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.
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.
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.
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.
Sony music and video
Sony makes sure to highlight the Xperia S' strong ties to its vast library of entertainment content. Specifically, the Xperia S comes with Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited digital storefronts installed. Once you create a Sony Entertainment Network account, these applications let you rent and buy movies and TV shows, plus download and stream audio tracks right from the device.
One big caveat is that while Sony's selection of movies and music is large, there doesn't seem to be a way to browse the entire library of content online. I could only find a few movies and audio tracks to examine listed under what was most popular. To actually add Sony media to my Xperia S test unit, I needed to sift through music and video using the phone-based app. Prices for what Sony offers seems reasonable though, movie rentals cost $2.99 to rent (24 hours) and $14.99 to buy. Video quality, however, is limited to standard definition and not HD.
Sony splits its Music Unlimited into two plan tiers, premium and basic. Costing $9.99 per month, the premium subscription provides on-demand playback of any track in Sony's library, offline storage of playlists you create, and specially curated stations crafted by Sony staff.
Just like the Sony Xperia Ion, the Xperia S packs a 12-megapixel camera with LED flash. A nimble performer, the phone snapped images quickly, in less than a second. Again like the Ion, however, the Xperia S captured pictures that were soft and had color noise and artifacts that I particularly noticed in low light. Images the Xperia S took of an indoor still life were dark, grainy, and drab.
Outdoors in plenty of sunlight, the phone captured images with brighter colors though details still had a flat character. Video quality of 1080p HD movies I shot outside had the same mushy quality with soft details and washed-out color. Motion though was smooth and I didn't experience any stuttering or jerkiness.
I do appreciate the Xperia S' extensive camera settings. You'll find a wide range of capture modes including several panorama functions, smile detection, and available resolutions starting at 2MP and topping out at 12MP.
Pressing down the dedicated shutter button fires up the Xperia S' camera even when the phone is asleep. Using the button to wake the camera also immediately snaps a picture for fast capture. You can disable this function, though, if you just want to rely on the button to jump to the camera. Be sure to check out our Camera phone image gallery to see how the Xperia S stacks up against other handsets.
The Sony Xperia S runs a previous-gen 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 dual-core processor backed up by 1GB of RAM, the same as its Xperia Ion counterpart on AT&T. Because of this it came as no surprise the phone coughed up a slow Linpack (Multi-Thread) score of 81.4 MFLOPs completed in a long 3.24 seconds.
Smartphones powered by the newer S4 chip such as the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S 3 (also 1.5GHz dual-core CPUs) turned in faster performance. The HTC One X notched a much higher 170.2 MFLOPs in a third of the time, or 0.99 second. Samsung's powerhouse handset, the Galaxy S 3, came out ahead of both, with an impressive 175.7 MFLOPs in 0.96 second.
As an unlocked GSM device supporting GPRS/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900), UMTS, and HSPA ( 850, 900, 1900, 2100) bands and protocols, the unlocked Sony Xperia S is limited to 3G. Connected to AT&T's GSM network in New York, I recorded average download speeds of 2.23Mbps. Uploads were more of a mixed bag, with throughput hovering around 0.9Mbps but speeds dropping as low as 0.1Mbps.
The Xperia S served up pleasing call quality in my tests. In New York and connected to AT&T's voice network, callers reported my voice to be warm and with a good touch of bass. That said, they could definitely tell I was calling from a mobile phone, but it wasn't immediately apparent. On my end, the phone piped clear, hiss-free audio through the earpiece. The Xperia S, however, didn't get terribly loud even at its maximum setting. My voice when heard through the speakerphone did have some warbles and volume on my side lacked much punch.
Powered by its 1,700mAh battery, the Sony Xperia S turned in solid battery life. In anecdotal testing, the phone played an HD video file continuously for 6 hours and 51 minutes. That beats the HTC One X's time of 6 hours and 35 minutes performing the same task.
I have to say I had high hopes for the Sony Xperia S. Its aggressive futuristic style will certainly turn heads, something few smartphones are capable of. There are risks to pushing the design envelope, however, and the Xperia S stumbles in places. Its capacitive buttons are tricky to operate and the phone's illuminated band may be slickly distinctive but is more style than substance. At $559.99, the Xperia S is pricey, too, regardless of its unlocked and carrier-unsubsidized status. A better option for an unlocked Android device is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Not only does it offer a recent upgrade to Android 4.0 Jelly Bean, it has a better screen and smoother performance, and can be found for about $420. Still, the Xperia S isn't without its merits, particularly the phone's strong ties to Sony's music and video library. That said, unless there's a particular title you're dying to watch, the beauty of the Sony Xperia S is skin-deep.