Sony Xperia S + ICS, a love story (review)

A short introduction about the reviewer (that's me)

Hello fellow Verge visitors! First I'd like to introduce myself. I've been a long time Sony (Ericsson) fan. I've never had any other phones, and after quite a long history I've arrived at the Xperia S. I've had it since launch date. I'm currently studying applied IT (which is a University College course including loads of Java, a bit of SQL, webdesign and assembler).

On holidays I work at The Phone House, the ex-Belgian branch of the UK-basec Carphone Warehouse, now part of a Belgian ISP. My job there isn't selling mobiles, it's selling the right mobiles for the right customer. I'm one of the only store employees not under commission, so I sell what people need, not what the sales team wants to sell. I try not to be biased in this, you'll find me recommending a Nokia Lumia as well as a Samsung Galaxy Mini or a HTC One X just as easy as a Sony device. I do try to keep customers away from LG, I think everyone understands why.

ICS on the Sony Xperia S

On the 21st of June 2012, an otherwise unremarkable day, Sony started the rollout of the long-awaited (but never delayed) ICS update for the Xperia S. As some regions got it before others and I absolutely couldn't wait, I flashed my phone with a Swiss software build to get the update from the first minute. Since it was only available on rapidshare I uploaded it to my own webserver, which got me a serious warning from my webhost since I managed to get over 2TB of traffic in under an hour.

Sony has been surprisingly quiet about the update. Where the devices from 2011 received two betas and a ton of information along the development process, Sony was completely silent about the Xperia S update. Just today we got the first bits of information from Sony, and they were quite minimal. After a few hours of thorough experimenting with the update I've found a lot of interesting things to show to you, things Sony chose not to brag with (even though they have a lot to brag about).

Xperia S - What's new in Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) (via sonyxperiasupport)

Benchmarks, just to get them out of the way

I don't care much about benchmarks, and you shouldn't either, but you can't call something like this a review anymore without benchmarks. I've compared the scores with the review on GSMArena.

All benchmarks were done on a device with all my regular apps installed. No taskkillers were used, no root, no tweaks, and a ton of background syncs enabled.

BenchmarkPi

Lower is better.
Score on 2.3.7: 536ms.
Score on 4.0.4: 541ms - no difference

LinPack

Higher is better.
Score on 2.3.7: 86.7.
Score on 4.0.4: 78.8 - a bit less good

NenaMark 2

Higher is better.
Score on 2.3.7: 37.5 FPS.
Score on 4.0.4: 36.7 FPS - no difference

SunSpider

Stock browser, lower is better.
Score on 2.3.7: 2587.
Score on 4.0.4: 1822 - major improvement (beats Galaxy Nexus)!

BrowserMark

Stock browser, Higher is better.
Score on 2.3.7: 74990.
Score on 4.0.4: 91391 - good improvement

AnTuTu

Many people (including me) don't like this benchmark, but I decided to include it for completeness. The score under 2.3.7 was taken from the Dutch Tweakers.net-review.
Score on 2.3.7: 6266
Score on 4.0.4: 6749 - minor improvement.

First things first: lockscreen + launcher

The two only things on your phone you'll probably see every day are a very important part of the software. An annoying lockscreen or launcher can ruin your entire experience. Sony didn't change much, but not all changes were for the better.

On the lockscreen the only change you'll notice right away is that where there used to be an unlock slider and a silent mode slider, the silent mode slider is now replaced with a camera slider. While I can understand a fast way to access the camera for devices without physical camera button, it feels completely out of place. It was nice to be able to quickly turn off sound in class. I don't get why Sony decided to make this change. Of course all the other good stuff is still there. Another change for the worse are the music controls. While on 2.3.7 they still showed a (static) seek bar you're now stuck with just three buttons. It also no longer shows the artist but is now limited to the song title.

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Another new thing is the ability to swipe open the notification pane from the lockscreen. You still get Facebook notifications and missed calls on the lockscreen and can swipe directly into a text you received. Of course the mandatory useless Face Unlock gimmick is present too, aside all the usual unlock methods.

Long-pressing or tapping empty space gives you this bar to edit your homescreen.

The launcher didn't change much either. The only real ICS feature it introduced is the ability to resize widgets (which works better than I expected). There are some other changes. Tapping or long-pressing empty space now gives you a subtle bar at the top which allows you to either change the theme or wallpaper, or lets you add a widget. The widgetpicker does do a very good job in my opinion, I consider this a better approach than just adding widgets to the app tray. You still can't add or remove homescreens, you're stuck with the default amount of 5.

The much improved widgetpicker

The app tray received a minor facelift too. As it's supposed to with the ICS style guidelines most controls have been moved to the top of the display. The home button to return to the homescreens has been removed, you'll now have to use the hardware back or home buttons to do that. You can still rearrange apps as you wish or sort them alphabetically, by install date or by most used first. As long as you don't have too many widgets operation is generally very smooth, better than it was on Gingerbread.

