Review: Sony Xperia S

Sony goes without Ericsson in its first major Android phone of 2012. (April 22nd, 2012)

Sony's split with Ericsson is as much a cultural break as a corporate one, and the Xperia S on the surface reflects that. It's a showcase for the company's design and technology. But with the split just months old, has Sony's mobile team learned its lesson? Our Sony Xperia S review will decide whether Sony can hold its own, or if pressure from HTC, Samsung, and Apple is still fierce.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Sony

Price: $100 (3 yrs, Rogers), $500 (off-contract)

The Good

  • 720p display in modest size with good head-on color.
  • Distinctive design.
  • Rich camera quality in ideal conditions.
  • Fast in some situations.
  • Very good call and overall audio quality.
  • Solid battery life.
  • Some customizations are helpful.
  • 32GB of storage built-in.

The Bad

  • Not as fast or well-featured as some of its spring rivals.
  • Display viewing angles are poor.
  • Stuck on Android 2.3 at first.
  • Camera struggles in low light.
  • Timescape still somewhat excessive.
  • No expandable storage or removable battery.
  • Quirky navigation keys.

Sony's split with Ericsson is as much a cultural break as a corporate one, and the Xperia S on the surface reflects that. It's a showcase for the company's design and technology. But with the split just months old, has Sony's mobile team learned its lesson? Our Sony Xperia S review will decide whether Sony can hold its own, or if pressure from HTC, Samsung, and Apple is still fierce.

Design and the display

The Sony design aesthetic is certainly taking over the Xperia S' external looks. Gone are the swoops, curves, and shine of Sony Ericsson days. In its place, Sony has implemented an almost extremely minimalist design that's both very matte and very rectangular: it's one of the few phones we've ever seen that can stand upright without help. We're fans of the understated look, especially as it has dropped Sony Ericsson's tendency towards fake chrome and brushed metal. Some will appreciate the multi-color notification light to let you know of new messages or similar updates.

There are a handful of quirks. The surfaces are fairly smudge-prone, both front and back. It's easy to clean off, but it can mean heavy use in a given day will be all too clear when you get home. Sony's design is also rounded at the back; while it will stay flat when put down on the table, we noticed that it can rock to the side if you tap the screen with too much enthusiasm.

If there's any overt flash to the design, it's at the bottom. Sony has implemented a transparent rim around the chin that you can't help but notice. It's even slightly practical: the area briefly lights up whenever you wake it up or do something such as open a menu, which can be handy in a darkened nightclub when you're trying to find the controls.





The control layout is decidedly mixed. We like the placement of the volume rocker, and Sony has an appreciated dedicated camera button to go straight to the camera app even when the phone is locked. However, we're not fans of the sleep/wake placement, which forces you to stretch your finger or shift your hand upwards. The capacitive Android navigation keys at the bottom are occasionally problematic, too. Sony has put the symbols for the controls on the transparent strip, not the actual touch area; there are dots to indicate where you need to touch, as well as haptic (vibration) feedback, but it's slightly counterintuitive and is implemented in a way that seems occasionally unresponsive.

Expansion, thankfully, is seldom an issue. While there's no microSD slot, the Xperia S we're using ships with 32GB built-in along with 1.5GB of dedicated phone space, so it's enough to handle most common use without running dry. The lack of a slot has the upshot of giving a lot of contiguous storage for apps and media due to a file system change. You won't run into the common Android problem of having multiple gigabytes of wasted space. Only about 26GB is free due to OS overhead, but it's more than most.

Our core complaints are the ports. Micro HDMI and micro USB are located on the sides of the phone behind somewhat clumsily opened covers. As much as it helps to keep the ports free of damage, it both takes more effort to plug in and precludes any kind of real docking system. We're not as perturbed by the normally non-removable battery, in part as there are unofficial techniques to replace it if it dies. It's mostly a limit if you're a frequent user and don't want to use a USB external pack to top up.



As is becoming increasingly common, the display is the centerpiece here. Getting a 720p (720x1280) mobile display isn't new -- we've seen them in the HTC Vivid and Samsung Galaxy Nexus -- but it's one of the few under 4.5 inches, if only just at 4.3. As such, it has even more of a Retina Display-like effect than either iOS devices or larger counterparts. Sony's upcoming Xperia ion for AT&T has a 4.5-inch panel with the same resolution, so the Xperia S is in some ways beating Sony itself.

In some ways, it's very pleasing to look at. The pixel density is of course the first draw. In ideal situations, the colors have just the right balance of rich colors without being oversaturated, and is definitely better head-on than the Galaxy Nexus' slightly "fuzzy" Pentile AMOLED screen. We'd add that the 4.3-inch size is a better fit for those who like to use their phones one-handed, as it's easier to reach the top of the screen, even if the on-screen keyboard isn't quite as comfortable.





