Sony Xperia S review

4 out of 5
£430

For

Distinct design, high resolution display, good camera performance, NFC, stable

Against

No microSD card slot, battery not accessible, no Mac support for file transfer, doesn't seem to make huge steps forward

The Sony Xperia S is the flagship handset in a line-up from a newly refreshed Sony Mobile. With the Ericsson branding swept aside, Sony is striving forward with a new range of devices for 2012.

The Sony Xperia S leads the charge, but as a newly branded Sony handset, does it move on from the Android Sony Ericsson devices of 2011? Can this handset, announced at CES 2012, earn its place alongside a new line of quad-core superphones arriving in 2012? Our full Sony Xperia S review will reveal all.

Design

The highlight of the design is obviously the clear bar running through the bottom of the phone. It is mostly decorative, illuminating to display the three touch controls back, home and menu, but it also acts as the antenna and is certainly distinctive. The inclusion of such a decoration means the phone is longer than others with a 4.3-inch display. The Xperia S measures 128 x 64 x 10.6mm and weighs 144g, so it isn't the most compact either. If you're interested in packing the slimmest or lightest device, then the Sony Xperia S isn’t it.

There is also something in the design of the ill-fated Xperia X10, Sony Ericsson's first venture into Android handsets. The flat face, curved back and sheer size are responsible for that flashback to 2010, but this is a much more sophisticated device. The squared corners, the deep black of the display and the quality feel of the Xperia S hit all the right spots for us.

It is plastic, however. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does seem to lack grip. On numerous occasions the Xperia S jumped from our hand, only to be saved by our ninja-like reflexes. One contributing factor is the location of the standby button on the top.

Its placement makes it nigh-on impossible to unlock comfortably with one hand. When you're striding down the road with a chicken and bacon baguette in one hand and your phone in the other, it's an awkward stretch to hit that button. In many ways, Samsung's placement on the side is much more convenient on a large device.

With a flat bottom and flat sides, the other thing the Xperia S will do is stand up. With many phones offering curves all over, we've found ourselves standing the Xperia S on the desk next to our computer, like an Android monolith, the neat LED in the left-hand corner blinking as a notification.

Unfortunately the bodywork attracts dust, so you'll be forever wiping it clean.

Buttons, controls and connections

Aside from that rather awkward standby button, you have a volume rocker that's placed almost centrally on the right-hand side of the phone, along with the dedicated shutter button (a rare thing on Android phones) and the micro HDMI port, which lives under a flap.

The left-hand side is where you'll find the Micro-USB port, again covered by a flap. The flaps on both the ports make for a neat finish, and prevent the ingress of the pocket detritus liberally slathered over the exterior, but doesn't half make it fiddly when it comes to charging your phone. We're not sure if this flap will survive the typical 18-months of a contract, but time will tell. On the top of the phone is the 3.5mm headphone jack.

As mentioned above, three touch controls reside under the display, indicated by the clear bar. The slight oddity of these is that the clear bar, although it displays the icons, isn't touch sensitive. You have to touch the panel above the icon for the command to register. This is frustrating for the first day or so of use, but once you've adjusted to that slight oddity, it ceases to be a problem.

The hardware

Peel off the back cover of the Xperia S and you'll find a couple of surprises. Following what appears to be the latest trend in Android devices, Sony has moved to micro SIM for this device and hasn't included a microSD card slot. That means you can't expand over the 32GB of internal memory.

In practical terms, with a large internal memory storage might not be a problem, but for those moving from another device with content on a card, it means a little fiddling around to get your content on board.

Powering the Xperia S is a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm chipset and 1GB of RAM. Some might say these are last year's specs, but in real terms, the Sony Xperia S is smooth and fast in daily tasks. There is little sign of lag as you navigate around and that's the key point: it didn't struggle to perform any of the challenges we set it.

A 4.3-inch 1280 x 720 pixel resolution display sits on the front of the Xperia S. The result is a pixel density of 341, which is indeed high, higher than the iPhone 4S if you care about such things. It means the display is lovely and crisp and as Sony [Ericsson] did with the Xperia Arc, it has reduced the air gap as much as possible between the display surface and the glass.

The result is a lovely display that offers reasonable viewing angles, plenty of resolution for viewing fine detail without too much zooming and great punchy colours. The only downside of the display is that it lacks the very common and useful feature of auto brightness.

