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The first Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc turned heads with its fashionable design, razor-thin good looks, and Android Gingerbread software. Now Sony Ericsson has launched a flashier replacement, but oh, what a difference a few months makes. Despite a faster processor and two exciting new color options, splurging on the unlocked $439.99 Xperia Arc S is an even tougher argument to make.
A splitting image of the Xperia Arc, the Xperia Arc S sports the same ultrathin design and seductive curves that helped it stand out from typical boxy Android devices. Also identical to its predecessor, the handset measures a svelte 4.9 tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.3 inch thick, and weighs in at a light 4.1 ounces. These trim dimensions make the Arc S just as compact as the first Arc and its smooth yet premium plastic exterior slips into tight pockets easily. My hands also wrapped around the phone comfortably in contrast to other monster-sized devices like LG's Nitro 4G that boast a larger 4.5-inch screen.
Perhaps the S in its name stands for style since Sony Ericsson has added even more pizzazz to this already fashion-forward smartphone. The device now comes in three additional colors (pure white, gloss black, and sakura pink) which complement the original two hues that the first Arc shipped with (misty silver and midnight blue). My Arc S came crafted in pure white, which coupled with a sliver plastic band running around its edge lends even more sophistication.
The front face of the Arc S is dominated by its 4.2-inch, 854-by-480-pixel resolution LCD screen. Even though it's not a fancy HD screen now available in a few premium smartphones, image quality was excellent. Watching HQ YouTube movie trailers was a real treat with crisp details and colors that looked pleasingly accurate. To be fair, blacks weren't as deep as I've seen on phones with AMOLED displays and viewing angles weren't as wide either.
Above it are the proximity sensor and the earpiece, but no front-facing camera, unfortunately. Under the display sit three thin physical buttons for basic Android operations (Back, Home, and Menu), which are attractively curved to match the contour of the device's bottom lip. On the right side are a trim volume rocker, a Micro-USB port, and a tiny, dedicated camera button. Meanwhile the phone's left edge holds a headphone jack. Up top is a minuscule power key that's extremely tough to press, often requiring the use of both hands. In fact I found that all of the Xperia's buttons were tricky to operate, especially for big mitts like mine. Opposite the power key is a Micro-HDMI port to output video and pictures to HDTVs and other compatible peripherals.
The Xperia Arc S uses a basic virtual keyboard that's close to the one found in stock Gingerbread. Keys are large and well spaced both in portrait landscape orientation. Unlike other phones, buttons don't double as shortcuts to often used punctuation marks but there is a dedicated symbol key. Haptic feedback is enabled by default and is nice and light, just how I like it. Swype can be activated too for quick one-handed texting. It all adds up to a comfortable and accurate typing experience.
The back of the Xperia Arc S houses its 8.1-megapixel camera and LED flash and single speaker. The phone's plastic battery cover is just as thin and flimsy-feeling as the first Arc, but it's a snap to pry it off and uncover the 1500 mAh battery. You'll have to remove the battery, though, to get at the included 8GB microSD card and SIM.
Sure, the Xperia Arc S lacks Google's freshest flavor of OS, Ice Cream Sandwich, but Android devotees should find plenty to satisfy them here. Running Gingerbread version 2.3.4, the phone has the usual messaging and mobile communication skills found on an Android device. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS connectivity are on board and users can sync contacts, calendar, and e-mail via their Gmail profiles. The Arc S also supports multiple email accounts for both personal and corporate exchange along with standard texting. Typical Google services such as Google Maps, turn-by-turn navigation, Google News, and YouTube are bundled here too.
Like some other device manufacturers, Sony Ericsson tries to differentiate its Android experience with its Timescape social networking interfaces. First premiering on the Xperia X10, Timescape is similar to Samsung's Social Hub and HTC's Friendstream software by aggregating Twitter and Facebook updates, e-mail, and text messages in one handy location. Timescape also displays updates on virtual index cards you can efficiently flip through rather than by scrolling vertically.
As a UI, Timescape, like Samsung's TouchWiz interface, is clean and relatively unobtrusive. Android purists, however, used to interacting with their handset without any special software skins confusing them will no doubt prefer unadulterated Gingerbread. Still, some users will certainly appreciate the usability tweaks Sony Ericsson made.
Another departure from stock Android is a navigation bar running along the bottom of the screen that has convenient shortcuts including the handset's multimedia folder. It puts the photo gallery, music player, and the FM radio just a few taps away. Like on other Android phones you can add home screen folders easily by dragging and dropping app icons on top of one another. What's more, power app users will appreciate having the option to sort the app tray alphabetically, or by favorites, install date, and even their own preference.
