Has spring 2012 brought a rebirth to the Xperia range, or just a rebranding? On the face of it, that’s an easy one. The Sony Xperia S (codenamed “Nozomi“) is the first handset we’ve reviewed in the post-Ericsson era and you only have to glance at its spec sheet to see that more has changed than just the logo. The 4.3-inch LCD display outguns older Xperias with a bright and contrasty 1280 x 720 resolution. This feature alone helps the device to sit more snugly on the Sony family sofa, where it can share popcorn with the tablets, PCs and TVs that Kaz & Co. want to merge into a seamless media-munching ecosystem. The Xperia S’ camera pushes in that same direction, shooting 12-megapixel stills and 1080p video and then streaming its creations to other displays over HDMI and DLNA. Rounding it off, you get quirky features like NFC and a distinctive, Bravia-like physical design. But not everything here is so fresh and spring-like: other aspects of the device are still tinged with winter, as you’ll discover if you read on.
Like any good tour, this one begins at the bar — the distinctive, LED-lit plastic bar that appears to segment the Xperia S into two parts. Having seen the phone handed around a room of bloggers before we picked up our review sample, it was one of the first things people noticed, and it was either championed or chided depending on each person’s taste. Bearing in mind that Engadget has a thing for Tron furnitureand fur coats, we actually kinda like it. The three Android navigation buttons are etched into the bar and look nice when it lights up.
So yes, we enjoy it, but there are equally as many reasons not to. For a start, it makes the device feel longer than it needs to be, and considering it’s already a lot thicker than previous Xperias (e.g., theXperia Arc, pictured below), that’s a big sacrifice. What’s more, it doesn’t do Philips Ambilight-style tricks like the Xperia U, and it doesn’t necessarily have the same technical justification as the aluminum unibody Xperia P.
A more serious problem with the Xperia S’ hardware isn’t the way it looks, but the way it’s built. There are seams everywhere, where plastic meets plastic around the translucent bar, around the port covers, around the scratch resistant screen and around the rear cover. (Note: the video review says “Gorilla Glass”, but scratch resistant is right.) These gaps attract dust, make the device feel unfairly cheap considering the high quality materials, and occasionally cause the port covers to pop open if they catch on your finger or pocket. Considering that the 1,750mAh battery isn’t removable and the 16 to 32GB of onboard storage isn’t expandable via microSD, the rear cover seems unnecessary — we would rather have had a Micro SIM drawer, better flaps over the ports and a Lumia 800-style unibody instead. Sony’s designers may be based in Lund, Sweden, but with the Xperia S they haven’t been Nordic enough.
There’s an issue with the navigation buttons too. The touch-sensitive spots for Back, Home and Options are nowhere near their corresponding icons in the translucent bar, and they’re unmarked, save for three barely visible silver dots. Not knowing where precisely to aim your finger initially results in a lot of mis-hits, and the buttons themselves aren’t particularly responsive, but you do get used to them after three or four days. Virtual buttons might be preferable, but there’s no way they could come with the promised upgrade to Android 4.0 — that would make the design of the lower part of the phone completely redundant. Speaking of ICS, we initially heard it might be here already, but now the word is Q2.
Just when the Xperia S’ build quality makes us feel low, the wonderful display picks us up again. Every single time. It may be plain old TFT LCD rather than AMOLED, but at least there’s no PenTile pixel arrangement here and the 342ppi pixel density renders everything with perfect stability and smoothness. We’d much rather watch a movie on the Xperia S than on the AMOLED-equippedPlayStation Vita, for example. Although the Vita has a bigger screen and better stereo speakers, the Xperia S delivers sharper, more colorful images — plus the sound from its speaker is louder and more engaging.
The display’s strength is also readily apparent when you compare it side-by-side with an older, LCD-packing Xperia like the Arc. You won’t see it on a photo unless you look closely enough to notice the matrix of pixels on the Arc, but load up the Kindle app and things become more obvious: text looks blocky at 854 x 480 resolution but immaculate at 1280 x 720. The Arc also has worse viewing angles.
The screen performs admirably outdoors and proves just what LCD is capable when it’s implemented properly. While some other LCD displays can be quickly obscured by excessive reflections outdoors, the Xperia S’ panel retains its contrast much better. There’s a consistent yellow tinge to all white areas, especially compared to the more neutral Retina Display on the iPhone 4, but the Mobile BRAVIA Engine seems to make up for that when watching movies and stills. Overall, it’s clear that Sony has invested a lot of time and money in getting this new panel just right.
