Some say you can have a smartphone or you can have a rugged device, but never can you have both. The folks over at Sony Ericsson are looking to tap into the market where other devices may have tried before. Remember Motorola’s i1? How about T-Mobile’s Defy? Which I still think is a great device by the way. Well, SE is joining the party with their very own rugged smartphone joining the Xperia lineup dubbed the “Xperia Active”. While the use case is plain as day, there’s still a bit of a puzzling thought as to who the targeted demographic is? Why you ask? Well, though it’s clearly meant for the outdoorsy type, SE went with an extremely small screen size which at times required nothing less than 20/20 vision when reading text on web pages. But more of that in the review. Focusing on the handset itself, we’ve got to say, it’s difficult to ignore the amount of goods given to the device under the hood. With a 1 GHz processor from Qualcomm, Android Gingerbread 2.3, a water resistant and dust proof casing along with pre-installed fitness applications, you’ve got one heck of a device. That is, if you can fully take it all in on the 320 x 480 3-inch display of course. If you missed our initial unboxing and hands-on you can check it out here.
However, that being said, the device definitely gives you your money’s worth. There’s an array of accessories that come with the handset to accommodate both your outdoor active life as well as your indoor classy hang-outs with friends. Beginning with the box, there’s a USB charging/syncing cable, an arm pouch for jogging, stereo ear bud headphones with attachable ear-hooks for excessive work-outs, a 2GB memory card with the ability to expand up to 32 GB’s, a rubber lanyard that fits directly into the carabiner and an interchangeable back cover offering both black/orange and white backplates
What ultimately makes the device stand out? You called it, the screen size. In the midst of monster screen size releases such as the Samsung Galaxy S II at 4.52-inches, the Galaxy Note at 5.3-inches, the Galaxy Nexus at 4.6-inches and the HTC Sensation at 4.3-inches just to name a few, the Active rolls in with its abnormal size of 3-inches. Personally, it was very challenging for me to use the device, let alone allow it to serve as my daily driver for reviewing purposes. However, I did my best to make it work. And surprisingly, it came through for me on a number of occasions.
The device, while compact, is still a little on the thick side coming in at 16.5 mm. We would have liked to have seen the device sport a bigger screen as well as bigger housing, say maybe at 4-inches. Then, maybe they could have thinned the device out a bit. As stated above, the device sports a 3-inch capacitive touch display (320 x 480), only this technology offers what SE calls “wet finger tracking” capabilities for obvious reasons. Should you get water or mud on your device it can still render touch input. Then there’s also SE’s Mobile Bravia Engine which offers a nice visual boost in performance on the handset. The device itself weighs in at 110.8 grams and is overall 55 x 92 x 16.5 mm. Like most of SE’s handsets, the front sports only three buttons instead of the usual four button layout. The Active sports a back button, home button and menu button in that order from left to right and all buttons are capacitive. Typical Sony Ericsson nomenclature can be found on the front side. The device spices it up a bit by offering two different housing cases, one white and one black/orange. The back plate comes off to reveal an inner seal which can also come off to gain access to where the micro sd card (2GB) and SIM slot reside. The bottom portion of the device offers a pretty cool and nifty lanyard strap hole/carabiner clip for those looking to take the device on their next outdoor adventure. Also on the bottom portion of the device is where you’ll find the USB sync port and headphone jack (3.5 mm). The backside of the device sports a 5 meg auto focus camera with a single round LED flash which takes surprisingly nice photos, along with the device’s speaker grill. The right side of the device holds a dedicated camera key as well as the volume rocker. The left side of the device sports the power on/off button. And though I didn’t take this device on a crazy outdoor trip, I was able to ironically distinguish the fact that the screen wasn’t all that bright even when it was maxed out. That made outdoor viewing a little challenging which sort of defeats the purpose for a device like this. On a good note, the device was quite compact and easily fit into the pocket.
