Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
4th Apr 2011 | 12:05
Can Android 2.3 and a super-slim new body salvage Sony Ericsson's Android ambitions?
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Overview and design
Update: You can now check out thoughts on the upgrade to this phone in our Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S review.
Sony Ericsson's original Xperia X10 was a brave first go at an Android phone, offering a large screen, a collection of social media enhancements and a stylised version of Google's rapidly growing mobile operating system.
However, the X10 was hindered by delays, held back by glitchy software and arrived running the already ageing Android 1.6 – and only received an update to 2.1 recently. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a mess.
You can check out our Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc video review:
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc obliterates all of those awkward memories in a flash. It's running the very latest Android 2.3.2 version of the OS. It's arrived on time. It's fast, and it's very, very stylish indeed.
And it's not that expensive for a single-core Android phone in 2011 at £430 SIM free or £30 per month on contract – can Sony Ericsson's Reality Display, Bravia Engine and Exmor R buzzwords win pocket space in today's extremely crowded Android marketplace?
First impressions are that the Xperia Arc is unbelievably, impossibly thin. It's also flared slightly around the back, giving the rear of the phone a slightly fatter top and bottom. And it's light, too – a mere 117g. The rival Google Nexus S weighs in at 129g. How it has all been squeezed in is a mystery.
The solid-feeling 4.2-inch screen fills much of the front of the phone, with only a few millimetres of bezel to the left and right. The handset itself is only marginally longer than the old HTC Desire – and is significantly slimmer. In fact, you get an HTC Desire HD-sized screen in the body of a much smaller, slimmer phone.
But you only get Sony Ericsson's standard selection of three physical buttons – Back, Home and Menu – in reverse order to how they featured in the X10. That will mess with the minds of upgraders. The buttons are solid silvery plastic, plus there's a piercing white LED light shining through the gaps between them to help guide your thumbs in the dark.
The top of the phone features an HDMI output hidden behind a little dust stopper, plus a tiny power button. The power button is recessed to stop accidental presses – but so tiny it can be a little hard to find. It's a fingernail job and a bit of a pain. There's also a proximity sensor, which shuts off the screen when it's pressed to your ear.
The left edge features the 3.5mm headphone jack, while the right-hand edge houses the micro-USB, a small volume up/down rocker and a physical camera button near the bottom.
The back of the Xperia Arc is simple, with its curved case lending it quite an air of style. We've been using this one for over a week, and still keep picking it up to marvel at how thin it is.
Turn the screen on and it's bright and sharp. Icons are clear and well defined thanks to Sony Ericsson's Reality Display technology, whatever that may be, with nothing in the way of pixilation on show.
The screen is very usable outdoors in direct light – you don't even have to max the brightness to read text while outside. It's a lovely piece of hardware to have.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Interface
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Interface
Android 2.3 has been lightly skinned on Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, with animated icons, large media widgets and a clever folder-creation system added to the mobile OS. It's pretty, and it's easy to use.
The 4.2-inch touchscreen supports multi-touch input, and Sony Ericsson illustrates this by letting you spin the Home screen out into an overview mode with a two-fingered zoom motion. There are only five Home screens included here, for some odd reason, so you're unlikely to ever get so lost you need this satellite view.
The screen is very sensitive to the touch, while the 1GHz single-core processor does a fine job of pushing menu pages about, scrolling Home screens and populating lists of apps without trouble.
Sony Ericsson has again included its Timescape social aggregator on the Xperia Arc, with the animating widget letting users pull in their text messages, Twitter feeds and Facebook nonsense into one combined space.
It is a clever but rather pointless feature, to be honest, providing a disjointed experience. Clicking on a tweet or Facebook status update takes you to the mobile websites of the services rather than opening any app you may use.
So when you see a web link in a tweet and click on it, it opens up the Twitter mobile site rather than the actual link. Which feels like rather a waste of time and a step back from using one of the many excellent Twitter apps available for Android.
