As the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X churn out mind boggling form factors and spec sheet pyrotechnics like a quad-core processors for the high-end of the market, the dual-core powered devices now seem to be relegated to the mid-range to the lower end of the market.
Sure, a best seller like the Galaxy S II might still command over Rs 25,000, but that does not mean consumers cannot have a slice of dual-core Android goodness at a lower price point. The market is flooding with such devices. There is the Motorola Atrix 2, LG Optimus 2X, Samsung Galaxy S Advance, Galaxy R, Galaxy Ace Plus, Sony Xperia U, and Sony Xperia Sola.
The Xperia Sola notably is perhaps the most unique device in the whole segment as it boasts of a dual-core engine and also has a rather mysterious floating touch display, where the company claims that one can actually use the device without actually touching the display. Price wise also, it is set right at mid-point of the whole segment and size wise, it adheres to a rather reasonable form factor, eschewing the absurdity of 4.5-inch plus displays. Let’s see if the Xperia Sola has the chops to win our hearts. Read on for more.
Right from the beginning, the Xperia Sola drops the monolithic design language of the Xperia NXT devices launched earlier this year at MWC, and opts for a more traditional candy bar form factor. So, gone is the transparent element, gone is the monolithic stance and what we get is a rather sterile but functional design.
Unlike most OEMs out there, Sony graciously uses high quality materials in the construction of the Sola. Sony uses decent quality plastics in conjunction with a rubberized finish, which lends the Sola an impressive tactile feel when one uses the device. Additionally, the back, where Sony employs the rubberized finish, does not look overly cheap like some of the Samsung Galaxy series of smartphones, which tend to tread on shady grounds with either an overly glossy finish or a cheap mesh like finish on the Galaxy S II. The rubberized matte finish on the Sola may not look impressive, but it definitely is more premium than say a Samsung and at the same time offers great ergonomics.
In this day and age of full touch devices, there is not much scope for innovation in terms of the visual appearance of the face of the device. The Sola is not an exception and puts the 3.7-inch TFT display to the fore. Below the display, one can find the center home key, which is flanked by a back key and a menu key on either side. Above the display, one can find the standard suite of sensors including the ambient light sensor; however the device does not have a front facing camera, which is a downer.
Sony has oddly decided to place the power key on the left side of the device, which is an ergonomics disaster for most right-handed users. In our humble opinion, Samsung’s implementation of the power button on the right hand side is the optimal choice, however if the device is not too large then the standard top placement also works, but the left side positioning is a strict no-no. Some argue that the an index finger naturally sits over the key on the left hand side, but in our experience we found out that it resulted in many accidental presses and often we found ourselves searching for the button either on the top or the right hand side.
Besides this, the 3.5-mm jack is placed on the top of the device; the microUSB port is on the rich hand side along with the volume keys (Which are traditionally on the left) along with a decidedly horrendous camera shutter button, which is rigid and not very “click” friendly.
Overall, Sony has kept the design pretty minimalistic, but the one design flourish the company has tried on the Sola is a protruding extension of the form factor on top of which the display is placed. Sony uses this area to highlight the Xperia branding, but from far away it gives the impression that the device hides a slide out keyboard.
The backside houses the battery, the 5-megapixel camera and flash unit. And for those who worry about heft, we can allay any fears as the device is rather nimble at 9.9mm thickness and is quite a featherweight weighing in only 107 grams. Due to the form factor and size of the device, in hand feel could be described as iPhone like, minus the fact that the Sola feels way more solid and assuring with its rubberized warm exterior, in contrast to the frigid beauty of the iPhone, which is decidedly more fragile.
The Xperia Sola is not targeted at the high-end consumer, but rather is aimed at a person who demands a level of sophistication and speed, but at a much more tenable price point. And keeping in with such constraints, Sony has armed the Sola with ST-Ericsson NovaThor dual-core processor clocked at 1GHz, which by the way also powers the Xperia U and the Xperia P and the Samsung’s Galaxy Beam. Sony adds 512MB of RAM, which should be more than enough for most users.
As far as the display is concerned, the 3.7-inch display provides an impressive resolution of 854×480 pixels, which means one will not notice any jagged edges while reading a lot of text. The crispness is obviously not up there with an iPhone 4S, but it is pretty impressive for a device of this class. The whites tend to appear washed out and viewing angles are admittedly not very impressive and generally the colors just don’t pop out like on a Super AMOLED display on a Samsung but then it is just about sufficient for a regular user.
The story of Android can be described in one word. Fragmentation. Android’s popularity spawns not only out of its free open nature, but the excess of freedom, which inhibits timely OS updates. The Xperia Sola is another product that is born out of this flawed, yet successful ecosystem. The device runs a version of Android released in December 2010, which is Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Sony only recently started rolling out the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update to its 2011, Xperia devices, so one would have thought that it would ship the newer phones with the latest OS, but that was not to be. To their credit, Sony has been one of the first major OEMs to offer an upgrade path and it has said that the Sola will receive an update to ICS soon.
