Android-powered handsets sporting hardware QWERTY keyboards are a bit of underrated niche. Whilst there’s many form factors out there, just a handful of those were actually worthwhile. Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Mini Pro, although quite popular, never attracted me enough due to its tiny size. This made it look more like a toy than a legitimate handset. However, I have recently discovered the Xperia Pro – the bigger and more “adult” brother of Mini Pro. Its size and specs make it a strong contender for my trusty HTC Desire Z, so I decided to take it for a spin for couple of weeks. Special thanks goes to Handtec for letting me do so.
I don’t usually go through the “unboxing experience” of handsets I’m reviewing, simply because it’s often nothing to get excited about. A handset, a charger, a (typically poor) stereo headset and an USB cable – that’s pretty much it. However, in the contents of the Xperia Pro box there is a notable exception from the rule. On top of usual accessories and booklets it also comes with an extra micro-USB cable (which makes a total of two), a tiny USB charger to plug into car’s cigarette lighter socket and a dedicated screen protector foil. Also, inside the handset itself I’ve found a rather hefty 8GB microSD memory card. It’s pretty rare nowadays for manufacturers to be so generous with accessories bundled in standard retail box, so kudos to Sony Ericsson for that.
I should admit that the Xperia Pro looked quite dull when I saw photos on the website before receiving an actual unit. That impression turned around completely once I’d got it in my hands The Xperia Pro actually looks very sleek indeed. It is made of high-quality, glossy plastic all around and its design brings a strong resemblance to the Xperia arc model, thanks to a curved rear battery cover. Build quality and materials used are excellent too. Weight-wise the Xperia Pro isn’t particularly light but that’s a common attribute to most QWERTY-sliders out there. Overall, the Xperia Pro makes a very good first impression of high-end, sleek and stylish device.
No matter how handsome the Xperia Pro looks, it has downsides too. Glossy plastic requires a bit of extra care as it tends to slip in your hands. It’s a really powerful fingerprint and grease magnet too. Other issues are the buttons around the case (power button, camera shutter and volume rockers). These are way too small, too stiff and a bit fiddly to operate. Thankfully the handset can also be resumed from standby with the “Home” button, which is a better alternative to the tiny power button on the side. Control buttons under the display are all physical (which is a rarity nowadays!), yet aren’t directly back-lit so the user has to memorize which button does what before operating in darkness. Not a big deal but worth noting. There is no dedicated “Search” key either, not a biggie for some I guess but I personally missed it a lot. Finally, I rather wish it had a notification LED located on the front of device rather than on the side, next to HDMI-out port.
I’m going to spoil the suspense and say that the hardware QWERTY keypad in the Xperia Pro is one of the best I’ve ever used. Firstly, the slider mechanism is perhaps a bit stiff but very robust. Secondly I found the keys to be very well spaced and were just the right size. They also provided an excellent amount of tactile feedback. Typing was a joy and a pleasure, in a contrary to the recently reviewed Motorola Pro+. Thirdly the keypad features a full set of arrow buttons making quick edits and jumping around the text a breeze. This is something sadly often missed in devices of this class nowadays.
Unfortunately the keypads physical excellence is somewhat undermined by the software side of it. Whilst I loved the foreign languages support and the ability to type non-ASCII national characters using the keypad directly rather than touching the screen (a feature that manufacturers very, I mean VERY, rarely get right – huge kudos to Sony Ericsson again!), I wasn’t so impressed with the inability to use Shift+arrow combinations to make quick text chunk selections. There was also a lack of a dedicated Ctrl key, so I couldn’t do cut/copy/paste/etc. directly in the keypad, and had to resort to the touchscreen interface. The other nit-picking thing I’ve noticed is the backspace key working a bit too fast when pressed and held, it just tends to erase things too quickly with no way to undo.
On the whole, putting these minor issues aside (most of which could be ironed out with the software update anyway), the Xperia Pro’s hardware keyboard is absolutely great and really pleasant to use. Period.
The Display in the Xperia Pro is a TFT LCD with a 854×480 resolution and the Mobile Bravia Engine, touted to enhance colours, contrast and overall sharpness of the screen. Interestingly, the Bravia feature can be turned on or off in the settings menu but I haven’t noticed particular difference between both modes. That is not to say that the display is bad by any means, it is indeed very bright and vivid regardless of the Bravia Engine switch. Yet again there’s something crucial missing, and that is the automatic brightness mode. Yep, that’s right, manual brightness adjustment in darkness is sadly required. Why on Earth a basic feature of every decent handset has been omitted is beyond me.
