You can pick one up SIM-free for around £430 -- or free on a two-year contract from £21 a month. With so much choice at this price, the Sony Xperia S really has to impress to win your hard-earned cash. This handset's biggest boasts are a pixel-dense 4.3-inch HD screen and a 12.1-megapixel camera featuring Sony's Exmor R sensor.
The price of the Xperia S pits it against lots of impressive high-end Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S2 and HTC's new flagship behemoth, the quad-core-plus-one One X -- not to mention Apple's iPhone 4S -- so how does it stack up?
Should I buy the Sony Xperia S?
If you're in the market for a top spec Android smart phone, the Xperia S is certainly a contender. Its gorgeous HD screen displays pixel-perfect text and video, with vibrant colours and velvety blacks. The 12.1-megapixel camera also impressed me.
However, all this is encased in a plasticky slab that lets it down. What's more, it will only ship with Android's Gingerbread operating system at launch -- you'll have to whistle while you wait for an update to the latest version, Ice Cream Sandwich. Sony's own software additions to Android are nothing to write home about.
HTC's new One Series runs ICS across the board, and its Sense user interface is a tastier topping than Sony's kludgy widgets. Samsung's almighty Galaxy S2 shouldn't be forgotten either -- and with the Korean giant lining up the sequel, the Xperia S has its work cut out.
One big selling point for the Xperia S is Sony's media muscle -- you don't just have to lean on the
Android Market Google Play store. Sony has a substantial music, movies and TV back catalogue of its own. There's also going to be a PlayStation store on the Xperia S for games but it wasn't live at the time I wrote this review.
While multiple stores serving your media needs is not as streamlined as Apple's iTunes approach, you can't complain about being short of options for filling your slab with wares. For a more joined-up experience, Apple's iPhone 4S is very hard to beat, so unless you're a confirmed fandroid, the iPhone should be on your shortlist.
The HD 1,280x720-pixel capacitive display is the real eye candy of the Xperia S, offering 4.3 inches of gloriously vibrant touchscreen with a very high level of detail. Colours really pop out -- all 16 million+ of 'em. Pixel density is a whopping 342 pixels per inch -- so it's sharper than the 330ppi on the iPhone 4S retina display. In fact, it's the highest ppi of any smart phone we've had in for review.
Thanks to this high res, even very small text on web pages is legible, and when zoomed right in, letters retain their smooth outlines without any pixelation. Indeed, the screen is so sharp that low-res imagery on websites will look offensively ugly and you'll find yourself going in search of better quality sites that live up to the screen's high standards.
The screen uses Sony's Mobile Bravia engine technology to improve the sharpness and saturation of images and videos. Photos and videos certainly looked sumptuous in our tests, with colours vibrant and blacks deep.
The display is made of scratch-resistant mineral glass topped with a shatter-proof plastic sheet. This is mildly static -- I found it soon collected a sheen of dust and fine fluff, which looks rather unsightly. To my eye, the sheet detracts from the overall look of the screen, which otherwise dominates the front of the device, thanks to a very thin bezel on three sides. The edge of the plastic sheet also feels slightly sharp under the finger -- it seems destined to accumulate a fine line of unsightly grime.
Despite this tacky plastic topping, the screen is fast and responsive, picking up even a light finger flick and throwing all those pixels around with alacrity. Its generous size -- although at 4.3 inches it's not as large as the biggest screens around -- coupled with the HD resolution means that if you have good eyesight, a text-heavy web page can be read without having to zoom in.
The viewing angle of the screen is pretty good, with text and imagery still discernible on a considerable slant. However, the depth of colour quickly drops off as you tilt the screen away from you.
Sony is making a lot of noise about its four screens strategy -- which is business speak for "we're making TVs, laptops, tablets and smart phones now". This means it's pushing integration between the devices. For instance, if you own a Sony TV, you can use the Xperia S as a remote control. The S also has an HDMI port to hook up to a TV, and when you do so, a launcher pops up letting you play media from your phone on the big screen.
Personally, I've never felt the urge to plug my mobile into a TV, but you could rent or buy a film on the Xperia S and watch it up big, should you so desire.
Of course, all these screens need content to fly -- and that's where the Sony Entertainment Network comes in, underpinning the hardware with a generous back catalogue of music, films, TV shows and games.
Sony services being pimped on the Xperia S include its Music Unlimited subscription service, which offers a catalogue of more than 10 million songs for either £4 or £10 per month, and its Video Unlimited shop for buying or renting film and TV shows. Sony's PlayNow Arena app store is also pre-loaded, just in case you felt underserved by the thousands of apps on Google Play. And for books, you're pushed in the direction of the Google Books service.
All these options for accessing media mean the Xperia S isn't the most streamlined of creatures, but you certainly can't complain that there isn't enough stuff to stick on your phone.
The design of the Sony Xperia S stands out thanks to a striking transparent plastic strip near the base of what is otherwise a fairly standard-issue black (or white) slab. Sony has added a clutch of similarly stripped handsets to its Xperia range -- including the Xperia P and the Xperia U -- so the clear strip (or "transparent element" as Sony likes to call it) is no longer unique to the S.