Till one hangs around for the update to ICS, one will experience a lightly skinned version of Android 2.3 with Sony’s TimeScape UI running on top. We found Sony’s rather light customization of the OS to our liking, something we had noted in our review of the Xperia S. Other than a multitude of widgets, a slight retooling of the icons and a few Sony specific themes, there is not a lot more to be found out here.
One place where the Sony customizations come in handy is in the Music player. Sony has crafted a beautiful carrousel like UI which segregates into two panes, one for the music being played, the other for the entire library featuring further organizational segregation. Sony like its competitors (HTC- Beats Audio) likes to throw into marketing terms like X-Loud. While in real world usage, both are pretty useless as the sound produced using these features is often colored and not natural, but to Sony’s credit XLoud does not act like a glorified bass boost like Beats Audio on the HTC devices. In fact, it offers pretty comprehensive EQ options and a number of other pre-sets for different genres of music. The device also has 8GB of onboard storage along with a microSD card.
Sony also preloads its TimeScape social aggregation widget, which is not very intuitive to use as the information is displayed with an image as backdrop, hence greatly reducing legibility of the content. Apart from this, Sony adheres to it penchant of adding bloatware, and we get a number of Sony apps that offer nothing substantial to the end user. Classic examples of this are the Music Unlimited, which is a glorified link for signing up to paid service and TrackerID, which is a poor mans Shazam. That said, Sony also slips in some handy apps like a complete MS Office Suite.
The Xperia Sola has preloaded a Tags application and alongside this the company provides two NFC tags in the package. Using these tags one can configure some functions of the device and turn them on and off through a singular tap with the device. This comes in handy when one needs to pre assign some functions and access them quickly. For instance, we guys often login to www.BGR.in so we configured a smart tag with the URL.
Another technology that is being promoted is the floating touch display. The motive behind this technology is that the user can actually tap on web links inside the browser, which are normally pretty small on a smartphone without touching the display. In our experience it was a hit or miss affair. Until Sony really refines this technology, we doubt that consumers will flock in lines to buy a device armed with this technology.
After breaking the dual-core barrier, one thing is for sure, Android phones become a hell a lot more usable and one does not face a laggy UI and generally multitasking becomes a breeze as slowdowns become rare. The same holds true for the Xperia Sola, which is powered by a ST-Ericsson NovaThor processor clocked at 1GHz with 512MB of RAM. In our testing, the device did not break a sweat in general day-to-day usage, which involved a number of apps being open incessantly. The performance of the device was right up there with the Samsung Galaxy S II.
During our usage, we used TweetCaster Pro, Gmail, Whats App, Pulse, Dolphin Browser HD, Roland Garros, a weather widget, Gtalk, Facebook, the Music player occasionally, and sporadic use of the video player. For these tasks, the Xperia Sola was sufficiently fast. In fact, we would argue that most people will not need a quad-core chip, unless of course one needs bragging rights.
We ran benchmarks like Quadrant and Vellemo and the results more or less matched that of other dual core devices like the LG Optimus 2x. The results fell short of the Galaxy S II, but the in real world the gulf in performance was negligible. The camera on the Xperia Sola performed pretty well, but the images in low-light conditions turned out to be extremely noisy. Sony offers a number of options to tweak images in the camera interface and other features like sweep panorama adds to the device’s photography skills. In addition to this, the device has the capability to shoot video in 720p. In our tests, the results were quite patchy, but for a device at this price point we guess one can’t ask for more. We would also like to point out the dedicated camera shutter button, which is rigid and makes clicking photographs a tedious exercise.
The Xperia Sola showed a penchant for dropping calls repeatedly. Sony sent us a second review unit, which did not drop calls as frequently as the first unit but the general call quality still was not up to the mark. We found the network reception on the Xperia Sola to be poorer than that of the Nokia Lumia 800, Samsung Galaxy S III and many other popular smartphones. Other than that, battery life of the device was pretty average. The 1320 mAh battery easily coasted through the day, but we noticed with excessive use of 3G networks the device would die out in less than 12 hours, which can be irksome for someone on the go. That’s not to say the device delivered poor battery life, it just did not dazzle us.
If one can ignore a few idiosyncrasies, the Xperia Sola grows on the user. It has a form factor that is immensely pocketable and is at the same time ideal for one-handed use. It also packs enough firepower under the hood that the user will rarely demand more power. Plus, it is also a pretty good-looking device and is rather affordable only to be pipped by its younger sibling the Xperia U.
That said, it falls short in terms of call quality at times, and also some marketing claims where the device does not live up to the billing (Floating Touch). At Rs 20,000, it turns out to be a rather affordable Android which packs a heavy punch, but at the same time a user can get a smartphone with a much better performance in the Motorola Atrix 2 by spending slightly more.
Photo Credits: Rohit Sharma