Small phones seem to have gone out of fashion. A few years ago, before the iPhone, manufacturers were falling over themselves to miniaturise their handsets. Now though, smartphones are all the rage, and with that comes the need for ever larger screens.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray bucks that trend slightly. It's a candybar phone, very much in the style of old handsets from Sony Ericsson, like the K800i. Of course, there's no keyboard anymore and the screen is huge, with a far higher resolution that we dreamed of in feature phone days.
But what is attractive about the Ray is its ability to slip into a pocket and be forgotten about. It's tough, well-built and reminds us of the golden age of Ericsson phones. Older readers might remember the likes of the T10 and T28. Those were amazing phones, which were class leaders when they were on sale more than 10 years ago.
While we don't want to pigeon-hole anyone, it's clear that the Xperia Ray will appeal to users who are new to smartphones. That's a good thing though, and Sony Ericsson has really thought about its audience and has designed the phone to appeal to those people.
For example, there are several colours available, from a bog-standard black, to a tasty champagne sort of shade, which is the colour we got as a review sample. We liked this, it's a bit different and the phone is incredibly good-looking as a result.
There are three buttons on the front surface. Two are soft-keys for back and the context sensitive menu control. The third is a hardware home key, which is located between the other two controls. This layout breaks a little from the standard Android form, but we like it, and it works well. The home key is surrounded by a notification light too, that glows green or red, to keep you updated as to what the phone status is. For normal use though, it just glows with a standard backlight blue/white colour. The home key can also be used to wake the phone up, as can the power button, which is located at the top of the handset, next to the headphone jack.
The only real design flaw we could find, early on, was that the screen is slightly raised, and not flush with the case. This was a worry, because we thouhgt we'd catch our fingers on it, and enjoy a less than fluid touchscreen experience. We needn't have worried though, we never noticed it when we actually started using the phone.
The thing we were most worried about, after the ridge on the screen, was the display size. We're used to smartphones with massive screens, and the Ray has a pretty tiny one. In practice though, and like Ericsson phones of old, the fact that the screen has such a high resolution means that you never really notice that it's physically smaller.
Indeed, the Xperia Ray has a 297ppi display, thanks to 854 x 480 pixel squished into a 3.3-inch unit. That's just 29ppi fewer than the iPhone 4 with its Retina display. It shows too, because the Sony Ericsson has one of the crispest, most detailed screens we've seen. It's actually very impressive when you take your first look at it. Compare it with most Android handsets, and it will immediately stand-out from the other devices.
The only slight issue we did have, was that because the screen is physically small, that can mean typing on it is hard. Honestly, this is likely to be more of a problem for men, with larger fingers. If you're a lady or gentleman with dainty digits, this will not be a problem.
It's also worth pointing out that, although the screen has a very high resolution, that doesn't prevent the phone from feeling a little cramped when you're browsing a webpage. This is inevitable with smaller screens and there's no amount of extra resolution that can really help.
Stock keyboard is dreadful
This seems to be an area where Android lacks any consistency, and the virtual Keyboard is, as you might expect, one of the most important parts of a touchscreen smartphone. What Sony Ericsson bundles is more akin to the old, phone style keypads of feature phone times.
And, to some extent, we can understand why Sony has used this type of keyboard. With screen real estate being quite restricted, a full size Android QWERTY keyboard would be a little tricky to tap on. And, it's even possible that Sony is aiming this phone at people who are just getting rid of a traditional multi-tap style keyboard, with T9 prediction.
It's not unusable, by any stretch of the imagination, but we think any user would be far better off using Swiftkey, Swype or any other keyboard replacement from the Android market. We use an app called keyboard from Android 2.3 which is a port from the stock, you guessed it, Gingerbread build of Android.
Anyway, none of this is a deal breaker, and virtual keyboards are replaceable, as long as you know that, you should never have to suffer a bad one again.
Sony Ericsson customisations
Like the keyboard, the Ray has a Sony user interface skin, which the company has wrapped around the Android operating system. This makes the phone more user-friendly, and gives a more personalised look. For the first time in donkeys years, we actually didn't feel the need to disable the customisations. We stuck with the Sony "launcher" - as it's known - and actually found it a pleasure to use.
As part of this, there is a quick launch bar at the bottom of the screen. It's clever, because each button can expand to show more apps. This saves space, and works very elegantly. The app "tray" itself is similar to the iPhone, in that it's a left to right scroll, rather than the standard Android up/down scroll. It's fine though, and it's arguably more pleasant to use than the TouchWiz interface on Samsung phones.
Camera and video
In good light, the Xperia Ray will produce terrific photos. There's loads of detail, and plenty of realistic colour too. In low light, there's considerable grain, and the image looks softer and the colour is less accurate.
Videos are quite good too. Recorded at 720p, they have decent detail and the sound is also pretty clear, assuming you're pretty close to the subject making the noise. Again, video gets quite grainy when you go indoors to low light. Indoors, even in good light, still looks a little more noisy than we'd expect.
Once you've shot video, to get it off the phone is a trivial matter of plugging the handset into a computer via the USB cable. Of course, for photos and short videos you can email or send them via Bluetooth. There is also a DLNA service, which allows files from the phone to be accessed via Windows 7 computers and devices like the PS3 and Xbox 360. It didn't work well though, and we couldn't make any content from our phone appear on the PC.
One big surprise was that Sony Ericsson has fitted the Xperia Ray with a 1500mAh battery. This is the same capacity as you'd find in phones with much larger screens and it is this that gives the Ray a boost in battery life.
With over an hour of phone calls, we still got around 14 hours or so from the phone. We could tweak the backlight a little, or cut down on web browsing, or other applications that use background data. But, we were pretty happy with the amount of time the Xperia could keep going for.
Sony installed gubbins
The Xperia Ray, like other Sony Ericsson handsets comes with a few nods to its coporate overlords. And to be honest, as with all Sony's ventures, it's here things go a little lame.
There are apps for Sony's streaming and download service for both music and movies. Both seem to work fine, but a movie - I Am Number Four - costs £12 to buy, in standard definition. That's actually more than it costs on DVD, to have it on a phone with a tiny screen. Laughable, it really is.
The Music Unlimited app is a bit of a faff too. Firstly, it's not installed, you click its logo and you have to go to a web page, which then sends you on to the Android Market. This is traditional big corporation thinking here, and it's every bit as annoying as always. Once you download and install it, the app is much like, say, Spotify. It lets you stream music over the Internet, direct to your phone. You do have to pay a monthly subscription for that though. All-in-all, we suggest getting music from Amazon. It's much cheaper, and less confusing.
There is one bright spot though. Sony also includes TrackID, which is a piece of software that can help you identify a song, and then buy it. It works with the built-in radio too, so you can find out what music you like without having to wait for a DJ to mention it - which they never do anyway. We tried this software a few times, and it never failed. Very cool indeed.
There is virtually nothing we don't love about the Ray. It's compact, light with a mammoth battery that will get you through a whole day on a single charge - as long as you're a little careful. What's more, the screen is gorgeous, with exquisite detail and brilliant colours.
Our initial concern about the raised edge of the screen has proven to be a non-issue. We've been using this phone exclusively for several weeks now, and it has never once bothered us. The relative low processing power was never a problem either and as the phone isn't really aimed at power users, we doubt anyone will find it slow. And even people who are used to dual-core phones won't find this one too much of a slouch.
When it comes to scoring a phone like this, or any gadget, the best possible critera we can judge it on is how sad we'll be when we have to send it back. And, with the Ray, we're really sad that it's leaving us to go on to another reviewer somewhere else. In the month we've had it, the Ray has performed beautifully and won over our hearts.