Sony Ericsson Xperia Active review

4 out of 5
£250

For

Funky looking, water resistant, tough, compact

Against

Small microSD card included, arm holder is bothersome, headphones not ideally suited to running

There aren't many people who would argue that staying in shape is important, and an increasingly popular pastime for many. So mobile phone companies are keen to appeal to active sorts with phones that can help them in their pursuits.

Sony Ericsson markets the Xperia Active as a splash-proof, shock-proof handset that offers everything you need in a phone - if you're someone who loves being outside, running, cycling or just walking over hill and dale.

Design

The Xperia Active is a fairly small handset, a tiny bit bigger than a credit card in width and length. It is, however, quite a chunky monkey, with a depth of 55mm, it's quite a fat phone. It's a decent weight too, at 110.8g, but we doubt that's too heavy for most people.

Included in the box are a set of pretty comfortable, in-ear headphones, a lanyard of sorts and an armband, to wear the phone in when you're out for a jog.

Nokia fans of old should also rejoice, for the changeable rear cover is now available on Sony Ericsson phones. The Active comes with two in the box - one black, one white - and there are limited editions of this phone that come with different designs. The phone also has orange trim, which as orange lovers, we're very keen on. We're sure some will hate this, but it does have a strangely sporting feel to it.

In terms of software, we're looking at a slightly tweaked version of Android. This is good, because on this smallish screen (3-inches) it's preferable to have a custom UI, to make the most of the screen. Here, Sony has "hot corners" which each have a shortcut to one or more apps. By default, SMS is in the top left, activity apps in the top right. The bottom right is the dialer, while the bottom left holds the address book.

The app tray is a slight customisation too, but we like it, because it retains the Android look, while making the most of the screen. Very sensible, very slick. Certainly nothing here to upset Android fans.

Camera

The 5-megapixel camera is a nice surprise. It produces lovely, sharp photos which have more than enough detail to please our HD-loving eyes.

They aren't the most vibrant or saturated colours we've ever seen, but we'll take accuracy over vibrancy any day of the week. Plus, if overblown colours are what you're looking for, you can always tweak them later in a photo app. In fact, we tried this, and the Active's images are surprisingly well suited to tweaks like this.

So all in all, we rather like this little camera. It's better than on most small phones, and more than enough for happy snapping out and about.

Keep fit

The main fitness part of the Active is an app called MapMYFitness - although on the Active, it's called iMapMyFitness+. It's a fairly comprehensive little program, and quite easy to use. You can manually enter details of exercise, as well as track where you go using GPS.

There's an online portion too, and there you're able to check out what people near you are doing, and what runs there are completed locally. There are all sorts of tools for nutrition tracking, and you can also import exercise from other devices.

The only thing is, you don't need to have an Xperia Active to download this free app, and the Sony Ericsson pre-installed version still has adverts too, so the company hasn't sprung for a premium version for people buying this phone. Still, that doesn't change the fact that the app is good, and will hopefully help keep you motivated.

You also get an app called WalkMate, which keeps track of the number of steps you've taken. Walking can have a huge effect on the fitness of a normal person, so we're quite pleased to see this here. There's a goal you can aim for, and it's good to see, as you can just fire-up the app and forget about it. Although, the app itself does warn that it increases power consumption. Again, there are free pedometer apps in the market, so this in itself doesn't add much value over a normal Android phone. 

As part of its rugged design, the Active also supports "wet finger tracking" which sounds perverse, but is quite clever. Many capacitive touchscreens are driven crazy by wet fingers. And, if you're excerising, there's much more chance that you'll be mildly moist during your workout. So the Active can compensate for that when you're using the touch screen. Sadly, it's not actually all the brilliant in practice. We found that moist fingers worked okay - although not as well as dry fingers - but add any real water, from say, rain, and it all goes badly wrong, with random apps starting an inability to control the phone accurately. A shame, but for us, not a deal breaker.

One feature we do, very much like is the Ant+ sensor support. If you have a compatible activity sensor  - Garmin, for example, offers them for use with its equipment sports watches. Ant+ sensors come in lots of different forms, from bike speed sensors to pulse rate monitors.

Also included in the pack, and part of the fitness capability, is the arm case for the phone. You slip the handset in to it, and then a clear window on the front allows you to see and control the phone while you're out running. It's okay, and the phone fits reasonably well, but we found that the screen wasn't easy to control through the plastic cover, and the whole thing was a little too loose in the case to reliably ensure the screen was touching the case enough to control.

Our iPod Touch fitted better, and the touchscreen worked properly through the plastic too. Whoops!

Music

Music is a huge part of exercise, for most people. Without it, after all, running becomes such a soul crushing hate-fest that quickly becomes as depressing as the torrid state of the banking system and our ever-corrupt politicians. Happily, the Sony Ericsson is pretty good in this regard. Sony has a customised music player, which works well on the smaller screen of this device.

Our biggest concern really, is that with music being such an important part of fitness phones, the inclusion of only a 2GB memory card seems a little mean. When we work out, we like to have a lot of tunes to choose from, and 2GB hardly provides that. Sure, 16GB microSD cards are cheap as chips these days, but when you're paying for a phone, it seems like a nice perk to get a good chunk of included storage. The phone itself adds an extra 1GB of capacity, but only 320MB is user accessible.

The supplied headphones are decent enough - a little bit better than most pairs that come with phones. They sit in the ear well, and should keep out a fair bit of external noise, and they're certainly among the most-comfortable we've used.

Battery life

Once again, small phone generally equates to a small battery, and that's true here. It's not a catastrophe, but at 1200mAh, it's not the most powerful battery you can get. We used our phone with data off for most of the time, because we were using a pay-as-you-go SIM from Orange, and that increased our battery life. It still wasn't brilliant though, and you'll need to keep this phone topped up when you're near a power socket.

Verdict

The Xperia Active is an interesting phone. We took too it pretty quickly, and while it isn't the sort of phone that we would probably buy, if you want something tough, water resistant and designed for workouts, then this is really an ideal phone.

It's a little bit too expensive to replace an MP3 player, but if you take exercise seriously, it's the same price as a Motorola ACTV, for example, and offers you a full mobile phone too boot. So perhaps it could be a second phone for people who like specific tools for specific jobs.

Do bear in mind though, that there is nothing here that you couldn't get on ANY android handset. The fitness app is free to all, via the market - although support for heart rate monitors is a nice extra, and one you don't get on many phones. Of course, monitoring your heart rate is singificantly less important to most people than tracking how much exercise they have done.

Judging this phone as a phone though, and we're very happy with it. The battery is good enough, especially if you're a light user and the rugged design is good for those who are accident-prone. We just can't help but like it, to be honest.