Sony Ericsson’s Xperia X10: Different is good. VERY good.

Sony Ericsson’s Xperia X10 is quite a special device. While the Android phone market continues to expand at an exponential rate, device manufacturers and carriers continue to search for ways to differentiate their products, in hopes of not only pulling in new customers, but also keeping the ones they already have. Some hit the mark (Samsung’s Galaxy S series comes to mind); others have not been so lucky. There is, however, a third group; a group much smaller than the other 2 because its members do things a bit differently. This group is made up of companies that don’t follow the standards set by other companies, or even the industry itself; they follow what feels right to them. The particular member of this group that I’ll be talking about in this article is Sony Ericsson, and they’ve created a mobile device that not only redefines what an Android phone is, but may also redefine the company: The Xperia X10.

Let’s get something out of the way: Human nature kind of sucks. I mention this because human nature dictates that we’re more likely to point out things that we don’t like more than things that we do; we’re also big on pointing out what something doesn’t have rather than what it does–and journalists are more guilty of this than anyone. The problem with this (aside from the obvious) is that sometimes we focus so much on the individual parts of a device, (the screen, the processor, what version of the OS it runs) we forget about how the device works as a whole; to do that with Xperia X10 would not only do the phone a disservice, but you’d also miss out on what makes this device so special. Let’s start with the hardware itself:

Sony Ericsson set out to create a phone that neither looks nor behaves like anything else out there–and having spent a great deal of time with the device, I’d have to say…mission accomplished. Its piano-black front is both simple and elegant–I’ll be using the word “elegant” a lot in this review. The rubberized matte-black backing of the phone not only feels good to the touch, but is also slightly convex, which does feel more comfortable in the hand. Though the phone measures in at 4.7 inches tall and 2.5 inches wide, it’s still fairly light at under 5 oz–but don’t let its light weight fool you; the phone feels solid and the quality of build is obvious. The X10 also makes good use of its dimensions. Though roughly the same size as the iPhone 4, (just slightly thicker) the Xperia sports a full 4″ TFT capacitive touchscreen. Now, let’s get another thing out of the way: The Xperia X10 does not have multitouch; because the hardware isn’t setup for it, you also won’t be able to get multitouch on this device through a software upgrade. Much has been made about the omission of this feature and I’m about to tell you something that you need to hear: I don’t miss it. Would it have been nice if the feature was included? Of course…but remember what I said at the beginning of this article–this phone is greater than the sum of its parts and I had no problem using any of its features without the pinch-to-zoom that we’re used to. The zoom buttons on the touchscreen did their job quite well; the X10 also helps itself by having a screen that’s quite responsive–you may not be able to use multiple finger gestures, but it’s very responsive to input.

You’ll also notice that the phone has 3 fixed buttons on its face as opposed to the typical Android 4 button layout; the buttons are also mechanical, as opposed to the touch variety many other phones use. I actually enjoyed the mechanical buttons; touchscreen-only phones have become so popular, you sometimes forget how satisfying it is to actually press something now and then–I also enjoyed the subtle LED glow that bled through between the buttons. You get the standard Back, Home and Contextual buttons, but gone is the Search button; again, not something I particularly missed. Most phones (especially Android devices) give you so many search options in so many places, not having one on the front of the phone was actually kind of nice.

Though you may notice the typical camera lens and LED light on the back of the X10, the camera functionality is anything but typical.┬áTaking some tech from the Sony side of the family, the 8.1 megapixel equipped Xperia X10 is hands-down the best phone camera I’ve ever used. Yes, the iPhone is darn good as well, but the X10 felt like I was using an actual camera. The dedicated camera button has the 2 step functionality that most point-and-shoots do, letting you focus just as you would with a dedicated camera. The X10 also features face recognition; it will lock onto up to 5 faces and even sports smile detection if you enable it in the menu. If you actually name the people in your pictures, the Mediascape software will arrange future pictures of that person in its own folder…but more on that later. The picture quality is great and the use of the volume rocker for zoom control while in camera mode is a nice touch. Though videos taken with the Xperia are not HD, (though we’re promised that they will be once Android 2.1 hits this phone) the video quality still looks amazing–and this brings us right back to the screen. While many of the newer smartphones support 16 million colors, the X10 supports 65k colors right now–(this could also increase when 2.1 hits) but you’d never know it; this is a vibrant display that attracts attention whenever I use it. Part of the reason for this is obviously the tech inside of the device; the other part can be credited to Sony Ericsson’s elegant interface–we’ll get to that interface in a minute. Along with the excellent camera, I found the browser to be fast and intuitive; Google Maps also worked perfectly, catching signals with its internal GPS both indoors and outdoors. Finishing off the hardware, let’s address a feature often ignored by many companies…the phone itself. I’ve owned many Sony Ericsson devices over the years (I still keep my p910a tucked away neatly in its box) and have always thought that Sony Ericsson phones were some of the best sounding on the market; this attention to aural quality also benefits the media player when either listening to music or watching videos. Both the earpiece and speakerphone are crystal clear and people on the other end of the line have never had a problem hearing me. Kudos to the folks at Sony Ericsson for remembering that some people still use their mobile phones to make calls. And now, the software and interface…

