In a smartphone market saturated with 3.5-inch and larger displays, Sony Ericsson reckons there's still a little place for petite packages. Enter the Xperia X10 Mini (E10i) and Mini Pro (U20i) -- both direct descendants of the beastly X10 Android 1.6 handset. Apart from the Pro's slide-out keyboard, removable battery, and positioning of various features, the two Minis are otherwise internally identical -- same processor, same camera, and same screen. So can these cute baby form factors offer more than just some palm-cuddling time? Can we get a decent smartphone performance out of them? Follow us after the break to find out.Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini / Mini Pro review
As we pointed out earlier, the X10 Mini and Mini Pro share identical guts: Qualcomm MSM7227 600MHz processor (as featured on the Legend, Aria, HD Mini and MyTouch 3G Slide), 2.55-inch 240 x 320 LCD capacitive touchscreen, 5 megapixel autofocus camera, microSD expansion, micro-USB port, FM radio, A-GPS, Bluetooth (with A2DP), and 802.11b/g WiFi. Phew! Now what really differentiates the two models is the Mini Pro's slide-out QWERTY keyboard -- we dig its tactile feedback and spacing between the keys, although it did take some getting used to with the oddly-positioned shift key, and not to mention the non-offset rows of keys. To pack all this goodness, the Mini Pro therefore has a slightly longer and thicker body (we measured 18mm vs 16mm), but both devices feel just as good and secure in our hands thanks to SE's signature "human curvature" design.
Those who are super picky with their phone's color may be somewhat limited by their choice of carrier -- there are six options in total for the Mini: metallic red (our favorite), lime, pearl white, black, glossy silver and glossy pink (not so hot on the last two); Orange UK only stocks black and lime, for example. On the other hand, the Mini Pro only comes in black, pearl white or red (the latter two not pictured), and no, you can't fit the Mini's shells onto the Mini Pro due to the different sizes and button layouts. Even if the cases were swappable, we wouldn't be keen on doing so on a regular basis -- from time to time prying them open was as difficult as picking warts off our feet.
Over the last few days we've become rather fond of the Mini Pro's right-side button layout -- the wider camera button's more accessible, and the further-distanced volume rocker is positioned much closer to where our right thumb rests. Just to confuse us reviewers, the micro-USB port and headphone jack are situated rather differently on the two devices -- the Mini's got both on the bottom side (with a soft flap covering the USB port), whereas the Mini Pro's got the micro-USB port on the left and the headphone jack on the top. Due to the way we hold these phones, we found that having the headphones plugged in at the bottom of the Mini to be a bit intrusive for our palm. Another tick for the Mini Pro.
Moving on to the big question: can we really get much use out of Android on that tiny 2.55-inch LCD? Well, for starters, these low screen resolution devices suffer from the same app compatibility problem as the HTC Wildfire, so you'll be missing out on a small selection of popular apps like Robo Defense, WeatherBug, PdaNet, Tumblroid, and even our own Engadget app (but there's always the mobile site). Obviously, we wouldn't recommend using the small screen for car navigation, but otherwise Google Maps is still usable for more casual purposes. Additionally, not only were these screens fairly usable outdoors, but they were also no doubt one of the main reasons for the excellent battery life -- we got around 12 hours from our usual stamina test (continuous music playback, 3G data connection only, the occasional camera usage, and Twicca running in the background). The average user could easily get up to two days worth of usage on one charge.
Let's talk about using the Minis as actual phones. Like most SE phones these days, the X10 Mini and Mini Pro are blessed with a good quality isolation-type handsfree kit -- great clarity and decent amount of bass for your music. Sadly, we also discovered that the kit's mic induced an echo for our own voice during calls, and it didn't do well in noisy environments. On the other hand, the phone's own mic did a much better job in the same scenarios, but we wouldn't go as far as saying it's a total noise-killer. While on the topic, we were also saddened that the mic's button could only pause music and not skip tracks. Come on, SE, show us some love!
Judging by our readers' frenzied comments on Android posts, it's pretty clear that we all desire something much newer than Android 1.6 these days, but let's not forget that SE's promised us a 2.1 upgrade for both Minis in Q4 this year. That's better than nothing. Meanwhile, we applaud SE for the work it's put in to make Android usable and run smoothly on this small package, albeit the occasional slow wake up. There are a couple of related key features here: first we have the zoom bar in the album app -- you hold down your finger to prompt the bar, and then you can zoom in and out with your vertical scrolling action. This is of course a way to disguise the lack of pinch-to-zoom functionality, but it actually works pretty well as a single-handed operation on a small device anyway. Secondly, there's the quick scroll tool in the browser -- you activate it by clicking on the bottom-left button, and then you're given a magnifying glass on a zoomed-out view of the web page, thus allowing you to quickly scroll around; there are also the good ol' plus and minus buttons la Google Maps for plain zooming.
