Sony Xperia S [Review]
Model: Xperia S LT26i (32GB)
Operating system: Android 2.3.7 with Sony UX (v6.0)
Availability: In stores
Price: Depending on country, about €450 and up
Website/Specifications: Sony, GSMArena
Xperia S is the first Sony Android phone hitting the market since Sony and Ericsson recently split up. Since Ericsson were responsible for the UI development, and since they were responsible for making the Sony Ericsson UX one of the least bloated and fastest UI’s on the market, there has been some concern that Sony with its track record would revert back to a bloated UI – one that not even powerful hardware can handle without lag and stutter.
The hardware itself is certainly nothing to scoff at. Sony has equipped the Xperia S with Qualcomm’s MSM8260 SoC (“System on a Chip”) which consists of a dual core processor at 2×1.5GHz and the Adreno 220 graphics chip. In addition to that we find 1GB of RAM and a 4.3 inch TFT screen with an insanely high pixel density. The camera of the Xperia S is yet another impressive part of the puzzle — a Sony Exmor R sensor with a whopping 12 megapixels.
In this review we’re going to take a closer look at more or less everything – from the contents of the box to its battery capacity, from construction to software. Furthermore we’re going to, in addition to running a number of synthetic benchmarks, test the phone in real world scenarios: like most people do, only a lot more intensive than what is to be consider normal for most people.
We hope that after having spent a few weeks testing the phone to its absolute limits we’re going to be able to give an answer as to whether this handset is worth your hard earned money or if you are better off spending them elsewhere.
|Specifications||Sony Xperia S|
|Measurements (W x H x D)||64 × 128 × 10,6 mm|
|Screen and resolution||4,3", 720x1280 pixlar @ 60Hz (vsync:on), 342 PPI, mineral glass|
|Panel type||LCD/TFT with LED backlight, 16,7 million colours|
|Digitizer||Capacative digitizer @ 60 Hz, with 7 simultaneous pressure points|
|System-on-a-chip||Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8260|
|CPU||Secnond generation (45nm) Qualcomm Scorpion @ 2x1,5 GHz|
|GPU||Qualcomm Adreno 220|
|RAM||1024MB (696MB available for the OS)|
|Built in memory (NAND)||32GB (~1,8GB available for app installations, ~26,5 GB user space)|
|Battery / time||1 750 mAh, 450h stand by (3G), 8,5h talk time(3G)|
|Rear camera||12.1 MP Sony Exmor R CMOS-sensor, f/2.4, AF, LED, 1080p (1920x1080 pixlar) @ 30FPS with continuous AF|
|Front camera||1,3MP (SXGA), video recording 720p (1280x720 pixlar) @ 30FPS|
|Connections||micro-HDMI, micro-USB, 3,5mm stereo connector|
|Buttons||Front: Back, home, menu.
Right side:: Camera, volume rocker.
|Network/communication||HSDPA, microSIM,14,4 Mbit/s ; HSUPA, 5.76 Mbit/s, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot, Bluetooth A2DP 2.1+EDR, A-GPS + GLONASS, ANT+ , FM-radio|
|Sensors||Accelerometer, compass, proximity sensor, light sensor|
|OS / UI||Android 2.3.7 (Gingerbread) with the Sony UX UI with Timescape and Facebook inside Xperia|
|Codec support||MPEG2, MPEG4, h264, MOV, WMV, 3GP/3GPP, MP3, WAV (PCM), AAC+, OGG, WMA|
|Misc||Available in both black and white|
In the box
In the almost all white box, which is a bit different than we are used to, we find the phone itself in its own compartment, but after having slid the outer shell of the box off we have to open another hatch to get to it. Opening yet another hatch reveals the rest of the contents, in separate compartments.
The box itself is of course of little real importance, but we are happy to note that Sony has put a little more effort into this then Sony Ericsson used to do. The unboxing experience is important for a lot of people. Worth nothing is that the charger, most of the documentation and the headset still bears the Sony Ericsson brand. We suspect it’s going to take a while yet for Sony to phase out all Sony Ericsson branded accessories.
The contents of the box:
* Sony Xperia S (”White”, 32GB)
* Wall charger with a USB-port (5V, 850mA, ”Sony Ericsson GreenHeart”)
* USB -> Micro-USB cable (roughly 1 meter/3 ft in length)
* Black stereo headset (”MH650c”, in ear, button for answering calls, no media controls)
* Three pairs of rubber ear-buds of different sizes for the headset mentioned above
* 2 x Sony Smart Tags (NFC tags)
* Quick start guide, SAR information (1.30 W/kg), warranty card
We cannot guarantee that the contents of our box exactly match the contents of boxes bought from other retailers, carriers or regions. Slight, or even large, variations may occur. If the contents of the box is of great importance for you then we recommend you contact your retailer before you make the purchase.
Design, build quality and construction
Aesthetics and design has always been and will always be a matter of personal preference, which makes it difficult for us to come to a conclusion with any kind of objectivity. What we can say is that little has changed in that department since Sony and Ericsson broke up.
In the new line of Xperia phones, called NXT, the most striking new design feature is perhaps the transparent strip of glass near the chin of the phone. Many of you will recognize this design feature from Sony’s line of flat screen TV’s. Apart from being a design feature and a notification light for incoming calls it also hosts the phone’s mobile antenna.
Just like with earlier phones from the Xperia line Sony has made an effort to give the phone a distinct design that immediately separates it from its competitors, and they have also made sure that the design appeals to most people – men and women alike. When we hit the town and let people try the phone out almost everyone is positive, and one even placed an order for an Xperia S on the spot after having used our device for a few minutes.
Handling the Xperia S is a nice experience. The size is good for most people with normal sized hands and the softly rounded back makes the phone feel nice in our hands. However if you have small hands, or if you like to be able to reach all four corners of the screen using the phone one handed, or if you have small and tight pockets, then the Xperia S might not be for you.