Calling and reception
As you’d hope, there’s little to report here. We used the phone solidly for a week and found that it flicked sensibly between bands, gave us consistent reception, and handled data averagely well at regular HSPA speeds on the UK Vodafone network. The speaker worked fine both ways, as did the bundled headset — although as ever we only used it once to test it, before switching to some proper headphones (in this instance, an amazing pair of IE 80s lent to us by Sennheiser.) The Xperia S has a smart notification LED that glows different colors to indicate different events, such as blue for a missed call and orange for charging. This is something missing from many rival phones, and anyone who depends on their smartphone for productivity will appreciate it.
The 12-megapixel shooter on the Xperia S is a world away from last year’s Xperias. You get fuller controls, including Exposure Value, ISO, Focus Mode, Metering Mode and White Balance (manual or presets). Even better, you can position up to four controls of your choosing on the main viewfinder screen, which provides quicker access to the settings you adjust most frequently.
You also get much faster operation, with the ability to hold the dedicated camera button down while the phone is still in standby mode and snap off a shot within 1.4 seconds, by our measure. This way of shooting doesn’t produce great results, because it gives you no time to frame or focus accurately, but it does prove what the camera module is capable, and it may come in a handy on the odd occasion. During regular operation, taking shots as normal within the camera app, the Xperia S was extremely responsive.
As for the pictures themselves, they testify to good automatic exposure, white balance and flash control, and they’re sumptuous on the phone’s display: sharp, bright, colorful and contrasty. The combination of the hi-res sensor and HD display also helps low-light shots, because the camera is able to pump up gain while hiding noise among the abundance of pixels — i.e., the noise is there, and it’s pretty bad, but you have to zoom in further to see it.
The Xperia S’ camera is a treat if you primarily view photos on the phone itself. However, if you occasionally want to blow up a picture to frame it, or if you want display your pictures on a bigger screen over the HDMI output or DLNA, then there’s an important caveat.
Previous Xperias, such as the Neo, suffered from excessive image compression, and that’s still unfortunately an issue with the Xperia S. There’s no option to change the JPEG settings to create bigger, prettier files comparable to what you’d get on the Galaxy S II or iPhone 4. The default compression has improved considerably since the Neo, with 12-megapixel stills averaging a file size of 3MB, but that’s still not enough.
The Xperia S creates JPEG files that are around 25 percent bigger than those from an iPhone 4, even though they contain 240 percent more pixels. So you can zoom in further on an Xperia S image, but what will you find when you get there? Either Sony is callously wasting the power of Xperia S’ higher resolution Exmor R sensor, or they’re deliberately maxing out on compression in order to disguise the fact that the sensor is noisy. Either way, the resultant image quality is designed for superficial viewing only, and we’d still rather shoot on an aged iPhone 4 (let alone a 4S).
It was a similar story with 1080p video, which was compressed to around 100MB per minute. The Nokia Lumia 800 also shoots between 80MB and 100MB per minute, but with 720p resolution. Despite the over-zealous compression, however, we were generally pleased with Xperia S’ clips: autofocus was slow but dependable, there weren’t too many sudden switches in exposure or white balance and audio levels were consistent.
Performance and battery life
The Xperia S arrived too soon to be endowed with any of the new chips revealed at MWC. Instead, it contains one of the better processors from last year: the dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM8260. We’ve already spent a lot of time with this processor, on phones like the HTC Sensation XE, and it’s certainly powerful enough to handle the functions the Xperia S is designed for. There are no lags or stutters to note, browsing is fluid, and there’s no nasty mismatch between the battery and processor either. We scraped just under two full days with light use, involving a maximum of two hours spent out of standby each day and careful connection settings. Even heavy usage patterns, such as leaving WiFi on (as in the 15-hour day below) and watching movie trailers (an addiction with a screen like this), left the Xperia S with plenty of reserves when we hit the sack. A standard battery test with looped video yielded over five hours, which is around the same as the Sensation XE despite the Xperia’s higher resolution screen.
