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Sony Xperia S review: Sony Xperia S

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The Good Very high-res screen; Fast dual-core chip; Good camera.

The Bad Needs an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich; Clunky handset design; No microSD card slot.

The Bottom Line The Sony Xperia S has an undeniably gorgeous HD screen, high-quality audio, an impressive camera and plenty of clout. But it's let down by clunky handset design and software that could be more streamlined.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.5 Overall

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The Xperia S is Sony's flagship device in its all-new Ericsson-less Xperia range -- or at least it is until the mobile maker brings the 4G Xperia Ion over here.

You can pick one up SIM-free for around £430 -- or free on a two-year contract from £21 a month. With so much choice at this price, the Sony Xperia S really has to impress to win your hard-earned cash. This handset's biggest boasts are a pixel-dense 4.3-inch HD screen and a 12.1-megapixel camera featuring Sony's Exmor R sensor.

The price of the Xperia S pits it against lots of impressive high-end Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S2 and HTC's new flagship behemoth, the quad-core-plus-one One X -- not to mention Apple's iPhone 4S -- so how does it stack up?

Should I buy the Sony Xperia S?

If you're in the market for a top spec Android smart phone, the Xperia S is certainly a contender. Its gorgeous HD screen displays pixel-perfect text and video, with vibrant colours and velvety blacks. The 12.1-megapixel camera also impressed me.

Sony Xperia S
The Sony Xperia S has a stonking HD screen with a higher pixel density than the iPhone 4S.

However, all this is encased in a plasticky slab that lets it down. What's more, it will only ship with Android's Gingerbread operating system at launch -- you'll have to whistle while you wait for an update to the latest version, Ice Cream Sandwich. Sony's own software additions to Android are nothing to write home about.

HTC's new One Series runs ICS across the board, and its Sense user interface is a tastier topping than Sony's kludgy widgets. Samsung's almighty Galaxy S2 shouldn't be forgotten either -- and with the Korean giant lining up the sequel, the Xperia S has its work cut out.

One big selling point for the Xperia S is Sony's media muscle -- you don't just have to lean on the Android Market Google Play store. Sony has a substantial music, movies and TV back catalogue of its own. There's also going to be a PlayStation store on the Xperia S for games but it wasn't live at the time I wrote this review.

While multiple stores serving your media needs is not as streamlined as Apple's iTunes approach, you can't complain about being short of options for filling your slab with wares. For a more joined-up experience, Apple's iPhone 4S is very hard to beat, so unless you're a confirmed fandroid, the iPhone should be on your shortlist.

Screen

The HD 1,280x720-pixel capacitive display is the real eye candy of the Xperia S, offering 4.3 inches of gloriously vibrant touchscreen with a very high level of detail. Colours really pop out -- all 16 million+ of 'em. Pixel density is a whopping 342 pixels per inch -- so it's sharper than the 330ppi on the iPhone 4S retina display. In fact, it's the highest ppi of any smart phone we've had in for review.

Thanks to this high res, even very small text on web pages is legible, and when zoomed right in, letters retain their smooth outlines without any pixelation. Indeed, the screen is so sharp that low-res imagery on websites will look offensively ugly and you'll find yourself going in search of better quality sites that live up to the screen's high standards.

Sony Xperia S screen
The HD resolution looks gorgeous -- so much so that it will shame websites that feature poor quality imagery (unlike CNET UK, of course).

The screen uses Sony's Mobile Bravia engine technology to improve the sharpness and saturation of images and videos. Photos and videos certainly looked sumptuous in our tests, with colours vibrant and blacks deep.

The display is made of scratch-resistant mineral glass topped with a shatter-proof plastic sheet. This is mildly static -- I found it soon collected a sheen of dust and fine fluff, which looks rather unsightly. To my eye, the sheet detracts from the overall look of the screen, which otherwise dominates the front of the device, thanks to a very thin bezel on three sides. The edge of the plastic sheet also feels slightly sharp under the finger -- it seems destined to accumulate a fine line of unsightly grime.

Despite this tacky plastic topping, the screen is fast and responsive, picking up even a light finger flick and throwing all those pixels around with alacrity. Its generous size -- although at 4.3 inches it's not as large as the biggest screens around -- coupled with the HD resolution means that if you have good eyesight, a text-heavy web page can be read without having to zoom in.

The viewing angle of the screen is pretty good, with text and imagery still discernible on a considerable slant. However, the depth of colour quickly drops off as you tilt the screen away from you.

Sony services

Sony is making a lot of noise about its four screens strategy -- which is business speak for "we're making TVs, laptops, tablets and smart phones now". This means it's pushing integration between the devices. For instance, if you own a Sony TV, you can use the Xperia S as a remote control. The S also has an HDMI port to hook up to a TV, and when you do so, a launcher pops up letting you play media from your phone on the big screen.

Personally, I've never felt the urge to plug my mobile into a TV, but you could rent or buy a film on the Xperia S and watch it up big, should you so desire.

