Sony Ericsson’s first attempt at a Windows Mobile smartphone may have not garnered much fanfare. But for those who do not live on planet iPhone, it remains a significant development. The XPERIA X1a brings out the best in Sony Ericsson hardware, while also highlighting the limitations of Windows Mobile 6.1 (and the XPERIA’s valiant efforts in overcoming them).
To start with, the XPERIA X1a is not a smartphone. Its more like a micro-netbook. It comes with a 528MHz processor (iPhone: 412MHz) and 256MB RAM (iPhone: 128MB). Its beautiful 800 x 480 resolution display (iPhone: 320 x 480) uses WVGA technology that is used in netbooks to render pages on small screens. Unlike the iPhone, the XPERIA X1a can be considered very well suited for multitasking.
One of the main attractions of the XPERIA X1a is a keyboard that has not gone to the touchscreen. The phone features a thoughtfully crafted keyboard, complete with backlighting. In my opinion, a touchscreen keyboard can never fully substitute a physical keyboard, no matter how brilliantly made. And the XPERIA keyboard is near identical in layout to laptop keyboards (except for the numbers). There is nothing like the feeling of your fingers tapping qwerty while you only look at the screen. For basic functions, sliding out the keyboard is not necessary. The 6 buttons on the phone’s face, the “optical joystick,” and the touchscreen are more than sufficient.
The Panels, which have been a major selling point for the XPERIA X1a have a lot of potential. Simply put, a panel is a fully customizable home screen. By default, Windows Mobile offers a customizable “Today” screen. But the customization options are limited. The XPERIA X1a comes loaded with several panels, and even more are available for download. Since the phone screen is the first point of interaction with the phone, using panels can change the way you interact with your phone. Panels allow creation of shortcuts to commonly used programs, display of RSS feeds and weather updates, display of calendar entries as well as unlimited color and wallpaper options. Sony Ericsson offers its Panel SDK for third party developers, which means a wide variety of panels will continue to be offered. The Panels have now ported over to other HTC WinMo phones too! The Panels allow overcoming some of the limitations of Windows Mobile 6.1. For example, instead of diving through a dizzying array of menus and windows to find different communication options, they can be made to appear on your panel/home screen. Initially, there was some lag when the panels were switched or when they changed to landscape mode when the keyboard was pulled out. But this appears to have been corrected in a Sony Ericsson update.
The XPERIA X1a comes loaded with Microsoft Office Mobile 6.1 (2007) which includes Excel, OneNote, Word and Powerpoint.
The XPERIA X1a also comes with Adobe Reader LE for mobile, that allows all the functionality of the standard Adobe Reader.
For PIM fanatics, the XPERIA X1a allows for seamless synchronization with a Windows PC (Sorry Mac users). This can be even done over Bluetooth. Bluetooth on a typical Windows computer has the ActiveSync provision used by WinMo smartphones, allowing exceptionally seamless Bluetooth synchronization.
A generic microSD card can be separately purchased to increase onboard storage space (Not possible on the iPhone).
The XPERIA X1a can undergo a SIM unlock at the electronics boutique in your local Chinatown. Typical of GSM phones, the XPERIA X1a’s SIM locking mechanism is a hardware based permutation of the IMEI number. And I have been told that even a firmware upgrade does not revert the SIM lock. In contrast, the mean people at Cupertino have put a SIM lock on the iPhone that requires the original software to be “jailbroken” by a third party software, and re-jailbroken when a firmware upgrade is applied to the iPhone. There have been cases where jail breaking has caused the iPhone OS to act buggy. Initially, the XPERIA X1a was offered on Sony USA’s website unlocked! But this quickly came to an end, possibly from pressure from carriers.
The 3.2 Megapixel camera comes with flash! Video recording capacity is only limited by the size of the storage card. Since Sony’s primary business is its Cybershot cameras, the camera has superior image quality. To catch a glimpse of the exceptional video quality produced, check this Youtube video.
The bundled Opera browser allows for full screen browsing, and computer-like rendering of complete web pages. When browsing, tapping the stylus or pressing the volume button allows one to zoom in and out of web pages.
Windows Mobile 6.1 was built for styluses and keys, not human fingers. And thus, the XPERIA X1a also comes with a stylus. This drawback is exceptionally noticeable when searching for contacts. You really need to whip out the stylus for performing this feat unless you are used to using the “optical joystick.” (The fix: purchase and download Touch Contact from the Windows Mobile Marketplace).
Detractors may argue that a stylus has its own merits, and can save more time than thumbing a touchscreen. I would agree when it comes to taking handwritten notes. Nothing can be as fast as the stylus on a touchscreen. The XPERIA X1a features Microsoft Outlook Notes, that can be used to jot down freeform handwriting, sketches and diagrams.
