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Programme 165 covers:

  • Review Special: Hands-on, detailed look at the Sony Xperia S

Here's a rough transcript of the main editorial content:

"I guess this is the first of the really big 2012 smartphones that I’ve had here and... I’m not that impressed. Maybe it’s the old version of Android, 2.3 or maybe it’s Sony’s rather weird design, but the ONLY thing that really impressed me about the Xperia S is the gorgeous 720p 4.3” RGB screen. Just about the highest performance phone display I’ve ever seen. Stunning.

But yes, the design. I’m just not sure where to start. The whole back cover comes off... to reveal an acre of plastic and a small microSIM slot. No access to the 1750mAh battery, so that’ll be dying slowly over the next year or two then, with no way to replace it. What on EARTH was the point in all this coming off, complete with, in places, badly fitting joins, just to give access to a minute microSIM slot? The back cover just compromises the entire device and for no user benefit.

Then there are the Android control buttons. I say buttons. They’re actually tiny dots that are almost invisible and have to be pressed quite confidently and on the ‘high side’ in order to register. How do you know which is which? Because the legends for the dots are printed on the perspex strip at the bottom of the phone, 6mm or so below. Don’t worry though, because the strip and legends light up - some of the time. The rest of the time, you’ll be thinking ‘now, which dot does what and where exactly is it?’.

In fairness, you do get used to the placement after a few days, but what the HECK was wrong with printing the control legends instead of the tiny dots? Like EVERY OTHER ANDROID PHONE? It’s styling gone mad, I tell you.

Talking of styling, although the back of the Xperia S is nicely curved and although I loved the matt material for the case, the ultra square top and bottom corners make the phone seem larger than it really is, and uncomfortable in a trouser pocket. Or maybe that’s misleading, since the phone really IS large, the bezel beneath the screen at the bottom - buttons, perspex, yada yada - is a good 2 centimetres.

The other downside of having capacitive control buttons is that, short of taking a photo (of which more later), the only way to wake the Xperia S from sleep is to press the top button and then swipe - making it almost IMPOSSIBLE to use the phone totally one-handed. So there goes the shopping or briefcase or (gulp) child. Nokia, Samsung and Apple all have the right idea,  with a physical button that can be reached with the same hand doing the swipe.

The microUSB port, device-left has a clunky tethered cover that’s a right pain to manueuver back into place after use. Ditto, the HDMI port, though at least both sit quite flush when reinserted properly.

Finally, and being a little picky, but then that’s what you tune in for, the bottom edge of the earpiece slot if quite sharp - and my finger catches it every time I do an Android notifications swipe.

But enough of the design negatives - this is Sony we’re talking about and they love being different. Maybe it’s me.

On the technical front, this is a dual core 1.5GHz Android smartphone with 1GB of RAM and it’s pretty nippy. Whether browsing web pages or playing videos, as here - every test video I threw at it played fine - the Xperia S is no slouch. There’s also 32GB of internal flash memory, which should be enough for most people, though do note that only 25GB is available out of the box. Still, I didn’t miss a microSD expansion slot.

As modifications to Android go, Sony’s latest Timescape layer is quite shallow - zap some of the extra widgets, ignore the Timescape one itself, and you’re not far off stock Android. There’s quite a bit of bloatware to ignore, delete or hide, mind you, with Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, Football Downloads, PlayStation Network, Wisepilot, McAfee Security, Let’s Start PS Store, PlayNow (an alternative app store) and Recommender (pointing to the main Google Play Store, at least).

Quite a bit to zap, but all the usual Android regulars are here and looking great on the 720p screen. Browser is superbly clear and fast, one of the very best mobile web browsing experiences I’ve ever had. Google Maps Navigation works well too, though the mechanical (robot?) voices still grate on me and I wanted to dive back into the human voices of Nokia Maps!
Youtube in HQ mode with the Bravia colour and contrast enhancements is as stunning as ever, I wanted to sit back and watch all day long.

By default, screen brightness is set to half, but I like the pseudo AMOLED experience created by Bravia and max brightness - interestingly there’s no auto brightness option, plus the supplied widget just toggles between max and zero backlight, which isn’t very helpful. No doubt there’s a third party utility to help here....

I was pleased to see a great set of setup and welcome screens - both Google and Sony have done wonders here and little is left to chance for the new user.

Somewhat oddly, Sony’s version of the Android keyboard, while having nice and large virtual keys, omits both a period and a comma - having to dive into a key options panel to access these is a royal pain.

NFC’s here under the hood and Sony’s PR makes a big thing about setting up Smart Tags to initiate various apps and device settings with one tap - I can’t demonstrate this on camera as the review unit didn’t come with the 3 tags normally shipped in the retail box. Apparently you get a blue one ‘car’, for turning on Bluetooth and SatNav - so you’d stick this on your dashboard and tap it when you get in, etc. Plus a red one ‘home’ - turns on Wi-fi and increases system volume, plus a black one ‘night’, which turns on your alarm and silent mode and switches off wifi.

