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Sony Xperia S Review
What a rollercoaster year 2011 was for Sony Ericsson. From the lows of the X10 update debacle to the highs of the bootloader unlock announcement, Sony Ericsson turned themselves from Android outcasts to Android champions not least with a varied product range of price competitive products that, while not blowing away the competition, stood out in a number of areas.
Fast forward to 2012 and Sony Ericsson has become Sony, with the electronics giant buying out its partner and looking to leverage its brand in the still rapidly growing Android space. With a new name come new products, starting with the ‘NXT’ range, consisting of the Xperia S, P and U.
The Xperia S sits atop the pile (at least until the larger screened 'Xperia Ion' hits these shores) but is it worthy of that status? Read on to find out. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time using the Xperia S as my main device... this isn’t a 5 minutes hands on ‘review’!
In the box
The device I’m reviewing is shipping hardware and firmware device, but it wasn't supplied in a retail box.
With this in mind I don’t have any box pictures, but you will find your device, headphones, charger and a HDMI cable in there - nice to have that included and not having to purchase it as an extra. It's also nice that we have a proper microHDMI port, not a MHL port that requires a special adapter. Some retail packs will also include NFC SmartTags, but this will vary by retailer / network (some supply none, some 2, some 4).
Hardware - overview
Let’s start by getting the raw specifications of the device out of the way!
Inside your Xperia S you have...
- Google Android 2.3 (upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich Q2 (Apr-Jun) 2012)
- 1.5 GHz Qualcomm MSM8260 Dual Core Processor with Adreno 220 GPU
- HSPA 850 (Band V), 900 (Band VIII), 1900 (Band II), 2100 (Band I)
- GSM GPRS/EDGE 850, 900, 1800, 1900
- 4.3” 1280x720 TFT screen with Bravia Engine and scratch-resistant / shatter proof sheet on scratch-resistant glass
- 1 GB RAM
- 1 to 1.5 GB internal phone storage
- 32 GB eMMC
- Rear 12.1MP Exmor R camera with 1080p recording with backlit sensor and f/2.4 aperture
- Front 1.3MP camera with HD 720p for video chat
- Accelerometer / Proximity Sensor / Ambient Light Sensor / Magnetometer / Gyroscope
- WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
- Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
- micro HDMI
- 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm
- 144 grams
- 1750 mAh battery (inbuilt)
- Available in black or white
Hardware - around the device
The design of the Xperia S is a key departure from Sony Ericsson devices of old and is a recognisable facet of the ‘NXT’ range.
Let’s give you a tour of the device starting with the front, which is of course dominated by that 4.3” 720P screen. Above the screen sits the Sony logo and the speaker in the centre, a notification LED and the various sensors on the left and the front facing camera on the right. Below the screen sit 3 tiny silver dots that indicate the position of the capacitive buttons (i’ll talk more about those later). Below those sits the standout design concept of all the NXT devices - a completely transparent panel with stencils indicating the button functions. This clear panel houses the device’s antenna (if you look closely you can see a very thin wire mesh) and illuminates as the capacitive buttons are pressed. Finally, below this sits a stencilled Xperia logo.
On the back of the device, from the top you’ll see the camera, LED flash, secondary microphone grille (used for noise cancelling) and down towards the bottom the green ‘orb’ logo of old, that transparent panel and another stencilled Xperia logo to match the front.
The top of the device is home to the power button and 3.5mm headphone socket, the bottom the main microphone and a lanyard loop. Thankfully, the somewhat fiddly little round button on the Arc series has become a proper, rectangular, man-size button...
The left hand side of the device has only the microUSB charging port, which is behind a plastic flap. The right hand side has a microHDMI port (again behind a flap) the volume rocker and a 2 stage camera button.
The device has a soft touch matte rubberised finish on each surface, which feels great. The device feels very solid in construction with no flex or creak.
As mentioned previously, the Xperia S ships with Gingerbread 2.3 with an Ice Cream Sandwich update to follow in ‘Q2 2012 (Apr-Jun)’ (i.e. any time now?), but unfortunately Sony are being very non-committal about an exact release date. More than likely this is because they don't have one... they have to go through due process to gain approval from Google.
In reality, when you’re shipping your ‘next generation’ flagship device, not loading up the latest OS release is a big mistake... there is no denying that. But, on the flipside, the update is due soon and so i’m not going to let the OS choice colour the review too much... there’s plenty more to talk about on the device!
So, we have a gently massaged version of Gingerbread, very much iterative of the last Sony Ericsson devices. That means a smattering of styling changes, a number of additional apps from Sony and some interface changes here and there.
