In addition to the Xperia Play phone, Sony announced two other important handsets this week, the Xperia Pro and the Xperia Neo. The Xperia Pro caught our eye because it sports an attractive and comfortable QWERTY keyboard to go with its 3.7-inch 854 x 480 reality display and 1-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU. The Neo has the same processor, screen, and unique features as the Pro, but it's a 3.7-inch keyboard-less phone that's extremely thin and looks like a smaller version of the Xperia Arc, which was shown at CES.
Both the Xperia Neo and the Xperia Pro have 320GB of internal memory, an included, but removable, 8GB microSD card for storage, 2-MP front-facing and 8-MP rear-facing cameras, and HDMI-out ports. No carrier has been announced for the phones, but both are GSM HSPA+ phones so they'll either be on T-Mobile or AT&T in the U.S. They will ship sometime at the end of Q1 or beginning of Q2.
You'll forgive us for focusing first on the Xperia Pro's keyboard, but it's not often we see an Android slider with a keyboard this well thought out. And it's also not often you see a Sony smart phone with a keyboard, at least in the U.S.
Sony reps told us that the company worked hard to design a typist-friendly keyboard, going so far as to indent the back slightly for a better grip. If you look at the pic below, you'll notice lots of space between the keys and that the keys stick up a bit so they aren't flat with the surface like we've seen on poor quality phone keyboards.
There's no dedicated number row, but this is only a 3.7-inch device and, as such, works great with only four rows of keys. You'll also notice that the keyboard has a nice big space bar and a dedicated @ key for sending e-mail messages. Thankfully, Sony did not commit the horrible faux pas of placing the space bar between letter keys like you'll find on the Samsung Indulge or LG Ally.
What you can't see from the picture is how great the keys feel when you're typing. Sony has also optimized the Android user experience so that, if you slide out the keyboard while reading an e-mail, the system automatically opens up a reply message for you, because it assumes you want to type something.
The Xperia Pro and Xperia Neo both have built-in HDMI ports that allow you to output the entire phone's content to a TV. Once you connect to the set, you will get an exact real-time mirror of the phone screen, with some digital enhancements to the picture that sharpen it for the larger display. Using the handset itself or a standard remote control, you can watch 720p videos stored on the phone or browse photos. You can also surf the web, play games, or use any other app on the TV. We got a great demo of this compelling HDMI technology in action which you can see below.
Display and Mobile Bravia Engine
Both the Neo and the Pro have extremely vivid displays with absolutely no air gap between the screen and the panel. They also use software, known as the Mobile Bravia Engine, to enhance the level of details in videos and photos. We got a demo of the Mobile Bravia technology in action, which you can see below.
To improve the quality of the images you capture, Sony uses its Exmor image enhancement technology to make both videos you watch and videos you shoot with the 8-MP rear or 2-MP front camera look better. We didn't get to see a demo of this technology in action, but hope to learn more about it in the future.
E-mail and Other UI Enhancements
Sony has added some really compelling software enhancements to go with the phone's Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) operating system. One feature allows you to get a series of helpful desktop widgets if you simply pinch on the desktop. Another allows you to rearrange the icons in the Android application menu and sort by most used or a custom layout instead of being stuck with an alphabetical list.
Perhaps our favorite software enhancement is the dual pane view in Sony's e-mail software. When you rotate the phone into landscape, you can get a dual pane view which shows your list of inbox messages in the left pane and your current message in the right pane. You can slide the divider between panes to the left or right to make either pane more prominent. Unfortunately, this only works in Sony's POP/IMAP/Exchange e-mail software and not in the Gmail client. However, a possible workaround for Gmail users would be to access your Gmail account via POP. This kind of dual pane UI is usually only found on tablets.
Sony has also included Office Pro Suite software, on the Xperia Pro only, that can not only view, but edit all your office documents. A rep also told us it can work with enterprise security software to do things like remote wipe.
Both the Xperia Pro and the Xperia Neo have impressive, colorful displays and unique software enhancements to Android 2.3. We're particularly excited about the HDMI-out experience and software enhancements such as dual-pane e-mail, something we normally see on a tablet. There's no word yet on pricing or whether they will ride on AT&T or T-Mobile, but if Sony prices and markets these effectively, they could have a big hit on their hands, particularly with the Pro.
For more details, check out the hands-on videos with both the Xperia Pro and the Xperia Neo and gallery below.
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