As far as material goes it’s plastic, both front and back, the screen glass of course excluded. This does not however mean that the phone feels cheap or “plastic”. Thanks to the surface, the finish of the plastic, the phone feels nice to hold. It can get quite slippery if you have dry hands though.
The build quality and the fit/tolerances between the parts is good, with one exception; on both our test devices the hatch on the back of the phone is a little bit loose in the corners. When you hold the phone in one hand and use the other to navigate the screen you constantly feel the hatch move slightly. Not more than half a millimeter, but enough to notice. We would have preferred it if Sony had skipped making the hatch detachable (since the battery can’t be replaced anyway) and gone for a solution where you insert the SIM card from one of the phone’s sides.
|Device||Screen (inches)||Width (mm)||Height (mm)||Min. depth (mm)||Max. depth (mm)||Weight (gram)||Battery (mAh)|
|Sony Xperia S||4.3||64.2||128.1||7.3||10.6||144||1750|
|Samsung Galaxy Nexus||4.65||67.94||135.5||8.94||9.91||135||1750|
|Samsung Galaxy Note||5.3||82.95||146.85||9.65||10.05||178||2500|
|Samsung Galaxy S Plus||4||64.2||122.4||9.9||12||119||1650|
|Samsung Galaxy S||4||64.2||122.4||9.9||12||118||1500|
|Samsung Galaxy S II||4.3||66.1||125.3||8.49||10.4||116||1650|
|SE xperia arc||4.2||63||125||8.7||10.7||117||1500|
|Google Nexus S||4||63||123.9||10.88||14.6||129||1500|
|HTC Sensation XL||4.7||70.7||132.5||9.9||11.16||162.5||1600|
Buttons, connectors, slots and sensors
The front of the phone is as usual nowadays little more than a slate of glass and lacks the physical buttons of most Android handsets from 2008 through 2010. As the manufacturers are preparing for Android 4.0 and beyond, where the menu buttons have been moved to the UI of the actual operating system, chances are that physical hardware menu buttons to many people’s chagrin will soon be a thing of the past.
Xperia S, which is being launched with Android 2.3.7/Gingerbread, instead used capacitive menu buttons, so called “touch buttons”, three of them, below the screen; Back, Home and Menu. Unfortunately these capacitive buttons has proved to be a bit of a nuisance, on both or devices, since they have a tendency to frequently not react/respond to our input. To make them work you have to hit just the right spot, a very narrow spot, while the pad of the fingertip can’t touch wither the screen above the button or the transparent strip below the button as this sometimes seem to “short circuit” the menu buttons.
The best way of going about this is to be slow, careful and almost over-explicit when pressing the buttons. Owners of early versions of the Nexus One might be familiar with how distinct you have to be – only with the Xperia S it’s even worse. As time passes we get better, we learn how to use the menu buttons, but the amount of unregistered inputs is still worse than with any other phone we have tested. The screen itself does not have any of these issues.
Apart from the Micro-USB hatch on the left side of the phone it’s completely smooth, but on the right side we find several ports and buttons. From the top and down; hatch for the Micro-HDMI port, volume rocker (+/-) and then near the bottom the dedicated camera button with two pressure points; first one for focus and the second for the shutter. On the top of the device, all the way to the left, we find the power button (which of course also acts as a lock/unlock button for the screen) and next to it the 3.5mm audio jack.
Jointly for all hardware buttons — volume rocker, power and camera — is that they apart from being nicely chromed offers a nice resistance when pressed, not to much, not too little. They also protrude from the chassis enough for our fingers to quickly and blindly find them with the phone still in the pocket. We’re very happy with the placement of the power button on the top of the device rather than on the side because this means far fewer accidental lockings and unlockings of the screen while we’re adjusting the volume or simply picking the phone up.
On the front, centered above the screen, we find the phone speaker and to the right of it the lens of the front facing camera. To the left we find the LED diode for notifications (new texts, low battery, new mails and so on). Somewhere hidden on the front of the phone there’s the light sensor for automatic adjusting of the screen brightness and a proximity sensor that shuts the phone’s screen and touch screen off while we’re holding it to our ear during a phone call.
Unfortunately the transparent strip near the chin of the phone, while being lit by both LED:s (while using the capacitive menu buttons) and that lights up with an incoming call, is not used for any other kinds of notifications. Since it can be seen no matter of the phone is placed screen up or screen down and from virtually any angle it would be perfect for all sorts of notifications — but alas it is not used for that.
Beneath the slightly ill-fitting hatch on the back all we find is the slot for the SIM card, Micro-SIM to be exact. There is not slot for memory expansion and the battery is not removable without taking the phone apart in ways that might void the warranty. Fortunately the Xperia S comes with 32GB of internal storage (~26GB available) which ought to be enough for most. A 64GB version would however be nice for all the stockpilers out there.
Reception and data speeds
As previously mentioned the transparent glass strip near the chin of the phone is not just a design feature but also a light diode for incoming calls and the mobile antenna. This placement of the antenna and the fact that the transparent glass strip is hollow, gives the antenna a free “line of sight” in several directions, unlike most phones with a metal front and chassis. This means that the reception of the Xperia S has been very good in our tests. When we apply the so called “death grip” made famous by the iPhone 4 we see only a slight drop in reception – even when using both hands.
A few quick tests on our usual spot for testing the reception reveals that with the phone lying flat on its back on a table reports -67 dBm 23 asu, which on this very spot is a very strong signal. When we pick the phone up and apply a one handed death grip the reading is -79 dBm 16 asu which is still good and far better than the Galaxy Nexus for instance. We then do the two handed death grip and thereby cover the lower part of the device completely, which gives us a reading of -83 dBm 15 asu which is actually almost as good as the Galaxy Nexus lying on the table with nothing covering it. It seems that Sony has managed to kill two birds with one stone — a nice design feature that also offers a great antenna reception.
