It was only a couple of months ago that Sony introduced its new budget smartphone - the Xperia tipo - but after implementing a few spec boosts and increasing the size of the screen, they're ready for round 2, and this time they've brought the Xperia miro into the ring.
There's no doubt that the miro is still very much a budget smartphone, it's available for £150 SIM-free, but Sony has managed to make it look and feel the part thanks to a nice plastic material covering the back, and an LED which shines between the screen and capacitive touch buttons each time you turn on the display.
When a company resorts to such effects, however, you know that it has something to hide. The miro is a budget phone for a reason, and you'll struggle to multitask on this thing with a CPU clocked at 800MHz. Furthermore, if you do manage to multitask successfully, you might have to squint a little bit, because text doesn't look too good on the 320 x 480 display.
All things considered, you aren't getting a terrible smartphone in the miro considering how much Sony is asking for it. At £150, you're knee deep in entry-level devices, and on a level playing field with phones at a similar price point, Sony's latest budget smartphone could be one of the better options out there.
- The build quality of the phone feels solid, and the plastic used on the back doesn't feel cheap at all.
- The speaker is capable of outputting some really loud music if you don't have any earphones to fall back on.
- The battery life is great, both on standby and when the phone is being used all day. This is mainly thanks to the low power requirements of the CPU.
- The small, low resolution screen fails to compete with anything else on the market, the low pixel density is obvious when you're browsing the web, or even just flicking through your app drawer
- The CPU is underpowered, and really struggles to keep up if you're running a few apps at once in the background.
- Sony is still using the custom UI that it shipped with Android 2.3. It's time for a change.
Design and Materials
The Xperia miro takes many design cues from the slightly cheaper Xperia tipo. Although this isn't a bad thing - the miro isn't an ugly phone by any stretch of the imagination - it does leave the device looking a little bit dull.
At first glance, the miro doesn't have any standout features that make you really take notice of it; sat amongst other smartphones in a shop, it would easily blend into the background. Although the black, plain exterior isn't unattractive, it certainly pales in comparison to Samsung's pebble shaped devices, such as the Galaxy S III, or Nokia's Lumia range, which offers phones in a number of colors.
Above the screen, you'll find the Sony logo - the miro is one of a growing number of phones to carry the logo since the Ericsson split - below a speaker and the front-facing camera. Below the display is the usual fanfare of three capacitive buttons that allow you to go back, return to the home screen, or bring up a system or in-app menu. Pressing and holding the home button will allow you to bring up the multitasking menu.
Unfortunately, the capacitive buttons aren't backlit, so you'll have to rely on muscle memory if you're ever using your phone in the dark. Thankfully, with only three buttons, it's fairly difficult to get them confused with one another.
For me, the stand-out design feature arrives when you turn on the display. This prompts an LED, matching your theme, to glow between the capacitive buttons and the phone's chin whilst you're on the lock screen. It may seem like a very minor thing to be impressed with, but it's been implemented in a very subtle manner, and really helps to give an otherwise dull looking device a bit of character.
On the back of the phone, things don't get much more exciting. You'll find the speaker grille at the bottom, below the Xperia logo, and the rear camera takes its usual place in the top left hand corner next to an LED flash. In order to access the battery, microSD card slot, and the SIM card slot, you'll have to remove the back, which can be quite a frustrating ordeal if you don't have any nails to pry the plastic cover off with.
Thankfully, the designers at Sony haven't placed an annoying flap over the microUSB port, which sits on the side of the phone for easy access. Over on the other side is the volume rocker, with the 3.5mm headphone jack taking its place in the middle of the phone at the very top.
Unlike the cheap-feeling plastic that Samsung chooses to use for its devices, the plastic material that has been used to protect the miro feels really nice, with a finish that leaves it finishing rubber-like in your hand.
It would appear, however, that the material that Sony has used is less durable than other devices. Apart from a couple of outings to do some camera tests, the miro never left my desk, and yet you can see a couple of places on the back of the phone where the finish has worn off slightly.
