Until very recently, Sony Ericsson used to be an icon on the smartphone market, widely recognized as the creator and proprietor (via fully owned UIQ Technologies company) of the Symbian OS based UIQ platform.
Unfortunately, over a year ago the company decided to dump UIQ, even though its fourth release (UIQ 4), great looking and providing numerous enhancements and improvements, was almost ready. That decision was partially resulting from the changes Symbian was undergoing at that time (becoming a property of Nokia and getting transformed to an Open source platform), but Sony Ericsson probably also wanted to get rid of that burden of having to support and develop their own platform, all by themselves.
But dumping UIQ didn't mean saying goodbye to Symbian, at least for now (although recently Sony Ericsson seem to be focusing more and more on Android). UIQ has been replaced by Nokia's S60 platform and it is that platform (S60 5th Edition, or Symbian ^1) that powers all three Sony Ericsson's Symbian smartphones released after they dumped UIQ, i.e. the Satio and the twins reviewed in this article: Vivaz and Vivaz Pro.
Was it a good decision? Well, nothing's perfect in this world, so switching from UIQ to S60 has both advantages and drawbacks, too. It mainly depends on individual user expectations and preferences. The truth is, however, that most of former UIQ users migrated away to other smartphone platforms considering the S60 platform as "too dumb".
What's also certain is that by replacing their own UIQ system with a platform created by Nokia, Sony Ericsson lost some uniqueness and reputation of a mobile operating system maker, as well as full control over development and functionality of the platform they use. What they could do with S60 for the Satio and the Vivaz's was not much more than customizing the home screen and themes, using some custom (mainly hardware dependent) applications like Camera and deciding which 3rd party software to preinstall.
What they gained was compatibility with the S60 "ecosystem", which has uncomparably more 3rd party software, services, accessories and much better development tools and support than what the UIQ platform had. Sony Ericsson never excelled at UIQ developer support, especially in the UIQ 3 times when all the problems with Symbian Signed in addition to poor developer support caused that majority of developers left the platform and 3rd party software literally stopped appearing at some point.
So switching to S60 changed the situation in this regard for Sony Ericsson's Symbian phones dramatically, making them compatible with thousands of S60 applications and games, as well as development tools and developer support provided by Nokia and Symbian Foundation.
The question, however, is whether switching from UIQ to S60 brought any benefits when it comes to functionality or user experience. In my humble opinion, UIQ has always been a much more advanced and much more powerful platform, in many aspects far ahead of its times and thus also more far-reaching. Already in 2002, the P800 offered fully touch operated UI providing user experience and features that the S60 platform reached only recently, or maybe not even fully. On the other hand, the S60 platform may look more appealing to users looking for simpler and easier to use solutions... So it is an open question, for everyone's individual choice. Let me just say that I will be missing the UIQ platform very much and I'll always remember it as one of the most powerful smartphone platforms that shaped the mobile technology.
The last question is whether Sony Ericsson is able to become successful offering smartphones based on software made by Nokia and available on countless Nokia phones. Won't majority of people - maybe except for Sony Ericsson's home Sweden - consider them just "clones"? Right, in case of other operating systems (e.g. Android) there are also many manufacturers and no one considers them clones, but in case of S60 the situation is slightly different as it has always been strongly dominated and actually fully controlled by Nokia (which changes only now with the Symbian Foundation and Symbian being open source), so it is automatically considered as their system.
Well, I think that Sony Ericsson may succeed and compete with Nokia on the S60 (and later Symbian ^3 and ^4) smartphone market if they are able to offer "more value for less money", i.e. better hardware and enhanced software, with an attractive design and for an acceptable price. Sounds like a truism, but that's how it is.
So in the following chapters of this review I'll take a look at hardware specification and software differences offered by the Vivaz twins and see how they compare to the recent S60 5th Edition Nokia smartphones.
Hardware & Design
I've always liked the design of Sony Ericsson phones. They're just different. Different than Nokia, and different than anything else. And that's of course an advantage. I've never had any hardware-related issues with them, either, so based on my personal experiences I can say that they're attractively looking and well built products.
And the Vivaz duo are no exception to this rule. Even though they aren't made of any exclusive materials (they're all plastic), they look really nice and stylish and give a feeling of robustness. They definitely DON'T feel cheap.
