Since Sony announced going solo again in the competitive mobile market, they have launched an ‘NXT’ series of smartphones, headed by the Sony Xperia S. This new flagship device for Sony bears typical Sony features, with a unique design, a crisp HD display, and a resolution-bumping 12MP camera. While the specification may not be at the very cutting edge, Sony have a knack for packaging their products to combine design and specification to create a user experience worthy of being called a flagship; just look at the popularity of last years critically acclaimed Xperia Arc. Despite being behind the curve on specs, the overall package won many hearts and this is what Sony are looking for with the Xperia S. While that Arc bore the name of Sony Ericsson, this pure Sony smartphone marks the beginning of a device which unifies their other market offerings, like the PlayStation brand.
So, on their return to fame, have Sony managed to fashion a phone worthy of a slot in your pocket? Read on for the verdict.
What’s in the box?
- Sony Xperia S (LT26i)
- micro USB charge cable
- Wall charger
- In ear earphones with mic
- 2 NFC Tags
Watch James unboxing the Xperia S here.
Sony Xperia S specification:
- 2G Network: GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
- 3G Network: HSDPA 14.4 Mbps 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100; HSUPA 5.8 Mbps
- Dimensions: 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm
- Weight: 144 g
- Display: LED-backlit LCD, 720 x 1280 pixels, 4.3 inches (~342 ppi pixel density)
- Accelerometer sensor for auto-rotate
- Bravia Mobile engine
- Multi-touch input method
- Proximity sensor for auto turn-off
- Touch sensitive controls
- 3.5mm jack
- Memory: 32GB ROM, 1GB RAM
- MicroSD: up to 32GB, 4GB included
- Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot
- Bluetooth v2.1 with A2DP, EDR
- USB v2.0 microUSB
- Camera: 12 MP, 4000×3000 pixels, autofocus, LED flash
- 1080p@30fps, continuous autofocus, video light, video stabilizer
- Secondary 1.3 MP, 720p@30fps front facing camera
- OS: Android OS, v2.3 (Gingerbread), planned upgrade to v4.0
- CPU: Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon dual-core 1.5 GHz with Adreno 220
- Stereo FM radio with RDS
- GPS: Yes, with A-GPS support and GLONASS
- Digital compass
- Battery: Standard battery, Li-Ion 1750 mAh
The 10 Second Review:
- Product: Sony Xperia S
- Price: Sim free from about £429, free on contract from ~£26pm
- Summary: Sony’s first Android phone is well built with a beautiful design and screen. If only the dodgy touch buttons were up to the same standard.
- Best of: Unique design, light Android skin, screen size, resolution and clarity
- Worst of: Bigger than it needs to be, no microSD or removable battery, poor low light camera performance
- Buy from: Sim free from Clove
- Also consider: Samsung Galaxy Nexus, HTC One X, One S, Samsung Galaxy SII
The top of the device is where the power/lock button sits, alongside a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Moving to the right hand side of the phone, there’s a dedicated camera key, a volume rocker, and a small flap hiding the micro HDMI out port.
On the opposite side it’s much quieter – only the micro USB port for sync with a computer and charging sits here, again under a flap to protect it from dust.
The bottom is even more uneventful with just a lanyard loop so you can hang it round your neck and show it off.
The curvy backside of the phone features the 12MP camera very close to the top edge, a small LED flash close below, the speaker, and secondary noise cancelling mic all in a neat line. Nearer the bottom you’ll find the classic Sony Ericsson logo, and a subtly engraved XPERIA logo.
The front is where you’ll obviously find the expansive 4.3″ display, completely hidden when turned off by the black glass surround. Above, you’ll find the speaker grill, front facing VGA camera, and the familiar Sony logo. Below the display are three dots – these are the touch sensitive Android buttons for back, home and menu.
