Update, 12 September 2012: CNET UK originally published this review with a score of one and a half stars because of extremely poor software stability on the handset we were sent by Sony. We've since received a second device, which doesn't suffer from those major functionality flaws, so we've updated our review and increased the score to reflect the improved performance of this more stable phone.
Sony's Xperia Tipo is the latest dinky smart phone from the Japanese tech giant, this time aimed squarely at those of you with small hands gripped tightly around tiny purses.
It lays claim to being a hassle-free, easy-to-use bargain. But does it live up to that admirable goal?
Should I buy the Sony Xperia Tipo?
I was unable to recommend buying the Tipo in my original review because it was so buggy. Happily, the second unit CNET UK was sent by Sony does not appear to suffer from the major bugs that afflicted the first.
The Tipo will appeal to people on a budget who want to grab a more up-to-date version of Android than can be found on the majority of budget 'droids. It's not a powerhouse by any means but it should please a master with modest mobile needs.
There's no getting away from how tiny the Tipo is though, so it's not an ideal phone if you have large hands or sausage-sized fingers. Its small, low-res screen isn't a great place to do lots of web surfing or to watch your favourite TV shows. And its relatively low-powered engine means this is a phone only suited to basic snacking on mobile versions of websites and playing with lightweight apps.
The Tipo isn't amazing as a telephone either, with multiple callers reporting they had trouble hearing me, so if you want a mobile to do a lot of nattering, look elsewhere.
Android 4.0 and apps
As mentioned above, the Tipo is powered by Android 4.0 ICS. That's no longer the latest version of Google's operating system -- that honour goes to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. But it's very up to date for a phone with such a low price tag.
You're not given all the features of ICS though. Notably, you don't get to unlock the handset through facial recognition since the Tipo doesn't have a front-facing camera. And given the phone is skinned with a layer of Sony's software, you miss out on the Tron-esque look and feel -- one of the most noticeable changes ushered in with ICS.
All of this means the difference between bagging a Gingerbread 'droid and the Tipo, with its nipped and tucked ICS, isn't as great as you might think. What you do get is to flick notifications out of the tray when you've had enough of them, and if you hold down the home button it will bring up a stack of scrollable thumbnails showing your recent apps.
The Tipo also gets ICS's neat data menu -- where you can set a usage limit to alert you how much of your 3G tariff you're gobbling up.
Sony's custom Android interface is tailored to fit the Tipo's tiny screen. It gives you the usual multiple home screens to fill with apps and widgets though. But since the display is so small, the scope for info-packed widgets is limited.
Elsewhere, the Tipo comes pre-loaded with Sony services such as its PlayNow store, where you can download apps, music, games, wallpapers and so on -- much like Google's Play store (also pre-loaded but not always working). For even more media choice, you get Sony's Music Unlimited service and -- confusingly -- two galleries: Sony's Xperia Gallery and a standard Android gallery.
Quite why Sony thinks it's useful to have two ways to view photos on the Tipo is beyond me -- especially as the phone then prompts you to tell it which way you want to view photos (until you select a default viewer). Hassle free? Not exactly.
The 3.2-inch screen is another big low point, with a meagre resolution and a distinctly unresponsive feel.
Resolution is 320x480 pixels, which equates to a mere 180 pixels per inch. It's not the worst resolution I've encountered. For example, it's easier on the eye than even cheaper 'droids such as the LG Optimus L3 or the Samsung Galaxy Y. But it's low enough to make looking at it for longer than a few moments more of a chore than a delight.
Still, with a screen this size, you were never going to be doing rich web browsing or watching full-length films. This pane's size is tailored to texting, a spot of app-based social networking and lightweight gaming.
Arguably, even more annoying than the low pixel count is the unresponsive feel of the Tipo's pane. I found I needed to press quite hard to get it to register my taps and swipes. Apply even relatively light pressure to the pane and you'll have to watch your finger marks fade off the surface of the TFT panel where they've just been imprinted.
Apply less pressure and you might stop the pane flexing into the surface of the screen -- thus avoiding finger marks. But with lighter presses, I found myself having to tap away many times before the phone would fire up the app I was trying to open. Again: hassle free? Not a bit of it.
Power and performance
Don't expect Herculean feats from the tiny Tipo. It's driven by a single-core 800MHz processor, so this is not a phone for blasting through graphically demanding games. Not that it would be worth trying to do so on this tiny low-res screen.
