Of the world's largest phone manufacturers, perhaps none has taken a more twisted road to smartphone ubiquity than Sony Ericsson. It began its journey back in the pre-joint venture Ericsson days by throwing its weight behind Symbian, a smartphone platform that would ultimately become the world's most popular -- but it made a fatal error in supporting the doomed UIQ flavor that never saw even a fraction of the support its S60 cousin did. UIQ's untimely (but predicted) collapse last year left the company nearly rudderless and ill-equipped to deal with competitors like Nokia, HTC, and Apple, all of whom had long since embraced other platforms -- all with fighting chances of market dominance.

Left without a platform to champion, Sony Ericsson would ultimately continue supporting Symbian through its involvement with the Symbian Foundation and phones like the Satio and Vivaz... and it would ramp up support for Windows Mobile with the Xperia X1 and X2... and it would bring Android into the fold with the X10, all within a few months of each other. All told, Sony Ericsson enters 2010 actively supporting three unrelated smartphone platforms, and comments by CEO Bert Norberg at MWC in February lead us to believe that they'd be happy to take on a fourth (or more) if the opportunity presented itself. It's an odd strategy to be sure, particularly for a company that's struggling mightily and shrinking its workforce more than any other top-five manufacturer. How it intends to effectively compete on three different fronts without spreading itself hopelessly thin, well... that remains a huge question mark.

That said, the Xperia X10 is perhaps the most promising of Sony Ericsson's confusing crop of modern smartphones, combining attractive hardware with killer specs, Android, and an intriguing custom skin. Does it hold its own against modern competitors like HTC's Nexus One and Desire? And more importantly, can it keep Sony Ericsson from going over the brink? Read on to find out.

Note: Sony Ericsson contacted us shortly after the review was published to let us know that this particular X10 is running pre-production firmware, which may account for some of the issues we had with keyboard performance and occasional sluggishness. Let's hope!
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Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 review

Sony Ericsson

Xperia X10

Pros

  • Huge display
  • Comfortable to hold
  • Good camera

Cons

  • Runs Android 1.6, no upgrade for a while
  • Lots of plastic
  • Custom UI is an acquired taste
Summary




Hardware

In terms of appearance, we think the X10 is pretty polarizing, which might be a surprising statement considering that it's little more than a large slate -- and who doesn't want that, right? Specifically, we took issue with two things here: first, the front of the device is glossy plastic. Often, glossy plastic looks good when it's new and clean -- in pictures, anyhow -- but a few smudges and a brush with your car keys in your pocket later, it can easily be transformed into a war-scarred hellscape. As you might imagine, we didn't scratch test the X10 (we can't imagine our gracious handlers at Sony Ericsson would appreciate that too much), but it's a cause for concern. What's more, holding the X10 back-to-back with the Nexus One -- perhaps its nearest competitor on the market today -- quickly makes you appreciate the HTC phone's superior materials; it simply feels more solidly-constructed, and that's something that can make a big difference when you're buying a $500-plus handset.


Secondly, with a 4-inch full wide VGA display, the X10 is big, very nearly approaching HD2 territory. That's not a problem for this huge-handed reviewer, but friends with more diminutive statures specifically called out the X10 as being a hassle to hold (fortunately, the upcoming X10 mini should be just what the doctor ordered for those folks, at the cost of screen real estate and processor power). Around back, the X10's battery cover is made of a lovely, high-quality soft touch material that is pretty much exactly what we like to find on the back of every phone we review. It feels nice, and the gentle, sloping curves make sure it's comfortable to hold. The phone clocks in at 13mm thick, not the thinnest on the market (the HD2 is an astounding 11mm, for example) but thin enough to look and feel... well, pretty thin. No one's going to accuse this of being a portly device, rest assured.

Around the sides, you find all the buttons and connectors you expect, including power and both micro-USB and 3.5mm headphone jacks at the top, volume and two-stage camera controls on the right, and the typical menu, home, and back buttons below the screen up front. The micro-USB port is covered with a flap, which improves the aesthetic appearance of the upper edge of the device but probably serves little practical function (we've seen micro-USB ports behave just fine with some pretty extreme lint packed in there), makes the daily task of charging more of a chore than it needs to be, and risks being broken off with repetitive use. There's no indication of a dock connector anywhere on the phone, so unless there's some inductive capability that Sony Ericsson has yet to discuss, that port will be the one and only way of juicing your phone day in and day out.


