The Sony Xperia S is the first product to emerge from the newly consolidated Sony Mobile group. Although it'll inevitably be treated as the bellwether for Sony's attempt at going it alone on the mobile front, this phone's design and development can rightfully be attributed to the former Sony Ericsson partnership. Whatever the logo at the top, the Xperia S comes with a clear mission to woo users with its dashing good looks and to keep them interested with a highly competitive spec sheet. Its 4.3-inch display has a 1280 x 720 resolution, the camera features a 12-megapixel Exmor R sensor, and beating inside is a dual-core Snapdragon heart clocked at 1.5GHz.
The one disappointment spoiling matters is that Sony is shipping the Xperia S out with the year-old Android 2.3 as the preloaded OS. An upgrade to the latest Android 4.0 software is in the works and promised for the second quarter of 2012, but your first few weeks with the new handset will be spent savoring the all too familiar taste of Gingerbread. Sony has clearly been keen to shorten the time between announcement and release, but being quick to transition from a CES headline to store shelves only matters if the Xperia S is actually worth your time and money. Read on to find out.
A black obelisk punctuated by a bar of transparency
As I alluded to in the introduction to this review, the Sony Xperia S is a seriously pulchritudinous phone. Featuring five flat sides and a curved back, it exudes simplicity, though not at the expense of distinctiveness. A transparent bar has been inserted just below the capacitive Android keys, serving the dual purpose of labeling them and simply looking otherworldly. If you look closely, you’ll also spot a fine diagonal grid inside it, which Sony tells us forms part of the Xperia S’ antenna system. Before seeing the handset in person, I was apprehensive about the see-through strip, expecting it to appear gimmicky, but it meshes well with the overall design and breaks up the monolithic aesthetic nicely. Additionally, it’s neat to see the transparent Xperia Pureness from 2009 recalled in a modern design.
The rear cover, sides, and bottom of the Xperia S all have a matte, soft-touch finish that makes them almost impervious to fingerprints. The same can’t be said of the glossy glass surface covering the front of the phone; it’s as reflective and friendly to smudges as any other current smartphone. Under that single sheet of glass, you’ll find a status LED light, a proximity sensor, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera capable of 720p video, the 4.3-inch Reality Display, and the three capacitive Android keys, which are marked by single dots. What’s really impressive about the front of the Xperia S is how black the display looks when switched off. Not being able to differentiate where the display panel starts and ends plays a big role in making the phone feel cohesive and, in a way, natural. By subduing the evidence of its technological innards, Sony makes the Xperia S feel more organic — like a black slab artifact that also turns on.
The clean aesthetic exhibited on the front is carried over to the back, where the 12-megapixel camera, LED flash, loudspeaker, and secondary mic are lined up in a neat column, maintaining an uncluttered appearance. Sony really helps itself here by omitting any overzealous branding or megapixel labeling. There’s just the Sony logo above the earpiece, a couple of subtle Xperia engravings at the bottom of the phone, and, funnily enough, the old Liquid logo that used to represent Sony Ericsson on the back.
Minimalism is also the order of the day when it comes to physical keys and other design accoutrements: you get a volume rocker and a dedicated camera key on the right, a power / lock button and a 3.5mm headphone jack up top, and flap-covered Micro USB and Micro HDMI ports on either side. Cables for both connectivity types are bundled in the box along with a headset. Speaking of the box, you may want to be careful about how you open it as the one I received came preloaded with multicolored confetti and "sherbet-filled wafers with a fruit flavor." It’s almost surprising not to find a tiny bottle of champagne to go with that party-in-a-box setup.
If we only awarded design points for looks, the Xperia S could easily walk away with full marks owing to its understated handsomeness and fine build quality. Unfortunately, a number of issues do emerge once you put it to good use. I had regular trouble getting the capacitive Android keys to react to my taps. Their position is awkward to start with — sitting too close to the display and making the distinction between pressing the Home button and opening the onscreen app drawer razor-thin — but they also seem to require more than the gentle tap that’ll satisfy capacitive buttons on most other phones. Moreover, the backlight illuminating the labels in the transparent area of the phone isn’t on permanently, habitually leaving you without any indication of which button is which. I suppose that’s the price you pay for streamlining a device’s appearance too far.
