Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini
18th Aug 2011 | 15:28
Slightly larger but still tiny, is 2011's Android update a big winner?
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Overview
Before the arrival of Sony's Ericsson's new Xperia Mini, the X10 Mini and X10 Mini Pro were an odd little couple, launching in mid-2010 with Android 1.6 and a bespoke and heavily-customised user interface on top.
They weren't amazingly powerful phones and their 2.55" screens were shockingly small - but Sony Ericsson did a good job of maximising the available space with its corner-based interface.
The same system has returned in 2011's updates, albeit improved thanks to Sony Ericsson's developers having another year to fiddle with the interface and add more new layers of social integration.
We've got some real-life footage of ACTUAL people using the phone - check it out if these grouped-together letters are too much:
The new Xperia Mini is available SIM-free for just over the £200 mark, with monthly contracts popping up starting from £15. While there are certainly plenty of more powerful Android phones with bigger screens available for that kind of money, there's not much competition in the matchbox-sized ultra-portable smartphone scene.
In fact, Sony Ericsson's got this part of the market all to itself. But is the tiny Xperia Mini one big compromise?
The 2011 models have upped the tech specs significantly from what we found in the X10 Mini and X10 Mini Pro. As well as a new 1GHz processor, the Xperia Mini now comes with a larger 3" screen, utilising the same Bravia Engine Reality Display technology as Sony Ericsson put in its superb Xperia Arc.
In reality, what this means is you get a small 3" capacitive display running at 320x480 resolution. It's surprisingly sharp and bright, though, with icons and text easily readable even outdoors in bright light. It's no game-changer in terms of resolution, but it's certainly a usable display despite its size.
The power button sits on the top edge of the phone. The left-hand side is featureless apart from an arbitrary silver strip, while the other edge has the volume up/down rocker and a very nice, soft-touch camera button.
The shutter button isn't quite as silky-soft as the one found in the HTC Salsa, but it's still spongy enough that you don't have to press too hard and blur your snaps in the process.
Sony Ericsson has torn up the design rules and placed the 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the phone, which is also where the USB connector sits.
There's not much clearance between USB and headphone sockets, though, which makes using right-angled USB connectors and listening through headphones a bit of a pain without some extreme and worrying cable bending. But Sony Ericsson has put a straight USB cable in the box, so that's OK - plsu we're talking about a pretty specific instance here.
In the hand, it's obviously very, very small when held up against some of today's mammoth smartphones. But it feels good. The big, physical Home button is easy to find without fuss, while the new capacitive Back and Menu buttons are large and easy to find without having to think about it.
It also looks smarter and sharper than the old X10 Mini, with the removal of the silver button strip making the Xperia Mini appear a little more stylish.
Above the screen sits a proximity sensor, allowing the phone to deactivate its touchscreen while making a call, to stop you embarrassing yourself by pressing "end call" with your ear.
The back has a nice, matte, rubberised coating, so it's grippy and sticky in the hand. Despite its size, the Xperia Mini is a perfectly usable smartphone. The 3" screen is responsive to the touch, with even the lightest press registering, while it feels solid and tough enough to survive a day or two of being in the same pocket as your keys.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Interface
We should say the 1GHz processor, combined with 512MB of RAM, makes the response under the finger lightning quick - you certainly won't be disappointed.
As well as your five standard Android Home screens to scroll between, each page comes with a customisable icon in the corner. You can stick anything you want in here, simply by dragging a shortcut in from the phone's main applications screen.
New, and actually quite exciting, for 2011 is the addition of multiple icons in these corners, so you can have up to four items in each slot. This is a really nice system.
We felt oddly compelled to organise everything, creating one corner for camera, gallery and imaging apps, another for calling functions, plus one containing web apps and social applications.
Also, it's now possible to add icons and shortcuts to the Home screen itself, standard Android style, something last year's X10 Mini and X10 Mini Pro didn't allow due to their absolutely tiny screens.
If you need a better look at everything, a two-fingered pinch of the screen explodes your widgets out into a very nice floating overview mode - pressing again on one of these takes you to its corresponding Home screen.
While putting this review together, Sony Ericsson pushed out a software update for the Xperia Mini, which added a collection of visual themes.
