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Review: Sony Xperia S
Prasad Naik
May 14, 2012
First Published: 15:45 IST(14/5/2012)
Last Updated: 11:26 IST(17/5/2012)
Sony Xperia S
The Xperia S is the first phone from the now single Sony ever since it acquired Ericsson stake in the company. You can tell from the spec sheet that Sony decided to start off with a bang and the Xperia S comes loaded with impressive items such as an HD display, 12 megapixel camera and a dual-core processor. But spec sheets don’t tell the whole story, which is why we are going to take a detailed look at how the phone is in real life.

Design
These days all smartphones tend to look like large black slabs and few of them actually stand out from the crowd. At first glance the Xperia S looks like just another one of these slabs but Sony has put in enough detail to keep the design interesting.

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The design is pretty slab-like, with a perfectly rectangular shape and flat sides. It’s just the back that has a gentle curve. The front has a large sheet of glass spanning almost the entire surface. The glass deftly conceals the display below and it’s hard to see its boundaries once it gets switched off. Near the top you will find the earpiece with the classic Sony logo, along with a camera lens on the right and a notification light on the left.

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Below the display is one of the most interesting design element, not just on this phone but on any phone we have ever seen. It’s a thin strip of see-through glass that separates majority of the phone from a thin plastic chin at the bottom. Floating within the glass you can see icons for the three main function keys – Back, Home and Menu – but you don’t actually press the icons to actuate them. The actual pressure points are placed above the glass strip and below the display and indicated by three tiny dots.

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Being see-through, the glass can be seen from the back of the phone as well. When you press one of the keys, the glass strip lights up in soft white light, with three LEDs near each of the key icons within the glass. Lit up or otherwise, the glass strip is absolutely beautiful to behold and an amazing design detail. It just lifts what would have otherwise been a dull design to something truly special.

Unfortunately, there are some issues that mar this beautiful design and they are concerned with the functionality of the three keys below the display. First of all, it is absolutely baffling why Sony would make us press above the glass when the icons are actually on the glass. It would have made a lot more sense if the glass itself was touch sensitive and you had to press right above where the icons are situated.

Secondly, the points above the display are notoriously difficult to use. The actual pressure points are slightly above the tiny dots (which are sometimes very hard to see) and just below the bottom edge of the display. In the dark it becomes practically impossible to spot the exact location of these keys and the fact that the pressure points are so narrow does not help. The LEDs in the glass strip briefly stay on but are always in a great hurry to switch off and there is no way to customize this behavior.

The following are some of the sample images from the Xperia S (left) and the N8 (right). The main image above in each case has been captured by the Xperia S.

Also, the keys are far too close to the display. Often when you are trying to press something at the bottom of the display, like the space key or the notification drawer when it is pulled down, you end up pressing the Home key. This can be quite infuriating, especially while playing games.

It’s extremely odd how Sony could have let such terrible arrangement through their testing phase and makes us wonder if anyone actually used the phone before they started shipping it. 

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Moving on, turning the phone around reveals an HDMI port below a flap, volume control buttons and camera shutter key on the right. On the left is another flap with the USB port underneath. We wish Sony had just gone with open ports placed on the side. Not only do the flaps spoil the design of the phone with large text and icons printed on it, they also make it a pain every time you have to connect a cable.

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On the bottom of the phone is a hole for attaching a lanyard (no one really does that these days but they have provided one anyway) along with a microphone. On top is the power button with the 3.5mm jack right next to it. The jack is so close to the power button that when you plug in an L-shaped connector to the jack, such as the one that comes with the phone, suddenly the power button becomes terribly difficult to use. This is just another one of the things that shows the poor attention to details by the designers.

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On the back of the phone we find a tiny Sony Ericsson logo near the bottom. This does not come as a surprise because underneath this is a Sony Ericsson LT26i and many of the manuals that come with the phone refer to it as such. The phone was obviously in development long before the two companies decided to part ways and thus Ericsson would have had a lot to do with this phone, and the logo on the back signifies that.

The camera lens is located right at the top and it is so close to the top edge that at times it is difficult to keep your finger holding the phone from appearing in the frame. A whole has been cut into the cover for the lens which makes the dust easy to settle on the lens but not easy for you to clean it unless you remove the back cover. Below the lens is the single LED flash and below that is the loudspeaker. There is a small bump below it that keeps the loudspeakers raised sufficiently enough to not be blocked when the phone is kept on a flat surface.

