Sony Xperia S (unlocked) review: Sony Xperia S (unlocked)

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MSRP: $559.99

The Good The Sony Xperia S flaunts an eye-catching design, Android 4.0, and a connection to Sony's large movie and music library.

The Bad The Xperia S has quirky capacitive buttons, slow 3G data, an uninspiring screen, and a pokey processor. Its $559.99 price is also steep.

The Bottom Line Sony's pricey, stylish Xperia S is packed with multimedia tricks but is undone by a slow processor and lackluster display.

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6.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

When Sony unveiled the Xperia S at CES 2012, many Android fans in the know dreamed that this ultrastylish handset could herald a new beginning for the company's mobile electronics. That's why it was even more exciting when Sony announced that the phone would arrive for sale in America. Also, unlike its watered-down cousin, the Xperia Ion on AT&T, the $559 Xperia S features a tricked-out transparent band wrapping its base plus an upgrade to Android 4.0, something yet to grace the Ion. The phone also connects to Sony's large vault of movies, music, and TV shows so you can enjoy them on the device or in the living room. But if you're expecting a halo product to help bring back the golden days of the Walkman, you're in for a disappointment.

I can't deny that the Sony Xperia S looks striking. It comes in hues of fashion-forward white like the model I tested, and a more conservative black. Its design is also very futuristic with the phone flaunting a rectangular chassis chiseled in sharp right angles.

The Xperia S' attempt at high style, however, falls short. While a real head-turner, the boxiness of the Xperia S isn't as comfortable to grip as more traditional oval handsets sculpted with rounded curves.

Another distinctive touch yet one not executed well is an illuminated clear bar running along the phone's base. The bar contains three symbols floating within its transparent surface that indicate the main Android functions for Back, Home, and Menu.

Unfortunately, as on its sibling on AT&T, the Xperia Ion, these symbols are not actual buttons. You must tap corresponding dots above each Android icon, which I found find difficult to hit, especially in the dark.

Inside the Xperia's clear bar are icons for Android functions which aren't actual buttons. Sarah Tew/CNET

Measuring 5 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick and weighing a hefty 5.1 ounces, the Xperia S is a substantial phone. Still, for Android devices these days that boast massive displays, these measurements are par for the course. For example the Samsung Galaxy S3 (5.4 inches by 2.8 inches by 0.35 inch, 4.7 ounces) and Samsung Galaxy Nexus (5.33 inches by 2.67 inches by 0.35 inch, 4.76 ounces) are both of comparable dimensions.

The Xperia S has a large 4.3-inch LCD screen with a 720p HD resolution. Above the display are a 1.3MP front-facing camera and notification light. The left side holds a Micro-USB port covered by a flap. On top are a 3.5mm headphone jack and the power button, which I found tricky to press while holding the phone one-handed. Placed on the back is the phone's 12MP camera with LED flash.

Hidden under a flap is an HDMI port for outputting video to HDTVs. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sitting on the right side is an HDMI port, also under a flap, along with a trim volume rocker. Here too is a dedicated camera button which shutterbugs will appreciate.

Sony is quick to tout the benefits of the Xperia S' screen, calling it a Reality Display. Placed head-to-head with its smartphone competitors, the Xperia's 4.3-inch 720p (1,280x720) LCD screen isn't very impressive. Compared with the HTC One X (AT&T) and Samsung Galaxy Nexus (unlocked), the Xperia S produced images with muted colors, low contrast, and narrow viewing angles. In my view, the Galaxy Nexus, with its 4.65-inch 1,280x720-pixel-resolution Super AMOLED display, showed the best screen performance of the bunch, showcasing saturated colors, deep blacks, and excellent off-angle views. The HTC One X (4.7-inch 1,280x720-pixel Super LCD2) was close behind with bright whites, wide viewing angles, and natural colors.

The Xperia S's screen lacks contrast and displays muted colors. Sarah Tew/CNET

At launch, the Sony Xperia S initially ran Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Thanks to a recent update, though, the handset now features the more modern Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. Sure, it isn't the latest Google can offer, namely Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, but the Xperia's fresh infusion of software helps the phone feel new and improved.

In addition to app shortcuts and widgets, you can create and add folders to any of the Xperia's five home screens. Near Field Communication (NFC) is also fully supported by Android 4.0, in a feature from Google called Android Beam, which lets you transfer pictures and other files to compatible phones wirelessly just by bumping them together.

Software and apps
A dual-core 1.5GHz processor coupled with 1GB of RAM drives the Sony Xperia S' Android 4.0 OS. The Xperia also provides the typical Android features such as support for Google services such as Gmail, Maps, Navigation (using the handset's GPS hardware), and Google+ social networking.

Sony also has loaded its own Timescape app, which aggregates updates from your Twitter and Facebook accounts. Proving this device was originally meant for global markets, there's an Xperia Football Downloads app to fulfill your craving for soccer-themed ringtones and wallpapers.

Other interesting software includes a Power Saver app designed to conserve battery life, and NeoReader for scanning bar codes. If you're not satisfied with the Xperia's standard loadout of applications, plenty more are ready for download via the Google Play Android marketplace.

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