The Xperia Active has a decent array of functionality when it comes to the software dept. The device sports Android 2.3 Gingerbread out of the box which accompanies SE’s proprietary UI, TimeScape. We’ve seen TimeScape on several other SE products such as the Xperia Mini, Pro and Arc S devices to name a few. However, we think SE did a great job optimizing the software to run well on the device. This is evident when the device loads up and you see several shortcut screen corners which allow you to add up to four different applications and become visible when you expand the corner. The keyboard is a bit tricky on a device like this as it comes with a T9 layout in portrait mode. However, a full qwerty keyboard layout is available if you tip the device into landscape. We found ourselves using the keyboard in this mode as much as possible for obvious reasons, we don’t have Smurf hands. There were plenty of applications on the device to be as productive as one can be while on the go. Applications and functionality included a monitoring app, DLNA capabilities, LiveWire and TimeScape applications. In addition, the Active sports a plethora of fitness and wellness applications for those constantly keeping up with their New Year’s resolution. Applications like WalkMate, a pedometer app and iMapMyFITNESS all come together to make your workouts more effective and productive. The iMapMyFITNESS application allows you to track and trend your workouts with the ability to connect your device to a separate heart-rate monitor for precision calorie counting. As far as web surfing goes, again, that was a bit of a challenge and frankly, I wouldn’t read too many books on the Kindle app if you know what I mean. However, if you just want to check the scores, scope some quick news and RSS feeds, or even check out a flash video once in a while you should be ok thanks to the 1GHz CPU and Bravia Mobile Engine. The music player is intuitive and user-friendly as well, offering big buttons for easy navigating through your playlists. There’s an equalizer and “xLOUD” options which enhance the output of sound from the device’s speaker. And lastly, the software offers the infinity button which allows you to universally search quickly when it comes to song lyrics, karaoke videos on YouTube and your favorite artist’s biography etc.
For those wondering about the compatibility of the phone, it offers quad-band GSM technology as well as dual-band 3G. Our model worked unlocked on AT&T’s network. Your standard GPS, Bluetooth and WiFi connections are all on board as well.
Camera & Battery:
As we stated before, the camera offers a 5 meg AF camera on the rear with a single LED flash on board. The application offers touch focus, geo tagging, face detect and image stabilization. There’s 720p video recording capabilities and the light works for shooting video in the dark. Like most cameras, shots came out well so long as there was an ample amount of light available. While the flash worked well, it wasn’t as ideal at night. And like the Arc S we just reviewed, though there is only a single lens, the device is capable of rendering 3D photos with the 3D camera app.
Battery life wasn’t what we expected from a small device like this. However, I guess that’s what you can expect from only housing a 1200 mAh battery. The device is supposed to give the user 4.5 hours of talk-time with 14 days of stand-by time which comes in just below average for a handset with these specs. However, with that being said, you could expect close to a day’s use before requiring a recharge.
Navigating through the optimized UI was great as well as the overall usability of the device. With the 1 GHz CPU and the 512 megs of RAM, there’s no issue at all when it comes to the device handling your day to day activities. However, that being said, we regret to have to report that call quality on the device was anything but acceptable. The audio seemed a bit muffled at times and when it was windy, opposing parties had an extremely difficult time hearing us which didn’t make sense for a device targeting the outdoor man/woman. In addition, the volume doesn’t reach a level of satisfactory for some reason and we’re not entirely sure whether or not it’s due to the hardware or the software. I’m leaning towards the latter.
Overall, the Xperia Active comes with a great package out of the box both software and hardware wise. In addition, the device is well manufactured with a rugged exterior and cool features like the lanyard function and interchangeable back plates. The weatherproofing and on-board fitness applications are a major plus as well as the thought out optimization features for such a small display. Our only major downside to the device was the lack of call quality and audio output. One purchasing the device should heavily consider using a Bluetooth headset or the stock headphones that came with the device. But if you’re looking for something small and compact as well as something that comes with the ability to get a little dirty, look no further as the Active is an excellent choice.