Following the relatively successful Arc last year, the Xperia S has a tall order in keeping the ball rolling as Sony tries to establish itself as a serious smartphone challenger. But with competition intensifying and revenues plummeting, does it have what it takes to bring the pain to the big players? Let’s find out.
The Sony Xperia S is the Japanese giant’s first branded kit since it took over the reigns from former partner Ericsson. And it’s evident from just picking it up that this is a considerable departure from the lean, thin and not-so-mean Xperia Arc we were treated to last year.
It’s bulked up and has dispensed with the unique, albeit gimmicky, arched design of its predecessor. The result is a handset that feels much less a design wonder this time around, but also more practical.
Measuring 10.4mm in thickness, the Xperia S is noticeably meatier in the hand than most of Sony Ericsson’s recent releases. While fashion-conscious types might call that a step backwards, the added mass actually makes it more comfortable to grip than the Arc. Better still, the matte finish means it’s a lot less slippery, too, and no longer a smudge magnet.
That said, in spite of not looking anything like the Arc, there’s definitely an aura of familiarity about the Xperia S. It’s not hard to see the obvious physical traits it’s inherited from its older pre-Android cousins, boasting squarer, flatter edges and an all-round masculine look and feel that became somewhat lost in last year’s flagship release.
But perhaps the biggest design highlight of the Xperia S is the addition of a translucent LED strip at the bottom end. This glows in different colours, and can be customised to turn a different colour for a certain contact, so you’ll know instantly when someone important (or annoying) is calling.
Unfortunately, unlike on the Xperia P and U, where the strip houses the front-facing buttons as well - something that I thought was rather neat - that is not the case here, where it instead just displays the icons for them with the actual buttons placed just above. It’s not a major gripe but does take some getting used to.
Home to a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, the Xperia S might seem outnumbered and outgunned against the gang of quad core-toting kits from rivals, namely the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S3. But let’s be frank: it gets the job done.
You’ll still be able to enjoy a full and solid smartphone experience with the brawn on offer and have one of the better cameras – with a whopping 12-megapixel sensor - we’ve used on an Android phone.
Photos look brilliant on the sharp 4.3-inch display with a native 720p HD resolution and an impressive 342ppi pixel density (higher than the iPhone 4S). It’s scratch-resistant, too, and comes with Sony’s Mobile BRAVIA Engine for an excellent viewing experience.
There’s 32GB of internal storage to play with. And although there's no expandable memory, you get 50GB of cloud storage from Box.net at no extra charge, which should more suffice for your multimedia needs
Connectivity is another of the Xperia S's strong suits. It’s got HDMI, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, DLNA support, Near-field Communications (NFC) – the lot. And with NFC comes ‘SmartTags’, which are physical tags that can be programmed and touched to perform quick operations: for example, play music when you get home, or turn on alarms and the sleep mode when you go to bed.
At the time of writing, the Xperia S is still powered by the ageing Gingerbread edition of Android. Although a small number of units have received early access to the latest Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), a full-scale global rollout will take place in June.
This will bring enhanced multitasking, updated versions of several native apps and a new web browser.
Also expected when it arrives are Face Unlock and Android Beam support, plus numerous UI and performance tweaks. One of these we’re hoping will be the camera app, which is currently a little sluggish, with slow load times for high-resolution images.
Slathered on top of this is the latest TimeScape UI, which provides multiple home screens to populate with widgets and shortcuts to your favourite apps.
Speaking of apps, there are absolutely tonnes to choose from on Google Play (that’s the new name for Android Market, in case you’re wondering). There’s also an array of preinstalled Sony apps, such as Music Unlimited and Video Unlimted, although I can’t help but feel these could have been merged into one.
Ease of Use
The Xperia S is not a complicated phone. If you’ve used an Android before, you’ll be right at home here. And with Ice Cream Sandwich on the horizon, it gets even easier with the addition of a proper multitasking interface and an all-round improved user experience.
While I’m not a massive fan of bespoke Android skins, Sony’s TimeScape UI is pretty nifty and clutter-free. There’s no lag when scrolling between screens and it amalgamates your social network feeds in a single place, making it easy to stay in the loop.
There could have been fewer preinstalled apps though, especially since some of these can’t be removed without extreme measures. And it bugs me slightly that Sony decided not to use the LED strip to accommodate the buttons as it has done so on its other phones.
The Sony Xperia S is a pleasantly solid, smart bit of kit. While it won’t win many plaudits for beauty, it’s by no means unattractive. Its main strengths are in the excellent camera and a crisp display, teamed with seamless integration of Sony’s excellent multimedia offerings. If you want a decent Android phone but don't want to spend a fortune, this is as good a place to start as any.