The radio chip is via 3G/HSxPA good for up to 14.4 Mbit/s download and 5.76 Mbit/s upload, but with our subscription with our carrier our top speeds are on paper 7 Mbit/s down and 2 Mbit/s up. In our real world tests we managed to reach 6 Mbit/s down and 2.5 Mbit/s up at best, which is more than decent. We don’t doubt that Xperia S can reach close to 14 Mbit/s, but unfortunately we could not test this.
Via WiFi the reception is good, but we immediately notice that the signal strength is very much affected by how we hold the phone and on which surfaces we place it. We’re guessing, without knowing, that the WiFi antenna unlike the mobile antenna has a more traditional placement along one of the sides of the phone, making it more sensitive to how you hold it.
The data speeds via WiFi (n) on our local FTP network are good but not great. When we transfer large files to and from the device (not at the same time) we note a top speed of 28 Mbit/s (3.5 MB/s) while downloading (from server to phone) and a mere 22 Mbit/s (2.8 MB/s) while uploading (to server from phone). We can compare this to the 45 Mbit/s (5 MB/s) in both directions on Tegra 2 devices and about 18-20 Mbit/s (2.3-2.5 MB/s) with Motorola (Droid) RAZR.
We find the quality of sound in phone calls (both 2G and 3G) to be more than satisfactory and we can’t really find anything to criticize except for the usual complaint — the sound in the internal phone speaker on the front is not quite as loud as we would have liked it to be, especially for the hearing impaired. In the sample recordings below we compare the front phone speaker on the Xperia S with Motorola (Droid) RAZR and we find that the Xperia S is both louder and clearer.
The recording is made with both phones set to maximum volume at a distance of 5 centimeters (2 inches) from the microphone we use to record (Blue Yeti Pro).
Sony Xperia S (front phone speaker)
Motorola (Droid) RAZR (front phone speaker)
Like the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc and arc s, Xperia S is equipped with a secondary microphone, placed on the back of the device. The secondary microphone is used to record background noise and then filter this noise from the recording made by the primary microphone on the bottom of the phone. This feature works fairly good on the predecessors and does so on the Xperia S as well – not better, not worse. In the settings menu for the phone this feature can be turned off.
The “external” speaker on the back of the phone produces a crisp and loud sound in noisy environments, even when we have the XLoud feature turned off, which Sony claims to boost the volume even more. We’re not particularly fond of the XLoud feature though because we feel it distorts the sound, and it gets worse the higher the volume setting. Compared to the Xperia arc the Xperia S is definitely louder, but our impression is that the arc produce a more balanced sound whereas the Xperia S produce a sharper and more high pitched sound — which the sample recordings below demonstrates.
In these recordings we have placed the phones 45 centimeters (16 inches) from our microphone (Blue Yeti Pro), set the phones’ external speakers to 100% and then we play our sound test clip using the default music players with equalizers and other sound effects turned off — of course not both phones at the same time.
Sony Xperia S external back speaker
Sony Ericsson Xperia arc external back speaker
Sony Xperia S external back speaker with XLoud
Sony Ericsson Xperia arc external back speaker With XLoud
Sony bundles an in ear headset that at first glance does not look like anything special or qualitative, but after having tried them for a few minutes we’re pleasantly surprised at the quality – at least in our untrained non audiophile ears. Unless you have very high demands as far as the sound quality of your headset goes these will most likely be good enough for most. As an addition to the headset a set of three different sized rubber ear plugs for the headset.
In comparison with the Samsung Nexus S with Voodoo control, or the Sandisk Sansa Clip+ with a proper pair of headphones, the difference in sound is noticeable. In Xperia S we miss the power and the dynamic the aforementioned players deliver, especially if we connect high impedance headphones. If you know you prefer high impedance headphones with large elements and like to listen at a high volume, we’re not sure the Xperia S will be up to the task. As always — if the sound bit is important to you we recommend that you bring your favorite headphones to your favorite retailer and try it out before you make the purchase.
Unfortunately we have not been able to perform the usual RightMark Audio Analyzer test for the Xperia S because of technical issues rendering the output result completely off the charts and therefore unusable.
GPS and positioning
Show walk through town with Sony Xperia S (blue) vs Sony Ericsson Xperia arc (red) on a larger map
In this test we take the Xperia S with us for a walk through town (buildings and parks) and in our car for a short trip in mostly open terrain. The application used to record our trip is called Open GPS Tracker and is available for free on Google Play (former Android Market). Since this test is supposed to test the GPS/GLONASS capacity we disable all mobile positioning aids.
We start by, in a place with no buildings or trees obscuring the sky comparing the time it takes for each device (Xperia S and Xperia arc) to get a reliable lock against the satellites with an accuracy of 25 meters (~80 ft) or less. After numerous tests we conclude that the Xperia S is the faster of the two with a lock within 2-3 seconds compared to the arc which needs a few seconds more.
Going by the map above we can see that both the Xperia S and the Xperia arc at times have some trouble tracking our route. Both devices are guilty of momentary “detours” slightly off our real route lasting but a second or two. According to Google Maps this means we have traveled through buildings, parkways and trees even though we of course have not. It bears pointing out that it’s a difficult setting for any GPS as there are high buildings and lots of trees along the route we walk.
Show trip with car with Samsung Galaxy Note (blue) vs. Sony Xperia S (red) on a larger map
During our GPS test in a car we find that the Xperia S performs just as well as the Samsung Galaxy Note, with one exception. As we approach the forest area near the end of our route the Xperia S loses contact with the satellites completely. Not just most of the satellites, but every single one. This is however not something we have been able to reproduce, so we’re inclined to write it off as nothing but a random fluke or a bug in the GPS app (Open GPS Tracker).
