Sony Xperia Acro S
15th Feb 2013 | 01:00
Introduction and Design
Having tacked most of the letters in the alphabet to its Xperia moniker, Sony has certainly been busy flooding smartphone stores with its mobile wares. There is the Xperia S, the P and U; there's an Xperia E, the T, the TX and the recently announced Xperia Z.
Each of these models is an incrementally different twist on the same central concept. The Xperia range has a distinct look and often feel similar to hold with Sony opting for the same soft-touch plastic chassis across the Xperia family.
With its water-proof promise, the Acro S does offer something a little different from most of its stable-mates. But this extra security comes at the cost of making the handset noticeably thicker and slightly heavier than you might expect a smartphone to be in 2013.
The external ports on the handset needs to be sealed too, which is pain for those of us who bite our nails with nervous fervour and then need to pick at the flap on the USB port before charging the phone each night.
On the left side of the handset you'll find two unsightly copper contacts set into the frame of the phone. These certainly break the aesthetic flow of the phone's design. But what are they for?
Generously, Sony include a desk dock for the Acro S in the sales kit. The contacts on the phone connect with the dock when the phone is inserted to charge the handset and for data transfers over USB. We love this as a bonus in the box, but couldn't the dock have connected to the phone's USB port and kept its sleek black frame unspoiled?
The 4.3-inch screen on the Acro S is a blast from the past, with most new handsets in this price range sporting 4.5-inch displays, or larger. Not that this smaller screen detracts from the user experience, in fact many will prefer this. The LED-backlit LCD in this phone does a great job of delivering colourful pictures, with a good viewing angle and no discernible air-gap between the glass and the panel. The screen also makes use of Sony's wet finger touchscreen tech, so that you can use the phone immediately after dropping it in the loo.
We have to say, that it's not a great looking phone. This design is functional; the soft-touch plastic gives grip, and the buttons are well-spaced, but there is nothing eye-catching or exciting about it either. No tapering on the edges, no stainless steel trim, no dashes of colour to highlight a feature. It's just a black rectangle, and a chunky one at that.
As custom Android interfaces go, Sony's NXT UI stands out among our favourites. The interface elements are clean and polished-looking, and many feature animations which really bring the phone to life, in some small measure.
When you power up the Arco S for the first time you'll find Sony-designed widgets on every home screen pane. This may sound commonplace, but few phone makers spend the time and money on creating as many of these handy tools as Sony does. The weather widget is attractive, the video playlist widget is in a funky animated rolodex style, and Sony include a full-featured connectivity widget for quickly switching tools, like Wi-Fi, on and off.
Most importantly, the system responds well to our input, with only minor lag noticeable during standard home screen navigation. Virtual buttons respond promptly when pressed and gestures like pinching are effective. Some previous Sony phones have felt a bit sluggish, but this isn't the case with the Acro S.
Our review unit was delivered running Android ICS (4.0.4), which dates the handset slightly, and means you miss out on some of the cool Google-made features found in the newer Jelly Bean build of the Android platform, specifically the excellent Google Now search tool. Sony has been pretty good about updating its older phones to new versions of Android of late, but it is hard to say when the Acro S will see the update.
This shouldn't be seen as a deterrent for many users, though. The ICS platform definitely provides a solid base for the phone, and delivers zippy performance.
This system isn't as easy to pick up and use as others as, though, especially next to the iPhone. Lots of important functions are hidden within menus or behind icons that don't adequate illustrate what their purpose is.
For example, in the applications draw there is an image of a box made up of four smaller boxes inside it. Without knowing, we'd have guessed this indicated that the app drawer was displaying a Grid View, and that pressing it would change the apps draw into a List View, perhaps.
Instead, you use this button to rearrange icons in the app draw, and you need to press it if you want to uninstall an app from the system. There is absolutely no way of knowing that just by looking at the icon.
