Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S £300
13th Oct 2011 | 13:50
A minor phone processor update or an essential Android refresh?
Overview, design and feel
Updated: read our Hands on: Sony Xperia S review.
The arrival of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S illustrates how incredibly fast things are moving in the world of Android hardware. The original Xperia Arc launched in April, now here's the upgrade a mere six months later.
Well, we say "upgrade"... what you're getting in the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is two new features that aren't in the older Arc - a faster 1.4GHz single-core processor, plus the latest Android 2.3.4 update of Google's operating system and Sony Ericsson's user interface skin.
And even then, the 2.3.4 software update is scheduled to arrive as an over-the-air upgrade for the first Xperia Arc this month, meaning that the only real new thing here is the faster processor.
In terms of price, the original Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc has seen its RRP aggressively trimmed to a point where it's available unlocked for well under £300. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S nearly matches that, coming in at £299 unlocked if you shop around, or on monthly contracts starting around the £26 level.
For those prices, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is a heck of a lot of phone. For a start, the screen is the same extra-large, 4.2-inch Bravia Engine Reality Display as found in the original Arc, which is one of the finest, brightest, sharpest and most responsive touchscreens around today.
Running at a resolution of 854 x 480, the screen is definitely the highlight of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S. And it's been squeezed into an incredibly thin, flared chassis, which is slimmer around its waist and slightly fatter at the ends. This makes it feel impossibly thin in the hand. It's a lovely design.
One of the few complaints we had in our review of the first Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc was that its teeny-tiny power button was rather hidden away in the top corner of the phone, and so deeply recessed it was hard to find.
Now, this may be a manufacturing tolerances thing, but the power button on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S sticks out a tiny, tiny bit further, making it that little bit easier to find. But that might just be because it's new and rigid.
The rest of the phone is physically identical to the first Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc. The back houses the HD camera sensor, LED flash and secondary noise-cancelling microphone, with the white finish of this particular model having a slightly mottled enamel look to it.
The right-hand side of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S houses the USB connector at the top, a small volume up/down rocker that would benefit from being a little larger and more prominent, plus down at the bottom sits the camera shutter button.
It's a nice two-stage button, with a double level press - one to focus, another to shoot. Again, it's a little too small thanks to the extreme thinness of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, but it's sensitive enough to make taking photos straightforward.
Also, holding it down wherever you are in the phone's menus boots up the camera.
The top edge houses the power button and HDMI connector (but there's no HDMI cable in the box), plus you can see the proximity sensor that deactivates the screen when you're making a call. Rather oddly, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S doesn't feature a front-facing camera. Just like its predecessor.
Navigation buttons are physical, with Sony Ericsson continuing to not bother with Search, giving users Back, Home and Menu. They're very low down on the phone, which can make it feel a little top heavy in the hand, but it's a compromise worth making in return for having such a whopping screen and slim case, as far as we're concerned.
So yes, it's basically the exact same physical size and shape as the first Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, which means it's still one of the slimmest, sexiest and all-round loveliest gadgets you can buy today - plus available at a much lower price than many dual core offerings.
The changes Sony Ericsson has made to the Android 2.3.4 software that arrives on the Xperia Arc S are rather small compared to the 2.3.3 that currently powers the original Xperia Arc, but there are at least quite a lot of new little features to poke around with.
But first of all, this is an Android phone. So you get a scrolling collection of home screens, in this case limited to five by Sony Ericsson, upon which you can install shortcuts to apps, folders and all sorts of live widgets.
Long-pressing on an empty part of any home screen enables you to add your own stuff, although Sony Ericsson suggests you dedicate a huge chunk of your main central Home screen to its Timescape social network aggregator.
This is a nice little toy. It pulls in updates from various social sites, displays missed calls and text messages.
Plus Sony Ericsson has published a few plug-ins on the Android Market to expand its functionality, adding support for Gmail messages and more.