To my eye, this strip has the look of a marketing exercise -- it exists to solve the "how can we make our slab phones stand out from all the other slab phones?" conundrum.
It's confusing as it looks as if it houses the back, home and menu keys, because it contains the symbols for them locked inside its clear plastic heart. But you don't actually press on the strip to activate any of these functions. Instead you need to press the three touch-key dots above each symbol. It's inelegant to say the least, especially as the touch keys aren't always super-reactive and seem to require perfect finger placement to work.
The strip does function as an indicator -- pulsing with white light when there's an incoming call. But it's so subtle you'll hardly notice it unless you're in a darkened room. It also lights up when you're swiping around the home screens but there doesn't seem much logic to when it glows. It's a case of surface glitz over functional substance.
The handset is a solid slab, with squared-off sides and a convex back that rests easily on the palm when you're not using the device for making calls. However, the slabby shape is an ergonomic nightmare when you hold it up to your ear for long periods -- certainly if you have small hands like me. After 10 minutes on the phone I was getting finger cramps.
The overall feel is disappointingly plasticky. The matte plastic backplate is especially thin and produces a cheap hollow sound when tapped with a fingernail. While the handset is quite chunky -- about 1cm at its thickest point -- and reasonably solid, it can be made to creak and flex by applying pressure.
There are three physical buttons on the Xperia S. Up top is a power key that's irritatingly close to the 3.5mm headphone jack, making it awkward to access. On the right-hand side is a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button. All these buttons function well enough when pressed but the keys themselves lie very low. They can be easily missed if you're hastily seeking them with a finger.
The Xperia S takes a micro-SIM -- its slot is squirreled away inside the handset, next to the non-removable battery. There's a micro-USB port for charging and transferring photos and music to and from the phone, and an HDMI slot for hooking up to a TV. These two ports are covered when not in use with small plastic doors that swivel out on a single plastic hinge. There's no microSD card slot so you'll have to make do with the 32GB of onboard storage.
Despite being so plasticky, the Xperia S is surprisingly weighty -- tipping the scales at 144g, making it slightly heavier than the smaller but glass-and-steel-clad iPhone 4S. If you like the look of the Xperia S but want a different material, Sony's Xperia P offers essentially the same design but with an aluminium body.
The Xperia S runs Android Gingerbread but Sony says it will get an update to Ice Cream Sandwich in the not-too-distant future. It's due in "early Q2", so it's probably around a month away.
I did notice a few glitches with the software -- and Sony says it is still "ironing out some final bugs" -- so there should be another release that's more stable.
In the meantime, you get Android 2.3 with some unwelcome additions in the form of Sony's Timescape software and other ugly promo widgets shouting at you to GET FILMS while wasting precious space on the phone's five home screens.
Fortunately, you can delete these widgets and add useful stuff in their place so it's pretty easy to side-step most of Sony's add-ons. Its Timescape social plug-in is especially clumsy, filling an entire home screen with Facebook and/or Twitter info, depending on what you hook up to the phone, but it only manages to fit two tweets worth of info into the space.
There's a 3D panes overview of your social stream that can be fired up. This fills the screen with a scrollable stack of updates. There's no end to the number you can flip through but the stack of panes is so ugly it gives me eye-ache. Thankfully, it's easy enough to avoid.
Ugly 3D widgets seem to be a theme as Sony has also added a 3D photo viewer on another of the home screens, which lets you flick through snaps stored on your phone in one endlessly shuffling pack. Again, it looks like something dredged up from a badly drawn marketing flyer. The good news is you can consign it to the digital dustbin and forget it was ever ruining your HD view. Phew!
More useful widgets include a weather widget that can be configured to show a dynamic view of the current climatic conditions where you are -- tap on it and it will expand to show a few days hence too. A shortcuts toolbox lets you quickly toggle various phone functions on and off, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS mode.
Pinch in on any of the home screens and the phone will snap into an overview mode with all the deployed widgets displayed at once in smaller form, floating around like they're in a fish tank. It's enough to make you seasick.
On the apps front, Sony has pre-loaded several of its own apps (plus a stack of bloatware) and some Google offerings including Google Maps and Messenger. For thousands more Android apps the Google Play store is on tap -- not to be confused with Sony's own PlayNow Arena app store.
The Xperia S has a 12.1-megapixel camera and includes Sony's Exmor R for mobile CMOS sensor -- which the company reckons improves picture quality shot in low light conditions. I found it can certainly snap a relatively decent photo in a dingy room but don't expect it to be pixel perfect -- there will still be plenty of noise in the image. I found that even the darker portions of photos shot in daylight on an overcast day were peppered with noise.
That's not to say the camera can't snap a decent photo -- it can. The level of detail when light conditions are good is very high.
Colours are reasonably true to life but there is a definite tendency to over-saturate. Photos can also look slightly over-sharpened, which can have the effect of making different elements in the composition appear as if they are superimposed on the image, lending the shots a slightly surreal air.
The focus can be fiddly when it comes to locking on, especially in low light conditions. The LED flash is good though -- producing pretty decent results by moderating its light so the subject isn't washed out.
