Last year's X10 Mini Pro was pretty well received, but it was criticised for its small screen, middling performance and use of an ageing version of Android. Sony Ericsson seems to have taken heed of what the critics said. The Mini Pro is still one of the smallest Android phones around, but it now includes a slightly larger screen, a speedier chip and more up-to-date version of Android.
With a price tag of around £240 SIM-free, it's significantly cheaper than the likes of the Xperia Arc. But how much have these changes added to the desirability of this rather dinky phone?
Should I buy the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro?
Not everyone wants a smart phone with a large screen, but usually you have to compromise on features if you opt for a smaller device. Despite its small size, however, the Mini Pro manages to pack in pretty much all the goodies you'll find on larger phones.
And those who spend a large amount of time using their phone for messaging -- whether it's tapping out SMS messages, sending emails or posting Facebook updates -- are likely to find the Mini Pro's slide-out keyboard hugely useful, as once you acclimatise to the small keys it's faster to use than most onscreen keyboards.
The tinchy screen does means this phone isn't ideal for Web browsing, however, as you have to do a lot of zooming-in just to be able to read normal text on websites. It lessens the impact of videos too. Also, the camera is quite poor -- not just for snapshots, but also for recording videos. The 720p HD mode, for example, doesn't produce videos that look anywhere near as sharp as what you'll get from the iPhone 4's camera.
You'll have to weigh up those factors, for and against, versus the phone's price. If none of the problems are a dealbreaker for you, this could be the pocketable Qwerty Android phone you've been looking for. Now, let's show you how we reached that verdict.
Operating system, apps and widgets
The Xperia Pro Mini gets off to a good start by coming with the latest version of Android for mobile phones -- version 2.3.3, or Gingerbread as it's commonly known. There isn't a huge difference between 2.2 and 2.3, but it's always better to start with the newest version of the OS, as manufacturers have on the whole been quite slow to bring out OS updates for their phones. 2.3's improvements include a slightly slicker user interface and much better text entry, thanks to the updated cut and paste features.
That said, Sony Ericsson hasn't just left you with the vanilla Android interface. Instead it's added its own UI enhancements over the top and they turn out to be pretty impressive.
The home screen now includes what Sony Ericsson refers to as 'hot corners'. These are basically four permanent shortcuts enclosed in a quarter circle at each corner of the display. The top right is home to the media shortcut button. Press this and it expands into three icons for the music player, media gallery and FM tuner.
The bottom right corner has a shortcut to the dialler, while the bottom left shortcut takes you directly to your contacts book. Finally, in the top left there's a shortcut that opens the SMS messaging app. These shortcuts aren't locked down, though, as each corner can house up to four icons. To add new ones you just go to the app drawer, tap and hold on an icon and then drag it into the corner where you want it to reside.
As with the plain version of Android, you still get multiple home screens that are accessible by swiping back and forth. You can populate these with a number of different live widgets and interestingly, if you place a widget near the top of the screen where the two hot corners are, they'll disappear from that home screen to clear the space for the widget, but will remain on the other screens.
Sony Ericsson has included a number of extra widgets alongside the standard ones that come with Android. These cover stuff like weather forecasts, data-usage tools and Sony's Qriocity video service. Some of these are more useful than others. The weather widget, for example, isn't a patch on HTC's.
Tap the menu button at the bottom of the homescreen and you're taken into the app drawer, which has also had a make over. Apps are listed across a number of sideways-scrolling screens, with a neat transparent window framing each screen of apps. You can quickly change the sorting of the apps by tapping on a down arrow icon on the left-hand side of the display.
Apps can be shuffled into alphabetical order or listed by most recently installed. Tapping on the square icon on the right-hand side of the screen sets the icons jiggling so you can move them around into your own order, if you want. This is very similar to how it works on the iPhone.
The interface benefits from plenty of neat animations. When you put the phone into standby, for example, the screen folds together into a thin strip of white light, as if you were turning off an old TV. To take the phone out of standby you press the standby button at the top and then swipe sideways to unlock it, which is also very reminiscent of the iPhone.
Naturally, Sony Ericsson has also added its own apps, including a much-improved music player and a media gallery that not only shows the pictures stored on the phone, but also drags in images from social-networking sites such as Facebook. In fact, the phone is more tightly integrated with Facebook than many of its rivals. Friends' birthdays and other events are automatically added from Facebook to your calendar, for example. You can also recommend music and videos to your friends from the Now Playing screen in the media player.
In the app drawer you'll also find the Timescape application. This is a sort of a unified inbox that brings together Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, text messages and missed calls in one place. It shows these as a stack of 3D tiles you can thumb through quickly. It looks cool, but if you open a message you just end up in the full Facebook or text-messaging app, so it's more eye candy than a time-saving tool.
Other apps preinstalled include the What's App free text-messaging service, Sony's Music Unlimited service (which requires a subscription), the Neo Reader barcode scanner, which lets you search for products online via Amazon, Google or eBay, and the Play Now store, where you can buy games, apps, music and wallpapers.
