The Sony Ericsson Xperia X8 takes the UI we saw on the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 mini and flips it over to a device with a 3-inch screen. It shares the same design as the Xperia X10, so falls neatly between the X10 and X10 mini - we’re surprised Sony Ericsson didn’t call it the X10 midi. 

The biggest selling point of the X10 mini was the small form factor combined with some user interface tweaks that made such a small device usable. The X8 finds itself up against a more conventional array of devices, sitting beneath the high-end Android devices like the HTC Desire. There were a number of lessons to be learnt from the Xperia X10 and we’re surprised that Sony Ericsson has launched the X8 again running Android 1.6, which was widely criticised previously.

It might only be “geeks” that obsess about which version of Android their device runs, but there are a number of handsets out there with Android 2.1 or 2.2, for example the LG Optimus One, the Orange San Francisco or the Samsung Galaxy Europa, all of which offer their own take on Google’s mobile operating system. Sony Ericsson has confirmed that an update to Android 2.1 is due before the end of 2010, but we've seen these sorts of updates missed before, so we can only judge the X8 on what we have in front of us.

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Starting with the hardware, we’ve mentioned the design follows the other Xperia Android devices we’ve seen from Sony Ericsson. Encased in plastic, the phone measures 99 x 54 x 15mm, so is fairly compact and weighs in at 104g - a veritable lightweight. Adding to the funk you get the option of switching back covers for a different colour and our sample came with the option of a pearlescent white or silver.

The curved nature of the rear of the handset does make it sit comfortably in the hand, but an ominous creaking as you manipulate it suggests those changeable backs could do with being a little more substantial. Hard buttons are finished in silver, with three ranging across the bottom of the screen offering up menu, home and back features. Volume and a dedicated camera button also feature, along with a power/standby button on the top.

The first thing that becomes immediately obvious about the buttons beneath the screen is that they aren’t backlit, which is a pain when you decide to use the phone in the dark. Otherwise it is an interesting looking device, the soft design offering something different to the majority of phones which are some variation of black.

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Power the phone on and you are greeted by Sony Ericsson’s custom UI. We’ve seen it on the Xperia Android devices previously and it appears that nothing much has changed. Like the X10 mini and the X10 mini pro, you get corner shortcuts which can be customised, meaning quick and easy access to your essential applications. This almost makes up for the fact that Sony Ericsson’s Android skin doesn’t just let you drop shortcuts onto the home pages as so many do, so the whole thing is less customisable than you’ll find elsewhere. The home pages will let you add widgets, at one per page, expanding the pages sideways for you to swipe through. It’s a simple solution, but a little basic, as you can’t give yourself, say, power control and shortcuts to your favourite social networking apps on a single page which you can elsewhere.

The menu too has had a little tweak, so it drags up from the bottom of the screen (or pops-up on a central button press) and then offers up all your applications with pages swiping left to right. Sony Ericsson has pre-installed a number of apps to get you started, its biggest selling point is our old foe Timescape.

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Timescape is Sony Ericsson’s take on integrating your social networks. It uses tiles to bring you your “friend's” updates and can be filtered so it offers Twitter, Facebook, Messages and Missed calls or any combination thereof. The graphical representation of updates in individual tiles is nice, but we’ve never been sold on the implementation. The updates collect a background image from their source, with an individual’s avatar bringing some instant recognition, however the resolution is low, so even from someone with a high-quality Facebook profile picture, you never really get that quality reflected in Timescape.

You can also only see five tiles on the screen at one time, the central presented flat for reading, the others rotating in or out like a Rolodex. The problem is that if you have a large number of updates, like you might from Twitter, then it takes a long time to get through them. You can’t really browse and you’ll find yourself opting for the Facebook or Twitter apps instead, with their simple list presentation, making Sony Ericsson’s highlight app something of a damp squib.

Outside of that you’ll be left to scour the Android Market to fetch more applications to expand the possibilities of your phone. The screen’s low resolution of 320 x 480 and the out-dated version of Android means that you’ll be restricted in what you can get to, but most of the immediate concerns are available to you - the aforementioned Twitter and Facebook, as well as defacto games like Angry Birds.