The app tray with the standard app order, which resembles how the main menu was organized on Sony Ericsson featurephones.

Walkman - what's in a name

As an early sign of what's going to happen now Sony Ericsson dropped the Ericsson the Music app has been rebranded to Walkman. Might be a good way to get people familiar with the brand again after the iPod years. The app itself didn't change all too much. The theme got a bit more Holo (no more edges, aside the album art). Don't get me wrong though, it's by far the best looking and most functional music app I've used on any smartphone, including the iPhone.

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It's the first time I've found a proper way to manage the play queue on any portable device, something I've always found extremely important. You can save your play queue as a playlist just as easily. Another rare thing is a built-in tag editor, including an automatic album art downloader (powered by Gracenote). You can even let the built-in Gracenote thingy download album art and artist images automatically, which will then fill your library artist views with nice photos, almost Zune-style. It is extremely slow though, it'll probably take about 4 hours for it to download images for all my 1300 songs, even over WiFi. Update! Left Gracenote downloading overnight, you can see on the image below how great the Artist images look, especially in landscape mode!

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Another good thing about the music player is the customization. You can add shortcuts to artists and albums to the library view to find your favourite songs even faster, or you can just use the excellent built-in search. If you prefer your sound more bassy or with more treble you can use the 5-band equalizer (plus Clear Bass, a Sony technology that works really, really well) to tune everything the way you want it to. Sony's VPT surround widens the stereo a little, but not everyone likes those things. I find the Studio setting to be quite pleasant.

The Walkman app is an excellent music player. While it isn't perfect it's easily the best I've tried. It can be extended with plugins, unfortunately plugins from 2.3.7 (like the Last.fm scrobbler) seem broken. It's a shame Sony couldn't preserve plugin compatibility.

Album, simply the best

It might be a bit early to draw a conclusion so fast, but I'm quite confident about this. The Album app is terrific. It's extremely fast, has full geotagging support, a good editor, proper DLNA, very good integration with online photos and a great interface.

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By default you browse your photos by date. You can also view photos with geotags directly on a map, or browse by folder. With a simple swipe to the left or right you can adjust the thumbnail size, and you see everything rearrange itself with wonderfully fluid animations. The editing tools include a full array of Instagram-like filters (lighting, effects and color filters) that will make any hipster happier than a hipster is allowed to be. You can even give people a "Face glow" or "Face tan", whatever those might be.

Everything is extremely fast and works very well, this is probably the best new app in the whole update, and it's something other manufacturers should take a very, very good look at.

Films - a beautiful but picky mistress

The Films app good and not good at the same time. While it's a good thing Sony decided to split up the Album and Films, it's a shame it still doesn't play all popular formats. Okay, I have to admit, it's not that bad. h264 or XviD video with AAC or MP3 audio plays fine, usually even in MKV containers, but aside that everything acts weird. MKV's with an AC3 audio track play without audio, but some MKV's don't play at all. It's a shame the app doesn't offer you to play them with DicePlayer instead, like the Gallery on 2.3.7 used to suggest.

But like I said, there are good things. It's very nice how it manages to recognize files in some magic way and fill it with nice images. Your Inception movie gets a proper image, description and list of actors, and your Mad Men episodes get grouped up nicely under a picture of Don and Joan, and upon tapping the series you get a clear episode list. No more renaming files or reading The.Walking.Dead.S01.E02.x264.obviouslypiratedcopy.[releasegroup].720p.mkv, since even those things are properly decoded into something like "The Walking Dead S01 E02", which is quite readable. It just works. Very nicely done!

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Another good thing is that all videos that play with hardware acceleration can benefit from the Bravia Engine. It doesn't do very much, but it gives videos that little bit of extra contrast, saturation and sharpness. It's useless for 720p, but works nicely for things in a lower resolution. And oh yeah, the app remembers how far along you were in each file.

The play view. You can't take screenshots of GPU-rendered video it appears.

And that brings us to another issue, this time with the Xperia S in general. The internal memory is formatted in FAT32. That wouldn't be so bad if FAT32 didn't have a 4GB file size limit. A one-hour TV episode in 720p will fit fine, but don't think about watching full movies in 720p on your Xperia S or using HDMI. They just don't fit. I can understand FAT32 if you chose to allow mass storage, but since the Xperia S only lets you access the memory through MTP, Sony could've easily formatted the internal memory in a more flexible filesystem, ext3 for example.

Conclusion: a decent app with some very good ideas, but more supported file formats are really needed. A fix for the 4GB file size limit would be nice too. In general, nothing worse than you get on another phone, but it doesn't come close to the versatility of third-party offerings.

Holo for everyone

Sony did a great thing here. They were the very first "big" manufacturer to properly embrace Holo. HTC decided to go with their usual horrible color scheme and terrible icons (and decided to leave use hardware buttons but leave out a menu key), Samsung just does whatever it wants with the cheap-looking TouchWiz as usual, and LG, well, I'm not going to bother with LG. Did they actually show a working ICS yet?

