By July 18, 2011

Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo review

XperiaNeo-Main Although this is the last of the three new devices launched at MWC in February, it doesn’t mean it’s an insignificant or ‘bad’ phone. Despite sitting below the Arc, the imaging capabilities headline the neo’s feature list along with all of the usual gizmos you’d expect from a reasonably high-end smartphone.

The Xperia Neo builds on from the success of the Vivaz, as well as Sony Ericsson’s new aversion to proper capitalisation. Even so, the neo is packed with features that make this a formidable all-rounded Android device – a Bravia enhanced 3.7 inch touchscreen borrowed from Sony TVs and an Exmor camera sensor borrowed from the Cybershot range gives it the credentials on paper, but how does it perform in real world use?

Read on to find out!

 

The 10 Second review:

  • Device: Sony Ericsson XPERIA Neo
  • Price: £330 Sim-free
  • Summary: A respectable midrange Android smartphone with a great camera
  • Best of: camera performance, compact body
  • Worst of: Screen visibility when outdoors
  • Buy it now from: Clove Technology
  • Also consider: HTC Desire S, Sony Ericsson Arc

 

What’s in the box?

  • Device
  • 1500mAh battery
  • USB mains charger
  • USB to microUSB cable
  • 3.5mm headset with inline mic
  • 8GB micro SD card
  • Quck Start Guide

Sony Ericsson Xperia neo specification:

  • 2G Network: GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
  • 3G Network: HSDPA 900 / 2100
  • Dimensions: 116 x 57 x 13 mm
  • Weight: 126 g
  • Display: LED-backlit LCD, capacitive touchscreen, 16M colours, 480 x 854 pixels, 3.7 inches
  • Accelerometer sensor for auto-rotate
  • Multi-touch input method
  • Sony Mobile BRAVIA Engine
  • Proximity sensor for auto turn-off
  • Timescape UI
  • 3.5mm jack
  • Memory: 320 MB storage, 512 MB RAM
  • microSD, up to 32GB, 8 GB included
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Bluetooth v2.1 with A2DP
  • microUSB v2.0
  • Camera: 8 MP, 3264×2448 pixels, autofocus, LED flash, [email protected], continuous autofocus
  • Android OS, v2.3 (Gingerbread)
  • 1GHz Scorpion processor, Adreno 205 GPU, Qualcomm MSM8255 Snapdragon
  • Stereo FM radio with RDS
  • GPS with A-GPS support
  • Digital Compass
  • SNS integration
  • HDMI port
  • Battery: Standard battery, Li-Po 1500 mAh

 

General

Looking around this phone, it’s quite refreshing to see an Android device that doesn’t just conform to the usual black slab. The neo has a much more rounded design, with ergonomics in mind. What you’ll find around the phone, however, doesn’t stray too far from the usual you’d expect on a modern smartphone. The front is dominated by the 3.7" touchscreen, with an earpiece, ambient light sensor, front facing 2MP camera, and, rather unusually, two identical-looking proximity sensors. Below the display, you’ll find a trio of Android hardware buttons, a rarity these days. From left to right, there’s a back, home, and menu key. Although, they’re only chrome effect plastic, they do feel solid and tactile. The only problem here is that they’re not actually backlit; only the two gaps between the buttons light up. This means that you’ll need to have memorised and got used to their arrangement before you can use the comfortably at night. Seeing as almost every Android device (including Sony’s own) have their own order, it was slightly frustrating using it at first. It didn’t take long to get used to them though, so no dealbreaker here.

NEO-front

 

The left hand side of the phone is completely clean – only more of that (admittedly pretty) chromed plastic. Where it gets busy is over on the right. This is where the power/lock button, notification LED, volume rocker, and camera button live. All the buttons are easy to reach and press. What I did find annoying is the notification LED. For one, it’s on the side (nowhere near as noticeable), but it’s also very weak. I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s useless, but don’t expect the kind of notification light you see on BlackBerries.

NEO-left

NEO-right

 

 

On the bottom, there’s only a small hole for the phone mic, and on the top, there are three ports. There’s micro USB and micro HDMI ports underneath protective flaps, and a 3.5mm headphone jack sitting in between them.

NEO-top

NEO-bottom

 

On the rear of the device, there’s a loudspeaker. Although it gets to reasonable volume levels, it gives out quite tinny sound, but what else can you expect from built in speakers? Moving over, we get to perhaps the only standout feature of the neo – the 8MP Exmor camera, which I’ll say now, is very impressive. It was first used on the Xperia Arc which produced magnificent images, and this is no different – what you’ll find on the back of the neo is very much an above average camera (which is more than what can be said of the rest of it’s spec sheet!) but we’ll go more in depth in the camera department later on. There’s also a small flash next to the lens, which is much brighter than it looks. Also on the back is a small hole for the secondary mic which aids the background noise reduction during calls. 

