Sony Ericsson has produced some exceptional handsets over the years, with certain gems like the W950, W300i and W580i (just to name a few) catching the eyes and hearts of casual and hardcore mobile fanatics alike. Even so, it's hard to argue that any single phone in the outfit's history has caused more of a stir than the XPERIA X1. Sure, half of that is because we here in America have been waiting on the thing since February, but the other is due to pure, unadulterated sex appeal. 2008 has been a banner year for smart- / touchscreen-based handsets, and even though this one is lagging behind most of the other guys in terms of time to market, the X1 is still a formidable rival. We had a chance to spend a few quality days with the North America-bound X1a ($799.99; ships November 28th) -- which is different than the X1i that has already landed in certain parts of the globe -- and if you've come here looking for opinions, you haven't come in vain. Follow us past the break for a look at the pros, the cons and the middling minutiae of SE's slickest smartphone yet.

Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1: hands-on and unboxing

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Design

No need to beat around the bush -- the very thing that caught everyone's attention when this beauty was originally unveiled was its magnificent body. From end to end, top to bottom, the XPERIA X1 is drop-dead gorgeous. Yeah, you could probably credit HTC for that, but either way, there's no denying just how striking this piece is in the hand. Sure, it's a bit bulkier than some of the fashionphones we've seen lately, but it's hardly "thick" for a WinMo powerhouse. In fact, we actually admired the heft and felt that it was just thick / heavy enough to feel "solid" without bleeding into the undesirable realm of "chunky."

Quite frankly, it's astounding the level of detail that's here. From the brushed black aluminum body to the tasteful chrome accents to the curvaceous slide-out keyboard, it's easy to see that every square millimeter of this was combed over before heading to production. The high-end exterior doesn't end there; flick your thumb against the loose side of the front panel and experience a silky smooth opening that reveals a chrome / silver QWERTY keyboard that's just begging to be touched. And if you take this gem behind closed doors and flip off the lights, be prepared to be all sorts of impressed with the backlit keys that light up automatically with the onset of night.


Keyboard

After caving to the keyboard's seduction, we quickly found that the typing experience wasn't nearly as delicious as we were led to believe. It's not that we couldn't bang out comprehensible messages at a decent rate, it's just that we never felt truly comfortable that what we were mashing was translating correctly to on-screen text. Let us explain. For starters, the entire keyboard is too flush with the body. Unless you're casting at least a passing glance at the keys while you type, you can easily question whether or not you've actually "depressed" a key. Sure, it sounds like a minor grumble, but a little more feedback in the keys would've certainly been swell. On a related note, the top row of keys is simply too close to the edge of the display. We can't imagine that the curved design helps in this regard, but in any case, we often found our reasonably small thumbs clashing with the bezel rather than inputting that all important "R," "T," or "O." Is this something you could learn to adapt to? Maybe. But after a number of days texting and sending e-mail, we still found ourselves having to re-input missed keystrokes and readjust our approach to the top row.

Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 keyboard

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Display

Moving on to the display, we can't say that we're altogether stoked about the resistive touchscreen. Yeah, it gets the job done, but after spending a moment or two with a capacitive touch panel (see: T-Mobile G1 and Apple iPhone 3G), it's hard to go back to the mushy, spongy reality that comes with resistive. Particularly with some of WinMo's smallest icons, we were forced to angle our fingernail just so in order to finally get the screen to recognize our input in the correct location, and while it performed rather admirably with the stylus, those who tend to keep that thing holstered may take issue with how it interprets finger-based inputs. Not that this is any different than most other resistive touchscreens -- it's just the nature of the beast, so to speak. As for the quality of the 800 x 480 resolution display itself? Striking. And really, did you honestly expect a reaction different than that? We mean, it's a VGA screen on a handset -- that's a recipe hard to sabotage.

Buttons

A quick note on the hard buttons just beneath the LCD. All of 'em seemed to do their respective jobs well enough, but the optical joystick in the center was a touch on the finicky side. In some cases (scrolling up and down web pages, for instance), it was easy to love. In others (moving about within the Programs folder), we found ourselves frustrated by how erratic it could be. We'd gesture down, it would move two blocks right and one down. We'd gesture up, and it'd shoot up three and back down two. Thankfully, the quirkiness was somewhat contained after adjusting the sensitivity to an optimal setting (read: very low), though it's still a matter of personal preference whether one will enjoy this over using the touch panel or the "D-pad." Of note, the joystick can be deactivated altogether or just in IE, Messaging and Contacts.