The ergonomics of the Xperia S fall short of the best we’ve seen. Though its rear is curved for a better fit in the hand, the squared-off sides and corners make it harder to handle than it perhaps needs to be. Additionally, there’s no easy way to reach the power button and start using the phone without readjusting your grip or using a second hand. Coming from a Nexus S, which makes that exact action a cinch, I find this a major pain point. The more you have to change your grip on a phone, the more chance there is of it slipping out.
A final note of disappointment on the hardware front must be raised with regard to the lack of microSD expandability or a user-replaceable battery — the fact you can remove the Xperia S’ back cover but gain access to neither feels like a cruel joke. Admittedly, 32GB of internal storage and a 1,750mAh cell should suffice for most people’s needs, but I’m at a loss as to why Sony felt compelled to limit users’ options thus. Thinness is usually the prime cause cited for dropping microSD card support and sealing in the battery, but the Xperia S isn’t the slimmest phone at 10.6mm and, looking under its cover, I’m inclined to think Sony could have done both if it were determined to do so. Also of note, the Xperia S takes the smaller Micro SIM card. Nokia and HTC are similarly moving to Micro SIMs with their latest high-end phones, which together with Apple’s support should make them the new standard before long.
You won't see any pixels, but color banding may be a bother
The Xperia S joins an exclusive but growing group of smartphones with a 720p display. So far, the major options have been the Samsung-built Galaxy Nexus, LG’s Optimus LTE / Nitro HD / Spectrum, and HTC’s Rezound, though only the Rezound has been able to offer the lofty 1280 x 720 resolution on a 4.3-inch screen like the Xperia S. All others, including Sharp’s Aquos SH-01D over in Japan, have lower pixel density due to screen sizes of 4.5 inches or above.
The most immediate impact of having such a pixel-dense (342ppi) display as on the Xperia S is that you’ll see some extremely sharp images, thanks to the individual pixels on the display melting into one cohesive canvas. That’s great news for those looking for the ultimate visual crispness, however the Xperia S has an achilles heel of a different kind: color banding. Instead of the smooth gradation you might expect between different shades of one color, the Xperia S shows distinct bands of each shade. You do have to actively look for these segmented gradients to recognize them, but they’re there and make the experience of using the phone feel less sublime than the 720p display resolution might lead you to believe.
Otherwise, color fidelity on the Xperia S’ screen is good. You do lose a lot of it as you tilt the display off-center, but that’s to be expected with a TFT LCD. That being said, viewing angles have improved from the Xperia Arc that preceded this new model. Contrast is also better, with deeper blacks complementing the screen’s darkness when switched off. Sony’s Bravia Engine software tweaks enhance the appearance of still images and video when viewed on the Xperia S, though the extent of their impact is hard to gauge. In any case, this is a good looking, pixel-rich display that should please a lot of people.
Oddly, Sony doesn’t provide an automatic brightness adjustment option, so you’ll have to manually control the display’s backlight to match your environment.
Battery life, reception, and audio
Putting the Xperia S through an intensive run of shooting photos and video, occasionally activating Bluetooth and GPS, and keeping the screen on for extended periods of time, I managed to squeeze out 11 hours of battery life from it. That was padded out by an idle period near the end where only Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter syncing was happening in the background, but it’s still a strong showing. A more conventional usage scenario, one where email, browsing, music playback, and the sporadic game take up most of the time, should see the Xperia S easily lasting through a day and beyond. The 1,750mAh battery provided seems to be a good match for the phone’s power consumption, though I still would have preferred to see it made accessible to users who may want to swap out cells. For a comparison, LG ships the Optimus LTE in Korea with two batteries in the box and a separate battery charger.
Reception on the Xperia S was consistently good, with voice call clarity being a particular highlight. People on the other end of the line all found the Xperia S sounded cleaner and more natural than the phone I’ve been using most consistently lately, Samsung’s Nexus S.
The good vibes in the sound department continue with the headset Sony bundles with the Xperia S, which is of a higher quality than the Beats Audio buds HTC is shipping with its phones these days and should serve you well for a long time. Countering HTC’s Beats Audio integration, Sony has something called an xLoud audio engine, though much like Beats it seems to just boost the sound and bass in your music without doing much to actually improve the audio quality. Hey, it’s there if you care to use it. The same goes for the loudspeaker at the back, which is distinctly average.