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The entire back side above the glass strip is actually the back cover, which is a thin piece of plastic that can be slid up to remove. There is not much to see here other than a micro SIM slot. The battery is sealed and non-removable. You will find lots of dust here though that tends to accumulate over time thanks to the holes in the cover for the lens, flash and loudspeaker. We wonder why Sony bothered with a battery cover at all and why didn’t just provide an external SIM slot like on the iPhone 4S, One X or their own Xperia P.

One of the things we loved about the design of this phone is the build quality. Sony Ericsson phones in the past weren’t known for their great build quality and some of them have been quite plasticky. The Xperia S on the other hand feels great and thanks to the matte plastic doesn’t feel cheap or kitsch in any way.

Another great thing about it is the ergonomics. This is the only phone with an HD display that fits perfectly in our hands. Thanks to the narrow display and flat sides, we had no problem gripping the phone between our finger tips and the base of our finger even when lying in bed with the phone upside down. Bigger phones such as the HTC One X make you hold the phone between your fingers and the base of your thumb, which severely restricts the thumb’s movement, something that does not happen at all with the Xperia S.
We also liked how the volume control was placed in the middle of the phone on the side instead of right at the top on most phones, exactly where your thumb would be when you hold the phone normally or during the call. We wish this level of attention was shown towards the design of the keys below the display, the power button and the camera lens placement.

Display
The Xperia S has a 1280 x 720 resolution, 4.3-inch LCD. The high resolution, coupled with the size makes the display on the Xperia S one of the densest around, with a pixel density of 342 PPI, greater than even the iPhone 4S’ Retina display.

The display on the Xperia S does look pretty good. It’s sharp, has natural colors, good contrast and is visible even under bright sunlight. Unfortunately, the display doesn’t have the same appeal as the Super LCD2 on the HTC One X. Imageslackthe vibrancy and the wow-factor of the One X or even the Galaxy Nexus display. The viewing angles are also quite poor and the display washes out considerably at off angles. There is also a bit of motion blur, mostly noticeable in games. We think Sony decided to cut some costs and went for a cheaper TN panels instead of the better quality IPS panels found on the One X or the iPhone 4S. Don’t get us wrong, the display does look quite good but we expected better from a flagship device.

The display has a scratch resistant glass surface but it’s not being listed as Gorilla Glass, neither by Sony nor on Corning’s website. Annoyingly, the glass does not have oleophobic coating, which means fingerprints and smudges tend to stick to the display and are hard to wipe off.

We have one bit of warning regarding the display on the Xperia S. Our review unit came with several faint yellow spots near the bottom and along the right edge of the display.
They would appear yellow on a white background and light gray on a dark background. A quick Google search revealed that this was a common issue with the Xperia S and the only solution is to get the phone replaced under warranty. We are also hearing that this is not a problem anymore with newer devices but we would still advise you to open the box and check the phone in the shop itself if your device has this issue and then return it on the spot. If purchasing online, ask the retailer about the issue in advance or read user reviews to confirm.

Hardware and Software
The Sony Xperia S has a Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8260 SoC with a dual-core 1.5GHz Scorpion CPU and Adreno 220 GPU. This is the third generation Snapdragon processor and not the recently released S4 and is the same processor found on the HTC Sensation XE. In terms of memory, the phone has a 1GB RAM, 1.8GB phone memory and 32GB internal memory. The 1.8GB memory is inaccessible by the user and is only used for installing apps. Out of the 32GB, approximately 26GB is available for everything else.

Unfortunately, the phone uses Media Transfer Protocol instead of Mass Storage Protocolfor transferring files. The difference is that in MTP the memory is not mounted on your computer and remains accessible even when connected, unlike in MSP. Due to this, every time you need to open a file, the PC will first copy the file from the phone to the computer’s memory and then open it. There are some other drawbacks as well, which makes it less preferred compared to MSP but if you are just going to transfer files to and from the phone it shouldn’t make much of a difference.

The Xperia S does not have a microSD card slot, so the 26GB is all you get for storage.

On software front, the Xperia S comes with Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread. It’s distressing that even though we are halfway through 2012 we are still getting phones with Gingerbread on them. Sony has even fewer excuses compared to other companies because their phone was launched after Android 4.0 was announced and it’s been six months since it has been released by Google. All we have for now is a promise that Android 4.0 will arrive some time later this year with no concrete dates. This gives us even less hope of the phone getting future updates on time.

