Sony Xperia S Lightning Review: Sony's Smartphones Are Off To a Flying Start

By Gary Cutlack on at

The first phone from Sony now it's dumped the Ericsson bit of its name, the Xperia S builds on last year's excellent Xperia Arc and Arc S to offer an even bigger, faster and more refined entry into the higher levels of Android hardware.


What Is It?

An Android-powered smartphone with a completely new design for Sony's mobile arm; one that's more angular and Sony-like than last year's curvaceous Arc, and a little chunkier and heavier, with a 4.3-inch screen running at the top-drawer HD resolution of 720x1280.


Who's It For?

Sony fans who enjoy the company's black slab design ethic, and those seeking a large-screened smartphone with a top-of-the-range 12.1-megapixel camera that's particularly good for boasting about.



It'd definitely look at home resting on top of a whopping great Bravia, thanks to its matte black finish, squared edges and enormous display. The conversation starter here is a transparent waistband, which lights up and illustrates the position of the three Android buttons -- Back, Home and Menu.

You don't actually press this strip, however. The touch-sensitive buttons are above it, represented by tiny little pinpricks of silver, which are just enough of a guide to let you pick them out in gloomy lighting conditions.

It's not great that the HDMI and USB connectors are hidden behind rubber stoppers, as it's a right pain having to fiddle with the stupid things every time you want to charge it, but then at least this keeps the lines smooth and sharp along the phone's sides.

The back's curved and slightly rubberised for grip, plus there's a physical camera button along the lower right edge. It's not the same glamorous statement that last year's Xperia Arc models were, but is still a solidly built, nice thing to hold that's well-balanced in the hand.


Using It

Android 2.3.7 is the OS onboard the Xperia S, skinned with Sony Ericsson's usual interface. The dual-core processor keeps it all running well. Even the heaviest widgets don't interfere with or slow the scrolling of the five available Home screens, while apps install and open quickly, web sites and their embedded videos display and resize promptly and without glitch. It's fast.

The camera button opens the camera even if the display's in standby mode -- plus you can set it to instantly take a shot as soon as it wakes up, or just open the camera ready for you to manually focus. That's a great little touch, although one done rather more comprehensively by HTC in its 2011 models with its interactive lock screen icons.

The capacitive buttons seem to lack a little sensitivity, though. On occasion we had to press two or three times, or press a little longer than you'd expect, to register a touch. No such problem with the display, though, which is responsive and just a complete delight to use and look at.


The Best Part

That display is easily the sharpest and clearest out there today in Android world, bar none. The high resolution coupled with Sony's display technology makes icons appear incredibly sharp, with text, web sites, images and everything coming across unbelievably clearly on the 4.3-inch screen.


Tragic Flaw

Users expect the latest versions of Android to be on their high-end new mobiles, but the Xperia S arrives with Android 2.3.7 as its OS. That's still better than most new phones out there, mind, with only Samsung and Google's Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.0 at this moment in time outside of the tablet world, but it's sure to be a deal breaker for some.

This is more Google's fault for playing favourites with Samsung and its Nexus range and unfairly raising expectations, but still. People will complain.


This Is Weird...

The camera produces good quality shots at its maximum 12.1-megapixel resolution, but, as with last year's Sony Ericsson sensors, it can over-emphasise reds and greens. This doesn't ruin photos, but you will end up with pictures in which bright colours really explode out of the image.


Test Notes

It takes a bloody pain-in-the-arse MicroSIM, despite being significantly chunkier than last year's slimline Xperia Arc. If you're buying one, plan ahead and get your SIM chopped up or replaced by your network in advance, lest you're unable to use it.

There's a factory-fitted screen protector over the display, which adds a slightly rough edge to the screen. It's not a disaster, but it means the finish isn't quite as classy as that found on the Motorola RAZR or Google and Samsung's Galaxy Nexus, which both feature gorgeous curved edges on their displays.

Sony's still bravely sticking with the Timescape social media aggregator widget, but it remains mostly useless. Yes, you can tweet from it and it looks quite pretty when you open it up, but it's clumsier than standalone apps and you can't upload images to Twitter when using it.

Some of the apps, like the music player and email client, have been given a redesign that takes some visual ideas from Google's Android 4.0 update, so there are some modern touches in here to help differentiate this from last year's Sony Ericsson software.

The camera comes with a useful panorama stitching tool, plus a crazy 16x digital zoom that also works when recording video, the latter of which turns whatever you're pointing it at into an incomprehensible mush, so is best not used.

There are a lot of Sony spam apps on there, too. Links to Music and Video Unlimited web sites, PlayStation news apps, football nonsense, Sony's own alternate app store recommendation tool and more. We'd use its TrackID music recognition system and Power Saver app, but the rest need day one binning.

The external speaker is extremely loud and can be cranked right up without distortion, plus there's a graphic equaliser that does make a difference. A very good little radio, this one.


Should You Buy It?

If you want a very powerful and fast phone, and don't mind waiting a month or two for the very latest version of Android, then yes, absolutely. The incredible quality and sharpness of the display alone makes this phone worth having, plus it's always smooth in use and has no trouble running apps and games thanks to its dual-core internals.

The Galaxy Nexus may well have exclusive claim to Android 4.0 in the phone world right now, but Sony's first own-brand model for many years is a stylish and powerful option that ought to figure on anyone's upgrade wishlist.

Sony Xperia S

- Screen: 4.3" 720x1280 Reality Display
- Processor: 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm
- Storage: 32GB, no SD card support
- Camera: 12.1-MP rear camera with LED flash, 1.3MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: HSPA/3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, DLNA, A-GPS, NFC
- Ports: microUSB, 3.5mm headphones, HDMI
- Battery: 1750mAh, non-removable
- Price: £440 off network