It's not all bad though. The Tipo can offer okay performance for basic stuff like texts, checking Facebook, playing a few simple games and snacking on mobile websites. It can even feel pretty nippy for such a tiddler, letting you swoop through menus and browse mobile websites without lashings of frustrating lag. It's certainly slicker than another budget ICS blower -- HTC's awfully sluggish Desire C, which only packs a 600MHz chip.
If you mostly just want to play basic games like Angry Birds, check mobile websites and keep up with your Facebook buddies then the Tipo has your back.
In graphics and CPU benchmarks, the Tipo was a barrel scraper -- scoring only 1,527 on Quadrant's test and 2,766 on Antutu's benchmark.
If you're wondering about its music credentials, the Tipo can pump out reasonably loud noise considering how tiddly it is. I didn't hear any distortion at the top of the range.
Sony has added its xLoud tech to the phone, which apparently enhances the loudness of the rear speaker. I couldn't hear a massive difference but it sounded slightly louder with xLoud on.
Call quality is average to poor, with voices sounding muffled and a background hum in evidence. On more than one test call, the person I was speaking to had trouble hearing me for portions of the chat.
Battery life is not something you'll need to worry about. Sony's marketing bumpf claims the Tipo's long-life battery can last a whopping 24 hours' use on a single charge. That sounds unbelievably long -- considering the official usage stats are a little more modest: up to 5 hours of talk time, up to 3 hours of video playback or up to 30 hours of music listening. Standby time is pegged at up to 470 hours.
I found battery performance to be pretty good. If you're an average phone user you should easily get a day's use out of the Tipo before needing to charge it.
Design and build
The Tipo is incredibly small -- certainly by today's phablet standards. The display measures a mere 3.2 inches on the diagonal, so if you have big hands or fat fingers, typing on the Tipo will inevitably result in it living up to its typo-sounding name.
Of course, on the other hand, small-handed folk won't have trouble grappling with this phone. It's palm sized and can be tucked away into all but the tiniest of pockets.
The back of the phone has a tactile, soft, round-edged matte coating that feels slightly rubberised, making it pleasingly pebble-like to hold. It's also very lightweight (99.4g) and fairly thin (13mm), considering its small footprint.
The Tipo's next most distinguishing feature is a sloping, recessed chin that sits beneath the touchscreen. This doesn't do anything apart from rope off a VIP area for the Xperia logo to sit on but it breaks up the basic slab shape slightly.
Build quality feels average for a predominantly plastic blower. Apply some pressure to the removable back and it will flex, creak and pull open at the sides so this is definitely not a rock-solid slab.
Sony is offering the Tipo in a choice of two bright colours -- red or blue -- along with two less inspiring choices -- black or white.
As well as three touch-keys on the front of the phone, used to navigate around the OS -- back, home and menu -- there's a power key on top, which I found a little hard to press because it's very low lying, and a volume rocker on the side.
Ports wise, you get a micro-USB port on the side for charging the phone and ferrying media back and forth, and a 3.5mm headphone jack up top. Crack off the back and remove the battery and you can get to the SIM and microSD card slots.
Internal storage space stretches to 2.5GB but you can expand this by sticking your own SD card in the phone.
Around the back of the Tipo is a 3.2-megapixel camera. The first thing to note is there's no flash, so abandon all thoughts of papping your buddies after dark. The second thing to note is there's a fixed focus -- expect lots of your shots to be blurry.
Even in daylight, shots from the Tipo look blotchy, noisy and slightly surreal, with brighter colours bleeding out and more muted tones appearing scrubbed of their detail. If you're after a lens that can capture crisp images, this isn't it. The best you can hope for from the Tipo is some really poor quality Facebook snaps.
Likewise, don't expect anything better than YouTube quality clips if you're shooting a video on this phone.
The Sony Xperia Tipo delivers Ice Cream Sandwich to Android lovers on a tight budget. It's not super-fast but for basic tasks it can feel nippy enough -- which is more than you can say for the other ICS 'droid at this price, HTC's Desire C.
The Tipo won't stand up to demanding use -- having a pretty tiddly engine and a cramped, low-res screen -- but if your mobile needs are as modest as your budget, you shouldn't have too many complaints. I did have some issues with poor telephone reception though, so if you want to do a lot of chinwagging, I'd look elsewhere.
It's also worth mentioning that spending £100 can bag you a 1GHz chip and a clear, roomy 4-inch screen these days -- in the form of Huawei's excellent Ascend G300 -- so be aware you're paying over the odds to put ICS and Sony's brand name in your back pocket.
Additional writing and reviewing by Luke Westaway.