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Sony Xperia S Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Attractive UI

The Bad

  • No expandable memory
4

The Sony Xperia S is a landmark phone. It’s the first phone to have the Sony sans Ericsson branding, it’s the first flagship to integrate Sony’s cross platform Music and Video Unlimited at launch, it’s Sony’s flagship handset for at least the first half of 2012. The Sony Xperia S is a landmark phone and it’s got to be incredible.

Sony are playing a dangerous game however. With their arc line criticised for single-core specs when dual-core were the words on everyone’s lips, it seems they’ve only gone and done it again. MWC having already revealed the likes of the HTC One X and LG 4X with their Nvidia Tegra-3 quad-core processors, it seems before it’s even come onto market, the Sony Xperia S has been superceded. On paper, you’d be forgiven for thinking this to be the concluding line. The reality however? Read on:

Design

Whether it was Sony only or a joint Sony Ericsson effort, the design of the Sony Xperia S is a total break away from that of the arc. Both fine looking handsets in their own right, the arc prides its appeal on elegance, slenderness and a feminine curve along its spine.

The Sony Xperia S is altogether more masculine in its confident angles, geometric curvature and girthy body however. While we could reference the X10 which had a similar appeal, there is no comparison in terms of sheer design quality with the Sony Xperia S design being bold, rife with personality and flushed with no jarring ports or buttons. The phone sits well in the hand thanks to the natural horizontally curved back and is weighted extremely well.

Functional to boot, we like the recess for the camera in the Xperia S’ backing which prevents fingers smudging the lens. Thankfully, this doesn’t make cleaning the lense difficult as removing the back-cover reveals a totally flat lens area.

A high point of the Xperia S’s design is the transparent plastic strip around 10mm from its base. Unnassuming, as well as being an attractive cosmetic touch it has a number of functions. It houses the home, menu and back icons correlating to the capacitive button directly above. It also houses the phone’s antenna, with close inspection revealing its lattice patterning.

Finally, the clear plastic acts as an illuminating notification. Whether the phone is upside down, silent or on full volume it will flash a white light, alerting you to a call, text or alarm. Worth noting: We couldn’t find a way of deactivating the light which could prove problematic.

On the subject of the capacitive buttons, we’re glad they’ve landed and they look far more elegant than the reflective chrome effect buttons of the arc and arc S. That said, they lie above the plastic strip and below the screen. Not only does this take getting used to, we found ourselves on occasion accidentally pressing them – not something we anticipated on a large 4.3-inch device.

Screen

A 720p 4.3-inch LCD screen graces the fascia of the Sony Xperia S. With pixel-density rivaling the iPhone 4S, we’re immediately off to a good start, and this is for the most part only going to get better.

Head on colours are rich, whites are white and detail is pixelless. As you can see in this comparison with the Samsung Galaxy S2. Even hairline typography looks crisp with curves looking round and angles looking sharp.

Interaction with the screen is responsive without too grippy a finish so the finger and thumb can glide along comfortably.

Viewing angles are good for the most part, except for blue colours which appear neon when viewed at a sharp angle.

A film trailer was pre-loaded on the handset we got and that in itself was all the evidence we needed to show us just how competent the screen is in terms of media playback. This was only affirmed when we started recording and viewing content we captured on the Sony Xperia S and confirmed after a full movie ran while we wrote this review. Thanks to the relatively small display size, content is upscaled well from a WVGA movie file and coupled with a codex rich player such as MX Video, should be a movie buff’s dream.

User Interface

Gingerbread sits underneath a heavily customised Sony user interface on the Sony Xperia S, and indeed on the entire NXT series. It looks off the bat like it could be Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) with some intuitive app stacking folder making actions in place, but it isn’t. ICS will be landing in Q2 on the Xperia S.

With a suspect smokey live wallpaper wafting with every swipe, there’s a sharp visual ambience created with a strong focal point in the centre of the screen. Ever so subtle vignetting of the homescreens and menus make the screen appear to fade to black and the smoothness of the UI for the most part keeps the illusion alive.