Screen and digitizer
The Xperia S has been equipped with a 4.3 inch TFT screen with a resolution of 720×1280 pixels, also known as 720p. This resolution in combination with the 4.3 inch screen gives the device a pixel density of a fantastic 342 PPI, which of course results in what can only be described as razor sharp. The much talked about iPhone 4(S) retina screen “only” has a PPI of 326 PPI. So with the Xperia S not only do you get a higher pixel density, you also get far more pixels and a larger screen.
The latter, screen size and therefore phone size, might not be a plus for everyone, but as screens tends to get larger and larger we have to assume that that is what most people want. We cannot, try as we might, make out single pixels unless we literally hold the screen just a few inches from our eyes, which makes us go “Finally!” because this is a first on any of the Android devices we have tried and reviewed over the years.
The color depth is of course in the millions, about 16 million nuances to be more precise, and the screen delivers vibrant and realistic colors without falling for the temptation of making the colors over-saturated because it looks good under the bright light at the retailers. Unfortunately the backlight, as per usual with Xperia models, requires a higher setting for the colors to come to life and be as good as they can be. Compared to our reference device, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Xperia S needs a brightness setting of 65% to match the 50% brightness setting of the Galaxy Nexus. Sharpness, colors and contrasts are all very good and even the blacks are decent for an LCD TFT screen.
The only real Achilles’ heel of the screen is the viewing angles, which are fairly poor. The screen quickly gets wishy-washy, loses contrast and brightness even in moderate angles (45 degrees or so). When the phone lies back down on our desk next to us it can even get hard to read some text (depending on text color and background color) without having to pick the phone up, which if course is far from ideal.
The screen readability in full daylight is good thanks to a fairly high maximum brightness (even though the screen is very dim at 50%). Even though the Xperia S does not have the new RGBW (Red, Green, Blue, White) sub pixel matrix of its smaller sibling the Xperia P we still think the white levels at full brightness are very good. We notice a bit more screen reflection on the Xperia S than on both the Galaxy S II and the Galaxy Nexus, but that is to be expected on a TFT screen.
The digitizer, the touch screen itself, is good and generally responds quickly and accurately to our taps and swipes. We measure a refresh rate of 60Hz using the Input Benchmark app, which means that the screen reads our taps and swipes 60 times every second. We also measure the multi-touch capacity using the same app, and find that it can handle up to seven (7) simultaneous touch points, and track their movement. This is of course more than enough for any practical implementation of multi-touch.
When compared to the absolute cream of the crop touch screen phones we notice that the Xperia S screen might be slightly less responsive, but the difference is so small that it might be all in our heads. However, when laying on the back on certain surfaces the screen definitely loses some responsiveness. We’re not sure how or why, but we have seen this behavior on other phones as well. We assume that the static electricity in some surfaces somehow interferes with the slight electric charge in our fingertips which are used by the phone’s touch screen too register our taps and swipes. The problem is not a big one though, but worth mentioning.
The biggest problem, which we have already mentioned in the Buttons, connectors, slots and sensors chapter, is the capacitive menu buttons below the screen. Time and time again they miss our taps, our attempted input, and it happens very frequently — roughly estimated one in three times, unless we make sure we are slow and almost over-explicit when we press them. The “sweet spot” so to speak is very narrow, just 4-5 millimeters as per our rough estimate, and if you’re off just by a fraction the button won’t register the tap.
Furthermore, if you just mash down the entire flat of your fingertip to be sure to hit the right spot, you will at the same time touch either the transparent strip just below the buttons or touch the actual screen surface above the buttons, both of which seem to “short circuit” the menu buttons, rendering them unresponsive. The trick is to simply take your time and make sure you hit just the right spot, indicated by small dots. Having nimble fingertips and not being in a hurry is a definite advantage. The issue with the unresponsive menu buttons is magnified while the phone lies on its back on certain surfaces.
Operating system and software
Sony Xperia S comes with Android 2.3.7/Gingerbread (with an upgrade ti 4.0/Ice Cream Sandwich slated for the second quarter of 2012) with Sony’s (Sony Ericsson’s) in-house developed UX on top. Sony/Sony Ericsson UX is a bit of a favorite among the Swedroid staff, as far as the manufacturers own interfaces goes, because of its lightness and speed. No bloat or an abundance of animations and features slowing the device down — just like we want it.
We’re happy to note that even though Ericsson (who was responsible for developing the UX interface) is now out of the game the latest version (6.0) of the Sony UX is still very quick and responsive. However, straight out of the box Sony has applied every single widget they have to the home screens, which does slow the phone down a bit while swiping between the home screens or pinching the screen to get an overview.
As soon as we clean the home screens up (i.e. removes most of the widgets we don’t need), as we suspect almost everyone buying a new Android phone will do, the phone ends up just as snappy as we have come to expect from Xperia phones from 2011 and on. As with all Android phones a plethora of widgets will slow the phone down — so avoid that of you can.
On the surface not much is new in the latest and greatest Sony UX interface — at least not in terms of features. Overall the graphical interface is more polished with nice blue gradients in the bundled widgets and settings menus. A new textured background instead of the old barely noticeable blackish gradient is a nice touch as well — and luckily Sony has managed to made these eye candy improvements without making the interface slower. Notice the NFC widget which works with the Sony Smart Tags bundled in the box. More about this further down in the review.
Sony offers only one theme to choose from, but in several different colors. We would like to see more options here in the future – not only different colors but also slightly different graphical designs (like in earlier versions of HTC:s Sense UI). A pleasant addition is the option to change the lock screen background, via the screen settings menu.
In the app menu everything looks exactly like before, except that the dots indications which screen you are on are now circular and not rectangular.
Phone app and calendar
The calendar has been redesigned, but unfortunately it seems the calendar widget has been lost in the process. The new calendar design has made it easier to read and understand in comparison to the old one in the Xperia arc.
