The Sony Xperia E1 is a cheap phone – about as affordable as Sony makes. It's small, doesn't have all that many cutting-edge features and can't afford to be quite as stylish as its big brother the Sony Xperia Z2.
However, there are benefits to a phone like this. As it is not covered in glass you don't have to worry so much about it shattering should you drop the thing.
And even if something bad does happen to the little Xperia E1, you won't have to cry for too long. You don't need to take out a mortgage to buy one of these.
It slots in right at the bottom of Sony's Android Xperia range, below the Sony Xperia M2 and the top dog Xperia Z2.
There's quite a lot of competition in this just-under-£100 area, though. The pick of the bunch is the Motorola Moto E, a phone that doesn't quite have the brand credibility of the Sony Xperia E1 but really does ace the basics better than the E1 – the screen, the body, general performance. Sometimes rejecting the biggest brands pays off.
But how much will you really have to pay for the Sony Xperia E1? SIM-free the phone can be found for around £85 (about US$139, AU$149). A PAYG model will set you back around £80 (about US$136, AU$144) .
If you want to pay monthly then the phone is free for as little as £8.50 (about US$14, AU$15) a month. However, phones like this really make more sense as mobiles to buy outright – on contract you might as well pay a tiny bit extra to get a higher-end device.
There are no different varieties of Xperia E1 to worry about when buying. The phone just comes in one flavour – 3G with 4GB of internal memory. It does come in white, purple or black shades, but the actual hardware is the same.
Sony's higher-end phones are some of the slickest mobiles around – even the fairly affordable Xperia M2 has the same sophisticated glassy look as Sony's top-end Xperia Z2. However, the Sony Xperia E1 is a lot more conventional.
There's no glass (or glass-look) rear here. The back is the same sort of curved, removable plastic battery cover seen in most budget mobile phones. At 12mm (0.47inch) thick, the Xperia E1 is a chubby phone, but it is still little.
As it has a pretty small 4-inch screen, carrying a little extra weight isn't really an issue. The phone is very easy to use in one hand thanks to its small stature and I can't imagine even kids' hands having too much trouble with the phone.
This kind of ergonomic accessibility is great, but the Sony Xperia E1 does feel quite cheap. Where Sony's other mobiles put a lot of effort into feeling high-end, the roughly textured finish here doesn't impress the fingers, and a few rough design edges don't impress the eyes either.
Things like the camera lens being clumsily recessed behind the battery cover, the rather over-egged speaker grille on the back and that the textured finish goes a bit shiny with wear show the Xperia E1 up. It doesn't look or feel more expensive that it is.
There are some little extras some of you might appreciate, though. Like Sony's old Walkman phones, the Xperia E1 has a dedicated music button up top.
Hold it down and it launches the music player app. It can also be used to control music playback while you're listening, like the remote control seen on many pairs of headphones.
Are headphone remotes more useful? Yes, absolutely, but I do think the Xperia E1 button will come in handy for those who like to hold their phone while going out for a run.
I've said that the Sony Xperia E1 doesn't share a great deal design-wise with the higher-end Sony phones, but you do get the Sony-staple Omnibalance power button. This is where the button is placed slap-bang in the middle of the phone's side for easy access. In a phone this small you could pretty much put the button anywhere, but it's handy nevertheless.
The phone's back pops off pretty easily too, and gives you access to the battery, the full-size SIM slot and the microSD slot. You get just 4GB of internal memory, less than a gigabyte of which is ready for you to play with. If you want to put more than a few music tracks on the Xperia E1, you'll absolutely need a memory card.
We'll see lots of little cuts like this in the Sony Xperia E1, and some of the clearest are seen in the screen. The phone has a 4-inch 480 x 800 pixel display, giving 233ppi pixel density.
That's not enough to give you the kind of supreme sharpness of more expensive phones, giving text a slightly rough look. This is pretty much the standard at the price, although the Motorola Moto E does get you a significantly sharper screen.
Contrast and colours are pretty good for such a low-end display, but a few other aspects leave the Sony Xperia E1 screen as nothing more than just OK. First, it doesn't use an IPS panel, and as a result viewing angles are pretty average.