NEO-back1

 

Highlights:

  • Excellent camera performance
  • Crisp, vibrant display for an LCD
  • Curvy yet compact design
  • HDMI output
  • Lets Golf preloaded!

 

Lowlights:

  • Plasticky
  • Display outdoor visibility
  • Average (at best) battery life
  • TimeScape UI’s usefulness is questionable

 

Review

We first heard about the Xperia Neo back in February at MWC, but ever since, it has lived in the shadows of it’s more interesting brothers, the Arc, Play, and sometimes even the Xperia Pro. Nevertheless, here we are with the Xperia neo, and although it may not be as exciting to us, first impressions are still positive. The curvy design is what Sony Ericsson call their ‘Human Curvature’ design ethic, and while it may not be to everyone’s taste, it does make a refreshing change from the usual black touchscreen slate, and it genuinely make it very nice to hold. The curved back conforms to your hand, and at only 57mm wide, it makes it very easy to grip, even for those with smaller hands. In fact, it is narrower than the iPhone yet it has a larger screen. Perhaps the downside (if you can call it that) is that the display doesn’t really feel as spacious as other phones with a 3.7" screen. Nevertheless, this is a compact phone when compared with the size of the display, so the neo should be on your shortlist (along with the Desire S) if you’re looking for a touchscreen Android smartphone that will actually fit in your pocket. Weighing in at 126g, the heft is basically perfect. In your hand, it feels just as heavy as it looks – it meets that middle Goldilocks balance which isn’t too light that it feels cheap and tacky, but not too heavy that it becomes a hindrance.

NEO-back2

Regardless, said display is pretty good. In a world where AMOLED and Super LCD displays are soon becoming the norm, the neo ‘only’ has an LCD. It does have a trick up it’s sleeve though – the display has Sony’s Bravia Engine technology, which kicks in when viewing pictures and videos. Although that does help media really pop on the display, it’s a different story outside. When I ventured outside (yes, I really have been outdoors, I promise) the display washes out very easily. This isn’t helped by the fact that the maximum brightness isn’t that bright. All in all, I’d say that despite the Mobile Bravia Engine, it is a pretty average display by today’s standard. That’s not a necessarily a bad thing as it works well indoors and mostly outdoors, but don’t be surprised when your mates pull up with their IPS, Super AMOLED, Super LCD, Super-this-super-that displays, making yours look decidedly average.

The design as a whole is really quite nice in my opinion – whether you’ll like it depends on your take on the curvy design. The neo is, however, made out of plastic, which makes it feel less premium than the unibody designs of HTC, but it is thicker and better quality plastic than ones used in recent Samsung handsets at least. The darker version actually has a rather tasteful yet subtle gradient from black to dark metallic blue, but it does show fingerprints quite prominently so be prepared to wipe it down often. In other thing, the weight is perfect, the size is good, and the shape means that it fits in your hand much better than the squarer devices such as the iPhone 4  or even the inverted curves of the Arc.

NEO-angled-right

 

Homescreens & TimeScape UI

After a quick selection of language, we’re booted into Sony’s take on Android. This is running Gingerbread, the newest (at the time of writing) major release for mobile phones, which makes a nice change after the firmware.issues from the days of the X10. The Timescape UI gives us five fully customisable screens where we can drop widgets and shortcuts. By default, they’ve already placed some here and there. Along the bottom, there’s the usual applications button, which is flanked by four shortcuts – media and messaging on the left, and contacts and phone on the right. These four are fully customisable – you can opt to change them to other programs in the same way you would a homescreen shortcut, or you can remove them and leave them blank. All the widgets you can see in the default setup of the homescreens are all Sony Ericsson’s own. While they work fine, you can also get a lot more with varying designs and functions from the Android Market, both free and paid for.

 

home1home2home3home4home5    home-media

 

The list of applications have also been modified, from a long alphabetical list, to horizontally scrollable pages. Where TimeScape UI is slightly different (and slightly better) from other skins such as TouchWiz is the option to arrange them in varying orders. You can have your own order, alphabetical, most used, or recently installed. For many people this may not be a big thing, but for those who like to use a large amount of apps, this is very handy; it’s all to easy to go overboard on installing apps, only to find that your applications are in such a mess you can’t find what you want – this option to arrange your apps could help bring order to your application chaos.

