Sony Ericsson releasing a Windows Mobile device. Who'd have thought it? That said, Palm releasing a Windows Mobile device, who'd have thought it? Nokia rele - oh, wait, we haven't had that one yet have we... All joking aside, the mobile phone world positively rocked in February 2008 when Sony Ericsson announced the Xperia X1 smartphone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The project had been kept tightly under wraps (for once) and therefore came as something of a shock even to those 'in the know'.
The move by SE to release a Windows Mobile device can be seen as a move to target the enterprise sector, a sector where Windows Mobile generally excels yet the consumer-centric SE brand is yet to make a big impact. Add to this the fact that SE have only a limited presence in the USA (a market in which the X1 has great potential for success) and it's clear that the X1 is an important release for the company.
I'll talk more about the hardware itself in a moment, but to emphasise the effort that has been put into making the X1 a success in the USA, there are two different iterations of the X1 available. The X1i which has the European 3G bands, and the X1a which has support for US 3G bands, including the unusual 1700MHz range utilised by T-Mobile USA. Unusually for a SE product, significant portions of the device planning and development also took place 'over the pond', at Sony Ericsson's San Diego base. The X1 is actually manufactured for Sony Ericsson by Windows Mobile stalwarts HTC, which should definitely lend some credibility to this Windows Mobile newcomer![/teaser]
In the box
At the time of writing, I only have access to a 'C&J' model of the X1i. C&J models are as near as possible to retail devices, without actually being retail devices in a shiny box... so it's difficult to describe the full out of box experience. I will come back and update this section of the review as soon as I have access to a full retail unit. What I can tell you is that in the compact and nicely presented box you can expect to find...
- Sony Ericsson X1 (duh!)
- 1500mAh battery
- 3.5mm headset
- spare stylus
- mains charger
- USB sync cable.
Hardware - overview
The X1 is a touchscreen Professional (Pocket PC) device with a horizontal sliding QWERTY keypad (a-la-Wizard/Hermes/Kaiser), with a unique 'arc' design (more on this later). It features a wide WVGA screen, which distinguishes it from it's VGA screened Touch Pro cousin. My X1 tips the scales at 160g, feeling solid in the hand without being excessively weighty or large. Unlikely the chubby Touch Pro, the X1 feels appropriately proportioned. Two colours are available, silver and black (as you can see I have the black version, which I prefer).
Specs are as follows...
- Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional
- Qualcomm MSM7200A @ 528MHz
- GSM850, GSM900, GSM1800, GSM1900, UMTS850, UMTS900, UMTS1700, UMTS1900, UMTS2100 (X1i/X1a vary)
- HSDPA / HSUPA support
- 512MB ROM
- 256MB RAM
- 3" WVGA (800x480) screen, 65536 colours
- 3.2 Megapixel Auto Focus camera with LED light
- 0.3 Megapixel forward facing camera
- GPS + A-GPS
- Dpad + Optical Joystick
- Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR
- WiFi 802.11b/g
- FM Radio
- 3.5mm headphone hack
- microSD expansion
- miniUSB connector
- 1500mAh battery
- 52.6 x 110.5 x 17 millimetres
Note that the device does NOT include an orientation sensor.
Hardware - around the device
Let me walk you around the device, starting with the front.
The front of the device on this model is completely black, with a 'brushed' effect finish and a metal feel. This lends itself quite well to avoiding fingerprints, which is always a bonus nowadays in what seems to be an era of shiny-shiny handsets! At the top sits the shiny silver speaker, with the light sensor to the left (the device automatically adjusts screen brightness based on ambient light) and the forward facing 0.3 Megapixel camera on the right. Seriously, this is the smallest camera I think I have ever seen. It's tiny! Below the speaker sits the 'Sony Ericsson' branding that will be so important to the success of the device, particularly in phone stores across the land. Underneath the branding is the NON-FLUSH 3" WVGA screen. That's right, it's back to the 'old-skool' with a recessed screen, which feels a little strange after having used 'Touch' devices for so long. Next comes the controls area, which has a Xperia logo, two small silver buttons for the soft keys, the dpad, and optical joystick, green / red (lock) keys, a panels button and an OK button. No dedicated 'Start' key here, it's normal position is taken over by the dedicated panels key. The control area is finished in glossy black, and looks good.
