Last year’s Xperia Arc and the updated Arc S were two of the most underrated Android phones out there, combining slimline looks with large, high quality displays, great cameras and a simple and functional user interface skin from Sony Ericsson. They were great mobiles.
Now there’s a new high-end model from Sony for 2012, in the shape of the slightly bigger, slightly heavier, and significantly more powerful Xperia S. With a 1.5GHz dual-core processor and 4.3″ screen it’s a big step up for Sony’s newly renamed mobile division, although Android 2.3 is still the core OS behind the big screen.
The first thing you’ll notice is the phone’s incredible screen. Running at 1280×720 on a 4.3″ display, everything appears incredibly sharp and clear on the Xperia S. Icons are clean-edged and bright, with nothing in the way of bluriness or pixels on display no matter how hard you look. It’s so good.
We thought last year’s Xperia Arcs had great screens – this is a big leap ahead of those and even outshines the 720p display of the Galaxy Nexus as far as we’re concerned.
The Xperia S feels much more solid than last year’s Arc and Arc S. The lightweight plastic buttons have gone, replaced by three capacitive touch areas for Back, Home and Menu.
And that’s the big new design feature, a completely transparent strip that sits between the phone and the black chunk at the bottom. Inside are three icons, guiding you to the capacitive areas above. You actually press those tiny little silver dots, not the icons in the strip.
These touch buttons take a bit of getting used to. You have to press higher up than you’d imagine, almost touching the bottom edge of the display itself to get these touch sensitive areas to register your touches. We found we’d often miss, or have to press a couple of times to get it to register at first, but once you learn where to aim it becomes easier to hit the tiny spots.
The power button’s a big, chunky, easy-to-hit lump that sits on the top left corner of the phone. The 3.5mm headphone jack’s also on the top, with HDMI output, volume rocker and camera button down the right edge, and the USB connector near the top of the left edge. The camera button has a nice two-stage focus and shoot action to it.
Flaps open. The Xperia S hides its USB and HDMI outputs behind little rubber stoppers. They’re fiddly and a bit of a pain, frankly. We’d rather take our chances with the dangers of dust accumulation and not have them covered, or have nice little sliding metal doors like with the LG Prada 3.0.
One other small design disappointment is the way the screen fits into the case of the Xperia S. While the Galaxy Nexus and Motorola RAZR had beautifully curved screen edges that sank into the case, the glass of the Xperia S just meets its plastic edges square on – and there’s a factory fitted screen protector giving the join a rough feel, too.
You might like that, though. It gives the Xperia S a typically Sony look and feel, all bold, black plastic and angles.
Round the back. Very minimal, slightly rubberised for grip. You’d definitely be able to guess this was a Sony product.
The battery cover’s another super-bendy model, just like that of the Galaxy S II. You squash it in to place, like you’re applying a cheese slice to a warm burger. There’s no SD card slot here and the battery is built into the chassis so can’t be swapped either.
But who cares? Given how absolutely sharp and bright the 4.3″ display is, any niggles count for very little overall. We’d happily put up with silly rubber USB covers and no SD card slot in return for living with the glorious screen of the Xperia S. It is literally the best phone screen we’ve seen by a big margin.
And that’s the OS. Android 2.3.7 is onboard the Xperia S, with Sony once again throwing more user interface tweaks over the top of Google’s base. You get a simple lock screen with sliding unlock/mute bar and a customisable wallpaper, then five Android Home screens to play with as you wish.
That’s what Sony’s Timescape social network aggregator looks like these days. It’s been broken down into three separate widgets now – Feed, Friends and Share – with a new, stylish look for the status update Feeds part of the bundle (lower left).
The usual Timescape view can be pulled up through hitting the “FEED” icon, if you are somehow attached to the rather weird old way of viewing your social contacts. It moves well and looks OK, but is in no way a good substitute for using the standalone Twitter and Facebook apps – especially as you can’t upload images to Twitter through it.