 

menu1menu2menu3menu-arrangetimescapesupport

Email

Email may seems like a pretty boring or ordinary subject, the email app on most Android phones is virtually the same. To a degree that’s also true of the email client on the neo. It starts off pretty basic, you add your email accounts be it POP, IMAP or Exchange and you can add multiples of each.

Accounts can then be viewed either individually or you can see them in a consolidated fashion. In the consolidated view, each message has a small coloured bar on the left of it to denote which account it belongs to. Only thing I wish here is that I could change the colours used, I don’t know if you can?

The biggest difference where email is concerned and a huge plus feature for me is the preview pane that SE have added to the inbox view. Just as with your regular desktop email client you can scroll through a list of emails on the left side of the display and the tap on one to see the message on the right. Of course you can still view the message full screen too but this preview pane makes email triage a lot easier.

The preview pane can be added in either landscape mode or BOTH landscape and portrait mode but not just portrait. In portrait mode the preview appears above the messages.

I think this is a fab feature, and the size of the preview pane is also adjustable, simply by pulling it up or down. This is also unique to Email clients on Sony Ericsson Android devices.

 

email-combined_2email_pane_2

 

Calendar

The Calendar on the Xperia neo is quite a disappointment. The implementation is quite basic with a month, week and day view. By default it wont synchronise with your Exchange server when you configure your email accounts and instead wants to be set up separately. You can have multiple calendars though.

There is a simple Calendar widget but this is small and only shows the first up coming appointment rather then an agenda or weekly view that some may find more useful.

If you are the sort of person that utilises calendars at work for lots of meetings etc. you may well find yourself heading to Android Market to find a better solution. Perhaps I am being overly critical but with other handsets that we have reviewed recently having really excellent calendar integration the neo seems a bit lacking in that department.

calendarcalendar2

Internet

The neo has a 3.7" display which, although may be considered on the smaller end of the spectrum , performs admirably while web browsing. The resolution of the display is 480×854, which are quite a few pixels to be cramming into 3.7 inches of real estate. In fact, it’s actually as many, if not more, than many phones packing 4.3 or even 5 inch displays such as the Galaxy SII, Desire HD, or the Dell Streak. What this means, is that you’ll see the same ‘amount’ of webpage even though the screen is smaller. It also means that what you see is more crisp and defined (especially text) as the pixels are closer together. The downside is that obviously everything is smaller, including text, but if you can see that small, it is definitely readable, even when zoomed out. There is little to separate the browsers seen on most Androids these days, it mostly comes down to the screen and then RAM and CPU speed for the overall browsing experience.

Being the standard Android webkit browser, along with speed improvements in Gingerbread, the browser is extremely fast. When you first visit a site the page will initially scale to fit in the width of the screen so you can see the layout as it’s meant to be and it looks virtually the same as you would see on a desktop browser. You can then scroll around the screen looking for the content you want and, because the neo supports multitouch where its X10 brothers did not, you can use two fingers to pinch-to-zoom wherever you want or double tap to zoom to a specific portion of the page. Thanks to the 1GHz processor, scrolling and multitouch zoom gestures are fast and responsive which makes browsing the web a very pleasant experience. Naturally the browser also makes use of the built in accelerometer so will rotate the display to suit whenever you rotate the device allowing you to easily switch between portrait and landscape browsing. There is very little lag when rotating.

The neo’s browser also supports Flash and you can install the latest version 10.3 so you’ll be able to use your favourite Flash based sites or even play Flash based games.

browser-landscapebrowser-portrait

Dialler

Without the dialler, the neo wouldn’t be a phone anymore so it’s important that this works! Across all Android devices, the dialler works in the same way, but manufacturers like to put their own skin on. Here, Sony Ericsson have made it more blue to fit in with the TimeScape theme, but other than that, it’s quite simple. There’s not much to say here, except that (hooray) it works. The numbers are large enough and it has no problem with keeping up with fast diallers.

The dialler is also the easiest or quickest way to add new contacts – simply type their number and press save to enter their details afterwards.

diallercontacts

 

Signal & Call Quality

Again, like the dialler, the signal strength is pretty important to a phone, for obvious reasons. I’m happy (and unsurprised) to report that the signal strength is right about average. If you get two bars on your Nokia brick, chances are you’ll get two bars on the neo. Then again, it is made of plastic so there’s no metal getting in the way of signal like on unibody phones. Call quality on the neo is (you guessed it) average. It does have a secondary mic for noise cancelling which seems to make a small difference for the other end, but for you, the earpiece quality is fine. One small problem may be the placement of that secondary mic on the back – for right handers, it is right where you’d put the tip of your index finger. If you’re aware though, it’s not difficult to adjust your grip as there’s more than one way to hold it right on the neo.

