Sony Ericsson Elm review

Riding the green wave is the Sony Ericsson Elm, part of its GreenHeart range, which aims to be a more environmentally friendly mobile phone. We've seen a number of eco phones from different manufacturers and we don't always buy into the eco pitch: after all, if the eco steps can be made in one handset, shouldn't they be applied across the entire range, ethically speaking?

What that eco tag means, Sony Ericsson tell us, is that the phone is free from hazardous materials and is constructed from recycled plastics. The green theme continues a little further, with less packaging and no manual, although there are still a couple of paper leaflets in the box. It's a shame that the Elm features Sony Ericsson's bespoke charger too, although on inspection, this carries the GreenHeart branding too, claiming to be a low-power charger.

The use of that connection means that you don't get a 3.5mm jack, so you'll be stuck with the hard plastic headset bundled in the box, unless you scour eBay for the right adapter so you can use your own headphones. Fortunately this connection type will soon be gone and we'll not be able to fret about it any more. 

The Elm, or J10i2 to use its formal name, is a traditional candy bar handset, the sort of thing that Sony Ericsson have excelled at making in the past. It is reasonably slim, the top sloping off so it is slightly thicker at the base. It measures 110 x 45 x 14mm and weighs a tiny 90g.

Being a candy bar design, the top half features a 240 x 320-pixel resolution display. At 2.2 inches, the screen is fairly small by modern standards, but is typical for many of these types of phone. You'll find a traditional layout of buttons too, with a central band of call, shortcut and navigation buttons, with the 12-key keypad beneath.

Elsewhere the handset is relatively button free, a volume rocker and dedicated camera button lie on the right-hand side.

The buttons had a precise enough action for us to be able to crash out text messages, the matte finish proving to be a pleasant surface for typing on, with traditional predictive text making life simple. The layout means everything falls under your thumb fairly easily for one-handed operation (except disengaging the key lock). We did detect, however, an intermittent hollow-sounding response from the 3, 6, and 9 keys, as though something wasn't quite right behind those buttons - one to check in-store if you get the chance.

The operating system doesn't offer up many surprises and will be instantly familiar to Sony Ericsson users. It is a little slow to navigate and looks and feels dated. It doesn't offer the same degree of customisation you'll find in other handsets, so this is no smartphone competitor, although it does make a fair stab at smartphone communication specs.

You'll find that the Elm is an HSDPA-toting, GPS packing, Wi-Fi loving handset, with Bluetooth and DNLA certification. That means you'll be able to pick-up a fat stream of data from either your mobile network or your home network, to keep up with your digital life, as well as sharing content from the phone and being able to access your music on the media server at home.

The OS doesn't natively lend itself to social networking like the iPhone or Android smartphones do with their bulging app offerings, but Sony Ericsson has made a small concession for those who want a more traditional handset and at a more reasonable price. In that vein you can get Facebook, MySpace and Twitter on the home page, along with your calendar and Walk Mate Eco, if you wish.

This nod to online services (for Facebook, Twitter and MySpace) will let you stay in touch and give you updates without having to dive into a new app or browser. You can then open up those apps if you want and it all works well enough, once you get used to the quirks of moving the "cursor" to select the right box. Given the small screen size, we found both Twitter and Facebook to be effective enough in sending quick updates, but obviously you are limited by the screen size overall, so it isn't great for browsing photos, videos, or even the Internet.

Walk Mate Eco is essentially a pedometer, counting your steps on your way to that Holy Grail of 10,000, and then adds the eco twist by telling you how much CO2 you've saved. It assumes you left the Golf GTI on the drive, rather than just walking for your health or because it’s the best way to get from A to B.

Delving further into the multimedia capabilities of the handset, you'll also find the phone features Sony's XMB (XrossMediaBrowser) making music, videos and photos easy to browse. It groups things together well, so dive into photos and you not only have the local device photos, but you can also access your Facebook photos there, as well as other web services that you can configure - Picasa, Blogger and Flickr.

The same applies to video, with local and YouTube content being accessed in one logical place, of course with Sony Ericsson's PlayNow service accessible to offer you more content to buy. We also like the music player, with a number of imposable styles which are all active and look cool - we especially like the old school spooling cassette.

There is an external speaker which is loud enough to be irritating in public, but the call quality is very good.

It's a shame, given the simplicity and intuitiveness of the XMB, that the normal grid-style menu isn't as well organised as it could be. We've taken issue with this before on Sony Ericsson phones and little has changed. That said, if you are a Sony Ericsson user, you'll know that you applications are hiding in a sub folder in the "Organiser" section and other such quirks.

Applications are harder to come by for this type of device, but it does come loaded with a range to get you started. You'll find Google Maps installed which, with support from the GPS, will get you where you are going. You also get a Wisepilot trial if you plan to use the phone for in-car navigation and a sports tracker app, so that GPS is put to good use.

On the back of the phone is the 5-megapixel camera, with an LED illuminator "flash". The camera comes with a blistering array of settings, including things like face and smile detection, various scene modes and even different metering options. Auto, however, does a pretty good job of covering most possibilities and in many cases we were unable to determine differing results between shooting modes. There is also the option to apply various effects, like sepia or solarize, for a bit of fun, in both photos and video.

At first we were shocked at the poor quality coming out of the camera, but that was due to a dirty lens, which seems to be a problem for the phone. A quick wipe later and we were impressed with the results. It suffers the normal shutter lag, so isn't great for moving subjects, but as a pocket snapper it fares well enough outdoors in good conditions. The camera's performance is better than average for this type of phone.

Video capture is at a restrictive 640 x 480 pixels, at 30fps, but again, it does a good enough job, so despite the resolution not getting close to HD, the results are good enough for sharing online. There is only 280MB of internal memory, but you can add your own microSD card up to 16GB to give you more space.

Battery life is good as it will see you through a couple of days with normal usage. You can extend it by reducing the frequency of checking things like email or updating the web services, and the screen also reacts to conditions and changes the brightness accordingly. That said, in bright conditions we found the screen didn't quite get bright enough to see clearly.

Verdict

The Sony Ericsson Elm packs in pretty much all the features you'd want in a modern phone, whilst keeping a traditional format. The downside here is that the user interface isn't as clear and intuitive to use as modern rivals and the operating system doesn't give you the same degree of customisation that you'll find elsewhere.

Being a phone with a keypad isn't a bad thing - we don't all want touchscreen phones after all - and for the most part we were happy with the hardware on offer. There was the worrying hollow sound coming from one side of the keypad, but it never stopped us using the phone.

We're not really sold on the eco credentials of the Elm. It sounds nice on paper, but we suspect that people will want the same degree of environmental consideration applied as standard across all devices. Expressing a concern about the environment should not mean you have restricted choice. But when all is said and done, the Elm is a capable candy bar handset in the tradition of Sony Ericsson and for some, they will appreciate being able to get their hands on a phone that is familiar.

For others though, it will be obvious that despite the nod to social networking and the inclusion of a full platter of connectivity specs, little has changed in the Elm from previous handsets of this type from Sony Ericsson.