The very first Android smartphone, the T-Mobile G1, had a full slide-out Qwerty keyboard among its key features. Since then devices with this form factor have become relatively scarce as Android manufacturers have embraced the large-screened slab, and if a keyboard has been needed they have tended to opt for the BlackBerry-style thumbboard instead.
So the Xperia Pro is most welcome. It joins the largely consumer focussed Xperia range, and even though its own styling is quite friendly it brings a touch of business functionality to the Android world.
There are two consequences to the inclusion of a slide-out keyboard. One is that typing does – or at least should – become a lot easier; the other that the phone becomes noticeably thicker.
The 13.5mm girth of the Pro is far from being the thickest we’ve seen, but it does stand out at a time when manufacturers are falling over one another to make their devices thinner and thinner. You will notice that extra thickness in your pocket and hand, although thankfully the weight is about average at 142g.
And does it make typing easier? Yes it does, with qualification. The keys are well sized, are highly legibile and well-lit, and have the right amount of travel plus a satisfying clickyness to them, which means you can work up a decent speed.
However it is only a four row keyboard, so typing numbers is no less fiddly than using an on-screen keyboard, and we did also feel that, when open, the top section of the handset was too close to the top row of keys, cramping our thumbs for space a tad more than we would have liked.
Sony Ericsson has added touch of cleverness to the keyboard in that how the phone responds when you slide the keyboard open depends on what you are doing at the time. For instance, sliding it open in the browser will display the address bar, or in a messaging app will enable you to reply to the message you’re reading. It’s not always perfect, but is a nice touch.
Ultimately though, we found ourselves only using the keyboard for longer periods of typing, and using the on-screen options for smaller tasks such as entering URLs and even composing short text messages.
Away from the keyboard and the Pro is essentially the same device as the Xperia Neo. This means Android 2.3 with Sony Ericsson’s largely unobtrusive skin (and Sony Ericsson is also committed to delivering Android 4.0 updates for all of its 2011 Xperia handsets in due course), powered by a 1GHz processor and 512MB RAM, with a 3.7″, 480 x 854 pixel display.
There’s nothing groundbreaking there, but it’s a solid package that offers a strong taste of what a Sony Ericsson flavoured Android is all about.
The 8.1 megapixel camera is on a par with what we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Sony Ericsson. Not quite company’s best but still better than many of its rivals. We like the fact that Sony Ericsson handsets usually have a dedicated camera button, but the one here was a little tricky to use as we found the keyboard would start sliding out whenever we tried to press it.
Multimedia performance is strong in all areas, with excellent media playback, and great sound quality from the built-in speakers. You can watch video in the browser, too, thanks to the Flash support, and there are also apps on board that can be used to buy content. The Pro is furnished with a good selection of third party apps, including an office suite for document editing.
Whether or not the Xperia Pro is the phone for you will depend entirely on whether or not you need a physical keyboard. We found it to be surplus to requirements for casual messaging purposes, it was only when we got down to some serious work – sending business emails, or typing documents when we didn’t have a laptop to hand – that it came into its own.
Maybe that’s the reason we see so few device like this: it is a niche product. But if it is what you need then the Xperia Pro is currently your best option.