NEO-angled-left

 

Market

Virtually every gadget running Google’s Android OS will also have Google’s Android Market application, which is your gateway to a whole plethora of third party applications, with everything from games to social networking apps. What’s slightly different on the neo (and newer Sony Ericsson Android handsets) is that there is a special curated section from Sony Ericsson. Google allows anybody to make any app and put it in the Market, and while this allows for total freedom in what your apps can and can’t do, it also means that there are many apps which are simply crap – crapps. These crapps can have pretty bad consequences for an unknowing user, from excessive battery drain to outright stealing of personal information. Google have tried to alleviate this by making every app declare what it can do before you download, but not everybody pays much attention to this. Sony Ericsson have therefore created their own section of ‘approved’ apps which are known to work well on Sony Ericsson devices – if you want to make sure that apps you want is totally legit, you can grab them from the Sony Ericsson section instead.

Google have also recently released a totally new look Android Market which will be rolling out slowly on Android devices running Froyo and later. Out of the box, the neo runs the old Market, but thanks to Android’s ‘open’ philosophy, I manually  downloaded and installed the new apk. This allows you to sort apps and games by Staff Choices, Editors’ Choice, Top Grossing, Top New Paid, Top New Free, and Trending (as well as the old Top paid and top free). Now it’s much easier to find new applications, and it’s also much nicer to use! And for you cautious types, the Sony Ericsson curated section is still there.

market    market-newmarket-new2market-new3

SE Pre-installed Apps

There are a number of applications that Sony Ericsson have added to the default set of pre installed apps. Some are totally rubbish and useless like the PlayNow Store, but occasionally you do find something decent. My favourite is LiveWare Manager. What it does, is essentially very simple; when certain accessories (including Bluetooth) are plugged in, you can automate an app to be launched. For example, I have the desktop clock to launch when I plug the charger in, and I have the Music application to launch when headphones are plugged in. While I’m sure this has been done before in an app buried in the Market somewhere, it’s nice to see Sony Ericsson bundle something like this with the phone by default, where people can actually find, and use it.

Another useful app is the support app. From here, you can find out more about how to use the more complex features of your phone, which is very useful especially if you are new to Android, or smartphones in general. You can search specific queries, learn how to save battery, read the user guide, watch video tutorials, and even email support.

Another app that’s preinstalled is Lets Golf (the full version), which simply is an awesome game.

livewaresupport

Keyboard

The neo also has a custom keyboard courtesy of Sony Ericsson (identical to the Arc’s ‘board). Compared with the stock keyboard that you get from Gingerbread, it’s not too different. The main difference is that the look has altered to a colour scheme that, lets face it, looks very Apple. Nevertheless, it functions how you would expect. Only the full qwerty (in portrait and landscape) is available here, but as with any Android device, third party keyboards for other layouts are available. Actual text entry is very good – it can keep up with fast typing, and it has the usual error correction. Since the screen is quite narrow, this means the keys on the keyboard are also narrow in portrait mode which may take a bit of getting used to.

 

keyboardkeyboard-landscape

Music & Media

The neo does away with the standard Android music application (which is arguably a good thing) and brings in another custom interface. The now playing screen is taken up mostly with the album artwork, but more interesting is the feature which uses your network connection to find out more information about the artist you’re listening to. Whether you consider that a gimmick or a useful feature is up to you, but it does work smoothly, as long as your tag information is correct.

In terms of actual sound quality, I found it to be up to the usual high standard of today’s media players when using the headphone jack. Even with the supplied set of earbuds, it sounded good thanks to the in ear style that are provided, along with different sized caps for different sized ears. The loudspeaker was average at best. Even with the many equaliser settings, there’s no getting away from the fact that phone speakers are tinny, and for serious group listening, external speakers are a must.

