Sony Ericsson, you will be missed. But that does not translate to the end of the smartphone line from the 50-50 joint venture between Sony and Ericsson. Instead, with Sony receiving full ownership and renaming the company as Sony Mobile Communications, we have seen their first smartphone, the Sony Xperia S making its debut at the annual Consumer Electronics Show earlier on. Being the first of the NXT series that also has the recently announced Sony Xperia P and Sony Xperia U, this is going to be a bumper year for Sony.
In our earlier hands-on, we mentioned how the Xperia S departs from its earlier Arc design. Instead of the curvature concept, the NXT series adopts a more angular look. While the Xperia S did fit naturally as per our earlier impressions, our extended time with the review unit did reveal a potential issue. As we spent more time flipping through apps and pages on the 4.3-inch display, the edge of the smartphone dug into our palms, making it slightly uncomfortable over time.
What makes the Xperia S (and for that matter, the upcoming Xperia P and Xperia U) stand out from the crowd is one particular design element - its transparent band. Located right below the three capacitive touch buttons, you’ll also see the inconspicuous back, home and menu icons that identify their functions. Though there are three small dots to indicate where the capacitive buttons are, we found ourselves fiddling around the area before it managed to register an input from our fingers.
While we have to leave it to our imagination as to how the Xperia user interface will turn out with the Android 4.0 update, it’s safe to say that the three buttons will be just as indicative of the new back, menu and multi-task shortcuts on the Ice Cream Sandwich version. Along the side, you’ll find the thin volume and camera buttons. As we’ve stated earlier on, the stiff buttons aren’t exactly helpful. The same can be said for the power button, which is placed at the upper left corner of the crown. This is further exacerbated by how tight the covers are for the micro USB and HDMI ports.
And if you’re worried about fingerprint smudges across the Xperia S, take comfort in the fact that the Android smartphone choses to go with a matte material. We absolutely love the lack of fingerprints across the device, but its 4.3-inch display isn’t spared from that particular fate. Due care has to be taken to grip the phone properly though, since we had a few heart-stopping moments when the Xperia S slipped through our fingers and almost hit the ground.
Like all Android smartphones, there’s a need for the Xperia S to differentiate itself and present a unique proposition. The most obvious element is seen through the user interface, with Sony adding a touch of its own via unique live wallpapers and themes for you to switch around. Timescape, which has been featured since the first Xperia smartphone, is also featured on the Xperia S, though not as prominent as it used to. In fact, we chose to go with standard Facebook and Twitter apps, or even TweetDeck for Android, rather than Timescape to view all our social media feed.
If you’re hoping to find the latest Android 4.0 on the Xperia, we’ll have to disappoint you. Preloaded with Google 2.3 Gingerbread, the good news is the Xperia S will be receiving the Android 4.0 update anytime soon. In the meantime, we do see some semblance of the Android 4.0 interface being emulated by Sony’s user interface, such as folders and the ability to uninstall apps from the menu.
To simplify the ways in which you interact with the Xperia S, Sony also included the LiveWare app within the smartphone. It essentially launches pre-defined apps when an accessory is plugged into the Xperia S. Take for example, if you plug in a pair of headphones, LiveWare will detect the headphones and prompt to launch the music player app. By default, three accessory profiles, namely your headset, headphones and charger are customizable within LiveWare. Bluetooth devices can also be added to the LiveWare manager.
In a similar concept, Sony has added more customization options to the Xperia S through the use of near field communications and two Xperia SmartTags that are included within the retail package. As we’ve explained through an earlier demo by Sony, the SmartTag is essentially an NFC token that works in conjunction with the NFC function on the Xperia S. A simple tap on the token will prompt the Xperia S to perform a series of customizable actions, such as switching on Wi-Fi, setting the phone to silent or even launching specific apps. We found this NFC feature particularly useful, especially if you were to move between your home and office. For example, once we got home and plugged the Xperia S to a charger, we also tapped the token to set the phone to silent mode, and deactivated all data syncing.