The enhanced power of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S means Timescape is finally perfectly smooth and a pleasure to use. However, we'd still rather install the standalone Twitter and Facebook apps and use those. Why have phone companies decided we should all treat Twitter and Facebook as parts of the same thing?
Another nice new Sony Ericsson widget is its Favourites and Call Log tool, which gives you a nice grid of your favourite phone contacts and a second tab that displays missed and recent calls. Touching a Contact's face opens up their individual Contact page, from where you can message them in their preferred way.
Folder support has been enhanced a little, with your folders now making it more obvious when they have stuff in. Each folder now has a little 4x4 grid on the front, which displays mini icons of the first four apps you've put in them.
As you can see, folders can even be placed on the floating dock that sits along the bottom of the screen, so it's possible to absolutely ram the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S with links to apps and games.
The app drawer is accessed by the central button on the dock, which pops up your big list of apps. You can have them sorted automatically, but there's another very nice interface addition in here - the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S has a button on the bottom-right of the screen that brings up an editing mode.
You can use this to rearrange your apps, dragging and dropping them into position, or non-critical apps that are removable have a little red cross on them - press this to instantly delete them. This is a much, much easier way of removing apps than the usual Android method of rummaging about through the Applications menus.
And then the Overview mode explodes all the live widgets on your home screens and presents them in one weird, floating pile. It's in case you get lost on the five home screens. It's not really of much use, but it is cool.
Contacts and calling
The Contacts section on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is, again, identical to that found within the original Xperia Arc. This means you get the standard Android options to import your existing contacts from SIM card, Twitter, Facebook and a Google account, plus there's some serious Facebook integration going on here.
Any contact with a Facebook account will find themselves with a complete hub on your phone, with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S pulling in all their photos and comments, then serving them up behind a tab in their Contacts listing, from which you can browse their snaps and leave comments.
It's very clever, technically, but does feel like a slightly weird invasion of privacy.
Back on less dodgy ground, the Contacts pages for each friend are very adaptable. There are custom fields galore when adding a contact, you can set specific ringtones for each person, or rudely dump them directly to voicemail.
As ever with Android, it's possible to filter these contacts, removing all your random internet friends from view. The Filter menu options enable you to show only contacts with phone numbers, which will remove most of your Twitter chums.
You can have the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S show only contacts who are online in some capacity if you use the phone primarily as an instant messaging tool, or you can simply toggle off Facebook to remove that lot from your phone's listings altogether.
Calling quality is good, and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S's speaker is loud enough to hear without resorting to maximum volume.
However, while the noise suppression feature has a toggle to switch it on and off, it's hard to notice any real benefit from having it on. So we turned it off. Thank you very much.
The standard Android text messaging area has been brightened up a little on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, with threaded messages and a wide range of file attachment options.
When attaching a video to an SMS text message you'll be asked to crop it to size, with the app then processing it to a ridiculously low-res (176 x 144) size for compliance with SMS size rules.
Or, selecting Record Video from the attachment menu automatically sets the camcorder to its lowest resolution and limits the recording time so you know you'll have a video small enough to send.
The email app is one of the best Sony Ericsson interface tweaks. As well as a nice, clean visual style, there's a floating preview pane that you can use to easily check messages. You can resize it as you wish. It's great to play with.
The app itself supports POP3, IMAP and MS Exchange Active Sync accounts, with the usual Android Combined Inbox displaying them all, also making it easy to check all your accounts at once by just hitting Refresh when in this mega inbox.
One of Android's older features is its voice recognition support, and with Apple recently pretending to invent it with Siri on the iPhone 4S, it's interesting to have a little look at how Android does voice operations.
The Android Voice Actions controls are very simple. You say "Send text to" then the name of your Contact, and, if you're lucky, the phone will identify the person from your Contacts list and open up a simplified messaging window so you can record an SMS message.
Sometimes it doesn't work, though. This message was supposed to say "I hope it's sausages for dinner". We'd like to see Apple do any better (and let's be honest, it probably will). Voice Actions also control music functions and more, with equally varying degrees of success.
