Sony Xperia S smartphone review

Sony goes after the high-end smartphone market with the new Xperia S.
Photo of Sony Xperia S smartphone review
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Sony is now producing smartphones under its own label, having split with Ericsson last year. Its new line, the NXT series, has retained the Xperia name from the Sony Ericsson days, at least for now, and a number of new Xperia handsets have been announced. The first to appear in retail is the Sony Xperia S, and it’s a strange fish indeed with some great points and some very irritating ones.

Perhaps the greatest feature of all is the screen. It is large at 4.3in, and big screens always bode well for things like watching video, reading text and viewing web pages. The thing that makes the Xperia S screen outstanding, though, is its resolution.

A no holds barred 1,280 x 720 pixels sets a new standard for Android based smartphones, and one we expect other manufacturers may feel they have to emulate. Coupled with Sony’s Mobile Bravia Engine technology the screen delivers what Sony calls its Reality Display.

Web pages in particular benefit from the clear, sharp, crisp rendering, with full screen desktop formatted pages looking simply superb. Of course you can’t always read the small print that is rendered, but it’s quite surprising how often, and how much, can be read.

It is irritating that viewing angles aren’t great for sideways glances at the phone, but we feel we are niggling a little there in the face of a superb hardware feature.

An innovation we’re not so happy with is the transparent strip that runs horizontally near the bottom of the phone. Embedded in it are icons for the Android Home, Back and Menu functions. But there’s no touch sensitivity in it, and so to activate those functions you need to tap at touch sensitive dots in the area above the strip.

Sony Xperia S 1

Even though they are very small it is weird not tapping the icons themselves, and the sensitivity of the dots isn’t great. The strip also glows to deliver alerts, which will either endear or irritate you (we weren’t great fans), and it integrates the antenna.

This strip adds a couple of millimetres to the overall size of the Xperia S too, making it a rather lanky 128mm tall. It is 64mm wide and 10.6mm thick. This makes it too big for some pockets and too large for many hands – including mine – to reach right across the screen for one handed use. The handset weighs a slightly heavy 144g too.

There is another little irritation about the chassis design. We rather like its square look – rounded corners are everywhere, and the square ones here are distinctive. But the slightly convex backplate annoys. It does nothing for grip, but it does mean the phone wobbles a bit on the desk if you tap at the screen. A minor annoyance, but for a phone into which Sony has put such design effort, one worth noting.

It is worth mentioning at this point that the Sony Xperia S takes a microSIM. These are far from widespread at the moment, though we expect them to become more popular as time goes on. If you have an existing standard sized SIM and want to switch to this handset, you’ll need to switch SIM too.

While Sony may have moved us with its screen it has irritated us with its attitude to battery and memory. Sony equips the Xperia S with a 1,750mAh battery. That’s capacious for a smartphone battery, but it has a lot of work to do keeping the processor and screen going. The Xperia S managed to last throughout the working day but needed a boost during the late afternoon or evening. We like to use our smartphones for music listening and a lot of Wi-Fi and 3G data. If you are more frugal you might get longer but should probably budget for a daily charge.

Daily charging is a regular thing with smartphones, and our irritation isn’t so much with battery life as it is with the fitting of the battery. Remove the backplate and the battery itself is hidden behind a plastic base. You can’t get to it. So there’s no way to power down this handset by pulling its battery. Not, admittedly something we have to do often, but something, which we have sometimes found necessary.

Sony Xperia S Thumb

Also, unlike Panasonic’s Eluga, that sealed battery doesn’t allow for a waterproof handset, but then few iPhone users have a problem with it being a sealed unit, so perhaps Xperia S users will be similarly accepting.

There is also a potentially serious memory issue. Sony equips the Xperia S with a generous 32GB of storage. Checking our review handset fresh out of its box 25GB was free. And that’s all you’ll ever have access to because there’s no microSD card slot. We can’t imagine why Sony has chosen to hamstring the Xperia S like this, although considering that most iPhone users are making do with 16GB or even 8GB on the older models, 32GB should keep most users more than happy.

The loss of so much of that 32GB of storage is testament to the amount of software Sony has bundled into the Xperia S. There’s a lot of multimedia software including Sony’s own Music and Video unlimited stores, remote controller for Sony TVs, plus the McAfee anti virus app. This is a PlayStation Certified phone and there’s a games store on board too.

We like that the Xperia S has an HDMI connector (protected, like the USB connector, by a hinged cover that’s a bit fiddly to remove), and we like that Sony provides a cable in the box. It’s great to see DLNA and Near Field Communications included, and also to see Ant+ here. That latter is the wireless standard used by lots of fitness kit like heart rate monitors and cycle cadence sensors, and its presence in smartphones is rare. The Xperia S should, therefore, be a great companion for anyone who’s particularly active and fond of their fitness apps.

And the 12-megapixel camera has its moments too, producing quite crisp and sharp shots when the lighting is good, though struggling a little in darker conditions. We’re not sure any camera needs to offer 16x digital zoom though. Digital zooms are pretty pointless anyway, so having excessive reach just compounds that fact.

What Sony has presented us with in the Xperia S is a dilemma. There is lots to like – the screen, generous internal storage, a physical design that some people will really like, PlayStation Certification, DLNA, NFC, Ant+, 12 megapixel camera.

But there is also a lot to irritate, especially the non-removable battery and lack of memory expansion. How much of an issue those two points are is very personal. While many will see them as deal breakers, there are millions of iPhone users who have no problem with a sealed handset with non-expandable memory.

Network: HSPA 850/900/1900/2100, GSM 850/900/1800/1900

Processor: Qualcomm MSM8260 dual core 1.5GHz

Memory: 32GB user memory

Memory expansion: none

Display: 4.3-in, 1,280 x 720

Main camera: 12-megapixel

Front camera: 1.3-megapixel

Wi-Fi: yes

GPS: yes

FM radio: yes

Battery: 1,750mAh

Size: 128 x 64 x 10.6 mm

Weight: 144g

OS: Android 3.2

Company: Sony

Positives
  • A great screen that’s ideal for the web and media viewing coupled with a fast, capable processor.
Negative
  • The absence of memory expansion is a let-down, and we don’t like the inaccessible battery either.

Verdict
The Sony Xperia S isn't perfect, but it is a very capable and feature rich handset. Some may be annoyed by the lack of microSD card slot, but with 32GB of on-board storage, most users should be well catered for. If you wand a well designed, capable smartphone, but don't want to go down the Apple route, the Xperia S is worth considering.