On top of the usual software package (including photo viewer, video viewer, email client, music player, etc.), you also get a 30-day trial of Wisepilot car navigation app, NeoReader barcode scanner, TrackID music identifier (SE's version of Shazam), PlayNow online store, and Timescape. The Mini Pro also has an extra app called Creatouch that lets you create some funky artwork, and then use them as wallpaper or share them on Facebook or Picasa. Let's start off with the music player: the playback controls at the bottom should be self-explanatory, while your library's just one click away with the top left button, and you get the "now playing" list with the top right button. The infinity button above the album art loads up relevant YouTube videos and PlayNow tracks -- gimmicky, but a fun feature. In case you've never come across it, PlayNow is SE's very own content delivery system that offers Java apps, games and music. The prices aren't attractive when compared to the likes of iTunes and Amazon, but PlayNow's there if you're super bored and desperate.
We've already briefly touched upon the gallery app earlier and there really isn't much else to talk about it -- it just works. As for the video player, the only caveat is that it doesn't play 720p and above video clips, so make sure you have the right settings when converting MP4 clips to watch on the go. In fact, now that to think of it, PlayNow would be pretty awesome if it also offers video downloads. Anyway, let's move on to Timescape: as featured on the X10, this app is pretty much SE's take on HTC's FriendStream, letting you stalk your friends and strangers from Twitter, Facebook and text messages in the style of a vertical timeline. You can also link up your Twitter and Facebook contacts with your Google contacts through Timescape, but for some reason you can't do the same in the address book -- in that sense (no pun intended), HTC does a better job at social networking service integration.
Worried about typing on the X10 Mini's numpad-style virtual keyboard? It actually wasn't too bad for us, which says a lot since we're accustomed to other smartphones' QWERTY keyboards. Text prediction on both phones worked well most of the time, and we could also easily add customized words on the spot; if you prefer, you can quickly switch to the old-fashioned multitap input. Still, we'd favor the Mini Pro's physical QWERTY keyboard for speedier typing, even if it means we'd be carrying a slightly heavier package -- a hefty 1.1 ounces extra. Regardless of the input type, though, we did spot a common bug: while minding our usual Twitter business in Twicca, we noticed that the text cursor -- also a unique SE feature -- could only travel back by a certain number of characters, meaning we couldn't fix any previous typos. Hopefully this would be a quick fix for SE.
Last but not least, we have the SE PC Companion for Windows. This is essentially a gateway to four tools: Media Go for syncing media files, Support Zone for keeping your phone up to date, Sony Ericsson Sync (beta) for syncing personal data with SE's website (great for users migrating from other SE featurephones), and File Manager that just opens up your phone's microSD card in a new window. Of course, the highlight here is Media Go -- most other Android handsets lack a full desktop media sync suite, so we were pretty stoked with SE's offering. That said, it'd be even more awesome if Media Go could also optimize video files for the phones, rather than just copying files across.
Both Minis come with a handy two-stage camera button, meaning not only is it easy to launch the app, but you can also focus the lens by holding it down half way (and no, you can't tap to focus on a specific area). There's not much to be fiddled with in the camera app -- the top left corner toggles auto flash mode or no flash; the top right corner switches between photo mode and camcorder mode; the bottom right corner lets you pick a still camera mode (auto, macro, twilight or sports) or video mode (normal or MMS); and the bottom left corner opens your gallery. That's all. In other words, you cannot adjust the picture quality, resolution (5 megapixel stills and 640 x 480 videos) and file format. Regardless, both phones produced equally beautiful pictures and sufficiently good videos in well-lit surroundings, while images taken in the dark don't suffer too badly from noise. As always, we'll let your eyes be the final judge. Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini / Mini Pro sample shots
The X10 Mini and Mini Pro turn out to be a couple of uniquely loveable Android phones. Despite the smaller screens, SE has done a pretty good job at optimizing the interface for the two phones, and we've had little frustration with them except for the few missing apps. As for which of the two to go after, we'd go for the Pro without hesitation -- sure, it's a tad heavier, thicker and more expensive, but we'd kill for a QWERTY keyboard any day. Even if your favorite carrier can't offer the Mini you want, you'd still benefit from the same useful multimedia features, as well as SE's handy Media Go suite to sync your media files with your computer -- a service that most other Android phones fail to deliver. So it's safe to say that if you're looking for a small and affordable smartphone, chances are you'd want to grab yourself either of these Minis.