One concern I have is that the tags don’t toggle settings. So if you wanted to get all custom, you’d have to have one tag that you tapped to set things up for, for example, a cycle ride, and another to tap when you got back. Might work out a little cumbersome?

If you do want to go ‘custom’, note that one of my Phones Show fans happens to run a NFC tag business and I can wholeheartedly recommend it - see - go bookmark it now. You essentially buy these small sticky tags and write to them using NFC Task Manager. You can even buy waterproof tags which are ideal for outside adverts. Good stuff and great geek fun.

OK, enough wibbling, time to address the elephant in the room, the Xperia S’s camera. Here are some nice sample images I’ve taken with it. At 12 megapixels, the S’s camera was touted to rival or even beat that in the Nokia N8. Nope. At my level of pickiness, it’s not that close, even in good light, with sharpening and noise reduction algorithms desperately trying to make up for the camera having quite a small sensor. And in low light, as with all other small-camera-ed, LED-equipped smartphones, the Xperia S’s photos are as noisy and blurry as the rest.

However - the Xperia S camera is still one of the best I’ve seen on an Android phone and if you grab it for all the benefits that the OS brings then the camera will probably keep you happy enough, outdoors at least.

Of particular note is the quick launch mode - when the Xperia S is locked, just mash the camera button down - when you see something special and fleeting - and the device turns on, opens its camera, focuses and snaps - all in under 2 seconds. VERY handy and something I’d like to see on other devices.

[Video sample]

So what do we have here? A competitive dual core Android smartphone certainly. But it has some design issues that can’t be ignored and it does very little to stand out. The headline gimmick, the perspex strip is just that, a gimmick. It only lights up in white and even then fairly erratically - there’s no use of the strip to let you know of emails or charging status (though there is a traditional LED at the top for that, in fairness). And the disconnect between the perspex legends and the sweet spot for where to actually touch is so large that Sony even put in a special warning screen about this as the VERY FIRST screen you see in the Xperia S setup. Not really a good sign of a design done right, is it?

Add in the inexplicable back cover/battery situation and a square jawed look from the mid 2000s and even a sumptuous display and blazing performance can’t swing me back to a heart felt recommendation here. The Xperia S isn’t a terrible smartphone. But it’s also not the 2012 standout that it desperately wanted to be."

Steve Litchfield, (C) 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, email me at

All content on this site and in the Show is copyrighted to Steve Litchfield and to the relevant guest reviewers. All rights reserved, please do not distribute the video files further than your own computing equipment.

Jelly BeanShow 176 - News/odds and ends, My favourite bits of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and a brief look at a new mobile-centric music system.

Show 175 - Hands-on review of the HTC One V, plus news catch up and a tour round my personal 808 set-up

Show 174 - Hands-on review of the Nokia 808 PureView - the best Symbian smartphone ever made - can its monster camera make up for other shortcomings?

Nokia 808Show 173 - News, A hands-on review of the Huawei Ascend G300 and my Top 5 Phones for June 2012

Show 172 - Hands-on review of the Samsung Galaxy S III, 4.8" screen and quad core processor - the biggest and best phone in the world?

Show 171 - Hands-on review of the Motorola RAZR MAXX with massive 3300mAh battery

Virtual controlsShow 170 - News, A rant on the non-take up of Android 4.0 virtual controls, and a hands-on review of the Nokia Lumia 900

Show 169 - Hands-on review of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Active and some further thoughts on the Samsung Galaxy S III

Show 168 - Hands-on review of the HTC One S, a blow-by-blow comparison between the Nokia Lumia 710 and HTC Radar, and news of the Galaxy S III

Ericsson R380Show 167 - News, My top 10 second hand bargains, A look at the very first touchscreen smartphone - 7 YEARS before the Apple iPhone

Show 166 - Hands-on review of the HTC One X, the biggest and fastest phone in the world - but is it the best?

Show 165 - Hands-on review of the Sony Xperia S, are the super 720p screen and 12mp camera enough?

Asha 302Show 164 - An editorial on the death of a form factor, my Top 5 Qwerty candybars in 2012, and my hands on review of the Asha 302

Show 163 - Review of the Nokia N9, running Meego, plus 'What you need to know' from MWC 2012

Show 162 - Review of the Google Nexus X(!), plus a look at the Nokia 500 and thoughts on Symbian Belle

Galaxy NoteShow 161 - Hands-on review of the Samsung Galaxy Note

Show 160 - Review of the 4.65", 720p-screened Galaxy Nexus

Archive of earlier Smartphones Shows

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