- Beautiful and unique design
- Large HD display
- Fast performance
- Good battery life
- NFC SmartTags
- Unnecessary amount of bezel below the display
- Noisy camera in non-optimal conditions
- Touch buttons too close to screen
- Lots of preloaded (unwanted?) apps
Sony have a knack for designing consumer electronics products which are well designed and also distinctive. We saw that with the latest (and last) Android Xperia devices such as the Arc. It was a good performer sure, but the unique yet beautiful design helped to make it a best seller. The same is true for the Sony Xperia S. While other companies are busy suing each others pants off for various software and hardware alleged patent infringements, Sony have come up with something that is more than just a black slab.
Sony have applied the “Human Curvature” design language into this device, which basically means it’s thicker because it’s curvy. The back is convex to contour to your hand, which does make it easier to hold than, say, the squared off iPhone 4. Whether it’s curvy or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a big phone for a device in the 4.3″ category. And that’s compounded by the weight; at 144g, it isn’t overly heavy, but you probably won’t forget about it whichever pocket you slip it into.
Even so, it’s a solidly built device. The soft touch plastics do a good job of hiding fingerprints, and are of high quality. On the front, the Gorilla glass runs across the screen, wrapped along the edges by the plastic sides. The two materials don’t meet perfectly though, so there is a groove where dust can collect, though it’s hardly noticeable and not much of a big deal. Perhaps the only downside I can see is the sheer amount of bezel below the display. Yes, the transparent glowing bar certainly wins points for style, but the extra plastic below just makes the phone too tall. Unless you have abnormally large hands, this makes pressing the lock button on the top left awkward to say the least. Ideally, the screen could have been larger to make better use of the footprint, or shaving down the bottom edge would make this design as practical as it is beautiful.
Design & Build Quality:
Looking at the device, the first aspect everyone notices is that transparent bar below the screen, and rightly so – as I’ve said, it is unique and unbelievably cool. Sony have cleverly used this area for the antenna, where, if you look closely, you’ll see the faint pattern that makes up this component. Whether it’s an antenna or not, it doesn’t matter, as it makes the phone look incredibly futuristic. And that’s before you turn it on and see the Android buttons floating inside bask in a soft glow.
Speaking of the buttons there is an issue, which, whether it was a conscious design choice or not, it isn’t a good one. The bar has the Android buttons – back, home, and menu – but they themselves are not what you need to touch to activate those functions. Instead, there are tiny dots above it which don’t light up, making them difficult to find in the dark. In addition, I found, on my test phone at least, that it only responds (with haptic feedback) when you touch slightly above these dots. I don’t know whether that was a flaw specific to the phone I was using or not, but it meant that I had to be incredibly precise (and therefore slow) to press them. More often than not I ended up accidentally tapping the bottom of the screen. Putting the touch buttons so ridiculously close to the screen especially when there is so much bezel area below makes no sense to me. Hopefully this isn’t the case with other Xperia S phones.
Although you may accidentally touch the screen instead of the home button, funnily enough that may not be as bad as it sounds. The screen is so beautiful that I always felt the urge to touch it! It isn’t the king of sheer size right now (more and more ridiculously sized screens are becoming available.cough Samsung Galaxy Note cough) but having HD resolution (720×1280 pixels) on a 4.3″ display looks absolutely great. In fact, with all of Apple’s “Retina” display hype, the Xperia S actually tops the pixel density with 342 pixels per inch, all on a screen considerably larger. This makes text incredibly crisp, and with the Mobile Bravia display tweaks, pictures and videos really pop, despite it only being an ‘ordinary’ TFT LCD screen, without any Super-this-that-and-the-other branding. Its also not too bad at outdoor visibility. Of course, in direct sunlight, the glossy screen is going to give you a hard time, but in comparison with competing devices, readability outside the comfort of your own home is not bad at all. If watching videos or reading ebooks on your mobile phone is your thing, the screen on the Xperia S will suit you well.