Contacts and Calling
Contact management on the Acro S is easy to use, thanks to the apps clear iconography. After connecting three well-populated online accounts (Gmail, work email and Facebook) we were impressed with the way the Contacts app identified duplicated and automatically linked entries with the same names.
Given the level of Facebook integration we see across the Sony NXT UI, it is a bit disappointing that the Address book doesn't automatically use Facebook profile photos to fill the contacts database with smiling faces. It's not even an option when manually editing a contact's information. It does pull in birthdays from Facebook, which is handy, and relationship status, which is a tad creepy.
If you need to share your contacts, one or all, it is easy to do with Sony's app. You can send a VCF file of contacts via a message or email, and you can backup online contacts to either the internal storage or a memory card.
Making a phone call is as easy as you'd expect it to be. Sony keep a place saved on the launch dock visible on all home screens, so wherever you are, you can jump into the dialler app with ease.
The layout of the dialler app is pretty standard, with tabs across the top of the screen, though we like how Sony adds an extra tab which breaks down from which source you view your contacts. This is very handy if you have personal contacts saved on Gmail or your SIM card, and business contacts linked to an Exchange server.
To shortcut contact searching before a call you can type the name of a person on the keypad rather than their number, and the dialler will search your contacts for you.
Call quality on the Acro S is decent, but no more so than most mobile phones. We found the earpiece speaker volume to be loud enough, even we we took calls on the pavement beside a busy street. Sony also include headphones in the box with a hands-free microphone attached, if you prefer to take calls that way.
Messaging and Email
On the surface of it, the Messaging app in the Acro S may seem simple, but this tool has features that we haven't seen in any other app of this kind. The basics are in place, you can send text or attach a photo in a Multimedia Message.
Beyond this though, Sony's app lets you hand draw a doodle note to stick to the text with the message. You can also attach your current location or a map reference; very handy for when you are trying to pull a group of friends together.
If you are in a hurry and don't mind sounding impersonal, there are also a selection of pre-written message templates which you can find by pressing the Menu button and selecting the templates option in the overlay menu.
If you use Gmail or Google Apps for your main email, you are in luck. The Gmail app for Android is one of our favourite messaging tools across all mobile platforms.
This app is clean and easy to read, and is fun to use with a selection of gesture controls. Though, this isn't a tool that is exclusive to Sony or the Acro S -- you'll find it installed on all Android phones.
For everybody else using an IMAP, POP3 or Exchange account, the Sony Email app is pretty good, too. This app shares a similarly clean design, though we do find it a little hard to read at a glance.
Within messages you get full HTML viewing, so pictures display correctly, and you can pinch-to-zoom to change the size of the text. When in landscape viewing mode, the inbox offers a preview pane to help you quickly scan through your recent messages.
Internet and Connectivity
Though it is short a 4G connection, the Acro S does sport a decent array of networking hardware. Mobile network connection are made using a quad-band UMTS 3G chipset (800/900/1900/2100Mhz) and a quad-band GSM 2G radio (850/900/1800/1900MHz).
Maximum download speeds top out at 14.4Mbps and uploads at less than half of the downlink speed at 5.8Mbps. For most people's usage patterns, this is fine, though the lack of support for 3.5G networks and download speeds up to 42Mbps is proof that this is a middle-of-the-pack kind of handset.
There are a number of wireless connectivity options on board too. There's Wi-Fi compatible with 802.11 b/g/n networks, and if this doesn't mean anything to you, just read: will work on nearly all Wi-Fi access points. The Wi-Fi software in this phone can communicate with DLNA media streaming devices, for sharing photos and movies.
There's also Bluetooth version 3.0 for file sharing and pairing with wireless headsets and the like, and NFC (near-field communications) for making the connections to these devices quick and painless.
Sony's default web browser is based on Google Chrome browser, and not the standard default web browser. This is a fast browser and has the ability to open more tabs than you'll ever need to use in one sitting.
It doesn't support Adobe Flash content, though with most websites more to iPhone-friendly media solution (i.e.: no Flash), this isn't too much of a problem these days.