Great clarity on voice calls and a very respectable headset
Captures a great amount of detail, particularly in macro shots
Sony's imaging credentials hardly need introduction. This is the company responsible for making the sensors inside Nikon's lauded DSLR line as well as its own Alpha and NEX series of digital cameras. Sony knows how to take pictures. Equipping the Xperia S with a 12-megapixel mobile version of its Exmor R sensor, the company aims to maintain its sterling reputation, which was already enhanced by the 8-megapixel camera in the Xperia Arc from last year. With such a strong background, it's little surprise to find the Xperia S taking some splendidly detailed photos. I find its default processing turns out images that are a little low on contrast and occasionally saturation, but the central task of capturing a detailed scene is done very well and allows you to produce excellent results with just a little bit of extra tweaking.
The dedicated camera key can launch you straight into the camera app even while the phone is locked. Sony has tweaked its already customized app, doing away with the sliding menus of the 2011 Xperia line and aiming for a very clean and transparent UI. It works well. I particularly like how the latest captured image appears stacked atop older pictures in the bottom right corner — it's a functionally meaningless little touch, but it conveys the connection between what you just did (taking a photo) and where you might find the results (the gallery app).
You don't get a great deal of manual options with the Xperia S and you also can't tap to focus as you can on some other handsets. In lieu of that, Sony provides a two-stage camera button, a half-press of which will set the autofocus and exposure before a full press completes the image capture. The key itself is easy to find just by touch and the distinction between the two stages of travel is clearly felt under the finger. Its only downside is that it requires a firm press to capture an image, which may force you to use your second hand to steady the phone before shooting.
The LED flash, positioned immediately below the camera, works intelligently and doesn't wash out nearby subjects. Around the front, the 1.3-megapixel secondary camera is advertised as offering 720p video, but neither video nor still image quality is good enough to make it useful for anything other than video calling. Among Sony's few software inclusions is a fun panorama mode, which is extremely easy to use and does a fine job of stitching multiple images together into a coherent panorama.
On the video front, Sony keeps up with the competition by offering full 1080p HD recording at 30fps with stereo sound. The bitrate for the sample video below is the default 14Mbps. As with still images, the video captured with the Xperia S is rich on detail. It handles motion very well, allows for the use of the flash as a fill-in light, and includes its own image stabilization software. Admittedly, turning on the IS option can result in some jerky motion in your video where the algorithm doesn't quite work correctly, but the benefits of stabilizing your video will probably be worth it in the end. The autofocus can also hunt around a little bit, especially at the start of a recording, so bear that in mind. You should also be mindful of how you grip the Xperia S during video recording, as I found it very easy to cover up the microphone mounted on the bottom of the phone, muffling the captured sound in the process.
An Android life without Ice Cream Sandwich just ain't worth living
Google announced Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on October 18th, 2011, which was swiftly followed by the release of the Galaxy Nexus a month later. Today we're approaching springtime in 2012 and yet Sony is only offering Android 2.3.7 on the Xperia S. Of course, Sony isn't alone in badly lagging the official OS launch date with actual ICS hardware, but that doesn't alter the fact that the company is shipping out a product with software that's markedly inferior to something that's already on the market.
Without Android 4.0, you miss out on the Chrome for Android beta, the updated Gmail app with side-swiping between email threads, and a generally refreshed and revitalized user experience that's smoother and more cohesive than ever before. Even if you don't hate Sony's Android skin — which I don't, I actually find it clean, uncluttered and easily navigable — you have to detest the fact it persists atop Android Gingerbread. With the Galaxy Nexus now available, what possible reason could anyone have to opt for Sony's smartphone instead?
Beyond its failure to keep up to date on the OS front, Sony has also maintained the bad habit of loading bloatware onto its phones with a number of additions to your app tray, some of which are of dubious value and others don't even qualify to be called apps. The Music Unlimited "app," for example, is just a link to Sony's website, where you're encouraged to download the proper app and start paying for the privilege. Gee, thanks! On the plus side, the app drawer is lightning-fast in operation and gives you numerous sorting options plus a nice overview of the apps you can uninstall. The mission-critical Music Unlimited is not among the removable ones.
More software woes await Mac users who want to sync data back and forth with the Xperia S. I came to find the PC Companion software preloaded on the handset only works on Windows PCs. Try as I might, I couldn't get the phone to communicate with my OS X computers, whether on Snow Leopard or on Lion, and had to dust off an old desktop PC to get pictures and video off it. There's some mythical Bridge for Mac software available online, but after 20 minutes of failing to find a download link for it, I gave up and plugged the Xperia S into the Windows machine.
