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Sony Xperia S Review
What started as a beautiful marriage 10 years ago, ended this Jan where Sony and Ericsson went their own separate ways. This was more of a sweet than bitter parting of ways as Sony can fully concentrate on upping their game in the mobile space and make use of various patents and technology acquired by Ericsson over the years in their other products as well. This leaves Ericsson with a heap of cash for their stake in the joint venture. With Sony at the wheel, it was time for them to change things up and create a new experience for their mobile phone division, something that would be distinctly recognizable as a Sony phone and not a Sony Ericsson.
A handsome looking phone
While the former partners had some iconic phones over the decade, I personally wasn’t sold on their designs and never really like any of their handsets so much, that I would go out and buy one. One of the main reasons for this was their habit of using way too many chrome and glossy bits all over the phone and the fact that the buttons were always small and fiddly, which didn’t really inspire quality (even if it was well built). Take their last high-end phone, the Xperia Arc. A great phone, no doubt, but again, too many glossy plastic bits and a bit of chrome overdose. When they announced their new lineup at MWC 2012, the NXT series did pique my interest since it was a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from them, and most importantly, Sony seemed to have done away with all the chrome bits, which scores high in my book. While the official launch of the Xperia S is for India is still a week away, we were lucky to get our hands on a unit and although our encounter was brief, it was enough to come up with a verdict. Out of all the tests, we weren't able to run our series of battery tests but worry not, as we will be updating this review once we get it for a longer time. This may or may not affect the rating, so we’ll see what happens.
Design and Build
The Xperia S is currently Sony’s highest-end offering in their NXT series. The phone comes packed in a slim box along with some reading material, microUSB cable, power adapter and an in-earphone headset. Available in black and white, the Xperia S feels absolutely lovely to hold and although the chassis is built from plastic, it’s really hard to tell. The phone feels sturdy and well built with no creaking joints even if you squeeze it. The phone appears a bit blocky due to the lack of rounded edges and a slim profile. At 10.6mm, I wouldn’t exactly call it fat and it’s pretty light as well with the battery at 144g.
Nice detailing around the headphone jack
For connectivity, we have a plastic flap-covered microUSB port and HDMI port on either sides while the 3.5mm headphone jack is placed on the top. Buttons on the phone include the volume rocker, camera shutter and a power/sleep button. The lanyard, mic and antenna for the radios are placed towards the bottom of the phone. Like I mentioned earlier, the buttons don’t have any annoying gloss finish, which is good but they are still a bit tiny and thin and can be annoying when you want to quickly unlock the phone or snap a quick picture. I really like the little attention to detail, like the brushed metal ring around the headphone jack. This gives it a nice polished touch. On the front, we have the 1.3MP front facing camera along with a scratch-resistant 4.3-inch screen. There’s even a notification light on the left side which toggles between three colours depending on the type of alert. With a resolution of 1280 x 720, the Xperia S sails past the iPhone’s Retina Display with a pixel count of 342ppi. Coupled with the Sony Mobile BRAVIA Engine, this makes anything and everything on the screen appear super sharp and crisp. Colour reproduction is very good and so is the sunlight legibility. The display also supports 10 finger multi-touch gestures.
The translucent strip is certainly looks cool
Coming to the bottom portion of the Xperia S, we have the new translucent strip which holds the labels for the capacitive buttons. The buttons themselves aren’t on the strip as we assumed before, but instead, they are placed just above it represented by three silver dots. Now, this does take some getting used too as you’ll instinctively want to press something that lights up. The three buttons are ‘Back’, ‘Home’ and ‘Options’. I didn’t find the sensitivity of the capacitive buttons all that great and there were many instances when it refused to register any input. We hope this is merely a software glitch and wish Sony releases a fix for it soon.
The 12MP shooter
Coming to the back of the phone, we just have the 12MP camera, LED flash and the speaker. The battery cover is opened by simply pushing it upwards and it pops out. The Xperia S uses a microSIM card and there’s no expandable memory support, just 32GB of onboard storage. Also, the battery is not user replaceable. Overall, the Xperia S really impressed us with the design and build, it definitely feels like a premium phone, which it is. One thing that needs some work are the capacitive buttons.
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While everyone is launching Android 4.0 handsets, Sony has stuck with Gingerbread (2.3.7) for now with a planned ICS update somewhere down the line. While this is a little disappointing, it’s not the end of the world and with Sony’s Timescape UI running, you can hardly tell the difference. Sony have stuck with the same features and functions in timescape from their previous phones and just tweaked some of the apps, after all, why fix something that’s not broken? The interface is incredibly smooth and fluid with just a very slight hint of lag that creeps in sometimes but, it’s just for a brief moment and then it’s smooth again. The new theme of the UI looks very nice and the textured gray background in the menus are easy on the eyes and give it a fresh look.
A familiar looking interface
There aren’t any toggle switches in the notification bar but you do get a widget that gives you all the switches you’ll need. You can choose between many Timescape widgets for the gallery, Gmail, social, etc. Pinching the homescreen brings all the widgets on one screen allowing you to quickly jump to it.
A powerful phone
The phone is powered by a dual-core Qualcomm MSM8260 processor running at 1.5GHz. This, coupled with 1GB of RAM ensures that even graphically intensive apps and games run smoothly. Linpack gave us a single threaded score of 55MFLOPS and a multi-threaded score of 82.4MFLOPS which is pretty good. The same goes for AnTuTu, where we got a score of 6520 which makes it a bit faster than the Galaxy Note and the Galaxy Nexus.