Miscellaneous

It is worth noting that the external volume rocker is well placed and much appreciated, as is the marvelous 3.5-millimeter headphone jack. Also, we love how tightly integrated the 3.2-megapixel camera (and flash) is with the body, but we're not so hot on where the lens is. Time after time, we found ourselves having to move our finger from how it naturally fell when gearing up to depress the shutter button in order to snap a photo. Maybe our gorilla hands are just clumsy like that, but it seems to us the lens is placed precisely where your middle finger on your left hand will always reside when holding the camera for a shot. As for the camera quality? We'd say it's pretty darn great for a cellphone, but then again, the inbuilt camera tends to be one of Sony Ericsson's strong suits. Have a look at the sample shots below to see what it's capable of.

Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 sample camera shots

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One final thought on the hardware -- the removable battery is much, much appreciated, as is the ease in which it is to remove. No atypical hardware is required here. Simply pop the back casing off with your thumb and pull up on the bottom of the cell. We will say, however, that having the micro SD slot hidden underneath of this casing could prove annoying for those who swap out flash cards with any frequency, but it does keep the overall look of the phone less cluttered.

Software / Windows Mobile 6.1

So, now that you've combed through the ups and downs of the hardware, we're logically ready to tackle software. By and large, what you've got here is tried and true Windows Mobile 6.1. In fairness, the operating system is beginning to show its age, and unlike the Touch Diamond, there isn't much here to mask it. Those familiar with WinMo 6.1 will feel immediately at home on the XPERIA X1. Everything is where you'd expect, and everything functions just like you're used to. Outside of the unique Panels interface, you won't find anything too out of the ordinary here.

One would think the 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7200 processor coupled with 256MB of RAM could chew through this OS with ease, but in our testing, we found that not to be the case in too many instances. On an annoyingly frequent basis, we found the "OK" button and hard "Exit" trigger to do absolutely nothing for 5, 10, even 20 seconds. Eventually, everything would catch back up and we could resume whatever it was that we were trying to do in the first place, but the frequent and debilitating lag when switching applications, screen orientation, folders or e-mail accounts was downright pestiferous. After awhile, it would often get to the point where a hard reboot was the only option left for getting the system back to its speedy self. When things did decide to run smoothly, we found ourselves enjoying the spoils of Windows Mobile, but too often -- for instance -- we'd glance down and manually surf over to "Messaging" only to find a dozen text messages that it never bothered to alert us of.

Panels

As for the Panel interface, we found ourselves cautiously optimistic that SE could have a winner on its hands here. Just seven panels come loaded on the X1a, and for those unfamiliar, each panel is essentially a customizable home screen that provides a variety of information based on what panel you have selected. For instance, the included Google panel puts a search box right on your home screen along with one-click links to Maps, Gmail, Gcal and Photos. The multimedia panel puts your tunes / videos at the forefront of your X1 experience, while the more generic calender panel hosts up a clock, your upcoming appointments, the current weather and a small RSS feed of your favorite websites.

We've heard that SE has big plans for this initiative, possibly bringing panels for YouTube access, social networking sites, etc. Unfortunately, the "More Panels" download link within the UI was still under construction at the time of this writing, so we're left to simply hope that what will eventually reside there is enriching and worthwhile. We should mention, however, that our experience with the seven built-in panels wasn't entirely exhilarating. Oftentimes, just changing panels was a 10 to 30 second affair, and icons on the panels themselves generally took 5 or more seconds to respond to an input (read: not nearly as quickly as what we saw in a Panels promotional vid). It's possible the panels integration with WinMo could be tightened in future software updates, but as it stands, the lag times put a damper on an otherwise enticing aspect of the phone.


Multimedia

Given that the X1 managed to secure a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack (very much unlike the G1, sadly), we reckon a swath of potential buyers are probably interested in the multimedia capabilities. Thanks to SE's panel that caters specifically to that, we were able to browse, playback and skip around within our tunes right from the home screen. Our experience was generally positive, with the audio being crisp, clear and plenty audible. The interface itself will also prove satisfactory for most, with the occasional hint of lag preventing us from giving it our largest nod of approval. And as insinuated, not having to buy some unconventional headphone adapter probably helped us love this even more.

Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 user interface

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Web browsing

It should be noted that the inclusion of Opera Mobile makes the web surfing experience entirely more enjoyable than with Internet Explorer. We pitted the X1 (using Opera Mobile, obviously) against the iPhone 3G to see which would load up the full version (read: non-mobile version) of our homepage the fastest via WiFi, and while Safari managed to load the entire page -- graphics and all -- before the X1, the X1 did get the first text up a smidgen faster than the iPhone 3G. We did administer the same test via 3G, and results were similar. All in all, Opera Mobile provides a browsing experience that's enjoyable and usable, and if you're still not satisfied, there's always Skyfire (in time, hopefully). Have a look at the video below to see the X1 and iPhone 3G race to the finish.