In my view there's one big design flaw with the main camera, and that's the position of the lens. It's mere millimetres away from the top edge of the phone, which is exactly where you hold the handset to take a snap -- so it's all too easy to stick a finger (or your headphone cable) in the shot.
On the plus side, there is a dedicated camera button on the side -- Sony reckons you can switch from standby to snapping in around a second when activating the camera by pressing this button. I certainly found it snappy. Indeed, it's so quick, chances are you'll snap the tip of your finger before you remember to move it out of the way of the lens.
The camera on the Xperia S can shoot HD video at 1080p resolution. I found it can be slow to focus but the overall quality is good. Audio is also impressive (see test footage below).
There's a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video calling or snapping low-quality portraits. And if that's not enough, you can also snap 3D photos using a 3D sweep panorama function. This is not proper 3D -- for that you'd need dual-cameras on the back, as can be found on the LG Optimus 3D Max. But if you're after a 3D-esque effect, the Xperia S can serve, although you'll need a 3D TV to view the results.
Camera: Sony Xperia S vs iPhone 4S
On paper, the 12.1-megapixel Xperia S should elbow past the 8 megapixels on the iPhone 4S. But specs, be damned. In my tests, both cameras performed well and in my view the iPhone's lens came out on top, with more true-to-life colours, better exposure and focus, and less noise lurking in the shadows.
The aspect ratio of photos taken with the iPhone are also arguably a more useful size, providing a squarish canvas vs the Xperia's thin rectangle -- see comparison shots below. The Xperia S shots are shown first, the iPhone 4S second:
If you were worried that its gorgeous screen was sitting atop a diddly engine, fear not. Powering the Xperia S is a 1.5GHz dual-core chip. Sure, it's no quad-core-plus-one beast, but there's more than enough clout to ensure an impressive experience.
Indeed, the Xperia S put in a strong performance in my benchmark tests -- inching past the Samsung Galaxy S2 and matching the might of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus in the AnTuTu and Quadrant tests, while the Vellamo benchmark put the Xperia S ahead of the S2 and pretty much the rest of the Android field by a considerable margin.
In my experience, the Xperia S performed well, with apps generally loading quickly and web browsing and scrolling smooth and stutter-free.
There is a noticeable initial lag when viewing a new photo before the shot comes into focus, but I've seen this on other Android devices so it seems to be a quirk of the OS, rather than a hardware inadequacy of the Xperia S.
As you'd expect from a company with a long-standing audio pedigree, sound quality is a strong point of the Xperia S. The device includes Sony's xLOUD Experience audio filter technology and 3D surround sound. Even when you're not wired in, the audio quality is warm and rich and can be pumped up pretty loud. It's not going to be the engine for your house party but it will happily get you dancing around the kitchen while you make breakfast.
There's also a decent pair of Sony earbuds in the box. Meanwhile, call quality was clear and crisp, and I didn't experience any problems with dropped calls during testing.
The battery on the Xperia S is rated at 1,750mAh. Sony reckons it'll provide up to 8.5 hours of yakking, 25 hours of music playback and 17.5 days on standby. I found it happily lasted the day with average use, but as with most smart phones, you should expect to charge it every day to ensure you don't run out of juice.
There are various options to maximise battery life on the Xperia S -- not least turning off the screen's backlight. After more than 10 hours of use, the display accounted for more than half of the battery drain so all those glowing pixels certainly take their toll.
The Xperia S also includes the tap-to-share technology known as NFC -- or near field communication, to give it its full name. NFC has been kicking around for a while now but is yet to go mainstream in the UK (it's already big in Japan).
The tech is the same as that used in London's Oyster travel cards, meaning commuters can tap in and out of the ticket barriers to enter and exit, with money automatically deducted or tickets checked. NFC is slowly making its way into phones too but it's less immediately obvious what you should use it for because the infrastructure to pay for stuff on your phone isn't properly established yet.
NFC can be used to share data as well as make payments though. To this end, Sony has included a couple of NFC tags in the box, which can be configured to fire up particular URLs or set various phone functions such as turning on Wi-Fi or pumping up the volume.
Like the round plastic tokens these NFC tags are, it all feels tokenistic to me. It's also more fiddly than it should be for something that's supposed to save time -- you need to touch the NFC tag in the centre of the back of the phone to get it to work. And the interface to configure the tags is confusing. So it's a bit of a gimmick.
The Sony Xperia S has a beefy chip, an undeniably gorgeous HD screen, high-quality audio and an impressive camera. But these assets are marred by plasticky hardware and poor camera lens positioning. Another big let-down is the lack of Ice Cream Sandwich -- and this is compounded by Sony's tendency to pile on the bloatware and layer overlapping media services that confuse the user experience.
There's no microSD card slot, and while there is 32GB of onboard storage, film lovers wanting to load up with HD movies might wonder why Sony didn't include one.
So, all in all, the Xperia S has got loads to shout about but it could have been better. And hey, Sony, it should have been. At this price, the Xperia S is crossing swords with the big boys -- the iPhone 4S, HTC's One X and One S and Samsung's Galaxy S2 -- so you'll need to be utterly sold on the HD screen and sumptuous audio to splash your cash.
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