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You won’t get access to some of Android’s nicer features though. The official Adobe Flash app is restricted to Android 2.2 devices and we found the usual work arounds, like the Skyfire browser, wouldn’t work for online video either. You don’t get support for multiple Google accounts, or the like of the 3G Wi-Fi hotspot feature, although this might be of little concern for those just after a basic phone.

However, being an Android device means you get synchronisation with Google accounts for your mail, contacts and calendar from the off, and very simple it all is too. You also get free navigation from Google Maps, supported by the Xperia X8’s GPS, but this is a common feature of all Android handsets. 

Sitting at the core of the Xperia X8 is a Qualcomm MSM7227 600MHz processor (as found in a number of rival devices), so things do move along with some pace, although again, Android 2.2 would offer up better performance and perhaps rid the X8 of the noticeable delay when it comes to opening applications. Sony Ericsson’s skin does detract, we feel, from a simple Android experience and it is worth pointing out that the native Android interface in later versions is rather nice - just as we found with the Huawei Ideos. We also experienced some strange events on the X8 - the screen would go blank and become unresponsive, needing a battery pull to restore things - so there is perhaps some ironing out of bugs to do.

The 3-inch 320 x 480 capacitive display is fairly responsive, but there is bit of a squeeze around the on-screen keyboard. With practice we found the keyboard to be good enough and in landscape you get just about enough space to use it with two thumbs. We did find the occasional lag issue where the keyboard couldn’t keep up, freezing for a second before belting out an approximation of the characters we’d pressed. It will predict and correct as you go along though and there are always third-party applications you can install to alter the keyboard if you wish.

There is no multi-touch offered, but we found that dragging around maps and webpages didn’t cause any problem, rendering on the screen quickly enough.

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Sitting on the back of the X8 is a 3.2-megapixel camera, but no flash. The camera performance is basic, typical of this class of phone. It is of the fixed focus variety so doesn’t really excel in any conditions, with images lacking clarity and detail. This is accompanied by video capture at a maximum 640 x 480, at 30fps. Again, the performance is average and although it doesn’t step up to the HD footage that high-end handsets now offer, it does beat some rival Android handsets in terms of resolution.

Sony Ericsson has tweaked the music player, and it is combined with better than average headphones and an external speaker which is excellent, just the sort of thing to belt out tunes in a bus stop with your mates, much to the annoyance of others. You get volume control from the buttons even when the screen is off - it’s just a shame there is no music control from the lock screen, so you have to unlock and re-enter the music player to change tracks or pause music. The 3.5mm jack on the X8 is key-shaped, Sony Ericsson has told us this is so it will accept a range of accessories.

Another feature of the Sony Ericsson user interface is the inclusion of the infinity button in various different sections. In music this will offer up related content from YouTube or Sony Ericsson’s PlayNow service; in contacts it will take you through the linked person in Timescape - although we found we had to manually link people - to show you their updates.

YouTube playback is offered via the standard Android app, but the Xperia is a little light on supported codecs when it comes to playback from the native player. Perhaps that isn't such an issue given the small screen and limited resolution - it isn't the best video platform around and can be improved by opting for a third-party application from the Android Market.

We found that calling on the Xperia X8 presented no problem, the soft curve of the section next to your ear making it comfortable. The battery seemed to offer good performance too, although if you get heavy with it, it will be flat within the day; with average use we got about a day and a half from it. Internally you get minimal memory - 128MB - but there is a microSD card slot hiding under the skin and a 2GB card in the box.

Price when reviewed:
Dependent on contract

The Sony Ericsson Xperia X8 never really steps away from the problems that have hampered other Sony Ericsson Android devices this year. The out-dated version of the Android operating system means you miss out on the performance gains and the features that rival devices are offering, and Sony Ericsson’s interface doesn’t present anything to get too excited about. We’re surprised, after the poor reception of the X10, that the X8 arrived in this form, if we’re perfectly honest.

The touch response is good, where some rivals still offer a resistive display, and the phone is certainly pretty enough to look at. But the biggest challenge that the X8 faces is against similar priced, and similar specced, devices that simply offer more. Faced with the excellent screen of the Orange San Francisco or the more considered LG Optimus One, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X8 doesn’t have a lot in its favour.