At 3.5-inches, the miro's display is on the small side compared to competing Android devices, but that isn't necessarily a drawback; smaller devices offer increased portability and make it easier to use the phone with a single hand when you're on the go. What is a bad thing, however, is the resolution that the display carries. At 320 x 480, you're getting a pixel density of just 165 ppi (for comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S III has a pixel density of 306 ppi), and the low resolution is immediately apparent when you start using the phone.
This isn't helped by the fact that the digital clock widget, which is placed front and center on your home screen by default, displays the date in a very small font underneath the time. On most displays this would look fine, but it highlights just how poor the miro's screen is, with individual pixels clearly visible to the naked eye.
As a result of this, watching video content on the miro isn't exactly an enthralling experience, but the display is still very capable of showing an adequate amount of detail. Unless you have no other alternatives, I wouldn't recommend viewing a film on the miro, but if you're watching football or catching up on some news on the go, it's competent.
When you first use the Xperia miro after taking it out of the box, you wouldn't think that it was a budget smartphone. It feels pretty snappy, there's no lag from the lock screen to the home screen, and you can flick through your widgets really smoothly. Unfortunately, this doesn't last. After some light usage with a few background processes running, the miro really starts to struggle with basic tasks such as moving from one screen of apps to another in your app drawer.
As soon as you start to take on some common tasks, such as navigating through different pages in a web browser, it becomes apparent that the miro really fails to keep up with everyday tasks. From tapping on the address bar to actually typing in a URL can take as long as 5 seconds, and when you're typing that URL, the keyboard lags. Badly. The keyboard woes continue as you enter the messaging app too, although whether this is down to performance issues with the CPU, or Sony's custom keyboard itself, is a mystery.
Due to the budget nature of the miro, there are quite a few game titles on the Play Store that aren't compatible with the phone. A number of Gameloft's games, such as Real Football 2013, simply won't install at all, and quite a few of those that do struggle to achieve an acceptable frame rate.
I'm a bit of an audiophile when it comes to my music library; all of my tracks are stored losslessly, and when I get the chance, I'd much rather listen to my albums through my record player. That being said, there are times when you just need to listen to that one song, and if you haven't got a pair of earphones with you then your smartphone will be the only remaining choice.
Smartphone speakers will never sound fantastic, but the speakers on the miro are on-par with most of the other phones that I've ever used. Of course, they lack bass and tracks sound tinny playing through that small grille at the back of the phone, but it's certainly capable of producing quite a lot of noise.
The miro's rear camera is capable of taking pictures at a respectable 5MP, but I wouldn't recommend it as a primary camera unless you aren't bothered about the level of detail that you can achieve in your photos.
Like most smartphone cameras, the miro copes far better when taking shots during the day rather than at night. I took a few pictures whilst walking around York, England, during the day, and they came out looking quite good.
As this is England, direct sunlight isn't really an issue for 95% of the year, so there isn't any bright light to wash out other colors on the image. The photo of the city walls (above) shows a reasonable amount of detail and provides a sharp image, although some details, such as the text on the road signs and the coat of arms on the wall, are difficult to make out.
The night shot taken at Old Trafford (above) came out quite a bit better than I thought it might do, and the colors are well balanced despite floodlights on both sides of the shot. With so many small subjects in the photo, though, the lack of detail here is immediately apparent, with even the closest players and officials appearing slightly blurry.
When taking a shot with less lighting available, such as the one above, the miro's camera really struggled to pick up any detail at all, even in Night Mode. The light from the street light is banded across the top of the image, and it's difficult to make out much detail on the brickwork.
If you don't want to move the photos that you take off your phone, then you'll probably get by just fine with the miro's camera, as shots look great on its 3.5-inch display. As soon as you take these photos off the miro and view them on another device at full resolution, however, the lack of detail is obvious. The miro is also capable of taking video, but only at VGA quality, which, again, looks fairly terrible once the content is taken off the phone.
