3rd party developers, so we should see more as time goes by. There’s a web shortcut that takes you to the latest panel downloads, so finding them isn’t hard.
The Facebook panel-- friends are shown by their photos rather than a text based list. Friends whose images are grayed out don't have any new status updates.
Panels are more than skin deep; they're a new way of interacting with a smartphone. Even when you're looking at the standard Windows Mobile today screen, it's really just a panel. What does that mean? The standard Today screen is indeed one of the panels. Tap on it and it fills the screen and takes over the user experience. The Xperia then acts just like your average WinMo Pro phone. Press the hardware panel button, and you're back to a view of all installed panels. Select Sony Ericsson's enhanced today screen and you're in a slightly different world. Select the Spb Mobile Shell panel, and you're interacting with the device through that popular interface (surprisingly, Spb isn't charging for this panel, thanks Spb!). For those who get bored with the same old user interface, the Xperia should entertain. For those who have a variety of needs (and isn't that the point with a feature-rich smartphone), there are interfaces tailored to multimedia, the web, and standard business today screens. Quite interesting and in the end more innovative than HTC's TouchFLO 3D.
That said, if you don’t like panels, you can simply stick to the standard Windows Mobile panel, but we think they really add something to this PDA phone’s experience. Unlike TouchFLO 3D, there's no Today setting to disable panels altogether. It takes 1 to 2 seconds to switch to a new panel. That might sound like a lot, but given that the phone is loading (in some cases) an entirely new Today Screen theme or user interface program in the case of Spb Mobile shell, that's actually pretty darned good.
Here's a video walk around of the Xperia X1a and a detailed demo of the panels:
Display and Controls
The Xperia’s 800 x 480, 3” display is sharp, colorful and higher resolution than anything else on the US market. Our only niggle is with the auto screen brightness setting, which is too dim (we changed to manual brightness). Note that no US carrier currently offers the Xperia, it’s sold as an unlocked GSM phone (it works with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US) only for a hefty $799. Of course, this means there’s no contract required, nor is there any carrier bloatware on the phone. We played with the Xperia over the past winter and spring, and the panel interface was a bit slow and sometimes buggy. We can definitely say that the months Sony Ericsson spent working on panels has made all the difference, and the lag is now quite tolerable at 1 to 2 seconds switch time between panels, and we’ve had no crashes. In fact, despite the complex hardware and software, the Xperia is one of the most stable Windows Mobile Pro phones we've used in the past year. Even iffy games not compatible with the phone's unusually high resolution and a variety of XDA Developers hacks haven't taken the phone down. Speaking of hacks, there are quite a few on XDA-Developers to tweak the Xperia's basic settings, add TouchFLO 3D standalone or as a panel and add enlarged on-screen keyboards and menus.
The touch screen itself is responsive and controllable. HTC's TouchFLO is part of the Xperia's enhancements, as is 3D graphics acceleration. Windows Mobile still lies beneath, so there are times when you’ll need the stylus (for those tiny close boxes and for the stock Windows Mobile on-screen keyboards since Sony Ericsson doesn't include custom keyboards). Sony Ericsson, like HTC and Samsung, has enhanced Windows Mobile to support finger scrolling in the OS and built-in applications, so there’s no need to grab tiny scroll bars—simply drag the screen with your finger to scroll.
Now that's different: the two Windows Mobile softkeys (top buttons above) don't do the same thing as the shortcuts on the screen's bottom taskbar.
They can launch the appliations of your choice or handle common actions like screen rotation or opening the Windows Start menu.
Rather than just a standard d-pad, the Xperia has an optical mouse pad that handles finger scrolling, somewhat like the the Samsung Omnia and Samsung Epix minus the mouse pointer mode. This works well, though hard-core action gamers will prefer to press the outer edges of the d-pad which behave like a traditional mechanical d-pad.
Web pages look more like the desktop counterparts thanks to the high resolution display (higher than the iPhone’s) and Opera Mobile 9.5. Opera provides a desktop-like view of full HTML web pages, and zooming in requires a tap. IE Mobile is also included for a less pretty but quick view of the web. We tested the phone with NetFront 3.5 and it ran well, but Skyfire doesn't yet support the Xperia's resolution.
Keyboard and Design
The keyboard has been the subject of much talk. It’s pretty, it’s silvery-shiny and the keys have just a little bit of travel. It’s not as good as the HTC Fuze keyboard in terms of feel and there’s no dedicated number row or symbol row since this is a 4 row rather than 5 row keyboard. But it’s not terrible either—it’s certainly better than the SideKick 2008 or AT&T QuickFire keyboards and no worse than the T-Mobile G1 keyboard. It’s backlit in white with Fn keys marked in blue. If the keyboard backlight comes on in daylight, the white backlighting against silver actually makes the keys less visible. Pleasantly, the @, comma and period keys don't require an Fn key, and the number pad (numbers do require an Fn key press) are clustered phone keypad style. You can turn on Fn lock by double-pressing the key at the lower left marked with a blue square.
