Sony Ericsson Xperia Active
28th Nov 2011 | 14:17
Android for the exercising socialite
Overview, design and feel
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active is one of those odd phones that can survive underwater, help you lose weight and update your social networks, all in one go. But is it actually a decent mobile too?
Sony Ericsson's released a boat load of different Android smartphones this year. We've had two versions of its huge 4.2-inch Xperia Arc flagship, mid-range options such as the excellent Xperia Ray and Neo, plus the smaller Xperia Mini and Mini Pro for those on a tight pocket-space budget.
The Xperia Active sits somewhere at the lower end of that lot. You get a 3-inch capacitive Bravia Engine touchscreen running at 320 x 480 resolution, along with a 5MP camera with LED flash and the ability to record video at 720p resolution.
It's all stuffed in a dust and water-resistant case - plus a few health apps pre-loaded. And there's a stretchy armband in the box for wearing it at the gym, or just keeping it safe.
Prices for the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active, at the time of reviewing, start at around £240 to buy an unlocked model, with monthly contracts available from around £20 depending on how many included minutes and texts you require.
This makes the Active a relatively modest cheaper option in this age of dual-core monster phones, plus you get water and dust resistance as a bonus.
The phone's certainly interesting to look at, with its lightweight brushed metallic surround and bright orange band making it look like an odd blend of mobile phone, kitchen utensil and emergency flotation device. The volume, camera and power buttons sit in the orange plastic bit, so are rather lightweight and flimsy - but that's your trade-off for having water resistance.
The screen is a 3-inch capacitive model that's very responsive and never misses a touch, plus Sony Ericsson claims it has "wet finger tracking" so you can use the thing while it and your hands are both soaking wet. And yes, you can.
As with Sony Ericsson's Xperia Arc and the rest of its 2011 lineup, the screen also uses the company's Bravia Engine and Reality Display technology...
There are no physical buttons on the face of the Active, just three capacitive touch buttons along the bottom - for Back, Home and Menu - with the Active responding to touches of these pretend buttons perfectly and without lag.
There is also a custom camera shutter button on the bottom-right edge, but it's a pretty rubbish one. It does feature a two-stage press for focusing then pressing harder to shoot, but it's rather tiny and plasticky, so it's all a bit vague.
At least there's an LED flash around the back, plus the sensor is deeply recessed into the case, giving it a little protection against scratches and general grime.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active's chunky body feels good in the hand, thanks to its curved, rubbery back. One-handed use is straightforward, with the touch buttons high up enough for easy access, and the phone feels nicely balanced. It's not one you'll worry about dropping.
The outdoor credentials are hinted at by the Active's USB connector and headphone jack, which are placed on the bottom edge of the phone, hidden behind fat rubber doors that seal them shut and keep water out.
Take the back off and you get more reassurance that the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active can survive a few seconds in the toilet. There's a secondary back cover inside the outer case, which sits snugly over the top of the internal bits and does indeed keep it watertight.
It's an odd-looking little handset. The orange plastic gives it a bit of a toy town appearance, but the silvery button icons and curved, rubberised back just about bring it back into smart gadget territory.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active arrives running Android 2.3.4, with Sony Ericsson applying its usual user interface over the top.
Again, the Active sits somewhere in the middle of the company's 2011 mobile phone range, taking the 'four corners' icon system we saw working to such great effect on the Xperia Mini and Mini Pro and teaming it with the Android 2.3.4 software, which has all the same options and nuances found in the much larger Xperia Arc S.
The basic system is Android as usual - five scrolling Home pages that take a mixture of app shortcuts, icons and live widgets...
...and if that's not enough space for all your app shortcuts, Sony Ericsson has stuck a collapsing icon slot in the corner of the screen, each of which can hold an additional four app-launching icons.
Editing these links is simple. Long-pressing on an icon enables you to bin it or pull it out and drop it on to the Home screen. Or, if you're browsing the phone's app listings, holding one of those enables you to pull it into a vacant corner slot.
There's another new little app-dragging feature that arrived in Sony Ericsson's 2.3.4 software update - Facebook sharing. When dragging an icon, a little blue pull-down tab appears along the top of the screen, letting you drop the icon on to it and generate a Facebook status update with a link to the app's Android Market listing.
