Making a smartphone for sporty people isn't a bad idea. Coming up with a usable one poses some design challenges however, but the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active Android phone has managed to get most things right.
The Xperia Active is "ruggedised" so that it can handle rougher use than normal phones. Sony Ericsson has added sealing around the USB and earphone ports, as well around the back to keep water and dust out.
In terms of looks, the added sealing makes the Xperia Active a bit porkier than other smartphones of a similarly small size. The extra girth does mean the Xperia Active is comfortable hold though.
A somewhat dubious feature is the Billabong branding with a two backs, one white/blue and another white/grey plus a neck strap with a big beach wear company logo. Not exactly stylish, but it's easy enough to swap the backs for the neutral black one.
The Billabong branding would indicate that the Xperia Active solves that perennial New Zealand beach culture problem: you want to go for a swim in the sea, but are reluctant to leave your valuables under the towel. Can you take the phone with you into the water?
Unfortunately, you can't. The Xperia Active is water resistant, but not water proof. Don't go bobbing around in the waves with it.
It will however cope with splashes and even being dunked in up to a metre of water for half an hour, so kayaking and fishing is fine.
In fact, the Xperia Active seems ideal for party-hard people; a surprising number of acquaintances dropped their iPhones in the toilet on New Year's Eve, something I'm fairly confident the tough and moisture resistant Xperia Active would survive without problems.
The very sharp colour Mobile Bravia touch screen on the Xperia Active is worth a special mention: not only is it visible outdoors in sunlight, it also works after a dip with wet fingers (I tried this in the kitchen sink, not the toilet bowl). Now, Sony-Ericsson promises the screen on the Xperia Active is scratch resistant but as the phone vendor's PR people were antsy already about the devices, I didn't test this.
As the phone is small with just a three-inch screen, I was wondering how easy it would be to drive the Xperia Active with my fingers. It turned out to be just fine, thanks to Sony Ericsson's mostly sensible customisations to the standard Android user interface. You can use the phone with just one digit, like your thumb but text is quite small and would be difficult to read for some people.
Likewise, while the phone can record and play back 720p high-definition video and take fairly decent five megapixel photos, the small screen limits its usability as a multimedia device.
The sporty nature of Xperia Active is apparent from the bundled software: there's a Walkmate pedometer, the iMapMyFitness+ application that can read ANT+ compliant heart rate and pedalling cadence sensors, as well as the built-in GPS.
The version of Android on the Xperia Active is Gingerbread or 2.3.4; Sony Ericsson says the phone will get an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich or Android 4.0 which should come out soon.
Overall, the performance on the Xperia Active is snappy, thanks to a 1GHz processor and 512MB RAM. A 2GB MicroSD memory card is provided with the Xperia Active too for additional storage, and the phone has the usual 3G data connection as well as Wi-Fi networking.
An outdoors-oriented phone needs excellent battery life as you're not going to find a charger in the wilderness. The Xperia Active isn't all that impressive in this respect though, requiring a top-up at least once day with moderate use and more often if you fire up the sports apps with GPS active.
Once you drop the garish Billabong stuff, the Xperia Active is a neat splash-proof phone that offers a good set of features in a compact and durable package. Better yet, the phone is available from Telecom at very sporting $399 for both pre and postpaid customers.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Active
$399 including GST
Water and dust resistant sealing
Screen works with wet fingers and is legible in the sun
Fast 3G and Wi-Fi data
Recent Android version that's upgradable
Fitness apps included
Billabong branding not to everyone's taste
Text on small screen can be difficult to read