Sony Ericsson loads the Xperia Arc S with a selection of its own apps too. Sure, its bloatware for some, but there are a couple of standouts including the FM radio and TrackID, an app that tags recorded music. Sony Ericsson also installed are the PlayNow store, the Let's Golf game, and LiveWare Manager, which automatically loads personalized apps when you connect peripherals like headphones, a postcard creator. Other staples include a few clocks and alarms, the HTML WebKit browser, a calendar, and a bare-bones music player. And of course, the phone also connects to the latest version of the Android Market with access to more than 250,000 apps plus Google books and Music for purchase.
Sony Ericsson handsets have traditionally boasted quality cameras, and the Xperia Arc S is no exception. The phone's 8.1-megapixel camera is built around Sony's Exmor R CMOS sensor and features options such as autofocus, and face detection that were once limited to point-and-shoot cameras. There's also an LED flash, and even a Smile mode that automatically snaps the shutter when grins are detected.
We found images we captured outdoors of shrubs, trees, and winter street scenes to be crisp, with vibrant colors. The same can be said of indoor shots and low-light pictures using the fill flash were especially pleasing. Subjects were illuminated but not blown out by overly aggressive lighting.
Yet, I did run into a few annoyances. The dedicated shutter button will launch the camera but won't wake the phone up if the screen is locked. Also, for some reason, the default resolution of the camera is 6 megapixels, not 8, forcing you to make that change in the settings (the other resolution options are 2 megapixels in both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios). Similarly, in auto-scene mode, the Arc S lists only basic camera options like geotagging, a self-timer, and the digital zoom. Kicking the phone into Normal capture mode, however, unlocks manual settings like White Balance, Exposure, and Image Stabilizer. The phone can also create pictures in standard wide panorama shots or even in a 3D panorama format. You accomplish this by placing the camera in Panorama mode, hitting the shutter button and panning the phone slowly across its field of vision. You can then view 3D panoramas you've created on compatible 3D HDTVs via the phone's HDMI port. I plan to test this feature and update the review as soon as possible.
The Xperia Arc imaging prowess extends to video as well. Its 720p HD camcorder captured very smooth movies both indoors and outside without any pixelation or stutters. The handset's microphone also did a good job of picking up subjects, an improvement over the previous Arc.
I tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) and unlocked Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S on AT&T's network in New York. Call quality was satisfactory. Volume was high and voices sounded clear and natural, but the earpiece doesn't get particularly loud. Callers described our voice as clean and free of clipping and they couldn't easily tell we were on a cellular line.
Calls made through the underpowered speakerphone were not quite as pleasing. People on the other end said that I sounded free of distortion and they had no problem understanding me. But things got worse when I moved a few feet away from the phone since volume was low even in a small conference room and callers reported hearing slight background hum.
Certainly no multicore superphone, the Xperia Arc S comes moderately equipped with a single-core, 1.4GHz Snapdragon S2 MSM8255 processor, 512MB of RAM, and 1GB of internal storage. These days, any cutting-edge handset worth its salt, from Samsung Galaxy S II to the iPhone 4S, all rely on dual-core CPUs. Also, quad-core Tegra 3 chips from Nvidia could hit as soon as early 2012. Still, the Arc S launched apps quickly, and menu navigation was nimble, with no noticeable lag.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S call quality sample Listen now:
Data, however, is a different story. Though technically a 3G handset, we clocked middling average download speeds of 1.9 Mbps. Uploads were just as uninspiring, coming in at 1.1 Mbps. By comparison, devices on Verizon's 4G LTE network tend to be much faster (15Mbs down, 7 Mbps up).
But for what the Xperia Arc lacks in data throughput, it makes up in longevity. Sony Ericsson claims the phone has a rated battery life of 7 hours and 25 minutes of talk time and 19 days of standby time. In anecdotal testing, the phone lasted over 24 hours during moderate use. In another test, it played music for 18 hours straight while I occasionally launched apps and flipped though settings menus. According to the FCC, the phone's digital SAR measures 0.66 watt per kilogram.
There aren't many handsets with lovelier lines than the Sony Xperia Arc S, except perhaps the original Xperia Arc. While this refreshed model features peppier processing and comes in four spiffy color schemes, not much has really changed. Still, much of what the phone offers remains compelling such as an outstanding 8.1 megapixel camera, smooth 720p video recording, the smart Timescape UI, not to mention long battery life. On the other hand, the unlocked phone's prohibitive $440 price tag, lack of both dual-core power, and Android Ice Cream Sandwich, in addition to slow data, make it a tough sell.