These are tough times for the Japanese technology industry, and Sharp knows that as well as most. However, smartphones are one area where the company has found domestic success of late, albeit in second place behind Apple. The Aquos Phone 104SH recently launched as SoftBank's flagship iPhone alternative, and on paper it's certainly an impressive effort — the phone has a 4.5-inch 720p LCD screen, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, and a 12-megapixel camera all encased in an 8.9mm-thin water-resistant shell. The phone also comes with Android 4.0 as standard, and when it launched was only the second in the world to do so after last year's Galaxy Nexus.
It's a long spec sheet, then, but what's as interesting as what it includes is what it leaves out. The 104SH omits many hardware features considered standard in Japan, such as NFC, infrared, and a 1seg TV tuner, in favor of a more Western-oriented feature set. Sharp hasn't yet made any move in the global high-end mobile market, but the Aquos Phone 104SH could be as good a place to start as any — would it have what it takes to stand up against the likes of Samsung and HTC? Or, like natto and AKB48, are Sharp's phones better off left in Japan?
Design & hardware
Blue and orange like a movie poster
The 104SH oozes Japanese design sensibility, from the austere front panel to the sharp corners and curved back plate similar to that of phones like the Panasonic Eluga and Sony Xperia S. The 4.5-inch display predictably dominates the front of the device with a minimal bezel, though there's space for three capacitive buttons towards the bottom. Like the Xperia S, the display is almost indistinguishable from the bezel when switched off, giving it a sleek, monolithic feel. The design is fairly conservative but doesn't come off as bland, and that's largely due to the color options: Sharp has made the phone available in black/white and blue/black models as well, but my unit comes in metallic blue with an orange trim, a combination patriotically labeled "Rising Sun" by the manufacturer. It sounds unusual, but doesn't look too gaudy — you only see a tiny sliver of orange when you're looking at the phone head-on, and the blue is dark enough not to distract. I like to see phones (and consumer electronics in general) break out of the plain black plastic paradigm, and Sharp has done so in style with the 104SH.
Business at the front, party on the sides
At 8.9mm (0.35 inches) thin and 126g (4.4 ounces), the 104SH is surprisingly airy in the hands — it's about as light and portable as I could hope for from a device with a 4.5-inch screen, and it slips nicely into slim pockets. The flipside of this is that the phone feels a little cheap in some areas, with the glossy plastic back panel picking up fingerprints and feeling like it's going to snap in two whenever I take it off. Unusually for such a thin phone, the 104SH has a removable battery and expandable microSD storage, which stops it feeling quite as solid as certain competitors. The sleep / wake and volume buttons are similarly a little flimsy, though all are easily reached with your thumb when the phone's in your left hand and your index finger when it's in your right. There aren't any other physical buttons on the device, though there is a loop just above the volume key for attaching charm straps, which is more or less an essential feature for Japanese phones. Another nice touch is the notification LED below the capacitive buttons, which as far as I can tell glows a different color based on the relevant app icons — Facebook is blue, while Asian messaging services Line and Kakao Talk are green and yellow respectively.
Inside, we're looking at the same dual-core TI OMAP 4460 CPU as found in the Galaxy Nexus (though here it's clocked to 1.5GHz rather than 1.2GHz), 1GB RAM, and 16GB of internal storage together with a 2GB microSD card as standard. What you won't find is a 1seg TV tuner, an infrared port, or any form of NFC. The former two aren't particularly missed — 1seg is little more than a battery-sucking way to watch bad terrestrial TV in 320 x 240, and infrared data transfer is becoming increasingly irrelevant even here — but the lack of NFC is genuinely puzzling. Japan has had FeliCA infrastructure in place for many years, and even most non-smartphones in the country support the feature, with millions of people using it on vending machines or train ticket gates every day. The first Japanese phone to run on Ice Cream Sandwich would seem like a perfect opportunity for Google Wallet to proliferate in the country, but it was not to be. In an interview with Keitai Watch, Sharp said that these features were left out in order to ensure that Android 4.0 was ready in time for the device's release — I'm not entirely convinced by the connection, but in any case the company says it plans to release phones with such functionality again in the future.
