Sony Xperia S Review.

The good: High-resolution 342ppi screen; attractive design; 12-megapixel camera gives great photos; 32GB internal storage.
The bad: No microSD slot; battery not removable; poor battery life; Android 4.0 not available at launch.

The bottom line: With excellent features and a great camera, Sony Mobile’s first device in its Xperia NXT series is almost the ultimate Android smartphone–if not for the disappointing battery life.

Review:

Announced at CES 2012, the Xperia S is the first smartphone from the company to sport the Sony Mobile brand name after the Japanese company bought over its Swedish partner’s shareof the Sony Ericsson business. Available now, the Xperia S has a retail price of S$898 (US$715) and comes in either black or white.

Design

The first of the Xperia NXT series of smartphones, the S, is definitely a looker. From the front, it has a clean monolithic design which is broken by a transparent strip near the base that lights up when the phone is turned on. This looks very attractive in the dark and is the phone’s most distinctive design feature. Its chassis is solidly built and weighing in at 144g, the S feels like a well-made device when held. Some may find the 128 x 64 x 10.6mm dimensions a little large but this is inevitable because of the 4.3-inch screen.


The Sony Xperia S has an attractive design. (Credit: John Chan/CNET Asia)

Our black Xperia S review unit sports a soft-touch finish material on the sides and back. The back cover can be removed to expose the micro-SIM card slot. We found this to be an odd design decision because the battery is not removable. Since you can’t swap out the battery, Sony should have just created a sealed chassis which would look more seamless and used a tray for the micro-SIM card instead.

Buttons on the Xperia S include power on the top, volume controls and a camera shutter on the right edge, as well as three touch-sensitive keys below the screen. These capacitive keys sit right above the lighted transparent band and initially, we kept pressing the icons in the band rather than the actual buttons. It’s a minor annoyance that users should get used to in a day or two.


The transparent strip lights up when the buttons are pressed. (Credit: John Chan/CNET Asia)

The micro-USB and micro-HDMI connectors are found on the left and right sides respectively. These are covered by flaps to preserve the uniformity of the shape of the Xperia S. While that design goal is achieved, we can’t help but feel that these covers will eventually break, especially the one covering the micro-USB port since it will be used daily for charging and syncing. Sliding covers like those used in certain Samsung and LG phones would have been more ideal.

The screen found on this smartphone measures 4.3 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels. This is one of the key features of the Xperia S, giving the LCD a ppi (pixel per inch) of about 342, higher than the current iPhone’s326ppi Retina display. This translates to pin-sharp text and images as it is almost impossible to make out the individual pixels at a normal viewing distance. We enjoyed reading text on this smartphone whether they were long articles on Web pages or short updates on Twitter and Facebook. Images and videos also looked good on this HD-resolution display.

Features

Connectivity-wise, you get everything you expect from a high-end smartphone including HSDPA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. There’s also A-GPS for navigation and even an FM radio for those who prefer to get their music that way.

The Xperia S does not have a microSD card slot so users have to make do with the internal storage. Fortunately, this is quite sizable at 32GB.


NFC tags are included with the Xperia S. (Credit: John Chan/CNET Asia)

Near field communications (NFC) is available on the Xperia S. To let you take advantage of this feature, Sony provides NFC tags called “SmartTags” that let you set up profiles conveniently. Two are included in the standard package, which can be stuck on a wall, door or in your car to change settings on your phone. For example, you could program one to tell your phone to turn off Wi-Fi and set the ringer to loud. This is then pasted on your front door and tapped whenever you leave home so you can get those settings conveniently whenever going out.


On the left is the setup screen for the SmartTags. The right shows what appears when you use a programmed tag.

This Android handset will come with the older version of Google’s mobile operating system, Gingerbread (2.3). However, Sony has promised an update to Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS or Android 4.0) in the second quarter of this year.

One of the key features of ICS is the “zero shutter lag” camera. With the Xperia S, you seem to get that even though it’s only Gingerbread for now. We found the 12-megapixel shooter on this smartphone to be extremely responsive. Including focusing, snapping a shot typically took under a second, making sure you won’t miss a photo-worthy moment. The backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor gave us very good images, sharp even when you view them at 100 percent crop on a computer screen. Users who rely primarily on their mobile phones as cameras will not be disappointed by this smartphone. Other features on this camera include the ability to shoot 1080p videos as well as 3D panoramic shots that are viewable on supported TVs.


You get a fuzzy image when zooming in to images on the Xperia S. The background shows the same photo on a computer screen. (Credit: Vincent Chang/CNET Asia)

One gripe we have about the camera is the inability of the gallery app to zoom in on images properly. This is important when you want to check if a shot is in focus. When zooming in on an image, you see a pixelated version that does reflect the actual sharpness of the photo. We initially thought this was a limitation of the Android OS but we transferred the same image into a Samsung Galaxy S II and found no problems there.

Performance

The dual-core 1.5GHz processor made sure things ran smoothly. We did not feel any slowdowns during our review period whether in normal use or when playing graphics-intensive games. Phone reception was also good and we didn’t experience any dropped calls.

Battery life, however, was less than ideal. With our usual load of two emails on push, social networking apps (Twitter and Facebook) on two-hourly updates and light use of text messages and phone calls, the battery depleted in just 13 hours. We repeated this test for three days and got the same result each time.

Heavy users will have a problem with this as it probably won’t last an entire workday. This is compounded by the fact that the battery is non-removable. This runs contrary to Sony’s statement to us at MWC that its plan to use dual-core processors was for battery life. We recommend plugging the handset in whenever near a computer and to use a car charger when driving.

Conclusion

While we have some minor quibbles about its design, all things considered, the Sony Xperia S is still an extremely attractive Android smartphone with an excellent screen and great camera. Its specifications are comparable with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (S$948) and yet, the phone is cheaper at S$898. However, the battery life is a major letdown, which may be a deal-breaker for some. It is available now–check with your local operators for subsidized deals.


Outdoor macro shot. (Credit: John Chan/CNET Asia)

(Credit: John Chan/CNET Asia)

Indoor test shot. (Credit: John Chan/CNET Asia)

Indoor test shot with flash. (Credit: John Chan/CNET Asia)

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