The stamina of the Xperia S is actually pretty decent. It comes packing a 1750mAh battery which, fortunately, is on the large side given the fast dual-core processor and that screen. Despite some pretty power-hungry internals, the battery should give virtually all users at least one day of battery life. Even under some quite heavy use, it took me from 7am to around 7pm before giving in. Not surprisingly, internet browsing over 3G seemed to suck down the most power. More frugal users should see closer to two days, though everyone’s mileage will vary of course. In the Android battery performance landscape, I’d say that the Xperia S is placed somewhere in the top 25%. I wouldn’t expect less however, because while the battery cover is removable as you’d expect, all you’ll see is the micro SIM card slot. The battery is sealed and non-replaceable. I don’t really buy the excuse that there just isn’t enough space – the Samsung Galaxy SII is considerably thinner and still manages a replaceable battery. You may also notice the lack of a micro SD card slot too, so the 16 or 32GB of built in memory is all you’re going to get. While I can’t think of any positive effect of these design choices, maybe it ain’t so bad – Apple’s iPhones also feature non-expandable memory and non-replaceable batteries yet they still fly off shelves like there’s no tomorrow.
The camera is perhaps the headline feature of the Sony Xperia S, and may be the major reason why you’d be considering this device over other high performing smartphones. The Xperia S comes packing a 12MP camera, making it one of the few 12MP cameras available right now. However, megapixel count is not always an indicator of a good or bad camera – there are all sorts of other contributing factors that can make a poor camera usable or a great camera disappointing.
Fortunately, the camera (mostly) gets it right. As is the ‘thing’ right now, the Xperia S is super quick to start up the camera and be ready to snap. Holding the camera button will launch you straight into the camera even when the phone is in sleep mode, a la Windows Phone; it can even be configured to launch and take a shot as soon as its ready. This means that when you find yourself staring at a true one-off Kodak moment, all you need to do is take your phone out of your pocket, raise it and hold the camera key.
From a software point of view, the camera is really simple to use even for beginners. There is a pretty obvious capture button on screen which you can use instead of the dedicated button if you prefer. Usually you’d see less blurring from camera shake using the on screen button. Above that is an iOS style slide switch to toggle between still images and (full HD) video. The default ‘mode’ is set to auto scene recognition, so (other than setting flash preferences) there are no other configurable options – good for beginners or if you want to have the freedom to just snap away.
For more keen photographers, there are more options to dig into, but they are by no means extensive. Setting the scene mode to ‘normal’ reveals options such as white balance, but there is nothing really outstanding here. There’s your usual resolution adjustment, self-timers, smile detection, and geotagging, as well as the usual you’d expect. Where Sony have really gone to town with the camera are the panorama modes. While more and more phones are getting panorama modes (just pan the phone and it will stich multiple images into one super wide photo) Sony have taken it a step further with their 3D Sweep Panorama and Sweep Multi Angle. Unfortunately, Sony (probably) forgot to ship me an 3D TV with this, so I can’t comment on the 3D features. The normal two dimensional Panorama mode is impressive though – it isn’t very picky with how accurately or steadily you pan the camera, and stitching the photos together afterwards is very speedy. The Sweep Multi Angle feature is also quite fancy, if a little gimmicky. By panning the phone, you can view the resultant image from different angles by tilting the phone. It’s hardly any movement though so don’t expect to use it to be able to see ‘around’ objects – it’s just a cool feature to show off.
Image quality is perhaps the climax of this section – Sony (Ericsson) have a track record of producing excellent cameras in their mobile phones, as well as their dedicated cameras and camcorders. Therefore, you’d expect to find an absolute belter here, considering all the buzz around its 12MP camera. Sadly, the Xperia S failed to live up to my expectations. While, on the face of it, it seemed like a great camera at first, there are some issues with it. In lighting conditions anything less than very very good, the Xperia S struggles to hold back the noise. Certainly at 12MP, there is quite a noticeable amount of purple noise which is disappointing. In the same conditions, a BlackBerry 9790, an iPhone 4S, and a Samsung Galaxy SII performed better. Whether it is because 12MP is too many pixels to cram into this particular sensor, or whether it is an over aggressive auto ISO setting I don’t know, but I have certainly seen better from many many other mobile cameras – proof that megapixels are not everything.