To prepare the device for the software review I’ve turned it on, put my Google account details and updated all the various apps that pop up in the Google Play Store as needing updating. Then, I’ve gone through each of the ‘shell’ icons in the launcher and installed the app as appropriate. For a number of products, they don’t come preinstalled - clicking the icon takes you to the Google Play Store to perform the initial install, a little strange.
So, we turn the device on and unlock the themed lockscreen with a smart looking ‘smoky wisps’ live wallpaper in blue. A number of themes are available for selection - ‘Silk’ (white), ‘Turquoise’, ‘Emerald’, ‘Sapphire’, ‘Gold’, ‘Ruby’ (pink) and Amethyst. Selecting one of these themes changes not only the live wallpaper colour, but the coloured accents throughout the device.
The stock launcher has been replaced with Sony’s own variation. The launcher uses horizontal paging and offers customised application sorting (own order, alphabetical, most used and recently installed). Applications can be uninstalled straight from the launcher. 5 homescreens are offered satisfying the most obsessive of widget fans (I know writing this that someone will reply they need at least 7 screens) and the pages support putting applications in folders.
Let’s work through the pre-installed applications. There’s quite a lot on there, but happily a lot of them are installed to the /data partition, which means they can be uninstalled.
As a 'GMS' device (i.e. signed off and approved by Google!) the Xperia of course includes the full Google suite - Gmail, Google +, Maps, News & Weather (Genie), Play Books, Play Movies, Play Store (no Play Music as it is US centric), Search, Talk, Voice Search and YouTube.
Like its predecessor the Xperia Arc S, the Xperia S has 3D camera and 3D album apps. These don’t display 3D on the device of course, but allow you to take 3D images for display later on a compatible TV over the HDMI connection. Since the device only has a single camera, you can’t take one-hit 3D images like you can on the Evo 3D or LG Optimus 3D, you need to use a ‘pan’ technique which, in fairness, is fairly variable in its success.
With a headline feature of the Xperia S being its 12.1MP camera, as you’d expect there’s a fully featured custom camera app.
The stock setting is a 9MP 16:9 image, although a 12MP 4:3 image is of course an option. 2M 4:3 or 16:9 images are strangely the only other options in the resolution settings. The Flash can be run in auto, fill flash, red-eye reduction modes or turned off completely, 2 second and 10 second self timers are available and 3 levels of smile detection can be used. Geotagging is optional (and off by default). The application has the option of taking your shot with the on screen button, by touching the screen (allowing focus on a specific area) or ONLY via the camera key (which of course is also available with the other two methods). The shutter sound can be mercifully set on or off. One of the features Sony is touting for the S is its ‘quick launch’ camera. This means that when the device is in standby and even if it is locked, a press of the camera key will wake it and take a shot in under 1.5 seconds. The camera app launches in a kind of ‘sandbox’ - you can take pictures, but not view them or do anything else on the device without going through the usual unlock procedure. Quick launch can be disabled completely, as well as configured to either launch and snap an image as quickly as possible or just launch. Digital zoom is available by using the volume key. The application has a surprisingly effective auto scene recognition mode for switching between portrait, landscape, night scene, night portrait, beach and snow, sports or party (!) modes, or you can only turn scene recognition off and choose them yourself. Doing so also reveals the options to manually configure the EV (Exposure Value), ISO level (Auto, 100, 200, 400 or 800), white balance (auto, incandescent, fluorescent, daylight or cloudy) and metering (centre, average or spot). Panorama and 3D panorama modes are available and you can take pictures with the front camera.
When switched to video recording again videos can be taken with either camera, the rear camera offering full HD / 720P / VGA / MMS recording and the front camera offering 720P / VGA and MMS. Often when switching a device’s camera app to video mode, all the customisation options disappear completely, but this isn’t the case with the Xperia S. All of the same options you see in manual scene mode are available (no auto scene detection for video), with added options for LED light status, image stabilisation status and the ability toggle the microphone on or off. Phew!
What else is installed?
- The Alarm Clock application offers a world clock, stopwatch and timer in addition to the alarm clock itself, which has variable snooze durations, styles (alarm clock ‘themes’), custom behaviour for if the device is in silent mode and configurable behaviour of the side buttons to decide whether you’d prefer them to snooze or dismiss the alarm.
- Astro (complete with ugly UI and ugly ads) is one of the preinstalled apps on my device... thankfully this is one of those apps that can be easily removed.
- The Browser is standard Gingerbread fare and is probably one of the biggest negative points over picking up an Ice Cream Sandwich device. No Chrome for the Xperia S until the OS gets a revision bump... although the stock Browser of course supports Flash which you don’t get with Chrome.
