Beyond the innovative style and multimedia features, the Xperia S has much to envy. So how does it hold up in use? Does Sony have what it takes to pump life back into its smartphone brand? Find out below.
Hardware & Design
Mobile phone design is above all a matter of taste. But all the same, we applaud the Japanese manufacturer for giving a touch of originality to its new standard bearer. To its credit, the Xperia S certainly stands out and will not go unnoticed in the sea of Google Phones you currently see in store windows. So that's one point for Sony. We also admire the matte coating, which is nice to the touch and a change from all the glossy phones out there. The relatively minimalist visual style owes a great deal to the see-through ribbon under the screen, which can also be found on the other models in the series, the Xperia P and Xperia U.
The touch-sensitive dots above the icons aren't always easy to make out!
Original at first sight, the ribbon can also be a bit distracting. Let us explain. On the ribbon are three icons (back, home, etc.). But it's not the symbols themselves you touch in order to activate their respective functions; it's the tiny, sometimes erratic, touch-sensitive dots located directly above the icons. Indeed, it's not uncommon to have to tap them a second time before your commands are enacted. And the opposite is also true: sometimes they react when you never even touched them! So errors do happen. We would have preferred physical buttons. They're more practical and they avoid you having to look at your phone every time you want to go "back", for example. In sum, as practicality goes, we've seen better.
The Xperia S is generously sized (Sony has decided not to enter the race for thinnest phone on the planet—and that's not necessarily a bad thing!) and its 144 grammes bring it closer to the iPhone 4S than the GS2. But nevertheless it is still a very nice phone to hold. The rounded back makes it fit comfortably in the hand and helps smooth out the rather angular design.
What to say about the finishing? It's great. The plastic is high quality and we were unable to detect any elements that look likely to deteriorate any faster than usual. We tested both versions of the Xperia S, the black model and the white model. And guess what? Even with the nice matte finish on the back, it still collects a fair share of smudges (which are easier to remove on the white model than on the black).
The 4.3-inch Mobile Bravia display (1280 x 720 pixels) is easy on the eye. The excellent resolution plays a large role in that. However, the contrast ratio isn't as high as on a Super AMOLED screen, as confirmed by our colour sensor. With a ratio of 740:1, the Xperia S falls in the upper-average range for smartphones, but it's still far from the infinite contrast found on the Galaxy S2. As a result, the colours are a bit less flashy, more neutral and more precise. The screen gives a delta E of 7, which means the colours aren't entirely accurate, tending toward blue. But it's still reasonable. The phone has a contrast of 400 cd/m², so when you're outside in the sun you can still easily read the screen. We have to say we were a little surprised that the viewing angles are so limited on the Xperia S. If you look from slightly above or below, the display goes pink and it's hard to make anything out. Weird. So for as nice a display as this one, you're better off looking at it from straight on.
Interface & Navigation
The Xperia S uses the same Sony Timescape interface as last year's Xperia Arc, Ray and Mini. This scaled-back UI is not close to as extensive as HTC's ecosystem, Sense. It contains five configurable desktops, a configurable app bar and a social network aggregator.
You can already hear the outcry from the overboosted-specs-loving technivores about the fact that Sony isn't offering the latest version of Android and hasn't equipped the Xperia S with one of the latest generation CPUs (like the Qualcomm S4 or Nvidia Tegra 3)... But let us say right off the bat that the Xperia S runs very smoothly and is highly responsive no matter your activity: playing recent video games, watching HD 720p videos (although 1080p can get a bit jumpy), scrolling through web pages, pinch-to-zoom, etc. Well, perhaps not all activities... switching between desktops isn't always super-smooth and actions do get stuck here and there.
We ran various software on the device to assess its raw performances, and it came out right around average for today's smartphones, whether it's in terms of computing or graphical performances. Naturally, we could have hoped for more from a dual-core processor. While the Xperia S doesn't rate as high in these tests as the GS2, let alone the iPhone 4S, it still fares better than the Motorola Motoluxe. Fans of high power may want to wait for something more impressive. However, in use we never detected any lags or hiccups at any time.
