Review: Sony XPERIA Pro

To get some insight on my switch from an Apple iPhone 4 to an Android phone, please have a look at this entry as well as the prelude to this review.

What convinced me to chose the XPERIA Pro over another Android smartphone with a physical keyboard is the side-slider (bigger keyboard), screen size (bigger than the Motorola Pro+) and the technical specs, including the ability to officially upgrade from Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread) to 4.04 (Ice Cream Sandwich).

As mentioned before, I’d physically tested a Motorola Pro+ device before ordering the XPERIA Pro. While the Motorola really is quite a nice phone (and seemingly quick, despite the restricted hardware specs), but the display was just a tick too small, as was the keyboard. My thumbs just aren’t as nimble anymore.

So lets get into the pros and cons of the XPERIA. Keep in mind that this is a device released for 2011...

Device in General
I ordered the red phone (also available in charcoal and sliver), which really is “pretty”. The materials feel great, according the spec, the phone is fitted with gorillaglass for the display. The slider mechanism feels extremely solid, I’m quite sure it will work fine for a long time. The back is easily removable, yet on the device quite solidly. The SIM is easy to insert; with a little finagling, I was able to slide the Micro-SIM adapter in with proper electrical contact. Considering that this is impossible in quite a number of phones, I can live with shimmying the thing around a bit. The contact hasn’t budged since I started using the phone, so that’s ok there.

At first glance, the keyboard looks chincy, but when you start using it, it is absolutely fine. I can type quite quickly using both thumbs, while supporting the back of the phone with the fingers of both hands. The device does auto-capitalization - despite the checkmark being off in the settings. This still fools me once in a while, I’ll hit shift and continue typing, only noticing a bit later that I’ve been capitalizing everything. I presume this is a bug in the 4.04 release.

The display is touted in the Sony marketing materials as being exceptionally good, due to the “Bravia” engine, with comparison photos of photos with and without this technology. Personally, I find the display to be quite okay, though it can’t compete with a modern iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4 display in clarity or contrast.

I didn’t bother testing the device with the preinstalled Android 2.3.4 - something I should have done to get a feel for the responsiveness in comparison to 4.04. From what I’ve read on the web, 4.04 does have issues with processing speed, and - quite honestly - this is the major issue I have with the XPERIA Pro. The device has a single-core CPU, a decision on part of Sony that is completely beyond me. Even in 2011, devices slanted for the professional market - as the XPERIA Pro supposedly is - had dual-core CPUs, often at 1.5 GHz.

That second core is badly missed on the Pro, as is more device memory (only about 380 MB remain). Even with moving apps to the SD-Card (not possible with all apps), you won’t install very many apps on the phone before you run out of memory, which makes the phone even slower.

Even with seemingly enough memory left over, the processing speed takes a massive dump - I’ve cleaned out the phone by removing apps I don’t REALLY need (but would really like to have) several times already.

One thing became very clear to me since switching from the iPhone 4 to the XPERIA Pro: the iPhone quite obviously was designed for excellent WiFi reception, at the expense of cellular reception quality. With the XPERIA, this is reversed. I have good cellular reception in locations (like my home office), where I had none whatsoever with the iPhone.

On the other hand, where I had full-power Wifi reception with the iPhone (like, in the kitchen), the XPERIA Pro is only at about 50%.

Talk quality
Boy, this really blew my mind: I’d always had issues understanding people while talking on the iPhone. With a bit of surrounding noise (i.e. train station), talk quality was so low, I generally avoided being on the phone. With the XPERIA Pro, this is completely different. Unless the person on the other line is using an iPhone (yep!), calls are very clear and seem to have a great bandwidth. HD voice seems to be implemented in some form, something that at least the iPhone 4 definitely doesn’t seem to offer.

The battery on the phone is exchangeable, which immediately prompted me to get a second one on ebay (for a laughable 7€). Unfortunately, I didn’t check ahead of time wether there is a docking station available to charge the battery out of the phone - which there is not. Oh, well, now I have two batteries…

The battery lasts - with use comparable to the iPhone - about as long: one day maximum. Wether this would have been different, had I left 2.3.6 on the device, I don’t know. Discussions on the Web seem to indicate that 4.04 is also a bit of a power hog.

If this device had a dual-core CPU and double the internal RAM, I would probably keep it for the next 10 years (okay, I’m exaggerating slightly here). To add to my wish-list, I would make it just a tick bigger (i.e. bigger display) and would love an official update to Android 4.1 or 4.2.

