Sony Ericsson U5i Vivaz review

The Sony Ericsson Vivaz carries the moniker U5i, telling us that it comes from the same range as the Satio that we reviewed recently. It loses much of the bulk, however, bringing with it curvaceous "human design". But does this out-perform its bigger brother?

The back curves enough that you'll be able to set it on the table in the pub and spin it like a spinning top. The camera lies on the back slightly off-centre, so don't worry, it won't be spinning around scratching up the lens, but with no cover, this is a potential issue.

Those curves don't go much further than running the length of the device and around the top and bottom ends. The sides aren't given quite the same treatment, so despite Sony Ericsson's posturing on the design, it isn't that revolutionary. It measures 107 x 52 x 12.5mm and weighs in at 97g.

The sides are inlaid with coloured plastic, with our review sample carrying the default silver body and blue sides "Moon Silver"; various colour schemes will be available with O2 and Vodafone both opting for versions of the Vivaz that match their company colours, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The sides bring with them some welcome features: you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack sitting above Micro-USB connection. That bulky Fast Port connector we've been complaining about for years is now gone, so you'll be able to use your own headphones. The bundled headset is of the hard plastic earbud variety and doesn't impress: what happened to the great headset that comes with high-end Walkman-branded handsets?

Around the other side you'll find dedicated buttons for both still and video capture. You also get a volume rocker than doubles as the (digital) zoom, which, as always, we'd recommend you avoid using.

The top of the handset sees a power/profile button, but it is awkwardly placed. Because of that fancy human design, we found ourselves powering off the phone with a wayward finger when gripping it for photos. Across the bottom of the screen are three buttons, giving you your calling buttons and finally the menu.

As mentioned, there is an 8-megapixel camera sitting on the back of the Vivaz, which is really the focus (excuse the pun) of this handset. Although pitched as a master of all trades, the Vivaz will be pushed very much as a camera phone, not just because of the 8MP camera, but also the ability of capture HD video at 1280 x 720 pixels, at 24fps. A microSD slot lies under the back cover, coming with an 8GB card.

The front of the Vivaz is filled with the 3.2-inch 640 x 360 pixel resolution display. The resolution is reasonably high given the size of the screen, so your content can be very fine to look at. It is, unfortunately, a resistive touchscreen display, rather than capacitive which you'll find on the majority of rival smartphones, marking the Vivaz out as strictly mid-range.

We say things can look fine, because generally it doesn't. Running on the Symbian S60 platform, much of the look and feel of the menus will be familiar to past Sony Ericsson owners and it's frustrating to find fussy menus lying beneath everything. You'll find some decidedly low resolution characters used and a general lack of gloss on the interface. The gloss on the screen makes it tricky to view in bright sunlight however.

Dive into the phone and you are presented with five homepages by default. These swipe from side-to-side, offering your favourite contacts, Twitter, shortcuts and a media wallpaper browser. It means you can leave Twitter as your standby page, rather than having to open an application to catch up with people. This homepage is one of a selection of "themes" that you can apply and seems to be the most dynamic.

We say dynamic, but it doesn't offer you the sort of flexibility you'll find on many rival devices: you don't get widgets or the chance to drop shortcuts wherever you want them on the main central home page. You just get a wavy bar, which seems a waste.

You can edit the shortcuts page, however, to list the programmes you want to get to regularly, or add a shortcut for browser page. You only get 8 slots though, so use them wisely. Other features of the phone can be accessed by punching the menu button, which pops-up a familiar-looking 12-icon grid.

Applications hide in the Apps folder, with Facebook and YouTube getting a look-in here, as well as a funky spirit level. It also contains various other things that shouldn't be there, like the radio which you'd expect to find in Media. You also get the dubious Organiser section, which includes Google search (an app) and RoadSync, to hook up to your Exchange server for your email and calendar syncing.

Sony Ericsson users are probably familiar with this layout of applications so it might not present a problem, but it isn't as intuitive as it should be: it's too convoluted and fiddly to find what you want. When you get there, you'll find yourself needing double presses, or using the "select" option, that seems to be a hangover from non-touch devices. In short, the operating system is tired, fussy and could be much better.

