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Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray Android phone

Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray review: If you are put off by the large size of many smartphones, the XPERIA Ray's compact and stylish design is just for you

If you're put off by the "bigger is better" trend of many current smartphones, Sony Ericsson's XPERIA Ray may just be the shining light you're looking for. Best described as a smaller version of the company's flagship XPERIA Arc, the XPERIA Ray successfully manages to combine most of the Arc's features in a compact and stylish package.

Read our comprehensive Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc review and check out our guide to the best upcoming smartphones in 2011.

Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray: Design and display

The official line from Sony Ericsson is that the XPERIA Ray is a "sleek, beautiful smartphone with a stylish aluminium frame". Although it's easy to overlook this as general marketing fluff, the XPERIA Ray really does have an impressive design. It measures a mere 9.4mm thick and its dark black look and compact frame offers a striking alternative to most of its competitors. It also feels well constructed: the soft feel of the plastic on the rear battery cover along with the aluminium sides give it a sturdy, yet sharp feel.

We particularly like the XPERIA Ray's tactile power/lock key on top of the phone, along with the large home button below the screen. In a nice touch, the light around the top of the home button illuminates — it's white when the screen is on, pulses red when the battery falls below 20 per cent, and flashes green when you have a missed call or new text message. Its unfortunate that this light couldn't be extended to the back and home buttons that sit on either side of the home key: they aren't backlit, and are hard to see at night. They are also unresponsive at times and often take an extra press or two to activate.

The XPERIA Ray has a 3.3in screen that Sony Ericsson has dubbed a 'Reality display'. This sits alongside other fancy display names including the iPhone 4's 'Retina' display, the Samsung Galaxy S II's 'Super AMOLED Plus' display and the 'Nova' display of the LG Optimus Black. Unlike these displays though, the screen on the XPERIA Ray is much smaller in both height and width. Thankfully, it doesn't lose any quality with its downgrade in size: contrast and sharpness are excellent, colours are bright, sunlight legibility is impressive and it also possesses excellent viewing angles. Impressively, the XPERIA Ray's screen has a higher pixel density (296 pixels per inch) than the XPERIA Arc (233ppi), despite its much smaller screen. A direct result of the higher ppi is that text is both sharper and crisper. In a nice touch, Sony Ericsson also pre-installs a screen protector on the XPERIA Ray.

Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray: Software and Timescape UI

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray ships with the 2.3 "Gingerbread" version of Google's Android operating system out of the box, and it comes with Sony Ericsson's Timescape UI overlay. Though it doesn't offer the same deep customisation of HTC's Sense (seen on the likes of HTC's Desire S and Sensation Android phones), the addition of Timescape makes the XPERIA Ray a delight to use. Features include five home screens for live widgets, handy folders that enhance shortcuts and a main menu that can quickly arrange apps in various orders including most used, recently installed and alphabetical.

The XPERIA Ray includes Sony Ericsson's Timescape application, which groups social networking and phone communications into a single widget. Each communication event on the phone forms a 3D box that you simply flick your finger up and down the "spine" to scroll through. However, we don't feel Timescape offers anything compelling besides an attractive look: thankfully you can easily remove it from your home screen if you wish. We found the 'Facebook inside XPERIA' software much more useful. It integrates Facebook into commonly used areas of the phone including the picture gallery, music player, phonebook and calendar.

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The latest 4.0 version of Timescape has also seen some new additions. An xLOUD option in the sound settings menu boosts the volume of the speaker, while pinching the home screen zooms out to show all your current widgets, and shaking the phone makes them float in all directions. The volume boost is a nice idea but we found ring tones sounded distorted when it was switched on. The widget feature is ultimately a gimmick more than anything else, as is the 'TV off' animation you get when you lock the screen. However, we can't help but love the latter as it mimics an old CRT television.

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc is also the first XPERIA-branded phone to include pre-loaded apps for Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services. Music Unlimited is a subscription service with a library of over 10 million tracks, while Video Unlimited is a video rental service with around 9000 movies available to buy or rent. The latter is only accessible through Sony Ericsson Android phones, while Music Unlimited can be used on any Android phone.

The most disappointing aspect of the XPERIA Ray is its cramped on-screen keyboard. By default, the keyboard is set to an alphanumeric phone pad rather than a full keyboard due to the small display. You can easily revert to the full QWERTY keyboard, but it's only really useable if you turn the phone sideways in landscape mode — the keys are just too small to use efficiently in portrait mode.

Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray: Other features and performance

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray has an 8.1-megapixel camera with an Exmor R image sensor, promising the capture of high quality photos and 720p HD videos even in low light conditions. There is also a front-facing VGA camera for video calls. The XPERIA Ray performed slightly better in low light than most other phone cameras, but it still won't replace a stand alone digital camera for night-time photography.

The XPERIA Ray captures photos with excellent levels of detail, good colour reproduction and records great quality 720p HD video (with continuous autofocus a nice feature). However, its LED flash doesn't work as a flash but rather a photo light that remains on the whole time, and the lack of a dedicated, physical camera button is a downside. Thankfully, the camera interface allows you to tap anywhere on the screen to capture a photo. Another slight annoyance is the fact that the camera lens is impractically positioned to the left when held in landscape mode. This means it's easily covered by your hand when you hold the phone to take a photo.

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray lacks a HDMI-out connection that comes standard on the XPERIA Arc. This would have allowed the Ray to be connected to a high definition television to view multimedia content.

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray is powered by a single-core 1GHz processor, and has 512MB of RAM. Though these aren't top of the line specifications, the XPERIA Ray felt responsive and speedy throughout testing. The Ray also has 1GB of internal memory, but only a paltry 300MB is available for user use. Thankfully there is a microSD card slot for extra storage, and Sony Ericsson includes a 4GB card in the sales package.

Disappointingly, the Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray has average battery life. You will definitely get a full day of life out of the 1500mAh battery before it needs a recharge, but considering the Ray's smaller screen, we expected a better result.

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA Ray Android phone will be sold exclusively through Vodafone in Australia for three months from 28 September. Full details on XPERIA Ray pricing and plans here.