Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S Review

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Introduction and Design
Introduction:

After redeeming its Android mojo with the sleek and capable Sony Ericsson Xperia arc, the company decided to out an upgrade as a stopgap flagship until it eventually makes it to the dual-core Nozomi rumored for next year.

We say stopgap, since the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S keeps the breathtaking design of its predecessor, but ups the ante with a still-single core 1.4GHz processor, 14.4Mbps instead of 7.2Mbps radio, and teaches the 8MP Exmor R camera some new tricks.

So the phone gets faster and allows you to do cool 2D and quasi-3D panorama shots, keeping its sexy design, but still doesn’t have a front-facing camera? Is that supposed to be compensated by the “S” for a speedier processor and baseband radio? Read on our review to find out...

Design:

The Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S is again just 0.34” (8.7mm) thin in the middle, which gradually becomes 0.39” (10mm) at both ends. The overarching ambition (pun intended) has been to arm the company with “one of the thinnest” punch line, and the result is beautiful.



You can compare the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S with many other phones using our Size Visualization Tool.

Everyone we showed the handset to loved how slick it is, and even we seasoned veterans couldn't help but agree that tall, thin and narrow seems to be a good solution for big screen handsets. The size of the huge 4.2” display is barely uncomfortable at 0.34” thickness, and the arched profile makes it a breeze to hold and handle.

The 4.2” screen is of Sony's own Super LCD variety, with 480x854 pixels of resolution and LED backlighting. With the addition of the Mobile BRAVIA Engine to this screen type, borrowed from its TV lineup, Sony has come up with a new marketing title – the Reality Display. What it does in actuality is to rev up the contrast and sharpness of the picture when displaying photos or playing videos.


We can attest that there is a difference, although it is not as strikingly significant as the one between the Super LCD and the punchy colors of the Super AMOLED screen technologies, for instance. The display is bright enough for comfortably operating it in broad daylight, which is all fine and dandy, but the viewing angles, for that matter, are pretty poor. Contrast and color degradation when looking at an angle are almost akin to the older generation of LCD displays, and far from the excellent viewing angles on the IPS-LCD of the Xperia ray, for example.

The phone sports the previous Xperia line design with the thin buttons underneath the display, instead of the huge semi-circle for a home button we have in the latest Xperias. The three keys are illuminated with white LED lights, and have a nice rubbery feeling to them when pressed, instead of annoying clicks, making them fun to operate. The whole design is made of quality plastic.The back cover flexes a bit when pressed down because of the thin plastic, but the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S clocks in at 4.12 oz (117grams), which is very good for a handset that size.


The camera sensor is placed in the only space the engineering team could fit it, considering the 0.34” thickness in the middle - near the upper edge on the back - which means you have to be careful not to place your finger over the lens when shooting. Combine that with the rather smallish and somewhat hard to press shutter key on the right near the lower edge, and you definitely need to hold the phone with two hands when taking a picture, unless you use the touchscreen.


The power/lock screen key at the top is is slightly protruding to make it easier to find, but it's still the size of confetti, so just for checking what time it is, you have to fiddle with your fingers at the top, until you find and press it.


There is still no front-facing camera, which will be a disappointment to those who ever use one.

Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S 360-degrees View:





Interface and Functionality:

The Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S sports the Timescape Android overlay, while Mediascape has been stripped down and called simply Media now. According to Sony Ericsson it has become a “customizable widget-based media pane”, but looks more like a glorified shortcut in the bottom dock to us.

Sony Ericsson has dressed up Gingerbread in nice gradient colors, with beautiful transitional animations everywhere – from unlocking the screen to the subtle white glow when reaching the ends of a list while scrolling.


The coolest useless function in the interface is the Overview mode – pinch the screen to zoom in, and all your current widgets start floating together on one homescreen for a peer review - a fun touch, reminiscing the helicopter view in HTC Sense, but only intended to visualize your current widgets in one place.

The Snapdragon S2 system chip with 512MB RAM have proven they can run Gingerbread quite zippy, and the increased CPU clock frequency to 1.4GHz certainly looks good on a spec sheet, before you realize it’s not dual-core. We ran Quadrant a few times, and the test showed about 20% improved scores compared to the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc, but the difference in everyday performance wasn’t that  noticeable, as the interface runs quite smooth on both handsets.
 