One perennially Japanese feature that did make it to the 104SH is water resistance, and the phone has three ratings that cover various levels of exposure to moisture and dust. IPX5 means it should be able to stand up to 12.5 liters a minute from a three-meter distance for three minutes, IPX7 allows for 1-meter submersion in lukewarm water for half an hour, and IP5X means it can withstand up to 75 micrometers of dust for eight hours. However, the manual says the certifications don't cover harsher materials like cooking oil or sand. While the dainty nature of the phone means you may not want to test your luck with any of these parameters, it should at least give some peace of mind when you need to make a call in the middle of a downpour. This functionality isn't anything special among Japanese phones, but it's unusual to see in high-end devices from elsewhere.
The 104SH's 4.5-inch 1280 x 720 LCD screen is hard to fault too harshly. The pixel density of 326 is within a few dots of the iPhone Retina display but with an extra inch of diagonal space, and it makes for a really great experience when browsing the web or watching videos. The benefits of a higher resolution screen are perhaps more keenly felt in Japan than elsewhere, too, as sharply-rendered complex kanji characters are a lot easier to read. Color reproduction is excellent, especially when set to the discrete Vivid mode which gives an amazing picture at the expense of battery life. It definitely looks best when viewed head-on, however — while colors remain true from wide angles, the contrast tends to wash out a little at extreme positions, particularly with darker images. The display's black levels are reasonably good, but don't stand out next to AMOLED technology or even the LCD found in the iPhone. Overall the 104SH's screen didn't make me want to rush out and buy an Aquos TV, but it's largely impressive and a clear selling point of the phone.
The display does have one interesting feature that I've never seen included in other manufacturers' devices before — Sharp's proprietary VeilView technology intentionally limits the viewing angles so that anyone looking from the side sees nothing but a geometric pattern, while the display remains readable to the phone's owner. It's designed to prevent prying eyes from reading over your shoulder in crowded subways, and many Japanese people buy screen protection films for their phones that includes similar functionality. Enabling VeilView significantly lowers the contrast of the display when looked at head-on, and the pattern is still slightly viewable, but it does achieve its goal of making text and images only really readable to the primary user of the phone. It could be useful in certain situations for those concerned about privacy, and it's easily switched on or off via the notification bar — a lot more convenient than constantly applying and removing an adhesive film.
Good viewing angles if you want them
Performance, battery life, reception, and audio
The 104SH is a slim phone with a removable battery that uses a higher-clocked version of the processor found in the Galaxy Nexus, a phone with notoriously mediocre battery performance itself — you'd expect pretty poor results in this area, right? Well, yes, and that's largely what you get from the undersized 1520mAh pack. The phone would drain around 30-40 percent simply by being left on overnight when I first started using it, though with judicious tweaking to certain apps' use of background data it stopped being a problem. Still, you're not going to be getting a huge amount of screen time out of the device — I tended to manage around 15 hours of light to medium use throughout a typical day and plug it in at night with about 20 percent remaining. The phone will definitely get you through the day if you're careful, but coming from an iPhone 4 as my previous daily driver I'm not used to having to worry about things like screen brightness or background data.
Thankfully, the phone is easier to power than most, charging over a Micro USB port and shipping with a dongle which makes it compatible with SoftBank's standard charger that's been used on non-smartphones for many years. Like almost all Japanese phones, the 104SH doesn't ship with a charger in the box — you're expected to already have one from your previous device. The upside of this is broad compatibility with a wide range of domestic accessories, and I found it oddly pleasing to be able to use my Mameshiba solar panel charger from three years ago again. Of course, since the battery pack is removable you can always buy a second to double the 104SH's lifespan, too, and retailers are selling them for ¥2,940 apiece (about $36.25).