That means you have to set the brightness yourself. In the middle of the range is usually about right, but step into bright sunshine and you'll have to bump it up, watch a movie in bed at night and you'll have to crank it down. Fortunately Sony's quick settings or backlight widgets will take the pain out of making these changes.

UPDATE: We've looked at the light sensor in more detail and it does change the screen brightness, but there is no setting for it in the menus. We still don't think it is aggressive enough in altering the brightness, especially dimming, so you do need to crank it up and down manually in some circumstances.

You get all the normal wireless connectivity in the Xperia S, including NFC, which supports the Xperia SmartTags. This will let you automate a run of features, so you can place a tag next to your bed, touch your phone to it and it will switch over to bedroom mode, or whatever. It's simple and easy, and some networks will be supplying SmartTags with the phone when you buy it.

Software in the Sony zone

The departure from the Ericsson name hasn't seen a huge change in the interface of the Xperia S, which is an evolution of the familiar skin they've been putting on their Android devices for a couple of years. With each step it appears to become less oppressive, but Sony does tweak just about every facet of the phone - even if it is just to stamp its identity on things.

The Sony Xperia S launches with Android 2.3.7, which is what we have on review here, although an Ice Cream Sandwich update is promised for Q2. Once the update lands, we'll provide the details of how that changes things, but Sony will face the challenge of rival devices offering the latest OS from the off.

But that said, the default arrangement of Sony's skin isn't too far away from how Android 4.0 arranges itself. There are five home screens and a permanent favourites bar at the bottom with a central apps tray button. You can drag apps or folders on to this bar to make it simple to find what you're looking for.

Sony has an array of widgets that support the services unique to its devices. Music and Video Unlimited are available, if you want to sign-up to Sony's streaming entertainment services. This is also a PlayStation Certified device, meaning you'll be able to access and download PlayStation games to play, although as we've seen in the past, this isn't always very exciting.

You also get Timescape, which offers a tile-based view of your social updates. We've never been huge fans of the application, but the supporting friends widget is nice. Cleverly, you can allocate the friends you want to "follow" - meaning you can quickly check on your best buddies. Facebook inside Xperia means that you get Facebook details rolling into your contacts to flesh out information on people too. But there is also something of a feeling of bloat around the whole thing: Recommender, Wisepilot, TrackID, McAfee Security, duplication of clock function icons (alarm, world clock, timer, stopwatch are all the same app), another dock clock, PlayNow, friends' music and videos (extracted from social feeds), etc, all add clutter. You can rearrange the apps tray to present things in a different order if you prefer and some can be deleted, but for a while you'll be wondering what all this stuff is.

 

It's also worth keeping an eye on what things like Recommender are doing. It will head off to find things to suggest to you, all the time chewing up data, so we disabled it.

The Xperia keyboard works well enough, presenting a number of options for predictive text to accommodate your typing style. The messaging view is nice too and there is a consistency around Sony's tweaked offering. There is even included a screenshot feature accessed via the standby button, which is really useful.

Sony has provided several themes, although they are all a little dark, mostly relying on grey backgrounds with coloured highlights. This works in most cases, but feels a little oppressive in the calendar. We also found that both of our calendar accounts synced with the device were the same colour, which is irritating at best.

The lock screen doesn't offer you a huge array of features, so you can't unlock to different apps as you can on some rivals, notably HTC. However, Sony has added some notifications to the lock screen, so if you get an SMS or miss a call, you'll be able to unlock directly to read the details, very much like you can on the iPhone.

You also get music controls, allowing you to pause and skip without unlocking the phone. There is no direct unlock to camera, although a long press on the camera button will take you straight to the camera.

Camera

Camera performance is the new battleground for smartphones and the Sony Xperia S rolls out with a 12-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor, f/2.4 aperture and LED flash. It also boasts 16x digital zoom, although we'd avoid this at all costs, as the results are nasty.

The 12-megapixel headline is only really that, so don't buy this phone because it packs in more megapixels than a rival. However, Sony has put a lot of effort into the features that the camera offers.

There is a whole range of tweaks that you can play with to get better results. Focusing options include single point, touch, face detection or, our preference, multi-auto, making the focus behave very much as a compact camera would.

There are also various scene modes, which we're less excited about, as well as things like metering options, exposure compensation and various flash settings, although it is an LED unit, so doesn't perform as well as a real camera.