There isn't a massive amount that I can say about call quality on the miro, other than it does what it says on the tin. Whilst I was testing the phone, I made quite a few calls to people across the country, who all said that they could hear me loud and clear. The only problem I encountered was when I was in a loud pub before a football game, where a noise cancelling microphone would definitely have come in handy for the person on the other end of the phone, but overall I didn't have too many issues.
Sony has chosen to style Ice Cream Sandwich with the same custom UI that it has used since Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). When it was released initially, it looked a lot better than stock Android at the time, but Android has changed a lot since then, and Sony's UI, well, hasn't. Although it's still perfectly functional and easy to navigate, it's starting to look a little bit dated, especially on a budget phone such as the miro, which would really benefit from a bit of eye candy.
What's more, areas of the OS that you're going to be looking at a lot, such as the lock screen and app drawer, look significantly better on stock Android, which makes it incredibly frustrating to see Sony slap on an old custom UI to cover up Google's hard work on Android's stock one.
That being said, Sony's app drawer does have a few tricks up its sleeve. Uninstalling apps on Android has always been a bit of a pain, but you can uninstall any of your apps on the miro by tapping the grid icon in the app drawer and then choosing the app that you want to remove when the icons begin to shake, similar to TouchWiz.
Other elements of Ice Cream Sandwich remain completely untouched, which makes it difficult to refer to Sony's changes as a 'skin.' Your notifications and the multitasking menu, for example, look just like they would on stock Android.
You can customize the miro's look through a long press on the home screen, which allows you to alter your wallpaper, theme and widgets. A word of warning, though: remember those performance issues that I mentioned before? They're only going to get worse with a lot of widgets pulling data every time you unlock your phone and flick through your home pages, so try to keep things as minimal as possible if you want a speedy experience.
By default, Sony's custom keyboard on the miro is as simple as they come, without any word prediction or gestures whatsoever. The settings are very accessible though, with a dedicated key on the virtual keyboard to save you from having to dive into the Settings app in order to change your preferences.
Once there, you can choose to enable word suggestions and autocorrect to help you to eliminate those pesky typos as you hammer out texts and tweets. If you've used Swype in the past, you may appreciate the option to enable gesture input as well. This allows you to input words by dragging your finger over different letters on the keyboard.
Users coming from a dumbphone may appreciate the option of a phonepad, as opposed to a traditional QWERTY keyboard. Word prediction is enabled by default here, so you only have to tap each button once, but it can be disabled right from the keyboard to save you from going back into your settings to do it.
Overall, Sony's done a pretty good job with the keyboard on the miro. Thanks to extensive options, you can choose to use it however you prefer, so if there's something that you don't like, you can probably go and change it. The only annoyance that I found was that the keyboard sometimes struggles to keep up if you're typing quickly and have other processes running in the background, but that's could be due to a lack of power under the hood rather than the software itself.
Built-in Apps and Crapware
In addition to a few of Google's built-in apps, such as Chrome and Google+, Vodafone has pre-installed some of its own software on the miro.
As much as I'd like to tell you that all of these pre-installed apps are useful, the truth is that most of it is crapware, and it will probably just get in the way of whatever you want to do. When you open your app drawer, the first page consists mainly of Vodafone's own apps, which, despite probably being well-intentioned, don't really serve a purpose.
The first app, for example, is Vodafone's own attempt at an app store. It's imaginatively named 'AppSelect,' and contains a few apps that you may, or may not, be interested in.
Although AppSelect isn't a bad app, I still don't know why it's there. From a consumer standpoint, it could be very confusing - do you use the Play Store or AppSelect - and it contains far fewer apps than the Play Store does. Also, what if you change carriers when you buy your next phone? All of your apps that have been purchased through AppSelect would be inaccessible, forcing you to re-purchase those that you want to keep.