The Timescape integration is where the UI derives its name from - it is a card-based system for showing your messaging and social networking updates, flippable up and down from the homescreen with ease, but it's little more than eye candy. Social networking is ubiquitous thanks to the “Facebook inside Xperia” integration, which allows you to “like” a song directly from the music player or its widget, for instance.


There is Swype preinstalled with artsy light blue trail appearing when you swipe from a letter to a letter, but even without it typing on the big screen with the Timescape virtual keyboard is a joy.



Internet and Connectivity:

The stock Android 2.3 browser is an excellent mobile solution for accessing the Internet, and it makes no exception in the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S - zooming, scrolling and panning around work flawlessly. Adobe Flash support is a big selling point of modern Android handsets, and this one doesn’t stray away from the 1GHz+ Android pack with flawless execution.


As far as connectivity goes, the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S has it all but 4G – 14.4Mbps HSDPA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, A-GPS, FM radio with RDS, and DLNA for media streaming. The DLNA function has its own app called Media Server, or you can also use the microHDMI port at the top to stream movies from the handset to your big screen TV via cable.

There is another GPS software besides Google Maps, called Wisepilot, which, however, is a trial version. When cold-started, it took the GPS about 4-5 minutes to locate us, which is average, and if we had a data connection it locked us in for seconds, as is already the norm.

The LiveWare app allows you to start an application of your choosing when something is connected to the phone, be it a headset, headphones or a charger. Thus you can tell it to start the music or video player each time headphones are connected, or automatically go into the desktop clock mode in Android, while the handset is charging.



Camera:

The 8MP camera on the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc is with the  Exmor R sensor we wrote about. It is back-illuminated, like the one on the iPhone 4(S). This feature, combined with a novel arrangement of the photo diodes, tailored to the fine pixel structure, should bring high sensitivity and less noise in low-light situations on paper. However, its 1/3.2" size is a far cry from the 1/1.83” behemoth on the Nokia N8, for example.

The pictures, while with revved contrast and saturation, are nothing exceptional.

The photos came out sharp enough, color representation is accurate, detail is plenty in daylight, but there is overzealous noise suppression, which smears the details when light is scarce. Otherwise the low-light snaps came out above average, probably thanks to the back-illuminated sensor. The LED flash is no Xenon, but does the job fine up to about ten feet, without casting weird shadows on the objects.




The light also does a good job illuminating night video, especially in Night Scene mode. Video is fairly smooth at 30 fps, and the same good looking colors and fine detail are observed as in the stills, but we wish that the 720p videos were sharper.

Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S Sample Video:



Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S Indoor Sample Video:



The camera interface is unobtrusive, but touch-friendly, with big enough buttons for finger operation. There are six focusing modes – single autofocus, multi autofocus, macro, face detection, infinity and touch focus. Center, spot and average metering modes are covered as well, and for manual white balance setup incandescent, fluorescent, daylight and cloudy options are available.

There are also an image stabilizer mode and four flash modes – auto, fill flash, no flash, and red eye reduction. The extensive capabilities of the 8MP shooter are rounded up with a bunch of scene modes such as Landscape, Portrait, Night Portrait, Sports, Beach and Snow, Night Scene, Party and Document. The smile detection algorithm can even be set to track a faint or a big smile.

Obviously a lot of Sony’s Cybershot expertise has gone into the camera interface, but a notable exception is the lack of any effects. No Negative or Sepia, nothing, which is puzzling, considering the wide range of other capabilities. There is a vertical strip with the latest pictures and videos captured on the right, and you can pull it left to reveal the rest in thumbnail view, which resembles the concept in Windows Phones.


And now we come to the new additions to the camera capabilities of the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S, compared to the Xperia arc – Sweep Panorama and “3D” Sweep Panorama pictures. In essence, you set the direction in which the phone will be going – left, right, up or down – and slowly rotate it 180 degrees from your starting point until a panoramic image is stitched together.

