The Sony Ericsson Xperia X8 splits the difference between a Sony Ericsson X10 and an X10 mini, and cuts the price, but we think it makes too many compromises. The cramped user interface that made the X10 mini usable looks out of place on the X8's bigger screen, and the sluggish user interface left us feeling deflated. Android can be a treat on such a cheap phone, but there are better choices for the price.
The X8 is for sale for free on a £15-a-month contract, or £130 unlocked and SIM-free.
The X10 occupies the middle ground between, the big, bold Xperia X10 and the teeny, tiny, Xperia X10 mini. But where the X10 flaunted a beautiful 4-inch screen and the X10 mini sported a case that could fit in the smallest pocket, the X8 lacks much to recommend it over other medium-sized phones. Because of that, the drawbacks that we could forgive its predicessors loom a lot larger for the X8.
For example, the X8 is running version 1.6 of Android, when the latest phones are on Android 2.2. That means you'll miss Android's improvements, like the support for mulitple Google accounts or Exchange email, so you'll need a separate, but pre-installed, app to get your work Outlook email.
If you've never had the latest Android features, you may not miss them, especially since Sony Eric has slapped its own user interface on top of the Android one. But even if you never miss using your phone as a wireless hotspot, or whatever, the older version of the OS is a signpost to the whiff of staleness that hangs over the X8.
The user interface has been lifted off the X10 mini, which has a 2.5-inch screen. The UI supports any number of home screens to swipe between, and the screens slide smoothly and pleasureably. But each screen can only show one widget at a time, rather than several like on most Android phones. That made sense on the eentsy, weentsy X10 mini, because you couldn't see or prod much more than that. But upping the screen to 3 inches makes the UI feel over-sized and clumsy, especially since the icons looks blurry on the 320 x 480 pixel HVGA resolution.
On the plus side, you see the full Qwerty on-screen keyboard whether in portrait mode or landscape mode. It's one of the best virtual keyboards around, with handy autocorrect. Unfortunately, the sluggishness of the phone meant that the keyboard couldn't always keep up with our typing.
Escape the Timescape
Despite the fact that it's an older version of the software, the Android OS on the X8 offers plenty to enjoy. You get access to the zillions of apps on the Android Market, including Facebook and Twitter apps galore, both official and experimental. Which is lucky, since the built-in social networking app on the X8, called Timescape, isn't up to much.
Timescape is a flippy widget that brings togetther texts, email and tweets into one stream. It's a good concept, but it doesn't do much in practice. Unlike on the X10, you can only see one update at a time on the home screen widget. You have to open the app to see the stream, and then only the first few words of each. And if you want to reply to a tweet, for example, it takes another tap to open your Web browser and load up the Twitter site.
At least you'll have no trouble getting connected, thanks to Wi-Fi and HSPA for fast browsing over 3G. There's also aGPS on board to help you find yourself. In our tests, calls were clear and the speaker was plenty loud enough, although we did find the phone dialler a bit slow to respond.
Music to our ears
The X8 does a decent job as an inexpensive music phone. The external speakers are surprisingly loud, so if you want to responsibly share your music with some consenting adults, that's an option. And the included earbud headphones are good-looking and of decent quality, despite feeling plasticy and light. We'd rather wear these white, in-ear 'phones rather than the sound-leaking ones that come with the iPhone.
Putting music onto the phone is easier than average too, since you can mount it just like an drive on your computer by plugging it in with a USB cable. That means you can drag and drop music onto the phone's memory card, without having to depend on some sketchy syncing software. You can also take advantage of music software like DoubleTwist or MediaMonkey to sort your sounds.
The music player on the X8 doesn't impress us hugely with its look and feel, lacking a fun way to browse albums by album art. But it gets the job done, and there's also an FM radio on board if you get bored of your own tunes.
The X8 doesn't include Mediascape, which was Sony Ericsson's photo, music and video app for Android that we saw on the X10. It's a pity, since we liked how Mediascape pulled in online albums from services like Picasa and Facebook. However, the X8 does have the "infinity button" in the media player. Tap it while a song is playing and it searches for related videos on YouTube and MP3s for sale in Sony's PlayNow music store.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia X8 would have been a decent, cheap Android smart phone if it had been released a year and half ago. But time has flown like a eagle on rollerskates, and budget handsets with the power of the little green robot have been bursting out all over the place.
The X8 isn't bad looking or useless, but there just better phones out there for the price. For example, the LG Optimus One will set you back about the same price on contract, and it sports the latest 2.2 version of Android with the slicker-looking default user interface, and the HTC Wildfire is a great-looking smart phone at that price-range.