Specs and performance
One of the first things you notice using the Mini Pro is its sheer speed. There's no hanging around waiting for menus to appear and no jerky, sluggish animations. Everything moves along at a cracking pace. This is mainly due to the processor's speed being upped from the 600MHz chip used in the X10 Mini Pro to a second-generation 1GHz Snapdragon processor. This is backed up by a fairly generous 512MB of RAM.
Internal storage isn't that large, with only 320MB to play with. As you would expect, the Mini Pro has a microSD slot to allow you to bump up the amount of space available for videos, music, photos and other files. Unfortunately to access this you have to take the battery cover off, but at least you don't have to remove the battery. Our model came with a 2GB card preinstalled, but the slot can accept cards of up to 32GB in size, so if you buy a larger card you'll have plenty of space available.
The phone has all the usual connectivity options, including HSDPA, wireless-n Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth 2.1. A DLNA media server means you can connect other devices in your network, such as a PS3 or HDTV, to the phone to view videos and photos on a bigger screen.
Power comes from a 1,200mAh battery, which is pretty much the same capacity you'll find on larger handsets. Unfortunately, the fast processor seems to be relatively power hungry, because battery life is certainly not one of the Mini Pro's strong points.
We found we'd be lucky to make it through an entire day without having to recharge the phone. If you make a lot of calls we reckon you're going to find yourself having to top it up in the evening if you don't want to completely run out of juice before the day is done.
We've got no complaints about call quality, though, but you do have to be careful about where you place phone when you're holding it against your ear, as the sweet spot for the earpiece is relatively narrow. In part this because of the phone's small size and after a while you do get used to it.
Wi-Fi and other bugs
Wi-Fi is more problematic though, as reception was weaker than on most other smart phones we've used. It had problems retaining a signal in an upstairs bedroom when connecting to a router downstairs in a fairly standard London terraced house.
It's also worth pointing out that during our time with the phone it completely crashed and rebooted itself on three occasions, which is not something we've had happen with other Android phones recently. It looks as though Sony Ericsson still has some work to do on this phone's firmware to fix a few bugs.
Design and feel
The Mini Pro definitely lives up to the Mini in its name, because at least in terms of height and width, this is a very dinky phone. It stands just 92mm tall and 52mm wide, and next to something like the HTC Incredible S it looks absolutely tiny.
It is quite a thick device, however, in part because its body has to accommodate the slide-out Qwerty keyboard. At 18mm it's almost twice as thick as some of the slimmer Android devices around at the moment, such as the 9mm Samsung Galaxy S2. Nevertheless, it feels comfortable to hold and the slightly rubberised finish on the battery cover makes it quite grippy too.
The phone is available in four colours -- white, black, pink and turquoise -- and we had the black version in for review. It looks pretty enough, but it's no head turner, which is partly due to its chunkiness. The front is finished in a glossy piano black, with a chrome band running around the outer edge of the phone. There are also some chrome accents used on the home button beneath the screen and the camera and volume rocker buttons on the right-hand side of the handset.
The home button at the bottom is flanked by the back and menu buttons, but Sony Ericsson has left off the search button you find on many Android phones. At the top of the handset you'll find a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, along with the power button/lock switch and a micro-USB port. As usual, the USB port is used for both charging and syncing the phone with your computer.
Qwerty keyboard in use
The Mini Pro's small dimensions make it feel like an old-style slider and as a result when you first get hold of it you feel as if you should push the screen upwards to access a keypad. Instead, you slide it sideways to reveal the full Qwerty keyboard. The sliding mechanism feels quite robust, but it slides straight out rather than tilting the screen upwards, as on some other Qwerty phones.
Limited by the dimensions of the phone, the keyboard is naturally very small and even if you don't have gorilla-sized paws you're likely to find it a tad cramped. Nevertheless, the buttons have a surprising amount of travel, so give satisfying feedback when you type. Sony Ericsson has sensibly included some space between the keys to help you avoid typing errors and once you get used to it you can tap out messages at a decent speed without introducing loads of typos.
The layout is very straightforward too, with numbers and most symbols reached via a blue Alt button. Handily it does include dedicate cursor keys for moving through bits of text and major punctuation marks, such as the full stop, @ symbol and comma, are on their own dedicated keys. Overall, although it's not the best keyboard to grace a smart phone, it is very usable and makes the most of the available space.
If the keyboard is hampered by the phone's small size, the screen is even more of a compromise. Sony Ericsson has thankfully increased the screen size slightly from the X10, as this model has a 3-inch display, which is up from the 2.55-inch screen used on the X10 Mini Pro. The resolution has stayed the same, but at least at 320x480 pixels it's relatively high for the screen size. The display is a capacitive screen, so it supports multi-touch gestures such as pinch to zoom in the browser -- handy, as you really will need to use the zooming feature a lot.
