While HTC, Samsung and Apple are trying to outdo one another in terms of technology, Sony Ericsson has decided to focus on a niche section of smartphone buyers. The Xperia Play focussed entirely on gaming, the Ray targeted affordability and the latest newbie, the Active, is aimed at users who want a phone they can use and abuse. Water and dust resistant and packaged with an outdoor gear kit, will the Active jog in step with your lifestyle?
Ok, so you can't expect a smartphone that wants to defy (no pun intended, Motorola) the laws of nature to look like it's meant for the boardroom. The Active is small and boxy, and it also tries to look sporty, judging by the little wrist-strap holder that juts out of the bottom. The display is only 3-inches across, even tinier than the Nokia 701 I reviewed last week. At the bottom of the bezel are three backlit touch buttons for Return, Home and Options. There's a 5-meg rear camera embedded deep within the back panel, with a LED flash. There's no front facing camera with this one though.
The power button, volume toggle switch and camera shutter button are thin and flimsy, but you can't really complain because plastic has to be the material of choice for a water resistant phone. The back panel has two flaps at the bottom which reveal the 3.5mm headphone jack and USB port, and the Active often warned me that I had left them open, hence hampering the water-resistance.
To prevent the innards of the phone from shorting and sizzling in water, there are two layers at the back of the phone. The first is the interchangeable back panel which comes in a few colour options, and the next is a secondary, tough plastic cover that can be opened to reveal the battery, SIM and micro SD card slots. It's not really convenient if you want to take out your SIM card in a hurry, but it's necessary. Overall, it's pretty easy to assemble.
The Active runs Android v2.3 Gingerbread, just like its cousin the Ray. The interface has been tweaked a bit, so when you unlock the phone, the four corners of your homescreen have little quarter-circles which can be pressed to bring up apps. You can choose to have single or multiple apps in these quarters, and you can also group apps in the same category or those which you use often. It's actually a clever way of making the most out of a small screen. There's also the standard notification bar on top and a Menu button at bottom centre.
The Active features five homescreens, and you can customise them with the usual Android widgets and shortcuts. It's just that you'll have to make do with fewer on each screen.
Apart from Sony Ericsson's Timescape app for social networking, the Active also features Facebook integration. You can download a host of relevant apps in the Sony Ericsson channel in the Android market.
Gmail is fast and efficient on the phone, as is the browser which is really fast. The touchscreen was really responsive, and it supports tap to zoom and pinch to zoom.
Some of you may have worries about the keyboard on such a small screen, but it actually works fine. I typed out a long email in portrait mode, and even though I made a bunch of typos, the auto correction on Android is great. That said, you'd be better off using landscape mode for your typing needs.
The small screen size isn't ideal for watching videos, but I streamed a couple of YouTube videos and they played back sharp and clear, and sound quality was also quite loud. The only problem here is that the Active's speaker is located on the back panel (again for water-resistance reasons), so if the phone is placed flat on its back, the sound gets really muffled. This also affects the volume of the ringtone and notifications, which I often missed because I didn't hear them.
The 5-meg camera is capable of HD video recording, a big plus point on a phone like this. Photo quality is also decent, but using the flash does give a yellowish tint to your snaps.
The great outdoors
Before I get into the water-resistance bit, let's look at the additional features the Active comes with. The gear kit for the phone includes an arm-band with a Velcro strap to wear when you're going for a run or working out. It's got a transparent plastic cover, and surprisingly you can use the touchscreen through it as well. Unfortunately, the headphone slot of the phone is at the bottom, so you'll have to stuff a bit of the cord into the arm strap when you have that plugged in. The headphones come with over-ear clips to prevent them from falling off when on-the-go. The plastic wristband can be fixed onto the slot at the bottom.
The Active comes with a few pre-loaded fitness apps like iMapMyFitness + and WalkMate, which is a pedometer. It also features a compass and flashlight in case you get lost.
Sony Ericsson warns us that the Active is not completely waterproof, so you couldn't really go for a swim in the sea with it, but it's ok if it gets wet in the rain or falls in a pool of water. The phone is waterproof up to 1 metre for 30 minutes, just long enough to get an underwater shot in the swimming pool. Yes, the camera works underwater too. I dropped the phone in a bathtub and held it under running water, and it worked fine. The Active is also supposed to support wet-finger scrolling, which actually works, although it's not really easy to tap out a text on a wet screen.
Surprisingly, the Active does not disappoint on the performance front. It runs a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and has 512MB RAM. I had multiple apps open on the phone most of the time, and I never noticed any lags. Apps were quick to respond, and I didn't face any freezes.
Call quality was good, although the volume was a bit low for my liking. The small size of the phone also means you can't do the no-hands thing and nestle the phone between your neck and shoulder, because it'll just slip off.
Battery life was average, less than the Ray at just about 24 hours with the usual number of calls and data usage.
While a lot of you may be wondering who would really need a phone like the Active, I say the millions of people who live in cities like Mumbai where it rains constantly for four months, or the outdoorsy types who don't want to worry about dropping their phone in a puddle or dust scratching the screen. The Active definitely does have a niche market, but with its good performance, decent specs and affordable price, can appeal to other buyers too.
Love: Water resistance, no lags
Hate: Clunky looks, speaker gets muffled