The Xperia S is the new Ericsson-less Sony Mobile's first ever smartphone. While I wouldn't go far as to call it the first real Sony smartphone (development no doubt began more than a year ago), it is the first Sony branded Android device to hit the market. Like previous Xperia devices, rather than going all out brute force with big numbers and specs, Sony is counting on good designs and software differentiation to make an impact.
Sony (Ericsson) has improved tremendously over the past year offering devices that not only performed well despite the specs handicap, but also being more open to software updates and development. With devices like the Xperia Play and Xperia Ray, they have also successfully differentiated more than their Android OEM competitors have. Read on for the review of the Xperia S.
Despite the change in direction, I think they did a wonderful job with the Xperia S. The design is stylish and very much recognisable as a Sony device. In a sea of Android clones from Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers, it is refreshing to see an Android OEM working hard to design a phone that is uniquely theirs. In spite of the rather normal looking top half, the translucent plastic that separates the device and the antenna on the bottom immediately stood out.
The large 4.3" LCD display is a joy to see and use. The 720x1280 resolution dominates the entire front of the device. Powered by Sony Mobile's BRAVIA engine, the screen retina-beating display is plain sharp. If there was a large screen iPhone available, it would look exactly like this. The software engine boost the colour and contrast of the display, but it doesn't make much difference in real life. Personally I would rather switch it off to save on power as the screen is already good by itself. The large display does make the device difficult to use one handed, particularly with the pull down notification nested on the top. I can't confirm what kind of protection the Xperia S has on the display, but like the Xperia Arc, the display is easily scratched. Best invest in a screen protector.
Turning over, you will find the 12 Megapixel Exmor-R camera with a single tiny LED flash. The camera is sat way too close to the edge, no doubt a design compromise to get the phone as thin as it is. The loudspeaker and a small microphone for active noise cancellation and camera audio recording sits just below the camera. The Xperia S also takes honour for being the only phone to have a battery cover without actually giving you access to the battery. Instead the somewhat unnecessarily large cover hides the micro SIM card slot. The cover is designed in such a way that the Xperia S felt like it was made of a single unibody plastic slab.
The Xperia S is comfortable to hold thanks to the curved design on the back. It isn't quite as comfortable as the Xperia Arc, but it has a nice comfortable weight to it. Despite the liberal use of plastic, the device felt solid at all times. The camera shutter key is located at a better location this time, but is still too tiny to use comfortably. Like the Arc, the camera's placement near the edge of the device will prove to be an issue to some people.
The take up to Ice Cream Sandwich has been slow. New flagship smartphones like the Xperia S would normally be expected to run the latest Android version, but due to the secretive nature of how Google operates when it comes to Android, not every manufacturer, apart from the Nexus-range developers, have access to the latest version until it gets released. Regardless, the Xperia S's Android Gingerbread is now a very mature platform having been running o various Xperia devices for almost a year now. The NXT launcher for example is quick and simple to use, and stable to boot.
In order to get the best out of the Xperia S, you will first need a Googla/Gmail account. This will allow you to sync your emails, contacts and calendar while also giving you access to the Android Market (now called Google Play Store). Sony has also added their own section on their Android market where you will be able to find a smaller section of curated apps optimised for their phones. These are mainly applications and widgets made by Sony themselves and a handful of third party applications.
Windows Phone 7, linking contacts together with their various social network user handles is a breeze.
A key Android feature is notifications. Since copied by Apple, notifications are a useful creations, allowing us to glance at an assortment of details we would otherwise miss. You access the notification bar by swiping downwards from the top display. Here, any notifications that appears will be listed here, be it your missed calls, text messages, Facebook messages, emails and Twitter mentions, Foursquare check-ins etc, as well as the opportunity to dismiss them all. It's a simple concept and one I wish Microsoft would also copy with the next Windows Phone update.
Now this, by itself, isn't that unique as others have done so in the past. But here's the kicker, rather than using the Xperia S to control whatever is on the telly, you can use your TV's bog standard remote to control the launcher. I am not sure what TVs are compatible or how the technology works, but Sony has assured me that most modern HDTVs with CEC functionality will work. It's a pretty neat feature and one I can confirm actually works on a couple of Sony BRAVIA TV sets I tried (it doesn't however work on our Toshiba HDTV). You will be glad to know that this TV remote compatibility was apparently already built into previous Xperia devices (minus the TV optimised UI), but Sony Ericsson has never marketed it well.
The lack of streamlined installation highlights the issue with Android in general, and Sony in particular (at least with this phone). Why couldn't the client be installed via that very OTA update itself? And what do you get after all that trouble? A PlayStation Store that sells you sixteen PlayStation One games. Sixteen! I had high hopes when Sony Ericsson announced the Xperia Play last year, but if Sony were only able to provide us with 16 titles after a year, then they have to take a hard look at how they operate. After all, the mighty PS1 console has a library of over 2000 titles!
I have decided to write a separate in-depth sound quality review of the Xperia S. You can read it here.
The Xperia S is equipped with a 12 megapixel Exmor-R back illuminated sensor and f/2.4 aperture lens, meaning the camera here should excel with low light photograph. In theory at least. While no match for dedicated pocket cameras, the Xperia S provided some pleasing results. Sony has not published the focal length of the Xperia S's lens, but I believe it to be 35mm equivalent. The camera is also capable of capturing pictures in 3D format. Unfortunately as I do not own a 3D TV or display, I have no way to testing this. However I have seen this being demonstrated in person by Sony themselves and is convinced that it works.
The camera is also capable of recording videos in 1080p HD with continuous autofocus. Unfortunately the autofocus mechanism is a bit of a hit and miss. I recorded several videos, and every one of them had issues with refocusing. Check out the video sample below to see what I mean. The video also demonstrates the poor dynamic range that all camera phones currently suffers from. There is also an issue with the audio, and YouTube complained that there were video/audio sync issues.
You can view more untouched image samples, including sweep panorama shots, and video samples here.
Debuting at £460, the Xperia S has already seen deep price cuts by retailers. It now costs £386 for a sim-free Xperia S from Amazon UK, which is actually a fair price. Unlike the Xperia Arc, I wasn't immediately floored by the Xperia S. Still for only £386 it is hard to argue against the Xperia S. The device is stylishly designed, has a gorgeous display, captures nice images, contains a fast enough processor to be still relevant, sounds great and will eventually get ICS. But it is difficult to recommend this phone outright.
The touch sensitive hardware buttons for one are more than just minor irritations (in fact I would go as far as calling it a deal breaker), which I hope can be fixed via a firmware update or that the unit I have is defective. Further more, the lack of ICS is difficult to comprehend when rivals flagships like the HTC One X will ship with Android 4.0 built-in. Having said that, the Nvidia Tegra 3 version of the HTC One X does currently cost £100 more than the Xperia S. Buttons issues aside, the Xperia S is a nice smartphone that is recommended but with the usual caveats attached.