First Look: Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review

To say that Sony Ericsson had a tough year in 2010 would be an understatement. We slammed the Xperia X10 which was supposed to be their flagship device, we then went on to question the X10 mini and X10 mini pro, although they weren’t without some redeeming features. Finally we jumped on the X8. All suffered from outdated versions of Android, slightly chunky design and customisations that didn’t always work to best effect.

So Sony Ericsson needed something big, something to set their story back on the right path for 2011. The result is the Xperia Arc, also dubbed the X12 and codenamed the Anzu, and we spent some time getting to know the new handset at CES 2011 in Las Vegas.

From a design perspective, Sony Ericsson has really pulled its socks up. Compare the Arc to the bulk of last year’s phones and it looks like it's really leapt forward. It’s a sexy handset; the huge screen takes pride of place, the bezel shrinking back and pulling the buttons down to the bottom edge. Measuring  125.0 x 63.0 x 8.7mm it is one of the slimmest phones out there.

Remarkable then that Sony Ericsson has managed to cram in a 4.2-inch screen. It is fractionally smaller than the HTC Desire HD, but overall this is a device that is more manageable in the hand. There is less bulk than HTC’s super phone, but some will argue that they’d take HTC’s forged aluminium body over the plastic of the Xperia Arc. In the hand the Arc is more akin to the plastic feel of the Samsung Galaxy S, which some will accept, with its light weight of 117g, and some will simply call “plasticy”.

The controls reflect the other Xperia Android handsets, with three buttons set in a line across the bottom of the screen. These offer menu, home and back, the mainstay of the controls, with no provision for direct searching. 

For those who can remember back to the launch of the Idou at Mobile World Congress in 2009, at that time Sony Ericsson had been talking about something called “Entertainment Unlimited”. It was a slogan designed to reflect handsets that could do everything. It was to mark the decline of feature phones branded as Walkman or Cyber-shot, leveraging Sony’s brands, and usher in a new era of devices. They may have slipped and Entertainment Unlimited doesn’t seem to have been heard of since, but the Xperia Arc does step back to that idea. 

There are two major areas where Sony has applied new technologies which are likely to be a big part of the marketing drive. The first is in the screen, which now claims to boast the Mobile Bravia Engine, and the second is the camera, which features a backlit Exmor R sensor. Respectively they pick-up on the successes that Sony has enjoyed in its televisions and cameras, and brings some of that to its ailing mobile arm.

It isn’t all marketing hyperbole either. The screen is stunning and although the resolution doesn’t break away from the typical Android specs (offering you 854 x 480 pixels) it is backlit LED and the sample videos we watched on the Arc looked very good indeed.

We didn’t get the chance to take any test shots ourselves using the 8.1-megapixel camera on the back of the device, but we did see some casually shot HD video from a concert in Las Vegas. Concerts are notoriously difficult to capture on video, but the results were very impressive. Stills images also looked excellent, but we tend not to trust the supplied test shots until we’ve used the camera ourselves. The camera is supported by an LED flash, and we’re encouraged that Sony Ericsson opted for a moderated 8.1-megapixels rather than stump for something excessive like the 12-megapixel Idou.

Running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), Sony Ericsson has layered its skin over the top of this. It isn’t the best Android customisation we’ve seen and as Android has continued to tweak the native experience, we find that some of the user interfaces are a little too fussy. Still, it did seem slick and fast and offers plenty of customisation, including Sony Ericsson’s own widgets.

One of these is Timescape, an old foe we’ve encountered a few times and have never been taken with. Timescape collates your social networking and displays it as tiles. The effect itself is nice enough, but it never really takes advantage of information it collects. As previously, Timescape only offers these tiles and doesn’t let you read the information as a straight list of updates. Click on a tile and you’ll be off to the browser to access that social network, which seems a bit of a waste.

Sitting at the core of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc is a 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8255, a second generation Snapdragon chipset, and although not confirmed, we suspect it has 512MB RAM. Sony Ericsson’s biggest challenge might be convincing people that they should opt for the Arc over a new run of devices offering the Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset, such as the LG Optimus 2X.

Under the back of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc you'll find a 1500mAh battery, a microSD card slot which supports up to 32GB cards and interestingly you'll find a second mic (helpfully labelled "2nd mic") which looks to be all set for active noise cancellation.

Verdict

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc is certainly a major improvement for the company and one that we’re excited about. We’re left with first impressions of the device that are good. It seemed to be responsive enough on the occasions we played with it at CES 2011, but we can’t help wishing that Timescape had evolved a little more.

The good thing about Timescape is that you don’t have to use it and there is plenty of provision in the Android Market for alternative social networking apps. But what you are left with is a handset that looks fabulous and adds a new proposition with an enhanced camera. We’ll be looking at all these things in detail when we get the new handset in for a full review.