Sony Xperia S, a worthy flagship in design but lacking in hardware

The Xperia S heralded a new design that definitely caught the eye of many, as Sony Ericsson moved out and became Sony.

The NXT series of phones was led by the S as its flagship, and the phone’s design stood out of the crop, but faced a stiff challenge when the HTC One Series also came with an outstanding design.

I got hold of this phone recently as i wanted to try it out, after trying out its lesser known but in some way more advanced Xperia P twice.

HARDWARE

Sadly this is the very area Sony continues to get battered even today, though the Xperia Z promises to change this for the first time for Sony.  The Xperia S packed a dual-core Qualcom 1.5Ghz unit backed by the Adreno 220 GPU.  The processor and GPU are quite capable but this combination is what you saw in 2011 phones from HTC and Samsung, which had moved on to quad core units by 2012.

The one place the Xperia S had matched with times was the memory, with the Xperia S featuring 1GB of RAM, though that was also changing with Samsung releasing the US Galaxy S3 with 2GB, and now in 2013 we are seeing all new phones coming with 2GB.

Design

The Xperia S definitely can be proud of one definite thing, which is that design.  The phone still looks good, and feels good.  The design was fresh and different but the design also meant a large bezel at the bottom which many of the users did not like, and the new 2013 models have dropped this design, which mean they don’t look very much different from others phones on this end.

The Xperia S sadly did not have touch enabled buttons for the lighting grid, unlike its cheaper Xperia P sibling, something that can be irritating if you have used the Xperia P before the S (as was my case!).  If not i am sure you won’t be too bothered about this.

Display

The Xperia S was also Sony’s first phone with the 1280×720 display, and it featured a very sharp LCD screen that was boosted by the Bravia software optimization that boosted contrast for video playback.

I have come to realize that i am a person who appreciate sharpness of the screen, which was one reason why i did not like the pentile AMOLED screens on the Galaxy S3 and HTC One S, which lacked the sharpness.

The Xperia S has a very sharp and solid display that to me is only second to the HTC One X, which features a screen that is superior to my eye, but that maybe a personal choice.

Sony has opted for a more narrow display compared phones offered by HTC and Samsung with its NXT Series phones, and the Xperia S may offer better single handed operations but i find the narrow size a bit restrictive when it comes to typing on the keyboard.

Camera and Video

The Xperia S also featured one of highest megapixel cameras with a 12MP unit when all the competition were doing 8MP.  However based on the pictures i have taken and reviews read, my feeling is that Sony tried to win customers by marketing higher mega pixels than true better picture quality/video.

The unit features the same F2.4 type lens that all are familiar with the Sony Arc S launch, and for some the Arc S remains the better shooter.  The extra mega pixels have further highlighted the lower quality of Sony camera images, and this is an area Sony still has work to do.

What is crazy is that Sony has such a pedigree when it comes to compact cameras with small sensors, and that their camera units and processing is being thrashed by Samsung, HTC and Apple is something that Sony should be ashamed.

The video like HTC features constant auto focusing which is great for slow moving footage, but remember to disable this when doing fast moving footage if not you are going to feel sad.  The video is also capable of 1080p HD, and the quality is good enough and the camera performs decently even in poor light.

Video playback and sound

The stock video player is decent, but does have limitation on the formats supported and you need to download a third party app to ensure you can play all types of media formats.

One area Sony has always been good is the sound quality on the headset and loudspeaker, and the Xperia S continues that tradition.

However the bundled in-ear type headset is average in quality, and also does not fit well into your ears.  I preferred the HTC bundled units the one series which offer better sound quality and fit.

Storage

The phone features 32GB on-board which is very much the standard for flagship phones bar the rare Galaxy s3 with 64GB available in some markets.  However Sony omitted the microSD card which meant no expansion on the storage and also took away the users ability to load content quickly by switching SD cards.

Considering the bulk of the phone, and the easily removable back cover Sony missing the microSD is a sad omission.  However seems Sony has now understood this and the recently launched Xperia T has a very easily accessible MicroSD slot.

Battery

The Xperia S was also the series that got Sony into the IPhone like non-removable battery space, which effected its sales, as many power uses tend to carry spare batteries as full use of these phones means less than a day of use.

