Sony’s Xperia line has always been about refining. Back in 2008, their first Xperia X1 was clearly the benchmark for how a high-end Windows Mobile device should look and perform. Sadly, Sony Ericsson’s adoption of Android has been a different story. Their phones have done a good job in pushing industrial design to the limit, but the fact that their first Android device, the X10, launched with Android 1.6 Donut (later updated to Eclair) in times when Froyo was already shipping, has really tarnished their reputation. As good as their phones have been, they’re still struggling to land a hit years later.
Scratch the Ericsson from the name and now we meet the Xperia S, which is not only their first Sony branded smartphone, but their new flagship in the NXT Series. Is the Xperia S hot enough to gain your hard-earned cash? Read our full review to find out.
Sony is really not trying to follow any current trend with their unboxing experience. While competitors shrink their boxes and the list of accesories included, the Xperia S comes in a relatively mid-sized box with a charging adaptor, USB cable, in-ear headphones, HDMI cable, a spare screen protector and even two NFC Xperia SmartTags.
When it comes to hardware, the Xperia S is a mixed bag of past and future. It’s got last year’s 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon processor, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of onboard storage (that’s not expandable), Bluetooth 2.1, and a dusty old version of Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread on top of it all. Ice Cream Sandwich will be offered as a free upgrade in late Q1 or early Q2.
The display measures 4.3″ and has BRAVIA enhancements at full 720p resolution, which provides a whopping 342 PPI. It’s got a 12-megapixel camera with a single flash that’s powered by their Exmor R sensor. It’s capable of recording video at full 1080p resolution, while the front facing camera has 1.3 megapixels and can record at 720p resolution. It runs on the typical GSM 850/900/1800/1900 bands and HSDPA 850/900/1900/2100, which will only allow it to give you 3G speeds on AT&T in the US, and pretty much any carrier in Europe and Latin America. It supports NFC and the usual accelerometer, gyro, proximity, and compass sensors. It measures 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm and weighs 144 grams.
As for hardware features, the device includes a standby button at the top, volume buttons on the right that also serve as digital zoom buttons for the camera, and a camera button at the bottom right. At the bottom we’ve got a lanyard hook, the microphone and a microUSB connector for charging and syncing. It includes a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top and capacitive buttons at the front that will toggle back, home and menu with the current Gingerbread configuration. The buttons are prepared to support Ice Cream Sandwich once it rolls out, though.
At the back we’ve got the camera sensor along with the speaker grill.
Even though the device is made of plastic, it doesn’t feel cheap in the hand. It’s got a certain level of weight to it that makes it feel high-end. The matte plastic back is great against fingerprints, but sadly it doesn’t seem strong enough to handle a fall. The phone has quickly picked up minor scratches at the edges from typical pocket use, so any fall will most definitely remain noticeable. I’d also recommend you purchase the black model since the white one seems quick to pick up lint and dirt smudges if your fingers are dirty.
Sony’s biggest selling point with the Xperia S is the display. In a nutshell, I must admit that it’s one of the best smartphone displays I’ve seen to date.
It not only blows away all of its competitors in pixel density, but it also does a fantastic job in handling color detail.
An additional Sony innovation is their transparent antenna. Call it a gimmick if you want, but it does add a level of elegance to the device. Don’t worry about Antennagate though, you can hold the phone anyway you want and you won’t get any signal strength degradation issues.
Sony also touts that the sound on their new Xperia is above average with the inclusion of their xLoud technology. So far, I must admit that the speaker does a great job in bringing sound some justice, but I can’t say the same about the headphones included in the box.
Overall, I feel that Sony has again raised the bar in the hardware department. They’ve always been good at pushing the limits with their design, but sadly, software is a different story.
SOFTWARE AND USER EXPERIENCE
Sony’s adoption of Android has always been weird. They do a great job in skinning the OS in order for their proprietary UI to be the predominant user experience, but at the expense of their slow adoption to the newer and more powerful versions of Android. There are times where you don’t really miss Ice Cream Sandwich on the Xperia S, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to unbox their phones and use the Android beam feature that they just saw on a TV ad of the Galaxy Nexus two months earlier.
Overall there are parts of the phone that really do take advantage of all the premium hardware that’s included, and there are parts that don’t. For example, the device is fast and smooth, and the UI has been skinned well enough to make the 4.3-inch display look stunning. It’s hard to find times where it lags in typical daily use, even if your needs are demanding. The sad part is when you’ve got such a high-end camera, but your video recording software doesn’t allow you to tap the screen and focus on anything — which is a feature that many competing devices have been able to do for the past year or two.
Sony goes beyond just offering the typical services included in Android to provide additional apps and widgets that you won’t find in competing devices out of the box. Surely you can find many alternatives to these services for free at the Google Play Store, but still, this proves that Sony sees Android as more of a tool than a selling point.
