There has already been a great deal of excitement surrounding the Xperia X1 from Sony Ericsson, as the company takes another foray into the world of smartphones. Can the company offer anything compelling, or is this just another Windows Mobile clone?

Out of the box and the first thing you’ll notice is the quality of the screen: it’s simply astounding. The 480 x 800 resolution delivers crisp images and when flipped into landscape mode has a 16:10 aspect ratio, common on notebooks, but not often found on this scale of device, which reveals the somewhat unusual dimensions of this phone. Used simply as a touch device you soon run into problems as the Win Mob icons are incredibly small. To help you out in this regard there is a skinny stylus tucked down the back corner of the device.

But Sony Ericsson has made user’s lives easier by including an “OK” button, meaning that you don’t have to whip out your stylus, or use an edge of a fingernail to close down that irksome application. Below the screen you get the normal call accept and reject buttons as well as two buttons to select the options at the bottom of the screen. You also get a four-way controller neatly sculpted into the diamond design, which also doubles as a touch navigator - “Optical Joystick” as SE call it - allowing you to scroll around the screen, but more on this later.

You also get the X Panel button that basically accesses the Sony Ericsson's customisation in the form of Panels, which are essentially custom home pages. From these Panels you can launch into a whole host of options, from a “today” style page with calendar, appointments and so on, to a more media friendly option, giving you access to your music. Just announced are Facebook and Windows Live panels, so you can see how Sony Ericsson intends these to be used.

Panels are the approach that Sony Ericsson have employed to tame Windows Mobile: music and video playback in Sony Ericsson’s skin is a much better experience than the Windows Media option. There is even a Google home page with links straight in to searching, Gmail and so on.

As with HTC handsets, this nods to the impracticalities of Windows Mobile and tries to rectify them, but it doesn’t seem to be flawless; on some occasions files played in the slick Sony Ericsson guise, sometimes jumped into Windows Media, with no obvious reason why. But they do favour the traveller - being able to have two clocks, home and wherever you are in the world, as well as your favourite RSS feeds is a good move and one we like.

Hiding behind the screen is the full QWERTY keyboard, which opens with a distinct, crisp and quality sliding action. The metal deck you are presented with has well spaced keys, but they lie almost flush with the surrounding panel so they don’t feel that responsive. The top row is also too close to the screen, so those with bigger fingers will find things a little cramped. Yes, the subtle backlighting looks the business, but this is no BlackBerry or Nokia E71 keyboard experience and is not as pleasant to use as, dare I say it, the LG KS360 keyboard.

When the keyboard is deployed the screen flips into landscape mode but you can still use all the other controls, as well as touch, so navigation is not too much of a problem. Yes, you still get the OK button as well as a Windows key to save you having to press the “start” icon on-screen. The landscape/portrait flip is managed by a switch rather than accelerometer, which is an irritation as you’ll want to work in landscape, go to close the keyboard and find it flips.

Into menu navigation and you won’t find any cursor keys to scroll down the lists on the keyboard, so you’ll find yourself back on that four-way controller. Or you can attempt to use the Optical Joystick like a mini trackpad. Try both and you lose control: the whole thing becomes incredibly fiddly and almost impossible to select what you want. You can, however, turn this off if you can’t get it to work. The Optical Joystick works if you think of it literally as a joystick, but combined with dragging a page around on the screen and you’ll find that things are moving in opposite directions.

But given the range of control options on offer here: touch, keyboard, stylus, hard buttons, Optical knob, you should be able to find a way of working for you, but it lacks that simple intuitive approach, the blight for hybrid touch devices like this.

On the back of the phone you’ll find a 3.2-megapixel camera, which is reasonable for a smartphone, but suffers from terrible shutter lag, so capturing what you actually want can be a challenge, but you get a range of options, including touch focus points, which is convenient to use. There is an LED-style flash, which doesn’t give the best results, but will suffice for drunken snaps and the like.

As a smartphone you’ll be expecting to lug around some data and onboard memory only gives you 400MB. There is a microSD card slot hiding under the back cover for expansion of this memory, or as a simple way to plug in your music or videos.

But there is a major difference between the Xperia and other Sony Ericsson models: it charges via Mini-USB and has a 3.5mm headphone jack. This means it easily fits in with your existing accessories and hooking up to your PC for syncing just requires the normal Mini-USB cable, rather than SE’s usual alternative. You do also get bundled headphones that are of a reasonable quality.

You also get heaps of connectivity packed into the Xperia: HSDPA giving you fast data transfer on the road, as well as Wi-Fi and AGPS. An email wizard will also set you up to quickly collect your email on the move, with an amusing default check interval of 2 hours, easily bumped down to 5 minutes.

Besides the normal Windows Mobile software, and Office Mobile, you will also find Opera already installed as well as Google Maps, and a trial of Wayfinder enclosed in the box.

Unfortunately we found calls to be a little boomy, not the best in terms of clarity and the thickness of the device makes it less comfortable to make calls than some of the slimmer models.

Verdict

So where does that leave you overall? If you need a Windows Mobile device, this is among the more user-friendly versions, but doesn’t quite go as far as some of the HTC models. However, the quality feel in the hand will leave an impression. Brushed metal decks, rubbery ends and attention to detail give this phone that premium look, but the weight might pull at the wool of your Valentino suit pocket.

What leaves less of an impression is that keyboard: it just doesn’t quite give you the feedback you look for when bashing out emails, and is certainly one to test in-store if you get the chance.

Whilst Sony Ericsson should be commended for some of the details here – the build quality, the 3.5mm jack, cool flashing external lights – the keyboard just doesn’t quite deliver. If you are happy with a Windows Mobile operating system, then the Xperia is certainly one to consider.