 

musicmusic-equalisermedia-discoverytrackid

GPS and Navigation

All Android devices naturally have Google Maps preinstalled (which is the best implementation of Google Maps on any platform) and, more recently, there’s also free lifetime navigation on Android devices such as the neo. A built in GPS chip and capability to use the wireless network to aid location means that modern Android devices really are suitable navigation devices. Of course, you do rely on the wireless network for maps (unless you download a third party GPS app) but other than that, there’s no reason why a handset such as the neo can’t replace your aging TomTom. So how does the neo perform? Indoors, I found it impossible to get a GPS signal, even inside a conservatory. Some phones can, some can’t, and although it might be indicative of the quality of the internal GPS, it doesn’t matter when you won’t be needing navigation indoors; outdoors is where it counts, and thankfully it works perfectly. Getting a signal from cold was actually surprisingly quick – in my unscientific tests, getting a lock outside was easily done in around 30 seconds. With the wireless network aiding the GPS (A-GPS technology) it can get a signal even faster. This means that navigating on foot or in the car, the neo is a perfectly viable solution to navigate with, as long as your network can keep up downloading the maps.

map1_2map2_4nav_2nav1_2

Battery

Battery life is an area which is extremely important to many people, yet it’s one of the hardest areas of a phone to test, mostly because everyone’s expectations differ, and so do their uses. However, I will try to paint as accurate a picture as I can, and I’ll say now, it’s not exactly a Picasso. The battery life of the neo is right in line with what you’d expect from Android devices these days. If you use your phone constantly throughout the day, be it phone calls or fiddling, you’d struggle to eek a full day out of it. Despite that, just consciously limiting your usage just a little will make it last a full day, so I’d say for most people out there, you’re safe to leave the charger at home during the day. If you’re a more moderate user, a day and a half would be a reasonable expectation, and if you’re really frugal, two days might even be a possibility. It feels like we say this over and over again for Android devices, and smartphones in general, but it’s true. The neo has an average battery life, and that is anything up to two days (at least one full day for most people).

 

Performance & Benchmarks

Benchmarks are a good way of comparing devices, though they don’t always illustrate an accurate picture, so it’s a good idea to take these with a pinch of salt and use them only as a general idea. In Quadrant, the neo scored an average of around 1500, which is average. In Linpack, the neo scored 37.2 MFLOPS which, you guessed it, is average. From the benchmarks, we can see that the neo performs exactly how we’d expect from it’s (now almost mid range) spec sheet. In terms of real world usage, the neo felt snappy and responsive; only the most seasoned Android power users will find any ‘lag’ annoying. While at times the neo did feel a bit shaky (playing games mostly) it kept up admirably throughout my use.

 

quadrantlinpack

Camera

Where the neo breaks away from its midrange spec sheet is in the imaging department. The neo has an 8MP camera with flash on its rear, and it’s not just any 8MP sensor. The neo benefits from the same technology as the Xperia Arc, as it has the Exmor R sensor from Sony’s Cybershot range of cameras. From what Sony say and from what we’ve seen from the Arc, this should result in excellent low light photography, and generally awesome photos.

Starting with the camera app itself, the neo’s is probably one of the best Android camera apps I’ve used in terms of interface design. The left side is where all the settings are, and the right is where previous photos are hidden. On the left, the column of five icons can be customised to be any setting you like, with the rest just being a swipe away. The more you drag the bar out, the more settings you see. The same concept applies for camera photos from the right. This results in an intuitive way to adjust the settings on the camera, but one of my favourite ‘features’ is the ability to snap photos by tapping anywhere on the screen. Using the button can result in quite a bit of blur, but tapping the screen also focuses and snaps a shot. It also does this extremely quickly – photos can be taken in very quick succession, which is impressive seeing as many phones with much more processing power cannot take photos as fast as the neo.

cameracamera2camera3

Interface

The actual images themselves turned out really well. As they say, pictures speak a thousand words so you can decide for yourself about the quality of the photos. Every one was taken with the default auto settings (except for the macro shots) and have not been retouched in any way. The beach photo was taken in dusk conditions, and the hotel in total darkness.

8mp (2)8mpmacro 2       coloursnormal

                                                                                                                                                                                                         8MP, 4:3 ratio                                                                                                                                      6MP 16:9 widescreen

colours (2)low lightmacrosuper low lightnormal (2)

6MP 16:9 widescreen

 

Conclusion

The Xperia neo is a hard one to sum up; is it’s neither a poor phone, nor an excellent phone. As you may or may not have noticed, the smartphone market is absolutely dominated by Android devices, and this makes it quite overwhelming for customers to choose between them. The neo does have a differentiating factor in that it has an excellent camera, but that alone can’t really guarantee the neo’s success. If the Xperia neo had the Cybershot branding, that would be an entirely new game in my opinion. Years ago, the Cybershot range of phones won  Sony Ericsson many loyal customers, and the camera on the neo is worthy of that branding. Anyhow, as it is, the neo can be summed up in one word (despite the camera) in relation to it’s Android competition: average. If you want a great Android device, look elsewhere. But if you’re happy with a good Android device and have your eyes dead set on an outstanding camera and only an outstanding camera, the neo may be for you.

 

Review by: Vince

Posted in: Reviews

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