Review of the Sony Xperia S


I recently got my hands on a Sony Xperia S to review, but when it came time to pop in a SIM card to see how well it worked on the cellular network I found that it required a Micro SIM, which I didnít have.

Last Updated: 21-Apr-2012

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

That left me with only 3 options: A) hack my SIM down to the size of a Micro SIM and use an adapter to use it on my Galaxy S II LTE from now on; B) go to an Apple store and convince them I had a new iPad and I needed a Micro LTE SIM, then either get an adapter or get them to swap me back to a full-sized SIM; or C) write this review based only on the functionality available without a SIM.

At first option C seemed out-of-the-question, because traditionally my reviews have focused heavily upon the phone-as-a-phone aspect of a device. However, my own usage patterns, as well as those of countless other smartphone owners, have shifted away from using the device for telephone calls and more toward data-centric communications (which may include voice, but in the form of VoIP or push-to-talk services, both of which use a data connection). That doesnít mean that certain aspects of performance, such as RF sensitivity, arenít still important, but they seem to fade into the background compared to everything else we do with the devices.

After much consideration I decided to go ahead with option C, though I donít plan to make a habit of this. So, for the first time in a phone review on this web page I will NOT focus on the phone-as-a-phone aspect, and instead concentrate solely upon the Xperiaís suitability as a data device.

Audio

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.

When not considering the phone aspect at all, audio performance on a smartphone comes down to two things: how good the built-in speaker is at reproducing multimedia audio; and how good multimedia audio sounds on an external sound system or headset. I compared the Xperia S directly with my Galaxy S II LTE, which as noted in its review has audio properties virtually the same as its non-LTE cousin the Galaxy S II.

In terms of built-in speaker volume, the Xperia and the S II LTE seem to be about equal. Sony provides a user-selectable feature called xLOUD, which according to the description under the option, ďenhances the loudness of the speakerĒ. I turned this option on and off while listening to music and it does indeed have some effect, but the amount of loudness increase is barely detectable. What I suspect it might do is compress the dynamic range of the sound so as to make quieter audio seem louder while not changing the volume of louder audio.

As for tonal balance, the Xperia and the S II LTE come out almost equal again. Both however are a little tinny compared to other phones Iíve tested in the past, such as the Nokia N95. You can certainly listen to music through the built-in speaker, but itís hardly high-fidelity. It is however more than adequate for most multimedia applications other than music. The volume and overall tonal quality are great for watching YouTube videos and the speaker can generate reasonable volume and quality for alerts and ringtones. When used with Zello (a push-to-talk voice app) the volume and clarity were great.

When plugged into a sound system or headset, and operated without any equalization applied, the two phones sound remarkable similar. However, this is to be expected if they have any hope of making the grade as a music-playing device.

Unlike a number of recent Samsung devices, the Xperia does not suffer from a malady in which ticks and pops are heard through the speakers of your sound system when the phone isnít presently playing something. While these disturbances are relatively minor on the Samsung devices, and they only occur when you are doing something on the screen, they are still an annoyance that thankfully the Xperia does not suffer from.

Display

The display on the Xperia is a gorgeous-looking LCD type with a resolution of 1280 x 720 that spans 4.3 inches diagonally. The LCD has reasonably good contrast ratio (in that black ALMOST looks black, but not quite as much as so as a Super AMOLED screen). At full brightness the Xperia outshines the S II LTEís AMOLED display and as such is much easier to see in bright outdoor conditions.

Unfortunately the display has a shortcoming that might eventually put you off of it. It doesnít do particularly well with low-contrast images such as you typically see with Google Maps. To make matters worse, when viewed at approximately 45 degrees (which isnít all that unusual an angle to look at your phone) the details on low-contrast images disappear. When I looked a Google Maps image at 45 degrees the yellow roads and the green parks were TOTALLY INVISIBLE, though I could still make out the road names (which were in black). Even viewed straight on, itís much more difficult to discern the subtle color shades used by Google (which look great on a Super AMOLED screen at any angle).