The web browser
We chose to compare the Xperia S against the Galaxy Nexus because of the same screen resolution and the fact that both are dual core devices with 1GB of RAM. The Xperia S beats the Galaxy Nexus time and time again, however slight, in terms of rendering speed, zooming, scrolling and panning. Considering that the Xperia S and its Gingerbread innards are only able to use one of the two processor cores properly this is a very impressive feat. We’re really looking forward to the Ice Cream Sandwich update.
Gallery and media players
|Clip||Resolution||Codec / Profile / Container||Bitrate||Audio||Results
(MX Video Player)
|#1||640x352||XviD / Simple@L5 / AVI||1 Mbit/s||MP3 2.0||OK|
|#2||576x320||XviD / Simple@L5 / AVI||1.4 Mbit/s||MP3 2.0||OK|
|#3||720p||h.264 / High@L3.1 / MKV||3 Mbit/s||AC3 5.1||OK (sound: S/W only)|
|#4||720p||h.264 / High@L4.1 / MKV||9 Mbit/s||AC3 5.1||OK (sound: S/W only)|
|#5||1080p||h.264 / High@L4.1 / MKV||14 Mbit/s||DTS 5.1||OK (sound: S/W only)|
|#6||1080p||h.264 / High@L4.1 / MKV||19.2 Mbit/s||AC3 5.1||OK (sound: S/W only)|
|#7||1080p||h.264 / High@L4.1 / MKV||22.8 Mbit/s||DTS 5.1||OK (sound: S/W only)|
|#8||1080p||h.264 / High@L4.1 / MKV||25 Mbit/s||DTS 5.1||OK (sound: S/W only)|
|#9||1080p||h.264 / High@L4.1 / MKV||30 Mbit/s||AC3 5.1||Fail (low FPS)|
|#10||1080p||h.264 / High@L4.1 / MKV||42 Mbit/s||AC3 5.1||Fail (very low FPS)|
The Xperia S, with Qualcomm’s MSM8260 platform under the bonnet, is a very competent video player. With the right video app (in this case the free version of MX Video Player) which is able to software decode the sound formats the Xperia S lack native support for (AC3 and DTS for example), we managed to play all our test clips without a hitch, except the very demanding “bird clips” that for many years have been used to test the limits of the software and the hardware of video players.
Thanks to the high resolution of the screen (720p) and the crisp and strong colors it’s a bit of a pleasure to watch TV episodes in HD/720p (1280×720 pixels) or even more – the Xperia S will handle FullHD/10180p (1920×1080 pixels) as well, though it will of course get down-scaled to the 720p screen. Watching such a small screen will however in the long run strain your eyes, but then again that’s true for all smartphones on the market today – even monsters like the 5.3 inch Samsung Galaxy Note. An extra point is awarded to Xperia S for the, for a smartphone, loud and crisp external speaker.
As far as the Gallery app goes, Sony simply went for the Android 2.3/Gingerbread default app, and this also extends to the video player which is the default Android 2.3 player. The Gallery app itself does its job, but there are far better free alternatives on Play Shop/Android Market, like QuickPic. The stock video player however is very poor and has not changed much at all since Android 1.5/Cupcake. Sony has added a far better container/codec support though which at least makes the player usable, but once again you will find a plethora of far better video players on Play Shop.
The music player is in essence a completely new and revamped experience and in addition to that a lot better. The navigation and browsing through albums, artists and songs, and a five band equalizer for finding the best possible settings for your headphones and personal preference is a big step up. Sony has also added a feature for selecting songs based on mood and creating a playlist based on this.
We also appreciate the DLNA support which is very easy to access and use. After but a few taps of the screen the music is flowing through our DLNA compatible Onkyo amplifier. The music player is also tied (optional) to Facebook for easy sharing of your current songs, or to follow what your friends are listening to.
Sony has not only equipped the Xperia S with a Micro-HDMI port but also with a more TV friendly hub/interface that is activated automatically as you connect the phone to the TV. Because the device also supports “Remote Control Passthrough” through the HDMI interface controlling the device via the TV’s remote control is simple and intuitive. No configuration is necessary other than finding your favorite media apps (video, music) on the Google Play Shop.
The settings menu is fairly standard for Android 2.3/Gingerbread as the above screenshots reveal. Sony has added a few bells and whistles though, such as the Xperia sub menu where the most essential feature is the Facebook integration, as shown in the video below.
As usual with Xperia phones you cannot disable the automatic screen brightness feature which supposedly serves to extend the battery life, but can result in a way too dim screen for some. The only way to disable this it to either set the screen to 100% brightness manually, or downloading third party apps for this on the Google Play Shop (formerly known as Android Market).
Sony Smart Tags / NFC
In this video we demonstrate how the NFC tags can work with Sony’s Xperia Smart Tag software. Each tag/brick activates a different profile, as configured by the user. The Smart Tag app itself is very easy to use and for better or for worse the options are limited. Some like the simplicity which makes the app very user friendly even for novices; others prefer a plethora of settings. As usual, though, there are several third party NFC apps to choose from on Google Play Shop.
Other applications worth mentioning
The Sony Ericsson PC Suite is now updated and renamed Sony PC Suite. The program itself works exactly like it did before and lets you update the phone software and make backups and restore the device among other things.
Pictured above we see the FM radio, the alarm and the Power Saver app. The latter is very easy to configure and create profiles which help you conserve the battery life, depending on things like location and the time of day.
The camera has a whopping 12 megapixels and is Sony’s own Exmor R sensor, which means high quality images. The megapixel count does not say much — or anything at all — about the actual picture quality and is only a measurement of the maximum dimensions of the image. 12 megapixels equals images of 4500×3000 pixels in size, and the video camera handles up to 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) at 30 FPS.
The camera has both auto focus and tap-to-focus and a number of additional focus settings like smile detection. The software offers more or less what we have come to expect from Xperia phones, which means that it for a smartphone is very good. Next to the camera lens on the back there’s an LED flash to help while snapping shots in poor lighting. The LED also serves as an optional video light while recording videos. The LED is not strong enough to be of any use over great distances, but up to a distance of three or so meters (10 ft) it works surprisingly well.