The Xperia S choses to go with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon dual-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz, along with 1GB of RAM to handle multi-tasking. As mentioned earlier, Google Android 2.3 will be the operating system of choice for the Xperia S. As usual, we subject the review unit to the Quadrant benchmark, which can be found on the Android Market. To gauge how it performs against the competition, we matched its scores against similar devices using dual-core processors such as the Samsung Galaxy S II, HTC Sensation XE and LG Optimus 2X.
As depicted in the chart above, the Xperia S fared quite well against the Sensation XE and LG Optimus 2X. Against NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 processors, we have seen the Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8260 chipset performing better in numbers. Comparing the Sensation XE and Xperia S, both of which are using that particular Qualcomm processor, we can deduce that the higher Quadrant score for the Xperia S means Sony has managed to optimize its user interface much better than HTC Sense.
Putting the numbers aside, the Xperia S is no slowpoke. Throughout the testing phase, we were greeted with fast app transitions, and it didn’t take too long for the web browser to render its pages. Running the Xperia S through a gauntlet of games also saw smooth performance for the most part, and for that we attribute it to the 1GB RAM and 1.5GHz dual-core processor.
The Xperia S arms itself with a 12-megapixel camera, but as far as the pixel count goes, higher doesn’t equate to better. While the images gathered from our camera test setup did reveal good color reproduction from the camera, noise levels were significantly high. We were also unable to see a sharp contrast between the finer areas within the test image. To be fair, you won’t really need images of the highest quality from your smartphone, but it feels as though you are getting shortchanged by the 12-megapixel sensor.
The camera might have disappointed us, but this wasn’t the case for its 4.3-inch display. With a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, this gives the Xperia S a pixel density of approximately 342ppi. If the dense resolution isn’t enough, we can attest to the rich colors that were seen on the display, no doubt enhanced by the Mobile Bravia display technology. In fact, with the same test video, we noticed how the colors on the Xperia S were more vivid than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
Using that same 480 x 800-pixel video, we next ran our standard battery test. The test parameters include having the video looped under the following conditions:
Again, this is where the Xperia S faltered. As impressed as we were with its smooth performance, all that is for naught if the battery mileage doesn’t deliver. Amongst the crop of dual-core smartphones, the Xperia S came in last, sharing nearly the same mileage as the Sensation XE. Incidentally, both devices are using the Qualcomm MSM8260 processor, and we presume there is a possible connection there. With its below average mileage, its portability index also doesn’t fare too well, though thankfully, it placed third amongst its immediate competitors. Outside of the intensive battery test, we had the Xperia S working for us for nearly 16 hours before we saw the 15% battery warning sign.
If we were to judge the Sony Xperia S based on first impressions, we would have been bowled over by its angular design along with the unique transparent band. Spending more time with it did bring up some unseen pros and cons of this Android smartphone.
The dual-core 1.5GHz processor did well to eliminate speed slowdowns and lags on the user interface. Furthermore, you get unique features such as a customized user interface, the freedom to customize your phone’s profile through its LiveWare manager, as well as NFC and SmartTags. We also like the vivid colors exhibited by the 4.3-inch, 1280 x 720 display.
Other than how it slipped out of our palms once too often, the Xperia S won’t get many points from us with its stiff buttons. Though it does come with 32GB of internal storage, the lack of an external storage option doesn’t bode well for those who want to carry their entire media library with them on their smartphone. Also, with its below average battery life, the Xperia S lost our attention once it was exhausted. We weren’t too impressed with its imaging capabilities either, so if you prioritize imaging performance above all others, this will be a deal breaker.
Now that we've shared with you our findings, it's up to you to weigh the pros and cons, and decide if the Xperia S is for you. If the answer is a yes, you will be looking at a price tag of S$898 without a two-year contract, a price that is the norm amongst the range of dual-core smartphones out in the market today.