The 3D Sweep Panorama option applies some preset algorithm shenanigans to the resulting picture, which makes your Panorama appear three-dimensional when shown on a 3D HDTV, which, frankly, sounds like too much hassle. The process is meant for tripods, since you have to hold the phone very steady, and rotate with preset speed from one end to another, and even then some grey areas might appear at the end of the panoramic view. The 3D Camera app takes you directly to the 3D Sweep Panorama option in the camera interface for quick access.

Sweep panorama Demonstration:



Multimedia:

The music player is the same as in the other iterations of this UI, with flashy, but minimalistic interface, ten equalizers, the song recognition service Track ID, and the option to show related YouTube videos or lyrics. There is no Dolby Mobile or SRS surround sound in headset mode, but we have to tell you the loudspeaker is outstanding - strong, with real bass and very clean and pure output, even at the highest volume. The last time we heard such a speaker was in the Sony Ericsson Xperia mini, and it is great that Sony has managed to fit the same thing in the slim body of the Xperia arc S.


The video player and the gallery are of the stock Android flavor, and the handset doesn’t support DivX/Xvid, so we had to download a free player from Android Market to watch our ripped TV shows with subtitles in up to 720p resolution. The Mobile BRAVIA Engine can be turned on and off manually from the Display settings, but we can’t imagine a reason for it to be off, as it adds color and sharpness to the pictures and videos on the handset.





Performance:

Call quality on the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S was excellent in the earpiece, very loud and clear, however on the other end they complained that our voice sounds a tad artificial, and the background noise swooshed in without any filtering despite the dual-microphone setup on the phone.

The manufacturer promises slightly more battery life out of the handset, compared to the Xperia arc, from the same 1500mAh battery – 7 hours and 35 minutes of talk time in 3G mode, which is pretty good, along with 35 hours of music playback.

Conclusion:

In our review of the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc we said the company has nailed it, but now with the Xperia arc S, we’d say we have a minor upgrade on our hands. The thin arched profile that makes you forget you are holding a gadget with a huge 4.2” screen stays, as well as the light weight and sleek and classy look. The Timescape UI is also very pretty and functional with its “Facebook inside Xperia” addition.

The second generation Snapdragon chip is bumped to 1.4GHz for a slight increase in performance, which, however, you could have done yourself with an overclocking program. The added 2D Panorama option in the camera interface is also nothing you couldn’t have obtained via an app in Android Market. Thus, the only tangible benefits of the Sony Ericsson arc S over the predecessor are the 3D Panorama option, which is nice, but not a must-have feature, and the 14.4Mbps baseband radio,  instead of 7.2Mbps. Download speeds are so very network dependent, though, that you’d have been lucky to max out the previous radio even.

The nice 8MP camera with back-illuminated sensor, which produced good results and the excellent loudspeaker we have in the Xperia arc too, so you can save yourself the price difference between the Xperia arc S and its predecessor, unless you find it somewhere cheaper

In its price range you can get phones like the HTC Desire HD, which sports similar specs but a more solid and heavier unibody design, or the Samsung Wave 3, which sports a Super AMOLED display, but is hindered by the Samsung Apps store. If you step it up a notch in the wallet department, you can grab the Samsung Galaxy S II or the HTC Sensation 4G, which will bring you 1080p video capture, faster browser performance and future-proof dual-core processors.

In case 4.2” screen is too big for you, an even thinner and more compact handset for this price is the Xperia ray, which has the same camera and 3.2” display with very good pixel density. Now that the Apple iPhone 4 is falling in price, it is also a great alternative to the Xperia arc S, and has memorable design too with the best App Store out there, but is heavier and with no Adobe Flash support.

Software version of the review unit: 4.0.1.A.0.266

Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S Video Review:




Pros

  • Thin, tall and narrow chassis makes it more comfortable to use than other big-screen Androids
  • Camera with good low-light capabilities and native Panorama options
  • Excellent loudspeaker

Cons

  • Still no front-facing camera
  • Minor upgrades compared to the Xperia arc

PhoneArena Rating:

8.0

User Rating:

8.6
7 Reviews

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