Review: Sony Xperia S
The Xperia S is not only the first Sony branded device but it is also the device that Sony hopes will revive the company’s relevance in the smartphone space. Kaz Hirai has already pointed out mobile is going to be a key area of focus for the company and Sony smartphones will be backed up with content and services owned by Sony Corporation. In our first impressions, we pointed out some positives and negatives of the device, but we took it around for a longer drive. Read on to find out if the Xperia S has what it takes to stand against the likes of the iPhone 4S, HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S II.
In my first impressions post I highlighted that the Xperia S had a very languid and understated industrial design. That does not change. There are no two ways about it. The Xperia S is an absolute visual treat. While saying this, I must also highlight that the design is inherently Sony. The device marries elements with the monolithic design language of the BRAVIA HDTVs and matches the fascia with a unique edgy shape. Adding to the unique flavor of the design we have the ‘Transparent Element’ adding a bit of Tron like visual brilliance.
The idea behind the ‘transparent element’ is not only to add a bit of panache to the visual aspect of the device but also accommodate the antenna of the device. This is where the user gets to see the markings of Android keys. However, these are not buttons as the actual buttons are housed a notch above the transparent element highlighted with three dots for back, home and menu. There is an obvious flaw in this design as the user gets lulled into tapping the transparent element for control of the device when the actual buttons are slightly above.
Moving away from the fascia and the much talked about transparent element, the front is also home to a 1.3-megapixel front facing camera and a suite of sensors alongside the iconic ‘Sony’ logo on the top. The rear of the device is slightly convex which makes it very comfortable to hold. Adding to the user comfort is the use of a very premium looking soft-touch/matte finish plastic cover. Previously, Samsung has been hammered for its use of wafer thin plastic elements in the Galaxy S II, well Sony has gone ahead and pulled a similar thing with the Xperia S. The plastic back is as thin has the Galaxy S II, however due to a more premium finish the slenderness of the cover gets masked.
The back is also home to the 12-megapixel camera and the former ORB like logo from the Sony Ericsson brand lineage. Looks like Sony Mobile Communications will retain the same logo. Sony claims the device has a special coating, which protects from scratches, however in my testing I found out that the device got scratched very easily. My year old Galaxy S II has less scratches than the Xperia S which I have been using for the past two weeks.
In this day and age of anorexic smartphones the Sony Xperia S comes off as a fat lady. That’s not a bad thing. With dimensions of 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm and a weight of 144 grams the Xperia S boasts of a very solid form factor, however the sharp edges hinder comfortable handling of the device over long periods. I wish Sony had shaved off the sharpness a wee bit to enhance user comfort.
The left hand side of the device houses the charging/micro USB port, which is hidden via a plastic door. The right hand side also houses a similar door for the mini HDMI port and also houses the volume rockers and the camera shutter button. Yes, the Xperia S has a camera shutter hardware key. It’s about time that Android OEMs start doing this, but for Sony this is routine as it has always equipped its smartphones with camera shutter buttons. Coming back to the doors for ports, I must say Sony could have done a better job with the plastics as the these doors are not only irritating to pull out, but also extremely flimsy and can fall off anytime very much like the Nokia Lumia 800. Apart from this, the top end of the device houses the 3.5mm jack and the power button while the bottom end houses the speaker grill.
In terms of spec sheet firepower the Xperia S is no slouch but it is a tad behind the curve if one compares it to the quad-core slickness of the HTC One X. The guts of the device are powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor, which gets an additional boost with 1GB of RAM and 32GB of internal memory. Weirdly, only 25GB of this memory was available to the user.
Also on board is a 4.3-inch TFT LCD display with resolution of 1280×720 pixels, along with the additional BRAVIA engine technology while viewing videos and photos. All this converts into 343 pixels per inch, a number higher than the iPhone 4/4S. What does this mean for the user? For starters, immensely sharp and crisp text. Secondly, generally users will find the device to be very useful for video and general viewing of photos.
As the display is a TFT LCD, the viewing angles are not outstanding and the HTC One X blows away the Xperia S in terms of legibility under direct sunlight. One thing that offsets the user experience while using the Xperia S is the unnatural color reproduction. This could perhaps be a side effect of the BRAVIA engine. In fact, some Xperia S users of also reported a yellow display issue, but in my testing I faced no such issues. Weirdly, there is no way to set up automatic adjustment of the brightness of the device. Users can only manually set a brightness level.
Overall, I believe the Xperia S does indeed boast of fantastic display technology, but it’s just not the best out there in the market. The HTC One X and the iPhone 4/4S both posses better display technology, but the Xperia S is not far behind. Most will not even notice the difference, but if you’re the picky type then chose either the iPhone 4 or the HTC One X.
Software is where things start to fall apart for the Xperia S. In a nutshell, Sony has shipped its latest hero device with outdated software that was released way back in December 2010. There is no reason why the Xperia S should not come with Android 4.0 ICS right out of the box. Sony is promising the update is just around the corner but it was not out by the time of filing this review.
With Gingerbread running at its heart, the Xperia S starts off with a massive disadvantage especially when the HTC One X already ships with it and to make things worst even the HTC One V ships with it and that’s a lower tier device.
