It’s been a long time coming, but Sony Ericsson has finally released a handset outside of Japan with a tall display (240×432 pixels) that gives the models based on the traditional user interface a bit more life. In fact, with the larger display, the Aino now makes it possible to enjoy a rich multimedia experience without having to ‘step up’ to a more expensive smartphone.
Thankfully, the tall display isn’t like that of LG’s Chocolate BL40 mobile – and there’s a traditional keypad under the slider to stop you having to try and reach up and down to select things or use the menu.
As part of the ‘Entertainment Unlimited’ brand, you can use the Aino as a normal slider in portrait mode, or turn it sideways to enjoy widescreen video or picture taking. When you close the slider, a treat awaits you; a capacitive touchscreen (beating the flagship Satio with its more antiquated resistive type) that gives you access to a special media menu that provides pictures, video, music, FM radio and use of the 8.1-megapixel autofocus camera on the rear.
The touchscreen interface only works in this mode, using a proprietary interface that is different to the rest of the phone. LG tried this approach with the Secret, and it won’t find favour with all users. However, Sony Ericsson is trying to split the device into two distinct purposes depending on how you hold the phone, and it’s actually quite clever when you think about it.
Surfing to the max
The Aino also comes with a new version of the NetFront web browser that is able to take full advantage of the increased screen size, as well as using a simplified icon-based menu wherever possible. The phone supports SyncML, and now Active Sync, for data synchronisation, plus Sony Ericsson has launched its own over-the-air synchronisation service to keep your contacts, bookmarks and calendar appointments safe.
For social networking users, the Aino comes with a fairly comprehensive Facebook client that sits on the standby screen and gives scrolling updates. Open the application up in full and you get more detailed access to your wall, photos, messages and general notifications. Sony Ericsson also intends to include a Twitter client too, but this isn’t likely to follow until after Christmas – hopefully available with a future firmware update.
It may not be a true smartphone, but it still offers most of the features you’ll want and need. The big advantage is the well-spaced keypad that makes it easy to enter text, especially if you’re an old hand with predictive text.
Existing Sony Ericsson users may have a bit of a shock to see that the space bar and shift keys have moved, with a further shock on the realisation that Sony Ericsson has now ditched the M2 memory card format (some would say finally) in favour of microSDHC. This means cheaper memory cards, with 32GB cards on their way in early 2010. For now, there’s an 8GB card in the box.
That’s not all either. It seems Sony Ericsson was feeling rather generous when it put together the retail package, seeing fit to include a high-quality set of Bluetooth stereo earphones (with a 3.5mm headphone jack if you would rather use your own headphones) and a nifty docking station that charges the phone and headset simultaneously.
Meanwhile, as the phone is sat charging, there’s a further ace up its sleeve in the form of MediaGo software for PC users. Sony has never really been that good at producing its own software for handling media, and while MediaGo is still a little rough around the edges, it does offer syncing over Wi-Fi. Therefore, as soon as you return home and get within range, it will automatically copy over music, video, updated podcasts etc. There’s no need to worry about plugging the phone in, so you can just dock the phone and relax.
Bite of the Apple
Mac users don’t fare quite so well, although if you have a Mac and use iTunes then there’s a free download of Media Sync to manage music and podcasts – and an iSync plug-in for managing your address book and iCal appointments. Both PC and Mac users can enjoy use of the PlayNow Movies service to download a range of free movies, specially encoded to fit the phone display.
The screen resolution isn’t quite up there with other devices, but video is smooth and the sound from the internal speaker is superior to the Satio. Where the lack of on-screen pixels does show is on the camera, meaning you can’t fully appreciate the quality of the 8.1-megapixel photos on the screen.
Worse still, the colours are saturated significantly, making many things look unnatural – although this is often done to trick people into thinking photos are better (for some reason, more colours = better quality in the minds of many people).
Cut down to size
The camera interface is also rather basic, so don’t think of this as being as advanced as a Cyber-shot phone. However, a nice addition is the touch-to-focus mode – but at the expense of features like BestPic or Smile Shutter. In fact, the worst part of the phone is probably the camera interface and the need to use it with the slider closed (to enable the touchscreen mode). Fortunately, the pictures you actually get are extremely good, in good light and in low light, proving that 8-megapixels is more than adequate for your needs, even if you’re tempted to look at the Satio, or Samsung’s Pixon12.
It’s a shame that some of the features that existed on the W995 didn’t make it to the Aino, such as the integrated headphone jack, or the little fold-out stand. You can use the dock instead, however, and the phone has all the other features like a decent music player (on a par with the Walkman player, even though it’s not branded as such), BBC iPlayer and YouTube – as well as the latest version of Google Maps and WisePilot navigation software.
Use any or all of these functions, and of course the battery will take a hit. If you’re watching a film while the phone is docked, it won’t be an issue – but for everything else, you’ll either want to charge it regularly or buy a spare battery. Fortunately, the battery used by the Aino is used by a significant number of Sony Ericsson handsets – if you’re upgrading from one of these, you’ve already got a spare.
The Aino has a lower-resolution screen and a lower pixel count on the camera than the flagship Satio, but none of the foibles that come as a result of using Symbian’s rather fiddly operating system. Although you’ll always be able to do more with the Satio if you enjoy installing new apps or customising menu layouts, the Aino is a self-contained device that just works with the minimum of fuss.
If you’re not the type of person that enjoys spending a weekend building a new PC from scratch to save a few pennies, then you should be skipping the Satio and looking at this. It could well be the best phone that Sony Ericsson has released so far, and with such a generous package and extra features you’re highly unlikely to disagree.
The new ‘Entertainment Unlimited’ range from Sony Ericsson is looking like a very exciting competitor to Nokia’s Nseries range. The Satio may be the flagship, but the Aino is the jewel in the crown. It may not have the same potential for expansion or customisation, but you’ve got a great touchscreen media player, high-quality camera, media streaming from a PC (or PS3 with Remote Play), Facebook, email and seamless data synchronisation over the air to protect all your data. You also get a cool dock, 8GB memory card and sexy Stereo Bluetooth headphones.