Notably absent is a dedicated search button, which might leave some existing Android owners upgrading to the X10 feeling like a fish out of water -- it's not that there aren't other ways to access search bars throughout the phone, naturally, but we could definitely understand missing one-press access to them. Adding to the potential for confusion is a silkscreened magnifying glass icon below the volume rocker, which makes it look like you might be able to press and hold the volume down button to get a search bar, but no -- it's actually indicating that the rocker doubles as a zoom control (which, admittedly, is a perfectly valid alternative use of the magnifying glass).

What about the camera? At 8.1 megapixels, the X10 represents just about the highest-res cam you can find on an Android phone today. Yes, granted, it's a well-worn truism that megapixel count has little to do with actual picture quality, but Sony Ericsson has historically taken a lot of pride in producing cameraphones that really hold their own, and we're happy to report that the X10 is no exception. At the risk of talking a little bit too much about software in the hardware section of this review, we'll say that we're pleased both with the picture quality we were able to achieve (even in less-than-perfect lighting) and also the camera's interface, which has been thoroughly and completely reworked from the stock Android UI -- it even whips the updated UI found on Eclair devices. You've got access to a variety of autofocus modes including fixed infinity focus and smile detection, multiple metering and scene modes, white balance control, a self-timer, and the list goes on. Heck, the phone even lets you adjust how big of a smile it should look for. If it's got a weak spot, it's macro -- we weren't able to get in as close as we've been able to do with some other phones, but as long as you stay further than three or four inches from your subject, you're golden.

Oh, and that light next to the camera lens? Your first guess might be that it's an LED flash, but Sony Ericsson has apparently decided not to buy into the fallacy that a single white LED can ever be considered a "flash" in the true sense of the word -- instead, it's a "photo light" that can be toggled on and off. When it's on, it stays on for the entire time you're in the camera application, which helps you frame your shot and get the autofocus tuned. It's a nice (and honest) feature, but we would've liked an icon in the viewfinder's HUD to toggle it rather than having to call up advanced settings through the menu button. Bottom line: the X10 will produce perfectly fine impromptu shots. As usual, you're not going to expect to replace your DSLR with this (or even your higher-end point-and-shoot), and you're not going to want to print out an 8-by-10 and frame it, but we'd feel much better about having this in our pocket for on-the-go shooting than, say, a Droid.


So Cyber-shot is one of Sony Ericsson's big co-branding schemes, but what's the other? Walkman, of course. As a music player, the X10 fares pretty admirably; we'll touch on the software in the next section, but from a hardware perspective, both the jack placement and the quality of the audio that the X10 produces are decent. The music was a little less punchy on the bass side of the spectrum than we'd like -- even with our Shure SE530s and triple-flange tips, both of which tend to accentuate low frequencies -- but the signal-to-noise ratio seemed superb throughout our testing. We could barely detect the presence of any electrical noise on the line; in fact, when we first plugged in, there was absolutely none. That's pretty rare for a phone.

The low-noise trend continues through to the earpiece while on calls. We were surprised at how the X10 was able to suppress line static without sacrificing volume; it was so good, in fact, that we had trouble at times figuring out whether we were still on the call when the person on the other end wasn't speaking. Likewise, the speakerphone is exceptional, both loud and clear enough to be useful for those impromptu conference calls we all have to take from time to time (or for when we're driving and we're caught without a headset). Sony Ericsson smartly placed the loudspeaker port on the side of the phone, not the bottom, so setting the phone down in any position has no ill effect on volume or usability.

Software

The X10 isn't just an Android phone -- it's also the first to introduce Sony Ericsson's rather comprehensive Android skin, a package we'd first heard of in the middle of last year under the codename "Rachael." Unfortunately, it's taken the company so long to get Rachael good enough to launch that we're now two releases of the Android core beyond where the X10 stands; this phone comes with 1.6 out of the box, while devices like the Nexus One, Droid / Milestone, and Legend are putting along on 2.1, and we've no doubt that the next big version is just around the corner. Sony Ericsson has wisely committed to updating the phone on an ongoing basis, but it speaks to the same problem with which HTC and Motorola are already well-acquainted: when Google's iterating on its mobile platform at this breakneck pace, it's virtually impossible for the heavily-customized skins like Blur and Sense to keep pace.

That said, Android 1.6 (née Donut) is still a perfectly serviceable version of the platform, and Sony Ericsson has injected a few key modifications that make some of the benefits of 2.0 / 2.1 moot. The meat of these tweaks revolves around two applications, Timescape and Mediascape. Timescape starts by going down the same social aggregation path that Motorola has with Happenings and HTC with Friend Stream -- basically, a chronological timeline of your friends' status updates across Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace -- but keeps going by offering other timelines for other services within the phone (photos, SMS and MMS messages, emails, and so on). These timelines are presented in ultra-trippy 3D stacks that Sony Ericsson has coined "Splines," and once status updates have been properly loaded into memory, these so-called Splines perform pretty well -- they're slick and smooth as you flick them up and down with your finger. There's some pretty nasty initial jerkiness, though, if you haven't viewed Timescape in a while.