The hardware is stunning and speaks of high quality construction. The metal body looks attractive and expensive, as it should since this is an expensive phone. The metal finish looks top notch and even the keyboard panel looks like stainless steel. The front controls are small, and thus require good aim. Sony Ericsson didn’t follow HTC and other manufacturers' design cues and axe a host of Windows Mobile buttons. We have front OK, softkey, panel control, call send and end buttons along with button lock. The volume rocker is on the phone’s right side (also small), as is the camera button. The microSD card slot is on the side but under the battery door. Thankfully, there’s no need to remove the battery to access the card, and the phone also supports mass storage mode over USB to mount the card on Windows and Mac desktops. Note that the Xperia X1, like all Microsoft Windows Mobile devices, doesn't support Mac syncing out of the box. We use Missing Sync on the Mac under OS X, and it worked fine with the Xperia.
Tiny volume controls.
The signature Xperia arc does make for a slightly more ergonomic typing experience. Beyond that, it just looks lovely and unique. We did notice that the metal that surrounds the display and wraps around the sides has an edge that can catch fingers. That thin metal has polished edges but you can still feel them if you run your finger across the edge. The screen isn't completely flush as it is on the iPhone 3G, Touch Diamond, Fuze and Omnia. It doesn't have the huge, humpy bezel found on traditionally designed Windows Mobile Pro phones, rather there's just a slight lip. We didn't find this annoying and it didn't stand in the way of using the touch screen. In fact, we came to appreciate it because it adds a modest level of screen protection.
Phone and Data
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X1a is a quad band unlocked GSM world phone that supports the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands with EDGE for data. It’s compatible with any GSM provider including AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. It has triband 3G HSDPA on the AT&T and overseas 850/1900/2100MHz bands and does not support T-Mobile US’ 3G bands, which means it’s EDGE only on T-Mobile.
Voice quality is superb, volume is good and reception is average for a US 3G phone. This is one of the best phones we've heard in terms of voice quality and likewise call recipients said we sounded excellent. Earpiece volume is good and is slightly louder and clearer than the Fuze on AT&T, while speakerphone volume is just average. The Xperia isn't the reception-monster that the Nokia N95 and E71 are, but it’s not bad either. It’s on par with the HTC Fuze and Samsung BlackJack II in the US. The phone has a connection wizard that detects your SIM card and carrier and automatically configures data connections.
For web browsing we have the already mentioned Opera 9.5 Mobile and Internet Explorer Mobile. There’s the usual Windows Mobile email client that handles POP3, IMAP and MS Exchange as well as MS Direct Push email. MSN Windows Live Messenger is also included as is an SMS/MMS client.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia, rather than slumming it with Windows Media Player Mobile, adds its own media player, accessible as a panel. This looks just like the media player on the Sony PSP and high end Sony Ericsson feature phones like the K850i and walkman phones. It handles photo viewing, video playback and music playback. We particularly like the music player, whose look, feel and features are top notch. Music playback sounds simply fantastic through the 3.5mm stereo headphone jack and a good set of headphones. Sony Ericsson includes a two-part headset. The first plugs into the 3.5mm jack and has a mic and a call answer/end button along with a 3.5mm stereo jack. That means you can use the included earbuds or your favorite headphones for music playback and phone conversations—nice touch. Sound is rich and full with good bass and no background hiss.
The Xperia also has an FM radio that uses the headset as an antenna. You can use your own headphones with the FM radio, and play radio through the headphones or the phone’s speaker. There are several station presets and reception is average for a phone. Sound quality is better than average.
Video playback is quite good for locally stored movies, and the phone can handle mobile YouTube video playback via HTC’s Streaming Media player, though at lower feature phone quality rather than the higher resolution playback found on HTC’ s recent TouchFLO 3D smartphones. Unfortunately, HTC kept their YouTube player to themselves. Those who are into YouTube might want to install CorePlayer Mobile (the commercial version of TCPMP). CorePlayer does a very good job with YouTube as well as a variety of local content formats and it works well on the Xperia X1.
We’ve been impressed with the Xperia’s GPS. It managed to get a fix indoors near a window and kept up with no lag even on the highway. The phone comes with Google Maps, but if you want spoken turn-by-turn directions, you’ll have to supply your own software or give the included WayFinder 3 month navigation demo a try. WayFinder is popular in Europe, though not as much in the US. The Windows Mobile application and the Windows desktop map loader are included on the Xperia CD, though those will download some automatic updates. WayFinder for the continental US costs $79/year and $89 for 3 years (obviously the 3 year option is the better deal if you like the software and directions). If you don't wish to use a data connection to download maps, the map loader application is handy, though it can take over an hour to transfer 2 states worth of maps to the phone's microSD card over USB. We also found that WayFinder didn't play nicely with Vista and CPU usage in Windows went sky high even when the map loader wasn't running. Un-installed WayFinder's map loader didn't fix the problem, and we had to revert to the restore point that was created when WayFinder installed.
On the device, WayFinder's routing and map display options are very good, but POI searches are slower than average. The application occasionally slowed down and became unresponsive for 10 to 20 seconds, then resumed normal operation. Perhaps an update will fix this. One nice thing about WayFinder is that the maps are free, you only pay for turn-by-turn navigation (spoken and on-screen).