The good news is that Sony’s proprietary Timescape UI is basically a lightweight Gingerbread skin that does not tinker around a lot with the core Gingerbread experience. For starters, the Sony overlay adds a much-needed visual gleam to the Android 2.3 user interface. We get a number of Xperia live wallpapers that are coupled with a theme. Of course, there is the usual array of Sony widgets such as the ‘Timescape’ social feed that integrates Twitter, Facebook and other feeds. Most OEMs bundle similar social media aggregators and frankly there is nothing new out here.
Sony has customized the entire music player UI. Users get a visually expansive coverflow like view of their album art and the core UI is bifurcated between playing tracks and My Music. Sony has armed the device with its xLOUD audio technology, however just like Beats Audio on HTC devices, it acts like a massive bass boost. Yes, the low end definitely sounds clearer but also the overall mix gets oversaturated with the bass and the over sound of the song loses sonic fidelity.
While HTC partnered with Dropbox to integrate 25GB of online storage space in its One series of smartphones, Sony has raised the stakes with 50GB of storage courtesy Box on the Xperia S. This obviously is very handy. Other than this, Sony loads a pile of bloatware on the device. There are a number of useless icons in the app drawer, which are not apps but links for paid services like Music Unlimited. No thanks!
Then there is the Tracker ID app, which basically is a poor man’s Shazam. Sony also bundles an Office Suite, which also acts like a file manager. The office suite handles most Microsoft Office file formats but has problems deciphering some Excel formulas.
With the Xperia S, Sony is making a huge deal of NFC functionality. Sony says that it will bundle two smart tags, which will connect via NFC and allow the user to set up custom profiles. I could not test this feature as my review unit came without the smart tags. Frankly, this is not a major feature and its existence will not be a deal maker for most users.
As far as power management goes the Xperia S, which allows users to disable features of the phone at a pre-determined charge level, which also can be customized by the user. This feature is very similar to Smart Actions found on the Motorola devices and it helps users to coax out more juice out of the battery.
The keyboard on the Xperia S was a disappointment. The auto correct was not as sharp as the one found on the Galaxy S II and the size of the keys was a tad small for my taste. I found the Galaxy S II to have a better stock keyboard. Having said that, one of the beauties of Android is the ability to customize the experience and one can easily download a superior third party keyboard in the vain of the SwiftKey keyboard for Android.
Shocking as it may sound, the Xperia S does not come preloaded with the PlayStation Suite, however Sony is saying that the device will receive it in a form of an update. Talking of updates, the device demands the user to hook it up with a PC or a Mac. Over the Air updates are not available on the Xperia S.
On the whole I feel, the software experience offered on the Xperia S is very impressive considering the existence of Gingerbread, but at the same time I cannot help thinking how much better it could have been with Ice Cream Sandwich. More so I believe it is absolutely criminal that in 2012 we are getting a hero smartphone with software released in 2010.
Generally, I found the Xperia S to be an exemplary performer. It is among the best Gingerbread experiences I’ve ever had, perhaps even the best including the Galaxy S II by a notch. I found the UI to be pretty stable and fluid, but often I would endure the odd frozen screen or two. But apart from that I did not find much to complain about.
The device handled games like Shadowgun admirably, but here is where the hardware advantage of the Tegra 3 devices became apparent, as devices like the HTC One X would show detailed shading effects something that’s not possible on the older 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S3 chipset.
Sony made a real big deal about its 12-megapixel camera. In my opinion the camera performed pretty well but I found the performance a notch below the HTC One X and the iPhone 4S. One would have thought the 12-megapixel camera on Xperia S will be among the best Android shooters in the market, however that’s not the case. The color reproduction in images is slightly dodgy and the level of noise in images is higher than the competition. Sony has added a 3D panorama mode to the Xperia S, which adds a fun element to the imaging experience. For video though, Sony has done a very good job. The device reproduced smooth 1080p videos and handled motion very confidently.
Web browsing wise the Xperia S was an impressive performer. Pinch to zoom was smooth and general load time of web pages was very fast.Battery life of the Xperia S was quite impressive. The phone lasted a whole day on a regular basis while I was incessantly using the phone for calls, and also using a lot of 3G for browsing the web and for e-mail. Call quality was also very good. I managed to get clear call signals even in my basement. General speakerphone volume was also quite loud. I found it to be slightly louder than the Galaxy S II.
At Rs 32,549 I cannot recommend the Sony Xperia S. The device does many things well, but frankly there is not even a single feature it can claim to be the best. For me its not enough of an upgrade over say a device like the Samsung Galaxy S II. Apart from this, the fact that it ships with Gingerbread is not ignorable. If one has the extra cash then one would do better to opt for the HTC One X, which admittedly costs the extra Rs 5,000 but gives a better display, faster processor and runs on Android ICS. Or one can hit the other extreme and pick up the Motorola Atrix 2 instead, which gives similar features (better specs than the Galaxy S II but slightly inferior display and camera than the Xperia S) but is a cool Rs 10,000 cheaper. I would recommend the Xperia S once the price comes down to the sub-Rs 30,000 level and it gets Android ICS update.