Accessed through a long-press on the Home screen, this adds a new background image to the phone and also changes the colour of the app drawer and menu pages. It all looks swish and well designed, certainly much jazzier than the ageing HTC Sense interface - although we're sure a few HTC fans will disagree.
We're not huge fans of Sony Ericsson's power and connectivity management icons, though. The standard Android power strip widget that's used to toggle functions on and off has been removed, leaving you to create your own via a collection of chunky icons. It's versatile, but we do prefer the boring old Android strip.
There are plenty of widgets, both as part of Android and supplied by Sony Ericsson. You now get a fashionable weather station and mini forecast widget, plus the usual old Timescape social media widget returns.
Fans of Timescape will like the way it's been expanded. As well as supporting Facebook and Twitter status messages, it's now possible to install plug-ins that add extra functionality.
There's one for Gmail, for example, which lets your Google messages appear in the widget's timeline as well. Timescape is now bordering on the useful - something we'd have never dreamed of saying when we reviewed the first version of the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Contacts and calling
The Contacts system has been given a big makeover by Sony Ericsson, with Facebook functionality built in to the core of the whole thing.
As well as importing all your chums when or if you sign in with a Facebook account, the phone also adds an entirely separate Facebook page to the Contact data. From here you're able to browse other people's Facebook info and interest pages, plus their photos also pop up.
Of course, if you're not into all that social business you don't have to use it. And if you'd rather not see your internet acquaintances staring out at you, there's the option to filter the Contacts section and stop Facebook people showing at all.
In terms of fiddly fun stuff, you're able to allocate separate ringtones for each contact from the Edit Contact page and send people you hate straight to voicemail, plus there are fields for instant messaging details, web sites and an "internet call" option for utilising the emerging SIP Wi-Fi calling features.
The Xperia Mini's regular old dialler is a simple option, with shortcuts for your Call Log, Contacts and Favourites along the bottom.
There's also a useful "Save" button that automatically pops up the Contacts list if you'd like to associate the number you've just dialled with an existing friend, or you can select Create New Contact to add a new person to your listing.
Call quality is good. The speaker is exceptionally loud and really sharp. We got through calls with its volume set to less than half of its maximum, so there's absolutely no chance of this one being thought of as too quiet.
In hands-free mode the Xperia Mini is also one of the loudest phones around. Calls and media blast out impressively noisily. It's going to be banned from public spaces.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Messaging
The Xperia Mini's text messaging app is pretty straightforward, with Sony Ericsson not doing much more here than styling up the usual Android SMS interface.
There are plenty of tiny little options to discover, though. Long-pressing on the text of an SMS lets you copy it to clipboard, forward it or delete it, plus the system supports multiple recipients, photo, video and audio attachments.
Sony Ericsson has pre-loaded the WhatsApp cross-platform messaging app, which is a rather basic internet messaging app that exists in its own self-contained world. It's probably best ignored in favour of one of the many alternatives on the Android Market, if you have a need for some instant messaging.
The keyboard is, by default, a take on the traditional numeric keypad entry system, which was the only choice on the old X10 Mini. Thanks to the Xperia Mini's larger screen, there's now a QWERTY option in here, which is the simple Android standard keyboard option.
Typing on the tiny screen is a little tough, but there are many customisable auto-correct options to make texting people in a grammatically correct fashion a less tedious task. Or you can have both - the Xperia Mini lets you use QWERTY input when holding the phone sideways in landscape mode, which then automatically switches to the phonepad option when you move it back to portrait.
Email is handled by a standalone app, which manages POP3/IMAP and MS Exchange ActiveSync. You can have as many of these accounts as you like, with the app creating its own combined inbox if you have numerous accounts to manage.
There are options to set the checking interval if you don't want it annihilating your battery, plus there's an excellent sliding preview pane that makes quickly scanning messages a breeze.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Internet
You'd expect a relatively cheap smartphone with a tiny screen to be limited in terms of internet use, but the surprisingly powerful Xperia Mini does a great job of rendering and managing web pages.
The packed TechRadar home page loads fairly quickly, plus with full pinch-zoom support is easy to navigate.