Sony Ericsson has also included folder support for quite some time. Dragging one app on top of another leads the phone to assume you want to make a folder, so up pops a folder, along with the option to give it a name.
There are also plenty of widgets on the Xperia Active, which are Android's way of adding interactive content to your Home pages. The Favourites & Call Log above is one of the best options, pulling out your favourite contacts and sticking their icons into a grid, with a separate tab showing recent calling activity.
It's well worth donating a Home screen to it, if you're a big user of today's smartphone's legacy phoning features.
If you're not impressed by Sony Ericsson's slightly bland visual approach, there are a few Themes to jazz it up. They're little more than wallpapers that change the Home screen background and add a subtle effect to the Menu pages, but it's a useful option.
And, of course, the phone supports Android's animating Live Wallpapers, although only one, Google's Maps background, comes pre-loaded. It worked without crunching up the phone or causing any drop in performance.
Contacts and calling
The Contacts section of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active is the same as those found in the rest of Sony Ericsson's 2011 Android smartphone range, combining your standard massive list of everyone you've ever met with a few clever new Facebook social features.
As well as taking contact details from your SIM card and Gmail account, the phone will pull in all your friends from Facebook and Twitter, should you sign in with those accounts, magically populating your phone with everyone you've ever exchanged an internet wisecrack with.
These can be filtered, fortunately, so it's possible to remove all Facebook and Twitter imports from view with one toggle button touch, or you can have the phone-only display details for those accounts that have actual phone numbers associated with them.
The Contacts page for each person varies depending on how they came about being on your phone. Facebook and Twitter imports will have simple pages with read-only data, so there's no pulling in Stephen Fry and Adam Buxton from Twitter and seeing their home numbers pop up in your mobile.
Those people with phone numbers you've legally obtained will have a more comprehensive personal listing, where you can edit their details, add instant messaging accounts, set specific ringtones for when they call, add custom fields for real-world addresses, email addresses and more.
You can also send individuals straight to voicemail through a toggle on their contact page. Sorry, mum.
One of Sony Ericsson's bigger Android tweaks is hidden in this section, with any contacts that have Facebook accounts associated with them getting their own mini Facebook tab within your contacts area. The Xperia Active downloads photos of your friend, presenting you with a miniature Facebook listing within the contacts area - complete with their 'interests' data from the social site.
Calling quality is good. The earpiece is loud and clear, with calls coming across bright and natural-sounding.
There's a second mic around the back of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active, which gives the phone noise-suppression abilities to make calling clearer still. It can be toggled on and off in the Call Settings, depending on if you like the way it alters the audio output. It's not a big change.
The dialler is pretty plain, giving you a quick access tab along the bottom for accessing the call log, your entire list of contacts or the shorter list of Favourites compiled of people who you've starred within the main contacts area.
Text messaging is a simple threaded affair, with Sony Ericsson giving your SMS messages an inoffensive skin based around straightforward little speech bubbles.
If you're attaching an image to an SMS message, the phone will automatically resize it to something less than 300k, to ensure it's accepted across all networks. It does the same with video, too, either pulling up the editor for you to trim and recompress an existing clip, or setting the video camera to its lowest of the low setting to record a clip right there and then, should you select 'Record Video' from the text attachment menu.
Text input is via the bland default QWERTY keyboard, which, on a 3-inch screen, requires quite a bit of patience and accuracy to use reliably. Also, the low-ish screen resolution makes the keyboard look a little murky and last generation.
There's the option of choosing a phone keypad, though, which makes much better use of the screen size, also including predictive text input. Or, if you're happy using both, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active can be set up to use the QWERTY when the phone's being used in landscape mode, and the keypad when it's in portrait. Or vice versa, but that would be silly.
One of the big new additions Sony Ericsson has made to its Android 2.3.4 update that's here on the Active, also on the Arc S and is gradually filtering out to all of its 2011 Android phones, is its line-drawing keyboard.
A complete clone of the popular Swype, this lets you forget about the limitations of using a QWERY keyboard on a 3-inch screen, and start writing by linking letters of words together without lifting your finger off the screen. It's a great little feature that, once you've got the hang of it, speeds up typing time and greatly reduces typos.
Although, instead of typos, you often find it inserts entirely the wrong word altogether. So you may find it just a different kind of annoying.