The screen also appears recessed and lacks the anti-reflective design needed to make using a phone outdoors remotely fun. Top brightness is a fair bit better than some at the price, though, so the Sony Xperia E1 shouldn't make you want to throw it against a brick wall as soon as the sun comes out.
One other pretty rubbish element of the screen is what it's made of. Phones over £100 often use Gorilla Glass 3 for their top screen layer. It offers great scratch resistance and a lovely super-hard surface.
Sony says the Xperia E1 has a glass top layer, but on first using it I assumed it was plastic. There's a good deal of flex to the screen, giving it a slightly spongy feel and causing screen distortion should you press down too hard on the display.
It doesn't feel as nice to use as the Motorola Moto E, which does use Gorilla Glass for its screen.
Sony calls the Xperia E1 the "best smartphone in its class". They're big words, but you really need to look a bit deeper to see how limited this bold claim actually is.
It's based on the phones that were around in November 2013, and leaves out many of the mobiles you might consider Xperia E1 rivals – there's no comparison to the Motorola Moto E, ZTE Blade V, Nokia Lumia 630, and not even the Huawei Ascend Y300. If not flat-out unfair, it's at least out of date.
The moral of this story – don't believe the hype.
However, the Sony Xperia E1 is pretty aggressively priced, and leaves out most of the right things in order to keep the cost low. This is a no-nonsense 3G phone.
You miss out on 4G, in a time when this faster kind of mobile internet is starting to filter down to ultra-cheap phones like the Alcatel One Touch Pop S3 and the EE Kestrel. Are people who want to buy a cheap phone likely pay the premium for a good 4G contract though? I don't think so. A 3G-only phone still makes sense at this price point, for now.
Other bits chopped out include ac-grade Wi-Fi, NFC and an IR transmitter. Just like 4G, though, I can't image these being particularly high priorities for someone looking to buy a phone on a very tight budget.
Why? They all require other bits of (generally pricey) gadgetry to be particularly useful. You'd need an ac-compatible router to make use of Wi-Fi ac, an NFC speaker or pair of headphones to make good use of NFC now that it isn't used all that much for wireless payments. And you need a good home entertainment system to warrant using an IR transmitter to turn your Xperia E1 into a universal remote.
Sticking to the basics instead, the Sony Xperia E1 gets you n-grade Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0 and 21Mbps HSPA (its fastest 3G standard). This is actually more than enough for most people, not just those out for a cheap phone. Crucially, it should mean you could use the phone with an Android Wear smartwatch like the Moto 360 or LG G Watch should you want to invest in one of those further down the line.
The hardware is basic but solid, but what about the software? The Sony Xperia E1 runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with the same style of custom interface seen in Sony's other Android phones.
Android 4.3 is not the latest version of the Google mobile OS, and hasn't been for a while now. Sony has confirmed that the Xperia E1 will get Android 4.4.2, although I wouldn't expect such updates to turn up quickly.
Why did the phone ship with an already-old version of Android? I imagine it's down to the extra work needed to get Android 4.4.2 and the custom Sony interface working on as low-end an engine as the Xperia E1 has.
The phone uses a Qualcomm MSM8210 Snapdragon 200 processor. It's a low-end dual-core 1.2GHz chipset, but can provide perfectly good performance in my experience.
The real limitation is the phone's meagre 512MB RAM. It's very difficult to get a phone with this little memory running smoothly on Android 4.4 and Android 4.3 doesn't run perfectly either.
Several phones around the same price do have a solid 1GB of RAM, including the Alcatel One Touch Pop S3, the Motorola Moto E and the ZTE Blade V. Trying to 'get away' with 512MB is a misstep on Sony's part.
Interface and Performance
The Sony Xperia E1's hardware is not perfect, but I do find the Sony custom interface to be one of the better ones you can get at this low price point.
At this cheaper end of the scale, UIs can often be produced by price-slashing phone makers that don't always 'get' what makes software work.
Sony knows how to make its software look good, and its custom Android UI largely subscribes to the 'keep it simple, stupid' mantra. It's a good one.
The Sony Xperia E1 doesn't mess around with the basic layout of normal Android, and while the soft navigation keys are built into the screen rather than having their own hardware, Sony has made sure they're not too big. They also look good, something that's not always the case in cheaper phones.
You get five homescreens, although you can add an extra two if you want. Sony's app menu is pretty good too.