Not all is flawless, however, and we noticed a conspicuous problem with viewing angles. You only need to tilt the phone slightly for the image to start washing out, and while it's still usable, it's not as consistently good as other LCD or AMOLED panels. Sony might have brought elements of its TVs' Bravia image processing engine to the smartphone world, but the display could use some stepping up.

Android 2.3, Timescape, NFC tags, and upgrading to Android 4.0

Sony has sometimes been chastised for at times epitomizing the flaws of customized Android builds. While it toned things down with 2011 phones like the Xperia Play, some elements of its interface were still overwrought. Its social networking in its own interface layer, Timescape, was the definition of this: like most such apps, it was built on the assumption someone would only ever have a few dozen friends, and fell apart with the way people actually use Facebook or Twitter.

There have been some steps forward since then, both in the social side and overall. Now, the friends widgets are focused on either tracking just a few constant favorites or on the raw feed. Many widgets appear more centered on being functional than flash. The music player app is now more conspicuously useful with quicker (and prettier) access to common categories, and the bottom app shortcut tray is now transparent, giving more of a sense of breathing room. The app drawer is easily sorted by name or date added. Generally, we like navigating in Sony's space more than we did last year.





The most practical addition comes at the lock screen. Somewhat similar to certain Android layers and iOS 5, certain notifications now show before you've unlocked the phone; swipe an e-mail notice and it takes you directly to that app. Very few apps qualify for the notification, however, and Sony has made the somewhat odd decision to make the slide-to-unlock control's alternate function a mute function. It's admittedly a common task, but we'd like it to be a common app or a customizable space.

All these are meaningful changes, but at the same time, the overriding sense is of a few minor changes rather than a fundamental revision. Some of the customizations are still welcome, such a two-pane mail client in landscape mode and a keyboard that has Swype-like gesturing. But it feels like a mild change when the audience was looking for an overhaul, with some elements still needing a fix or not really adding anything. The photo widget isn't very useful, many of the widgets bog the phone down, and the Apple Exposť-like home screen view simply tosses all the widgets into one screen as they float around disconnected from their context. Sony ought to take a cue from HTC's One series. Pare the custom layer back, focus on where it's truly useful; don't "differentiate," just make it better or leave it alone.

There's also the concern of Android 2.3 itself. The OS is certainly solid, but it's now a year and a half old, and only slightly changed in the revisions that followed since Sony (then Sony Ericsson) started using it. Sony had promised that Android 4.0 would come out soon after the Xperia S launched, and we commend it for at least preparing an update. That said, it's hard to sympathize given that HTC is shipping its core 2012 lineup at the same time with Android 4.0 from the start. And in our experience with Android 4.0, there are fewer and fewer reasons to customize the OS as a whole; even in December, the Galaxy Nexus had more powerful e-mail clients, some extra features like Face Unlock, and overall senses of polish and power that some have said was missing in stock Android until now.





Sony's approach to NFC (near-field communication) is somewhat emblematic of this. Like LG, it's bundling a set of its own tags, here called Xperia SmartTags, to provide a sort of extra-phone shortcut. Pass the phone by one of the tags and it can trigger multiple tasks at once, akin to Motorola's Smart Actions. You can have the phone turn on Wi-Fi when you get home, for example, or launch a remote control app for a networked audio system. It can be handy, but we found it a decidedly niche way to get things done; if you're not near one of the tags, that automation is lost to you.

With the SmartTags the only real immediate use for NFC on the phone apart from a limited photo sharing feature, it's hard to advocate for NFC as a feature on the Xperia S until Android 4.0 arrives. We can count the number of times we've used Android Beam information sharing on one finger, but it's still a more universal feature, and it's joined by Google Wallet support if you're an American with either a Sprint-edition Galaxy Nexus or the or unlocked HSPA+ version. It's better that Sony have NFC than not; it's just that the SmartTags are more an attempt to justify hardware than a meaningful inclusion at this stage.

Performance and data speeds

On paper, the Xperia S is fast, and in some senses it is. A dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor still means a responsive Android overall. However, it's the previous-generation Snapdragon from late 2011, and that puts an inherent cap on its potential with a 2012 launch. You won't get the newer, 28-nanometer architecture of the similarly-clocked Snapdragon S4 in a phone like the HTC One S (or North American One X), nor will you get the faster graphics that have come in a number of mobile chips since then.







That's somewhat borne out by our testing. Android benchmarking has been criticized for its on-the-ground utility, and not without good cause, but it can show the gaps in speed between some phones. Our test units managed 3,109 points in the general-purpose Quadrant test, 1,242 in the Vellamo browser benchmark, and 59.6 frames per second in Qualcomm's own NeoCore 3D benchmark. All are respectable scores, but they put the phone only slightly above the Galaxy Nexus, which feels subjectively faster.