But if you do need to edit some text, Android's tab system is in here. Touching a text input box brings up a little tab you can use to drag the cursor around, easily correcting all your errant uses of 'teh'.
Email is handled via a standalone app, which supports POP3, IMAP and MS Exchange ActiveSync accounts - plus there's a Combined Inbox for displaying all your important communications about herbal aphrodisiacs in one convenient place.
Sony Ericsson's done a great job of making the email app look pretty, giving it a clever scrolling preview pane that can be pulled about on the fly and sized to your preference.
If you're a power emailer, there are options to set the mail checking frequency to protect your battery, apply a custom ring tone to each account. Plus you can have it delete messages from the mail server itself on an account basis.
Internet browsing's always going to be a bit of a compromise on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active's 3-inch screen, with the low-ish 320 x 480 resolution meaning this is one of the less impressive phones for web use in Sony Ericsson's range.
Text is a little rough compared to high-res phones such as the Xperia Arc, but the good news is that the 1GHz processor does a decent job of drawing pages, with pages appearing and building quickly. The Xperia Active supports multi-touch zooming for two-fingered page scrolling, with a double-tap of a lump of text automatically pulling in the view and reflowing it to fit the screen for easy reading.
The Xperia Active can also manage Flash sites, with embedded videos working well. There's quite an impact on scrolling and zooming when there's too much Flash nonsense happening on the screen, but it's still good to see full Flash in here.
The Android browser is a simple thing, really, with common bookmarking and history lists accessed via the tab that sits beside the URL bar. Touch this and you head into a bland world of your Bookmarks, History and Most Visited pages.
There's much more functionality behind the Menu button, with Android enabling users to set their preferences for page zooming, font sizes, turning various media content on and off, disabling plug-ins and so on. So it looks simple, but there's enough in here for proper web nerds to make the phone their own.
Android's link-sharing tool is a great highlight, with a couple of presses enabling you to share URLs via email, ping them to Twitter and Facebook, and indeed send them into any compatible apps you've installed on the phone. You can even send a link to the Home screen, where it'll appear as an icon that instantly opens up the site.
Text management is another area where Android has really come on in recent versions. Long-pressing a chunk of text brings up a pair of tabs, which can be slid about to select a paragraph of copy. Tapping the highlighted area then copies it to the clipboard.
The camera app is the same as we've seen on all of Sony Ericsson's Android smartphones this year. The default option is to sense scenes automatically with its Scene Recognition option, but toggle that off and you can manually pick from the usual modes such as Landscape, Portrait, Party, Sports, Beach and Snow, and one specifically for capturing text called Document.
You also get the same 2D and 3D Sweep Panorama tool in here that also featured on the Xperia Arc S and will soon arrive via software updates on Sony Ericsson's other phones. It attempts to piece together a super-wide shot either horizontally or vertically, resulting in massive pictures that are stitched together very well indeed.
It's a right pain to make work, though, with endless error messages complaining you're moving too fast or slow, plus half-broken shots full of grey areas appearing.
SWEEP PANORAMA:If you can put up with its eccentricities and don't mind taking shots six or seven times, it does a good job of capturing wider scenes.
MACRO MODE:The macro does a good job, too, letting you capture all manner of tiny detail.
LANDSCAPE:The Xperia Active's camera is good at capturing the general mood of a scene, with light and dark coming across well. But detail's not great when pics are viewed at full size on a desktop, with organic features turning to mush and losing some sharpness.
ZOOM: There's a digital zoom that really flies in, but there's a big drop in quality.
PORTRAIT:But face shots are great. Red-eye isn't much of a problem, plus the Active seems to like capturing human skin tones more than brighter colours.
FLASH: The flash is a bit aggressive. It's fast and the camera manages to focus well enough in low light, but we found it produced super-bright results when the LED fired.
INDOOR: Again, with the flash active, indoor shots are rather harsh.
Elsewhere, you can turn off the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active's shutter sound effect completely, toggle its digital image stabilisation on or off, plus there's a self-timer, the option to completely turn off the touchscreen shutter button if you're a bit clumsy, and a nice slide-in gallery of recent photos.
It's also very fast to use, firing off shots quickly without lag. In low light it'll take a little longer to focus, but you still feel the camera's generally quick and responsive.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active can record videos at up to 720p resolution, which it dumps to your SD card in MP4 format. The LED flash can be left on permanently, too, if you're into filming badgers at night.