Back on the text entry side of things, there's another new Sony Ericsson software tweak in the Xperia Arc S - Swipe text input. A complete clone of the Swype alternate keyboard, this enables you to type by drawing a line from letter to letter.
It works very well indeed, practically identically to Swype. But we can't see any mention of Swype being officially involved, so it appears Sony Ericsson has just nicked the idea.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S also enables you to specify different keyboard layouts for different screen orientations, so if you prefer a phonepad-style system when the phone's in portrait option, that's possible.
Although on this huge, responsive 4.2-inch screen, the standard Android QWERTY is perfectly usable whichever way you hold it.
The original Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc was a good performer on the web, with its glorious screen and Flash support making internet browsing perfectly enjoyable.
And, despite the processor upgrade, there's no obvious difference in performance on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S. The screen's still amazing, text is still incredibly sharp and readable, while the phone manages to load and draw sites pretty quickly.
It's still not quite as staggeringly fast online as the amazing Galaxy S2, but it's also never annoyingly slow or too crunchy to use.
The browser here is an untouched version of the standard Android tool. Bookmarks are accessed through the tab to the right of the URL bar, with sharing functions, lists of open windows, settings and more hidden behind the menu button.
There's no support for RSS feeds in the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, though - it doesn't even manage to link to the Google Reader site. Hitting an RSS link simply opens the raw XML file and leaves you a bit confused about what's just happened.
Still, you do get full Flash Player support, and very good it is too. The BBC's mobile iPlayer website, which requires Flash, works well, so if TV streaming is a big part of your mobile life then the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S has you covered.
We complained that the original Xperia Arc had a little trouble accessing sites loaded down with Flash content and, despite the processor update, that's still the case with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S. But it's still a very usable phone for the vast majority of your online business.
As with the original Xperia Arc, the photo-taking powers of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S are a particular high point of the smartphone.
Sony Ericsson has included an 8.1MP Exmor R camera sensor, which creates bright and vivid images. They're perhaps a little too bright in places, because the sensor seems to exaggerate colours a little, like we've seen with most Sony Ericsson phones this year.
Despite this issue, it's still one of the better smartphone cameras around today.
The camera app has a broad selection of options. The 8.1MP setting is only available if you select 4:3 aspect ratio shots, with the camera dropping the megapixel count to 6MP if you'd rather capture images in 16:9 format.
Set the capturing mode to Normal and you get even more choice, because this enables you to specify the scene setting yourself. There are eight to choose from, although we didn't really bother using anything other than Landscape and Portrait.
The camera app itself is very fast in use. You can fire off a rapid succession of shots with no issue, thanks partially to the lack of a full-screen image preview.
Instead of the usual image preview, your five most recent shots are shown in a sidebar down the right-hand side of the screen, which, as with the email app's preview pane, can be pulled out for a better look if you've just taken one you're particularly proud of.
There's one other new software feature in here that's yet to filter down to the original Xperia Arc - Sweep Panorama. This is a stitching tool with support for building 3D images as well, which produces wildly varying results.
SWEEP PANORAMA: This is a panorama, built by moving the phone from left to right, with results stitched together automatically. We found the software pretty unreliable, often coming up with error messages about incorrect movements and the sensor moaning about "grey areas" in the images. But when it does work, it makes some impressive extra-wide shots.
MACRO:Great performance from the macro mode.
LANDSCAPE:The Exmor R sensor manages good contrast between light and dark, capturing scenes well. But the detail of the grassy areas isn't great.
FLASH:Inside, the flash is good performer. Low-light images are pretty good.
INDOORS:Even without the flash, indoor photos emerge well.
PORTRAIT:Slightly crazy reds has become Sony Ericsson's trademark this generation, but the facial recognition works and portrait shots come out very nicely indeed. As long as your subject doesn't have too red a face.
There's one big software update on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S compared to the original Xperia Arc - an absolutely insane 16x digital zoom is now available when recording movies.