And they're so THIN - which is not something you can often find on Nokia S60 phones, and surely not the ones with QWERTY keyboards which are mostly on the chubby side. The Vivaz is 12.5 mm thick, and the Vivaz Pro with its full hardware QWERTY keyboard is 15 mm thick, but that's in the thickest point, and as the casing is quite strongly rounded it gives an impression that both devices are even thinner. And it's not just thickness, it's the overall size that really impresses. They are REALLY small, among the smallest smartphones on the market. Pictures do not show this properly. And the Vivaz is just 97 grams, so it's among the lightest, too. It is really a pleasure to hold it and you'll find yourself checking from time to time if it's still in your pocket as you just won't feel it there.
While we're at the external look, besides different thickness (which is only noticeable when one looks at one of the sides) there are just minor differences between the Vivaz and the Pro model, quite hard to notice at first sight when the keyboard of the Vivaz pro is closed. On the front side, in addition to different colour of the casing, the only difference between them is a silver stripe above Vivaz Pro's display, missing on the Vivaz. Silver buttons (loudness/zoom, camera/stills, camera/video) on the right are identical on both models. The Power button on the Vivaz is located at the very top, while on the Vivaz Pro it has been moved to the back of the device, right above the camera lens and its LED flash. The camera is more centered on the Vivaz and slightly higher on the Pro. The last difference is the location of the headphone jack (on the left side) - above the USB port on the Vivaz and below it on the Pro. And.... that's it.
That they look so similarly does not mean that they are identical when it comes to hardware, but differences aren't huge, either. The biggest difference is obviously the sliding keyboard on the Vivaz Pro. Another one is the camera, which is 8 Megapixel on the Vivaz and just 5 Megapixel on the Vivaz Pro, both supporting HD 720p video recording. And..... that's it.
Apparently, calling them twins is fully justified.
Before I forget, I really wonder who invented such a thing as the camera light on the Vivaz. It does not work like normal flash light on all other phones, it is like the assist light for video recording - once enabled it just lights up and stays on all the time, like a pocket torch. So it is actually even worse than assist light for video which is usually on only while recording. The one for stills on Vivaz and Vivaz Pro is on ALL THE TIME, until you close the camera app, no matter if you take pictures or not. So it is a torch, not a flashlight. And I really don't get it how it is supposed to be used for taking pictures. Normally, you aim the camera at people you want to photograph and the flash fires for just a second during image capture. Just imagine how it looks on the Vivaz with the light on all the time while you prepare for the shot, do some framing, wait for the camera to get focus and finally take the shot. That strong LED light will make people's eyes bleed. It's been some time since the Vivaz was released and it looks the same way on the Vivaz Pro, so Sony Ericsson apparently does not intend to change it...
Now the most interesting part. Both phones are powered with - surprise, surprise! - the Texas Instruments OMAP3630 Cortex-A8 CPU running at the frequency of 720 MHz. And that's better than *ANY* S60 smartphone (from Nokia or anyone else) released up to date.
The only Symbian phone that comes close to the Vivaz twins (besides Sony Ericsson's own Satio) is the Samsung Omnia HD, built around the same processor type but clocked at lower (600 MHz) frequency (like the Satio). The same applies to the Maemo-based Nokia N900 equipped with the same Cortex-A8 CPU @ 600 MHz as the Samsung, i.e. by 120 MHz slower than Vivaz's.
Nokia's Symbian phones, not only the ones already available but even the upcoming (and highly anticipated) Nokia N8, offer LOWER (often quite seriously) processor speed. All of them use ARM11 processors with clocks ranging from 434 MHz (on e.g the Nokia C6) through 600 MHz (on the 5630 XpressMusic) to ARM11 @ 680 MHz on the newest Nokia N8.
So YES, the Vivaz and the Vivaz Pro are (hardware-wise) the most powerful Symbian OS smartphones on the market. Oh, and before I forget, both include the PowerVR SGX530 GPU (hardware graphic accelerator) providing OpenGL ES 2.0 support.
Another thing that deserves a praise is that - unlike Nokia - Sony Ericsson did not stint on the operating (SDRAM) memory size. Both Vivaz models offer 256 MB RAM with up to 150 MB RAM free. Only the Samsung Omnia HD (and, again, SE Satio) provide that much of RAM, while all available Nokia S60 phones "got stuck" at 128 MB SDRAM and only the upcoming N8 will finally offer 256 MB.