Compare this to the HTC One phones with the Snapdragon S4 inside, and the difference is much wider. Quadrant on a One S will manage roughly 5,000 points. We broke out the SunSpider browser test from the Vellamo suite and a fairly modest 2,681ms. That's respectable and competes well against most late 2011 Android 2.3 phones. Next to any Android 4.0 phone, though, it's plodding; an HTC One phone will get under 1,800ms even with the stock browser, and the Galaxy Nexus' code optimization helps it get under 2,000ms. We'd add that scores usually get even better when using Chrome for Android, which isn't an option on Android 2.3.

In regular use, there are fewer complaints. For simply navigating around Android and most 2D apps, the Xperia S is perfectly brisk. Apart from the widget slowdown we mentioned earlier, it's smooth throughout much of Android and in 2D apps. In the web browser and some 3D games, though, you'll notice that it's not quite as smooth as it could be. Scrolling and zooming in the stock browser is responsive, but not especially fluid. A game like Wind-Up Knight loses a small but noticeable amount of the frame rate versus other phones. These are hardly major complaints, and it's still very much a competent phone. It's just that competitors have either moved on or were faster to start with.





Internet speeds are strictly middling for the modern era. Sony is using 14.4Mbps HSPA much like the iPhone 4S, and gets similar if not slightly slower results. On a fully capable network, we were getting speeds of about 4.7Mbps to 5.3Mbps downstream, and 1.8Mbps to 2Mbps upstream. They're respectable and provide a usable Internet experience. Compared to the 21Mbps HSPA+ in the Galaxy Nexus or the LTE in the Galaxy Note, though, it's just not as quick as it ought to be for a phone released in mid-2012.

If you're American, we should add that the Xperia ion will carry LTE. Even as early-era 4G gives us worries about battery life, it's a worthwhile consideration if Internet speed is important.

Camera app and image quality

What stands out in photography on the Xperia S isn't so much the camera app itself as how quickly you can get to it. As we mentioned, the hardware camera button will skip directly to the app. It's a technique borrowed primarily from Windows Phone 7, but a welcome one if you catch a sudden moment on the street or at a concert. You can even set the phone to automatically take a picture as soon as it's woken into this state, although that for us mostly resulted in blurry photos; we set the app back to letting us compose the shot first.



Once inside, though, the app is simple and makes some unusual choices about how to reach common camera settings. If you use the camera shortcut button, it always reverts to the fully automatic scene detection mode, negating any custom settings you have set for when you normally launch the app. When in the normal mode, the only quick access to an advanced setting is exposure compensation; the top level emphasizes scene presets and multiple flash modes (more on those shortly). ISO sensitivity, metering, white balance, and other similar controls require first bringing up the contextual menu and then diving in, which seems artificially slow. While there's a risk to having too many features on the top level, it feels like Sony's current app goes a bit far in the opposite direction.

Regular shooting isn't significantly more advanced than the pre-4.0 stock Android camera app. Sony will let you set the phone to shoot when you tap, but there's no tap to focus like there is on the iPhone and a few Android phones. It's possible to do an off-center focused shot by half-pressing the shutter and panning the camera, but you can't point the Xperia S to a specific subject for focus and metering, let alone bring in autoexposure or autofocus lock like you might on an iPhone.

Despite sharing what's in some ways the same eight-megapixel, backside-illuminated CMOS sensor as the iPhone 4S, the Xperia S' image quality is much more hit-or-miss. Its specialties are macros and well-lit outdoor scenes. Colors are very accurate and vibrant, focus is reasonably quick, and close-ups produce a pleasingly soft background through a shallow depth of field. However, we found that the Xperia S' hardware was considerably less tolerant of low light, often becoming too noisy and blurry where the iPhone could still have a chance at a usable, if imperfect, photo. The front camera isn't as good, either. Shot-to-shot times are reasonably quick, although you'll want either a Galaxy Nexus or an HTC One series phone if you value speed in an Android phone.











Sony deserves some compliments for the sophistication of its flash system. Along with regular flash, options exist for a red eye-reducing flash strobe as well as a fill flash for scenes that aren't necessarily completely dark but may have undesirable shadows. We'd ideally take something like HTC's smart flash, which can tell when it needs to tone down the brightness. Still, the option is appreciated.

As you might expect from a company where cameras are a focus, panorama modes are an option. The regular mode is a typical sweep mode, where the phone is guided in an arc and the images are stitched together reasonably well as long as there isn't heavy action in the scene. An additional option lets you shoot a pseudo-3D panorama by using the rapid-fire shooting to generate a pseudo-stereoscopic 3D view, although with no 3D display on the phone and 3D displays still uncommon among TVs and PCs, it's hard to use.