Using one or two steps of the zoom is fine, reducing picture quality only a little. But pulling in the full 16 times totally obliterates the quality, also making it impossible to keep the image even vaguely steady. It's technically impressive, but mostly useless. Like ITV1 HD.
Much more useful is the selection of focusing methods. You can leave it on auto, select multi-focus, engage face recognition or use the tap-to-focus option. The latter is a particularly fine option if you're filming moving things, reducing the amount of needless focus adjustments in your video clips.
Even with focus left on automatic, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S does a nice job. It takes a second or two to refocus, which is just long enough to stop your films being filled with unnecessary focusing.
But image quality isn't amazing. The 720p clips are perfectly smooth, with VLC Player saying they all average a rock-solid 29.69 frames per second, but detail isn't quite there. Grassy areas turn a little mushy, with distant detail also lost in translation to 720p MP4 format.
Facial shots and close-ups are decent, but the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S could do a little more.
The music player on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is the same as the one included in the original Xperia Arc. This means you get a pleasantly skinned version of the Android player, with clever Facebook integration and a few extra social and internet tweaks.
The music player is simple. The bottom-left button pulls up a list of your SD card's audio content, with a search bar for locating tracks.
Playlist support is simple, too. Long-pressing on any track title enables you to add it to an existing playlist or build a new one, with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S also automatically generating three Smart playlists that contain your newly added, most played or never played songs.
Audio quality through the built-in external speaker is good. It's a bit tinny, as we've come to expect from tiny mobile phone speakers, but it's very loud – loud enough to sit on a shelf and fill a room with your musical choices.
One extra feature that matches other recent Sony Ericsson phones such as its Xperia Mini and Xperia Mini Pro is the Infinite Button that sits on the media player. This pulls up a list of social searches, popping up YouTube links, Wikipedia entries and more. Or you can turn it off completely if you already know everything and have seen everything.
Also, there's Facebook integration in here, with a "Like" button on the main music player page, so you can broadcast your musical choices on Facebook in the style of some sort of modern mobile phone DJ playing to the world's most disinterested audience.
You get a decent home screen music player widget with simple controls, although you don't get any lock screen controls. Even the pull-down Android notifications menu doesn't give you the option to play, pause or skip tracks – it's just a link to the music app.
There's an FM radio here that's linked to the TrackID app for identifying tracks off the radio - and can also ping links to tracks straight to Facebook.
Movie playback is a bit of a weak spot. As with the original Xperia Arc, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S doesn't support any DivX content, so files will need to be converted to the right kind of MP4. That's a disappointment, especially as the rival Samsung Galaxy S2 is such a star in the video playback area.
Installing Sony Ericsson's PC Companion tool will help, with that offering to convert files into the right format for you when you copy them to an SD card. But it's a bit of a chore.
Battery life and connectivity
Sony Ericsson says the Xperia Arc S is rated for seven hours 35 minutes of talk time on a 3G network, with its battery able to manage 460 hours of standby time.
Obviously those huge fantasy-world, Mickey Mouse figures don't mean anything when our smartphones are now also reading Twitter and Facebook for us over Wi-Fi all day.
In reality, we got a solid day of pretty hard use out of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S. If you're sensible about screen brightness and tone down the levels of automatic syncing, you should still have enough phone left to amuse you during the commute home after a busy day of Tweeting and mindlessly checking the same web pages time and time again.
We had reliable Wi-Fi and mobile network connections throughout our reviewing period, too, with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S never once dropping a Wi-Fi signal.
As with all modern Android phones, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S can function as a USB modem and wireless hotspot for your laptop and other internet browsing devices.
Sony Ericsson has also pre-loaded its Connected Devices app, which is its take on DLNA support, enabling users to share their phone content through a Wi-Fi network to a TV, laptop or mobile phone that supports DLNA. It worked for us first time, without fuss.
There's a decent amount of memory in here for app storage. Even with all of Sony Ericsson's pre-loaded apps and our review essentials, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S still has 237MB free for future apps.