On the front we find the secondary camera lens for video calls and self portraits. The resolution is a more modest 1.3 megapixels and will record videos at 720p (1280×720 pixels) at 30 FPS. This is more than enough for its purpose, but as usual with front cameras the picture/video quality is very poor unless you are in an extremely well lit environment — preferably outside, in sunlight.
All pictures below are taken with each camera’s maximum resolution and with the default settings.
Right click images and open in a new tab/new window for full size versions.
Click for full size
Summary — camera stills
Going by the sample camera images above it’s fairly obvious that the Exmor R sensor in the Xperia S, in addition to offering more megapixels, delivers images that are at least a few notches better than its predecessor Xperia arc, especially in terms of detail and crispness. In the images above we have chosen three images on random and cut out the same area from each image to demonstrate the difference in detail. We know that the Xperia arc had one of the best cameras of any Android phone in 2011, but as you can clearly see the Xperia S is far better. Note that we had to shrink the Xperia S images slightly to get the size comparable to the Xperia arc, but other than this no editing has been done.
While taking photos in poor lighting, without the LED flash, the Xperia arc, using default/auto settings, produce images with less graininess than the Xperia S. This is due to the default/auto settings where the Xperia S prioritizes a lower ISO than the arc. When the LED flash is active the end result is far more even since the graininess caused by the poor lighting becomes less of an issue. The strength/brightness of the LED’s on the Xperia S and arc are as far as we can see comparable. With the LED flash active the Xperia arc has a lot more trouble finding focus if the object is less than about half a meter (1.5 ft) away. The Xperia S does a much better job, at its default setting.
The auto focus is in good lighting quick and does its job well. In sequence we manage to take about one picture every half a second, but this if course requires the lighting to be good and the focus to already be fixed after the first shot. In comparison to the Xperia arc this is a great improvement, but compared to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus with its Zero Shutter Lag feature, the Xperia S cannot quite compete. After about ten shots in sequence the camera momentarily lags for a second or two, presumably while writing to the internal NAND flash from the RAM buffer dedicated to the camera.
Macro photography is in relation to other phone cameras we have tested very good, as long as the default auto setting is disabled along with smile detection disabled. With smile detection enabled macro photography of certain objects can become more or less impossible. The minimum focusing distance is about 6 centimeters (just over two inches) which means we can get very close to the object, which in combination with a speedy auto focus/tap focus produces a very good result, even when the object is not completely motionless — such as a flower gently swaying in the wind.
Sony Xperia S — more camera samples
Sony Xperia S 1080p @ 29,692 FPS (13,9Mbps)MP4 AVC Baseline@L4.0. Stereo AAC, 48KHz, 96Kbps
Sony Ericsson Xperia arc 720p @ 29.692 FPS (6 Mbps) MP4 AVC Baseline@L3.1. Stereo AAC, 48KHz, 96Kbps
Bugs and problems
The problem with the Sony Xperia S has almost completely been about the three capacitive menu buttons by the bottom end of the screen. At first we thought it was a problem with our review unit, but then a few days later when we received a second device we noted the exact same behavior on that unit as well. The way to go about using these buttons — because they do work if you use them the right way — is to be over-explicit and make sure you not only press fairly hard but also hit that tiny little sweet spot, can’t be more than 4-5 millimeters (one fifth of an inch) in height, or the button might not register your tap. Unless we changed our behavior to the above when using the Xperia S, a considerably slower way of using the menu buttons, we estimate that about one in three taps failed.
After some research we found that this is a problem mentioned time and time again by both reviewers and regular end users using the phone. For some users the problem is far less noticeable because they by nature are more precise and deliberate in their usage of the menu buttons, while it for others who are used to more responsive buttons and not having to slow down to make sure to hit a tiny sweet spot it’s more than a little frustrating.
We can only conclude that Sony might have to rethink the design/size of the capacitive buttons in future models if this is not something that can be resolved with a software update or slightly revised hardware in future Xperia S batches leaving the factory.
An important note is that the digitizer, the touch screen itself, does not have any of these problems — the problem is 100% restricted to the menu buttons.
The battery performance during video playback proves, with a time of 6 hours and 27 minutes of continuous playback, to be a bit of a disappointment. Previous models from the Xperia line has shown a far better battery life in this test and the absolute best phones we have tested keeps going for another five hours after the Xperia S throws in the towel.
Note that because of the low screen brightness of the Xperia S at 50% brightness we had to up the brightness all the way to 67% for the Xperia S to match our reference unit Galaxy Nexus at 50%. Just to be thorough we then ran the test again, this time with the brightness set to 50% instead of 67%, which gave us an additional 55 minutes of battery time. Considerably better, but still far behind some of the competitors. However setting the Xperia S screen to 50% also means that it gets so dark that we at certain dark parts of the movie could not make out much detail at all, unless we were in a pitch black room.
Why the Xperia S, with a larger battery, performs so much worse than some previous Xperia phones, we don’t know. Our guess is that a larger screen combined with a higher screen resolution takes its toll on the battery. It’s also possible that the drivers for the relatively new Qualcomm MSM8260 platform still needs a bit of tweaking and optimizing, which could improve battery life. The upcoming Android 4.0/Ice Cream Sandwich update might also improve battery life.
If we disregard the poor battery life during video playback and instead focus on a more relevant “real life” type of usage the battery performance is a lot better. The fact is that the Xperia S after a regular 16 hour day with approximately 45 minutes of phone calls, 30 minutes of composing/sending/receiving e-mails, an hour of listening to music via Spotify (offline mode), an hour browsing the web and using Google Reader and finally some simple puzzle games, Facebook and Twitter and a permanent data (3G) connection still have battery left at the end of the day — something far from all Android phones can manage.