Ahhh, the interface. Sony Ericsson was very smart in the way they marketed this phone. If you do some searching on the Sony Ericsson website, you won’t find that many Android references; yes, this phone uses an Android operating system, but it’s far from your typical “Android” device. The X10 takes many of the things that make Android great and incorporates them into the phone…but it’s not obvious. What is obvious, is how Sony Ericsson has gone beyond simply “reskinning” an Android device; they’ve taken the basic bones of Android and built an entirely new experience that looks and behaves like nothing you’ve ever seen. Gone is the clutter and bloatware you see packed into so many of today’s devices; you still have Android apps that come with the device and many more that you can download from the Marketplace, but they don’t overwhelm you. The user interface is incredible cutting edge, yet remains simple and accessible; the standard electric-blue background allows everything else on the screen to stand out by contrast and adds to the clean, minimalist look. Of course, form would be nothing without function–and this is where the Xperia X10 really excels. Sony Ericsson has truly created something special with Timescape and Mediascape; the way the Xperia manages and merges your contacts, as well as social and personal media is nothing short of brilliant.

Touching the Timescape icon takes all recent interactions with people in your contact list, (including emails, texts, Tweets and Facebook updates) and arranges them using virtual tiles in a vertical configuration on your phone (looking at the above photo should give you an idea of what I mean). Flicking your finger vertically lets you scroll through this list (which is arranged chronologically) to see all of your recent communications; if you have a picture associated with the contacts on your phone, the picture shows on the tile–Timescape even pulls photos from your contacts’ Facebook accounts and will use that picture on their tile without you having to do anything. Timescape also has a filter that let’s you sort your communications; a horizontal flick of your finger lets you view ┬ájust your Facebook updates, just your emails, texts…you get the idea. Touching any of the tiles lets you bring that contact front and center, along with your most recent message. Now, the fun part: There’s a small infinity symbol in the upper-right-hand corner of every tile called the–you guessed it– “infinite” button. Touching this button will give you access to EVERYTHING pertaining to this person–emails, texts, even photos that you took that were tagged using face recognition! Gone are the days of fumbling through old emails just to find the correct one from the right person; now, a touch of the infinite button brings you everything you have from anyone…and it’s incredible.

Mediascape does for your pictures, music and videos, what Timescape does for your contacts. Your music, videos and pictures are all put in their own sections and are further sorted by Most Recent, Most Played and Favorites. There are also subcategories within your folders that allow to view your media even more specifically. Though touching the infinite button in Photos gives a similar result to what happens in Timescape, touching the button with your Music will not only give you access to all of the music you have on your phone from that particular artist, it also searches the web and YouTube for music and videos relating to that artist; Mediascape not only gives you control of all of the media on your phone, it allows you access to everything the web has to offer when it comes to your music.

Before we wrap things up, I have to address one more thing that’s been getting some negative attention–the Xperia X10 ships with Android version 1.6. Admittedly, this puts the X10 3 versions behind the most recent Android version…2.2 Froyo. But what does this really mean? The great thing about software is that you can update it with the push of a button–certainly this is no fatal flaw. More important than the actual Android version that ships with the phone is the perception that goes along with it. Does shipping with 1.6 make Sony Ericsson seem behind the times? Was the phone outdated before it even hit the market? Answer: No and No. Version 2.1 will be available for the Xperia family of phones starting in October; the original mid-September date has been pushed a bit. As for Sony Ericsson being behind the times, it’s very hard to think of a manufacturer that makes phone this good as being behind the times. There’s more to releasing Android updates than just rolling them out; because Sony Ericsson is a World phone manufacturer, they not only deal with different carriers, they deal with multiple regions, each requiring separate negotiations and coding. There’s also the hardware issue; different regions means different hardware, and that has to get taken into account as well. If it sounds like I’m defending Sony Ericsson a bit, perhaps I am; because of what I do, I have access to people and information the average person may not, and I can tell you from my conversations with the folks at SE that they’re taking this transition to Android phones quite seriously–they also take great pride in their customer service. Taking a trip to the Sony Ericsson website will show you a recent blog updating not only when an Android update can be expected, but exactly how the process works…it was a nice touch and a smart way for Sony Ericsson to communicate with its customers.

Is the Xperia X10 perfect? Of course not…nothing is. I think the overall speed of the phone can be notched up a bit (Android 2.1 should take care of that) and there is definitely room for improving the interface for making calls. As with any gadget that brings us new functionality, there is a slight learning curve–that’s to be expected. What’s not expected? That Sony Ericsson’s first Android offering is not only good, it’s special; I’ve always thought highly of Sony Ericsson’s phones over the years, but this is something I never saw coming–and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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