However, there is a flip side. In good light (such as in the recent summery weather!) the Xperia S is a complete turn around and produces wonderfully detailed photos which rival (cheaper) point and shoot cameras. In particular macro shots look incredible for a phone, as the shallow depth of field allows the background to be blurry while the subject is crisp.
Despite only having been announced at Mobile World Congress back in February, Android 4.0, the latest version of Android, did not make it onto the device in time for release. That means the Xperia S is stuck on 2.3 Gingerbread for now – Sony have promised an update in Q2 to the 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update.
Powering up the device presents you with a pretty average lock screen, which features a clock and a pretty standard slide to unlock. There is also another slider, from right to left, to toggle sound profiles. Since Apple have recently been granted a patent (and are currently suing Samsung) on that “slide an object along a predefined path” method to unlock, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Ice Cream Sandwich update changes that.
Above are the five home screens which can be customised just like any other Android phone with application shortcuts and widgets. The look is quite close to stock Android, as is the rest of the skin – Sony’s is very much a light change to the vanilla Android look, unlike HTC’s Sense. The default setup of the screen includes quite a few widgets which are easy to rearrange or remove should you want to. On the bottom row, there are five icons. The menu button to bring up the full list of apps sits in the middle, with four customisable shortcuts next to it. These can also be changed, and even be folders. It’s simple to create a folder either on a home screen or in the dock which expands to show the apps within.
Tapping the middle applications button brings up a list of all the installed applications on the phone. What I like about Sony’s tweaks here is the ability to adjust the arrangement order of the apps. If you have a lot of apps, sorting them alphabetically will help you find them, and putting them in the ‘most used’ order is also a neat feature. This is constantly updated so when if you install a new application, it will be automatically put into the correct place.
Internet and email:
One of the major selling points of Android is the browser, which is really very good. Apple’s iOS used to be the clear leader when it came to mobile browsing, but it’s not so clear cut any more. The Xperia S has a dual core 1.5GHz processor paired with 1GB of RAM. While the chipset isn’t entirely new (we saw it on the HTC Sensation XE for example) it has no problem at all browsing the web. The differences between browsing speed and the quality of rendering between mid to high end devices are so small nowadays that the experience will largely be the same whether you choose an iPhone, Android, Windows Phone etc.
Where the Xperia S has a leg up on much of the competiton is thanks to the screen resolution. The 720×1280 pixels means that more can be displayed on the screen at a given zoom level; you’ll find yourself panning around the screen much less. The iPhone and its Retina display is often praised (and rightly so) for rendering text so crisply. The Xperia S has a higher pixel density, so text looks just as if not more clear – if your own vision allows it, fully zoomed out text (in portrait) is readable, whereas many screens with a more common 480×800 resolution (or lower) struggle. And with the 4.0 update coming, the browser should be even better.
Email is something that every smartphone is expected to handle with ease, and the Xperia S is just like any other in that respect. There is Sony’s own generic Email application where, with the right settings, you can configure more or less every type of email account. Of course, since this is an Android phone, there’s the Gmail app which is the naturally the best mobile application to handle your Google Mail account. All the Gmail features such as starring, labelling, and archiving are present, and the high resolution screen means your phone can display a longer list of emails (over one and a half times that of a 480×800 display). My only gripe is that it isn’t really optimised for the resolution. The reply buttons in the top right when viewing an email are much smaller and is fiddly to access. I guess that’s another reason why the Xperia S needs the 4.0 update with its redesigned Gmail app.