Pretty-functional. That’s how we’d sum up Sony’s latest UI. It’s pretty, as we’ve alluded to and with the inclusion of themes allows colour accents to pervade through the user interface. It’s also functional, as with things like icon stacking, customisable dock shortcuts and folders, overview mode and bespoke widgets Sony really do endeavour to make your life easier. Pretty-functional.

Our homescreen highlight has to be the power saver widget. It adds an extra click over the standard Android power saver, however looks fantastic and provides the user with no less than ten toggles while taking no more than eight cells on the home screen.

Additonal applications

A range of non-standard Android apps are pre-installed on the Sony Xperia S out of the box. The most prominent which also feature widgets are Music and Video unlimited, Sony’s connected media service across all its device networks.

Connected Devices is an onboard DLNA application and there are also old-favourites like TrackID. Wisepilot, NeoReader and a read-only office suite. LiveWare manager is nothing new, but is a nice touch allowing specific physical actions (plug in headphones) to trigger a software change (open Spotify). This worked well on the Sony Ericsson arc and it works very well on the Xperia S.

One application which we haven’t seen however is Tags. Refering to Sony’s Smart Tags – coin sized discs with NFC functionality, Tags enables you to manage the relationships between your phone and these discs. If you get your handset on O2, you will get four tags, and if you get it on Three, you’ll get two tags. Should you wish to buy them in shops, we have had confirmation Phones4U will be stocking them.

Each tag can trigger a range of actions, as with LiveWare, so these can vary from application opening to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggling.

Sony Xperia bot

Keyboard

A giant improvement over the stock keyboard on the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc, the Sony Xperia S default QWEERT is perfectly adequate, and bespoke fitted to the 720p slightly narrow display. It even adopts a Swype / SlideIt functionality which is the most attractive we’ve ever seen, visually reselmbling Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting).

Despite its pros and an overall thumbs up, we thoroughly missed not having a comma / full-stop in the bottom row, but that’s just us. If you’re of a similar bent, you can always download the ICS Keyboard from the market, as indeed we did.

Multimedia

 

Camera:

Before this week, we might have said – 12-megapixels? That’s the absolute upper limit of what can reasonably be rammed into a mobile phone. Wrong. Nokia, having just crammed a 41-megapixel sensor into their Nokia 808 Pure View have well and truly made-light of any suggestion that Sony has gone and over-done it with a mere 12-megapixels. As ever though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or in this case, shooting, so lets see if 12 is a magic number.

A key imaging feature found in the Sony Xperia P is Fast Capture. This allows a handset to capture a photo from a locked state in one full second. Does it work? Yes – It’s incredibly quick. Will the shot always be in focus? Not every time, but the handset does take a minute amount of time to re-focus so it shouldn’t be too far off.

In fact, focus is probably our favourite thing about the Sony Xperia S camera. With a number of focus modes to choose from, you can touch-to-focus which normally tends to be our preference on other devices, however we much prefer ‘multi auto-focus’ on the S. This mode, treats the camera much more like a compact and makes shooting easier whatever your level of experience. It also offers considerably quicker focus than touching the screen, and coupled with a decent, two-stage camera button works a treat more often than not.

Now onto quality. Wow. The Sony Xperia S isn’t perfect but it’s very, very good. All things considered (speed, pixel count, dynamic range, noise handling, handset desirability), we would say that right now, this is the best camera phone on the market. You can see some samples taken on the prototype unit in our camera comparison, however, we’ve taken a fresh new batch on the finished product and are equally as impressed.

There are still weak-spots. The flash isn’t the most powerful out there and images might not be soft enough for some people’s tastes. Landscape shots can also get a bit of a haze and white-wash in the day. Not a lot by camera phone standards, but when compared to mid-range compacts the dynamic range isn’t there. In addition, inevitably, low light shots create noise.

