Sony is a unique company among Android manufacturers. This giant conglomerate has businesses in all the right areas - entertainment, TVs, digital imaging, gaming - the sum of which could turn into a formidable ecosystem that only few could rival. The prospect of this integration is why we were so glad to hear that Sony was taking over its joint venture, Sony Ericsson. A few months ago, Sony bought Ericsson's share in the joint venture to gain full control of its mobile destiny.
Sony Xperia S is our first look at a 'Sony' smartphone. What is the phone like? How does the phone perform? Does Sony have an ecosystem? All will be answered in this review. Click below to jump into it.
My first impression of the Xperia S was that it’s pretty enough to be a fashion accessory. Though it doesn’t stray too far from the standard black-slab-look of modern smartphones, Xperia S manages to look more refined than other smartphones on the market. The combination of minimal front, transparent plastic bar on the bottom, and curved back results in quite an irresistible design.
The 4.3-inch display takes up most of the screen, held up by three capacitive Android buttons (back, home, menu) and the transparent bar below it. Like light-up Android buttons in other Android devices, the Xperia S’s transparent bar lights up when Android buttons are in use. I found it odd that the capacitive buttons are actually above the transparent bar, even though the button symbols are printed on the transparent bar. In most touchscreen operation, you have direct contact with the object you wish to manipulate. In the case of Xperia S buttons, however, you are touching slightly above where button symbols are. This is a bit counterintuitive, but you’ll get used to it after a few days. Though it doesn’t serve a specific function, the transparent bar is still aesthetically pleasing.
Power button, headset jack, volume rocker, USB port, and 2-step camera button are all found around the rim of the device. There is a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and a 12-megapixel camera on the back with a single LED flash. Back cover can be removed to reveal a SIM card slot, but the battery cannot be replaced. It seems a bit odd to have a whole removable cover for just the SIM card.
Much to my surprise, the headphone jack gave me some trouble when I was testing out the Xperia S for music. While most 3.5mm headphones worked well with the phone, certain headphones with 3-striped plugs - ones with remote and/or microphone - did not work with the Xperia S. It was reported that Sony had changed the headphone jack standard for the Xperia line-up to increase compatibility with third party headphones, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. It's a shame that Sony has managed to turn the simple headset jack into a proprietary plug that only works with certain headsets.
Aside from the headset jack issue, the hardware of the Xperia S deserves a high mark. The Xperia S manages to stand out in the crowd of smartphones that look just too similar to each other.
The Xperia S runs on Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread (Ice Cream Sandwich update is coming in June) with Sony's custom Xperia skin on top of it. Sony's Xperia skin is one of the best Android skins I've seen, because it is so lightweight. Some Android skins tend to come with pesky background processes that slow down the phone, but you'll find none of that nonsense here.
The Xperia skin has some interesting features. When you pinch out the homescreen, widgets in all homescreens start flowing on the screen, and you can even shake the phone to make the widgets shuffle. This gesture is not only fun to use, but also makes more sense than the helicopter view of tiny homescreens in other Android skins. Instead of squinting at little homescreens, you can get to your favorite widget right away.
Another great feature in the Xperia skin is the TimeScape widget. This widget provides a glance-able stream of all of your feeds, such as YouTube, Google Reader, Facebook, and Twitter. The widget can be expanded with additional plug-ins for different feeds, so it is great for people who want their information in one stream. TimeScape has been a part of Xperia line-up of phones since the Xperia X10 (first Android phone from Sony Ericsson), and Sony has really refined this widget to make it responsive and elegant.
The Xperia S is a PlayStation-certified phone, so it comes downloadable PS One games. The games are a little too expensive - $5.99 a pop - but it is still great to be reunited with some of the hits from the PS One era. Touch screen controls work fairly well on the touch screen, although they are not as good as physical gamepad buttons on the Xperia Play. I tried out Wipeout, and the controls were manageable. There are about a dozen games available on the PS One store for the Xperia S.
Sony included its own music and video stores on the Xperia S - Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited. These two apps provide simple ways of buying content right on the device that you can consume across other Sony devices. Selection of movies on Video Unlimited is great, and there are more recent movies in the store than on the Google Play Store.
The display on the Xperia S is one of the best mobile displays I’ve ever seen. Measuring 4.3-inches at 1280x720 resolution, the pixel density clocks in at 342ppi. This is higher than the iPhone’s 326ppi. Texts look razor sharp and photos look great on the screen.
The Xperia S also has a feature called the Mobile Bravia Engine. Sony makes the Bravia line-up of TVs, known for dynamic and sharp picture quality, and they’ve ported the Bravia technology into their smartphones. The Mobile Bravia Engine essentially boosts saturation and contrast on the display to make pictures and videos look lively, and it’s pleasing to look at for the most part. It is turned on by default, but you can turn it off if you want the untouched look at your photos and videos.
The Xperia S has a 12 megapixel camera with a f/2.4 aperture, and some of the features found in Cybershot and Alpha cameras can be found on the Xperia S camera app. In still camera mode, Xperia S figures out an appropriate ‘scene’ mode that takes the best looking photo in the given situation. The camera was able to automatically adjust white balance, shutter speed, aperture, and other settings to get the best photo in most settings.
You can also enable Face detection and Smile detection features in the camera to automate capturing faces of your friends. There are panorama mode and 3D panorama mode where you can sweep the phone to take perfect panorama pictures. Video mode is very impressive as well. It captures full 1080p HD videos at 14 megabits per second, which almost matches quality of HD videos from current point and shoots. The Xperia S easily has the most advanced camera in a smartphone I’ve ever used.
The Xperia S has a very good battery life. I was able to squeeze two days of usage on the Xperia S with push email turned on and constantly fetching data from my feeds. In voice call test, the Xperia S was able to hold its juice for 7 and a half hours, which is on par with the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S II. Some may not be happy with the sealed battery, but two day battery life should be adequate for most.
The Xperia S scores lower than the Galaxy Nexus and higher than the Nexus S on the Quadrant Standard benchmark test. I imagine that after the Ice Cream Sandwich update Xperia S would score higher than the Galaxy Nexus. Regardless of the score, the Xperia S feels really snappy to use. The dual-core 1.5GHz processor does a good job of handling the tasks thrown at it, and I saw no signs of slowdown while using the phone.
The Xperia S is a very appealing smartphone. It is designed beautifully, offers exclusive Sony content, has a really great camera, and generally works well. I am very glad to see the Sony has integrated all of its parts to make its smartphone experience satisfying and enjoyable to use. Sony’s ecosystem is now looking like the most appealing ecosystem amongst choices in the world of Android.
Sony did take some things to far, namely the odd headphone jack and the sluggish media syncing software you must use to transfer files to/from the Xperia S. I hope these Sony quirks will be gone in future Xperia smartphones. For now, however, the Xperia S is a great choice. 3.5 enjoyment balloons out of 4 - highly recommended!
UPDATE: YouTube user mailtsauce informed us about a workaround for the headphone jack issue:
My headphones has the 3 stripes, it didn't work until I held down the volume+ button, whilst plugging in the headphones into the jack, and then it works (if it still doesn't work, do the same thing, except press the play button prior to lifting your finger off the volume+ button). Try it.