This is all made worse by that resistive touchscreen display. The response is not fantastic and it will often not respond to presses. Text entry is something of a pain too, with the keyboard(s) not giving you the chance to bash out messages with any real purpose.

The keyboard will offer predictive text in T9 mode, but not in full QWERTY mode. The full QWERTY keyboard is not always available either, but that’s not such a loss: using T9 will often offer up predictive options which are easier to access than trying to bash out the whole word proper. Mini QWERTY is tiny and can only really be used with a stylus.

An accelerometer will switch you from landscape to portrait, but there is a delay whilst it does so. You can't switch in all applications or menus and you can't always enter the landscape QWERTY keyboard if that is your preference.

The browser looks pretty good, but is slow in action, despite using an HSDPA or Wi-Fi connection. There is no sign of multi-touch and navigating full pages doesn't have the smooth scrolling action you'll find elsewhere. Images do look good in websites though and you can have multiple pages open and a neat Back option that will let you scroll back through your history and punch up the page you want.

Twitter is rather basic and doesn't look great, with small text and seemingly no way of editing it. It also doesn't give you any options for posting pictures and links aren't live - you have to click through to a browser version to then follow up on pictures or links, which works against the grain of Twitter.

Dive into the camera and things take a change. The camera is intuitive and easy to use, with touch settings that let you make changes as you need them. You get touch to shoot, focusing where you touch; you get macro mode, panoramic shooting, face detection and so on. It is, perhaps, let down by the weak LED "flash" that doesn’t really help shooting in dark conditions, where slow shutter speeds lead to plenty of blurring, and image noise becomes a problem as the light drops.

In daylight, however, and the Vivaz is impressive. Shutter lag is less than you might expect from a phone. Focusing can take a moment longer than you might like, but switching to touch focusing can speed up the process of capturing the image you want. Colours aren't as vibrant as they should be and you'll see a lot of blow-out in bright conditions, but the results are very good for a phone.

Sharing is made comparatively easy, offering to send your images off, either by messaging, or to the Web. Blogger, Picasa and Facebook appear (although you have to log in separately, even if you've logged into the Facebook application) and you can add other services like Flickr. HD video can be sent direct to YouTube, but you can only send it over Wi-Fi – there is no uploading over the mobile phone network.

HD video is where Sony Ericsson really sees the Vivaz however, as this is their first phone to offer HD capture, giving you an MPEG4 at the end of it. It also features continuous autofocus. Put alongside the sort of video you get from a fully-fledged camcorder or DSLR with HD video and it lacks sharpness and detail especially in landscapes (macro isn't too bad), but the Vivaz does compete with some of the pocket camcorders out there, outdoing some in the focusing stakes. A neat pause feature means you can cut together scenes in the same file, as we did in the sample video below.

Sitting at the core of the Vivaz is a 720MHz processor, which is a powerhouse. It certainly handles the HD video, it's just a shame that the power can't make the operating system fly: it has a bigger engine than the iPhone, it has a bigger engine than many Android handsets, but it can't fire life into S60 or the user interface.

Media is handled in XMB style, which we like as it makes finding your music fairly easy. The speaker distorts at louder volumes and is a little tinny, headphones offer a better solution, of course, although irritatingly you can't change the volume of the music when the keys lock.

The battery life is average, offering 5 hours of talk time. If you are a great consumer of data, you'll find you have to charge it every night. As a phone it is okay, but still feels a little uncomfortable against the ear, despite the design.

Verdict

There is no doubt that the Sony Ericsson Vivaz offers a lot. It punches well above its weight when it comes to video and photos, offering one of the best camera phones we've seen to date. It does suffer in low light, however, and the LED flash won't help you out too much, so don’t expect to get good results in a gloomy pub.

The tech spec sheet is well populated too, offering HSDPA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and so on, but all of this hangs on an operating system and user interface that isn't up to the job.

This leaves the Sony Ericsson Vivaz as a bit of a disappointment. Day-to-day use isn't the fun experience it should be. Things are unnecessarily fiddly thanks to the UI and the unresponsive screen. 

If you are a Sony Ericsson user and video capture appeals to you, then you might be really happy with the Vivaz. Those switching from other operating systems might find it too frustrating.