That said, when it comes to detail, the Sony Xperia S steals the show. The macro shots we took in a 15-minute wonder are simply stunning and the ease of focus is incredible. Distance shots retain a huge amount of information so cropping in shouldn’t be too much of an issue and printing these pictures 6×4 or 7×5 won’t throw any pixelation your way.

Video

Being the first dual-core Xperia phone, it’s also the first Xperia capable of shooting full HD video. How does it do? Very well. As you can see from the focus test below, auto-focus is present and kicks in with a respectable amount of delay, the onboard image stabiliser works nicely and detail is solid. The indoor environment didn’t throw noticeable noise its way and there are a range of adjustments such as white balance, focus mode and exposure to help get the best from the HD on offer.

 

Sound

3.5mm headphone jack users around the world rejoice.

Why? Two reasons. First off, Sony have seen the light and put the jack at the top of the Sony Xperia S as opposed to on the side as with the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc / S. Pocket friendly.

Second off – the new Sony handsets will use CTIA jacks instead of OMTP. In English – no more “This device is incompatible with your phone” messages when you try and plug in your own headphones – huzzah!

Couple these gems with some all in all great audio quality and we’re swaying as we type to some clean highs and round lows from our slightly pricey cans.

Unplug the speakers and it’s a naturally sharper situation. Low to mid-level noise is handled well, though anything louder and crescendos tend to shriek more than shine.

Connectivity

Connected 2012 style, the Sony Xperia S is amongst the first mainstream handsets to adopt NFC as mentioned earlier in reference to the Xperia Smart Tags. Additional connections include 3G, Wi-Fi and GPS as well as a microUSB and microHDMI port on either side. With 32GB of memory and about 25GB available as storage, there is plenty of room for your movies and games. That said, the Sony Xperia S isn’t expandable, so a handful of Gameloft games and HD movies will probably leave you hardcore users pining for more.

When outputting via HDMI, a webtop type UI appears on the Television, enabling a horizontally scrolling list of applications controllable using a Sony remote. This gives you access to core apps like YouTube, Gmail and web browser.

Speaking of web browser, the internet experience is probably one of the key benefits of the HD screen on the Sony Xperia S. This is the first 4.3-inch handset we could read the entire contents of Recombu’s front page without zooming in with a degree of ease. Text is incredibly crisp, the dual-cores fire up making for smooth flash video, fluid pinch-zooming and responsive panning. Once the page fully loads, text re-flows making both portrait and landscape perfectly usable.

Performance

Unfortunately, there’s no removable battery on the Sony Xperia S so the 1750mAh battery will have to suffice. This gives you a day and a half with conservative use. Power users however shouldn’t expect more than a working day’s usage with full brightness and sync on.

Dual-core. Almost swear words at MWC when in reference to top-end products. Still, the Sony Xperia S has a 1.5GHz dual-core processor. It also still records exceptional HD video, shoots great photos and is for the most part a pleasure to interact with.

Could it be faster? Yes. Definitely. The Xperia S takes a second or two rendering its 12-megapixel images when zooming in. We were met on occasion with camera saving taking a while to show up in the gallery suggesting this background process had some catching up to do and the general imaging side felt a bit tested. It all worked, so no deal-breakers, but strain was evident.

The UI on the Sony Xperia S is also quite heavy. As we mentioned, we’re big fans, preferring it to the likes of TouchWiz in terms of visual appeal. That said, every now and then, there’s a stutter, stagger and strain. Would this be remedied by a quad-core processor? Maybe.

Regardless, it doesn’t kill the experience. The bold, refined hardware and slick UI still operates smoothly 98% of the time. It feels like a fast phone and when compared to the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc and arc S, is in a different league.

Conclusion

Great design. Great screen. Great UI. Great camera. Great connectivity. Great phone.

Specs are always only part of the story. In turn, no quad-core will be no problem for the majority of Sony Xperia S users. That the phone is so consistent in other areas is its real saving grace and one that users wouldn’t fare badly dwelling on while basking in the phone’s 720p, fast-capture, 12-megapixel, PlayStation certified splendour.

Specification

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