The browser has a few key common features we see on most phones and tablets. You can save a page for offline reading, which is great to do before a long flight, for example. If you are worried about data usage, you can choose to not load images, and if you hate simplified mobile sites there is a button to request the desktop version of the site easily.
The Acros S may not be the Sony flagship, but photographers will be pleased to know that you don't miss out in the camera department on this handset. Featuring a back- illuminated Exmor R image sensor, with 12-megapixel resolution, the photo-taking innards are as good here as they are on the Xperia S, or Xperia T.
Video recording maxes out at full 1080p HD and feature digital image stabilisation to try and take the shake out of your video clips. This certainly doesn't work as well as the optical image stabilisation on the Nokia Lumia 920, but then digital stabilisers never do.
Taking its cues from Sony's photography division, the camera settings on the Acro S is jam-packed with presets and tweaks. Important are features like exposure adjustments and the ability to use the flash as a constant photo light when shooting video. Beyond this you have a range of preset white balance settings, focus mode, metering presets and geo-tagging.
One feature of this camera which is sort of unique to the Sony line-up is a point-and-shooting setting called Quick Launch. With this option switched on, you have the ability to take a photo by holding down the physical camera button, from any screen, even when the phone is locked in standby mode. This is turned off by default, but if you're afraid of missing a moment, then Quick Launch is the answer to your prayers.
The major issue we've had with the camera in the Acro S relates to how the image sensor deals with mixed lighting. In a majority of our test pictures, highlights are overexposed which leads to the image looking washed out.
Colour reproduction is fairly good, though the camera does tend to oversaturate colour. Some people will prefer this, though we do look for more natural tones.
Sony include a 1910mAh capacity battery in with the handset, which is a decent-sized unit, but still 10-percent smaller than most of the big name phones in the same category.
In a continuous web browsing test on a Wi-Fi network we managed just short of four and a half hours of use before the battery went flat. Weirdly, the result for continuous 720p video playback came out at about the same, even though we'd expect this to be a few hours longer. Perhaps this comes down to Sony's Bravia Engine and the extra juice it needs to clean up the video images on the fly.
In normal, day-to-day use, the Acro S managed a decent work day on a single charge. Though it needed a charge each evening, we didn't feel worried about running out of power before we returned to the charger each day. That said, our 'normal' use doesn't include too many phone calls, and motor-mouths may find their mileage varies.
Maps and Apps
Most Android phones ship with the same basic assortment of applications pre-loaded. There is the Google apps: Gmail, Maps, Calendar, the Play Store, etc, and there is a handful of essential tools, like a calculator and multimedia players. Sony has these, but it also offers a lot more than the other phone makers, too.
By our count there is 17 unique apps on our review unit that you won't find on other Android phones. There Sony services, like a PlayStation game store, and its streaming music service, Music Unlimited; there is a torch, a media remote and a back-up utility. There is also anti-virus software installed too, if you're someone who likes a little extra security.
There are stacks of fun tools too. A TrackID app for identifying which song you are listening to in a bar or a cafe, a PlayStation games store for Xperia phones and the Timescape app, which acts as a hub for all of your social media connections.
One app you aren't likely to have seen before is called LiveWare Manager. This is a Sony designed app that detects when a peripheral has been connected to the phone, like headphones, and automatically launches one or more of the phone's features. For example, if you connected to the handset to an in-car dock, you could set it to automatically launch the Maps application using LiveWare Manager.
And speaking of Maps, with the Xperia Go you have access to full turn-by-turn navigation using Google Maps, but if you prefer it you can also use WisePilot maps too. For some strange (obviously commercial) reason, Sony includes the second mapping app on the phone. Happily, you can delete WisePilot off the phone if you don't intend to use it.
Regardless of any other criticism you can think to level at this handset, Sony cannot be accused of leaving out any multimedia options. By our count, there are over 10 different Sony-deisgned apps installed dedicated to media in some way or another.