So there's really NOTHING to complain about when it comes to the "core" hardware of the Vivaz twins.
And praises don't end here, as the camera on the Vivaz deserves a praise (at least in good lighting contitions), too. 8.1 Megapixels (3264x2448 pixels) is a very decent resolution. It's lower than on the Satio and the upcoming Nokia N8 (12 Megapixels) but quality-wise it's superb. On the Vivaz Pro, however, while similar high-quality is retained, the camera only offers 5.1 Megapixels (2560x1920 pixels) so these days it is more at the mid-range side. Well, if you're thinking about getting one of the Vivaz's you'll need to consider whether you prefer trading the keyboard for the higher resolution camera, or vice versa, which may turn out to be a tough choice. To make it a little bit easier, both cameras support the same HD 720p (1280x720 @ 25 fps) video recording, just like the Sony Ericsson Satio, Samsung i8910 Omnia HD and the upcoming Nokia N8, i.e. Nokia's first Symbian phone with HD video.
As I mentioned, quality is really good in case of good-to-average lighting conditions. It drops quite considerably in low light where digital noise becomes really apparent, but it's not unusual on camera phones. And it wouldn't be a problem if not the idiotic flashlight behaviour that really scares you away from using it. So in dim light you will always have to make a choice: either take pictures without flash and accept some noise, or be a walking torch.
While we're at the camera, it is worth to mention Vivaz's unique separate buttons for stills camera and video camera, which is a real time saver. It often happens on other phones that I want to record a video but the camera app launches in the stills mode so I have to switch modes first and only then start recording. Not on Vivaz. The separate video button launches camera app in the camcorder mode so you can start recording instantly.
Like all Symbian^1 (i.e. S60 5th Edition) phones from all vendors, both Vivaz's have an nHD (640x360 pixel) touch sensitive screen (3.2", probably the best size for nHD resolution). While the recent fashion is to use capacitive screens (for reasons surely well known to all readers) and several Symbian/S60 phones with capacitive screens have already appeared on the market (Samsung Omnia HD, Nokia X6, Nokia N8), resistive touchscreens are still popular and new phones with resistive displays keep coming, too. This also applies to the Vivaz twins, which are both resistive. The good news, however, is that resistive screens have seriously evolved recently providing much higher sensitivity/responsiveness than even just a year or two ago. This also applies to the display of the Vivaz which provides quite decent sensitivity. Actually, my subjective impression that it is a tad less responsive than resistive screens of the most recent Nokia phones (e.g. the C6), but within a comparable range. It's also crisp and vivid. Of course, it is single-touch only, but you surely knew that. To recap, when it comes to touch screens, the upcoming Nokia N8 with its capacitive multitouch screen will soon take the lead, followed by capacitive single-touch displays of the X6 and the Omnia HD, and only then the whole rest, including the Vivaz duo. So this is not an area the Vivaz's excel at, but it's not something to ruin the user experience, either. Just so-so. I just wish Sony Ericsson continued using transflective displays like on the Satio instead of switching back to TFT on the Vivaz's. They're bright and crisp indoors but really hard to use outdoors and literally BLANK in direct sunlight, which somehow contradicts Vivaz's imaging and video recording capabilities...
When it comes to size and shape of keys, the keyboard of the Vivaz pro easily fits in my private Top 10 ranking of all smartphones with QWERTY keyboards I've used over the last 10 years. Maybe even in the Top 5. Keys are relatively large, clearly separated, properly backlit. The keyboard slides in and out very nicely, with quite strong spring-loaded support.
But there are also things I DON'T like about that keyboard. The one of lower importance is the layout of blue symbols and digits, but I guess it's something very personal, mainly resulting from the fact that I simply got used to layouts of other devices (mainly the N900 I've been using as my main device for over a year now). On the other hand, it's quite unusual for hardware QWERTY keyboards to have digits placed the keypad style, i.e. as a rectangle of 3 x 3 keys right in the middle of the keyboard. All keyboards I've used over the past years had numeric keys in the upper row. I guess it'll take quite some time to get used to this exotic layout and while it certainly makes it easier and quicker to dial phone numbers and enter lots of digits (e.g. when using a spreadsheet application), in case of normal typing (i.e. text with sporadic digits and symbols) you'll find yourself hunting for locations of those blue special characters before you fully get used to that keyboard.
