The bonsai smartphone
Back in 2001, when pencil boxes still served as the dominant design inspiration for mobile phones, Ericsson (soon to become Sony Ericsson) launched a tiny, curvy phone called the T68. Its miniature size (about 100mm) belied its abilities—it was among the most feature-rich phones available, complete with Bluetooth, infrared, WAP, SMS with T9 and a nifty app to compose ringtones, everything the early 21st century prosumer would require.
Fast forward nine years later, and Sony Ericsson seems to have repeated this engineering feat with the X10 Mini Pro, compressing everything the “smartphone” of today has into a 90mm frame. It’s quite an excellent work of miniaturization, made doubly impressive by the phone’s surprising capabilities.
The X10 Mini Pro can be described with the clever use of nifty two-word phrases. It’s a Wi-Fi-enabled, Android-powered, almost-smartphone with a slide-out Qwerty keyboard and 5-megapixel camera. Sony Ericsson has cleverly modified Android to work on the tiny 2.6-inch screen, with four “short cuts” at the edge of the screen for easy access to contacts and messages. The software is fairly solid, although the mini runs the ageing 1.6 version of Android—which leads to a few compatibility issues with new apps on the Android Market, and occasional sluggishness with even basic functions such as answering calls or replying to messages. Sony Ericsson, however, has clarified that an update to Android version 2.1 and 2.2 is imminent.
Nano: The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro.
The keyboard is comfortable and pleasingly tactile, and typing out messages and email is even easier than on the 7-inch OlivePad. The on-board speakers are pleasingly loud, and the camera includes a flash. Browsing, while requiring a bit of squinting, is also robust and unproblematic.
Strangely, it’s the phone’s down-to-earth basics that let it down. Adding contacts or changing notification settings involves a needlessly complicated maze of menus, and a bizarre bug sometimes prevents you from answering a call—even repeated jabs at the touch screen do nothing. All these, however, can be solved with a simple software update. The miniature size also means less-than-recommended hardware beefiness—extensive multitasking does not lead to a happy place.
But the X10 Mini Pro’s strength far outshines its few weaknesses. It’s a fantastic phone in a marvellously small size, at half the cost of a regular smartphone (it retails for Rs17,865). After Sony Ericsson’s many smartphone misfires (the Satio, the Vivaz), the X10 Mini Pro is a welcome return to form.
The existential tablet
The OlivePad VT100 presents an interesting conundrum for the reviewer. It’s a Rs25,000 “tablet” device that’s too big to be lugged around as a smartphone (it weighs about half a kilo) and too small to replace your laptop (with a 7-inch screen), settling into that ambiguous middle ground Apple’s iPad assures us exists.
The OlivePad is a rectangular slab about a centimetre thick—it’s got a 800x480 display that’s bright and crisp, but doesn’t really compare with the iPad. It’s 3G-enabled, meaning calls can be made on it (if you’re comfortable with the image of holding a large notebook to the side of your face), and has a front-facing camera for 3G video calls, for when we finally get to that promised land. It runs Google’s Android operating system (version 2.1), which gives it access to a large library of apps, games and tools.
Tablet: The OlivePad VT100 runs Google’s Android mobile operating system.
The OlivePad works well as an e-book reader. The screen is bright and spacious, and the presence of an SD card slot means you can load thousands of books on to the device with ease. By extension, it’s a solid portable video player as well, with the battery easily lasting through a 3-hour film. Headphones arerecommended, however, as the OlivePad’s on-board speakers are tinny and ineffectual. Browsing is a breeze on Wi-Fi, with easy pinch-to-zoom and rudimentary Flash support through Android’s Skyfire browser.
But here’s where it starts to get complicated. While Android contributes to most of the device’s strengths, it is also its biggest weakness. There’s sluggishness all around when working with multiple applications, with the device frequently slowing to a crawl. Part of the reason could be the mediocre processor powering the device (newer smartphones such as HTC’s EVO 4G or the Sony Ericsson X10 have more powerful processors than the OlivePad), but the software is largely responsible. This is not, however, a deal-breaker. Android frequently works brilliantly, but it does tend to feel like the new Microsoft Windows ever so often. Happily, given the modular nature of the operating system—the home screens, menus and appearance can be customised with third-party applications.
Moving away from basic media consumption also makes the OlivePad look iffy. Typing is a bit of an acquired skill—good for chats or short emails, but a pain for longer documents. The screen is not precise enough for complex design or presentation work, and even composing a fairly straightforward blog post will tax your patience.
The OlivePad’s central identity crisis (what are you going to use this for?) is only exacerbated with familiarity. It’s a competent media player that’s too big and costly to be just that. It’s a wobbly, underpowered device for getting work done, and a mutant, overcharged replacement for a phone. You could argue that it’s a good e-book reader that can do a little Internet on the side, but at Rs25,000, that’s really grasping at straws.