Still, it's a fancy way of organising your text messages, with the app also giving your missed calls a whole page to themselves. But the way it blows up Twitter and Facebook icons to fill the background creates a rather ugly widget. Which means Timescape is best removed, sadly, and replaced by individual apps for each service.
Also, Sony Ericsson has stuffed another one of its five Home screens with a gallery widget, music widget and media shortcut bar. These widgets are useful, but having three on the screen pulling in data and photos can result in the occasional glitch when paging through your Home screens as the phone struggles to fill all these content-rich windows.
What is very nice is the customisable floating dock. Along the bottom of the screen sits four icons, and, as with the icons on the Home screen, you're able to long-press on these and put your own favourite apps or links in this dock.
The one dock icon you can't change is the central icon, which opens up the app drawer. This can be edited, too, with Sony Ericsson letting users sort their app collections manually, by alphabetical order or most used.
The drag-down notifications bar is a little under-stocked compared to its Android brethren – even the HTC Desire S has joined the Samsung Galaxy S2 and INQ Cloud Touch in offering easy access to turning on and off Wi-Fi or GPS from anywhere in the phone.
One clever new little touch (for Android – iPhone 4 users will find this familiar) is the ability to create folders to group your apps together on the fly. Simply dragging one Home screen icon onto another brings up a prompt to name a folder – and the system then dumps the two icons into your new storage space. Nice.
Folder use in general is good, with a very pretty little annotated window popping up when you open one. Getting things into folders is a bit tough on Android, though. How do you get a photo from the Gallery to a folder on the Home screen, for example?
It doesn't seem possible, which limits the use of folders to grouping icons and freeing up space on your Home screen – but then again, that hasn't stopped it being a popular feature on the iPhone.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Contacts and calling
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Contacts and calling
As with all modern Android phones, Contacts data on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc can be pulled in from your Google account and Facebook profile – plus it will import data from a SIM card if you're updating to a smartphone for the first time, or use Exchange data or Sony Ericsson's own standalone sync service.
The individual Contact page is extremely customisable, with users able to add notes, nicknames, instant messaging accounts and much more to each listing – plus it's possible to automatically direct individuals to voice mail, if there's someone you're avoiding.
You're able to sort Contacts in a few useful ways, like choosing to only show those that have phone number data – very helpful when your phone has just pulled the details of 300 people from Facebook.
If you've linked a Facebook account with a Contact, the person's latest status update is also listed beneath their Contact details. It makes paying attention to other people's lives so much easier.
It's also possible to place a shortcut to a person's contact details in an icon spot on the Home screen. It's a very user-friendly system, and Sony Ericsson has done a nice job of making Android's slightly dull text-based presentation look good.
Call quality is very good indeed. Volume through the phone's speaker is loud and quite clear, plus there's a second microphone in the back of the phone to add an element of noise cancellation. Although it was hard to notice any significant difference.
The mobile signal was strong, actually giving us a better connection than our now-aged HTC Desire.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Messaging
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Messaging
Standalone SMS messaging on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc has been skinned a little, with texts appearing in threaded format in a simple text window. You're able to attach images and videos, or even record them direct from the SMS window prompt. It's a stylish little tool that glamorises text messaging like never before.
The Xperia Arc's keyboard is simple and a bit of a disappointment. There's no Swype or alternative on here either, so Sony Ericsson's take on the standard Android keyboard is all you get.
There are no alternate characters on the keys, so for numbers and special characters your only option is to switch screens. Still, no one complains about that on iPhone 4, so it's clearly not a deal breaker for most people.
The phone attempts to predict your words as you type, but it's a patchy experience. We found we'd typed almost the entire word before it popped up, rendering the feature virtually useless. Fans of proper grammar will also be frustrated by its poor handling of apostrophes, especially as the apostrophe itself is hidden away on the special characters screen.