Under the bonnet of the Xperia S we find Qualcomm’s dual core MSM8260 platform, which consists of a processor running at 2×1.5GHz, the Adreno 220 graphics chip and 1GB of RAM. Even though quad core devices are waiting just around the corner this dual core solution gives the device plenty of “oomph” and we rarely or ever find ourselves wishing that we had two more cores.
The Android version is 2.3.7 (with an update to 4.0.x coming during the second quarter) and on top of this Sony has added its own UI called Sony UX.
A shortlist of the more prominent features of the phone is as follows: The 4.3 inch 720p (1280×720 pixels) screen, the nifty NFC support and an Exmor R camera sensor with a whopping 12 megapixels.
Sony has equipped the Xperia S with 1GB or RAM which is twice the amount of the Xperia flagships of yesteryear. This increase in RAM makes a huge difference for those of us that likes to multitask heavily, run lots of apps simultaneously and switch between them instantly.
On Xperia phones from 2011 with only 512MB of RAM Android was forced to try and juggle the active processes and make the most of the limited RAM, which meant the OS sometimes had to terminated processes that was not currently in use, which in turn meant that once we decided we needed that particular app again it would take a second or two extra to switch to it. With the Xperia S this is not a major issue anymore.
The Xperia S comes with 32GB of built in storage memory, out of which almost 27GB are available to the user for storing things like music, videos and images. Of the remaining 5GB about 1800MB is reserved for app installations and the rest is taken up by Android itself.
We hope that when Xperia S gets the Android 4.0/Ice Cream Sandwich update the partition will be like on the Galaxy Nexus where the user gets to decide how to distribute the available app and storage space, without separate partitions defined by the manufacturer.
Gaming, performance and graphs
Benchmark Pi measures the calculation capacity of the device, which gives us a score that reflects the capacity of the processor(s). Lower is better. Xperia S can’t quite match the best scores, especially not when considering the MHz of the processor.
Linpack measures the floating point capacity of the processor and the result is shown as MFLOPS. Higher is better. In this test Xperia S does a lot better and is only beaten by the two Exynos 4210 equipped Samsung devices Galaxy Note and Galaxy S II.
CF-Bench measures both the processor and the memory performance and adds the two for a total score. Higher is better. Xperia S snags second place and shows that the Qualcomm MSM8260 platform combined with Sony’s software is competitive.
Rightware’s BrowserMark is a platform independent benchmark performed in the web browser. In this test a number of short tests are undertaken and the result is shown as a total score where higher is better. Since this is a test independent of the platform we have also added a few test results from a couple other mobile platforms than Android. In this test the Xperia S performance is a bit of a disappointment, but we need to remember that the Xperia S is still on Android 2.3.7/Gingerbread which in the default browser cannot utilize both processor cores. As it’s upgraded to 4.0/Ice Cream Sandwich (second quarter of 2012) we are likely going to see a huge boost in a number of benchmarks, such as BrowserMark and Sunspider.
Monjori Shader Benchmark measures the fragment shader capacity of the graphics chip. The result is shown as FPS (“Frames Per Second”) and higher is better. Once again this is a benchmark where the resolution of the device is of huge importance, and devices with a high resolution will get a lower score than devices with a lower resolution screen – provided the hardware (processor, GPU) is the same. Because of this the only three models in the graph above that are fairly comparable as far as the screen resolution goes are the Xperia S, the Galaxy Note and the Galaxy Nexus, and as we can see the Xperia S snags first place ahead of the Galaxy Note and far far ahead of the as far as graphical rendering goes underpowered Galaxy Nexus.
Electopia is a 3D benchmark based on the OpenGL ES 1.1 framework and is designed to put the graphics chip to the test. The result is shown as FPS (“Frames Per Second”) and higher is better. Note that phones with a screen resolution of less than WVGA (800×480 pixels) gets and unfair advantage since they give the graphics chip far fewer pixels to shuffle, resulting in a higher FPS. Once again the Xperia S performs well, but gets beat out by the Samsung duo Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note.
Nenamark 2 is just like Electopia above a 3D benchmark designed to put the graphics chip to the test, but unlike Electopia this one is based on the newer OpenGL ES 2.0 framework. The result is shown as FPS (“Frames per Second”) and higher is better. In this test the Xperia S is so close to the Galaxy S II that it’s well within the margin of error – when we run the test a few times sometimes the Xperia S comes out on top, sometimes the Galaxy S II.
|Name||Sequential read (MB/s)||Sequential write (MB/s)||Random read (MB/s)||Random write (MB/s)||IOPS/s read (4K)||IOPS/s write (4K)|
|Sony Xperia S||35.74||6.63||7.03||0.18||1800||48|
|Samsung Galaxy Note||43.04||5.26||3.43||0.2||881||52.5|
|Samsung Galaxy S II (2.3.5)||45.6||5.17||4.54||0.24||1164||64
|Samsung Galaxy S Plus (2.3.5)||30.57||5.69||4.87||0.17||1250||44
|Samsung Galaxy Gio (2.3.5)||6.19||4.03||2.18||1.65||560||424|
|SE xperia arc (2.3.4)||7.9||5.48||4.36||5.71||1117||1462|
|LG Optimus 3D (2.2)||18.59||2.12||0.47||0.1||121||27|
|HTC Evo 3D (2.3.4)||24.41||1.56||2.66||0.18||681||48|
|Motorola RAZR (2.3.5)||34.03||6.56||4.34||0.37||1113||95|
|Samsung Galaxy Nexus||26.71||5.08||5.28||0.21||1351||54|
With Androbench 3.0 we measure the performance of the internal flash memory — not the external SD card. A higher score is always better, both for read, write and IOPS. The Xperia S performs well and even dominates the competition in terms of random read/IOPS.