Here’s how the processor stacks up against the Xperia Arc S and — for a bit of fun — the Galaxy Note, whose Exynos processor was another great SoC from last year. The Xperia S holds its own, especially when it comes to graphics and browsing benchmarks.
|Xperia S||Xperia Arc S||Galaxy Note|
|SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower numbers are better)||2,653||3,369||2,902|
If you’ve never heard of Android 2.3.7, then here’s everything you need to know: it’s old. The Xperia skin that sits lightly on top of the OS is very familiar too, as are the various pre-loaded apps and social networking integration efforts, such as TimeScape, which we’ve covered in previous reviews. Some of these additions are good, like the music app which has a good equalizer system. Others are bad, like the repeated McAffee antivirus notifications that are too difficult to exterminate.
Aside from the bloatware, however, Sony has come up with some genuinely exciting stuff. The Xperia S integrates well with the Xperia SmartWatch, for example, sending notifications straight to your wrist over Bluetooth. We only had a chance to play with a prototype SmartWatch, but we had fun with it and no one can deny that Sony is sticking its neck out to do something different.
Sony has found useful employment for NFC, bundling the Xperia S with two NFC SmartTags that you can use to automatically change your phone settings to suit different locations. You simply hold the tag against the handset to initialize it, and then choose various actions that will be triggered the next time the tag comes into contact. These settings aren’t flexible enough to make this very useful yet — there’s no airplane mode, you can’t disable data without disabling calls, and you can’t stack instructions on top of each other to achieve more sophisticated automation. Perhaps these things will come in a software update, but for now Sony gets points more for the idea than the practicality.
Notice a theme developing here? Yup, that’d be the need for patience, as Sony gradually (perhaps too gradually) makes good on the promise of its new ideas. That applies to NFC, but it applies even more to another key area of the Xperia S’ software: it’s ability to hook up with Sony’s gaming, video and music platforms. It’s supposed to be great, but the reality hasn’t quite caught up.
Take a movie rental as an example. There’s a placeholder app for the PlayStation Store on the Xperia S, but it doesn’t work. Instead, you can use the pre-loaded Video Unlimited app, which offers exactly the same video content as the PS Store, for the same prices, using the same login and credit card details, but which is totally separate. A purchase you made on the PS Store on another Sony device — such as the PS Vita — won’t be remembered in Video Unlimited, and vice versa.
Now, this might all be solved in a week’s time, when the PS Store placeholder app informs us it will ‘wake up’ and start doing stuff. If that happens, our complaint will become a spring shower in a tea cup. On the other hand, it’s also possible that the two storefronts will operate in parallel for some time. We asked Sony about this, and got the following reply:
“While the Sony Entertainment Network storefront is fully integrated among the various Sony devices compatible with the Video Unlimited service and the PlayStation Network Video Store, our device domain model currently restricts playback of rented or purchased content. While we are exploring a less restrictive model, at this time, users who download content to Xperia (or PS Vita) can only play that content back on that device.”
Confusing? Just a little. You also have to bear in mind that Sony rarely gets things done in a hurry. The PlayStation Suite is a case in point. This is yet another storefront that will offer independently-produced titles for the Xperia S and other PlayStation-certified devices, but developers are still testing out the SDK. There’s no clear timeline for when their creations might start to appear in the Suite, or when the Suite might appear on the Xperia range. If you imagine that Kaz Hirai only has to click his fingers for things to get done, the Xperia S will likely prove you wrong.
Could the Xperia S be your first Sony-branded phone? It you’re all about media consumption, and if you’re prepared to wait while Sony makes its cloud-based platforms more coherent, then the Xperia S is a great device. The display and the speaker are absorbing and addictive. The battery life is excellent, the processor is a good fit and the absence of expandable storage shouldn’t weigh too heavily if you get the 32GB option.
On the other hand, if you make more varied demands of your smartphone — like excellent build quality, pocket-friendly slimness or photos you can enlarge — then things get more complicated. US pricing has yet to be announced, but the 32GB version of the Xperia S is going for upwards of £430 ($680) SIM-free in the UK, or £370 pay-as-you-go on the Three network. Similar money could fetch you a legendary all-rounder like the Galaxy S II, or stretch to a 16GB Galaxy Nexus with an HD screen and better build quality, or — very soon — an HTC One S, which promises a cutting-edge Qualcomm S4 processor and abetter camera. When sized up against a long rubric of criteria, rather than just its entertainment credentials, there’s little to make the Xperia S a compelling purchase.