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Running on top of Gingerbread is Sony’s custom UI. This is quite similar to what we see on previous Sony Ericsson phones such as the Xperia neo V. It’s a very clean and simple skin that doesn’t feel as bloated as Sense or as garish as TouchWiz. The phone comes with some third party apps pre-installed but the good thing is that you can uninstall all of them. They do unfortunately return when you update or reset your phone. Sony has updated some apps such as the music player, which looks a lot better and the browser, which is a lot smoother than stock Gingerbread browser. Overall, we like what Sony has done with the software and although it does take some of the pain out of using Gingerbread, it is no cure.

One nuisance is that the phone does not download software update over the air. It will only inform you about an available update, at which point you have to go through the song and dance of installing the desktop client, if it isn’t already, connecting the phone, downloading the update and then updating the phone, a process not unlike what you had to do for Sony Ericsson phones a lifetime ago. It’s sad that even after all these years this process hasn’t changed. The strange thing is Android itself supports OTA updates, as seen on Nexus devices but manufacturers like Sony and Samsung go out of their way to make your life difficult by requiring a desktop client.

Performance
Despite being decidedly last year, the hardware performs very well. The dual-core CPU is pretty powerful and even the Adreno 220 GPU manages to keep up with today’s 3D games at 720p resolution, which is no small feat. It might not be as powerful as the Tegra 3 on the One X but is definitely faster than the TI OMAP 4430 on the Galaxy Nexus, as we found out through benchmark scores.

Unfortunately, the spoil sport here is Gingerbread. Sony has done some optimizations to make the UI feel smooth but you can still see it stutter due to a lack of hardware acceleration introduced in Android 4.0 for smartphones.

This makes the phone a lot less pleasant than you expect from a flagship phone and even the two year old Nexus S seems smoother in comparison. Like the Motorola ATRIX 2 we reviewed last week, the Xperia S simply begs for Android 4.0 and we think it is a major drawback that the phone does not have it already. Considering the flagship status of the phone, we would say that it should be a higher priority for Sony than the 2011 Xperia handsets that it is currently updating.

Camera
The Xperia S has a 12 megapixel camera with LED flash and 1080p video recording. It’s been quite a while since someone made a 12 megapixel camera. The N8, it seems, was the last of its kind and Nokia did such a great job with the camera on that phone that everybody else sort of just gave up and started concentrating on 8 megapixel cameras.

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The camera software on the Xperia S is simple and well laid out. By default the camera opens in the Auto mode, which automatically adjusts every parameter depending upon the scene. You can switch to Normal mode, at which point you can adjust camera settings such as focus mode, metering mode, white balance, ISO settings, etc.

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There are three different kinds of panorama modes on the Xperia S. First is the standard sweep panorama, in which you simply move the camera from left to right. Second is 3D sweep panorama, where the do the same action and then the camera takes the images and combines them in a 3D image that can only be viewed on a 3D TV by connecting the HDMI cable. Lastly, there is the sweep multi angle, where you move the camera the way you do in panorama, the phone captures multiple images and then shows you the 3D image result which consists of multiple images. You have to tilt the phone side to side and as you tilt you see the subject from side to side, which is supposed to create the illusion of depth. In practice, all of this is gimmick and of no real value to anyone.

The camera has a physical shutter button, which is very rare in the world of Android phones. You can press and hold the shutter button when the phone is locked and the camera starts, focusses and takes a picture. We timed to see how fast the phone does all of this and it did it in a very impressive 1.5 seconds. However, because the camera takes a picture before you could even frame the shot, the subject is often not in the center of the image or where you’d want it to be. For this, a better solution is to set the camera in ‘start only’ mode, so instead of starting and taking a picture the shutter key will only start the camera from locked state.

Now, coming to the actual image quality, we were impressed by the quality of the camera on the Xperia S. The camera takes some lovely pictures with good colors and contrast that look great on the phone’s display as well as on the computer screen. If we had to complain, we would say the camera tends to over-sharpen images and that there is some noise in the dark areas but this is only visible when you zoom right into the image.

We decided to compare the camera on the Xperia S to the one on the Nokia N8 to see if the N8 still holds on to its crown as the current camera champion. As it turns out, it does. The advantage N8 has here is due to its camera sensor, which is still the largest around, with only the upcoming 808 PureView having a bigger sensor. This lets the camera capture more light and details, which is evident in the N8’s images.