As with the Xperia Arc S, there's a crazy 16x digital zoom in here that can be used while recording clips, but zoom in any more than two or three times and it makes a right mess of the resulting images.
The video camera app is largely the same as when taking stills, with manual white balance options, Centre Average or Spot metering, a self-timer, the option to not bother recording sound and a digital image stabiliser.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active has a good autofocus system when recording clips, usually managing to focus on the subject after a couple of seconds. If you're not a fan of continual focusing you can select fixed Infinity focus, or stick it on constant face detection.
Videos are pretty good. At maximum resolution, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active produces smooth results, with the desktop VLC Player app telling us the frame rates are a constant 29fps.
It's not the sharpest or clearest footage in the world, though. As with the still camera, some background details get rather overlooked, with trees and grass interpreted as vague smudges.
There's a rudimentary video editing tool hidden away in the Gallery, which enables you to trim the start and end point of your clips. But that's all it does.
What you get here for your music and video playing fun is not much more than the usual Android basics, given a visual tweak and with a few interesting social networking features grafted on.
Clicking the Like button does as you would expect, generating a link with artist and track details for you to spam out to the social site...
...while its infinite button performs a quick search of YouTube, Wikipedia and more, letting you idly browse for more facts and tracks from whoever's currently playing on your phone.
Playlist support is, again, your usual Android standard. The phone sorts your music by Artists, Albums and Tracks, with a long-press on any song enabling you to add it to an existing playlist or build a new one right there and then. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active also automatically generates a Most Played, filters out any recently added songs and also displays ones you've never listened to.
There's also a graphic equaliser that, for once, doesn't require the listener to have headphones plugged in, which has a small effect on the sound quality. The external speaker is loud, too, enough to make you thoroughly embarrassed should you turn it on in a public place.
The Home screen Music widget is a simple and quite stylish option, which enables you to play/pause and skip tracks without opening up the app, although there are no controls within the Android Notifications pane or on the lock screen. But the headphones Sony Ericsson chucks in the box do contain a play/pause toggle, so users can pause their tunes without having to fumble with the phone.
As with the numerous other Sony Ericsson Android smartphones, video playback is a little disappointing. There's no DivX support, so all you can manage here by default are MP4 format files. And that awful grey box up there is Android's standard video player, which really, really needs a bit of cosmetic work.
If you need and enjoy new music you don't already know the words to, there's a shop pre-installed. Sony Ericsson's PlayNow shop will sell you MP3s, direct, from £1.50 a pop, plus any data fees you may incur. Which is stupidly expensive, but temptingly easy.
Battery life and connectivity
Sony Ericsson's technicians claim the Xperia Active is good for 5.5 hours of talk time and 335 hours of standby time on 3G, which is all well and good when it's sitting on a test bench in a Swedish laboratory.
In real terms, the battery's a pretty good performer. We easily made it through a day with all the phone's settings left on their defaults, with the average day comprising absolutely loads of Twitter use, several email sessions, a few text messages and quite a chunk of web browsing over Wi-Fi.
Although the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active contains a 1200mAh battery, which is at the low end of what we see in smartphones today, it's a solid performer. Treat it nicely and you could get two days from it, while even hammering the thing should see you make it through a full day.
There's no HDMI output on the Xperia Active, but you do get Sony Ericsson's usual Connected Devices app, which is its way of making DLNA support sound a bit more exciting. It works well, streaming photos and videos to any other DLNA devices you have suckling on your home Wi-Fi account.
The Wi-Fi connection supports 802.11b/g/n connections, while, technically speaking, the handset supports GSM/GPRS/EDGE and UMTS/HSPA for data.
One big extra thing for the active Xperia Active user is ANT+ connectivity. The ANT+ system opens up a world of health gadgets, such as heart rate monitors and bike speedos, which connect wirelessly to the phone, opening up a new world of sporting app use.
And, as ever with Android these days, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active can work as both a wired modem through USB, or be turned into a personal Wi-Fi hotspot, for easily sharing your mobile data allowance with other Wi-Fi gadgets.
There's an FM radio in here, too, complete with integration with Sony Ericsson's TrackID system, which can record a tune off the radio, ping it off to its server for identification, then come back with the title and the option to buy it on the phone though 7digital or Sony's own PlayNow shop.