The Xperia S with its largish 4.3” screen and older chipset meant it lost out in battery life to the more powerful Samsung phones, but it still was able to provide over 1 day use which was decent.

I tend not to have mobile data enabled unless i want it, with such use i could manage around 1.5-2 days of use.  Though it use an LCD type display which is supposed to do well with white background render, the phone drains battery quite rapidly when browsing, which is also reflected in the gsmarena battery tests.

Software Updates

Sony’s other areas of weakness has been that it has always got caught on the wrong end when releasing its phones that it was always one version down from Samsung and HTC.  The Xperia S suffered as it was launched with Gingerbread when the hot topic was ICS.  Sony provided the ICS update quickly but the initially version proved to be rather buggy, but subsequent updates improved the performance and stability, with the Xperia S getting the updates ahead of all the other NXT range phones.

However with the release of the Xperia SL, identical phone with a higher clocked processor, and the Acro S, the Xperia S updates were pushed into second priority, and then the recent release of the Xperia T has further slowed the much awaited Jelly Bean update.  Sony has informed that this update would rollout in Mar/April 2013, while the Xperia T got it late Jan 2013.

The good news is that the Xperia S code was shared with Google, and this means you may see one more major update for this phone which makes it one of the few phones (the Galaxy S2 is the other) to have received 3 major updates since the release of the phone when most have only got 2 updates at most.  The updates have also not been just base versions, and also featured new features that were available with newer releases, which means value for money for users who brought the phone.

Issues noted

The phone i had had was already running the most latest 4.0.4 update which was quite stable, and i did not notice any irritating or annoying behavior.

However the white version (which i had) definitely showed a weakness in build quality with the external paint work peeling off in some areas on the edges quite easily though the phone only had been used for a few months.

The micro USB has a cover, and this is also an area that has paint peeling happening, and Sony seems to have sorted this out in the Xperia T by omitting the cover just like most others have done.

Performance

I have only included tests of Android 4.0.4 for other devices, to provided a more apple to apple comparison, though several of the phones were tested by myself with Jelly Bean which boosted performance (bar the S3!) specially on the web browsing area.  I am sure similar or better improvements can be seen when the Jelly Bean update for the Xperia S rolls out.

The Samsung E110S Galaxy S2 features identical hardware to the Xperia S, but features a lower resolution screen, which is why you see far better performance on Quadrant, Nenamark and Antutu, all which take the 2D or 3D performance as well into play.

We also see how much faster the S4 Snapdragon featured in the One S, which was the chipset everybody hoped that Sony would have used or at least opted to use the Adreno 225 graphics, and we only see it appear now in 2013 with the Xperia T.

Also noticeable is that the Xperia S with an weaker CPU and GPU still holds well against the Galaxy S2, considered one of the best phones to be released in 2011 and its true competitor as all others were launched a year later.

  Chipset GPU Android Antutu 3.0.x Quadrant Nenamark Vellamo 2.x GeekBench 2.0
Sony Xperia S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S3 Adreno 220 4.0.4 8219 3306 37.9 1393 996
HTC One S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S4 Adreno 225 4.0.3 10558 4707 61.0 1535 NA
Samsung S2 E110S 1.5Ghz Dual Snapdragon S3 Adreno 220 4.0.4 8689 3531 53.8   716
HTC One X 1.5Ghz Quad Tegra-3 Nvidia Tegra 3 4.0.4   5700 54.1 1519 1369
Samsung Galaxy SII 1.2Ghz Dual Exynos Mali400MP, Dualcore 4.0.4 10279 3093 48.0 1133 727
Samsung Galaxy S III 1.4Ghz Quad Exynos 4412 Mali400MP Quadcore 4.0.4 14300 5343 58.9 1569 1824

Conclusion

The Xperia S design today stills remains fresh and cool, and the display great to look.  The processing may be lacking but for most this might still be more than good enough when budget and mid tier phones are still featuring single core units.  Packing 1GB memory this phone can still be a good buy for many, and with a decent camera to back it makes a good buy just like the S2, with the added benefit that you get a higher resolution screen that the S2 lacks.

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