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In some respects, designing a mid-range handset must be harder than designing the flagship models. A mid-tier mobile needs to maintain the same "feel" as other phones in its range, but also needs its own defining elements. You'd need to keep costs down and cut a few corners, but without obviously doing so. The Xperia Sola is a pretty good example of how this is done. Compared with the Xperia S, the Sola has a smaller screen and lacks some of the features available on the flagship, but keeps enough of the Xperia offerings to hold its own.
Physically, the Sola shares many of the design cues we saw on the Xperia S; the same sharp-looking corners and the same three-button navigation panel below the screen. We like it's soft-touch plastic battery cover, which feels lovely to hold, and we like the alignment of its mechanical controls — including a dedicated camera button.
The Sola has a dedicated camera button, alongside the volume rocker and micro-USB port.
The Sola sports Sony's Reality branded LCD, like on the Xperia S, but in a smaller 3.7-inch size. With a WVGA resolution, you get far fewer pixels, per inch, on this screen than on the S, but you'd be pressed to spot the difference, in our opinion. It is, however, easier to spot the same colour banding issue we saw on the Xperia S. With colour banding, gradients of colour are represented as strips of distinct shades, rather than a smooth blend. This problem won't affect your ability to use this phone, but it does look unpleasant.
Sony also introduces an interesting new technology with the Sola, which it calls Floating touch technology. Most smartphone touchscreens use capacitive touch technology to signal where the user is pressing on a screen. The Sola uses Floating touch in unison with capacitive touch, so that the phone can also detect input when a finger hovers up to 22mm above the screen. However, this input isn't recognised as normal touch input and is only currently implemented in the web browser — even then, it can only highlight hyperlinks on pages. You can't make a selection with a hovering finger, and you can't swipe it to move around the page. It's an interesting idea, but completely useless without further application support.
Unlike some recent releases from competitor brands, Sony makes the battery of the Xperia Sola accessible and includes a micro-SD card slot for expanding the handset's 8GB of internal storage (of which only 5GB are usable for new apps and media). There is also a 3.5mm headphone socket and a micro-USB port for charging, but media-lovers will spot the absence of an HDMI port.
In its various modes of downsizing to create this mid-sized Xperia phone, it is a relief that Sony has left the user experience as we saw it in the more expensive models. On the Sola, you get the Sony NXT user experience; a heavily customised software layered on top of Google's Android. We really like NXT; it's far less flashy than HTC's Sense UI, but it also seems to be more resource efficient. Despite the Sola being powered by a comparably slower dual-core 1GHz processor and 512MB RAM, the experience is slick and smooth, with pauses for processing infrequent.
Sony's NXT UI has a lot of nice inclusions, like the option to create folders.
The phone's specifications also mean that it has no difficulty running the majority of Android apps. We successfully ran some of the Google Play store's most graphics-intensive tasks and nothing phased the Xperia Sola.
It is disappointing that a phone released in the middle of 2012 is still running on the older Gingerbread version of Android. The newer Ice Cream Sandwich version does deliver some important enhancements to the platform, including performance enhancements, so hopefully Sony intends to release this update sooner, rather than later.
The Sola is both quad-band 2G and quad-band 3G, allowing you to connect to the 3G networks of Optus, Vodafone and Telstra. This includes the 850MHz frequency band used by Telstra and Vodafone for HSPA+ data speeds. It does not support the 1800MHz 4G frequency used by Telstra and Optus, though. The internet can also be accessed using Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n), and the phone can share its 3G data using Android's personal hotspot feature.
Call quality had been solid during our tests, with the phone maintaining a good connection to the network and no call dropouts.. Email and text messaging is fine, but it could be improved with a better virtual keyboard design. The Xperia S features a Swype-like keyboard, but, for some reason, the Sola does not.
The Sola is also equipped with an NFC chip, making it possible for the handset to communicate with other NFC-compatible devices. To make the most of this feature, while we wait for NFC banking to take off, Sony has included two NFC SmartTags in the box with the Sola. With these tags, you can instantly change the phone's profile, activating a number of hardware features, like Wi-Fi or GPS, and launching apps simultaneously. Other current uses for NFC include pairing two devices, such as the mobile phone with a wireless speaker unit, but expect to see more NFC tags and badges over the next year and beyond.
Don't be fooled by the 5-megapixel resolution of the camera in the Xperia Sola. It might lack the overall number of pixels per picture, but it certainly feels like it takes photos of the same quality as the 12-megapixel camera in the Xperia S. Colourful photos pop when viewed on the screen (thanks to Sony's Bravia Engine display software), and the auto-focus is often sharp and accurate. This camera doesn't take photos as quickly as other models, but the results tend to be quite good, if a little overexposed on the default settings.
Multimedia is one aspect of smartphone usage that Sony has started to own with its recent releases. This is true for the Sola, too, though there are a few key features absent, or watered down. Videos and photos displayed on the phone receive the benefit of Sony's Bravia Engine — software that attempts to clean an image, as it's displayed, by reducing noise and increase sharpness and saturation. The result is nearly always better than without the engine.
If you want to share your media with a larger display, like a TV, you do have the option to stream it over a Wi-Fi network using the DLNA protocol. This requires your TV to be DLNA compatible, or to have a compatible device plugged into it. Unlike the Xperia S, the Sola does not have an HDMI port, so a direct connection is not possible.
The limited storage supplied in the sale package is another hurdle media-lovers will need to overcome to make the most of the Sola. Out of the box, you'll have 5GB to play with, which is plenty for storing photos and a selection of music, but not enough for keeping a collection of movies to watch.
Sony's Xperia Sola is a respectable mid-tier phone, with a good smattering of features and decent performance. Some that will argue that its 3.7-inch screen is too small for various smartphone tasks and the colour banding issues we've encountered may be a deal-breaker for others. Both impact on multimedia use, as does the handset's limited internal storage and lack of supplied memory card. Though, if you look past these flaws, there is a lot the Sola does well.
We feel it's recommended price of AU$486 is reasonable for a phone with these specs and features, though we have noticed that a recent price drop makes the superior Xperia S about the same price through some major vendors. Allphones, for example, listed the Xperia S for AU$488 at the time of writing this review. This deal may come and go, but if you are going to spend this money anyway, you might as well buy the S with its superior screen and features, if you can.