The bottom line is that AppSelect is a poor and obvious attempt from Vodafone to force customers to stay with them through their upgrade, and unfortunately, many users will probably fall for it.
Until Google Music arrives in the UK, Vodafone's music shop app isn't such a bad idea. Until you download an alternative, such as Amazon MP3, there aren't any built-in apps that allow you to buy music, so some users may appreciate the simplicity.
What they won't appreciate, however, is the app itself, which is unattractive and excruciatingly slow. When you move around within the app, you have to stare at a 'Loading...' banner for several seconds in-between each tap to a new section. At one point, this took so long that the screen turned off to save power, which it only after 30 seconds of inactivity.
The story is the same with the 'My Web', 'Updates', and 'Discover' apps, which are all equally useless. The one useful member of the tram is the 'HelpLogin' app, which, despite its clunky name, is useful in allowing a Vodafone employee to diagnose your phone remotely and securely through LogMeIn.
As well as pre-loading its own apps onto the miro, Vodafone also took the liberty of installing other apps, such as TripAdvisor, Evernote, and a handful of trial games from EA. Thankfully, these can all be deleted if you don't want them cluttering up your app drawer.
Walkman and Radio
Sony is lucky to have a really strong brand in the Walkman, so it makes perfect sense to bundle its own media player with its Xperia phones. After using the Walkman app for my music during my time with the miro, I began to love it, for its simplicity and subtle extras.
The interface of the Walkman app is really simple; you can flick through tracks in a cover flow view, or scroll through your larger music collection in the "my music" section of the app. You can also search for tracks if you don't want to scroll through your entire library to find what you're looking for.
To save you from diving back into the Walkman app every time you want to pause your music or skip a track, you can use track controls from your notification draw, but only whilst a track is playing. Unfortunately, as soon as you pause a track, the entire controls disappear from your notification bar, which is absolutely infuriating, especially if you pause it accidentally. Hopefully, this is something that Sony will address in a future update.
I really like the fact that Sony has chosen to include an FM radio in the Xperia miro as well; there are a lot of times where you don't have enough signal to stream internet radio, and nothing's more reliable to fall back on than FM. You'll need a pair of earphones to use as an antenna, but once you've plugged them in, you're good to go. The interface of the radio app is nice and simple, with just a power button, a channel finder, and a manual tuner that you can slide up and down to get a signal.
Thanks to the low-powered CPU, which is only clocked at 800MHz, the miro manages some pretty incredible standby times. Sitting idle, whilst pulling down various pieces of data, such as Twitter feeds and e-mails, the battery lasted a whopping 6 days. It's not too shabby when it's being used all day either, comfortably lasting a full day whilst I was out and about taking photos and reading some articles on the net.
Of course, if you're spending the day playing games and watching a movie or streaming videos from YouTube, the battery will fall a lot quicker, but most people should be able to get away with using it all day and charging it overnight, or even every two nights if you want to push your luck.
It's clear that the miro has a few negative points: the screen is, quite frankly, painful; the CPU is underpowered and struggles to cope with a lot of background processes running at a given time, and Sony is still using the same user interface that has been around since Google introduced Android 2.3.
Despite these bad points, however, the miro really isn't a terrible phone, especially considering the ridiculously cheap price point of £150. It's well built, it feels nice in your hand, and it will plod along while you go about your day-to-day business. Put simply, the miro is the Ford KA of the phone world: it will get you from A to B, but the ride might be a little rough.
If this was a mid to high-end device, I would be doing my upmost to pick holes in it left, right, and center. But it isn't. It's cheap, it serves a purpose, and it works pretty well most of the time. If you're a first-time smartphone buyer, or don't fancy splashing out a month's wages so that you can walk around with a Galaxy S III in your hand, you may just find yourself looking pretty seriously at the Xperia miro.
Thanks to Vodafone for providing us with the review unit. If you're interested in buying the Xperia miro, you can get it for free from £13 a month from Vodafone.