Flipping the device over to the back, we see that the top and bottom sections are rubberised (nice), while the centre area - the battery door - is metal, again with a brushed effect. To the left of the battery door is a Sony Ericsson logo, and the battery door itself has Sony Ericsson, Xperia and X1 branding. Finally comes the camera, flash and '3.2 Megapixel' branding. Overall, the back of the device looks pretty nice too.
The top of the device is home to the 3.5mm headphone jack (HURRAH!) and the power button. All sides of the device have a shiny silver strip which - on the black model at least - really complements the look of the device. The top / left / back of the device is home to the stylus silo. The stylus itself is a good length, non telescopic but very thin.
The bottom of the device has only the lanyard loop (if you're into that kinda thing)!
The left of the device has the miniUSB connector at the top (a bit odd, but when you're using the device plugged in with the keyboard open you'll appreciate it) and the speaker at the bottom. The right of the device has the volume rocker at the top and the camera key at the bottom. Each side of the device actually has 2 multi coloured LEDs embedded in it, which flash in different colours and patterns to signify different notifications. It's pretty clever, but more on this later!
Rotating the device 90 degrees counter clockwise and pushing up the top half reveals the keyboard. Yes, it slides in the same direction as the Hermes and Touch Pro, and the opposite direction to the Kaiser. The keyboard is a 4 row affair (as opposed to the 5 row on the Touch Pro), but the extra width of the wide screen allows the device to have a keyboard with offset keys that I know many people are fond of (Hi Eric! ). It's a keyboard quite different to anything we have seen on a Windows Mobile device previously. Unlike the Touch Pro it has no arrow keys (and of course no dedicated number keys), but it does manage to include Start and OK buttons together with good sized Space and Return keys. The keys don't have a lot of travel and feel a little squishy, more on this in the 'in use' section.
Underneath the metal battery cover you can find a concealed microSD slot. The microSD can be replaced without needing to remove the battery or power off the device. The best of both worlds? It's nice that your microSD is kept safe...
So here's where it gets a little bit weird. This is a Sony Ericsson device, but OEM'd for SE by HTC, long established players in the Windows Mobile field. There's simply no other way to put it: for the most part, the Xperia X1 feels like a HTC device. Sony Ericsson have worked some of their own magic in the build with the unique 'panels' concept, but that aside, it's pretty standard fare.
The X1 runs Windows Mobile Professional 6.1, the latest and greatest from Microsoft, which is IMHo a perfectly competent UI on a device such as this. Aside from the core Windows Mobile applications, we get Adobe Reader LE, Comm Manager, Google Maps, Esmertec Java, Opera 9.5, QuickGPS, Streaming Media, TouchFlo kinetic scrolling and HTC's Task Manager. All looks kind of familiar no? The Camera application is unique to the X1, and includes some unique features, such as VGA video recording and touch based spot focus.
Dashwire is offered for the X1 from the Sony Ericsson site, and (as expected) runs GREAT on the X1!
So on to 'panels'. The easiest way to describe panels is as a collection of selectable 'home screens' that provide different types of funcionality and that can be developed by 3rd parties. Included panels on the X1 are the standard homescreen, one that is predominantly a clock (with some quick access buttons), an animated acquarium panel (with fish that change based on device notifications), one that is mainly a calendar (again with some quick access buttons), a media panel (with a familiar Sony / Sony Ericsson UI), a FM radio panel and a Google panel. I mentioned before that 3rd parties could develop panels, and in fact the Sony Ericsson site is already offering a 'SPB Mobile Shell' panel (completely free), which is arguably better than any of the included ones! I anticipate as the device launches and grows in popularity we'll see a number of additional panels appearing.