- The Calculator and Calendar apps have the expected UI makeover.
- The Desk Clock app links to the enhanced music application.
- A Connected Devices application lets you stream content to DLNA devices or alternatively set your phone up as a DLNA server.
- The Contacts app is pretty standard from a features perspective, with the exception of the addition of ‘smart dialling’ (dial a contacts name on the keypad to filter the list).
- The Email app is Gingerbread standard fare.
- Facebook is preinstalled (common place for Gingerbread).
- The Xperia S includes an FM Radio with RDS where, as always, the headphone cord works as the radio antenna and sounds can be played via the headphones or via the speaker.
- A preinstalled but removable app called Football Downloads lets you download UEFA Champions league wallpapers and ringtones, a tie in to Sony’s sponsorship of the tournament.
- The Gallery app on the device is standard with the exception of the 3D functionality and integration with the Xperia’s ‘Facebook Inside’ feature (version 2.0) allowing viewing and sending to Facebook photo libraries direct from the gallery.
- The LiveWare Manager lets you manage Sony connected hardware (e.g. headsets, headphones and charger) and assign actions to occur when those accessories are connected. This is also where the configuration happens for the NFC ‘Smart Tags’.
- McAfee Security (trial) is a preinstalled but removable application on the device.
- Media Remote allows you to remote control your compatible Sony TV - if you don’t have a compatible set, again, don’t despair - you can uninstall it! Bravo Sony!
- The Messaging app fairly standard.
- The Music app is again heavily integrated into Facebook to allow you to see music and videos your friends have shared on Facebook. The Music app also integrates with Sony’s Music Unlimited service but has a nice UI and feature set in its own right, including the ability to find missing album art and track info for your music.
- The Sony Music Unlimited app is preinstalled, which is currently priced at £3.99 for the basic plan or £9.99 for the premium plan.
- The NeoReader QR code reader is installed and removable.
- OfficeSuite caters to your Microsoft Office document viewing needs. Other third party apps include WhatsApp and WisePilot, both of which can be uninstalled.
- The official Playstation app is preinstalled (as you would expect), allowing you to connect to your PlayStation Network (PSN) account.
- TrackID offers music recognition on the device (a-la-Shazam or SoundHound) with an added tab to view the current chart with associated links to Music Unlimited.
- Now, Google rebranding their online properties as ‘Play’ hasn’t really helped the clarity of who’s services are who’s on the Xperia S, but ‘PlayNow’ is present and belongs to Sony! PlayNow is yet another content store.
- The Xperia S is ‘Playstation Certified’ and this is evidenced by the PS Pocket and PS Store icons that went live towards the end of our time with the device. ‘PS Pocket’ is a hub for your Playstation Pocket games, and ‘PS Store’, predictably, is where you go to find / buy Playstation games!
- Also installed is Recommender, an app to help you find apps and games in the Play Store (that’s the GOOGLE Store), and, you guessed it, share your apps with Facebook friends.
- Timescape is another Sony addition that has been installed on Xperia devices for a while. It’s a client that allows you to view your Facebook and Twitter stream, with plugins available for other services via the Google Play Store. Now, maybe it’s just me, but I find it one of the most useless apps I’ve ever used... and I can’t really imagine anyone liking its UI!
- A new Power Saver application allows you to set a number of profiles to help manage your battery life. Three profiles are offered, ‘Power Saver’ which you can activate manually, ‘Low Battery Saver’ which is trigged by a chosen battery threshold and ‘Timed Saver’, which, as you would expect, activates between chosen times. Each profile can manage WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, Brightness, Sync and background data settings.
- An Update Center application manages over-the-air updates, which can also be installed via the PC or Mac update clients. This is split into system and application updates.
So that’s the software rounded up - let’s talk about what the Xperia S is actually like to use!
I switched to testing the Xperia S from the Galaxy Nexus, which of course has a 4.65” 720P screen. With that in mind, the dimensions aren’t as different as you might expect. The Xperia S measures up at 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm, the Galaxy Nexus is 135.5 x 67.94 x 8.9 mm. By comparison, the Xperia Arc S, which features a slightly smaller 4.2” display is a noticeably more svelte at 125 × 63 × 8.7 mm, feeling thinner particularly by virtue of its curved-back design. So that’s the stats (and you can view an online comparison here, but how does it feel? Nice. It is a very pronounced ‘slab’, with only a slight curve on the back and gently rounded edges, but with its soft touch coating it feels good. The transparent strip below the capacitive buttons serves to disguise what is a very large bottom bezel and makes the simple design more interesting.