The calendar app is also decent. The usual options for viewing, by month, week, or day, are easily accessed on the bar at the bottom, and all events are very clearly marked in each viewing mode. It integrates seamlessly with your Google Calendar if you use it. Exchange Active Sync for business calendars are also supported. Creating a new event is easy and has all the options that you’re used to, including reminder notifications. Calendars are (and have been for a while) pretty mature applications which can easily replace a traditional diary/calendar so there’s nothing ground-breaking here – just a solid calendar.
Mobile phones are pretty much the primary go-to device for social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Android’s application store, the newly rebranded Google Play Store, has an app (or ten) for every social network you can think of, but Sony have included some extra apps to supplement.
The main one is Timescape – this was introduced a while ago on Sony Ericsson phones, and is now an application. In short, it’s a list of your social ‘news’ in one place. Tapping one takes you to the relevant app where you can reply etc. You can also post a status from Timescape that will be posted on all of your linked accounts.
Where Timescape has been improved since I last used it is its new extensions. This means that the list can be populated with more than just the preinstalled Facebook or Twitter. Virtually any social networking tool is available so, if you choose to use Timescape you won’t find yourself yearning for more extensions.
Sony have also integrated Facebook into the interface. As far as I know, it is not something that other manufacturers have done, at least not to the extent that Sony have here. Under settings, you can enter your Facebook account details and various Facebook features will start to appear on the phone. In the gallery app for example, all of your Facebook albums and tagged photos, embarrassing or not, will be there along with a neat built in bar to see likes and comments on the photo, and reply without ever opening the Facebook for Android app. Facebook profile information is also heavily featured in the Contacts, you can like songs in the music player – there’s even a Media discovery app to look at what videos and music your friends have seen. Finally, Facebook notifications are built into the lock screen. All in all, I’d say this is the most extensive integration of Facebook on a mobile. Being always critical, I’d like to see some kind of settings to enable/disable the different features of Facebook inside Xperia, allowing users to pick and choose which features they want. For example, I found that if you have a lot of Facebook albums, it can quickly turn a clean photo viewing app into a cluttered mess. Despite this, I would recommend big Facebook users to take advantage of it – it really is rather good. Bear in mind though, it will be available on all Sony smartphones, and as an update on all of the 2011 Sony Ericsson devices such as the Xperia Mini Pro.
Perhaps one of the most important yet under-considered features is the keyboard. Since this is a full touch device, your only option is to type on screen. The included keyboard is a Sony designed one tweaked from the stock Gingerbread keyboard. Just from looking at it, there’s no doubt that in terms of looks, it is a definite copy of the iOS keyboard. For actual typing, it’s not too bad; the keys are adequately large thanks to the display, and there’s a handy emoticon shortcut. It does lag slightly when typing at speed, but it is useable. Thankfully you can easily download alternative keyboards from the Google Play Store if you prefer.
I’ve already talked about a few Sony added apps before, yet there are more. This definitely isn’t a stock experience as you can see from the menu screenshots – there is already over three pages of preloaded apps. Usually, addition apps like this go unused and there are always apps which do a similar thing so some are questionable. There are some nice ones on the Xperia S though – let’s start with those.
LiveWare manager is probably my favourite – what it does is something that echoes the ‘smart’ in smartphone. Using magic, it knows what you plug into your phone, and you can assign an action to trigger once you plug it in. Take headphones for example – plug in your headphones, and you can launch the music player automatically. Or a memory stick (with a micro USB to USB host adapter) – plug it in to launch ASTRO, the preinstalled file manager. While there is a popular alternative on the Play Store, Tasker, that is a much more complicated (yet also more powerful) app which many don’t need. LiveWare will satisfy the majority of users, and best of all, it’s available on the Play Store for non-Sony devices too.
An option that you won’t see in LiveWare on other devices is SmartTags. These are basically an implementation of NFC (Near Field Communication) which is supposed to be shaking up the industry. While it is still being slowly implemented in other phones and credit cards and whatnot, Sony have come up with this neat SmartTag function. Included in the box are two plastic tags which you can just glance the back of the phone over after assigning functions to a particular one. It is best explained with a scenario; I took the red one and just left it by the front door. After setting it to turn WiFi on, Bluetooth and GPS off, I simply press the phone over it, and all my presets for Home are activated. The same is for the Car tag which I kept on the dash – I can set functions such as turning on GPS or using text to speech to read messages while driving. There a plethora of actions to add, and of course you can buy more tags – this is probably the most useful implementation of NFC there is, at least until contactless NFC payments become mainstream.
