Article by Alvin Wong
This is Part 1 of Alvin’s Xperia Mini Pro Review.
5 days ago, I finally bit the bullet.
In one of my previous posts, entitled ‘The future of Symbian in my life’, I discussed the notion of finally moving on from Symbian to the Android platform with a newly-launched Sony Ericsson smartphone, the Xperia Mini Pro. I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with Symbian; it felt positively ancient and left behind such that it didn’t really feel like a smartphone anymore, and I couldn’t find even a single decent free Twitter client on the Ovi Store, much less clients for the cloud services like Evernote and Google Reader that I was becoming increasingly reliant on. There was no chance of free reliable cloud syncing on the platform, I felt there were next to no advantages in remaining with Symbian and my E5, although a very solid and stable device with good battery life, felt nothing short of boring. Although it still served me fine every day and did what it was supposed to do, there was nothing remotely interesting or exciting about it. I also wrote that I did not consider upgrading to a Symbian^3 device such an appealing option because I still considered it a dated platform that lacked features befitting a modern smartphone OS.
So this is what I’ve ended up with. The Sony Ericsson Xperia mini pro. It’s an Android 2.3 smartphone with a really long name, one that I’ve been interested in and dreaming about since it was launched a few months back. I love hardware keyboards and have never really liked large touchscreen slabs, so the Xperia seemed right up my alley. Furthermore, this device pairs Xperia Arc internals with a very reasonable SIM-free price; I bought mine for just S$398, which is 330 US dollars or 234 Euros. That, in my opinion, is wonderful bang for the buck.
The Xperia mini pro is housed in a small squarish box, similar to some other recent Sony Ericsson devices. There is really nothing surprising about the box’s contents; apart from the device (housed in a white fabric ‘GreenHeart’ sleeve that I’m quite certain I’ll keep using until decent screen protectors and cases become available) and its battery, you get a USB-microUSB cable (of decent length, unlike the ridiculously short Nokia cables), a wall charger with a USB port on its side, a pair of basic earphones with microphone and push button (the best-sounding earphones I’ve come across that aren’t in-ear monitors), a 2GB microSD card, an extra back cover and cute little fold-out pamphlets.
This smartphone is positively small compared to most other smartphones on the market today, but its thickness gives it a rather squat look. It has a pretty understated design that is clearly evolved from its predecessor the X10 Mini Pro; it has a flat edge-to-edge glass front framed with black glossy plastic, faux chrome trim round the sides, and a rubbery, soft-touch back cover. The front of the device contains shiny Sony Ericsson and Xperia badges, separated by the 3-inch 320×480 TFT LCD display. The earpiece is located along the top edge of the device, flanked by a front-facing camera and proximity sensor. Below the display sits a physical Home button, flanked by Back and Menu capacitive touch buttons on its left and right respectively.
On the top of the Xperia sits a power/lock key that has adequate press feedback and easy enough to use, a 3.5mm audio jack and a microUSB port covered with a rubber cover that can be difficult to remove; I’ve already added many fingernail marks to the cover within just 5 days of trying to open it. There is also a secondary microphone for noise cancellation during calls up top. There is nothing on the left and bottom apart from a groove to assist in unclipping the back cover of the device and a lanyard eyelet, but there is a double-detent camera key and volume keys on the right. These keys are very thin and the camera key is especially stiff, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it. Around the back there is the lens for the 5-megapixel autofocus camera and a single LED flash, along with another set of Sony Ericsson and Xperia badges and a single speaker that is pleasingly loud and does not get muffled when the device is placed on a surface. Nokia could learn a thing or two here (*cough*E7*cough*).
The slider is spring-loaded and works smoothly enough to reveal a 4-row QWERTY keyboard with arrow keys and a triple-wide spacebar. The spaced-out keys have a matte finish and are adequately raised up from the chassis; press feedback is excellent and mimics the clicky feel of the Nokia E6’s keyboard. The Xperia mini pro’s dimunitive size means that the keyboard remains very manageable even for smaller hands like mine. The backlighting is pleasant and even, and secondary characters are lit in a tasteful shade of turquoise.
There is really nothing much to complain about with regards to the physical hardware of the Xperia mini pro apart from a couple of things. Firstly, when the device is closed, there is a noticeable gap between the top and bottom halves of the device. Secondly, the back cover attaches to the chassis via a few plastic clips, which in my opinion does not bode well for the longevity of the cover if you frequently swap batteries, SIM cards or microSD cards. Well, at least you get an extra one in the box if the plastic clips do break.