Would I recommend the device? If you’re looking for an Android phone with an excellent physical keyboard, I doubt you can find a better solution. Unfortunately, physical keyboards seem to have gone out of favor with the users (and the manufacturers). The selection is dwindling, with options like the BlackBerry 7.x devices going down the drain (lack of support, dusty old GUI).

You can still order the XPERIA Pro new from select sources - something you should definitely consider if you feel you can live with the caveats.


The long road to smartphone heaven

This is the prelude to the actual review of the Sony Xperia Pro. If you don’t want to read my gab about how I ended up with the device (in this post), then just skip to the review itself.

Several weeks ago, I took a deep plunge into very cold water (at least from my perspective at the time): I switched from an iPhone 4 to an Android device (see here).

The reasons, in short, were few:
  • more and more quirks, the higher the version number of iOS went
  • the impossibility of typing on the onscreen keyboard

Several months ago, I’d already tried a clip-on, slide-out bluetooth keyboard for the iPhone (that doubled as a case). While the keyboard was really quite good, the connection via bluetooth was a disaster. Not because the electronics in the keyboard (or the iPhone) were an issue, but because - in my opinion - bluetooth just isn’t made for that type of connection.

With a smartphone keyboard, you only use the connection for a couple of seconds (to answer an SMS) to perhaps a minute or two (to write an email). After a while, bluetooth goes to sleep, likely both in the keyboard and the smartphone, otherwise both batteries would be dry in no time. Then, when you next need to use the keyboard, it takes “forever” to wake back up and reconnect.

Why in blazes no-one has put together a slider keyboard for the iPhone that lets you slide the phone into the keyboard case and automatically connect to a real-life dock connector (via which a keyboard connection can be made) is beyond me. There just isn’t a better data connection than a cable.

So off I went into the depths of the internet to find a decent smartphone with a slider keyboard.
I’d actually taken this route before, about a year ago, when I picked up a Blackberry Bold on ebay. I used to be a big blackberry fan back in 2006 or so, when my then-employer offered it. And, to be sure, the keyboard can’t be beat for the size of the device. But folks, the user interface is so… so… well, so 2000-ish!

I had to resort to using my Palm Treo 680 some time last year when the glass on my iPhone ruptured and I’d sent it off to be repaired. Boy, considering how totally awesome the Treo used to be in its heyday, you just can’t use the OS nowadays without retching. I mean: 480x480 and 256 colors? Get real!

Perusing the various google hits on this blog entry or that product test (and about a zillion ads for each interesting link, as is the norm on google nowadays), I was peeved to find that there are no very recent keyboard-fitted smartphones out there! Okay, that changed very recently with the new Blackberry device, but this was before then.

Ebay showed a plethora of Blackberry Torches - a device I nearly ended up getting - until I started reading some of the opinions… and it just goes to show: it was high time Blackberry updated their OS! Apparently, even with OS7, the look and feel were a bit, well … see the comment on the Treo above!

I ended up getting two devices. One was a super deal on a Motorola Pro+ running Android 2.3.5 and the other was a brand new Xperia Pro in red. To be fair, I was quite surprised at the functionality and ease-of-use (no manual needed) of the older version of Android. Which, as it turns out, still powers, what, 70% of all Android phones?

Unfortunately, the Motorola really is a compromise. The screen is tiny (not good for my 45+ year old eyes) as is the keyboard. Perhaps it's an age thing; I used to be able to speed-type on these tiny candy-bar keyboards with very low error rates… no more. To be sure: the Motorola Pro+ Keyboard feels very nice and types quite well. It’s just, well, too small. I also kept hitting the function buttons on top when trying to type numerals.

So I ended up keeping the Sony Xperia Pro. Read on!


Sony Bridge for Mac

Okay, so far I’m relatively happy with my Xperia Pro, which I will review elsewhere.
I find the Sony Bridge for Mac software, however, to be complete rubbish.

It tries to be a sync solution for photos and music, even going so far as to sync with iTunes. I haven’t tested the iTunes sync (as I don’t listen to Music on the Xperia), but the way Pictures are handled is a disgrace.

For one thing, the import - i.e. copying photos shot on the Xperia to a local directory - often brings errors with multiple files (“…couldn’t be transferred…”), apparently, because those files are damaged. As it turns out, this is complete crap; selecting the pictures individually and clicking on “Import selected” transfers them just fine.

There is no way to select individual - or all - pictures to delete them in the import photo mode, which is definitely a function that is necessary to have.

A complete joke is the file browser, which is available by clicking on the phone on the left side and selecting “Browse files on your Xperia device”. It does what it says: it lets you browse files. Delete or move files? Negative.

I’m not sure who does Xperia product management at Sony, but they certainly have not understood that this level of software quality isn’t going to retain customers.