Sony Ericsson has spent the year designing phones the way a kid's party entertainer reshapes balloons. Starting with the same basic hardware, Sony Ericsson has now made four different Xperia-branded handsets, the latest of which is the Ray. At 111mm in height and 53mm wide, it makes the Ray the smallest of the Xperia family by quite a margin, with its screen shrunk to a petite 3.3 inches diagonally.
Despite its size, the screen is gorgeous to look at, using the same Reality tech and no air-gap construction that we saw on the, this display is sharp with excellent colour and contrast. It's a shame then that it is so small compared with other phones in this price range. Typing using the virtual keyboard is especially difficult, with the tiny keys disappearing under our thumbs with every keystroke. Sony Ericsson does have the foresight to replace the keyboard with a T9-style keypad when the phone is held in a portrait orientation, which is a minor bonus.
The physical design of the Ray is strongly reminiscent of last year's X10, only smaller. It has the same monolithic squareness about it, with a nice feel in the hand. We like the large physical Home button below the screen, and we're impressed with how attractive Sony Ericsson continues to make its handsets this year.
On the surface, the user interface (UI) used in the Ray seems to be the same one used in other Xperia releases in 2011, but on closer inspection it reveals a few neat new tricks. Sony Ericsson has enhanced the software's Facebook integration, giving users more places around the phone to update their statuses with relevant information, like which music track they are listening to, for example. There is also the Facebook-powered "Friends Music and Video" app, which aggregates all the music tracks and YouTube videos that have been linked to you by friends using Facebook.
There are also some quirky new animations that give the UI a lift and help it to feel more alive. If you use a pinching gesture on the home screen you'll enter an Overview mode, showing all of your active home-screen widgets. In this latest version, the icons in Overview mode swim slowly across the screen, giving this simple tool a fun, cartoony feel. You can see an example of this in the review video above.
One of the features that sets the Xperia Ray apart from all the other phones on the market at this time, including its Xperia brethren, is that the Ray is the first handset to include Sony's Video Unlimited video streaming service, offering 9000 movies to buy and download, or rent and stream over the web.
The layout of this service on the phone is superb, with clear image-centric menus and good filtering options to help with the discovery of new titles. Combined with Sony's Music Unlimited music streaming service, the Ray delivers a lot of media to your fingertips.
This is where it gets controversial, again. All year we've heard about the many benefits of Sony Ericsson's new Exmor-R image sensors, with its focus on low-light image capture, but we've yet to see this translate into images we could be proud of. The Ray's camera is slightly better than those in the other Xperias, with some great colour captured, but still falling short of the high bar set by competitors Samsung and HTC, in our opinion. You'll find that the photos you take look fantastic on the phone's screen but appear soft in focus and full of image artefacts when viewed on a PC screen or uploaded to a favourite social network. But why is this?