The tiny screen does compromise the browsing experience, as when you use the browser in portrait mode you have to do an enormous amount of zooming in just to be able to read text on a website. Things are slightly better in landscape mode, but not by all that much. You still can't really read columns of text on pages without using at least one level of zoom, unlike most larger smart phones.
Also the onscreen portrait keyboard is set by default to a keypad-type layout with multiple letters per key, which is annoying. You can change it to a standard Qwerty layout, but then it's quite fiddly to use.
The small screen also means videos and pictures lack the impact they have on devices with larger displays. We wouldn't particularly like to watch a full movie on the Mini Pro on a flight or train journey, for example, but we'd happily watch one on a larger screened device such as the HTC Sensation.
In other ways, though, the screen is actually quite good. Contrast performance is impressive, so it's good at teasing subtle detail out of darker areas of pictures or videos, and colours are rich and strong. Brightness levels are good too, and it's certainly very useable outdoors under stronger sunlight.
The handset comes with a pair of pretty standard headphones that include an in-line microphone so you can use them as a hands-free headset. The mic also has a button on it that acts both as a call control and a play/pause button for the music app. The headphones use standard ear pieces, rather than the in-ear design you get with some of Sony Ericsson's higher-end phones. As a result they're not as effective at blocking out background noise.
Nevertheless, the sound quality from these buds is actually quite good. Bass response is warm and fairly full bodied, and there's good mid-range presence too, so vocals and distorted guitars punch through in the mix.
Rather than simply relying on the standard Android music player, Sony has crated its own app. This isn't hugely different to the native app, but does include some extra features, such as a thumbs-up button that lets you post Like messages to Facebook about tracks you're listening to. There's also an Infinity icon that gives you access to the band's Wikipedia page or lets you search for lyrics, among other things. The built-in equaliser offers a range of presets for dance, heavy metal, hip-hop and the like. You can't create your own custom presets, which is a shame.
This phone also includes an FM tuner, which is available when you plug in the headset, as it uses the headphone cable as an aerial. The tuner seems to be fairly sensitive and reception was on the whole very good. Interestingly, the radio app includes Sony's TrackID service. Hit the TrackID button and the phone will record a snippet of the track you're listening to, upload it to the Internet and then come back to you with the song title and artist name, which is handy.
The media gallery is where you'll find all your videos and pictures mixed in together. Unfortunately the video player doesn't recognise common file formats such as DivX and Xvid videos. If you download a video player such as the ArcMedia player, however, you'll find that the playback quality is very smooth -- videos look great on the Mini Pro's screen.
The phone also has a neat YouTube app that's easy to navigate and as Flash is supported you can also play back videos from websites, including CNET UK's own nifty video reviews. The BBC iPlayer also worked without any problems.
The phone has both a front-facing VGA camera that can be used for video calls and video conferenceing, as well as the rear 5-megapixel main camera. The main camera supports auto-focus and has a small LED flash to help out under low-light shooting conditions.
The camera app includes a number of useful features, such as red-eye reduction and smile shot, where the camera waits until the subject in your picture is actually smiling before taking the photo. Like the iPhone it also includes touch focus, where you touch an area of the image on the screen to get the camera to focus in on that part of the picture.
It's a shame then that the results from the camera are disappointing. It has a tendency to burn out highlights on brighter areas of the image, leaving pictures with an overexposed look. And while photos appear sharp on the phone's small screen, when you transfer them to a computer and zoom in it quickly becomes apparent the detail and sharpness is a tad lacking. In fact, we've seen phones with 3-megapixel cameras that produce better results.
Perhaps the biggest change on the camera front from the older X10 model is this handset now allows you to shoot video in high definition. Unfortunately this doesn't stretch all the way to Full HD, topping out at 1,280x720 pixels, which is essentially 720p or normal HD.
You're given plenty of control over the camera in video mode. You can switch the focus mode between face detection, single auto focus or set focus to infinity, for example. A stabiliser aims to smooth out camera shakes, and there are a number of scene modes for sport, landscapes and shooting at night.
Again, though, the resulting video is a letdown. In 720p mode video comes out looking very soft and almost blurry. In fact, videos just don't have the sharpness or detail we'd expect from a 720p camera and instead almost look as though they've been upscaled from a lower resolution. Colours are also a tad washed-out and lack impact, which tends to lend your movies a flat and lifeless look. All in all, it's quite disappointing.
Overall, though, the Mini Pro is a likeable little device. Its smaller dimensions set it apart from the competition and its slide-out Qwerty keyboard, although small, is still very useable. The speedy processor also makes it feel very fluid to use and the user interface tweaks Sony Ericsson has added over the top of Android work extremely well.
The camera is poor, however, both for snaps and videos, battery life is short, and the small screen does hamper its usability. As a result, the Mini Pro's minuscule charms won't appeal to everyone.
Edited by Nick Hide