This review has been updated, with some clarifications that relate to the beta firmware used in the reviewer's handset.
The first Sony branded smartphone carries an exclusive yet elegant look, but with some deceptive features. One of the first things to notice about the austere design of this fresh, salubrious Xperia model is its neat translucent strip - believed by many, to be a form of indicator.
We now all realise there are no physical buttons along this strip, but instead access a poorly-responsive, touch-sensitive bar (in our near-final firmware model), highlighting the familiar Sony symbols that we have come to know. The crystal-clear ‘glacier' effect of this strip looks, for all intents and purposes as though it could at least change colour to indicate a new message, Wi-Fi connectivity and so on. It's therefore a great shame that it literally does nothing. Apart from this small omission, Sony has at least exhibited a clean-cut device with a wealth of features.
Processor & Camera
As part of the new Xperia ‘NXT' series, it has a dual-core 1.5GHz CPU that turns around processes with great efficiency, even after you sift through the pre-installed apps. Some of these you can never delete, from the irreplaceable and therefore precious device's memory.
It is slightly detrimental then, that the touchscreen can be a big sluggish and stubborn in reaction to your commands. A mighty impressive 12megapixel camera offers 720p video recording in our beta firmware with 1080p expected, where the included Exmor ‘R' sensor helps you capture better quality images in poor lighting conditions - it is still, potentially one of the best phone cameras in the business. Its low aperture value and 3D sweep panorama feature further heightens its credentials, on this section of the device.
One of the most important aspects of the Xperia S is the stunning 4.3-inch 720 x 1,280 high-definition display. Watching films on this screen is almost worth a long train journey. When you get home, the HDMI output feature lets your Xperia breathe life into an HDTV where you can continue to watch films and trailers, but also view your personal photos and videos in privacy, on a much bigger screen. Even movie and game trailers make spectacular viewing.
Another insightful feature is the use of NFC technology, adapted from short-range radio to allow mobile payments and device communication, but which is now being used for much more innovative ideas, such as smart tagging. Its ability, although basic at the moment, allows you to control the phone's behaviour, by activating ‘tags' in the home or car.
Entering a certain room of the house can activate profiles, begin processes and applications and even unlock doors around the home. We shall have to wait and see exactly what third party applications can bestow with the use of NFC. It is worth remembering that only some mobile phone networks will provide 'smart tags' when you purchase the phone, but these should be made available for around five pounds each.
Walkman Music Player
Honestly, it is quite hard to believe that the first ‘Walkman' was built back in 1978, and we like to think things have moved on dramatically. 34 years later, there seems to be less attention to sound quality and day-to-day functionality, with more emphasis on artwork and endlessly promoting the diminishing sales of music in the much less personal, far more mundane format -MP3.
As the music player inevitably became integrated with the mobile phone, playing music and videos has become secondary, although still at the forefront of key features, especially for a smartphone. This area is where the Xperia S should thrive, and its colossal screen makes absolutely sure that you won't be disappointed, viewing downloaded or shared media. The music player features an easily pliable equaliser and the default background: a white label 12-inch vinyl, reminds us of why we used to enjoy going to buy music from a shop.
One of the stumbling blocks of this monolith smartphone is the operating system, or rather the choice to employ Android ‘Gingerbread' 2.3.7 - when other phones were already conceived with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in mind. Obviously, customers have been promised an imminent update, but with a borderline bad reputation for software updates with rivals such as HTC well ahead in terms of operating systems, it could have made more sense to delay the device for a few more weeks, and release it with the most up-to-date software.
Even with this problem, the phone is very civilised and professional. There are much less ‘fun' apps and features than we remember from previous handsets, yet the transition effects and live wallpapers look fantastic. The advantages and disadvantages are often the same as the other Android devices, that we know and love: a very short battery life, but with a hugely customisable section, such as the browser and front screens.
Naturally, the Xperia S will not be unlocked to its full potential until the new platform arrives, as in essence, it lacks the competitive elements that set it apart from the crowd. There are simply too many other rivals to mention, each stronger, faster and thinner. The new ‘NXT' range is almost certainly poised to drop a more sophisticated device soon, but until then, the Xperia S doesn't really size up, even with a fantastic screen and camera.
The general user experience is good enough for a phone of this calibre, when you peruse the gallery, for instance, or browse the web. The screen's superiority far exceeds the quality of icons and images on the Android Market/Google Play. We just feel there's not enough to like about the phone, once the honeymoon period wears off and your slightly deft touches don't register with the device, it then becomes quite a heavy beast to carry on your travels.
It's certainly not left a lasting impression after several weeks of use, but it is maybe just a shape of things to come - for when the next ‘NXT' model graces the market.