Battery life's loss is speed's gain, too — the dual-core 1.5GHz TI OMAP 4460 really screams, with nary a hint of slowdown in the OS, and 3D games such as Death Rally not proving much of a test. Apps and webpages load very quickly, and actions like pinch-to-zoom and scrolling are almost always perfectly smooth. The only app that ever gave me trouble was the official Twitter client, which for some reason constantly stutters and stops like it's running out of gas. The phone does get pretty warm after using it for a while to do pretty much anything, which is perhaps not surprising given the processor's high clock speed. Its Quadrant score of 3481 places it right in the middle of the Galaxy Nexus (2,002) and the Snapdragon S4-powered HTC One S (5,141).
SoftBank markets the 104SH as an "Ultra Speed" phone, meaning that it runs on the carrier's 1.5GHz HSPA+ band which offers download speeds of up to 21 Mbps. In practice, of course, I didn't get anywhere near that, but my speeds were still pretty respectable — across Tokyo, where the 3G network's reputation with iPhone users is roughly on par with AT&T's in New York City, I usually got download speeds of around 7 or 8 Mbps. SoftBank's TD-LTE 4G network rolled out a couple of months ago, but since there aren't yet any compatible devices beyond mobile routers solid HSPA+ performance is about as good as it gets for the carrier's customers.
I didn't find voice reception to be an issue, either, and I never had any dropped calls (I'm not sure I ever have in Japan), but the situation isn't all rosy — the 104SH's earpiece speaker is pretty bad, with conversations sounding distinctly tinny. I never had any problem making out what the speaker on the other end was saying, nor they me, but it just wasn't a particularly pleasant experience. The same goes for the speaker on the back of the device, which is fairly loud but makes bass-heavy music sound like a deflating balloon.
Acceptable battery performance, with a bit of tweaking
Idiosyncratic and frequently excellent
I had some serious reservations about the camera on the 104SH before I started using it. It's got a pretty small f/2.5 lens coupled to a 12-megapixel sensor and no flash at all, which sounds like a low-light disaster if ever I've heard one. What you get in practice, though, is some really impressively detailed shots, and while the noise predictably tends to creep in when the ambient light goes down the variety of options provided by the camera software actually allows for some excellent results. Static subjects with low shutter speeds end up looking great, and you're able to adjust by changing the ISO settings. There are also onscreen sliders for exposure compensation and digital zoom, with 12 megapixels of cropping leeway making the latter function slightly less useless than it usually is on other phones.
Macro performance brings the best out of the high-resolution sensor, and save for some blown-out highlights (mitigated to some extent by a solid dynamic range correction setting) daytime shots are easily comparable to your average point-and-shoot. The lack of flash means that you probably won't find the 104SH to be of much use if you mainly use your camera to take shots of friends at karaoke, but I've rarely seen a good picture taken with a phone flash — I'm more upset about not being able to use it as a flashlight. While the lens does occasionally exhibit the unusual "pink spot" effect that we've seen recently in phones like the Lumia 900, this only seems to occur in certain lighting situations and with predominately white subjects. Overall it's a camera with a bit of a learning curve, but it's powerful and fun to use.
Like HTC's One series phones, the 104SH's camera software comes with a bunch of features such as burst shooting and slow-motion video, and some of its own like a fisheye effect and a tiltshift mode that goes some way to softening the blow of that feature's omission in the Android version of Instagram. You can record video in up to 1080p, and there's the option to step down in resolution if you want to save space. Quality is on par with almost all high-end smartphones these days — good enough to replace a Flip cam, not good enough to touch a camcorder.
The front-facing camera, meanwhile, is a disaster on all fronts. It's not just the quality, which is far worse than you'd expect from even a 1.3-megapixel sensor, but the placement — Sharp has inexplicably decided to put the camera inbetween the Menu and Home buttons, meaning that it's almost impossible to press the onscreen shutter button without obscuring the lens. Suffice to say that this is the last phone in the world you should be using if you have a Facebook album dedicated to self-portraits.
The 104SH was the second phone in the world to ship with Android 4.0 as standard, by our count, which would make Sharp's skin the first manufacturer variation to see release. It's a pretty minimal modification, happily, and actually makes a few changes that I would personally consider improvements over stock Ice Cream Sandwich.
