Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini

If you've watched any of the football from the FIFA World Cup 2010 - and we're hesitant to say football - you will have probably seen the advertising for the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini. The Xperia X10 mini (E10i) is an unusual device. It is the smallest Android handset we've seen and we can't imagine that you'll see a touchscreen phone much smaller without making serious compromises when it comes to usability and features.

Why is it called the X10 mini? Well that's a question we've been asking ourselves. It picks up the same design as the Xperia X10 and offers some of the same features, but critically, the X10 mini is aimed at a different user, it has different aims and ambitions. The Xperia X10 wants to be the expansive flagship multimedia handset offering the complete experience and challenging the likes of the HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy S; the Xperia X10 mini is compact, affordable, perhaps even cute.

As such, drawing a link through nomenclature probably isn't necessary, especially now we have the X8 announced: the X10 mini would perhaps be better called the X4. We were critical of the X10 in a number of areas, but as the X10 mini has a different remit, we're less concerned about some of those things, so it isn't necessarily a foregone conclusion.

Our review X10 mini came with choice of six different coloured backs in the box: black, pink, yellow, red, silver and white pearlescent. These easily clip on and off and although they are plastic, they look smart enough and add a bit of fun to the phone, letting you tailor it to your mood, outfit, or whatever.

One thing that becomes immediately obvious about the design of the x10 mini is the curves. The rear sides curve so it sits in the palm of your hand comfortably, and the top and bottom of the front curve off too. This is important on a device this small as your fingers travel around these areas more as you interact with the small screen.

It measures just 83 x 50 x 16mm, centred around a 2.55-inch screen. Three buttons range across the bottom of the screen offering menu, home and back controls. Around the sides you'll find a camera button and volume rocker and on the top is the standby/lock key.

Physical connections offer up a Micro-USB for charging, along with a plastic flap that we doubt would stand up to any amount of rigorous use, and a 3.5mm headphone jack which is part of a key-shaped connection, we assume for some sort of accessory. Around the back of the phone you'll find a 5-megapixel camera with an LED "flash" along with the external speaker.

Power the X10 mini on and you are greeted with Android v1.6 sitting under Sony Ericsson's custom skin and as such you don't see much of Android on the surface. There are some similarities to the X10 but not many, mostly because the size of the X10 mini dictates an arrangement to make it useable. We actually quite like the solution, so hats off to Sony Ericsson for making this work.

The homescreens have an icon sitting in each corner which gives you access to core functions: SMS messages, dialler, contacts and music (by default). There is something of a missed opportunity here as a combined inbox accessed through the messages corner would have been an obvious benefit.

The homescreens offer a side-swiping arrangement, letting you drop widgets onto these pages and adding pages accordingly. There are a limited number of widgets from Sony Ericsson, but you can drop any Android widgets that you acquire when downloading apps from the Android Market, although the size will render some of them less useful.

Unfortunately you can't drop links to applications or bookmarks on the homescreens, which seems an odd omission, but you can change any of the corner icons to those applications you want, so you could ditch the messages icon and just rely on the pull-down bar at the top of the screen for your message alerts, for example. Bookmarks can be added to the main menu from the browser from where they could also be assigned to those corner shortcuts if you wanted - a link to m.pocket-lint.com perhaps?

Press the menu button, or swipe up, and the menu appears. This is a grid of icons with 9 on each page so you can swipe left and right through the menus which expand as you add applications.

Like other custom skins we've seen on Android, Sony Ericsson invites you to sign-in to your online accounts to feed information into your phone. Their Timescape application will ask you to log-in to your Facebook and Twitter accounts and then provides a stream of updates presented as individual panels on the screen.

We criticised the application on the X10 for not going far enough and being a little limiting considering the size of the screen and the amount of information you could see. On the X10 mini that is less of a problem. You can only really see one panel at a time, but the screen doesn't really allow for much more. You can then scroll up and down these updates.

As before, however, images are picked up from the online source and used as the background for the updates, but are strictly low resolution with the text over the top. It's a nice idea, but doesn't really look as good as it should. A high-resolution image but with a bleed to stop it obscuring the text might have looked better.

As before you can filter your selection to only show Twitter or Facebook (or messages or missed calls), although this was done by a side-swipe before, here it is the case of manually selecting what you want to see. If you follow a large number of Twitter users then you'll never keep up with things, and leafing through individual updates, rather than seeing them in a list with several on the page makes things more time consuming. We also think that as Sony Ericsson is gathering this information, they should provide a straightforward list view as well, but as they don't you'll need to install a separate Twitter client to gather the data again and to handle images, which Timescape doesn't cater for.

It is fortunate then that the X10 mini is an Android device as it is easy to find new applications to expand the phone and customise it to your needs, although beware the limitations of v1.6 of Android and the small screen size, as not everything will be available to you. We'd rather have an Android device than something like Brew OS, because there is definite advantage in being part of a larger community.

