Sony Ericsson Xperia X10: Impressive hardware marred by slow software
At a Glance
A few months ago, PCWorld reviewed an unlocked Sony Ericsson Xperia X10. We were unable to assign it a score, however, since Sony Ericsson sent us a unit with unfinished and buggy software. Now, the Xperia is available at a subsidized price ($150 with a two-year contract from AT&T) and ships with the finished software. After refamiliarizing myself with the Xperia X10, I still feel unsure about it. Though I loved the phone’s hardware and camera, the software was painfully slow at times. And faced with shortcomings such as the absence of multitouch and the outdated Android 1.6 OS, I can’t recommend the X10 over other high-end Android phones.
The X10’s design unmistakably marks the smartphone as a Sony: Like its sibling, the Windows Mobile-based Xperia X1, this handset has an eye-catchingly sleek profile, an elegant curved body, and a minimalist black-and-chrome color scheme. Measuring 4.7 by 2.5 by 0.5 inches, the X10 is slightly larger than most smartphones (the Nexus One, for instance, measures 4.5 by 2.4 by 0.5 inches) and feels slightly awkward to hold. It weighs a manageable 4.8 ounces.
Three hardware buttons—for Menu, Home/Multitask Manager, and Back—reside beneath the display. Though the skinny chrome buttons are easy to press, they aren’t touch-sensitive. Occupying the top of the X10 are a 3.5-mm headphone jack, a mini-USB port, and the Power/Lock button. The camera shutter key and the digital zoom control/volume rocker are located on the right spine.
The X10 is larger than average so as to accommodate its 4-inch, 480-by-854-pixel WVGA display, which is bigger than those on the Nexus One (3.7 inches), the Droid (3.7 inches), and the iPhone 3GS (3.5 inches). Despite its gorgeousness, the display wasn’t always as responsive as I would have liked. For example, to unlock the phone, you drag the “lock” upward; but frustratingly, I sometimes had to swipe a couple of times to get it to unlock.
I can live without multitouch, but its omission from such a powerful, large-screened phone is certainly disappointing. Single-touch input is a pain—especially when you have to deal with the native Android software keyboard, which feels tightly packed and slow. And though I like the slim profile of the X10, having a hardware keyboard instead of struggling to type on-screen would have been worth the extra size.
UX: Sony Ericsson’s twist on Android
Like Motorola and HTC, Sony Ericsson developed its own proprietary user interface (which it calls UX, for User eXperience—also code-named “Rachael”) to run over Android. Sony Ericsson announced before the Mobile World Congress that both the X10 and its younger sibling, the X10 Mini, will initially ship with Android OS version 1.6, but the operating system will eventually be upgradable to 2.1 later this year. You can read the company’s full explanation at the Sony Ericsson Product Blog. (The phone is slated to get its Android update by the end of October.)
UX delivers some visually interesting enhancements to Android 1.6. Similar to Motorola’s Happenings widget on MotoBlur, the UX’s Timescape application manages communication with contacts across e-mail accounts and social networks. But instead of presenting your contact history in a boring list, Timescape displays your update history in something called “Splines”—essentially a 3D stack of cards featuring your friends’ updates.
Visually, I liked Timescape, but it seems to try to do too much at once. Not only did it take a while to load, but I felt a bit overwhelmed with information. I got annoyed quickly with seeing Facebook status updates from people I didn’t care for on my X10’s homescreen.
And while it spruces up the outdated Android 1.6, there are still some vital missing features. For example, my Web browsing experience was decent—until I tried to pinch an image to zoom into it. Doh! I had forgotten that multitouch is not supported in Android 1.6. While double-tapping to zoom worked fine, pinching-to-zoom on a display of this size would have been even better. Also, there’s no separate gallery app for your photos; you must go through the camera app to view your images, which is a bit annoying.
Superb 8-megapixel camera
The X10’s 8.1-megapixel camera with LED flash is a winner. The intuitive interface comes with a handful of useful features such as touch-to-focus and smile detection. Recent photos appear at the bottom of the screen so you can easily review and delete them.
I was particularly impressed at how well my indoor shots turned out: The flash provided just enough light, without blowing out the image. Outdoor shots looked great, too, with vivid colors and sharp detail. Like other Android phones, the X10 lets you upload your photos to Facebook, Picasa, and Flickr directly (and easily) from the phone.
I also liked the device’s video-recording capabilities. The X10 captures WVGA video at 30 frames per second. Video quality was superior to that of any other Android phone I’ve tested: Motion appeared smooth, with little to no pixelation or image noise.
UX also supports face recognition technology. This feature is pretty cool: You snap a picture of your friend, tag it, and let UX store it. The next time you snap a picture of that same friend, UX will recognize the person’s face and automatically tag it for you. The feature also lets you call someone by tapping on their face when viewing a picture. When I initially reviewed the unlocked X10, I couldn’t get face recognition to work. I tried it on a couple of different people—including myself—but UX never remembered who was who. With this unit, I was a lot more successful. The only times it didn’t recognize my contacts was when their face was turned slightly away from the camera or if they were making a grotesque face.
Mediascape: Solid multimedia
To manage your music and videos, UX offers a smart feature called Mediascape, a welcome change from Android’s boring out-of-the-box media player. When you first open it up, Mediascape shows both your most recently played and your favorite tracks. It also displays album art nicely, and offers various browsing and playback modes. When you’re in the Now Playing mode, you can hit the “infinity” symbol (like what you see on your contacts in Timescape) to go to other music from that artist (stored on your microSD card) as well as YouTube videos.
Video playback looked great on the X10’s display. I also liked the addition of YouTube HQ, which allows you to play back better-quality videos.
Despite its beefy 1GHz Snapdragon processor, the X10 was consistently sluggish as I went through the X10’s various apps and menus. Scrolling through Timescape, for example, was sometimes excruciatingly slow. In addition, launching certain applications took a bit more time than I expected. And in one odd instance, the keyboard completely froze while I was using it to log in to my Google account. I ended up having to close, kill, and restart the app. Opening apps sometimes took multiple taps, and even the swiping to unlock the phone wasn’t always as responsive as it should have been.
This slow performance can be attributed to two things: The Timescape overlay and Android 1.6. Timescape is fairly animation- and image-heavy, which definitely drags down the phone’s ability to launch and load content. Add an outdated version of Android, and you’ve got yourself a powerful smartphone that crawls.
Call quality over AT&T’s 3G network was good in San Francisco for the most part. Voices sounded loud, clear, and natural. But all of my contacts complained about the overwhelming level of background noise they heard when I stood on a busy city street corner.
The X10 presents quite the conundrum: It is a powerful and elegant handset that is completely marred by a sluggish OS. Even the phone’s strongest aspects, such as its camera and media player, are frustrating to use. The XPERIA X10 might get a speed boost once it gets the 2.1 upgrade, but at this point, it is hard to say whether that will truly improve performance. We’ll revisit this review once it gets the upgrade. If you’re looking for an Android phone on AT&T right now, you’ll probably be happier going with the faster Samsung Captivate.
[Ginny Mies is an associate editor for PCWorld.]