Buying a Galaxy S5 seems like a good idea. Until you realise that for the same price you could get a new TV or a games console, and buy a pretty decent phone with the spare change.
The Sony Xperia E1 is a phone for people who think those buying £500 phones are mugs. Well, those people and kids. It costs about £70, meaning you won’t have to swear off everything pleasurable just to afford the thing.
Sony Xperia E1 Review: Design
What you lose in the trade-off is pretty obvious from the moment you hold the phone. The Xperia E1 is small, plastic and a bit dumpy. Its curves make it a bit better-looking than some of the more pig-ugly budget phones, but it probably gets teased by its bigger brothers the Sony Xperia M2 and Xperia Z2.
Build quality seems OK enough, but there’s zero flashiness to this little bundle of plastic. The Xperia E1’s back is textured in quite a cheap fashion, and the power button creaks a bit. Anything creaking on a phone tells you it has been made to a compromised budget. But what do you expect for £70? It’s the Space Invaders crisps of the phone world. And for those of you too young to get that reference, Space Invaders used to cost 10p.
Cheap and cheerful can be good. The issue is that for just £10 more you can get the Motorola Moto E, a phone that doesn’t have quite this eau de compromise whiff.
Also of annoyance - to us at least - is that Sony has put some of the very limited budget into fitting a dedicated music button on the top. Back in the old days, when Sony Ericsson still existed, Walkman phones were pretty common, but if I could trade away that button for 5% nicer finishing touches, I would.
Having used the phone for a few weeks now, parts of the matte back of the Xperia E1 have gone a bit shiny, like a cheap suit, and it’s desperately obvious this phone does not use Gorilla Glass. Give the screen a firm prod and it flexes like a wobble board (too soon?), causing pretty serious screen distortion if you apply just a little more pressure.
Without labouring the Motorola comparison, the Moto E has Gorilla Glass, which also feels a bit better when you slide your finger across it.
You’re probably getting the point by now. Don’t buy the Sony Xperia E1 thinking you’re getting a stone cold bargain that could sell for double the price. It’s roughly on the money at £70.
There is a at least a hint of likeability to the phone, though. Front-on the Xperia E1 looks pretty good thanks to its rejection of soft keys in favour of software buttons, ergonomically it’s pretty good if you don’t mind the entry-level feel. And, as with just about every Sony phone, having the power button on the side makes it immediately accessible.
Take a deep breath, though, as we’re heading straight back into the bad stuff.
Sony Xperia E1 Review: Screen
Now, the screen. The Sony Xperia E1 has a fairly small 4-inch screen with a resolution low enough to be a constant reminder you’re using a low-cost phone.
It’s a bit pixellated and viewing angles are pretty weak because this phone doesn’t use the IPS type of display used in most quality phones these days. It’s a shame, but I have seen much worse budget phone screens than this.
Colours are nice and bold where they’re often weak in entry-level phones like this. You also get a handy auto brightness setting, which is another common casualty of cost-cutting as it requires a separate bit of ambient brightness sensor hardware.
Contrast is passable, but as the screen doesn’t have the zero air gap-style display used in pricier phones, any outside light causes pretty bad reflections that reduce contrast quite dramatically. The Sony Xperia E1 is not a great phone to use outdoors as a result.
It’s not a terrible screen but – you guessed it – the Motorola Moto E offers a much better one.
Sony Xperia E1 Review: Software & Performance
Software fares better, though. You get Android 4.3 with the custom Sony interface, which is fairly nice-looking and supports things like folders to get your apps menu in order. It’s much like the interface you get in Sony’s much more expensive phones, minus a few of the extras features the Xperia E1 can’t hack.
As much as the Sony Xperia E1 software looks better than the competition from the likes of ZTE and Huawei, there is a little bit of occasional lag. It’s not too serious unless you eat away all of the paltry 4GB memory, but does seem to be a result of the phone using 512MB of RAM rather than the usual 1GB. Sadly, 512MB doesn’t quite cut it anymore. You sometimes have to wait for the phone to play catch-up, which can get pretty frustrating if you’re in a rush.
The phone’s CPU is reasonable enough. It’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 200, the low-end, dual-core version of the current Snapdragon line-up. The Xperia E1 is no gaming powerhouse, but it can handle some pretty high-end 3D games because of the low-res screen – sometimes it comes in handy. There is significant slow-down in things like Dead Trigger 2 though, and games don’t look that great thanks to the relative lack of screen pixels.
Sony Xperia E1 Review: Camera
Just as gaming fans should consider spending a tiny bit more, so should those who care about camera quality. The Sony Xperia E1 camera is as basic as unbuttered cracker.
There’s no flash, no front camera and – perhaps most annoying of all – no autofocus. This means your focus is on lockdown, so you can’t take close-up shots. Of anything. Ever. Unless you like the blurry look.
The main sensor has just three megapixels to its name, which was always going to seriously impair the kind of detail you’re going to get. You really can’t take great photos with the Xperia E1. However, it does have an HDR mode, which lets you compensate for the pretty poor standard dynamic range of the camera. It’ll do for Facebook, but don’t expect many likes from your artsy hipster friends. That said, there are more neat creative filters than you get in most phones at this price.
As the phone sells for just £70, I can largely forgive the camera’s shortcomings. But you do get better results from the Nokia 520 for the same money. Here’s one area where we’re not going to keep banging on about the Motorola Moto E – its camera is rubbish too.
Sony Xperia E1 Review: Anything Else To Worry About?
Is there anything else to worry about? This isn’t a 4G phone, but then you may have guessed that given how many corners have been cut elsewhere to get the price down to its current alluring level. There’s no NFC with this phone either, but then the intended buyer might not know what to do with it anyway.
For a phone that seems to have a music focus, the Sony Xperia E1’s internal speaker is pretty mediocre. It’s about the norm for an entry-level phone, but really Sony, if you’re not going to put the extra effort in, don’t advertise it with a grille of George Foreman proportions.
Battery life is just passable too. You’ll get around 5-6 hours of video out of the phone, which is not too great. Using the phone as a proper smartphone you’ll get a day and a bit out of it. But we imagine some people looking at the Xperia E1 may not be hitting the thing too hard.
Sony Xperia E1 Review: Conclusion
“You get what you pay for.” It’s a tired saying trotted out by desperately irritating people, often telling you off for trying to get a bargain. However, it does apply to the Sony Xperia E1 to an extent. While a serviceable little phone, it isn’t quite the bargain that some other recent phones have been. Being feature-poor is fine, but when the screen is a bit off and there are some performance issues too, I start to get a bit less keen.
If you can spend the £10 extra on the Motorola Moto E, it’s more-than worth it. An IPS display, slightly higher resolution and 1GB of RAM are all things to cherish, and they’re things the Sony Xperia E1 lacks.
I don’t think you’re paying a bunch extra for the Sony name here, but there have been a few too many truly disruptive budget phones in the last year for the Sony Xperia E1 to earn the full thumbs-up.