Focusing is relatively fast, so you can snap off shots pretty reliably. Low-light shots are marred by noise and longer exposure times which make them rather soft as is typical for a camera phone.

Distance details, too, get a little lost and mushy, but given good light, the Xperia S produces great results and the camera is nice to use. It isn't as competent as a decent compact camera, which will offer a larger sensor, better lens and flash, but it's pretty good.

There are no in-built fun features so it all is all a little serious. In this age of Hipstamatic and Instagram, we'd expect some funky filters, but there are none. You do get Sweep Panorama, however, in both 2D and 3D.

One of the highlight features that Sony is pushing is "quick launch". This lets you launch the camera and take a shot just by pressing the button on the side. You have two options (as well as being able to disable it), which is either launch and capture, or just to launch the camera.

When quick launch is used from the lock screen, it has its own shooting mode to strip out some of the other settings you might have applied. This means it can concentrate on getting the shot as quickly as possible. In doing so it switches to a central single focal point and the results are varied. It might be fast to shoot, but we've had plenty of blurred shots as a result. So, shooting fast isn't a substitute for considered composition of your shots.

Video capture is accessed via an on-screen slider, where you'll again find a run of options, including focus. In "single auto focus" the Xperia S will tweak focusing to keep things sharp, which we like. There is also a fixed and face detection setting too.

It will offer you 1080p video at 30fps with stereo sound and the results are good and easily shared via the HDMI, with a cable bundled in the box. Low-light video is naturally quite noisy but it all works well enough, resulting in acceptable footage. There is a front facing camera for all that video calling you don't do.

Music, video and browser

With Sony's heritage in entertainment, it is no surprise to find that the Xperia S comes ready to entertain out of the box. We've already mentioned the Music and Video Unlimited offering, which join the other Android music and video services. With a great screen, video playback looks fantastic and the Xperia S comes ready to stream content from and to your connected DLNA devices. If you have a DLNA TV, you'll be able to send content from your phone directly to it; you'll also be able to play movies and music from a home server, in which we found no problems.

The audio performance of the Xperia S is also good, although the bundled headphones are easily bettered, and from the music player you have access to an equaliser and various surround-sound settings to alter the audio output to your liking. It's a shame that the DNLA features aren't included in the music player. From the Videos app you can send to a connected device, but to retrieve network content you have to go into Connected Devices and that only gives you playback, without the option to download locally, so Sony could do with connecting the dots here.

Sync presents something of a problem for Mac users, as Sony has shut the door, offering their own Windows PC software and using MTP. The lack of microSD means getting content on to the phone directly can be a problem (although photos can be downloaded using Image Capture). We used Google Music to sync music, but DoubleTwist AirSync is an alternative solution; Dropbox or Box.net could be used for your movies.

The browser has been tweaked slightly too and being Android, supports Flash video, which we found to be stable, happily playing video from 4oD where some devices stuttered and failed. Otherwise we found the browser performance to be average for an Android smartphone.

And finally…

We experienced no problems with calling, which we found to come across loud and clear at both ends. The external speaker is loud and offers plenty of clarity for speakerphone calls or music sharing.

On busy days, you'll find the battery will start looking worried mid-afternoon, so average for this type of device. In normal use it will get you through a day, taking the normal precautionary measures. The battery is sealed within the handset, so you can't carry a spare.

Many Android users will pull the battery to reset their phone if it becomes unresponsive, which obviously you can't do on the Xperia S. There is a hardware reset however: hold standby and volume up for five seconds and the phone will reboot.

Verdict

It's perhaps too simplistic to slam Sony Mobile's flagship handset because it isn't running on the latest processor hardware. Device performance isn't governed simply by hardware, there's a huge dollop of software in there too, even if top-notch hardware will side step some software foibles.

The real judge of a phone should be suitability to task. The Sony Xperia S performs well on a number of levels. General performance is good, it has been stable for us to daily use, and we didn't encounter any critical flaws in performance.

Overall, with every pro there is a con with the Xperia S. The design may be distinctive, but it lacks grip. The screen is wonderfully high resolution, but the lack of microSD is annoying. Sony's interface isn't too oppressive, but launching with a promised Android update is annoying.

The Sony Xperia S is possibly the most compelling Xperia handset yet, but it could do more. It's a good phone, a pleasure to use and live with, but there is some space for improvement.