Text editing is made easier in Android 2.3 thanks to a little on-screen tab that attaches itself to the bottom of the cursor when you touch an area of text you've typed. Dragging the tab is much easier than trying to precisely touch the specific area you need to edit, making correcting errors less of a chore.
Email is handled by the standard Android client, which, as ever, does a great job of setting your accounts up for you once you've supplied a username and password, also fully supporting Exchange accounts. You're able to view your accounts separately, or as part of a unified inbox – something a lot of phones neglect to do, yet so many users love the feature.
Sony Ericsson has included a very nice scrollable preview pane, which can be turned on or off – or only used when the phone's in landscape mode to give you a little more room. As with most things to do with the Xperia Arc, it's a sleek, user-friendly experience.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Internet
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Internet
The Arc's high-res 480 x 854 screen is superb for web use. The standard Android web browser is what you get here, with nothing in the way of Sony Ericsson customisations. That's a good thing, because the Android web browser is the very model of simplicity.
Multi-touch zooming around pages is usually good, although it can get a little rough if you try to move around pages before they've fully loaded. You're limited to having eight browser windows open at once, which seems like a silly and arbitrary rule – but better than the four available on the HTC Incredible S.
Text is extremely readable on the high-res screen. Sony's Ericsson's Reality Display is very easy on the eyes, with the brightness and clarity of the display making it one of the smartphone world's finest screens.
Large text documents are handled well, although the text reflow system is a little odd. Zoom into a page using multi-touch and it doesn't reflow – but double-tap on the screen and you get a full zoom with text shuffled about to fit the window size.
The combination of Android 2.3 and Adobe Flash Player means Flash sites are supported, while the phone's 1GHz processor does a good job of handling complex, content-rich sites. It's not perfect, though – pages with embedded videos can grind to a near halt at times.
Android's bookmark and history handling is clever, with an icon beside the URL bar bringing you straight into the bookmarks section when touched. This pops up a tabbed page that also includes your most visited pages and browsing history.
And yes, you can remove anything from this listing by long-pressing on the item in the list. Just in case you accidentally do something bad.
URLs can be shared via the Menu button, while long-pressing on a chunk of text brings up a simple start and end arrow – arrange these to your liking, then tap the selection to copy the highlighted text to the clipboard.
The Xperia Arc, coupled with Android 2.3, is a great phone for web browsing, as long as you're not seriously into Flash content and heavy, dynamic web sites. You can forgive the odd web page crunch in return for having such a large, readable screen.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Camera
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Camera
The Xperia Arc's 8.1megapixel Exmor R sensor captures still images at a maximum resolution of 3264 x 2448, with photos saved in JPEG format and emerging between 1MB and 1.5MB.
The camera software itself is simple and straightforward, missing many of the silly photo effect features found in some cameras. You get a very stylish sliding option menu on the left, plus a miniature gallery of recent photo thumbnails to the right.
Inside the Menu tab you find smile detection, a collection of eight scene modes for portraits, landscapes, night shots and so on, plus a red-eye reduction option.
OUTDOORS: Shots are good, with the system quick to focus and return you back to the viewscreen
WITH FLASH: The flash is excellent, doing a fine job of illuminating scenes
WITHOUT FLASH: Low light shots without flash are just about passable. The phone over-compensates for dingy conditions by boosting the colours, resulting in rather odd images filled with coloured mosaic tiles when viewed at full size. Still, it's decent low-light performance for a mobile phone
MACRO: There's a separate macro mode that lets you get to around four inches or so away from your subject, which results in some superb shots of small things
There's a bit of a physical problem when taking photos, though. The camera button is incredibly stiff, requiring a tough press to call into action. End result – blurry shots.
You can also touch the screen to take photos, but again, you end up shaking the camera a little when doing so. Or pressing the menu area by accident and getting very confused.
However, a digital image stabilisation option is on offer to help wobbles – and does the job without sacrificing any picture resolution.
Back on the options side you get a self-timer, although there's little in the way of silly little features to play with. No sepia, no black & white, no novelty colour modes at all. Which doesn't bother us one bit, because whoever actually uses the negative scene mode?