Another thing that didn't impress me about Vivaz Pro's keyboard is its tactile feedback, or actually its uneven feedback: much better in case of the two middle rows (which feel harder, more springy and with more noticeable click) and noticeably worse at the two outer rows (softer, less perceptible). And it's actually not that mediocre tactile feedback that annoys me but the difference between rows, which somehow distracts and disturbs in typing. Maybe it's just the tested unit, I don't know.
Now for a good balance, I'd like to say something positive. Sony Ericsson deserves a praise for switching to standard accessory ports. Instead of the infamous FastPort (still present even on the Satio last year) both Vivaz models now come with the standard micro USB connector and support USB charging. It's also nice how the charger, instead of a fixed cord, has an USB port in it and uses an USB-to-microUSB cable that can be disconnected and used with e.g. a computer instead. Both Vivaz's also have standard 3.5 mm audio jack connectors (which also work as TV Out) letting one use any headphones and not just the ones with FastPort plug. Let's just hope that Sony Ericsson will be more consistent in sticking to these standard ports than Nokia who started using microUSB ports not so long ago, only to switch back to their proprietary 2.0 mm chargers not just in e.g. the C6 but also in their upcoming flagship, the N8. Did they manufacture too much of 2.0 mm chargers and now they're trying to get rid of them or are there some other reasons why they do not follow the USB intiative of which they were one of the promotors?
To make this chapter complete, it is necessary to add that both Vivaz models offer the same technical specifications when it comes to telephony and connectivity. They're quad-band GSM/GPRS (850/900/1800/1900) and HSDPA (850/900/1900/2100) phones (up to 10.2 Mbps HSDPA, 2 Mbps HSUPA), with WiFi b/g (up to 54 Mbps) and DLNA certification, front camera for video calls, Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP and AVRCP, microUSB 2.0 HighSpeed, Assisted GPS, accelerometer sensor, and stereo FM radio with RDS. Both have about 75 MB internal storage memory (over 50 MB free) and support microSD memory cards up to 32 GB, shipping with an 8 GB card. Right, there's no built-in large Flash drive, but you get 8 GB card for a good start and then you can replace it with a 16 or 32 GB one (and they're really cheap these days), so it shouldn't be much of a problem. Standard Lithium-Polymer 1200 mAh battery provides up to 12,5 (2G) or 5 (3G) hours of talk time and 430-440 hours of standby (as always, in real-life tests the times were shorter but it depends on so many external factors that I am not going to debate on that). The Vivaz weighs *just* 97 grams and measures 107 x 51.7 x 12.5 mm. The Vivaz pro weighs 117 grams and measures 109 x 52 x 15 mm.
To summarize the hardware part, the Vivaz and the Vivaz Pro offer the fastest processor (Cortex-A8 @ 720 MHz) of all Symbian phones including the forthcoming Nokia N8 with the additional support of PowerVR SGX530 GPU, they do not stint on operating (RAM) memory including 256 MB SDRAM of which nearly 150 MB are free (much less of a chance that you'll be troubled with "Insufficient memory. Close some applications and retry" type messages too well known from majority of Nokia S60 phones usually offering 40-50 MB free RAM), provide all up-to-date data transmission and connectivity features (HSDPA 10.2 Mbps, WLAN b/g with certified DLNA, Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP, microUSB 2.0 with USB charging), and come with very good cameras (at least in good and average lighting) supporting HD 720p video recording plus high resolution (8 MPix) for still shots on the Vivaz and a lower (but still decent; 5 Mpix) on the Vivaz Pro. Build quality is good desipite only plastics being used and the design and size are really attractive. Maybe several weeks is too little to reliably judge it, but I haven't heard any squeaking sounds and no parts got loose during tests. However, applying a screen protector may be a good decision as the displays don't seem to be scratch resistant. Downsides include idiotic behaviour of flashlight, TFT display that's perfect indoors but really poor outdoors, and somehow uneven tactile feedback of the Vivaz Pro keyboard (and its exotic layout of symbols and numbers).
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