Speaking of jerkiness, the X10 suffers from the same issue that plagues the Nexus One: despite the blazingly fast 1GHz Snapdragon core that's aboard, portions of the interface feel barely quicker than a lowly 528MHz MSM7201A. Since we've seen similar issues on the Nexus One, we can't really chalk up the problems to Sony Ericsson's customizations, so we're not sure how or where to place the blame -- it's just inconsistent, even without having loaded any third-party apps. Things that seem like they'd be extraordinarily processor intensive (scrolling through a Timescape Spline, for instance) can be super fast, while a drop dead simple operation like opening a pop-up menu can momentarily bring the phone to a halt. We don't get it, but we're hoping it's something Google and Sony Ericsson can tighten up over time through software updates.

Anyway, back to the second part of Sony Ericsson's one-two punch: Mediascape. Anyone who's used any stock Android device -- 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, doesn't matter -- can tell you that the in-built music app is in desperate need of tender loving care, and these guys have given it just that. Basically, Mediascape is your one-stop shop for browsing music, videos, and photos on the device; there's also support for the company's PlayNow store, though we weren't able to test it (it still hasn't launched in the US, though it's available in a number of European markets). The app makes clever use of album art, presenting you with a list of recently-played and favorite tracks when you first start -- there's some Timescape integration as well, where you'll find the art in a Spline representing your chronological consumption of audio. Naturally, it's got support for a variety of browsing modes (album, artist, and so on), background playback, and everything else you'd expect from a basic music player. Well, almost everything -- as we'd mentioned in the hardware section of this review, we were a little underwhelmed with the X10's bass response over the headset, and we would've loved a graphic equalizer in here to help clear that up. No dice.

Otherwise, there's not much installed out of the box: a handful of productivity apps from Moxier, a MySpace client, Mobile Systems' OfficeSuite viewer for checking out (but not editing) Office docs, the Quadrapop game, TrackID, and turn-by-turn navigation from Wisepilot that includes a 30-day free trial. The suite has built-in weather forecasts which is nice, but it's hard to say why anyone in the US would consider plunking down for this with Google Maps 4.1 -- and free turn-by-turn along with it -- just a download away.

Keyboard input -- a pretty important topic, if you ask us -- was a surprisingly big problem on the X10. First off, you can't consistently use the back button to clear the keyboard like you can on virtually every other Android device we used -- here, it deletes everything in your current text field and keeps the keyboard up on the screen on occasion, thought we can't nail down the pattern of the behavior. Much, much more dangerous, though, is the fact that we're seeing all sorts of missed inputs. You'll press a letter (and you get the character pop-up, so you know the keyboard has registered it), and maybe somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the time, it won't "take" -- it just won't go into your input box, which makes entering almost any text a maddening procedure. Virtual keyboards have enough difficulty as it is without something this egregious coming into play, and we're hoping it's a bug that Sony Ericsson can pin down and fix posthaste.

Wrap-up

Even in 2010, high-powered Android devices are still surprisingly difficult to come by. You can basically count the models seriously worth considering on a single hand, and the X10 certainly joins that elite team on the wings of its gigahertz-class Snapdragon core and gorgeous 854 x 480 display that clocks in at a whopping four inches -- a size that bests every other Google-powered phone on the market today (though it certainly won't hold that title for long).

Thing is, it's not just about the hardware; when it comes to Android, unless you buy a so-called "Google Experience" device, it's never going to be about the hardware alone. Any company that tries to aggressively skin a mobile platform is going to have issues -- possibly major ones -- on its first iteration. That's a pretty unavoidable reality of engineering, and it's a growing pain that both Blur and Sense have gone through (in fact, you could argue that Blur's still in the thick of that fight). The X10's input problems alone would unfortunately be enough to turn us away from the phone within a few days' use -- we just write way too much email and way too many text messages to deal with a situation like that -- but it feels like these guys are just a few minor tweaks away from a great custom platform that pairs rather beautifully with a phone that easily goes toe-to-toe with the Nexus One.

But ultimately, would we actually take this over a Nexus? Give us a few bug fixes, Sony Ericsson -- and a hard date for an Eclair upgrade -- and you might just have a deal on your hands.