Text reflowing is another useful feature within the Android browser, with a double-tap of any text field automatically zooming in on a lump of words and jiggling them about so they fill the available space. It happens quickly. It's something you'll definitely do, although you can't manually set the pinch-and-zoom distance and see the words re-jig... you'll need to use the plus and minus keys on screen to do this.
Thanks to the Xperia Mini squeezing a 1GHz processor into its tiny chassis, you also get full Flash Player support in the phone. Obviously this has some drawbacks, with web pages that are particularly full of Flash content and animating banners starting to slow down a little and grind away...
...but as is usual in Android, there's an option within the browser menus to have this content only load on demand, when you tap the area it should load up in, or to not have it load at all.
The bookmarking system is untouched by Sony Ericsson, which leaves us with the simple Android set-up. There's an icon beside the URL bar which opens up your bookmarks area, which is broken down into sections for your actual Bookmarks, the History and your Most Visited sites.
There's none of the advanced management or tagging options we've seen of late by phone makers such as HTC, but long-pressing on a bookmark entry brings up a menu that lets you share the URL, open it in a new tab, copy it to the clipboard or, very usefully, send it to the Home screen as a quick launch icon.
The tabbing system is another bit of a letdown compared to recent innovations we've seen in the HTC Desire S and LG Optimus 3D. You have to press the Menu key, then press again to bring up a text list of open windows.
It's not a huge inconvenience, but given the attention Sony Ericsson has lavished on other areas of its Android skin, it's a shame that the browser has been left rather bland in comparison.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Camera
The Xperia Mini features a 5MP camera with LED flash, that's also capable of recording 720p HD video clips.
There aren't many fancy options on the camera, with the majority of the scene modes hidden away. The default setting is to let the Xperia Mini automatically detect scenes for you, which can lead to some interesting choices, especially in low-light conditions.
Engaging manual control by pressing the Capture Mode toggle lets you select from nine pre-determined scenes - the usual standards such as Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Sports and Party.
The camera's very quick to launch and use, firing off sequences of shots rapidly without getting bogged down in any way.
The physical camera button itself is a nice feature, too, with Sony Ericsson sticking on a nice, soft button that's sensitive enough to fire off shots without making you jerk the phone around and miss your moment of magic.
Camera output is OK. Photos at the highest 5MP setting come off the phone at 2592x1944 resolution, and are certainly bright and colourful. In fact, it's actually a little too trigger happy with the colours, as bright reds and greens really explode and are quite exaggerated.
BRIGHT LIGHT:Greens are very green. The camera really loves doing green. If you have a lot of green stuff, this is definitely the camera for you.
PORTRAIT:Detail disappears a bit when viewed at full size, but results are definitely good enough for social network spamming and printing out to a decent standard.
LANDSCAPE:Landscape mode produces bright shots, but again you'll notice detail in the distance disappearing into a blurry mush when viewed at original resolution.
SUNSET:Evening performance is good. The camera calms down on the colour emphasising, doing a nice job of picking out detail even when light is fading, also balancing light and dark areas well.
INDOORS:Again, contrasting areas of light and dark are handled subtly and rather nicely.
NIGHT PORTRAIT:When the camera engages its own Night Portrait mode, it's not great. The exposure time rises, which makes it very tough to take a photo that isn't blurry. At least the flash works well and red-eye isn't an issue.
MACRO:The Xperia Mini auto-detects scenes pretty well, engaging its own macro mode if you get in close.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Video
The Xperia Mini can record clips at up to 720p resolution, saving its output into MP4 format files.
The camera app doesn't have much at all in the way of options when recording clips, with the same selection of scenes on offer as when taking stills. What is welcome is a choice of auto-focus options, with the camera coming with Face Detection, Infinity and Single Auto-focus options.
And it's rather good. The app's fast and responsive when recording movies, the auto-focus takes a second or two to adjust, but you may find that preferable to one that's too quick to respond and leaves you with clips that are constantly being adjusted.
There's a digital image stabilisation tool in here, a self-timer, manual white balance options and the option to toggle use of the touchscreen as a shutter button on and off. There's no digital zoom, though, but you can select the LED flash to stay on permanently, as a little night-time torch.
