An Android-exclusive feature – rugged smartphones have literally been riding the wave, since the launch of the Motorola Defy that packed quite a punch or two in it’s IP67 certified shield. This year, more competitors, like the Xperia Active, the Defy+ and the Samsung Xcover entered the rugged Android smartphone race. Sony Ericsson’s latest entrant in their Xperia series, the Active or the ST17i is built and designed for those wanting to or have an active lifestyle. But is it worth the bucks? Let’s find out. 

A 3 inch Bravia Mobile display

A 3 inch Bravia Mobile display

Design and Build Quality

The first thing you’ll notice about the Xperia Active is its relatively miniscule display size. It's relative, if you compare it to the 4+ inches sized phones that are currently in the market. But the Active doesn’t aim to compete with them, in terms of display size. It has got a rather different ace up its sleeve. It’s a rugged smartphone and with the design it’s got, it’ll take care of you, rather than the other way round.

Dual protection layers

Dual protection layers

Rugged generally indicates a sturdy, strong, no-nonsense design. But, the Active is not built like an armoured combat vehicle; on the contrary, it’s got this cutesy appearance that might just make people wrongly overlook this phone. The phone has a rubberized back with a silver rim running along the sides and owing to its size; it fits snugly into your hand. The rubberized finish pretty much ensures it doesn’t slip out of your hands. Also, it isn’t too heavy, with the weight being 110.8 grams. 

Sealing up the connectors

Sealing up the connectors

The front consists of the 3-inch Bravia Mobile engine LED-backlit LCD screen with an ambient light sensor and a notification LED above it. Also, SE has put in two proximity sensors, yes two, and we’re not too sure about the functionality of the second one. Sadly, it doesn’t come with a secondary camera. Those who want to take self-shots during a rainy hike, or just whilst surfing might have to put those thoughts aside, for now at least. The first of the two noise cancelling microphones is located right underneath the screen, whilst the second is located at the back, next to the 5 megapixel camera, the LED flash and the loudspeaker. The left consists of the power button, the volume rocker and dedicated camera button are located on the right. The only two physical connectivity options, the 3.5mm slot and the microUSB slot are located at the bottom, under air-tight rubberized flaps. There’s a slight gap above the buttons, which facilitates easy removal and securing of the flap, whilst still adhering to the water resistance certification. 

Two proximity sensors on top of the screen

Two proximity sensors on top of the screen

There’s some engineering goodness under the back cover. Access to the internal parts of the phone is restricted by a second plastic case with a rubber seal along the sides that ensures it stays air-tight on the internal chassis. The 1200 mAh battery, SIM card and the microSD card are located underneath the dual protection covers. The memory card isn’t located under the battery though, and you can swap it without having to restart your phone. With all the protection mechanisms and flaps underneath that shell, the Xperia looks and feels like a powerful rugged device.

That said, it’s not the kind of phone you’ll take when you’re in the mood to go scuba diving. It’s important to know what the phone can and can’t do with the Ingress Protection rating it has got. At IP67, the numerical six indicates that it’s totally protected against dust, whilst the numerical seven indicates that it’s protected against the effect of immersion between 15cm and 1m for up to half an hour. 

Comes with a load of accessories

Comes with a load of accessories

The phone comes with additional gear as well in the form of an armband, which could have been designed better to incorporate the headphone jack in the casing; a rubberized lanyard strap that you can wear on your wrist ala the strap on a Wii-remote and ear hooks to keep your headphones firmly in place. There are a couple of interchangeable back panels as well.

The bundled arm band accessory

The bundled arm band accessory

With the unique design and the reinforced build, the Active is a nimble and small, but a sporty and rugged Android smartphone that you won’t need to worry too much about. We performed a couple of underwater tests on the phone. Head over to the video below to see the phone being pushed to its limits. 