The XPERIA X1a can synchronize emails, contacts, notes, calendar entries and tasks ONLY with Microsoft Outlook, that is NOT included in the economical student edition of Microsoft Office. Unless you have Microsoft Outlook for Windows, you may be bereft of key synchronization options. Although you can still “browse” the phone from your computer (which iPhone won’t allow).
When taking still images with the camera, the lack of a software based image stabiliser becomes apparent. Still images often turn out shaky. Lets hope they fix it in a software update.
It should be noted that the XPERIA X1a comes with A-GPS, that is dependent on having a network based data connection. This is not an independent GPS device.
The XPERIA X1a deserves care. While I do not have lab tests to supplement my claim, I am sure that Sony Ericsson, and its XPERIA maker, HTC, do not have as much of a reputation for ruggedness as Nokia. But with its replaceable battery, an XPERIA X1a may outlast an iPhone.
Must Gets (and not-Gets) for new owners
Windows Mobile 6.1 does not come with Windows Mobile Marketplace. You must manually download and install it to take advantage of Microsoft’s answer to the iPhone app store.
The XPERIA X1a has an annoying tendency of its screen shutting off to save power, even during calls (ROM version 1.05.631.10; 04/23/2009). This can be corrected by installing a third party application called XperiaTweak, and customizing some options within XperiaTweak.
WiFiFoFum is a free Windows Mobile application that estimates the approximate location of Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity.
Do not uninstall the Windows Live program from your XPERIA X1a in favour of the one available on Windows Mobile Marketplace. The later versions no longer carry instant messaging because of carrier restrictions. Greedy carriers want you to use their own IM applications so that they can charge SMS rates per IM, even though IMs are not SMSs.
The Wish List
Without the bundled Opera browser, mobile browsing would be pretty much dead on the XPERIA X1a (Internet Explorer Mobile is suited for WAP sites, and cannot do the full page rendering Opera does). It would be great to use Firefox Mobile on the XPERIA X1a when it comes to Windows Mobile.
Given its premium price, users may expect Sony Ericsson to offer timely updates to the XPERIA X1a. While Sony Ericsson does provide timely updates to firmware, XPERIA-specific add-ons and Panels, they won’t be facilitating an upgrade to Windows Mobile 6.5. This is the part where you will miss the iPhone, which allows its all of its users to upgrade to the latest iPhone OS. Windows Mobile 6.5 will only be coming to the XPERIA X2. But why settle for Windows Mobile 6.5 when Windows Phone 7 is on the Horizon? Sadly, an XPERIA with Windows Phone 7 may never be (unless you know how to hack ROMs). Sadly, the XPERIA X10 has switched to Android because Google has managed to cuckold Sony Ericsson wireless carriers into doing so. In my opinion, Android has yet to grow up. And Android uses the controversial cloud computing model for PIM synchronization with Google’s online services.
The Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1a is an ideal smartphone for anyone that has a beef with the iPhone’s smartphone capability. It has high performance hardware, boasts a physical keyboard, and according to some, is a stunner. The Panels are indeed a revolutionary concept that can change our interaction with smartphones. Because of its superior hardware, even the outdated Windows Mobile 6.1 fails to turn everything sluggish, and instead exceeds performance expectations. But it would be a delight to have Windows Phone 7 on the XPERIA X1a.
These are the links that both XPERIA X1a owners and potential owners can’t do without.
The Official XPERIA blog: Finally, an official blog to refute/confirm claims of all the other blogs.
PlayNow: Sony Ericsson’s website for its phone users, which features additional XPERIA panels available for download.
The XPERIA X1a product website: Straight from the horse’s mouth.
Freeware PocketPC: Tonnes of freeware for Windows Mobile.
Jenn Lee’s 15 tips for new XPERIA X1a users: Covers some essential tweaking.
Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1a @ Wikipedia: Nothing to be said.
Sony Ericsson has pretty much forgotten the XPERIA X1a after it moved to the Android platform. The much promised panel updates are no longer being seen. But again, it was the XPERIA X1a, that kick-started the XPERIA line. And it was only this success that made Sony Ericsson realise the revenue drain for using licensed Windows software (and therefore its switch to the Android platform). On the other hand, the abandoned panel feature may have inspired the new Windows Phone 7 interface.
For those of you still clinging to your XPERIA X1a, there are still some redeeming features of the phone. Windows Mobile 6.1 had more security features, allowing seamless enterprise use, which even Windows Phone 7 does not.
And if you managed to grab the Skype panel for the X1a, then you have a very rare gem indeed!