You can connect up friends with your contacts, which then makes the experience more complete, as you can jump from you contact's details through to see interactions in Timescape, which is a novel spin on the normal linked lists. It would be much less fiddly however, if the phone offered to automatically suggest matches.

The music player works well enough, although there are no controls from the locked screen, but you are only one button press away from unlocking the screen so it's no major issue. You can also change the volume whilst in standby which is something we always like. There is an FM radio too, as well as Sony Ericsson's PlayNow service which will offer to flog you tracks - amongst other things - at a somewhat inflated price.

The camera on the back offers average phone camera performance. It struggles to get a grip on details or colours, tending to wash out when in bright conditions, but coping better with closer range subjects. The on-screen controls offer a few scenes, but we like the fact you can easily enable and disable the LED flash. It's a shame the flash is so low powered to be virtually ineffective, combined with the phone's need to drop the shutter speed so indoor or low light shots are typically blurry.

The video offers a fairly average 640 x 480, although you do get capture at 30fps, so it could be worse. But ignoring all that, this is probably the smallest camera you'll find around. It won't win any imaging awards, but we're pleased to see the basics covered here. You also get sharing options, with email, MMS, Facebook and Picasa offered out of the box.

The browser experience is limited by the screen size here and there is no multi-touch on offer. We found that text often rescrolled accurately to fit the screen to make reading possible, but you'll need to constantly scroll up and down. If you plan on spending a lot of time on websites you might want a device with a larger screen. 

With the Xperia X10 mini being so small there is no space for a QWERTY keyboard on-screen. The X10 mini pro will deal with this by adding a slide-out keyboard, but here you have to use the on-screen 12-key keyboard. You get the option of multi-press or T9 predictive entry.

There is an obvious limitation with the screen size, because you only get a tiny window to preview what you are writing. As a result, you'll find yourself using a selection of drop-down menus when entering predictive text, but on the whole, Sony Ericsson have made it possible to enter text without too much of a problem. You don't expect much, but given that the size slows you down over the furious fingering you'd give something like the HTC Legend, we found it to be surprisingly capable.

Of course, if you are going to be spending a lot of time sending longer emails, then you might struggle to keep track of things with such a small screen (both in terms of reading and writing). But if you are more interested in sending out shorter SMS messages, then you should cope well enough.

One thing we did notice was that your thumb can get rather cramped because of tight arrangement of everything - keyboard and buttons. If you have large hands, this isn't going to work so well for you. It's worth testing it in-store if you are interested to see if it is going to be comfortable for you to use.

The screen is a 2.55-inch 240 x 320 pixel resolution capacitive display. This is a low resolution, so don't expect the sort of experience you get from larger media-rich devices. As such it is no surprise to find that Sony Ericsson's Mediascape application found in the Xperia X10 isn't included here. You'll still get a photo browser and video browser, but if watching video is a prime concern, then you'll be better off with a larger device.

As an affordable device you don't lose out on major connectivity options. You get HDSPA and Wi-Fi, offering fast connections to your data, although we did at times think the connection wasn't as strong as rival devices: we found it couldn't detect our Wi-Fi network when other devices did, and the X10 mini often seemed to find itself without a data connection, although this might be network dependent amongst other factors.

You also get sensors, like the proximity sensor and a motion sensor to rotate the screen content where it can - not everything will rotate. You get GPS too and we were pleased to find Google Maps Navigation present and correct, even if that service is a little perfunctory for UK users. It does mean free navigation though, which is more to the point.

Call quality, as it often is from smaller devices, isn't the best. Callers sounded a little too distant and reported that we didn't sound great either.

You are then left with battery life, which we found to be poor. You'll only get 3 and a half hours of talk time and we found that the phone would quite happily drain itself of battery over night. You can turn off all the synchronisation and services, but you have to be prepared to be able to charge it every night and perhaps during the day too. The battery is built-in, so there is no chance of carrying a spare either, so you might want to consider an external battery if you are taking this out for any time and make sure it is fully charged before you head off for a night out.

Verdict

The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini is something of a surprise package. It is a tiny phone, but offering the Android operating system brings with it the convenience of a handset that can be easily customised. You don't get short-changed on the hardware front either: you still have your essential hardware covered. The skin that Sony Ericsson has layered over the top of Android makes it simple to use and we didn't feel that there was any real problem getting a response from the screen.

But this is a mini phone and it won't recreate the experience that large devices offer. Dealing with large amounts of text entry, or viewing full webpages requires a fair amount of effort on your part. The battery life is a problem and the call quality wasn't the greatest either.

Overall, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini will appeal to some, but we don't think it will be the typical Android user. As you can get this phone for free on low cost contracts, it is likely to appeal to younger users and we feel that Android makes it much more versatile than other low cost feature phones. However, you have to really want a mini phone, with low cost Android options starting to appear more frequently given you more variety in this area.



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