The list of apps includes:
- Sony’s Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited service for selling music and movies
- TrackID which is a Shazam music discovery alternative
- Timescape which consolidates all your social media in a cumbersome UI
- A Data monitor app to compensate for your lack of ICS
- Xperia Football, which allows you to download wallpapers and ringtones from their partnership with the UEFA Champions League
- A media remote which allows you to control DLNA capable Sony BRAVIA TVs
- Wisepilot as an offline alternative for navigation
- Moxier Pro for a more secure connection to Microsoft Exchange Servers
- McAfee Security to go with Moxier Pro
- OfficeSuite Pro for document editing
- NeoReader for barcode and QR code search
- World clock and timer
Even though competitors are still struggling with the world’s adoption of NFC, Sony took the technology to a whole new level. For them, NFC is not just about mobile payments. Their Xperia Smarttags are NFC capable chips that allow you to program the phone to execute specific features anytime one tag or another is touched. You get two out of the box, but you can purchase as many as you want after that. You can leave one in your car and set it to turn off Wi-Fi and activate music and navigation every time you hop in the car, and you can leave the other at the front door of your home to activate Wi-Fi, launch email or even movie apps like Netflix when you get home. I just wish that there was a way to switch away from car mode by double tapping the chip or something, but hopefully this feature is still a work in progress.
Another cool feature is Sony’s LiveWare Manager. The phone detects when you connect a headset, headphones, charger, HDMI cable and the SmartTags we just talked about. You can pre-determine specific tasks you want the phone to perform everytime it connects to any of these hardware peripherals. For example, you can set the Xperia S to launch music every time you connect the headphones, or to launch the clock every time you connect to the wall charger. It’s definitely a cool feature when you’re using HDMI-out, for example.
At the time of our software and user experience tour, the PS Store hadn’t launched yet. Good thing it did before our final review was live. Sony’s PlayStation store and certification are another of the services that plan to differentiate the Xperia line from the competition, but I’m not sure they’ve got it right.
You see, they literally only certified the store for the “PlayStation”, and by that I mean the original 1995 game console. It’s like finding a cheap emulator on a torrent website and then filling it up with legal ROMs of all the games from back in the day. It only includes 16 game titles at launch, and none are optimized to take advantage of the 720p resolution on the Xperia S. Remember that the original PlayStation launched back when flat screen TV’s weren’t even on store demos. Even if you can scale the game from 4:3 aspect ratio to take on the full screen, it still looks cheap and choppy. Are each of these games worth $5.99? Well if I were to compare it to EA’s Dead Space, just like I did in the video, I think you know my answer to that.
SPEED & PERFORMANCE
The Xperia S packs all of the high-end specs that any top-of-the-line smartphone would need to succeed. It’s fast, smooth and prepared for just about any task you could throw at it.
Now once you compare it to other flagship smartphones, things begin to get a bit complicated for the Xperia S. So far, the Galaxy S II has been the smartphone that not even the new Galaxy Nexus can beat, and such is the case for the Xperia S as well.
CALL QUALITY AND NETWORK
We tested this phone on Vodaphone in Spain, AT&T in the US and even TIGO in Honduras. Like most high-end smartphones, the Xperia S performs well when making phone calls. We experienced great sound quality and no drop calls on any of the networks that we tested it in. Despite the fact that it’s not optimized to take full advantage of AT&T’s network in the US, we got great download and upload speeds through HSDPA.
Another place where the Xperia S shines is in its camera. The 12-megapixel sensor is not only above the average pixel density we’ll find on competing devices, but the Exmor R sensor does a great job in adding fine detail to images, even in low light conditions. Sony also includes the option to shoot panoramic photos with a very intuitive UI.
I felt the sensor was just as good when shooting 1080p video. Where I feel that the whole experience is lacking is in the software that powers it. You can’t switch anything in the camera once you start filming, as you can with competing devices.
With typical usage, the phone barely lasts 8 to 9 hours, which is very disappointing, since it’s supposed to provide a superb media and gaming experience. It seems that the screen takes a huge toll on the device’s battery life and, unfortunately, the 1750mAh battery is not removable. The device charges the battery faster than I’ve seen other phones do it, but still, let’s hope their adoption of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich will deal with this.
PURCHASING & AVAILABILITY
Currently the Xperia S is limited to the European market, and can be purchased for 599 which is around $750. Remember that AT&T will soon debut the Sony Xperia Ion, which is an LTE variant that’s a mashup of the Xperia S and P, so you could also consider that device instead.
- BRAVIA enhanced 720p resolution display at 342 PPI is gorgeous
- 12-megapixel camera with the Exmor R sensor performs great
- Sony Xperia Smarttags give NFC some real use
- Great speaker quality
- Lots of great apps and widgets included
- LiveWare Manager for peripherals like HDMI out
- Video recording software needs improvements
- Bellow-average battery life
- Forget about the PlayStation Certification for now
History seems to repeat itself. Sony has once again proven that they can come up with great hardware, but that the software department is late to get the memo. Even if Sony was able to skin many of the limitations in Gingerbread, it’s still no Ice Cream Sandwich. Notice that all my Cons are software-oriented though. Sony is still a month away from pushing their Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update, and let’s hope that they act on them before the release.
I’ve got to hand it to Sony for trying though. They don’t do everything that other competitors do, but what they do, they do well. The device is fast, performs well and is stunning in the things that matter like its screen and camera performance. There are also little things like LiveWare Manager that make this device act like a true “Smart” phone. Having music start while plugging-in your headphones may be nonsense to many, but it’s something basic that everybody else should be doing.
If you’re out for a high-end smartphone that has all the bells and whistles to stand out from the crowd, the Sony Xperia S is your device.
For now, I’ll give it a 4/5 rating. Let’s see what Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich brings to the table in the next coming weeks.