 

Features

Interface

The Active runs on a 1GHz Scorpion processor with an Adreno 205 graphics processing unit. With that processing power, we expected the onboard Timescape UI and the corner icon homescreen to work quick and smooth, and the phone didn’t disappoint. Flicking through the menus and overall navigation is as quick as any other top-tier handset. Multitasking is handled pretty well with 512 MB of RAM and internal storage amounts to 1GB, of which 320 MB is user available. 

The interface

The interface

The four corners of the screen can hold shortcuts to applications and the rest of the screen is dedicated to widgets, shortcuts and other applications. In case a widget is too big, the top or the bottom corner icons get hidden to incorporate it onto the screen. The Timescape UI now supports calls, Facebook, messages and Twitter in its timeline and it does prove particularly useful if you quickly want to browse through your Twitter feeds. 

The phone has a wet finger tracking feature and though there is a certain threshold after which it doesn’t recognize the wet touch, it works pretty well and will help those who use their phone whilst sweating it out in the gym or jogging in the rain. 

The benchmarks

The benchmarks

We put the phone through a couple of synthetic tests as well. AnTuTu gave the Active a benchmark score of 2888, putting it in a similar range of the Nexus S. Linpack gave a single thread score of 33.706 MFLOPS and a multi thread score of 38.141 MFLOPS, which is telling. 

Media

The upper corner icons make a comeback in the in-built media player and they provide access to the current playlist and the tracks in the library. The music player is slightly modified from the Xperia Ray we reviewed earlier, with the infinite button and the other icons located on the top. Everything else remains pretty much the same. The album art occupies a big chunk of the screen with the playback options located underneath. Ten preset equalizers are available, but there’s no way to have custom equalizer settings. The xLOUD speaker enhancement is included as well.

The music player interface

The music player interface

We didn’t get company headphones with our review unit, so we tried playback with our Koss test headphones. The music is quite loud and the enhancements and equalizers do have a substantial effect on the frequency response of the sound that is sampled. Bass has the right amount of thump and the mid-tones are handled well. Playback via loudspeakers is loud enough to fill up a small room. Sony doesn’t generally disappoint with music and the Active follows that trend. 

The supported audio codecs include MP3, eAAC+ and WAV whilst video support is limited to MP4, H.263 and H.264. With the range of software available in the Android market, that limitation can somewhat be overcome.

Air tight flaps for the connectors

The headphone jack is at the bottom of the phone

It’s capable of recording at 720p at 30fps, so naturally 720p playback is supported. Video playback on a screen that size might not provide users with the best mobile experience, but the Bravia Mobile engine adds to the feel as the screen appears bright and vivid. To finish off the media part, the phone comes with FM radio, which gets good reception even while traveling, but we’ll remind you that we used test headphones, as the metal jack works as the antenna. So, the experience could differ if you use headphones that come bundled with the phone. TrackID has been included in previous Xperia phones as well, and it’s basically an application like Shazam, it tells you what song you’re currently listening to. 

Connectivity

The Xperia Active is a quad-band GSM phone and in-call voice quality is quite clear and audible. The loudspeaker also works satisfactorily loud during calls. Next up, there’s Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP and EDR, Wi-Fi b/g/n with DLNA and hotspot capabilities and 3G downloading at 7.2 Mbps and uploading at 5.8 Mbps. 

Connectivity options

Connectivity options

We’ll remind you, it’s also a fitness phone and if you’re using it to the fullest, you’ll use GPS more often than not. Connectivity via GPS is quick, and though their pre-installed app Wisepilot is somewhat limited in terms of countries, it is quite snappy and fast. Browsing through websites is easy as sites load quick on a good Internet connection and the 1GHz processor ensures that navigation (zooming, panning, opening new tabs) isn’t laggy or stuttering. Also, it has got flash support and embedded videos work quite well. The LiveWare Manager application helps you instantly launch applications based on the devices you connect to your phone, so for example, the phone will start the music app when you plug in the headphones, and accessories are supported over Bluetooth as well. 