However, the contrast issue and the viewing angle problems are not as big a concern when watching videos, and this is one area where the Xperia really shines. Itís super-bright display and well-saturated colors are just perfect for watching movies or videos. Even if you do miss out on some of the subtle shading, you arenít likely to notice under these circumstances.

The 1280 x 720 resolution means that text looks (to steal a line from an iPad commercial) pin-sharp. This is of course true of all 720p displays, which is rapidly becoming the standard for high-end phones. Pictures and videos donít look especially better, but if you can examine the screen closely youíll see less ramping in sharply-angle lines.

Gingerbread (which the phone presently ships with) seems to handle this screen resolution well, but generally stuff just looks smaller, which isnít necessarily a good thing if you have trouble focusing on the screen to begin with. Itís great for people like me with the ability to remove our glasses and focus easily on the screen at distances as close as 15 to 20 cm. For many others the smaller sizes of many fonts might be a problem. Unlike my S II LTE, the Xperia doesnít appear to have settings for changing the native font size.

Some apps, perhaps due to bad programming practices, donít display quite right on the Xperia. For example, the dialogs for Audio FX seem to have their checkboxes right on top of the text (which is supposed to appear next to them). This was the only example of that I found during my testing, but it wouldnít be a stretch to assume that there are other examples out there, some perhaps more annoying. It will probably go away with Ice Cream Sandwich anyway.

The Xperia does not include auto screen brightness. This isnít a huge issue, especially since auto-brightness is loosing some of its creditability with users owing to how annoying it can sometimes be. However, if you still like the idea of a screen that changes brightness to suit the conditions (and sometimes it really is handy) then the lack of this feature is a concern.

The specs say that the Xperia supports 16 millions colors (in other words, it supports 24-bit color). I proved that it really does by creating a 1280 x 720 image using Photoshop that had a slight gradient from corner to opposite corner. I then displayed this image on the Xperia using the Gallery app, the QuickPic app, and I set it as wallpaper. In all cases the gradient looked smooth and consistent. If the phone were to have displayed this in 16-bit color the gradient would have looked stepped, as there wouldnít be enough colors to show each the subtle changes from pixel to pixel.

However, and hereís where it gets weird, when I launched Slacker Radio I was surprised to see very strong evidence of 16-bit color (or even 8-bit color). Slacker uses a gradient image in the background of the app to look like a faint spotlight shone on the lower portion of the screen. Without trying to explain it you, just have a look for yourself (note, the Xperia screen capture is the larger one). Also note that Iíve brought up the shadows in these screen captures using Photoshop so that you can more clearly see what Iím talking about. Not all computer screens will have the necessary contrast ratio (or are setup correctly) to see this:


 



As you can see, the screen capture from the S II LTE (the smaller image, since that phone is 800 x 480) shows the gradient correctly and it looks like the spotlight it is supposed to be. However, on the Xperia the gradient looks stepped and the colors are all over the map. It looks ugly to say the least. I donít know why 24-bit color isnít employed in an app background, but for whatever reason it isnít and it can render some rather oddball effects, depending upon the app.

Physical Keys

The Xperia comes with 3 ďphysical keysĒ (though in reality they are simply touch-sensitive areas of the phone immediately below the screen). As an ďartsyĒ touch the area immediately below these is a see-through block of plastic with little icons ďfloatingĒ in it to designate the purpose of the touch buttons above, which on the face of the phone are marked only with tiny silver dots. The problem with this design is that no matter how long I used the phone I always wanted to press the icon, which is a waste of time, because that area of the phone is not touch-sensitive.

This wouldnít be a huge problem if the touch sensitive-buttons were actually a bit more touch-sensitive. As it stands they are a pest to use because they only work if you touch in just the right way. They are also too close to the screen and I often times ended up touching the lower portion of the screen when I reached for the function button below it. Maybe Iím just spoiled by the S II LTE, which has very sensitive buttons that are immediately below the icons and are far enough from the screen not to cause an issue. It isnít like Sony didnít have the necessary real estate to put these buttons further away from the screen, but to implement their ďartsyĒ design they were forced to do it. This is a shameful example of form-before-function.