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Sony did much, much better, and they wanted to. Their new devices (GX and SX) have on-screen keys, and all their apps in ICS (for the 2012 range) is fully optimized for ICS. The menu key has been retired, or is at least ready to be replaced by a menu button in the (already present) app bar, almost everything fits nicely to the style guidelines. Button bars and tab sections have been moved to the top of the screen and have been given a touch of Holo, for example in the Alarms app. The contacts and dialer app had a smaller but still fitting adjustment. The Calendar app has been given a reskin with some new app bar buttons and the built-in email app looks better than ever, still sporting the lovely landscape preview pane. I really like the light color scheme for work apps (mail, calendar, ...), it feels very natural in a way.

Back up and restore found it's way back

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It was available on the X10, then it wasn't anymore, then it was sort-of implemented in PC Companion, but now it's finally back. A proper back up and restore application that doesn't require you rooting your phone. I haven't tested the functionality yet, but it sure looks like it is fully capable of backing up all third-party applications, along with contacts, messages, settings, alarms, notes, ... You can even save the backup directly to a USB device connected through USB on-the-go. I might finally not have to re-do all Angry Birds levels every three months when I wipe my phone!

A pleasant surprise...

When I first started up the phone, I was surprised to see this little magic wand pop up on the keyboard when I wanted to enter my WiFi password. I was even more surprised to see what functionality hid behind the magic wand! The Xperia Keyboard received many more customization options. You now have three keyboard modes: phonepad (T9 mode), Full Keyboard or the newly introduced Full Keyboard Extra (with numbers and symbols on long-press). You can choose to disable or enable the full stop (.) and comma keys, and you can disable the smiley shortcut if you're not that kind of person, all to make room for a nice and wide spacebar. There are now three color themes (white, the default two-tone and black) to choose from too, another new addition.

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But that's not the best thing. Let me remind you of how awful it usually is to switch languages on a phone keyboard. If you're lucky you can just tap a button to switch, if you're not you have to go into a menu and scroll through a list. Especially for people like me who switch between Dutch and English in almost every sentence this was usually horrible. Sony came up with a great solution. You can now select a secondary language. This means you get spelling corrections for both languages at the same time. It's something I've really, really enjoyed these past few hours, not having to worry about what language my keyboard was set to, but just being able to type in my usual mix of Dutch and English words the way I want. This is something I won't be able to live without anymore, I think, and I'm sure many more people will really enjoy this.

Notes, partially by Evernote

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Another new addition is the Notes app, made by Evernote (and syncing with your Evernote account). It's quite basic, but doesn't really need more. It can do regular text notes, you can attach audio fragments to it, you can draw 'doodles' and you can easily share notes. You do have to be careful, because only the notes you actually put in your "accountname" folder get synced with Evernote. And you can't just move a note to another account. It's a nice addition though, something that had indeed been missing from the Xperia's.

The usual ICS improvements

Of course this isn't everything, but I've chosen not to show all standard ICS features to keep the review to a reasonable length. Everything else (aside the standard ICS camera app) is included as well, and everything runs very smoothly. Android Beam works fine, the new Calendar and Gmail widgets are useful additions. I was surprised to see the difference in speed was actually this obvious.

It keeps getting better

Sony seems to be really determined to succeed this time around. With every new software update they add a ton of features, and unlike other manufacturers they actually provide already released devices with tons of new features too. If you compare the capabilities of the Xperia Arc in february 2011 with what you can do with it now, you'll notice how huge the difference is. The first months it was lacking any sort of proper timer or stopwatch, the music application was horrible, there wasn't a way to take notes, the calendar was limited and hard to use, there was no smart dialing, no panorama photos, no DLNA - want me to go on? If you see how far Sony got right now, and what they managed to add again with one single updates only three months after the release of the phone you can't do anything but be impressed. Add the extreme openness to developers (unlockable bootloaders, extra sources, loaning/gifting devices for development, clear communication, ...) and you should realize they're not as bad as some people think they are.

I hope Sony sticks with this strategy, and remains as committed to bringing updates to already released devices as they are now. It's working great so far and it could really help them get back to what they were in their 'golden years'.

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My personal verdict

I really like this update. It feels like I have a new phone that can do things no other phone can. And the best thing about that is that it's true. The Xperia S right now does things no other phone does. Sure, it doesn't have a (fake) Siri and still lacks some things, but I personally prefer the things Sony did. They delivered a coherent OS, sticking to the ICS style guidelines, and improving on it. It's actually the only version of ICS I'd prefer over the standard ROM. Why? Because it doesn't detract anything from the core ICS experience, it only improves upon it. Nothing got worse, everything got better. Not perfect, but better. All is well.

If there are any questions about Sony's ICS update at all, please, feel free to ask!

- Ambroos

Feel free to use any material/screenshot in this review, or just the complete review. You can post it on your own website, blog, whatever, as long as you don't modify anything and give credit to @AmbroosV, including the Twitter link. Thanks!