Music is handled by the nostalgically titled Walkman app, which is really well designed, with big clear buttons, and is pretty feature-packed too.
Not only can you listen to music stored locally on the device, but you have shortcuts from within the Walkman app to Sony's streaming Music Unlimited service, plus music videos your friends have shared on their Facebook Timelines.
As we mentioned before, there is also Track ID installed, which takes a sample of the music you are listening to -- either on the phone, or externally via the microphone -- then goes online and tries to identify the track and artist.
While most other phones pile videos and photos into the same Gallery app, Sony pulls video out on its own in the Films app.
To enhance the experience of watching videos on your phone, Sony partners with Gracenotes to download detailed information about the content, if you're watching a popular movie or TV show. It also replaces the automatically generated thumbnail with the official movie poster, if available.
If you'd prefer a big screen experience you can use the Connected Devices app to search for DLNA compatible streaming devices (like a PlayStation 3, for example) to stream your media onto. This requires both devices to be on the same Wi-Fi connection, but beyond this, it is pretty straight forward.
If you'd prefer a wired connection to your TV, there is a micro-HDMI port on the top of the handset. Our review unit didn't come with the HDMI cable though, so be aware that you might have to fork out extra to make this work.
If your work involves precarious situations for mobile phones, tradies working on tall buildings, plumbers, water-park dolphin wranglers; the Acro S with its rugged construction, could be for you. It joins a small group of handsets distinguished by rugged exteriors and a minimal amount of waterproofing, and it compares well to the rest with a strong range of power and features.
What we liked
As it is with all of the Sony Xperia family, it is the little things that we like the best. The Facebook integration sprinkled through the system, the cheerful animations and transitions you find across the UI.
The quality of the camera for a phone in the price range is also worth mentioning. When we compare the Acro S to other similarly priced phones, the resolution of this camera, and its software features really stands out.
Broadly, the Acro S is nice to use. The dual-core processor is enough to power a slick, zippy user experience, and it is uncommon to find yourself waiting for the phone to catch up with your commands.
We also love that Sony includes a charging dock for the phone in the box, and isn't selling it as an optional extra. Admittedly, this dock does feel pretty cheap and plastic-ky, but it is essentially a freebie, and better than no dock at all.
What we didn't like
For all of the cool little extras in the Acro S, the Sony NXT UI isn't the most intuitive of systems. Pressing the Menu button on the home screen offers very little in the way of a Menu, for example, and figuring out how to uninstall apps took us some time. Perhaps we are now too used to how other OEMs handle Android customisations, but there is a learning curve here which may turn off those new to smartphones.
The handset itself is rather large and a bit too heavy for our now-refined smartphone tastes, even if this keeps the handset safe from water and dust. Anyone who remembers the Nokia N95 will large at this statement, but when everyone else is making feather-weight phones, the Acro S doesn't feel like a chunky monkey by comparison. In the same vein, cover the ports is important for keeping out the elements, but it is such a pain to have to pick open the USB port each day in order to charge the phone.
Not to sound too wishy-washy, but there is just something about the Xperia Acro S that fails to capture our imagination. For as much as you can list the many things about this phone that Sony does right, there just isn't anything exciting about it. It's glossy black mono-block design is so nondescript, so uninspiring. Logically we know that this phone does mostly everything that the competition can, yet it lacks the desirability that makes phones like the Galaxy S3 so popular.
Sony certainly hit its stride in 2012, hitting on a solid and unique looking design ID for its smartphone products. The Acro S falls in line with the rest of the family in this regard, but fails to really stand out from the pack, too.
Having a rugged option is good, but there are trade-offs in size and weight to make, and if you don't feel like you're at risk of destroying your phone, then you'd be better off choosing an Xperia S, or something from Samsung or HTC instead.
There's no questioning this is a generous package from Sony, though. From the camera, to the software to the included desk dock; there are things in this kit that you won't get from the competition. But then, with the exception of the dock, you will get all these things in other Sony phones, and we have to say that we probably like these other phones better.