NIGHT MODE: The above photo is taken using the Night mode. It's a dark corner of a dark room. At night. It's come out pretty well without using the flash
DOCUMENT: There's a Document setting for taking pictures of text. We're happy to report that it does. It's basically the same as Macro mode as far as we can tell
PARTY: This is the Party mode. We didn't have a party to hand, so stood beside a unit in the kitchen holding a cup of tea and took this photo using the self timer. The flash went off so it looks a mess. Worst party ever
OUTDOORS: A landscape. The power of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc hardly makes any difference to what you see in reality. The Xperia Arc's display is sharp and bright, and the overall effect is stunning
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Video
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Video
The Xperia Arc records its video in a selection of resolutions all the way up to the 720p HD size, with clips emerging from the camera in MP4 format. A 30-second clip recorded at this maximum resolution takes up around 23MB.
The big bonus here is in having continuous autofocus while recording videos, which is rather a rarity on a mobile phone camera.
The video recording options are also simplified, as with the still camera. There's only a choice of six scene modes while recording video clips, plus a slider for fiddling with the exposure and a selection of automatic white balance settings for various lighting conditions.
It's possible to leave the camera's flash on permanently if recording a clip in the dark, plus there's a digital image stabilisation option which crops the image in return for doing a noticeable job of smoothing out wobbles.
Video quality is good and manages a near constant 30fps even when recording in 720p, although there's some noticeable blurring and blotchiness when filming moving scenes. We also recorded the odd glitch, where the sensor fails to update for half a second or so. It's not a disaster, but also not quite what you'd expect from a phone being sold on its media-capturing abilities.
Switching between light and dark areas is quick and subtle, with the camera doing a fine job of managing differing light conditions. It really is a pleasure to use.
The sensor is also quick to switch focus when recording clips, which is one of its best features. It also has a very sensitive mic, recording sounds very well indeed. Sony Ericsson's fine tradition of providing the best in mobile phone cameras lives on.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Media
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Media
Music playback is handled by a simple but stylish player, to which Sony Ericsson has added a few little buttons to in order to impress people.
The main addition is Sony Ericsson's Infinite button, which performs an internet search for the artist currently playing. Press this and you're greeted by a selection of YouTube clip links. Which is a bit easier than searching YouTube. That's about all.
The onboard speaker doesn't do a great job of playing music when not using headphones. It's loud enough, but there's little in the way of bass, so everything's a little on the tinny side. You do get a software graphic equaliser, but it has about the same effect as fiddling with the volume.
The Xperia Arc also supports stereo audio via Bluetooth (A2DP) if you're not won over by the perfectly capable wired headphones included in the box.
There's a nice little Home screen widget that gives access to the player and lets you play, pause and skip through your tracks. Playlist functionality is excellent, letting users create new ones on the fly, or simply choose most played or recently added tracks. Or, if you're in a weird mood, you can pick the songs you've never played.
When it comes to video media from other sources, the default video playback options are a definite weak point of the Xperia Arc. The phone refuses to play DivX content in AVI form, and therefore doesn't like MKVs or WMVs either.
Help is at hand in the shape of an automatic file converter that arrives along with the Sony Ericsson PC Companion connectivity and backup suite, which will ask you if you'd like to reformat your video to an MP4 file so it works on the phone when you start to copy across an unsupported file.
This is not a great solution, but does work. Albeit slowly – it took 40 minutes to convert and copy a 48-minute AVI file from PC to the phone via USB.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Battery life
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Battery life and connectivity
There's a 1500mAh battery in the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, which does a good job of keeping the phone going. With the phone set to maximum Timescape media sync and screen brightness on medium, we got a comfortable two days' casual use out of the Arc – certainly better than the HTC Desire HD manages.