One of the apps that has been revamped is the music player which is extremely slick thanks to a minimalistic look. It’s pretty powerful as well with plenty of options to play around with although it won’t read lossless files like FLAC. The music player widget also displays album art and Sony have added a lock screen widget as well allowing you to skip songs without having to unlock the screen. You get 5-band graphic equalizer along with a bunch of presets and some other audio enhancements. The sound quality is very good though and the bundled headset provides good ambient noise isolation. The speaker is also pretty loud, enough to be enjoyed between a small group of friends.
Revamped music player is pretty neat
The video player is a little bit disappointing since you only get the stock Android player, which only plays MP4 and WMV. You do have options to stream it via DLNA though. The Xperia S handles 1080p videos like a champ without skipping a frame. HD videos look especially good due to the densely packed screen. Colour reproduction is accurate and colours are rich and well saturated, without going overboard. Format support can be expanded via third party players from the Play store.
The Xperia S is a quad-band GSM and quad-band 3G phone with support for advanced speeds like 14.4Mbps HSDPA and 5.8Mbps HSUPA. We also have the usual assortment of Wi-Fi ‘n’, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, NFC and Bluetooth v2.1. This is also one of the first handsets to support the new GLONASS navigation system, along with GPS. There’s no mass storage mode here, simply MTP, which automatically shows up in Windows under portable devices. The stock browser does its job and surfing the net on the Xperia S is a great experience thanks to the rich screen. Even when fully zoomed into text, it appears sharp and crisp.
Internet surfing is fun on this phone
There are plenty of Internet and social apps bundled along with the phone. TrackID lets you identify songs, which works well but is not as feature rich as SoundHound. Music & Videos aggregates all the videos that your friends have ‘Liked’ on YouTube and even new videos that you have subscribed to. AppXtra is a little app store created by Sony and Recommender is something similar that shows you highly rated apps by users of Xperia phones. Tags lets you manage NFC data picked up by the Xperia S, which can be shared to other phones with NFC as well. Other apps include Foursquare, Evernote, WhatsApp and McAfee Security.
Some of the extra apps
Sony bundles all the essential apps needed to get you started. They've bundled ASTRO file manager, OfficeSuite (only for viewing of Office documents), Media Remote lets you use your phone as a remote control with Wi-Fi enabled Sony TVs, WisePilot, NeoReader, Stopwatch, World Clock, etc.
One of the biggest selling points for the Xperia S is the 12MP camera it packs in. The Exmor R camera sensor is supposed to help remove noise in low light conditions. This works to an extent but ultimately it depends on how far the subject is from the lens. In our indoor shooting tests, we noticed that even without flash, the camera is able to pick up good amount of detail, provided the subject is close to the lens so only macro shots indoors looks really good. If you’re trying to capture something more than 5ft away in low light, then a lot of noise creeps into the picture. The flash doesn’t really help much since it’s not powerful enough to illuminate a wide area.
Plenty of options to tweak
Outdoors though, the camera turns into another beast altogether. During the day, simply set the scene mode to ‘Auto’ and go crazy. The camera automatically adds depth of field when the subject is close giving you some pretty crazy pictures. You can activate the camera directly by simply holding down the shutter button and up comes the viewfinder. Capturing a photo is super quick with barely any lag from the time you hit the button to when the photo is taken. You can choose between, tap-to-focus, tap-to-capture and many other modes. Have a look at the photo gallery on the last page. None of the photos have been edited in any way, although they are compressed a bit while uploading. Sony have also added a 3D Sweep Panorama, similar to the one seen in their digicams. This doesn’t always work right and can lead to some pretty weird photos. Normal panorama works well and is quick in stitching the photos together and saving it.
The Xperia S can record video in 1080p with continuous auto-focus. While the captured video has a solid framerate, it takes time for the auto-focus to kick in and re-adjust. It could have been a little quicker as you have to wait for a few seconds till your subject is in focus if you’re moving. The video can viewed directly on an HDTV via the HDMI port.
All this power and features takes a toll on the battery. The Xperia S comes with a 1750mAh which lasted for a little less than a day under heavy usage. This is with Wi-Fi on most of the time and lots of camera, music, video usage along with a little gaming. How this compares with the other phones in the market is something we can only say for certain once we put it through our series of battery tests. I wouldn’t expect it to last for more than a day and a half, even with using it carefully.
It’s still a week till Sony officially unveils the Xperia S and hopefully the other handsets in the lineup as well. Till then, you can buy this phone from the gray market for Rs.32,000, without a bill and warranty. Obviously we don’t recommend you run out and buy it, especially when the official launch is this close. Internationally, the Xperia S is priced at £459.99 (Rs.37,500) so the launch price could be around 35K from Sony which makes the gray market pricing very attractive. Still, let’s wait and see how they handle the pricing now that HTC have announced the One X as well for India.
All lit up
The Xperia S is a great start for Sony in 2012 and if they continue with this streak then I’m really looking forward to their other offerings as well. The Xperia S is unlike any other flagship phone we’ve seen from Sony Ericsson in the past and represents a bold new direction for the company. The phone has a beautiful build and feels premium and packed to the gills with features. However, it’s far from perfect. There are some sensitivity issues with the capacitive buttons, no ICS (yet), camera performs poorly in low-light indoor shooting and the microSIM is annoying. However, at this price, it’s certainly one of the better options compared to the Sensation XE. If you can live with these little issues then we recommend the Xperia S for its beautiful screen, great design, good camera (for outdoor shooting) and feature rich app selection out-of-the-box.