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The following are some of the sample images from the Xperia S (left) and the N8 (right). The main image above in each case has been captured by the Xperia S."

Looking at the same subject captured through both the Xperia S and the N8, the N8 images have actual detail with practically zero sharpening, whereas the Xperia S images look severely sharpened. Noise is also all but absent in N8’s images whereas you can see it in some areas in Xperia S images. In low-light Xperia S’ flash does a decent job but is not as good as the N8’s xenon flash.

But it’s not a complete loss for the Xperia S. One of the areas where the Xperia wins over the N8 is in macro mode. The N8 needs to be put in a dedicated macro mode before you shoot close subjects but even then it has trouble focusing when you go too close. The Xperia S does not require you to use a macro mode (it doesn’t even have one) and can still go a lot closer to the subject. The Xperia S also doesn’t have trouble focusing in the dark like the N8 and doesn’t over expose subjects shot with the flash at close distance. It also starts and shoots quicker than the N8 and the display is a lot better to look at.

Then there is also the 1080p video recording, something that the N8 cannot do at all, capping out at 720p. Although the N8’s video looks very good, at 1080p, the Xperia S’ looks even better.

Overall, we really liked the camera on the Xperia S and although it isn’t perfect it is one of the best camera phones currently out there, easily beating the ones on the One X and the Galaxy Nexus.

Music and Video
As mentioned before, Sony has changed the music player on the Xperia S, which is much better than the stock Gingerbread player. There is some confusion initially in terms of navigation as the Now Playing screen is in a different tab from the library, so pressing back in Now Playing screen makes you exit the player instead of going back to the track list but otherwise it’s a fine player.

The Now playing screen shows you the album art and generates a colored background for it that matches the color of the album art. There are also a five band custom equalizer with Sony’s Mega Bass feature, presets and surround effects (tacky, best avoided). There is also an xLOUD feature for boosting the loudspeaker volume, another “feature” for something that should be available by default. What’s the point of restricting the audio volume and then claiming to “boost” it using a setting?

The audio quality through the headphones is excellent. Sony continues to provide the best in-class headset with their phones, a tradition Sony Ericsson started all those years ago with Walkman phones. These simple black earphones sound several times better than the overhyped garbage that HTC ships under the Beats Audio badge. The loudspeaker on the phone also sounds good.

The phone does not have a dedicated video player, which is a shame. You have to play videos through the Gallery app and that’s not exactly a great experience. We tested the phone using the DicePlayer app and it handled every video we threw at it, including 1080p ones. This coupled with the good quality display and the great headset means watching videos, movies or TV shows is an absolute joy. Too bad Xperia S, like all Android phones, does not support files over 4GB.

Battery Life
The Xperia S comes with a 1,750mAh non-replaceable battery. With a fixed internal battery like that, you’d want the battery life to be great. Unfortunately, it isn’t but it’s not too bad either. In our testing, the Xperia S managed to last for up to 22 hours on a full charge with normal usage. Heavy usage such as gaming or HD video playback drains the battery a lot faster, with the phone barely lasting half a day. In our video playback test, the Xperia S lasted for five hours while playing a 720p video in the stock player with stock headset at 75% display brightness, which is again decent but not great.

Verdict
We really enjoyed our time with the Xperia S and will miss it when it goes back, and that’s not something we say often. One of the things that bother us about this phone is that Sony had come really close to making the best Android smartphone on the market, but squandered the opportunity by making some novice mistakes. The phone should have had Ice Cream Sandwich at launch, the display should have been of better quality for a flagship device and the capacitive keys below the display should not have been so frustrating to use. These three things are the ones that stick out when we look back at our experience with the handset. Had Sony taken care about these we would have readily ignored all the other issues, which are pretty minor, to be honest.

And it would have been easy to do that with all the good things about the phone. We loved the design, especially that glass strip at the bottom and the way the phone fit our hands perfectly, and we loved the camera and the general multimedia performance of the handset. At Rs. 30,990, we even like the price, which is significantly lower than all the other Android phones with HD displays.

With the release of Android 4.0 update, one of the major issues should get sorted out. By then the price would have dropped as well. The Xperia S would then be an even better buy than it is today. Too bad the keys and the display would still be holding it back. 

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