As with all smartphones, battery life depends heavily on what you use the phone for. Android's built-in power monitor tells us that the phone's screen is unsurprisingly the highest power user by a huge margin, so if you're constantly staring at things and fiddling away with games it'll struggle to last a day.
However, the background data syncing options didn't use much power at all – meaning that for once we didn't feel the need to immediately turn off all automatic updates to preserve power. Your experiences will vary, but we find the Arc's battery performance sits bang in the middle of what you'd expect from a large-screened smartphone.
The phone supports wi-fi 802.11n and connects quickly from standby, with 3G and HSPA for mobile connections.
You also get DLNA compatibility, via Sony Ericsson's Media Server app. Turn this on and it'll share your media via a Wi-Fi connection with any other DLNA-certified devices you have in the neighbourhood.
Once the app has connected via Wi-Fi, you're prompted to allow any other DLNA devices on your network full or temporary access to the files on your phone.
Playback and browsing settings then depend on the device you're streaming the files to – but using software-based DLNA app Skifta on an HTC Desire, we were able to easily view photos and stream music and video from the Arc with ease.
Being based on a modern version of Android means the Arc can function as a 3G modem via both a tethered USB connection and setting it up to create its own wireless hotspot for a laptop to hook into.
An HDMI output lets wired users display footage on an HDTV, although there's no cable in the box. And there's an FM radio.
When connected via HDMI, the Arc automatically boots to the Gallery and displays that on your TV or monitor. Some TVs will have the ability to page through the gallery using the remote control, freeing you to dump the phone on the floor.
If not, it's possible to use your phone as a remote to control stuff – plus the entire phone user interface is viewable and usable on the TV screen. So you can play Angry Birds on a 42-inch plasma -(what we simply call 'Living the Smartphone Dream).
As ever, the FM radio only activates when a pair of headphones is plugged in – because the cable is used as an aerial. However, there's also an option to output the audio through the speaker once you're tuned in. But you still have to have the headphones in at all times.
It's a simple app. There's an auto station search option, while the only advanced smartphone super-feature is compatibility with Sony Ericsson's TrackID system – one touch of an icon in the corner and it'll identify whatever tune Chris Moyles is currently shouting over the top of.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Maps and apps
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Maps and apps
Because the Xperia Arc is running the very newest version of Android, you get the very latest suite of Google apps on the phone straight out of the box – Gmail, YouTube, Maps, Talk and the quaint News & Weather widget.
The Arc's processor and multi-touch screen means the new, vector-based Google Maps runs perfectly, with the full range of 3D zooming, panning and rotating options available when viewing maps up close.
The initial GPS lock was swift, with Google's fantastic Maps Navigation app giving you a superb free satnav tool.
Google's Maps app is easily the most impressive mapping and navigation tool out there. As well as access to the classic Google Maps, it now includes full voice navigation across most of Europe. Simply accessing the Directions tab lets you specify a start and end point, with Google computing a route for you.
Clicking on the Maps Navigation arrow then opens the sat-nav part of the app, prompting you to download and install a voice pack for spoken directions – if you want to hear some amusing American mis-translations of UK place names.
The route is calculated in advance, so it's simple to punch it in while at home on Wi-Fi, then head off and let the GPS do the rest of the job. It's one of Android's killer apps.
Aside from the Google apps, Sony Ericsson has resisted temptation to fill the Arc up with third-party software. There's not much on here at all. The BBC iPlayer app is installed, with the Arc managing to play the highest bitrate streaming video perfectly through Wi-Fi after an initial choppy bit of buffering.
As with Sony Ericsson's 2010 Android phones like the Xperia X10 Mini and Xperia X10 Mini Pro, the company has teamed its TrackID music identification app with its PlayNow online store. Track ID works well, and individual songs can be bought via credit card of premium SMS message for £1.50.
TrackID also lets you look up artists on YouTube, incorporating sharing features so you can ping links out to Twitter and instantly become more popular.