Videos recorded at 720p resolution feature a solid frame rate, with our sample clips registering between 29 and 30fps. What's not particularly great is the detail. Clips come out quite soft, with a kind of pastel blurriness to the output.
The Reality Display and Mobile BRAVIA Engine feature list bullet points don't really bring any obvious benefits when viewing your clips on the Xperia Mini's screen, either. The viewing angle is good and the phone plays back clips at a solid frame rate, but there's nothing here that will amaze you.
One nice added feature is hidden away within the Gallery – video editing. It's nothing complex nor feature heavy, but you can edit the start and end points of clips recorded yourself.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Media
The music player on the Xperia Mini is a quite simple option, but you do get a few nice custom interface features, a Home screen widget and comprehensive playlist creation and management options.
Sadly, there's no lock-screen music control, nor is it possible to control music via the pull-down Notifications menu. What you do get are a couple of Sony Ericsson additions in the player itself to play with...
There's a "like" button which will ping out the details of what you're currently listening to as a Facebook status update, plus there's the "infinite" button - which performs a YouTube search using the artist details and returns a list of related clips, or can search Google for lyrics, or Wikipedia to see if the band is still going and how the original drummer died.
Playlist support is good. You can create them on the fly, or have the phone compile lists of newly added tracks, your most played selection or you can take the risk of going through the songs the phone thinks you've never played before.
There's also a search bar along the top of the playlist screen, which is very useful if you've got a bursting SD card.
As for video playback, the options here are sadly limited. The Xperia Mini supports only MP4 and WMV video files, with the phone refusing to play any of our standard selection of AVIs. It also struggled with some regular WMVs too, so it's quite a picky little diva.
As with the likes of the Xperia Arc, the PC Companion tool will offer to convert your videos into the correct format when copying them across, but this turns a three-minute job into a 30-minute chore, during which your PC's internal fan will go into overdrive and make you go nuts.
The video player itself is one area where both Google and Sony Ericsson haven't really bothered. It's hidden from view with no direct icon to open it, and when you do click on a video the phone supports and can open, you're greeted by the familiar grey slab design. You can play. You can skip. You can pause. That's it.
Do yourself a favour and download something like mVideoPlayer or DoubleTwist - both much better in terms of control and video use, even if you're unlikely to use the Xperia Mini for media that often.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Battery and connectivity
The Xperia Mini features a 1200MaH battery, which is at the lower end of what we'd expect to find in a modern smartphone but understandable in a smaller unit.
Sony Ericsson itself rates the battery as good for 4.5 hours of talk time, or a ridiculously optimistic 340 hours of standby time according to the weird rules by which that's calculated. If you leave it in your sock drawer and never use it, that may be possible.
Obviously, the Xperia Mini has a smaller screen to power than most and that's reflected in the battery performance. We managed a good two days of light use from one charge, with the phone also easily surviving for a full day of pretty heavy web, Twitter and camera action.
You'll still need to be careful if you're planning on going too far away from the comforting hum of the national grid, but the Xperia Mini is unlikely to let you down. In standby mode, with GPS and Wi-Fi switched off, it barely registers any power drain at all over the course of a few hours.
Internally, the Xperia Mini supports sharing media via its Connected Devices DLNA app, which is a simple tool to turn the phone into a media server via Wi-Fi. This worked well, with the phone easily pairing with another DLNA mobile in a few seconds.
There's also an FM radio in here, which cleverly integrates with Sony Ericsson's TrackID system. If Zoe Ball turns the world on its head by playing a song you actually like, hitting the TrackID button records a sample and pings it off to a server for identification.
Plus, as with all modern Android phones on a decent version of the OS, the Xperia Mini can be turned into a portable wi-fi hotspot or used as a tethered USB modem - ideal for hooking a laptop into the 3G network.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Maps and apps
We're using an untouched and unlocked Xperia Mini supplied from The Carphone Warehouse, with the phone arriving absolutely packed with additional apps and games.
As expected with Android devices, you get the full range of Google apps, meaning Calendar support and syncing, Gmail, YouTube and Talk are included, plus the mighty four-pronged Google Maps app suite, which consists of separate tools for Navigation, Latitude, Places and Maps itself.
Navigate is always the first toy to play with when using a new Android phone, with Google's free satnav app as great as ever on the Mini.