Some of the widgets. The new power strip comes as a small widget, which spins out to fill most of the screen when tapped. Or…
…if you’d rather pull out individual items from the list of feature toggles, each of the power strip buttons can be stuck in an 1×1 widget slot on the Home screen. To the right is the Themes menu, which alters the animated background image and menu colour to suit.
The weather widget also expands when you tap it, folding down to fill the screen. To the right is Sony’s unique “overview” mode, which, if you pinch-zoom a Home screen, explodes all of your widgets out into this view. Pressing one takes you to its Home screen so you can activate it.
Sony’s email app has been updated with more of an Android 4.0 look, also still keeping the custom preview pane which you can turn on, off, or only have when viewing messages in landscape mode.
The keyboard. The same line-drawing Swype clone is in here as it was in last year’s Sony Ericsson Android OS updates, letting users write by tracing a line over the letters of a word. It works very well, and we are particularly grateful for the punctuation bar that pops up after you press the spacebar – letting you easily add in such luxuries as commas and question marks without switching screens. No lag on the keyboard, very accurate and usable on the big 4.3″ screen.
The app drawer and its editing tools. Not so many app organising options as found on some rival Android models, but at least you can delete apps straight from the app drawer by pressing the bottom-right icon, then hitting the little red “X” beside any apps Sony will let you remove.
One of Sony’s new additions is this Power Saver app, which lets you set up a series of rules for the phone to OBEY when its battery level falls to a certain percentage. Useful. Thanks.
Also new and pretty handy is the LiveWare accessory manager. This is used to automate simple tasks, like making the Xperia S open up the music player when you plug your headphones in. It’s nothing like as amazing as Motorola’s Smart Actions system it’s stuck in the Motorola RAZR, but it’s still pretty handy to have.
And the aforementioned music player. Again, this has been completely refreshed over the old Sony Ericsson option from last year’s Xperia phones, giving it a much lighter and more stylish, Android 4.0-esque look and feel.
Of particular note is the phone’s external speaker – it’s amazingly loud. Like, proper radio quality loud. And that graphic equaliser works through the speaker as well as headphones, doing a great job of actually making the music sound different. It’s not some token gesture.
You can also pull up a menu offering to search for more data on the artist currently playing, not that there’s anything we don’t already know about the life and times of the Pet Shop Boys. And that’s Sony’s TrackID system, which records and identifies music you’re currently playing. Very useful if you’re listening to the FM radio and want a track identifying.
And there’s a very nice little music player Home screen widget, plus simple lock screen controls. Does the job well.
Internet use is another high point of the Xperia S, as you might expect from a dual-core powerhouse with such a great display. Pages load, draw and move around quickly, while inline Flash content doesn’t slow things down in the slightest.
The browser’s “back end” is the same sort of thing found in most Android models, with a pretty bland list-based approach to managing windows. Plus the usual options and bookmarking tools. Text resizing and reflowing works well, with a double-tap automatically zooming in and making it nice and readable.
A predictably excellent web experience all round, thanks to the phone’s power and super screen.
And that’s the power of the Xperia S illustrated in benchmark form. It leaves the melted husks of most other phones for DEAD.
We’ve already had a look at some Xperia S photo samples and gone through the camera options in a separate update. It’s got a great camera in it, basically. So let’s move on.
The photo editor’s a bit of a disappointment, coming with just simple crop/rotate options and is nothing like as impressive as the complex editors found in the likes of the LG Prada 3.0 or Motorola RAZR.
Memory. About 2GB of space for app storage in total, plus there’s about 23GB of the phone’s internal space left. But then we did take a lot of photos and put on that Pet Shop Boys album, so there’ll be about 27GB available to you when it’s new and empty.
Google Maps and its Navigate option. The Xperia S got a lock on our position through GPS in a few seconds, and from then on it’s the full, awesome Google Maps and satnav experience you ought to very well know and love.
