Sony Ericsson Aspen
Consider it bad timing for the Sony Ericsson Aspen when it was announced just before the Barcelona-based Mobile World Congress in February 2010, where Microsoft unveiled its next-generation mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7. The Aspen, which runs on Windows Mobile 6.5.3, is one of the last few Windows Mobile (WM) smartphones before Windows Phone 7 launches by the end of this year. What the Sony Ericsson brings to the table is a combination of a touchscreen and standard QWERTY keyboard in a candybar, with green credentials to boot.
The Aspen isn’t likely to oust the BlackBerry Bold 9700 or Nokia E72 in the design department. The plasticky outfit is creaky and the curved back makes the Aspen a rather chubby candybar, with a tendency to spin when set on the table. That said, we like the roomy directional pad and the firm, domed buttons on the keyboard. The layout of the latter also sees common punctuations, such as the full stop and comma, getting their own dedicated keys.
Above the keyboard is a 2.4-inch (320 x 240-pixel) resistive touchscreen capable of displaying 65k colors. This is a run-of-the-mill panel, which when we checked it out lacked contrast and was near impossible to read under the sun. Its usefulness was also limited given its tiny size and low resolution. Some people will be glad to have this dual input combination, but others will think it pointless. At the top right corner is a pull-out stylus, which provides an alternative to pecking at the touchscreen with the tip of your nails.
The Aspen comes with a standard 3.5mm audio jack found at the top. On the left edge is a micro-USB port for charging and synchronization with the PC, and on the opposite side is where you find the volume toggle. To access the microSD card, you’ll need to remove the backing by prying open the cover aided by a tiny slit at the bottom. At the back are the 3.2-megapixel camera and onboard speakers. The former is flush into the chassis to prevent accidental scratches.
According to Sony Ericsson, recycled materials, waterborne paint and environmentally friendly processes have gone into the production of the Aspen, an aspect that will appeal to treehuggers. In reality, no one would be able to make out the eco origins of the Aspen unless told.
The Aspen runs on Windows Mobile 6.5.3 Professional and comes with six preinstalled home screens in addition to the WM stock nterface. These include a Sony Ericsson panel, two SPB Mobile Shell panels (professional and lifestyle), a Support panel and two others that serve a single function each, one for Skype and the other for Facebook. Note that the latter two are not applications, so you can’t, for instance, run Skype and SPB panels concurrently. What you can do is configure the panels to switch automatically at different times of the day.
Aside from the home screens, Sony Ericsson also included a shortcut interface called SlideView, a concept which is rather similar to what the default WM6.5 home screen offers. Pushing the dedicated SlideView button pulls up a list of shortcuts to Messages, Facebook, Calendar, Media and Panels. Pressing right on each of these options brings you to additional functions. For example, in Messages, you’ll see an aggregation of SMS/MMS and email accounts you’ve set up on the Aspen. In Media, you’ll find Music, Radio, Pictures, Videos and Games.
As good as they sound, these customizations offer only a top-level experience. Once you go slightly deeper into the menus, you’ll be thrown back to the vanilla WM interface. So you end up bouncing from a custom to a stock interface frequently, which can be disorientating. It feels like Sony Ericsson cobbled together a few elements to differentiate the Aspen from competing products that don’t offer any custom user experience, but with a rather half-hearted implementation.
The Aspen is no slouch as a smartphone with support for smart dialing directly from the home screen, Internet sharing capability, quad-band GSM with 7.3Mbps HSDPA and 2Mbps HSUPA, Wi-Fi, Assisted-GPS and Bluetooth stereo A2DP. However, it lacks a front-facing camera for video calling and a proximity sensor for auto screen locking when placing a call. The latter doesn’t really matter as the screen is a resistive panel and thus less prone to accidental presses when the phone is next to the ear.
What the Aspen excels in is with its tight integration of Microsoft Exchange. There’s also a sizable catalog of third-party applications online, but the primary place where you can download apps is through the Windows Marketplace. This doesn’t work out-of-the-box as the program will only install the first time you run it. The user experience isn’t as good as the Apple App Store or the Android Market, but the interface is at least straightforward. There are shortcuts to the most popular apps, recent inclusions, as well as a category view of the programs and showcased titles. A search function is also provided. In each application, aside from app description and requirements, there are also user reviews, screenshots and starred ratings.
A number of apps are preinstalled on the Aspen. These include Internet Explorer Mobile with support for Flash Lite 3.1, Windows Live Messenger, Office Mobile, Google Maps, Skype, F-Secure Mobile Security, a YouTube player, Bing, Gokivo Navigator, Express News reader and a PDF reader. One of the biggest pain points of the browser, ironically, isn’t the small screen size but the zoom bar which overlaps the Go and Close buttons.
The 3.2-megapixel camera is as basic as it gets, although it supports geotagging. There’re no autofocus, built-in flash or configurable settings. Picture quality was passable only for quick snapshots, so don’t expect much from the shooter. It records VGA videos at 15fps. See some of the test pictures and video on the next page.
The Aspen is powered by a 600MHz processor with 256MB RAM, 256MB ROM and approximately 100MB of user memory. We didn’t encounter any significant issues with the general performance of the handset, although the Aspen struggled to keep up during certain tasks such as switching panels and in multimedia.
The 1,500mAh lithium-polymer battery is rated for up to 10 hours of talktime and 18.7 days on standby. Battery life was respectable with the Aspen chugging along for about two days with Gmail and push-email on our Exchange account switched on before the warning indicator came on.
In-call volume was good, but the onboard speakers were on the soft side.
Windows Mobile 6.5.3 was introduced with a few features including support for a capacitive touchscreen, multitouch, touch controls throughout the system and a more consistent navigation. However, these were mostly moot for the Sony Ericsson Aspen as the small display negated most of these enhancements. But at least the company preinstalled several home screen customizations for the user out-of-the-box. We could also live without the touchscreen feature and simply rely on the directional pad.
In hindsight, the company should have provided a deeper integration with the WM system, like what it did for the Xperia X10 mini and X10 mini pro running on Android. Instead, you end up with a mish-mash of features targeted at different groups of users. Overall, the Aspen has its strengths, but it’s also equally disappointing in some aspects. The slightly more affordable price and green credentials may attract some people, but there is no lack of competing models that offer a better user experience even though they may not have a touchscreen.
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