We tested the Xperia with CoPilot Live 7 which worked flawlessly with the Xperia. The speaker is loud and clear enough to be heard in a sedan, but we wouldn’t count on it in a noisy top-down convertible. As with most GPS-enabled phones, the Xperia has aGPS that speeds up location fixes and uses the same QuickGPS application to download satellite data weekly.
The metal battery door.
A 3.2 megapixel camera with autofocus lens is on board. The camera takes more natural shots than the HTC Touch Diamond and HTC Fuze (both over-sharpen images). There are several focus modes including landscape, macro and finger-focus, where you tap the viewfinder to tell the camera where your subject is located to insure it’s in focus. The camera takes very nice shots, though you need a steady hand because the camera button is small and nearly flush with the phone’s side and is thus hard to press without also moving the camera phone.
The LED flash is relatively bright, and it's one of those either on while the camera is running or off (it doesn't come on only when the shutter button is pressed). It helps somewhat for low light shots and makes a great flashlight. The on-screen controls are easy to operate with a finger, though the user interface is unique and takes a few minutes to learn. There are a variety of useful settings, including macro mode for focus, multi-shot mode, white balance, effects, a self timer, quality and resolution. Max photo resolution is 2048 x 1280, and files at that resolution average 500-800k.
The camera can also shoot VGA resolution video, though at an unimpressive 10 fps (the import X1i can do 30fps). It also supports QVGA resolution and those are 28fps on average. The camera saves videos in .3GP format. Video settings include audio on/off, white balance, widescreen mode, auto/macro/infinite focus and resolution QVGA or VGA). The Xperia has a front facing camera for 2-way video conferencing, but no US carrier supports this feature.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 comes with a 1500 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user-replaceable. That's a fairly high capacity battery and a phone with this many wireless radios and features generally needs a lot of juice. 3G and the large display are also power hungry, yet the Xperia had better than average battery life among recent Windows Mobile Pro phones with similar features. With moderate to heavy use (but no push email), we got 2 days on a charge. The Xperia outlasted the Sprint HTC Touch Pro by more than half a day and outlasted the HTC Fuze on AT&T.
The HTC Touch Pro (Verizon variant of the Fuze) and the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1a.
We're very impressed with the device, after initially doubting it could bring enough to the table to compete with the more affordable Sprint HTC Touch Pro and HTC Fuze on AT&T. The hardware is impeccable, the panels are both fascinating and useful, and of course there's no carrier bloatware! Though other phones offer many of the same features, somehow the Xperia X1 has that special sauce where the whole is greater than just the sum of its features. It's fun, it's cool and it offers very good entertainment possibilities while also being a very good business device thanks to Windows Mobile, the hardware keyboard and push email. The Xperia is perfect for power users and those who like something new and different (courtesy of panels), and it's priced at the high end where mostly power users tread. If you're just looking for an affordable Windows Mobile touch screen phone with a single user interface, the Xperia isn't for you.
Pro: Fantastic, extremely high resolution display. Excellent touch enhancements, though you'll still need the stylus at times (this is Windows Mobile, after all). We love the panels and don't find the time it takes to load and unload them unreasonable. The device is beautifully crafted, looks exquisite and is sturdy. As Windows Mobile phones go, the Xperia is responsive and the graphics accelerator helps. Good camera and GPS. Full complement of Bluetooth profiles. Like most Windows Mobile Professional PDA phones, the Xperia is highly customizable. Good 3G speeds on AT&T's network in the US, and there's WiFi to fall back on. 3G also works in Europe, but alas not on T-Mobile's US 3G network (there are only so many wireless radios and bands that manufacturers can cram into a phone).
Con: Expensive! Keyboard could have more travel and tactile feedback.
Size:110.5 x 52.6 x 17mm (4.35
x 2.07 x 0.70 inches). Weight: 158g (5.57 ounces).
Phone:GSM quad band GSM unlocked world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz with EDGE. Works with any GSM carrier's SIM. Triband 3G HSDPA/ HSUPA on the AT&T and Euro 3G bands 850/1900/2100MHz.
Camera:3.2 MP with autofocus lens and LED flash. Can shoot video with audio at QVGA and VGA resolutions.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Voice Recorder and Sony Ericsson media player included for your MP3 pleasure.
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR (class 2). Bluetooth profiles include headset, handsfree, A2DP Bluetooth stereo with AVRC, serial port, GAP, Object Push, HID, SDAP, Generic Object Exchange (GOEP) and PAN.
Mobile 6.1 Professional operating system.
Sony Ericsson Panels. Opera Mobile 9.5 web browser. Microsoft Mobile Office suite including Mobile versions
of Word, Excel, PowerPoint (view only), OneNote, Internet
Explorer, and Outlook. Also, Internet Connection Sharing, Java VM, WayFinder maps and navigation (trial), Handango In Hand, Google Maps, SIM Manager, Adobe Reader LE, MSN
Instant Messenger, Sony Ericsson media player (photos, video and music), FM radio, Windows Media Player
10, Solitaire, Bubble Breaker (game), Voice Recorder. Additional applications:
Camera, Comm Manager.
ActiveSync 4.5 and Outlook 2008 trial for PCs included.