The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc is a wafer-thin Android smart phone that brings Sony's Bravia Engine TV tech to your pocket. Thanks to an up-to-date version of Android and a thinned-down custom user interface, the Arc is by far Sony Ericsson's best Android smart phone yet.
The Arc won't be cheap. You can expect this high-end phone to cost around £30 to £40 per month on a contract, when it arrives in shops in spring of this year. You can also pick it up SIM-free now for around £430.
Small screen, big scene
Listing the Arc's specs makes us feel like kids in a sweet shop, but the biggest treat of all could be its 4.2-inch touchscreen. It's not the AMOLED kind flaunted by phones like the Samsung Galaxy S. Rather, it's an LED-backlit TFT LCD screen. This means that, although it doesn't offer the eye-piercing brightness of an AMOLED display, it delivers more subdued, accurate colours. The 480x854-pixel screen doesn't match the iPhone 4's 640x960-pixel display, but it's still sharp and beautiful to look at.
In our eyes-on tests, the screen's colours looked natural and bright. Compared to the 4-inch, 480x800-pixel Super AMOLED screen on the Google Nexus S, the Arc's display looked noticeably sharper and clearer.
The screen uses Sony's Bravia Engine image-processing technology. Sony Ericsson says that the Bravia system delivers optimal colour, contrast, noise reduction and sharpness on the Arc's small screen, and that it will work on any video. We've seen it in action and it looks impressive, particularly when smoothing out streaming video in the YouTube app.
But, when watching YouTube in the browser, video didn't look nearly as sharp. We're happy that you can actually do this, thanks to the Web browser's support for Flash, but, if you want to catch up on zany cat videos, we'd strongly recommend using the YouTube app instead.
The wide-screen aspect ratio of the screen is another plus. Movies play without any black bars. If you have small hands, you'll probably also find the long, thin handset is easier to grasp than other phones with similarly sized screens.
There's one final note in our love letter to the Arc's display. It looks effortlessly cool, because it sits so close to the surface of the glass. When the phone is off, you can hardly see the edge of the display, so the Arc has a pleasingly monolithic appearance.
We just wish the
three buttons beneath the screen were similarly subtle. We prefer the Arc's proper,
clicking buttons to the touch-sensitive type on many other Android
smart phones, but their elongated, shiny design strikes us as being a tad '80s.
The Arc is one of the thinnest smart phones around, measuring 9mm at its thickest ends and curving to 8.7mm in the middle. That makes it feel like a big After Eight mint, and just as snappable. Sony Ericsson admits that its phones haven't been the toughest around in the past, and the Arc has a plastic case, rather than a metal one, such as that sported by the HTC Desire HD.
Still, it's hard to criticise a phone for being gorgeously thin, and
Sony Ericsson does claim the Arc's screen is protected by a shatter-proof cover on top of the scratch-resistant mineral glass.
The plastic back flexes slightly, which detracts from
the phone's expensive air. But there weren't any loose or wobbly parts on our sample. Overall, the Arc is definitely
worth showing off, but, like most smart phones, we don't think it would
survive a short drop onto concrete.
Ready for your close-up
The Arc boasts an 8.1-megapixel camera with an LED photo light and a good selection of settings for you to tweak, including face-detection and image-stabilisation features. But the dish of the day is the Exmor R CMOS sensor, which is so oven-fresh that it's only just arriving in compact cameras.
This back-illuminated sensor should take smoother, better-quality shots in low light than normal phone cameras. That's good news, since a phone tends to be the snapper of choice for late-night pub photos. We tested the Arc's camera by trying to capture the perfect MySpace mugshot in various lighting conditions.
The Arc managed to capture decent photos even in a very dark room, with its LED light turned off. We found that the red-eye-reduction setting didn't have much effect, though. Although the LED light certainly improved the image in dark conditions, it's painfully blinding to look at. We'd stick to turning on the lights instead, if you can.
The Arc has a dedicated photo button on the side, but it's tiny and
it sits right at one end of the phone, so it's hard to press. We found
that pressing it could sometimes cause the phone to move, which can make photos blurry. We much preferred to take advantage of the option
to tap the screen to capture a photo. You can tap anywhere on
the screen, which makes it easy to take snaps quickly.
The Arc also shoots 720p high-definition video. We tested the video performance in
darkness by filming a
bobblehead Mountie toy trapped in a box. Check out the results
below. The Arc was able to adjust to the darkness of the pitch-black cardboard
prison, capturing the Mountie's ever-smiling face.