Visually, the skin sticks to the blue, black, and white Holo theme fairly closely, with a sans serif font called Morisawa Shingo that I switched to Google's own Roboto fairly quickly. There's a new launcher that helpfully separates apps into categories instead of stock 4.0's neverending list, and the app drawer is given a new icon along with the phone, mail, browser, and recent app buttons in the dock at the bottom of the home screen. These icons all have a simple vector design that I found much more attractive than the cartoonish stock options. I appreciate that some people will only ever want a pure OS build to customize on top of, but there's something to be said for an Android experience that looks great, adds extra functionality, and works well right out of the box. While carriers like Docomo and KDDI have been notorious for leaving heavy footprints over their Android smartphones' software, SoftBank seems to prefer a lighter touch — possibly brought on by its positive experience as Japan's primary iPhone provider.
Capacitive button layout a blessing in disguise, though Google won't approve
The 104SH has capacitive buttons, so there's no system bar to be found at the bottom of the screen. If you're used to the Galaxy Nexus, you might find the layout a little jarring — the capacitive buttons are (from left to right) Menu, Home, and Back, with your recent apps accessed by a long press of Home. This might not be compliant with Google's vision of Android 4.0, but in practice it works better than a lot of phones. The legacy Menu button means that you won't run into jarring onscreen popups in apps that still require it (a major bugbear with HTC's Sense 4.0), and the lack of an ever-present system bar frees up screen space to bridge the gap with the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus.
Other useful tweaks include a host of hardware function switches in the notifications bar, the ability to add and remove home screens, and a lock screen that gives you four directions to jump straight into various apps. Bundled software is largely limited to various useless carrier and manufacturer storefronts, though there are a couple of important inclusions for the local market such as early warning earthquake alerts, a QR code reader, and an English-Japanese dictionary. In addition to the stock Gmail app you'll also be using SoftBank's own messaging application which handles both SMS and mobile email, called S! Mail by the carrier. All phones in Japan have mobile email addresses, usually ending in .ne.jp, and it's free to send and receive messages among contacts on the same network.
The default keyboard offers QWERTY, ten-key swipe input, and handwriting recognition options for Japanese, but none of these are particularly efficent for writing English, especially when switching between the two languages. I like the stock Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard fine, but constantly changing to a separate keyboard isn't very convenient in Android. The best solution I found was downloading Google's own Japanese Input beta from the Play store, which has solid QWERTY input for both English and Japanese and a persistent button for switching between the two. It's very similar to the iOS approach to both languages, but I found Google's prediction engine to be much more reliable, which is hugely important with Japanese input in particular.
One other linguistic note is that the phone comes with both English and Japanese menu support, but the English is in places hilariously bad, with some glaring typos and clearly machine-translated grammar. I've lived in Japan long enough for bizarrely mangled slogans on T-shirts and instructions in train stations not to register with me any more, but I was a little taken aback to be told that "Add current location in photo. When send photo by mail or publish on the internet to publish similarly the location." whenever I opened the camera app, for example. I ended up just using the phone in Japanese once I was sure I'd seen all the creative appliances of my native tongue.
The 104SH is an excellent performer in most regards, and would have been more than competitive had its February launch extended past the shores of Japan. Its hardware has been superseded by HTC's One X in some areas, but it comfortably bests the Galaxy Nexus on paper with its faster processor, superior camera, and pin-sharp display. Software is another issue — while I have a feeling few would take HTC's Sense 4.0 skin over Sharp's comparatively subtle implementation, the Galaxy Nexus's stock Android 4.0 build and the promise of speedy future updates will always win some over. For those not wanting to do too much under the hood, though, I think Sharp's skin is more attractive and functional from the start.
No-one ever stays on top for long in the world of high-end Android phones. The Galaxy Nexus's position as undisputed champion has arguably been taken by HTC (which in turn may well be unseated by Samsung's Galaxy S III later this month), but I submit that Sharp could have made a similarly-sized splash with a global version of the 104SH. It's sleek, fast, and by far the best Android device to ever emerge from Japan — the biggest problem is that it'll probably stay there.