For a while now I have been on the hunt for a cheap android handset that features a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio. Until recently, this new standard was only on the latest and greatest handsets, with matching price tags.

I write custom software for theatre performances and tracking the location of the audience is a big part of the smoke and magic. In these site-specific performances, the audience walks around, rather than sit in auditoriums. While software tracks their location and plays audio and video files from the handset. Before iBeacons became mainstream I did the location tracking with GPS and a home-rolled bluetooth tracking system. Neither of which were as accurate as I would have liked, and the bluetooth system was cumbersome.

I have switched to using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and iBeacons, it is fantastic. Better accuracy, indoors is no fuss and it’s easy to tear down and set up the performance in another location. What was missing were cheap handsets. At $300-$400 for a handset that worked with iBeacons, it put a serious limit onl the audience size we could run on small budgets.

Photo of Sony Xperia E1 handset and packaging

Recently in Australia, Optus put the Sony Xperia E1 on sale at $59 AUD (or $130 USD unlocked from Amazon). YES! It was the right price, but was it any good?

At first glance I was pleasantly surprised. The E1 is a solid phone and will take a tumble better than most smart phones. Not as hardy as those old Nokia bricks, but it certainly won’t bend in your pocket.

But holy crap, the touch screen actually works. A rarity for budget android handsets. Every sub $100 android handset I have ever used has had a touch screen that is so horribly inaccurate it straight up doesn’t work. No. Stuff you. I want to press the letter ‘t’ not ‘e’, you stupid phone. On the E1 however, the touch screen is responsive and accurate. So although it may only have a 4” screen, you aren’t at a big disadvantage because you can still tap on what you are after*!

As for specs, it is well rounded for only sixty bucks. Android 4.4, 1.2GHz processor, 512MB Ram and 4GB storage. Plus the oh-so-sweet Bluetooth 4.0 that I use all the time. The Xperia E1 has more than enough grunt to power site-specific theatre performances. We can live mix a soundtrack based on a persons location and trigger narrative at pre-defined locations.

The only thing noticeably missing is a front-facing camera. But at $60 it is pretty hard to complain about that.

The big thing I don’t like is common to all Sony phones. To leverage off their existing brands (like playstation and walkman), Sony built their own versions of many standard apps. But for whatever reason (legal or technical) the Google equivalents still kick around on the device. Expect to get asked if you want to do this with ‘Walkman or Play Music’ a LOT. But that problem is common even in more expensive Sony handsets, so again it is pretty hard to nit pick. Recently Sony dropped the brands and went with simpler and more descriptive names (I.e. walkman became music). It makes me wonder what value remains in rolling their own custom applications.

All in all Sony have done very well with the Xperia E1. You get lots of phone for only $60. They are light years ahead of any cheap handset I have used in the past and when used in site-specific theatre? Awesome.

I give the Sony Xperia E1 4.5 stars out of 5.

4.5 stars out of 5.

* I’m also a little biased towards smaller form factors – never been a fan of phablets.