Despite long gaming sessions with demanding games where both the graphics chip and the processor gets maxed out we never feel that the device gets hot to the level of becoming a problem. We measure a moderate max temp on the hottest place of the back of the phone of 42.5 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to the steaming hot Samsung Galaxy S II’s 56.5 degrees Celsius (134 degrees Fahrenheit). We suspect part of the explanation for this is that the Xperia S chassis is a few millimeters thicker, providing more air/space for the heat to escape. Furthermore it’s possible that the Adreno 220 graphics chip is cooler than the Mali 450 chip in the Galaxy S II. In any case the Xperia S never gets worryingly warm, which of course is good.
The Xperia S is an interesting device in quite a few different ways, but above all it’s the first Android smartphone from Sony since the joint venture with Swedish based Ericsson recently came to an end. Because of this we didn’t expect to see any major differences from last year’s line-up of Sony Ericsson branded smartphones – at least not with regard to the look and feel of the UI. How much influence could Sony possible have over a time span of a few months? And sure enough – once the phone arrived most things both looked and felt just as we expected.
It’s quite obvious though that Sony has had a bit more to say this time around. There’s a new design language which closely resembles that of their Bravia TV line-up rather than the earlier Sony Ericsson Xperia phones, but as with the earlier Xperia-devices they’ve put a great deal of attention to create a unique physical design which undoubtedly makes it stand out amongst its competitors. In general the design seems to attract people’s attention in a most positive manner. Further along both material and build quality is something that we can relate to from earlier models.
The material of choice for the Xperia S is plastic with the obvious exception of the transparent glass stripe and the mineral glass screen. It doesn’t however feel that “plastic” or cheap since Sony’s done a remarkable job of putting this device together. It feels solid and well built for a plastic device and is much sturdier than say the Xperia Arc. We’re not so fond of the removable cover though as the fit isn’t as good as we would have hoped for. There’s just a very slight glitch between the cover and the rest of the device which takes away a little bit from the overall feeling of the device.
Sony delivers the Xperia S with a new version of their rather snappy UX UI running on top of Android 2.3.7 – Android 4.0 is by the way promised to come along within a few months of time. The phone is powered by Qualcomm’s dual core MSM8620 2×1.5GHz (45nm) Snapdragon S3 platform paired with the Adreno 220 GPU and 1GB of RAM. It’s not a quad core monster, but upon flicking around amongst the home screens, watching 1080p MKV/h.264 video clips, browsing the web or even playing more advanced 3D-games such as Shadowgun; we never think to ourselves “Darn! If only they’ve paired it with a quad core CPU…”. The Xperia S does by the way deliver a smoother browser experience than both the Transformer Prime or the Galaxy Nexus with stock ROM.
The screen is among the very best we’ve ever laid our eyes upon, with a pixel density (PPI) and sharpness that at present lacks equivalence amongst any other smartphone on the market today. The color saturation is also very good, but only if we increase the brightness of the display quite a bit. Both contrast and black levels are good with regard to the fact that this is a TFT LCD screen. The main weakness of the screen is viewing angles which does disappoint.
Sony Ericsson has been pretty consistent with delivering a good camera experience since the introduction of the Sony backlit Exmor R CMOS sensor. This time around they’ve bumped the megapixel count to 12 megapixels, which usually doesn’t mean a thing considering how small the sensor is, but after comparing the results with last year’s Xperia arc we can only conclude that it’s a major upgrade. The sharpness has increased by a huge margin. High ISO performance isn’t that good though and in darker environments the 8MP Exmor R sensor within the Xperia arc outperforms the Xperia S. Overall though this is the best smartphone camera we’ve yet to experience from an Android device and will of course be using this reference unit for future reviews.
The GPS performed well and we’re quite happy that Sony has enabled GLONASS support. It’s especially of good use for us living in the north where the GLONASS coverage is especially good.
There really isn’t a perfect device out there and the Xperia S is of course no exception. Most of the problems such as the ever so slightly loose removable cover, doesn’t really matter that much. On the other hand we do have a major problem with the not so responsive front mounted capacitive buttons. To call them unresponsive might not be fair though since the problem really is about the touch sensitive area being too small. In time it does get better as we learn exactly where to press. We still never really feel that comfortable with them as we would’ve wished though and do hope that this is fixable via a FOTA update.
We had pretty high expectations with regard to the battery time of this device but came to be a tiny bit disappointed. During our video playback test the Xperia S didn’t perform that well, but during more normal usage it’s pretty average for heavy users as us. We usually manage a whole day without any troubles, but still have to charge it every night for it to the last another working day.
The lack of SD card might pose a problem to users eager of storing large amount of video, pictures or music, but since it’s delivered with 32GB NAND memory (26GB available) it’s not that big of a problem as with the Galaxy Nexus and it’s tin-pot 12-13 GB of available memory. We sure do hope that Sony will deliver a 64GB version in the future for all of you stockpiling hamsters out there.
All in all the Xperia S is, as it should be, the best Xperia phone that we’ve yet to test. With a much faster CPU, GPU and twice the amount of RAM as its predecessor combined with a fantastic screen and also what probably is the best camera within the Android world it’s as of this moment one of the best and most solid devices on the market.
Sony Xperia S is suitable for you if you:
* Want an Android phone with a world class screen
* Want the best camera of any Android phone around — by far
* Want great gaming, browsing and app performance
* Want great native video support — but third party player like MX Video Player is recommended
* Premiers a nice and modern design that stands out in the competition
* Sees a lot of use for NFC tags now or in the future
Sony Xperia S might be suitable for you if you:
* Want a supposedly speedy upgrade to Android 4.0.x/Ice Cream Sandwich
* Are fond of the (for now) lightning fast and minimalistic Sony UX interface
Sony Xperia S is not suitable for you if you:
* Gets frustrated by unresponsive menu buttons (not to be confused with screen response)
* Demand the absolutely latest in terms of hardware (namely upcoming quad core devices)
* Demands the absolute best in terms of materials and build quality
* Demands a battery time that matches the absolute best competitors