Lastly, the Xperia Active comes with ANT+ support, which is an important tool, if you actually want to use this phone rigorously as your fitness device. ANT+ is a Wireless Personal Network protocol that runs on a 2.4GHz frequency range and turns the Active into a portable logging tool. ANT+ might initially seem like an unnecessary feature to some, but if you’re using any sport or health device like a blood pressure or heart rate monitor, this technology will wirelessly sync all your data from that device to your phone, thus making the Active – an active logging device. 

The Fitness app using ANT+

The Fitness app using ANT+

With the embedded ANT+ technology, the Active aims to turn your lifestyle into a more active one. The app iMapMyFITNESS+ is easy to use and after a quick sign up, you can map and log all your fitness details. The nutrition sub menu is quite interesting – it lets you input the food type and based on your weight and height, it helps calculate how much weight you need to lose or gain, the calories required, etc. The application in itself is productive and useful even if all you’re looking for is a diet assistant on your phone. 

The misc. features

The misc. features

Misc. Features

We spoke earlier about how this phone has got the potential to take care of you and your fitness needs, and with the amount of pre-loaded apps that Sony’s got onto the phone, it further solidifies our claim. Besides the miscellaneous apps we spoke about in the earlier sections, the phone comes with an in-built compass, a flashlight app and Walkmate, that counts the number of steps you’ve walked today. It also allows you to keep a monthly or weekly goal, so if you’re one of those people wanting to keep a track of how much you have walked or jogged, this application does become pretty handy. The other apps include Xperia Hot Shots, OfficeSuite, Uefa.com and NeoReader. 

An underwater snap

An underwater snap

Camera

The phone is strapped with a 5 megapixel autofocus camera with an LED flash. Outdoor and indoor images come out quite well and the flash is powerful enough for close shots. Camera options and customizations are pretty standard, like the other Xperias. Macro shots are quite impressive. The camera also supports 3D sweep panorama shots.  

As can be seen from the video, we tried underwater shots and video recording and the Active is extremely impressive. The snaps come out clear and sharp and though recording might get a little shaky, due to the ripples in the water, it's of extremely good quality. 

Impressive macro shots

Impressive macro shots

Video playback is supported at 720p at 30fps. Videos are quite clear, though there’s some amount of colour banding, especially if you move the camera from a bright to a dark subject. If you’re intending to use it for outdoor recording as well, the phone captures some pretty good videos. 

Battery Life

The Active comes with a 1200 mAh battery and we had doubts if it could survive the full day with all the power it has packed inside its shell. On normal usage, it lasts about a day, with active Wi-Fi connections and that’s quite impressive. We put it through our customary loop tests and the battery lasted for 2 and a half hour of calling, 2 hours of video, 2 hours of audio and 2 hours of streaming via Wi-Fi, making it a total of 8 and a half hours of rigorous usage. In our video loop test, the phone lasted for 6 hours 20 minutes and the battery life is quite good 

The Active - a powerful rugged smartphone

The Active – a powerful rugged smartphone

Verdict

The Xperia Active is priced at Rs. 19,500 (MRP) and the increasing difference between the Rupee and Dollar is taking its toll on the pricing of smartphones as well. We're mentioning this because just a few days back, the market operating price for the phone was around Rs.17,500. The only competition at present to the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active is the Motorola Defy+, which we'll be reviewing shortly, so stay tuned for that.

As far as the ruggedness is concerned, we found the Xperia Active to be top-notch. It stood up to all our tests and braved all the environments and stress tests we put it under. If a rugged phone doesn’t suit your taste for whatever reason, the Sony Ericsson Neo V that we reviewed earlier will make for a cheaper buy, but again, the Neo V caters to a completely different audience. 

The Xperia Active is designed for people who love outdoor activities like cycling, running, gymming, jogging in the rain or even for people who are clumsy. It also caters to the more serious bunch of hikers, surfers, snowboarders or mountain climbers. However, even if you’re not an outdoor person, but are looking for a reason to become one, the Xperia Active is a fantastic option. 

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