Since dismissing Ericsson from its mobile phone division, Sony has announced several new handsets. The Xperia S, which is the first to appear in retail, is a distinctive device with some high-end specifications. Will it help position Sony as a market leader in the increasingly competitive smartphone world?
The Xperia S has a distinctive design: it's thin and tall — as you'd expect given the 4.3in. screen — and is made even taller by an odd-looking transparent plastic strip towards the bottom of the chassis.
The functions indicated by the icons in the clear strip beneath the screen are accessed via the touch-sensitive dots immediately above them
This strip houses icons for Android's Back, Home and Menu functions. It's not touch-sensitive, and to access these functions you need to press small white dots on the black chassis above the icons. These dots aren't as responsive as we'd like, and it sometimes took several taps to make proper contact.
Although the plastic strip doesn't have touch-sensitive functions, it does glow gently to signify call and message alerts, and charge status.
For the record, the Xperia S measures 64mm wide by 128mm tall by 10.6mm thick and weights 144g. We could not reach right across the screen for one-handed use, although those with larger hands may manage this.
Sony has slightly curved the backplate of the Xperia S. We've seen the company use this design quirk before, and we still don't like it. The curvature is minimal, but it does mean the handset tips around on a desk if you prod the screen, and it has no discernible positive effect on grip.
The back of the Xperia S is slightly curved — a design feature we could do without
Ports and connectors are conveniently located, with a headset jack and the power switch at the top, a Micro-HDMI port, a camera button and volume controls on the right, and a Micro-USB port on the left. The HDMI and USB connectors are both protected by somewhat fiddly hinged covers. Sony provides an HDMI cable.
The screen is the Xperia S's standout feature. It's large at 4.3in. across the diagonal, but the resolution — 1,280 by 720 pixels — is the key, given that 800 by 480 pixels is not uncommon (although the iPhone 4 crams 960 by 640 into a 3.5in. screen). It's particularly good for viewing web pages, and it's possible that Sony has set a new standard here for other high-end smartphone developers to follow.
If you are looking to upgrade to the Xperia S from an earlier handset, it's worth noting that Sony has opted for a microSIM. These will become increasingly common, but are still something of a rarity.
The Sony Xperia S runs Android 2.3, but will get an upgrade to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) in due course. The dual-core Qualcomm MSM8260 processor runs at 1.5GHz and runs things very nicely supported by 1GB of RAM.
There's a generous 32GB of internal storage, but Sony does not include microSD-based expansion, so 32GB is all you'll ever get. Sony also preinstalls a fair amount of software, and our review sample had just 25GB free for user access. With 64GB microSD cards now available, the absence of storage expansion could be a deal-breaker for many potential customers.
The Xperia S has two cameras. The front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera can capture 720p video, while the rear-mounted 12-megapixel camera is capable of 1080p video capture. The main camera, which has an LED flash unit, performs well but is no substitute for a dedicated digital camera.
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS are all present, as you'd expect. DLNA and Near Field Communications (NFC) are also integrated, as is support for ANT+ — the wireless standard used by many heart-rate monitors and other pieces of fitness equipment.
Sony's UI tweaks include a range of applications and widgets for the five Android home screens. These include Sony's own Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services, plus lots of media and social networking tools, including Sony's Timescape application. There's an FM radio too.
The Xperia S is PlayStation Certified, which means you can play PlayStation games on it. Sony has put a lot of extras on board this handset, which some may see as overkill.
Performance & battery life
Battery life is as you'd expect for a smartphone with a fast processor and a large screen: we struggled to get a day's use from it when exercising its full functionality.
Sony's own battery life estimates are 7.5 hours of GSM talk, 450h standby and 8.5h of 3G talk, 420 hours standby, plus 25 hours of music playback and 6.5 hours of video playback.
The 1,750mAh battery is not removable, which could be an issue. We sometimes have to hard reset a smartphone by pulling out its battery, which is clearly not an option here. Nor is it possible, in the case of battery failure, to simply swap in a replacement.
Sony's Xperia S is a large and somewhat ungainly smartphone with a superb screen and some high-end features including NFC support and a 1.5GHz dual-core processor. However, it's severely let down by the lack of storage expansion and its sealed-in battery, and overall is not quite the groundbreaking handset we'd hoped for.