One clever Sony Ericsson enhancement is its brightness widget. It's customisable, flipping between the lowest brightness setting and your own level set in the phone's Display setting menu. So it's easy to specify your own custom screen level – rather than making do with Android's default low, medium and high options.
This breaks if used in tandem with the standard Android power strip widget, though, which overrides the setting of the Sony Ericsson toggle. So pick one and stick with it.
Phone memory displays as having 380MB free for apps, although being an Android 2.3 phone you're able to move certain apps (ones the developer has updated to allow the feature) to SD card to free up space. And our unlocked Xperia Arc came with a generous 8GB card in the box. Enough space for several million Angry Birds levels.
And yes, it plays Angry Birds perfectly. Sony Ericsson has also included a copy of Let's Golf HD in this unlocked version of the Arc, plus for business there's MS Office-compatible tool OfficeSuite. What other freebies you get may vary depending on your mobile network.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Benchmarks
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
How it rates against the rest - higher is better
How we test
TechRadar aims to produce the most helpful phone reviews on the web, so you're able to make a more informed buying decision.
Part of this testing process includes benchmarking. It's a good way of measuring the overall performance of a product's internal hardware components.
We use Antutu System Benchmark to test tablets. It's a comprehensive Android benchmarking app and produces consistent results.
Antutu measures an Android device's CPU performance, 2D and 3D graphics performance, memory speed and internal and external storage read/write speeds. It combines the results for each test and gives the device a final score.
We test each device three times and take an average.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Hands on gallery
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Official photography
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc: Verdict
Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc review: Verdict
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc is a very impressive phone all round. The body is unbelievably thin, the screen large and responsive to the touch, the camera the best you'll get today. It's a phone that stands out from the usual black slabs, with Sony Ericsson's take on Android 2.3 offering a more visually impressive experience than that of the similar Nexus S.
The high-resolution display makes icons and web text appear sharp and readable. The Xperia Arc is up there alongside the Samsung Galaxy S in terms of class-leading clarity of text and icons. It's good under sunlight, too.
Sony Ericsson's user interface customisations are mostly for the better. You get animated icons, an editable dock area and some neat little usability tools in the folder management side of things.
The camera is excellent. Sony Ericsson's Exmor R sensor produces some fine shots in good light, backed up by a decent flash for low light situations – and there's autofocus while recording movie clips, too. The Bravia Engine feature makes little discernable difference when activated, but what's here is impressive enough already.
The large screen and thin bezel means the three buttons are very close to the bottom edge, making it feel a little top heavy in the hand. Also, the thin case requires thin buttons – you'll find yourself searching for the power and volume buttons every time, rather than intuitively getting them.
There's the odd glitch in action, but these glitches are mostly caused by Sony Ericsson's overly complex widgets – ditch the rather ugly Timescape widget it runs much more smoothly.
There's no front-facing camera on the Arc. This isn't much of an issue as there's not much use for one at the moment on Android, but it means other phones with the feature, such as HTC's very nice Desire S, score additional brownie points.
If you think 4.2 inches is too big for a mobile phone, the Arc will change your mind. The case is only a few millimetres larger than the HTC Desire, meaning you get all the benefits of having a huge display in a phone that doesn't feel unusually large.
Sony Ericsson's BRAVIA Engine feature is a mere novelty to pad out the spec sheet, but once you've held such a thin phone and seen it display apps and web sites on its enormous screen, anything smaller seems needlessly restrictive.
While the rival Nexus S offers a purer Android experience, Sony Ericsson's user interface tweaks offer a more stylish, user-friendly approach.
The hardware is also extremely impressive, both in terms of looks and performance. Forget the fashionable dual-core phones – when done right, a single-core 1GHz processor can do it all, although busy, dynamic web sites will cause the phone to chug a little.
As it is, we're prepared to overlook the Xperia Arc's few minor flaws thanks to its stunning good looks, superb screen and very decent photo performance. You can't help but love it once you've held its magically thin body and gazed adoringly into its dazzling Reality Display.