It's integrated with the standard Google Maps app incredibly well, letting you select your own location as a start point and specify your destination. Then Google does the rest, calculating a route in advance.
For turn-by-turn voice navigation, you need the voice data pack, which is a free download through the Android Market. It's everything you need to bin your existing satnav.
There's a whole app screen full of other toys to play with. OfficeSuite gives you the ability to manage and read Word docs, but it'll prompt you to pay for the Pro version if you want editing and file creation abilities on your phone.
Sony Ericsson's utilitarian "Get Games" app also includes a Home screen widget, both of which are rather odd links that simply take you to the Android Market listing for the promoted titles.
The "Get" series is augmented by "Get Music" which takes you off to Sony Ericsson's PlayNow music portal, where you're able to legitimately purchase popular music for a ludicrous £1.50 per track, plus a possible mobile data fee.
Expensive, yes, but it's good to see Sony Ericsson giving users the option of an official MP3 shopping service on their mobiles – something most manufacturers don't offer, but your wallet will stay much better-stocked if you download something like Amazon MP3 instead.
One other interesting Sony Ericsson addition is its Friends' Music & Videos app, which encourages the stalking of your Facebook mates by pulling out all the music and video links people have shared on the social networking site, also letting you read the comments and "like" the results.
A bit of an odd thing to focus on, that, but probably better than paging through the Android Facebook app. However, you'll find most friends share YouTube videos, and not the cool new underground music we're all supposed to be finding.
As for the issue of storage space that scuppers many affordable Android phones? The Xperia Mini comes with 350MB of app space, and even after installing our usual review essentials we're still seeing 251MB free. That's certainly better than the likes of the HTC Wildfire S.
And Angry Birds works perfectly.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Hands on gallery
Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini: Verdict
Sony Ericsson has built on 2010's excellent little smartphone, further enhancing the user interface with changes that make it look and function even better.
The updated hardware is also surprisingly powerful, while having a larger 3" screen makes it all much easier to use than the tiny X10 Mini. The software takes Android's many great features and provides some clever tools and extremely tight Facebook integration throughout.
Web use is good considering the limitations of the screen size. The 1GHz processor, proper multitouch zooming and simple text reflowing really make the best of the 3" display, plus text is sharp and perfectly readable, plus Flash support is a bonus.
Sony Ericsson's user interface has come on in leaps and bounds. A new update which arrived in the middle of the review process added in visual Themes and a cool shut-off animation too, so there's no moaning about everything being bland old Sony Ericsson blue any more.
The corner-based icon grouping system is a great way of managing similar collections of apps. It means you can squeeze and astonishing 16 app shortcuts around the edges of the display.
Facebook integration is excellent. There's a "like" icon in the music player, plus all of your Facebook photos sync and appear in the phone's gallery along with their comments. It's actually a better "Facebook phone" than the so-called "Facebook phones" like the HTC Salsa and INQ Cloud Touch in our eyes.
The camera output is a little crazy. Trees don't just come out green, they come out luminous, fluorescent, bright, electric green, with reds and other strong colours often equally over-emphasised. It can make you photos look like they've gone through some sort of psychedelic hipster filter.
Video codec support is a weak area, with the phone not managing to play any of the popular download formats apart from things downloaded or converted into its preferred MP4 format, plus it didn't like our usual WMVs it's supposed to play. Having to convert files for mobile playback is a right pain.
The price is still a bit too high. You can get perfectly capable Android phones for around the £100 mark, with some great devices available for £150. So £210 is perhaps pushing it a little, although people will be paying for unique size of the chassis.
We're pleasantly surprised at how usable and responsive the Xperia Mini is. The 1GHz processor means web pages are drawn and scrolled pretty quickly, while gaming and app performance is also good.
The user interface customisations are really nice as well, with Sony Ericsson's sweeping visual changes bringing the best out of Android - and adding in plenty of new usability and social options.
In terms of value for money, it's a decent option. The 3" screen is a little limiting if you're into mobile media and gaming, but the phone itself is a glitch-free, user-friendly little marvel you won't end up hating.
There are more capable Android phones available for less money, but none that are as pocketable and enjoyable to use as the Xperia Mini.