It's also worth noting that the Xperia S comes with OfficeSuite 5 in its entirety. That's something that could interest professionals who prefer to edit documents directly on their smartphones. Hey, you never know.
Let's move on to the multimedia features. After all, photos, videos, games and Internet are a large part of the package. Out-of-the-box, the Xperia S isn't recognised on Mac, so in order to sync your content (photos, videos and music) you first have to download an app to your computer (via Android File Transfer or Sony Bridge). Then your Mac will recognise the phone every time you plug it in with a USB cable.
Now let's focus on the camera, which we hope will be worthy of a good entry-level point-and-shoot. By equipping its spearhead device with a Sony 12-Megapixel sensor (for photos in 4/3 or 16/9 with 9 Megapixels) and a physical shutter release on the side of the phone, Sony evidently wants to be king of the high-end cameraphone (most smartphones have a mere 8 Megapixels). In reality, while the photo interface is enjoyable and complete with all sorts of options (although no filters), the camera doesn't quite live up to expectations. The rendering is fairly accurate (not as cold as the Lumia 900 and not as warm as the Xperia Ray or the 4S), the images could be sharper, especially near the centre of the image. The pictures also contain a lot of noise, even at low sensitivity. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray does better with its 8-Megapixel sensor. The flash is the only relatively homogeneous feature, distributing the light well across the room. We must say we were also disappointed by the fact that you can't focus anywhere you want on the screen. Oh yeah, and why in the world is the lens located exactly where your fingers go when you hold the phone in camera position?! We're still racking our brains on that one...
Videos are pretty good on the whole as long as you don't move around too much or expect great sound quality. Don't forget, it's a smartphone.
The Xperia S doesn't have native support for formats like DivX or MKV, but you can download an app from Google Play (MX Videoplayer) and convert the files with ease. That way you can sit back and watch HD videos on the high-resolution display or, even better, on your TV. Since the phone has a micro-HDMI port, it can be used as an all-around multimedia player for, say, transferring videos and vacation photos to your TV set. The Xperia S is DLNA certified, allowing you to also transfer content wirelessly to any TV.
Now for the audio.
Sony has a long history with audio devices. So we naturally figured that a Sony smartphone might carry the torch of the W Series and Walkmans, but we were honestly a little let down. The music player contains practical features like SensMe that allow you to make playlists for whatever mood you're in and connect to Music Unlimited. But the integrated speaker and headphones are nothing out of the ordinary. Our measurements place the Xperia S in the upper-average for smartphones, no more.
TrackID, an app sort of like Shazam, allows you to find a song's title (well, most of the time) and share the songs you've listened to on Facebook (but not Twitter or Google+).
After the Xperia Play, this is the first model of smartphone by Sony to be PlayStation certified. That means if you own an Xperia S you can have full-on access to PlayStation's... well, fairly meagre selection of mobile games. As is often the case, many of them require so much juice that your battery life can quickly plummet. We should also mention that the phone heats up rather quickly in game console mode.
How does the Xperia S perform with web browsing? Very well. Thanks to the HD display, pages come out highly readable and you rarely need to zoom in to view content clearly. That's a big plus. Another of this handset's advantages is how quickly pages load, even the most content- and Flash-filled pages.
Let's not forget to mention SmartTags. These little token-shaped smart stickers are NFC-compatible and can be placed at home, at work or in your car. Each SmartTag can be programmed with a different profile for whichever situation you're in. For example, it can automatically activate Bluetooth and launch GPS when you're in your car, or turn on the alarm function when you're in bed...). Since none were delivered with our testing model (it's £13 for 4), we were unable to test this highly original NFC feature. If Sony's really trying to push this feature, it could have sent us at least two SmartTags along with the phone...
Let's end our review with battery life. With a wide range of use the Xperia S struggles to make it to the end of the day. But the good thing is it takes less than an hour to charge back up 100%.