The button placements all make sense to me, I like to have the new enlarged power button on the top, the dedicated camera button is a real bonus and as a right handed person the volume buttons are perfectly placed for operation with my thumb in a call. One thing i’m definitely NOT so keen on is the plastic flap on the power socket. Argh! I know it smooths off the design, but I’m plugging my device in AT LEAST daily, so I don’t want to be messing around with that silly little cover. On the HDMI port? Fine. On the charging port? Don’t do it! I notice that the lanyard holes are in front of the mic on the bottom which is the opposite of what I would have thought makes sense, but I imagine this isn’t an issue for most people. The buttons are suitably ‘clicky’, including the aforementioned 2 stage camera button.
The Xperia S is the first device from Sony / Sony Ericsson to feature a fully TTRS compliant headphone port (again, sensibly, on the top). This means that for the first time, headphones with buttons and microphones designed for TRRS devices (like the iPhone and just about everything other device out there) should work. Good news! The inbuilt speaker is loud but incredibly tinny... I can see these devices blasting out tunes on high streets up and down the land.
Let’s talk about the capacitive buttons. I’ve seen on Twitter that a lot of people have had a short time with the Xperia S and come away with the impression that the buttons don’t work properly, are too small, are in the wrong place etc. etc. BUT... they’re wrong. Sort of. The first thing you have to realise when you pick up the phone is that you don’t press the transparent strip where the button icons are, you press the little silver dots below the screen that represent the capacitive touch points. When you first start using the phone, you WILL get times when you think you’ve hit the right place and it hasn’t registered, but having used the phone for a while now, I can say with confidence that the phone is now registering every press of mine when i’m holding the device normally. As with a lot of phones, tapping a capacitive button when the phone is sitting on a desk doesn’t always get registered, but I’ve seen this on other devices too. In normal use, the buttons work great and presses are accompanied by a short vibration.
I spoke before about the transparent panel at the base of the device that holds the antennas and represents a signature feature of the NXT series. This lights up in white, only when you press the capacitive buttons - unlike the Xperia U it is NOT a notification area. A RGB LED can be found on the top left of the device. A little bit of a shame I think (I would have preferred to see the ‘bar notifications’ across the whole range), but I will agree it’s more subtle and sophisticated.
The device has a dual core processor (albeit ‘current generation’ rather than the newer Snapdragon chips found in the HTC One S for example) and 1GB of RAM so, as you’d expect, the phone is snappy in use. For all its faults (the main one being ‘it’s not the latest and greatest’), Gingerbread is a mature OS that Sony have been fettling for a long time now, so you’d expect nothing less than smooth, stable performance and that’s what you get. Benchmark wise the phone performs well, you just need to be aware that you're not getting the newest possible release and on raw horsepower, devices that are out very soon will surpass it. Whether or not that's an issue is your call!
The software tweaks are fairly subtle and nicely designed and... well, on a 720P screen at 4.3” most things are going to look good! The screen is incredibly sharp, nice and bright (although, like early devices of the last Sony Ericsson generation, brightness can only be manually controlled - no auto brightness here - at least, no user configurable auto brightness). The Mobile Bravia Engine is present for enhancing clarity of pictures and videos. The screen really is quite a highlight - as a 'regular LCD' the viewing angles aren't the best ever but that aside, it's pretty stunning, imparting a retina display like awe in those who played with it.
In line with other new devices, the Xperia S eschews microSD expansion in lieu of 32GB internal storage. Now, I can often see the thinking behind this, but the S isn’t exactly a super thin handset so was it really necessary? One could ask the same of the microSIM slot, again something that seems to be present on a lot of new generation handsets.
One of my biggest complains with the Arc S, Arc and other devices in the old Sony Ericsson range was that the internal storage was horrendously small. Installation of a handful of applications would leave you plagued with ‘low memory’ messages, something that thankfully seems to have been resolved for this handset. On a pretty empty handset (only the latest app updates etc.) installed the phone is reporting 1.66GB internal storage available, with 25.80GB total space on the internal storage card. ‘Internal storage card’ I hear you say? ‘That means mass storage access’ you cry? Well, actually, not so fast - the Xperia S only supports MTP access. A bit annoying, but it’ll prepare you well for Ice Cream Sandwich where that is the norm! It will be interesting to see whether Ice Cream Sandwich merges these two memory concepts (as it does on the Galaxy Nexus) to provide just one large space.