The software on the Xperia S is disappointing less for what it is than for what it isn't
A positive new change Sony has made with the Xperia S is the updated lockscreen notification area, where unread texts and missed calls can be opened up directly with a swipe to the right. The iconography used for these is visually appealing and immediately recognizable. Also good is the onscreen keyboard, which has well spaced keys and Swype-like word tracing functionality. It's not perfect, however, and one of its biggest problems is the choice to frame the space bar with an emoticon menu launcher and a link to keyboard settings instead of the more conventional, logical, and often used comma and period. You can bring up this keyboard to search the phone and the web by holding down the Menu capacitive key.
Sony's making a big deal of the Xperia S' NFC chip and the ability to control the phone's behavior using so-called SmartTags. A menu on the phone provides options for toggling common settings like Bluetooth, GPS, alert volume, or data roaming, as well as the ability to preset apps to launch when a given tag is recognized. Thus, you can have customized profiles for when you're in the office, at home, or in the car, all of which can be activated with a simple tap of the relevant tag. Unfortunately, the tags don't work in a binary fashion — they don't disable all the setting changes they've made upon a second tap, leaving you having to manually reset things when you're finished driving, working, or lounging on the couch.
That's only one of their limitations, however — the broader issue is that compelling applications of NFC technology need to be provided by third parties, not by Sony or by the smartphone user. You can perhaps arrange a smattering of NFC tags for every room in your house, but what happens when you stray to new locales, do you have to bring more tags with you?
A much handier bit of automation comes from another menu item on the Xperia S, which allows you to preset apps to launch when a certain accessory is plugged in. Much like Motorola's Smart Actions, the best application of this functionality is to set the music app to start up when plugging in a set of headphones. It's the sort of thing you'll activate once, then forget you ever did it until you pick up a new phone and start wondering why it doesn't do the same thing. It's a neat and useful trick.
The PlayStation Certified status of the Xperia S may be lauded by the phone's maker, but in practice it's near-enough meaningless. The PlayStation app preloaded on the phone is actually the companion application that's been available for a long time and there's no PlayStation Suite to be found. Not that I felt terribly deprived, considering how limited the portfolio of PS Certified-exclusive games remains: it's only a small selection of PS One classics, the best of which is probably Syphon Filter. Installing more conventional Android games like Fruit Ninja showed off some very smooth frame rates from the Xperia S, so you can keep playing those until Sony gets its mobile gaming strategy in order.
Overall, the software on the Xperia S is disappointing less for what it is than for what it isn't. The user interface moves along as swiftly as we've yet seen on any Xperia phone, while Sony's skin remains among the better examples of how to customize Android without tarnishing its usability (too much). Unfortunately for Sony, the Xperia S can't be assessed in isolation, and once you factor in the eminently better user experience on the Galaxy Nexus and near-certainty of a better upgrade path for future updates, it becomes obvious that the Xperia S is not a competitive new smartphone.
It's not thinner, faster, stronger, or in any other way better than the pack
Ultimately, as forgiving as you may choose to be about the lack of Ice Cream Sandwich, there's no getting around the fact that the Xperia S is the sort of phone Sony (Ericsson) could have released three months ago. It has the same dual-core processor, the same display characteristics, and the same operating system as the HTC Rezound, which went on sale in the US in November. While HTC has already announced an upgrade to the Rezound in the form of the new HTC One X — with a faster processor and Android 4.0 preloaded — Sony seems content to sprinkle confetti atop hardware rapidly slipping from the top of the pile.
The Xperia S offers the best user experience we've yet seen on a Sony Android phone, but that in itself is not enough. Upcoming devices like the One X, LG Optimus 4X, and Samsung Galaxy S III threaten to obviate the Xperia S' existence before it's truly gotten started, while the currently available Galaxy Nexus shows it up in the usability stakes. The Xperia S isn't a bad phone, it's just not particularly good at any one thing. I find this disappointing because Sony's brand ethos has always been about conquering the heights of technology, not settling for a moderately good device in the middle of the pack. Judged by the company's own lofty standards, then, a flagship phone that fails to at least momentarily claim the title of best-in-class has to be considered a failure.