Sony Xperia Go proves to be a tough sell

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The follow-up to Sony’s Xperia Active tough phone – the sleeper hit of last year – is undeniably attractive and durable, but it’s let down by an ancient version of Android, poor screen quality and an annoying design flaw

Tough smartphones have a hard time of things. Despite their waterproof, dust-resistant designs they seldom prove mass market hits, as they can tend to be ugly, bulky and overpriced.

Things have changed recently, though. Motorola’s original Defy was the sleeper hit of 2010 and shunned convention by shrugging off scuffs and looking slick. And the Defy Mini has packed it all into a pocket-sized chassis.

Now Sony’s back to capitalise on last year’s surprise hit tough phone, the Xperia Active, with its spiritual successor, the Xperia Go – an IP67-certified smartphone that’s quite the looker too.

Built to last
The Sony Xperia Go is a surprisingly attractive phone. In fact we wish more Sony phones were this easy on the eye. While the Xperia Active had a strange hook on one side for a wrist band, the same hook on the Go is discreetly notched into the phone’s body. What you get is a pleasingly modern design with straight lines and curved edges that is still packed with Sony’s style.

We tested the white model, but a choice of black and yellow shades is also available. The matte plastics are surprisingly smudge-resistant and there are just three easy-to-press capacitive buttons below the screen. The whole package is light, sturdy, and measures just 10mm thick.

While that’s not as thin as some phones on the market, few rivals are Ingress Protection 67-certified. This means the Xperia Go is totally dustproof and water-resistant up to a depth of one metre. There are few phones out there better equipped to take on nature. Indeed it certainly stood up to our tests, taking a trip in the shower and a dunk in a glass of water. In a touch of class, Sony has also programmed the phone to warn you when its ports aren’t completely sealed.

Usually, the question with tough phones is whether you really need such protection. Sony’s made the issue almost moot in this case with its design flair.

Tragically, though, it has spoiled the design with one small error. A dome-shaped Sony Ericsson logo protrudes on the back of the phone, a hangover from before Sony’s buyout of the company at the end of last year. The logo sticks out, marring the otherwise flat surface, so you cannot lay the device flat on the table without it rocking somewhat annoyingly.

Below-par screen
The 3.5-inch screen is scratch-proof and while it survived our tests of raking it with keys and a kitchen knife, it is also a bit of a disappointment.

While it’s big enough for most uses, the 320 x 480 resolution just doesn’t cut it in 2012. To put it in perspective, it’s as sharp as 2007’s first iPhone.

Everything looks grainy, particularly when you view text on websites and email. Videos still look good, courtesy of Sony’s image-enhancing Mobile Bravia engine, but for £200 SIM-free, there are plenty of smartphones that pack better-looking touchscreens.

Thankfully, Sony hasn’t skimped on the innards and the Xperia Go is powered by a dual-core 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM. In our benchmark tests the handset showed results that put it on a par with some of last year’s flagship Android phones. In real-world terms it leads to a pretty quick experience. And battery life clocks in at around a day and a half – about par for the smartphone course these days.

The web browser fires up pages in a jiffy and helpfully resizes text columns to fit the small screen and resolution. The camera meanwhile loads in under a second and processes shots remarkably quickly. Sadly the five-megapixel images suffer from Sony’s rather zealous JPEG compression. This means you can fit plenty of snaps on board, but they will lose some detail.

More pleasingly, Sony’s managed to shave off more time with a camera shortcut on the device’s lock screen. But it doesn’t just load the app, it focuses and shoots automatically too.

That’s just one of Sony’s flourishes on top of the Android OS itself, which is now a vibrant ecosystem with hundreds of thousands of apps and games, most of which, bar a few made for higher resolutions, will run just fine on the Xperia Go.

Sony has added plenty of tweaks throughout the Android 2.3 OS. The spruced up, image-heavy contact pages and music player look gorgeous, while the drag and drop folders make organising your homescreens a cinch. Sony’s also gone out of its way to integrate Facebook into the experience – a welcome move given that Google’s actually removed Facebook account syncing from Android’s code in recent updates. Log in once and you’ll find all your Facebook photos synchronised to the Go’s gallery app – even new images posted by your friends.

One downside to the Android experience on the Xperia Go is the rather pathetic on-screen keyboard. Its needlessly narrow keys make typing more like hen-pecking and a world away from the fast predictive keyboards seen on other devices. On the plus side, you can easily change anything from the keyboard to the phone’s dial pad via Android.

Needless apps
But for all the good the software tweaks do, Sony has shot itself in the foot by loading the Xperia Go, as it does with many of its Android phones, with apps you almost certainly won’t need. Nobody should be force-fed a navigation app like Wisepilot when the Google Maps app is already preloaded, free and vastly superior.

Another particularly nasty tactic Sony employs is to not even install some apps. Sometimes tapping an icon will only prompt you to download the program. And to rub salt in the wound you can’t even remove these shortcuts from the apps menu. They’re there to stay.

There’s another problem, too – the Xperia Go runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which was first released way back in 2010. It’s missing the simplified, beautiful design of the latest version and lacks clever extra features including notifications and apps you can swipe to remove.

Sony says the Xperia Go will be updated to Android 4.0 in due course, but no firm date has been set. Sony Mobile has been better than most when it comes to delivering on these pledges, but we struggle to recommend a phone that doesn’t run the latest version of Android out of the box.

The trouble is the Xperia Go doesn’t even run the second latest version of

Android, as the world has now moved on to Android 4.1. It’s a shame Sony’s engineers couldn’t pull more late-nighters to reflect that, but Android 2.3 is still fast and comfortable for most requirements.

It is this that sums up the Xperia Go. It is a nice-looking, tough device that is easy to use and works well for its core audience, but as a day-to-day smartphone it just can’t quite measure up.

If you really need a semi-rugged phone, then you’re sure to love it. Just don’t expect anything more than the basics.

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