Now if all of the above wasnít bad enough, they then decided to REVERSE the positions of the menu and back buttons from what you find on the vast majority of other Android phones (which Iím told is normal for Sony phones). If youíre new to smartphones (and in particular you are new to Android) the placement of the buttons is moot, because youíd find them unfamiliar either way. For seasoned Android users however, this reversal is a pain-in-the-neck.

Processor and Chipset

The Xperia is remarkably similar to my Galaxy S II LTE in a couple of keys ways. They both use the Qualcomm MSM8x60 dual-core process clocked at 1.5 GHz, and they both use the Adreno 220 GPU. Specially, the S II LTE uses the 8660 in order to support LTE (as well as HSPA+), while the Xperia uses the 8260, which is essentially the same chip, but it only supports HSPA+. These processors are based on the based on the Cortex A8.

Not surprisingly many of the synthetic benchmarks are very similar in both phones, with the exception of graphics performance. It doesnít take a genius to figure out why this is the case. Both phones run the same processor/GPU at the same speed, but the Xperia has to display 2.4 times more pixels than the S II LTE and this really hurts the results. For example, using GLBenchmark 2.1 Egypt (Standard) the S II LTE can pull off 51 frames per second, while the Xperia can only manage 31 frames per second. Using GLBenchmark 2.1 Egypt (High) the S II LTE drops to 35 frames per second, but the Xperia can barely pull off 18 frames per second.

While the above is mostly concerned with playing video games, some of what these numbers tell us can be applied to the overall performance of the graphics in day-to-day use. However, I didnít find the Xperia that much slower or sluggish than the S II LTE, though I did notice a difference when scrolling around pictures using QuickPic (my favorite replacement for the Gallery app). When I swiped on zoomed-in pictures the experience was more fluid on the S II LTE than it was on the Xperia, no doubt a result of the larger number of pixels the Xperia has to render.

Both phones have 1 GB RAM, which I have come to see as the optimal amount of RAM for Android. 512 MB simply isnít enough, because the O/S uses so much of it that there isnít really enough to keep enough apps in memory (especially if you run a lot of background apps). While a phone with 512 MB of RAM has about 160 to 200 MB of RAM available for your apps (under Gingerbread), a phone with 1 GB of RAM has 700 to 750 MB free, which is substantially more.

The Xperia comes with 32 GB of internal memory, while the S II LTE has only 16 MB. However, the Xperia does not have a MicroSD slot, which means that you canít add to that. The S II LTE does have a MicroSD slot, in which I have a 32 GB class 10 chip, giving my phone 48 GB of total memory. In most cases 32 GB should be enough, but if you find that limitation hard to accept there is nothing you can do about it in the Xperia.

WiFi Performance

To test the overall quality of the WiFi chip (and/or its antenna) I took both phones downstairs to my basement where the signal from my router was much weaker. As a WiFi signal get weaker the overall data speeds drop, though normally the ping times remain the same. I ran tests on both phones using Speedtest.net and the Toronto server. Give or take, they were both approximately the same, thus demonstrating their WiFi radios were at least the equal of one another.

Data Speeds

The Xperia only supports HSPA+ to 14.4 Mbps. However, Iíve said this before and Iíll say it again, to get the best speeds on HSPA+ you need to be fairly close to a site, otherwise phones fall back to HSPA 7.2 and transfer rates rarely exceed 6 Mbps (if youíre lucky). I wasnít able to run any real-world tests of the data rate due my lack of a suitable SIM card, but Iíve tested more than enough HSPA+ phones (both 14.4 and 21 Mbps varieties) to know that this particular aspect isnít going to make much difference in day to day use.

GPS

When I first played around with the Xperia I noticed that it positioned me extremely well while I was inside of my house. I therefore assumed that it had a kick-ass GPS chip. To put it to the test I installed SportsTracker Pro and I used the Xperia to track a couple of bike rides (which normally I track with my S II LTE using that same app). I had high hopes, but in the end the tracks were actually the WORST Iíd ever seen. Even my old Galaxy Captivate could render far more accurate tracks, and neither of my Samsung phones is as badly affected by obstructions such as tall buildings or overpasses.