So far so good, but now the acid test... what's it like to use?
I should first point out that I have used the X1 in anger for a while now (after previously having used a Diamond / Touch Pro / Omnia), so I think I have a pretty good handle on the device. The software build is effectively final and although this is a C&J unit, the hardware is effectively final too.
First the hardware.
The screen is fabulous. Coming from a Diamond / Touch Pro, the extra size and wide aspect make an incredible difference and going back to either of those devices feels somewhat cramped. The screen is sharp, bright and certainly a benchmark. Great though the screen itself is however, the fact it is recessed and not flush is a real disappointment. It makes touch navigation and gestures a little bit difficult, and makes finger based usage akward for scrollbars and the like. The design decision seems a little odd given HTC's obvious competency with their Touch Devices. Another of my pet peeves with recessed screens is their tendency to get dirty and accumulate dust, which the X1 certainly is not immune to (I should point out that that's dust on the OUTSIDE (easily cleaned) not the inside!)
If the recessed screen is a little annoying, then the 'dpad' is a shocker. Unusually, the X1 features both a directional pad and an optical joystick. Regular readers will know i'm not a big fan of optical joysticks, although that said, I have got used to using the one on my Omnia now. On the X1 however, it is (IMHO) COMPLETELY useless. It is over sensitive, poorly placed and quite simply pointless. It does function as an action button though and thankfully the optical joystick functionality can be disabled in settings. No big deal as we have a real dpad right? Well, not exactly. Dpad down - fine. Dpad left - great. Dpad right - great. Dpad up - awful! I've used a couple of X1s now, and they all exhibit the same problem. The dpad has been set up in such a way that when you press the up key it does not click with the same level of definition as the other directions, and it is FAR too easy to accidentally press the action key at the same time. I still do it now even having got used to the device over a few weeks. Not good. The buttons for the soft keys are very small and quite stiff, but usable when you get used to them. The other keys are fine too, although I am still not 100% sure on the wisdom of dropping the 'Start' key in lieu of a button for the panels selector.
The power button on the top is well placed and has a definite 'click' to it which I do like, having used some devices recently (Omnia!) where the power button seems to lack definition. The volume buttons are little bit 'soft' in feel, but the camera button feels fine.
I mentioned previously the 'arc slider', which slides in an arc (duh!) to reveal the keyboard. It's an assisted ('sprung') slide and it's quite simply glorious. The keyboard springs open with the smoothness of a hot knife through butter and ends it's travel with a defined click. The mechanism has absolutey zero play in it, and if it can maintain that solidity over time, it will be quite an achievement. Compared with the disappointing slide mechanism on the Touch Pro, it's streets ahead.
And so to the keyboard itself, which I know has been the subject of much concern prior to release.
Is it the best keyboard ever? No. Is it the worst keyboard ever? No. When I first started using the device, I have to admit I didn't like the keyboard. The keys lack a really defined click, and the top row's proximity to the top of the device together with the curve means sometimes your thumbs will be against the screen part, which is a bit weird. But, you know, as i've lived with the device, the keyboard has grown on me. I like the offset keys, I like the Start and OK buttons, I like a dedicated @ key and I like that all the symbols I want to use generally are accessible without popping up the symbols panel. There does seem to be a slight software oddity in that the device will sometimes get stuck in FN mode even though it's not indicating as such, but I am hopeful that can be ironed out. The lack of arrow keys is a shame, not because I particularly MISS them, but more because I am loathed to have to move my hand back to that horrible dpad...
While we're talking about the hardware, let's give SE a short round of applause for the 3.5mm jack. I can plug my good set of headphones straight in and the sound quality is excellent. I can use the FM Radio panel too to get the radio controls on the homescreen and again the sound is good!