Flick to the far left of the menu and you can bring up another menu that lets you quickly uninstall apps and rearrange your app treasure trove. The Xperia E1 also supports folders, making it easy to hide away anything you don't like (although there's no actual 'hide app' option).
Like other Sony phones, the Xperia E1 has a few pre-installed apps, and not all of them are too useful. Having a Sony movie player and Sony Walkman app is handy, as they look quite good and these areas are generally neglected in cheaper mobiles – you often only get Google's default apps.
I could live without things like Xperia Lounge, Xperia Care support, Smart Connect and Sony Select, though. While they're there to help out, they are also bloatware, and who need a third-party app store like Sony Select when Google Play is pre-installed? They're part of the reason why the Xperia E1 has so little spare storage.
This bloat is minimal though, and some other elements of the interface are refreshingly pared-back. The notifications menu is the best example.
Where some UIs fill this all-important notifications screen with brightness sliders and features toggles, leaving little room for actual notifications, the Sony Xperia E1 makes sure phone updates are given priority. And it still manages to fit in buttons for features and brightness, plus a clock. It's careful design in action.
For all the thought that has gone into the interface, though, it's not tremendously quick. While not consistently slow, you do have to put up with a lot of pauses and stuttering as the Xperia E1 struggles to keep up. It's all down to that lacking 512MB of RAM – its the grease that makes the cogs of any computer system run smoothly, and 512MB isn't quite enough these days.
Until quite recently, that sort of spec was something you had to put up with in an entry-level phone. But now several offer 1GB of RAM, you can get smoother performance elsewhere. Having experienced these smoother phones, most notably the Motorola Moto E, the Xperia E1 can be quite frustrating to use
In benchmarks and games, the Xperia E1 fares a bit better as deficiencies in RAM are clearest when multitasking, or at least hopping between apps. The phone scores a pretty lowly 606 points in Geekbench 3, but it's around the figure I'd expect from a phone with a Snapdragon 200 CPU – it's dead on the score of the Motorola Moto E.
The phone can handle some 3D games fairly well thanks to its low screen resolution too. But storage is a huge issue.
You only get a few hundred megabytes of free data to play with from the initial 4GB, and as most games can't simply be installed to an SD card right off the bat, the Xperia E1 makes a pretty terrible gaming comparison. It's the same deal with many 4GB storage phones.
If you're a gaming fan, think about upgrading to the excellent Motorola Moto G, now available for around £100 if you shop around.
Battery life and the essentials
The Sony Xperia E1 has a 1700mAh battery, which is a fairly good size for a phone with a 4-inch screen. However, actually battery performance isn't so hot.
In the standard TechRadar video stamina test, which involves playing a HD MP4 file for 90 minutes at maximum brightness, the Sony Xperia E1 lost 29% battery, meaning that it'll only last for around five hours of looped video off a charge. This is a fair bit worse than the comparable Lumia 630, which only dropped 23%.
This kind of unremarkable stamina is seen in general use too. An hour's web browsing will lop around 20% off your battery's life, and with a little bit of gaming and browsing every day, the Xperia E1 will be nearly-dead come morning. This is not a particularly long-lasting phone.
You do get some tools to improve stamina, though. Like the Sony Xperia Z2, the Xperia E1 has a bunch of different modes that can seriously improve battery life.
In the settings menu you'll find three different power-saving modes. Given the phone's generally mediocre battery performance, I strongly recommend using them.
Stamina mode is probably the one to check out first. What this does is to stop any apps from running processes and accessing mobile data while the screen is off. So when the screen goes black, your Xperia E1 really does go to sleep.
It may sound extreme but you can also select apps that are exempt, making it a good way to stop errant apps from ruining your phone's longevity. You might want to 'allow' Gmail and Whatsapp, for example, which could mean the stamina mode would have little or no negative effects for many.
The next power saver is low-battery mode. This kicks in when your phone reaches a certain battery level, turning down brightness and switching off connections like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to save a bit of juice. It's an emergency mode designed to drag out your phone's life should you find yourself away from a charger longer than expected.
Location-based Wi-Fi is the most interesting of the power saving modes, though. What this does is to only switch on Wi-Fi when you're in range of a saved network. It's probably a good idea for people in cities, where the sheer number of Wi-Fi networks can leave a phone scrambling about, constantly searching for open networks you'll probably never even consider using.