Click for full-size version



Video recording quality is a surprising positive. Unlike a lot of phones in the category, it preserves a lot of the quality and still looks sharp with a minimum of artifacts, even while the camera pans. Audio isn't immune to wind noise, but it can pick up a good amount of ambient sounds without being overwhelmed. Continuous autofocus is normally rather slow, although it's possible to simplify the autofocus and metering to speed this up -- useful if you know you'll have subjects at varying distances.



If there's a limitation to video, it's simply that it tends to be fire-and-forget; that is, you're committed to whatever focus and settings you had when you started shooting. For most, it won't be an issue, but it gives few choices for mid-video composition other than zoom. We'd add that going without Android 4.0 leaves the phone without a pre-supplied video editor, so most clips will be raw, unedited footage until you get to a computer or to the YouTube web editor.

Call quality and battery life

With a few exceptions, we've generally had a good experience with phone calls on Sony Ericsson phones, and that has kept true now that Sony is going it alone. In both directions, the audio tone felt flat, but it was consistently clear and loud. Our recipients could hear wind noise when we called outside, although they still said that the voice was clearly the most prominent part of the call. The external speaker is uncharacteristically loud, too: Sony is using processing that it calls xLoud, but which really amounts to better volume when the phone isn't up to your ear or using headphones.

On that subject, we'd add that the stock in-ear headphones are uncommonly good for a pack-in set. You don't, and probably shouldn't, need xLoud to get reasonably solid voice calls or music with what Sony supplies. Multiple tips are included in the box to provide a good fit, and there's an in-line mic and remote to let you answer a call with the phone still in your pocket. One minor quirk to be aware of: Apple's in-ear headphones don't register properly for unknown reasons, so don't revert to those as a backup.



Battery life is better than we first thought, which is something of a relief given that the battery isn't normally swappable. The Xperia S will last through a full day of moderate use, with periodic browsing, 2D apps, and a substantial voice call or two. If you use it only lightly, it can last two or even three days before the battery warning cries foul. Intensive 3D gaming or photography tends to drain the battery much faster. Like with the HSPA+ edition of the Galaxy Nexus, the Xperia S would run dry in about five hours of very heavy media recording, playback, and uploading.

Wrapping up

In some ways, the Xperia S has had more expectations thrust upon it than it really deserved. Development of the phone no doubt started well before Sony said it was buying out Ericsson's stake in the Sony Ericsson joint venture, so to call it a "pure" Sony phone is a misnomer. What you mostly get with the finished product is a Sony Ericsson foundation with more conspicuous Sony elements layered on top. The real fruits of any change in strategy will be shown in 2013, if not later.

Taken by itself, the phone is generally accomplished. As much as we're not fans of Timescape, the phone performs fairly well, has a sharp display, a usually good camera, and great call quality. If you've ever wished for distinctive looks in a smartphone that doesn't come from Apple or Nokia, you'll find them here. Depending on where you go, pricing can be reasonable. It won't be hard to get the phone for free on a reasonably priced tariff if you're European. In North America, it costs a reasonable $100 on contract at Rogers and $500 off, so if you're enamored with the form factor or Sony ecosystem elements like the Sony Entertainment Network and PlayStation Suite, you won't have to reach deeply to experience it.



The main obstacle, as should have become evident, is context. Sony isn't launching the Xperia S into a void. Right away, it's facing competition from the HTC One X and (mostly in Europe) the One S. Although the Xperia S is easier to hold than the gargantuan One X, the latter has a better overall display and is mated to a much faster processor, a better camera, and most importantly, Android 4.0 with a toned down level of customization; the One S might not have the resolution, but it has the camera, speed, and software. The Galaxy Nexus is still arguably the best Android experience: a cohesive experience, the maximum number of official features, and faster software updates. And we can't overemphasize the irony of the best Sony camera sensor experience coming from an iPhone, not a Sony phone.

Some of these devices are more expensive, but it's increasingly hard to argue against small differences in up front prices. If you're paying for three years of service on Rogers, for example, the $70 more for a One X is negligible given how expensive actual service will be. Europeans may have to get a One S instead to get a good deal on a monthly rate, but we'd still seriously consider it.

As such, if there's anything Sony is a victim of, it's simply being mid-tier. We'd actually consider Xperia U, if and when it arrives in your area, as the Sony phone to get. It may not be as technically advanced, but the power-to-feature ratio makes the most sense. For now, the Xperia S is the most logical if you want a 720p screen and can find a good deal.

by Jon Fingas and Sanjiv Sathiah


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