Another feature specific to Sony Ericsson handsets is xLOUD technology which improves overall loudness of the speaker. It also can be turned on or off via the settings menu and, contrary to the Bravia Engine for display, it does actually make substantial difference to the speaker loudness. My “quiet profile” ringtone suddenly became very loud and I’ve had to adjust volume of all ringtone profiles accordingly. Also, thanks to xLOUD, I finally stopped missing calls in noisy environments as I did with many different handsets before. The loudest setting of the ringtone with xLOUD activated will always come out of the pocket in virtually every environment. Worth pointing out that xLOUD does apply to all sounds coming out of the speaker, not just ringtones.
When it comes to the loudness and quality of an earpiece, ie. in the phone calls, I haven’t noticed any drawbacks and calling quality was just fine.
The Camera in the Xperia Pro is an 8.1MP sensor on the back and VGA on the front. The front-facing camera supports Gtalk and Skype video calls (as advertised on SE website, I haven’t personally tested either). Notable features are an image stabiliser, smile detection, touch-capture and a 3D sweep panorama mode. The latter apparently lets 3D panoramas viewable on 3D-enabled TVs (again, I haven’t had chance to see this in action). As for actual quality, photos taken in low-light conditions are seem to have a lot of noise but otherwise are pretty good. Video recording supports 720p HD resolution, continuous auto-focus and also does a fairly good job overall. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest issue while using the camera is the ridiculously small and stiff camera shutter button, so the touch-to-capture feature might be better way of taking shots.
Software-wise we are dealing with the Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS with Sony Ericsson’s own UI implementation baked on top of it. The good news is that SE was one of the first players on the market to announce Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade availability for all Xperia-series handsets released in 2011, naturally including Xperia Pro. Compared to rather appalling ICS upgrade plans from HTC, Motorola or Samsung, this is an excellent move by Sony Ericsson.
As far as own branding and user interface customisations go, these are always a bit hit and miss. Working with Sony Ericsson’s incarnation for a couple of weeks, I’d say that on the whole I found it nicer, cleaner and less intrusive than the MotoBlur UI that I used in the Motorola Pro+. I haven’t found anything particularly itching with Xperia’s branded interface. Sure, there’s room for improvement here and there, but most of these are fairly minor.
However, what is most worrying is Xperia Pro’s overall performance. Unfortunately, it’s not something this handset particularly excels at. Basic interface interactions are often accompanied with a noticeable lag, ie. launching apps, switching between various screens and so on. I thought my good old HTC Desire Z was slow, but a SE Xperia Pro featuring 1 GHz CPU and 512 MB of RAM doesn’t bring much improvement. The most annoying and obvious examples of lagging UI performance were with incoming calls. Most of the time the incoming call sequence was roughly like this: 1) a ringtone plays, pause; 2) screen turns on, pause; 3) user interface with buttons and incoming phone number appears, pause; 4) a contact name and picture matching incoming number is displayed; 5) take or reject the call.
Sometimes it took good 3-4 seconds to complete that sequence, sometime was less than 1-2 but practically never was it instant, which is exactly what it should be. That is really very bad and I can only hope future updates will fix this.
In terms of software stability, I can’t really complain on anything. Over the course of two weeks, I haven’t had any problems with applications unexpectedly quitting, device rebooting, freezing and so on. It just seemed that overall performance was the main culprit but not stability as such.
Finally, battery life in Xperia Pro was fairly OK. Don’t use it much and it’ll manage to last through 2 days (“not used much” includes constant connection to WiFi/3G and automatic data sync in the background). When used in my typical working day – browsing the web while commuting and listen to the music over A2DP, it managed to last through one day, leaving a bit of margin before hitting the night.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Pro is a bit of an underrated handset. It seems to be hidden in the shadow of its smaller sibling, the Xperia mini Pro, on which the main marketing effort from Sony Ericsson itself and UK operators is focused. Nonetheless, it is still quite decent device. Perhaps it doesn’t have the greatest specification among competition but as I said, it is quite difficult to find a solid and good looking Android-powered handset featuring a good QWERTY keyboard at the same time. And that’s what the Xperia Pro definitely is.
Of course, it has drawbacks, notably performance-wise, but considering the imminent Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade which is likely to improve these issues and a very reasonable price of £272 at the time of writing, the Xperia Pro is worth recommending to all Android QWERTY handset fans out there.
Link – Handtec