The radio also integrates Facebook, so you can ID a track then post about it to Facebook. It's all very clever.
Maps and apps
Inside the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active you get a middle-of-the-road 1GHz processor, with a total of 1GB of internal storage, but by the time Android's got itself running, you'll be left with just over 300MB for your app installs.
Sony Ericsson has stuck on a few health apps to help underline the phone's active status, pre-loading the rather awkwardly named iMapMyFitness tool, which is also freely available to everyone on the Android Market so isn't really much of a selling point.
The much simpler step counter WalkMate is a bespoke Sony Ericsson creation that counts your steps via the accelerometer - and comes with a hefty warning about the damage this will do to your battery life - plus there's a digital compass app. Nothing really useful, to be honest.
Of much more use to everyone is the standard suite of Google apps, comprising Gmail, YouTube, Talk, Calendar and the excellent Google Maps.
Maps works very well, with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active's 1GHz processor scrolling, zooming and panning the screens around smoothly. The GPS system locked on within a few seconds, enabling us to generate sat nav routes quickly and without any hassle.
And once all that's done, the Xperia Active works very well as a complete sat nav tool, with Google also offering the option to upgrade to full turn-by-turn voice navigation, for free, through an Android Market download.
Elsewhere, there's loads of pre-loaded Sony Ericsson junk. There's the Xperia Hot Shots advert for tennis sponsorship, mediocre puzzle game Quadrapop, a link to download a sponsored football app... there's a lot of rubbish to bin.
Of some use is OfficeSuite, which gives you free read-only compatibility with MS Office files, the NeoReader QR code scanner, alternate sat nav app Wisepilot if that's your sort of thing, and Data Monitor, which keeps track of your data usage, should you be on a limited package.
App installation through the Android Market is quick and easy, with the Xperia Active also managing to run Google's latest market app pretty well.
We were seeing a decent 232MB of free memory space left for app storage, even after installing our usual review favourites and the latest update of Adobe's bulky Flash Player app.
And finally, there's the same screen capture tool as found on the Xperia Arc S. Holding the power button brings up the usual Android power menu, only with the added option of taking a shot of what was on the screen immediately prior to you pressing power. Shots are then saved as nice PNG files in the phone's gallery.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active is a perfectly nice little smartphone, which isn't compromised in any way because of its outdoor/sporty ambitions.
The Android 2.3.4 software is packed with functionality and extra features added as part of Sony Ericsson's user interface, with the phone featuring a good camera, decent enough 720p video output and generally smooth, hassle-free operation all round.
The capacitive water-resistant screen is very sensitive to the touch, with no noticeable slowness or hindrance caused by its waterproofing and 'wet finger' sensitivity.
Sony Ericsson's Android customisations are nice, for the most part, adding in little animations, user-friendly icon dragging and dropping features, Facebook stuff all over the place and hiding away many more clever touches to discover.
It really is waterproof. The very last thing we did when compiling this review, just in case, was dunk it in the sink for a few minutes. It survived. Everything still works. The rubbery stoppers and secondary internal case do the job.
The low-end screen resolution of 320 x 480 means text isn't as sharp as it is on many other Android smartphones today. It's not unreadable and does work well in outdoor light, but if you do a lot of reading the slight blotchiness may become an annoyance.
Despite its toughness claims, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active feels rather light and plasticky. We haven't exactly tested it to destruction, but it doesn't feel like a tough, outdoor phone. Plus the plastic buttons around the edges, and the camera button in particular, seem rather flimsy.
Media playback is once again a weak point on a Sony Ericsson phone. You won't be copying across your AVI film collection to this one, not without converting everything to MP4 beforehand.
It's another good performer from Sony Ericsson. The Xperia Active is little more than the company's Xperia Mini in a chunky, water-resistant case, but if that's what you want... this is it.
We're used to 'outdoor' mobile phones coming in awful shells and lacking features, but that's not the case here. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Active is a fast, usable, modern smartphone, that just so happens to be a bit better sealed off from rain and coffee than most.
If you want a perfectly capable, cute, light and small phone that's waterproof and doesn't compromise on performance, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active's a fine choice. Your only choice, but still a perfectly good one.