The Xperia mini pro is powered by a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and an Adreno 205 GPU coupled with 512MB of RAM and 320MB of internal storage for apps. Keeping things running is a 1200mAh lithium-polymer battery that admittedly seems a tad on the small side for an Android device. Another aspect of the hardware that might seem a tad on the small side is the display. At 3 inches with HVGA (320×480) resolution, it’s hardly the most expansive piece of glass you can have on a smartphone in today’s world of 4-inches-and-larger Android slabs. It is perfectly adequate though. The Android UI remains very usable; apps don’t look squashed, fonts look smooth and web browsing remains an enjoyable experience. It is also one of the better TFT LCDs I’ve come across; brightness and contrast are above acceptable, viewing angles are good enough, colours look vibrant and the display is nearly black and almost indistinguishable from the surrounding bezel when not lit. As mentioned above, the Xperia mini pro has a 5-megapixel autofocus camera with a single LED flash that performs acceptably considering the device’s price and market positioning. I shall go in-depth with the camera in a later post.
This Sony Ericsson smartphone is by no means a stock Android device. Sony Ericsson have customized Android 2.3 on the Xperia mini pro such that the UI looks very different from a ‘pure’ Android device like the Google/Samsung Nexus S. I’d say that Sony Ericsson’s handiwork does not get in the way or compromise the Android user experience too much, so the situation isn’t too bad. So what has actually changed? Well, pretty much all the icons, for starters, from those in the notifications bar to the built-in apps to those in the built-in apps, along with UI elements like radio buttons and checkboxes. The unlock/silent slider and clock on the lockscreen has also been changed, and the launcher is Sony Ericsson’s own doing, with 4 ‘hot corners’ on the homescreen for up to 4 shortcuts each that can be hidden by widgets. The app grid is definitely inspired by iOS; icons can be arranged in several ways ranging from alphabetical order to a custom setup.
A selection of built-in apps have also been customized by Sony Ericsson, such as the contacts app and music player, primarily to add Facebook integration. The Gingerbread virtual keyboard has also been replaced with a Sony Ericsson ‘smart keyboard’. Of course, a set of Sony Ericsson widgets and extra apps (some more useful than others) is present and correct; a quick look in the launcher will reveal apps for DLNA, FM radio, LiveWare accessory management, Sony Ericsson software updates and such gems as Timescape, TrackID, WisePilot, a non-editing version of OfficeSuite (promptly replaced with Picsel Smart Office), PlayNow, ‘Get apps’, ‘Get games’, ‘Friends’ music and videos’ and ‘Games by PopCap’. All impossible to uninstall, as usual.
Despite all of Sony Ericsson’s additions, the Xperia mini pro is still wonderfully fluid and zippy and there have hardly been any major slowdowns so far. Android has been a real revelation after years of Symbian; I might sound like a little child in the next few sentences but that’s exactly how awestruck I am by this smartphone OS. Everything is so smooth and slick and pretty, jumping between apps is super speedy, it’s so convenient to be able to glance at and interact with widgets on the homescreen, the notifications system on Android is simply tops, the built-in sharing functionality is fantastic, the auto-correction on the virtual keyboard is brilliant, and there are just so many high-quality apps in every category to choose from! I know I’ll never be able to go back to Symbian after this; I wonder how I remained happy with Symbian for so long when this amount of smartphone functionality existed out there. I’ll be able to discuss my thoughts and Android experience in greater detail in a later blog post, but I’m just thoroughly blown away right now. There’s so much to discover, play with, tweak and experience on this platform.
Battery life hasn’t been stellar, though; it’s been unsatisfactory to a point where I’ve had to buy and install JuiceDefender Plus in an effort to lower the Xperia’s power consumption. From a couple of days’ experience, it seems that JuiceDefender Plus is indeed doing its job. I’ll be able to write up a more detailed report on the Xperia mini pro’s battery life once I’ve put the battery through a few more charge/discharge cycles and had more opportunities to use this smartphone in the real world.
There’s definitely more to come with my Android and Sony Ericsson Xperia mini pro coverage here on The Mobile Fanatics, so do watch this space! This is definitely one of the most exciting times since I first discovered I had an interest in smartphones, and I hope this, and all that is to come, makes interesting reading for you!