In terms of other tech toys, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S supports HDMI output and Bluetooth.
Maps and apps
As ever with Android smartphones, one of the big selling points for the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is having access to the full range of Android apps, including the all-powerful Google Maps.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S powers the Maps app effortlessly, scrolling, tilting, zooming and easily managing the street-level 3D displays wherever Google has enabled them.
GPS lock-on was very quick, with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S finding Skynet and generating a position in just a few seconds.
The Navigate sat nav option is the highlight here, computing routes and offering full turn-by-turn navigation for free. Plus there's voice directions support too, if you download the free pack from the Android Market before setting off on your journey.
Also from Google is the boring-but-useful Gmail app, Places and Latitude for people who go out and do stuff, Google Calendar and its synced home screen widget, plus the simple News & Weather headlines app and home screen widget.
From Sony Ericsson you get a weird collection of random apps and games. Gameloft's 'Let's Golf! HD; is on here, as is some promotional rubbish for the company's tennis and football sponsorship activities, along with a free version of the McAfee Security app.
Also on board is Sony's Video Unlimited app, which enables you to "rent" SD versions of films for around £3.59 or "own" them for £11.59, plus Office Suite for reading MS Office documents.
You also get a video editing app, which doesn't do anything other than enable you to trim the start and end points of a film, but that's still more than you find on many Android smartphones.
Sony Ericsson has installed its TrackID app on the Xperia Arc S, which enables you to record samples of music for identification. The hope then is that you head off to buy said music via one of the integrated shopping systems - 7Digital and Sony Ericsson's PlayNow shop are the two options here.
And here's a god-send for anyone lumbered with the task of reviewing a phone and taking a million screenshots of its every feature. The power button menu now has an option to take a screenshot of what was last shown on the screen before you hit power.
The captures save as nice, high-res PNG files in the phone's usual gallery, so can be shared as easily as normal camera snaps.
Hands on gallery
We liked the original Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc very much indeed. This is almost exactly the same, so we like this a lot too.
For owners and fans of the original Xperia Arc, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is way too similar to the original phone to recommend upgrading to. But the software updates are useful and the processor boost a welcome if mostly undetectable enhancement, making this upgraded Xperia Arc a very good buy for anyone after a sleek, high-performance smartphone.
The 4.2-inch screen is about as good as it gets. It's between this and the legendary Samsung Galaxy S2 when it comes to the best brightness and colour reproduction on a mobile phone, with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S's Reality Display a constant joy to read on and poke.
The camera app is very fast and full of features. The resulting shots perhaps aren't quite as good as they could be, but for versatility, ease of use and features the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S camera is a winner.
Sony Ericsson's developers are on fire when it comes to Android enhancements. Compared to the excellent original Xperia Arc, this newer 2.3.4 software features even more social features, loads of tiny usability and visual tweaks, plus a great clone of the Swype line-drawing keyboard.
The 720p video isn't amazing in terms of picture quality. The frame rate is solid and smooth, but the clips lack some clarity and detail. For a high-end Android device, it's not quite up there with the higher-quality 1080p-capable handsets.
Sony Ericsson's approach to widget design is a bit random. There's no coherent feel to it, the powerstrip replacement buttons are too big, with many of the widgets making the screens look rather messy when placed next to each other.
The slim phone means slim buttons. Finding the power button requires a small amount of mental focus, while the tiny camera shutter and volume rockers would benefit from being pumped up a little.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is a slim, bright, powerful Android smartphone that shows off the mobile operating system to its very best. The screen is fantastic and the processor and memory perform well enough to keep the Android experience running smoothly and quickly.
However, the hardware upgrade in here isn't really noticeable at all. We never felt the original Xperia Arc was in any way underpowered or slow, so the 1.4GHz upgrade seems a bit pointless.
It's a lovely phone, but if the launch of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S means the original Xperia Arc starts selling for a big discount, you'd be just as well of picking that one up instead. Both are excellent mobile phones.