Sony Ericsson Xperia Active review: Sony Ericsson Xperia Active
The Xperia Active has a small screen but a robust design, decent camera and nippy processor that's perfect for adventure addicts.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active is a tough smart phone running Android 2.3. It's water-resistant and dustproof, and boasts microSD expansion and a 5-megapixel camera capable of shooting 720p HD video.
Contract prices for the Xperia Active weren’t available at the time this review was compiled, but SIM-free the phone will cost you around £250.
Should I buy the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active?
Most modern smart phones tend to conform to pretty rigid stereotypes. The race to produce the thinnest and lightest device shows no signs of abating, but it’s often forgotten that not everyone desires a svelte handset.
As the Motorola Defy proved a few months back, there’s room in the market for a smart phone that can withstand the rough and tumble of the outdoor world. The Xperia Active takes this to the next level, and small screen aside, it trumps Motorola's rugged Android phone in almost every regard.
It's chunky, but otherwise perfectly pocket sized. We're also impressed with the fact that it's running Android 2.3, as well as the latest version of Sony Ericsson's much-improved Timescape user interface.
Add in 720p video recording and a super-responsive touchscreen, which works even when covered in water, and you've got the dream smart phone for lovers of the great outdoors.
After a poor start with the Xperia X10, Sony Ericsson has been surprisingly quick to ensure its phones are running the latest version of Android. The Xperia Active comes with Gingerbread installed, and what's more, it's a very recent iteration -- 2.3.4, to be exact.
This update includes the ability to make video calls using the Google Talk app and the phone's front-facing camera, as well as other minor bug fixes and enhancements.
As well as Android 2.3, the Xperia Active is running a modified version of Sony Ericsson's own Timescape user interface. We've already seen this on the Xperia Ray and Xperia Arc S, and we came away very impressed with the improvements.
For example, the inclusion of swipe-to-type functionality in the onscreen keyboard is a real bonus. On the Active -- which has a quite a small display -- this proves to be invaluable. We also like the fact that you can now take a screenshot of your phone's display via a menu command. Apple's iPhone and iPod touch have boasted such a feature for ages, but very few Android devices have it.
Speaking of the small 3-inch screen, we're pleased to report Sony Ericsson has made some changes to the user interface to make it more manageable. The 'smart corners' concept -- first seen on the Xperia Mini -- is back with a vengeance, and it allows you to tag four different application shortcuts to each of the display's four corners.
It's a fantastic system that not only saves time, but makes the phone's UI feel more intuitive. You can have all of your communication shortcuts -- such as text messages, email and your dialer -- tied to the top-left corner, while your media links -- music, YouTube, gallery and camera -- can be pinned to the top-right.
That means you can have access to 16 different apps using the smart corners interface alone -- and that's not to mention the number of shortcuts and live widgets you can spread across the handset’s five home screens.
Like the Motorola Defy, the Xperia Active is a smart phone that has been designed to survive the trials and tribulations of the outdoor world. It has the coveted IP67 certification, which means that it’s water resistant and dustproof.
Unsurprisingly, this level of protection from the elements has resulted in a pretty chubby handset. While the Xperia Active isn't a beast in terms of overall size, its thickness is a whopping 16.5mm.
This is largely due to the three-stage battery cover, which is designed to keep out water and dust particles. The rubberised back cover reveals a secondary cover when it's removed, and this provides a watertight seal around the handset's delicate innards.
The USB socket and headphone port are protected by sealed covers when they're not in use. Impressively, the phone prompts you to check these covers are in place after you've removed your USB cable or headphones, to ensure they don't get left open accidentally.
While it's almost twice the thickness of the Samsung Galaxy S2, the Xperia Active doesn't feel like a porker. In fact, it rests quite comfortably in the hand, and will slip into most pockets without too much fuss.
We're slightly less keen on the fluorescent orange trim, which runs around the edge of the phone. It calls to mind some of the questionable design choices Sony Ericsson made when its Walkman phone range was first doing the rounds many moons ago.
