Maria Sharapova doesn't have much luck with phones. She was the famous face of Motorola during the latter years of the ill-fated RAZR reign before switching allegiance to struggling Sony Ericsson during a time when it produced wave after wave of feature phones while smartphones flourished.
That said, 2011 has seen both Sharapova and Sony Ericsson find focus and form and with Sharapova fronting the campaign for the new Android-powered Xperia Active, both should have another smash on their hands.
As the name suggests the 'Active' is targeting the more energetic members of society and it does this in a number of clever ways. Out of the box, the most apparent of these is size. At just 92 x 55mm the Active has a surprisingly small footprint compared to today's monstrous handsets, though a ruggedized exterior means it is a hefty 16mm thick.
This gives the Active an Xperia Mini-esque 'small-but-chunky' appearance, though its build quality far exceeds the Mini with a tasteful rubberised rear, toughened metal rim and wholly touch-sensitive home, back and context keys. At 110.8g there isn't a great weight penalty to be paid either, suggesting the premise for the Active is to be pocket friendly and withstand the elements, but that is only the start.
The Xperia Active's party trick is that it is waterproof. Sony Ericsson claims the Active can withstand being fully submerged for up to 30 minutes in depths up to one metre and surely enough it passed this test with flying colours. To achieve this, the Active's 3.5mm headphone jack and micro USB charging port are covered by well made rubber flaps and cleverly, an onscreen prompt reminds you to close them whenever headphones or the charge cable are unplugged. It's the little things.
In addition to this Sony Ericsson has equipped the Active with 'wet tracking' so the phone's screen works even underwater and it also responds (though less responsively) through the transparent window in a bundled armband, which will be a boon to regular runners and gym goers.
It is important the screen has these useful traits because it helps to disguise one of the Xperia's potential deal breakers: the display's small size. With 3.7in and even 4.3in displays now commonplace, the Active's 3in 320 x 480 pixel panel seems weedy by comparison. Don't be too quick to judge, however, since Sony Ericsson has incorporated its excellent Reality Display with Mobile Bravia Engine screen technology which results in vivid colours, sharp text and wide viewing angles. Due to the small size, pixel density also remains good and it has a very useful knock on effect on performance.
The Xperia Active is equipped with a 1GHz processor and 512MB RAM, by no means anything to write home about in 2011. Yet because it has to process less pixels than today's high end handsets, the Active positively flies. It is certainly helped by shipping with the latest version of Android for smartphones (v2.3.4), but the reduced pixels are key.
Also key to the Active's small screen success is Sony Ericsson's excellent, minimalist Timescape UI (surely one of the best third party Android skins). Like the Xperia Mini, the Active places shortcuts for up to four apps in each screen corner meaning a surprising amount of functionality can be reached quickly and easily. The native inclusion of Swype also makes typing on the small keyboard a joy. A hole in the Active's armoury is its 300MB internal memory, but that should be enough to install most apps before transferring them to a microSD card (a 2GB card is bundled, but the slot is 32GB compatible).