Usability / Reception

In the end, a phone's merits on paper are only truly laudable if the end product is easy and painless to use. To that end, we'd like to take this opportunity to focus on some of the handset's more critical functions, namely calling and navigating. In a fringe area of AT&T coverage, we compared the X1's reception with that of the iPhone 3G, and unfortunately, our findings weren't all that copacetic for Sony Ericsson's offering. In areas where we could eke out a call on EDGE with two bars on the iPhone 3G (with no crackling, drops, etc.), we couldn't with the X1. In fact, we found it constantly hopping in and out of 3G, EDGE and GPRS (yes, seriously) as it attempted in vain to secure a solid signal. Worse still, a number of calls made with four bars of 3G echoed uncontrollably to the point where we were forced to hang up, move to a different area, and try the call again.

That being said, call quality and reception in major metropolitan areas (or areas of very good AT&T coverage) was second to none. There was no hissing, no echoing, no crackling. Everyone that we called affirmed that we sounded fantastic, and we replied back that they sounded as handsome as ever. The takeaway? Those who know they live in an AT&T fringe zone may want to think twice about snagging the X1. Fringe reception was simply too poor for us live with, and anyone you'd end up calling frequently would probably agree. Of course, we now know that an AT&T femtocell (read: a mini cell tower for your house, to put it simply) trial is slated to get going later this year, so maybe there's hope for you yet.

As for its GPS capabilities, we've nothing but the highest of praise. The Google Maps application loaded up quickly, and the handset managed to get an accurate lock of our indoor location in just under 1.5 minutes. Walking about, we found that the blue orb followed along accurately, and basic navigating tests left us impressed. We know, it's hard to go wrong with Google Maps, but at least we know the GPS module in this thing is up to the task.

We also ran a quick 3G speed test in Opera just to give you all an idea of how quickly it could suck down data via AT&T's 3G network. Our DSLReports tests displayed the following (tests shown in the order they were conducted):
    • 348 kbit/sec; 0.433s latency; 23.91s download time of a 1MB file.
    • 748 kbit/sec; 0.71s latency; 11.564s download time of a 1MB file.
    • 589 kbit/sec; 0.696s latency; 14.604s download time of a 1MB file.
Battery Life

We never hooked the XPERIA X1 up to any sort of drain tester, nor did we outsource this portion of the review to a robotic yapper who could track talk time down to the nanosecond, but we did go about our days doing what we imagine most cellphone owners would do in order to bring you the following. With moderate usage of 3G data and a moderate amount of talking / texting, we squeezed just under two full days out of the X1.

More specifically, we chatted for a few hours, surfed the web for an hour or so, sent a few dozen angry text messages while in gridlocked traffic and left it completely unplugged (while still on) around the clock before seeing it choke out its last breath around 22 hours later. In all honestly, we were taken aback by the battery life of the XPERIA X1. We've owned WinMo devices in the past that wouldn't last a solid day with moderate usage, so to us, just making it 'til bedtime is a feat in and of itself. Granted, the X1's not razor thin or anything, and the 1,500mAh battery is surely on the large size, but we never felt as if the phone was made bulkier simply to extend its life between charges.


Wrap-up

So, here we are. The moment of truth. The section you probably blazed down to without even ingesting any of the minutiae that resides above. Is the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 worth your time and money ($799.99, to be precise)? As with any handset, that obviously depends on your needs, but those looking specifically for a Windows Mobile-powered device should give this long (long!) awaited device a serious look. For starters, the HTC design is truly world class. You'll be hard pressed to find a sexier phone in all aspects than this one here, and let's face it, design matters this day and age.

Our only major cautions before buying blind revolve around the lackluster reception in fringe areas of coverage and the lag / hiccups associated with WinMo 6.1. There's hardly anything more frustrating with a new handset than the inability to reliably make / take calls and the inability to navigate effortlessly around every nook and cranny of an operating system without four reboots per day. SE's Panels UI holds some real promise, but until it becomes more seamlessly integrated (meaning less lag in every respect), we can't say it's a game-changing inclusion.

In almost every other way, though, the XPERIA X1 shines. The battery life is stellar, the browsing in Opera is delightful, the VGA resolution is drool-worthy and the integrated camera isn't too shabby, either. This here truly is a case of matching up the pros and cons with your specific needs and determining which list outweighs the other. Now, if someone figures out how to get Android up and running on this thing, we wouldn't say a "wholehearted recommendation" would be too far from the realm of feasibility.

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Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 review