Sony consider themselves as quite the king of media, with their Bravia TVs, PlayStation gaming, and music/video download services. The first of the apps is Media Remote – this connects to your Smart internet-connected Sony TV and acts as a remote-on-steroids. Again, Sony forgot to include a television with the phone for review so I was unable to try this out.
Sony have included Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited apps which are Sony’s storefronts for buying music and video. All is well and good here, though I must admit that the prices are not cheap – there are no price incentives to make you purchase from Sony instead of anywhere else. There’s also the question of storage space to consider. With no expandable storage via microSD, a few movies can easily make that 16 or 32GB of space more claustrophobic than you first thought.
The music app is quite good on the Xperia S – certainly better than the Google’s one for Gingerbread. There is a horizontal list of album covers on the now playing screen which you can swipe to switch songs. There is a button where you can find out more about that song which is great for music lovers. There’s also Facebook ‘liking’ integration to show your Facebook friends what you like listening to.
There’s no ignoring that juggernaut of a brand that is PlayStation, and this is naturally a PlayStation certified device. This means that you can purchase and play legacy PlayStation games from the PlayStation Store application on the phone. These are full PSX and PS1 games, and Sony let you know they’re full games (as opposed to the usual light game apps) with the prices. If the PlayStation games were a big draw to you considering the Xperia S, then you’d be a bit disappointed. On screen buttons are no replacement for hardware buttons when it comes to ‘real’ games, so for these PlayStation games, the Xperia Play with its slide out gamepad would be a better option despite its age and outdated hardware. Until an Xperia Play successor comes along, that’s your best bet for PlayStation gaming. Also included is a PSN app which lets you log into your PSN account to keep up with gaming news and manage your account.
This might be the final section but voice calling is certainly not the least important aspect here. Fortunately, voice communication is a very mature technology in smartphones, and it shows in pretty much every device nowadays. The call quality on the Xperia S is decent, with clear sound reported on both ends. The signal strength (after surgery on my standard size SIM) is also good – it is inline, if not very slightly better, than my Samsung i9100 and BlackBerry.
The dialler is a pretty uneventful affair – a grey expanse shows a call log on the top half and the number pad on the bottom. You can either start dialling numbers or using the T9 letters to type names. The bar on the bottom provides shortcuts to contacts and your favourited numbers.
The Sony Xperia S is a strange one to qualify. It is launched as Sony’s flagship device, yet it doesn’t have the hardware credentials inside to play with the giants such as HTC’s One X or the Galaxy Nexus. However, the Xperia S shows very well that throwing the latest hardware together isn’t the way to produce a successful device. Yes, it boasts a 12 megapixel camera, but will choosing the iPhone 4S or HTC One S with their 8 megapixels make you worse off? Not at all. The Xperia S might get beat in a spec war but in my opinion that’s fine; it is a very well rounded device with no major flaws, both software and hardware. Sony’s Android skin is light, the display is super crisp, and the design looks modern without conforming to the utilitarian black-slab look. Sony should also receive a healthy dose of credit for moving towards making smartphones smarter with the NFC tags – they were impressive and unique; a combination which is becoming harder to find with Androids.
Whether the Xperia S is recommended or not comes down to price – if it’s priced right (the upper end of the mid-range tier) the Xperia S can do very well. I can say right now that this is not the best Android phone out there right now – look the the Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Note, or HTC One X for that – but if you like the design and don’t mind its bulk, the I-do-everything-just-fine-while-looking-good philosophy of the Xperia S makes it a solid choice.
Reviewed by: Vince