The Sony Xperia E1 doesn't have a great number of bells and whistles. It's not what the phone is about.
It's build does seem to suggest its internal speaker is good, thanks to that great big rear grille and its use of a Walkman button on top. However, the actual sound quality doesn't quite hit the mark.
You get a mono driver that fires out of the back of the Xperia E1, and it has the same sort of fragile-sounding, thin, bass-light sound you'd expect from lower-end phones. Without the mid-range body of better-sounding speakers, including the Motorola Moto E's one, voices tend to sound quite harsh, or at least recessed.
Call quality isn't anything to brag about either. The speaker is a little low in volume, meaning you may struggle with calls in noisier environments, although there is a noise-cancelling mic on the back to make things easier for the person on the other end.
The one other basic thing to consider is that on a 4-inch screen the keyboard can feel a little cramped. While phones like the Motorola Moto E are just slightly larger at 4.3 inches, that extra space does make regular typing more comfortable.
You should have no issues if you switch to gesture typing, though. where you draw a line over the various characters in a word rather than tapping on characters individually.
Sony has pulled out exactly none of the stops with the Xperia E1 camera hardware. It only has one camera sensor, just the rear one, and no flash.
You get a 3.2MP camera that's about as basic as they come in terms of core capabilities. With no autofocus and no manual metering, you have zero hands-on control over your photos in traditional terms. You can't pick a subject for your photos and can't choose whether to expose the photo to suit the sky or the foreground.
For photography fans, these are all big no-nos. What the Sony Xperia E1 offers instead is an unusually generous crop of extra modes and filters. It's a cut-down selection of what you get in an Xperia M2 or Xperia Z2.
As well as HDR and panorama, you get nine creative filters, some of which are a little more creative than the norm. The two Sony specials are the Harris shutter and kaleidoscope. A Harris shutter exposes different colours at slightly different times, letting you produce pretty funky results if you move the phone a bit while shooting.
Actually using the Sony Xperia E1 camera isn't masses of fun in a more basic respect, though. It's pretty slow, lacking that immediacy that is at the heart of mobile photography. There's no focusing delay as there's no focusing to be done, but there is shutter lag and processing lag.
Image quality is quite bad too, as you'd expect from a 3.2MPsensor. Detail is fairly low and dynamic range is pretty bad – that's the camera's ability to bring out detail in bright and dark areas of a single scene at the same time. There is an HDR mode to remedy the dynamic range issue, but it's far from the best.
If you care about photos at all, this probably isn't the phone for you. The Nokia Lumia 520 is the most obvious choice at the same price for a phone with a significantly better camera, being one of the few truly low-cost auto focus cameras.
The Sony Xperia E1 isn't much cop for video either. Capture quality maxes out at 480p, which isn't really worth bothering to upload to Facebook, let alone keeping for posterity.
The budget mobile market is now a seriously competitive one, and the Sony Xperia E1 really has its work cut out even before it's out of the box.
Sadly Sony has made a few too many cuts to a dinky dialler which does the basics, but little more.
Buying the Sony Xperia E1 is a non-scary prospect, which may matter a lot for people looking for a second phone they can lose or break, or one to give to a younger person
You also get to sidestep some of the software wonkiness here that you might see if you went for a phone from a company like Huawei or ZTE. The interface is pretty good, even if the version of Android behind it is currently out of date.
While going with Sony has positives, there are knock-on effects too. The brand seems to be used as a way to side step having to provide quite the baseline quality of hardware you get with something like the Motorola Moto E. There are a lot of cuts you need to live with.
The body doesn't feel too great, the screen quality is fairly low and with just 512MB of RAM, day-to-day performance really isn't too hot.
At the price I can live with a bad camera, and limited storage is to be expected but the Xperia E1 loses out in a few too many areas.
The Sony Xperia E1 is a cheap phone, and it both looks and feels like one. Unlike some rivals it hasn't quite made enough right moves to ensure it brings a solid core experience to the table, while still including some fluffier elements like a dedicated music button.
Thanks to the decent interface it's a reasonable low-cost option, but it's solidly beaten by the Motorola Moto E, which costs as little as £10 more.