The camera on the device is good, as is the camera software. I feel like i've been a little spoilt by the Samsung Omnia's EXCELLENT camera implementation, compared to which the X1's implementation pales slightly, but it is still a good effort, and better IMHO than on HTC devices. The touch based spot focus (touch an area in the picture you want to focus on) works very well and is quite unique. The flash is as so-so as you would expect, but better than nothing! The camera software offers VGA video recording (sample below).
The notification LEDs are a neat and unusual touch, and I particularly like that they are customisable. If you don't want the charging LED for example, you can turn it off. Very nicely done! Check out the video below to see them in action...
How about the software then?
If we ignore 'panels' (we'll come to that next), then what we have here is a pretty standard WinMo build. That said, it's stable, fast and with plenty of memory and a speedy processor on hand it runs superbly. HTC's Task Manager and TouchFlo kinetic scrolling are useful additions and as a productivity device, the X1 is a great machine. Contrary to what we have seen on pre-release devices, the orientation switch on sliding out the keyboard is nice and quick and I personally have no complaints on that front.
WiFi works great, GPS works great, effectively everything seems to work as described and I can't honestly off of the top of my head think of any specific disappointments in the software. Yes, it's standard WinMo, but if you're comfortable with that (and on this kind of device with a hardware keyboard it works particularly well) then you'll be satisfied.
Battery life wise, I have been using the X1 as my main device, and have been getting about 2 days of use, which broadly matches what I get on the Touch Pro or the Omnia. Obviously it's got a lot more stamina than the Diamond... If I really hammer the device in a HSDPA area battery life drops to a day, but for me, that's OK.
Another significant addition is the inclusion of Opera 9.5. Browsing on a WVGA screen on a speedy device over 3G or WiFi is very nice indeed!
So to the panels.
Panels is a nice concept, the idea of having super-useful multiple home screens. While i'm a fan of TouchFlo 3D on the Diamond and Touch Pro, it is broadly speaking eye-candy, and a little bit fiddly in use. With panels, different panels can provide different functionality based on what you are doing at the time. I've witnessed this in my general use of the device to date. I use the SPB Mobile Shell panel a lot (it's a great all rounder), the Windows Mobile standard screen when I want the best at-a-glance information view, the FM radio panel when i'm out on my bike and one of the other panels when I want world time / RSS / quick access buttons etc. It's pretty nicely done, and has great potential as 3rd parties release their own panels. I have to confess to finding the Sony-style media panel a little disappointing... I would like TouchFlo 3D as a panel tho...
So there you have it, a catalogue of my thoughts on the X1. It's been very eagerly anticipated and now that it's here, it largely delivers (with a few caveats). There's a whole lot to love about the X1, but it does make me feel a little sad that a couple of (OK one?) niggle really overshadows my overall positive experience with the device.
I've been asked the same question many times, and that is 'Which next-gen device'? Sitting in front of me now I have the Omnia, the Diamond, the Touch Pro, the X1 and i've also spent some time with the Treo Pro. For me, it's a choice between the Omnia and the X1... yes - i'd take the X1 over the Touch Pro. Wo without realising it, I guess i've declared that the X1 is at least the new king of the keyboarded device tree, even if I am having trouble choosing between it and the Omnia for the overall crown!
I think the X1 will do well both here and over the pond and I am particularly interested to see how the additional brand kudos of Sony Ericsson helps drive sales in real retail channels (as I believe the Samsung name has helped shift a ton of Omnias). Having another big name on board the WinMo train is certainly a good thing.
Hats off then to Sony Ericsson (and HTC?), you've done a good job guys but PLEASE... don't make such a hash of the controls for the X2...
Paul's Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 Pros and Cons
- Great specs
- Great screen
- Gorgeous slider
- Solid build quality
- Innovative panels
- Unusual notification LEDs
- Brand kudos
- Hateful dpad
- Slightly squidgy keys
Sample camera pictures
£499.99 inc. delivery @ Play [aff]
From FREE on O2 @ Mobiles.co.uk [aff]
Launch hands-on (NOTE: Pre-release device!)