Contacts and stuff. Looks nice enough, supports quick dialing within the dialer, plus the Xperia S comes with all the numbers from zero all the way up to nine.
The SMS window and the folder creation part. Dragging one icon on top of another automatically creates a folder and put the two icons in it. It’s the Android way.
Sony has also put an app store on the Xperia S, which links to the Android Market so is, as with most third-party app stores, rather useless. But there it is anyway. Looks nice, at least.
You also get loads of Sony cross-promotional content. Or spam, with widgets for its Music and Video Unlimited service pre-installed on the Home screen, along with the PlayStation gaming app.
We did not purchase or even rent ‘Tactical Force’ despite being big Stone Cold Steve Austin fans back in the early 2000s.
There are some useful additional apps on here, though. You get a free version of McAfee Security, ASTRO file manager, a thing for looking at MS Office files, plus Wisepilot, QR code reader NeoReader and a Sony Media Remote app.
And there’s DLNA support through Sony’s Connected Devices app, which makes it dead easy to stream in content from other DLNA-enabled devices that happen to be connected to your home network.
Also, the Xperia S features NFC support, with Sony including its own app for triggering functions when you use a separate ‘Smart Tag’. We haven’t tried any of that. We’ll try NFC when our local SPAR starts accepting it and not a day sooner.
Battery life was what you’d expect of a 4.3″ phone. The image to the left is us hammering the Xperia S solidly for a day, pretty much non-stop fiddling with Twitter, taking photos and then looking at Twitter again. Do that and you’ll get eight hours out of the Xperia S – treat it a little more gently and it’ll make it through a full day well enough.
What the calendar looks like. And the Timed Saver power management settings, which you can use to save power and stop notifications waking you up at 2.45am when America sends you some spam emails.
And that is literally everything we have to show you and talk about. Congratulations on scrolling down this far.
So then. There’s one reason you absolutely need to at least see an Xperia S in action – its display. Sony’s 720p screen and Reality Display tech make this the sharpest and clearest screen we’ve used. You cannot see pixels. It’s like icons have been etched onto the glass with a laser. It is amazing to see and bordering on the unbelievable.
The actual design of the phone’s quite pleasing. We like the flat sides and curved back, while the transparent strip’s a cute if largely pointless feature. It’s not quite as curvaceous and luxurious as the Galaxy Nexus with its gently curved glass, but the Xperia S is still a very nice, sturdy feeling piece of tech that’s worth its premium asking price.
The capacitive buttons take a bit of getting used to, thanks to offering quite small areas to aim at, but it’s not a deal breaker, because…
…it’s all about the quality of the display. If you want the sharpest, clearest screen in the Android world today, it’s the one that’s inside the Xperia S. The rest of it’s pretty good, too, offering a fast and robust Android experience that can only get better when Sony updates it to Android 4.0 some time in Q2 of this year.
The body of the Xperia S feels solid, weighty and well made, while the camera produces great stills and video. Battery life’s around the big-screened smartphone usual, but the lack of SD card support and a non-removable battery may annoy some. The display’s the star, though, looking amazingly sharp here in 720p resolution.
We’re going to have to be harsh and chip off a point or two for not arriving with Android 4.0 onboard. Sony’s Android 2.3.7 and the many custom user interface tweaks and additions make it a great phone to use, no doubt about that, but a boatload of new models are about to arrive with Google’s “Ice Cream Sandwich” update onboard, which may make Sony’s flagship appear a little dated.
The dual-core processor handled everything we threw at it with ease. Web pages fly around with no issues and apps install and open quickly, while the camera and its quick launch option take the fuss out of whipping out your phone to take a shot.
The Xperia S is larger and less flamboyant than last year’s Xperia Arc, offering rock-solid performance behind the highest quality display you’ll find anywhere today. The case could be a little more stylish and the capacitive buttons can be slightly awkward, but those issues are soon forgotten when you see the phone’s super-sharp screen in action.