I still needed to find out why the GPS seemed to be more accurate indoors, and so I installed the GPS Status app on the Xperia (I already had it on my S II LTE) and I headed down into my basement. Not surprisingly the GPS signals were rather weak down there, but both phones could eventually lock onto 6 or 7 satellites and provide at least 10 meter accuracy. The Xperia clearly had a more sensitive GPS receiver and it was capable of finding more satellites sooner than the Samsung. Once I was back on the main floor of my house however, both phones performed about equally when it came to finding and locking into satellites.

So, the Xperia has the potential of working with much weaker GPS signals, but it doesnít yield better overall performance when the GPS signals are strong. In fact, it produces markedly worse overall accuracy when used outdoors, so I find it difficult to reconcile the excellent low-signal performance with the questionable good-signal performance. Bottom line is, in day-to-day GPS use, the Xperia simply canít provide as accurate a position as can the S II LTE.

Camera

The Xperia comes with a lot of promise in the camera department. Not only does it sport a 12 megapixel shooter, but it also comes from a company with plenty of camera experience. The first thing that hits you however is just how crude and unsophisticated the native camera app is on the Xperia. I donít know what passes for a camera app on stock Gingerbread (since Samsung always provides a much more sophisticated camera app of their own), but it certainly canít be any worse than this. Unless you are purely a casual point-and-shoot type, youíll definitely want to install a 3rd-party camera app in your Xperia.

But what about image quality? Is it as good as a 12 megapixel camera would seem to promise? I didnít have another 12 megapixel camera phone to compare it to (such as the Nokia N8), but I did have my 8 megapixel S II LTE. I took numerous photographs using these phones in both low light and bright conditions. Overall, the pictures from the Xperia look good with excellent color accuracy, but sadly the sensor suffers from a lot of color noise (which seems to be most prominently in the red range). Itís especially pronounced in low light, but surprisingly it still shows up quite noticeably in brilliant sunshine as well. Any gains you make with the high pixel count are complete lost (and then some) by the noisiness of the photographs.

The real point to having high-resolution pictures is to be able to print or display them in large size. However, you canít really do that with the pictures from the Xperia without also exposing the serious noise problem.

Look at the following two photographs. Both have been cropped so that we can view them at full size, and so the Xperia picture is larger since it is a higher-resolution picture (12 vs 8 megapixels):



Note the grass immediately beyond the gazebo, which in the Xperia photo looks both green and red. Also look at the trees in the background. In the Xperia shot it looked like I took the photograph in the fall while the trees (especially those on the right) were covered in orange leaves. Look at the darker areas of the gazebo roof and youíll see that on the Xperia there is a large amount of red noise, despite the fact that was taken in broad daylight. Finally look at the details in the roof lines of the gazebo. The Xperia shot isnít as smooth-looking due to the presence of noise.

To see how they looked if they were scaled down to a smaller picture (such as for posting on a social media site) I reduced both pictures to 1024 x 768. You can see here that the Xperia photo still suffers from red issues. Not only does the picture have an overall red tint, but the tress still look like I took the photo in the fall.

Xperia:


SII LTE:


The bottom line here is that you shouldnít be fooled by the 12 megapixel camera. More is not necessarily better, and in this case it definitely isnít.

Oddball Niggles

Beyond the above, there are also a number of things about the phone that just bother me.

1) The back is curved, so if you put the phone down on a table (or other flat surface) the phone wants to rock from side to side. This is more than annoying, because it makes if difficult to touch the screen without causing the phone to move.
2) The side-mounted USB port has a rubber cover that is a royal pain to use. Even if you just threw up your hands in disgust and ripped the thing off permanently, a side-mount connector is just wrong-minded and tough to keep out of the way when you try to use the phone while it is connected to a charger.
3) The phone feels very sharp-edged and had a rather unfriendly feel in my hand.
4) The battery is non-removable, but Sony doesnít seem to provide a guaranteed way to simulate a battery pull as you can with the iPhone. This is critical if the phone locks up.

Conclusions

The Xperia S is a step up from the Android phones that Sony released last year and theyíre certainly headed in the right direction. However, when it comes to keeping up with the competition the Xperia still has a ways to go.
 

Home