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Sony Xperia S couples minimalist design with high-end features

The Sony Xperia S has a lot in common with Sony's other new smartphone, the Xperia Ion, though it takes a different approach to design.

Sony's Xperia S is simple, but pretty.
Sony Ericsson

LAS VEGAS--On the heels of launching its new Xperia Ion for AT&T, Sony gave us even more when it unveiled its new Xperia S smartphone the evening before CES officially began.

Not to be confused with last year's Xperia Arc S, the Xperia S is the first smartphone in Sony's NXT (next-generation) series. And, like the Ion, it drops the "Ericsson" name.

In its announcement, Sony made a point of stating that the handset is built with an "Iconic Identity" design. Sony is cagey about what that means exactly, but the company says that it "creates a simple strong look that is instantly recognizable."

To its credit, Sony added some snazzy design elements that give the Xperia S a bit of class. At the bottom of the phones there's a thin opaque panel that displays the icons for touch controls just above. Though the base also lights up when you get a call, it's understated rather than tacky, and you can change the light color.

I also noticed the trim profile and the curved back that fits comfortably in my hand. The handset has a solid build and its skin lacks the annoying plastic feel that plagues so many smartphones. What's more, it's really cool that the Xperia S can stand upright by itself.

The 4.3 inch "Reality" display has an HD (1,280x720-pixel) resolution. Like many Sony displays before it, it's downright gorgeous with spectacular video quality. Sony added that the Iconic Identity theme carries through to the flowing wallpaper on the home screen. I could take it or leave it, personally, and I wouldn't say that it's vastly different from the design of previous Xperia phones.

Though the Xperia S is launching with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), Sony promises an upgrade to version 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) by the second quarter of this year. Sony says that the design overlay will not interfere with future OS updates, but I'll believe that when I see ICS come down the road.

Now playing: Watch this: A preview of Sony's sleek Xperia S phone

The feature set packs in a lot of multimedia power. The 12-megapixel camera is the highest-resolution camera (at present) on an Android phone. Shutter lag between photos was nonexistent and I was impressed that it could snap photos in 1.5 seconds from standby mode. The camera video shoots in 1080p HD and there's a second front-facing camera.

Other highlights include a music player, messaging and e-mail, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, Sony's Timescape feature, personal organization tools, the Sony Bravia Engine, 32GB of internal storage, an HDMI port, support for NFC (near-field communication), and PlayStation certification.

The Xperia S will be available worldwide in the first quarter of this year, though Sony didn't reveal carriers or pricing.

Updated on October 11 at 1:10 p.m. PT: This post was updated with additional observations.