Of course, all these screens need content to fly -- and that's where the Sony Entertainment Network comes in, underpinning the hardware with a generous back catalogue of music, films, TV shows and games.

Sony Xperia S: Sony services
Sony has loaded the home screens with annoying promo widgets -- fortunately, they can be deleted.

Sony services being pimped on the Xperia S include its Music Unlimited subscription service, which offers a catalogue of more than 10 million songs for either £4 or £10 per month, and its Video Unlimited shop for buying or renting film and TV shows. Sony's PlayNow Arena app store is also pre-loaded, just in case you felt underserved by the thousands of apps on Google Play. And for books, you're pushed in the direction of the Google Books service.

All these options for accessing media mean the Xperia S isn't the most streamlined of creatures, but you certainly can't complain that there isn't enough stuff to stick on your phone.

Design

The design of the Sony Xperia S stands out thanks to a striking transparent plastic strip near the base of what is otherwise a fairly standard-issue black (or white) slab. Sony has added a clutch of similarly stripped handsets to its Xperia range -- including the Xperia P and the Xperia U -- so the clear strip (or "transparent element" as Sony likes to call it) is no longer unique to the S.

To my eye, this strip has the look of a marketing exercise -- it exists to solve the "how can we make our slab phones stand out from all the other slab phones?" conundrum.

Sony Xperia S transparent strip
The clear plastic strip at the base of the Xperia S looks like the result of a branding brainstorm.

It's confusing as it looks as if it houses the back, home and menu keys, because it contains the symbols for them locked inside its clear plastic heart. But you don't actually press on the strip to activate any of these functions. Instead you need to press the three touch-key dots above each symbol. It's inelegant to say the least, especially as the touch keys aren't always super-reactive and seem to require perfect finger placement to work.

The strip does function as an indicator -- pulsing with white light when there's an incoming call. But it's so subtle you'll hardly notice it unless you're in a darkened room. It also lights up when you're swiping around the home screens but there doesn't seem much logic to when it glows. It's a case of surface glitz over functional substance.

Build quality

The handset is a solid slab, with squared-off sides and a convex back that rests easily on the palm when you're not using the device for making calls. However, the slabby shape is an ergonomic nightmare when you hold it up to your ear for long periods -- certainly if you have small hands like me. After 10 minutes on the phone I was getting finger cramps.

The overall feel is disappointingly plasticky. The matte plastic backplate is especially thin and produces a cheap hollow sound when tapped with a fingernail. While the handset is quite chunky -- about 1cm at its thickest point -- and reasonably solid, it can be made to creak and flex by applying pressure.

Sony Xperia S scale
The slabby shape and large size of the Xperia S gave me finger cramps.

There are three physical buttons on the Xperia S. Up top is a power key that's irritatingly close to the 3.5mm headphone jack, making it awkward to access. On the right-hand side is a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button. All these buttons function well enough when pressed but the keys themselves lie very low. They can be easily missed if you're hastily seeking them with a finger.

The Xperia S takes a micro-SIM -- its slot is squirreled away inside the handset, next to the non-removable battery. There's a micro-USB port for charging and transferring photos and music to and from the phone, and an HDMI slot for hooking up to a TV. These two ports are covered when not in use with small plastic doors that swivel out on a single plastic hinge. There's no microSD card slot so you'll have to make do with the 32GB of onboard storage.

Despite being so plasticky, the Xperia S is surprisingly weighty -- tipping the scales at 144g, making it slightly heavier than the smaller but glass-and-steel-clad iPhone 4S. If you like the look of the Xperia S but want a different material, Sony's Xperia P offers essentially the same design but with an aluminium body.

Software

The Xperia S runs Android Gingerbread but Sony says it will get an update to Ice Cream Sandwich in the not-too-distant future. It's due in "early Q2", so it's probably around a month away.

I did notice a few glitches with the software -- and Sony says it is still "ironing out some final bugs" -- so there should be another release that's more stable.

In the meantime, you get Android 2.3 with some unwelcome additions in the form of Sony's Timescape software and other ugly promo widgets shouting at you to GET FILMS while wasting precious space on the phone's five home screens.

Fortunately, you can delete these widgets and add useful stuff in their place so it's pretty easy to side-step most of Sony's add-ons. Its Timescape social plug-in is especially clumsy, filling an entire home screen with Facebook and/or Twitter info, depending on what you hook up to the phone, but it only manages to fit two tweets worth of info into the space.

There's a 3D panes overview of your social stream that can be fired up. This fills the screen with a scrollable stack of updates. There's no end to the number you can flip through but the stack of panes is so ugly it gives me eye-ache. Thankfully, it's easy enough to avoid.

Sony Xperia S: Widgets
Oww my eyes! Here's Sony showing how to design really ugly 3D widgets and waste home screen space.

Ugly 3D widgets seem to be a theme as Sony has also added a 3D photo viewer on another of the home screens, which lets you flick through snaps stored on your phone in one endlessly shuffling pack. Again, it looks like something dredged up from a badly drawn marketing flyer. The good news is you can consign it to the digital dustbin and forget it was ever ruining your HD view. Phew!

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