While you're unable to rid yourself of that slightly obnoxious orange plastic, you can change the battery cover. The Xperia Active comes with a pearl white cover in the box, but it doesn't feel as rubberised as the black one. We preferred the default cover, but it's all down to personal preference.
It's also worth noting that the Xperia Active comes bundled with an armband accessory. During your outdoor pursuits you can insert the phone into this and view the screen through the transparent panel.
The Xperia Active's LED back-lit LCD screen has a resolution of just 320x480 pixels. However, this is crammed within a 3-inch panel, so the low resolution is less of an issue. It amounts to 192 pixels per inch, which is more than the 180ppi found on the Sony Ericsson Live with Walkman, but shy of the 233ppi on the Arc S.
Like the Xperia Arc S and Neo, the Active features Sony Ericsson's Mobile Bravia engine, which enhances the quality of the screen. The LCD panel is of a surprisingly decent quality, with excellent viewing angles, good colour balance and pleasing brightness.
As is the case with all of Sony Ericsson's Android devices, the Active uses a capacitive touchscreen. It's nippy and responsive, and furthermore, it works brilliantly even when wet. Most capacitive screens struggle when moisture is involved, but the Active's has been designed to operate even under the dampest conditions.
We were initially sceptical about this claim, but a quick dip in a bowl of water proved it to be accurate. Even when your finger is wet and the screen is covered in droplets, the responsiveness of the display doesn't falter.
Processing power and internal storage
Another pleasant surprise is that the Xperia Active is packing a 1GHz processor, backed by 512MB of RAM. Most rugged phones make a trade off, sacrificing technological grunt for durability, but the Active bucks that trend.
While a 1GHz CPU isn't groundbreaking when compared to dual-core monsters such as the LG Optimus 2X and HTC Sensation, it lends the phone a nippy and responsive feel. Much of this will be down to the fact that the chip is only having to deal with 320x480 pixels, rather than the 480x854 that the similarly-specced Xperia Play has to cope with.
The Xperia Active comes with just over 300MB of app storage to play with, and a 2GB microSD card. You can obviously replace this with a larger version if you feel the need, and the phone accepts cards of up to 32GB in size.
Camera and video recording
With a camera resolution of 5 megapixels, the Xperia Active has parity with the newly-announced Galaxy Nexus. However, as any digital photography expert will tell you, megapixels aren't everything.
The quality of the shots taken by the Xperia Active are decent enough, but they often lack colour and can seem a little dim. On the upside, there's autofocus capability (plus the power to control where you focus using the touchscreen) and a powerful LED flash.
Video recording fares better: 720p is on the cards (something that even the Samsung Nexus S couldn't muster) and the footage is decent. Having HD video capture on a phone of this type is fairly unusual, and it's sure to come in handy during some of your more daring outdoor excursions.
Connectivity and battery life
The Xperia Active ticks all of the important boxes when it comes to wireless connectivity. You've got your usual 3G and Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi access covers the b, g and n standards.
Battery life is a little disappointing, given the 'go anywhere' remit of the device. Like so many smart phones out there, you’ll probably need to charge it at least once a day. The danger here is that if you're on a camping trip, you may not have access to a power point.
Careful conservation of your battery power will naturally extend the stamina of the Xperia Active, but personally speaking, we'd have liked to have seen a larger capacity power cell than the 1,200mAh one included.
With Android 2.3, a highly responsive screen and all-weather work ethic, the Xperia Active is probably the best phone we've yet seen that is aimed at lovers of the outdoors.
For once, durability doesn't come at the expense of functionality. The Xperia Active's small 3-inch screen is the only aspect of the phone that you could accuse of being lacking when compared to its Sony Ericsson brethren, but everything else is either on par, or exceeds expectations.
Naturally, if you don't intend to test the Xperia Active's water and dust repellent powers, then you might be better off considering an alternative device, such as the Xperia Neo or Xperia Arc S. Both of these have larger displays and a less chunky profile, making them the more sensible choice for your average city dweller.
For those of you who heed the call of nature and want a smart phone with the ability to withstand whatever the world throws at you, then the Xperia Active is highly recommended.