The Xperia S supports NFC and is the first Sony (or Sony Ericsson) device to do so. To make the most of the NFC hardware, Sony have created the concept of ‘Smart Tags’. These are basically regular NFC tags in a fancy ‘dog tag’ shape written with special URLs to interact with the Smart Tags application (you can actually use generic NFC tags and turn them into Smart Tags - details to follow!). When the phone senses a smart tag (and bear in mind that NFC is a 'perform an action when a tag is found' concept, you can't then do something else when it goes away) you can set up a large number of device functions to trigger. You can open applications, toggle states of the various wireless services etc. - it's pretty neat. I'm a big fan of this kind of automation and it's a good introduction to the concept!
Should you wish to plug the Xperia S into your TV using the HDMI functionality, you'll find it works rather well. Sony tell me that the output is at 1080P (I haven't yet verified this personally), but what does happen when you plug in is that there is a custom 'TV UI' that is launched when you do so. Provided your TV is new enough to support the relevant HDMI specification (it doesn't have to be a Sony TV though), you can even use your TV remote to browse through the menus on your phone - great for when you are boring your family with your holiday snaps!
A big selling point of the Xperia S is going to be the 12.1 Megapixel camera, which in raw numbers at least, sits top of the pile at the moment. It's rumoured that the Galaxy S III will also have a 12 Megapixel shooter and the forthcoming HTC devices have the new 'ImageSense' chip to allow them to create great pictures (albeit at 8 Megapixels), but the camera is an important selling point for Sony. This isn't new... the Xperia Arc and Arc S made a big deal about their 8 Megapixel Exmor R cameras and rightly so - they took great shots!
The Xperia S is, thankfully, more of the same. A number of comparison photos are included below but in a nutshell, i'm finding the Xperia S to take great pictures that surpass those of the Xperia Arc S. Colour representation seems to be improved, detail is very good and although I would like to see an option to choose the JPEG compression level of the pictures, the software itself is full of options and customisation. The functionality that allows you to turn on your device straight into the camera by pressing and holding the dedicated camera button is neat too. Indeed the camera button itself is a feature for which Sony should be applauded, it's far too often missing from today's phone designs! One area where the camera does disappoint slightly is when taking panorama pictures (see samples below). They are ultimately pretty low resolution as is pretty common and appear pretty comprehensively over-compressed. Video recording quality seems pretty variable... I found the results with the image stabilisation on a bit disappointing, but with it off they were much better. The single focus, face detection or infinite focus options should be carefully selected given what you are recording, then you can get decent results!
The Xperia S packs a 1750mAh battery which is a ‘built in’ item - don’t be fooled by the removable back cover! I find battery life really hard to quantify as people use their devices so differently. With that in mind, I get a ‘full normal day’ out of the Xperia S, just as I do the Galaxy Nexus with its 1750mAh battery. I take it off charge in the morning, use it periodically through the day with a few bursts of high activity and it’s ready to go on the charger as I go to bed. As with the Galaxy Nexus though, a few bouts of heavy gaming or extended surfing / video viewing and it probably won’t get me through the day. Not good, not bad, the epitome of average.
I wouldn't normally give pricing its own section in a review, but for the Xperia S I think it's worth it for one simple reason - Sony Ericsson have a history of pricing their phones very competitively and all signs are that this will continue with Sony's Xperia S.
At the time of writing a Xperia S can be snagged for £379.99 from Amazon and is available on contracts from Three and Phones4u at extremely competitive prices.
The Xperia S undercuts the Galaxy Nexus despite having double the storage and a vastly superior camera (albeit at the expense of the 'stock Google experience').
Whether the Xperia S is right for you or not, it's a well-rounded, capable and desirable device. It stands pretty uniquely in the market as it is at the moment by offering a 720P screen resolution without forcing a 4.6"+ screen on the user... a size that for many is just too big. Couple that with solid build quality, a great camera, 32GB of online storage and all the other little bits and pieces you could want (NFC etc.) and there's little to disappoint. Yes, Ice Cream Sandwich isn't on the device out of the gate but it's coming soon and while the dual core processor isn't the 'next generation', it performs well and benchmarks more than respectably.
There's no denying that it would have been nice if the device had arrived a little bit thinner than it is and maybe with some slightly more interesting design features (transparent strip aside), but on the whole Sony [Ericsson] have done a good job here. If your contract renewal comes round or you snag a Xperia S SIM free, probably at a price that undercuts a lot of its rivals, I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Pros and cons
- 720P screen in a 4.3" form factor
- Decent camera
- 32GB of onboard storage
- Unusual design with 'transparent panel'
- Overall solid performer with decent build quality
- Unlockable bootloader
- You have to wait for ICS
- no microSD
- Fixed battery
- It's not thin and to some it's not pretty
- Capacitive buttons do take some getting used to
Do you have a Xperia S? Do you agree / disagree with my review? post below!
Xperia Arc S
Xperia S Panoramas
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