Compare the results of the iPhone 4 in the same test (below). The Mountie's face is slightly darker, but the video itself looks sharper. The Arc appears to have smoothed the image too much, and much of the detail is lost. Overall, we don't think the Arc is much better than the iPhone 4 in this test.
One advantage of shooting with the Arc, rather than the iPhone 4, was that the screen clearly showed what was being filmed. On the iPhone 4,
everything looked dark and we had to guess where to aim. On the Arc,
we could see the Mountie, so we could be sure to shoot him straight on.
With Android on-board, there are
plenty of options for sharing your photos and movies online and over
email. If you want to partake of your shots on the big screen, the Arc
mini-HDMI port, and Sony Ericsson tells us the phone will come with an
cable in the box. Unfortunately, we weren't provided with a cable so we couldn't test this feature out.
We're told by Sony Ericsson that the HDMI output from the phone goes beyond just showing films. You'll be able to see everything you do on the phone mirrored on the TV screen, as with the Nokia N8, so you could show off your mobile gaming expertise, for example. Thanks to the powers of HDMI, you can also use your TV remote to control the phone. This may not work on older TVs, but you don't need a Sony telly.
We can see the need for remote-control compatibility. If your phone is tethered to your telly so you can watch a video, you'd have to sit close enough to your TV to use the phone to pause, fast-forward and rewind, unless you can control everything with a remote.
But don't look for any features that will let you connect the Arc to
such as those on the Sony
Ericsson Aino, which could connect to the console remotely. Ditto
privileged access to Sony's vast film and music catalogues.
Freshly baked Gingerbread
Sony Ericsson concedes that it's fallen behind the pack with its smart phones' software -- the Xperia X10 came out with version 1.6 of Android when other phones were already sporting version 2.1. But the company promises that it's upped its game, and aims to prove it by shipping the Arc with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the latest version of the operating system.
One of the ways in which Sony Ericsson is aiming to put Android updates out faster is by taking the hatchet to the custom skin that it slaps on top of Android. We're told that the user interface and operating system have been separated, so updates can be made more quickly, while the UI itself has been slimmed down. We weren't fans of the tweaks that Sony Ericsson made to Android on the X10, so we're glad that the chops have been as harsh as a post-break-up haircut.
abysmal Timescape social-networking app has been refreshed as a widget,
so you can swipe through an animated pile of your recent Facebook and
Twitter updates on the home screen. The animations look as pleasing as
ever, but it takes some work to integrate the app well with your social networks. By default, tapping a tweet or Facebook status update
in Timescape will send you to the Twitter or Facebook website, which is no
good if you're offline. If you install apps for the two services from
the Android Market, Timescape will link with those instead, providing a smoother experience.
We'd also like the widget to fill the screen, rather than two-thirds
of it. But, if you don't like Timescape, you can easily remove it from
your home screen, and download something else that tickles your fancy from the
Android app store.
Sony Ericsson's other flagship Android app, Mediascape, wasn't as bad on the X10 as Timescape, but it too has received a makeover on the Arc. It's a simple, good-looking media player, and we like the button that automatically searches for an artist's videos on YouTube.
Overall, we give Sony Ericsson's custom Android skin the thumbs-up. The dark blue and black screens look slightly dated -- we prefer the bright, spacious feel of HTC's Sense Android skin -- but they don't look bad. We especially like the glassy, transparent app menu, which you can arrange every which way to Sunday.
The user interface on the Arc is smooth and pleasurable to use. Transitions are fluid and the phone responds quickly to commands. The Arc's processor is single-core -- rather than dual-core, like that of the LG Optimus 2X -- but it runs at 1GHz, so it should have plenty of power when it comes to keeping your apps ticking over.
The phone's battery life is unremarkable. We got a full day of use out of it during testing, but, if you're spending much time Web surfing, watching videos or using Google
Maps, you may need to charge the Arc more than once a day.
Sony Ericsson has woken up from a few years of smart-phone slumber with the Xperia Arc. Its shapely curves and Android brains are enough to tempt any smart-phone fancier. Perks like the Bravia Engine screen and Exmor R CMOS camera sensor make this a monster media phone, despite its lack of PlayStation love. With an up-to-date version of Android and a stunning wide-screen display, the Arc is a phone we'd be happy to show off.
Edited by Charles Kloet