Two years ago, Gizmodo ran a week of special coverage under the title “We Miss Sony”, a fascinating look at how the once proud Sony had lost its way. In a time where we all prostrate ourselves at the temple of Sir Jonathan Ive, it’s hard to believe that Sony used to be the trendsetter. I mean, Walkman.
But there’s a new CEO in town, and the fusty types at Ericsson are finally out of the picture. So it was with great hope that I picked up the Sony Xperia S last week, the first Sony branded phone in more than a decade, and the company’s first smartphone. Ever.
Has Sony got its act together? Has it united all its sprawling hardware and software fiefdoms under one generalissimo, and produced a winner in the Sony Xperia S?
In a word, er, no.
I truly wanted to like the Sony Xperia S. There are some fantastic ideas hidden away behind the cluttered interface. Why you should have to search for them with such stiff competition is beyond me though – and, I hope, Sony’s engineers.
It starts with the hardware
It is unmistakably Sony. Those straight edges are kicking it old school, like a Sony Walkman X series with smarts. It’s thick at 10.6mm deep – enough space to house a plentiful non-removable 1750mAh battery to see you through the day. And there’s a certain charm in that. We’re too used to smooth curves, as though phones need to be aerodynamic to save on petrol. Sure, the Nokia N9 is sexy, but so is a slab you could use as a right angle rule.
This one isn’t though. The matte black plastic leaves you with the feeling that you’ve stolen an early prototype; the fiddly USB port cover seems destined to snap off in a couple of days. Then there’s the translucent strip below the screen.
Remember the daft Sony Ericsson Pureness? It has about as much point as that. It may be an antenna, but it’s not a button. You actually have to press the small dots above the strip, and they’re not very responsive. I’d much rather have on-screen buttons like the Galaxy Nexus’, or just regular ones that light up. What was wrong with those? At least you can stand the Sony Xperia S on end, I guess.
I can’t fault the display itself – a rather spiffy, 4.3-inch 1280×720 HD LCD screen. It’s certainly on par with anything competitors have come up with so far, save perhaps Samsung, although the auto-brightness is a little arthritic. The HDMI-out connection on the right hand side gives it an AV edge however, and one of its few physical selling points.
Plug the Sony Xperia S into your TV and it becomes quite the wonderful media adapter. That connection launches a big screen mode, with a row of icons you’re most likely to use, from video to the web (you can add your own too). If you’ve got a HDMI-CEC enabled telly – most models from recent years are – you can even control it with your TV remote.
If you’ve not got a games console or any other means of on-demand access in your living room, it’s something genuinely worth considering. Sony’s Videos Unlimited movie service for Android suddenly seems to have a purpose.
The problems continue, however, with what’s onboard.
Android itself throws few surprises by this point. Don’t worry too much about speed. The dual-core Qualcomm MSM8260 1.5GHz processor is fast enough to appease all but nitpickers at this point.
Android does a lot, and if you don’t like something – the browser, the text message app, the keyboard, the dialler – you can almost certainly change it. It’s the Frankenstein of phone operating systems – for better or worse. Only problem: Sony has little to offer in the plus column.
Its keyboard is finnickety, and incapable of making the jumps in logic that the auto-correct on Android’s default keyboard now can (You can download it for free here, FYI). Sony Ericsson’s reckless approach to bloatware is still in evidence with the Sony Xperia S also. You’ll find screen after screen of apps pre-installed. Unforgivably, you can’t remove some of these, such as McAfee Security – yup, McAfee sold emperor Sony some invisible clothes, and they don’t look flattering.
Sony has yet to provide a single compelling reason to justify PlayStation certification either. Crash Bandicoot isn’t nearly as good as you remember it being, especially with touchscreen controls. And as for the classics that really would work on a mobile, (Square’s turn-based RPGs such as Final Fantasy VII, VIII and IX seem obvious contenders) Sony Entertainment’s still keeping those locked down to the PS3 and PSP.
I could overlook all of this. I mean, even a few old PSX games is better than none, right? What I can’t overlook is the lack of Ice Cream Sandwich. Android 4.0 is not a minor facelift, as version 2.3 was to 2.2. It’s a complete overhaul, with many services and features thrown in (Google Chrome for Android, superb data management, a new contacts hub, vastly improved widgets, to name but a few).
Adapting for Ice Cream Sandwich is no small task, I get that. But launching on Android 2.3 means an inevitable delay. Sony Ericsson had a terrible track record for software updates, and even if Sony pushes out the 4.0 update for the Xperia S as quickly as it says it will, you’ll still have to put up with the delay as your network tests out the update first.
It didn’t have to be this way. All that was required was a bit of elbow grease, and a few more weeks. HTC’s amazing new phones are almost here too – and they run Ice Cream Sandwich. A few more weeks, in exchange for fewer months of waiting on tenterhooks.
The Sony Xperia S isn’t without its graces (What makes it so disappointing is that it’s only quite good), not least its camera. The 12MP Exmor R sensor produces images as fine as anything a phone can produce – that isn’t a Nokia, anyway (Click the images below to expand). But even a superb camera on a smartphone is a secondary feature these days. The de facto five megapixel sensor you get on almost any mobile these days is good enough for many.
More interesting are the smart tags, NFC buttons you can stick anywhere to trigger various profiles on your Xperia S. They’re a novel idea, and the best application yet of context-computing on your phone for anybody who has better things to be doing than getting to grips with Tasker for Android. In the car? Tap the tag on your dashboard to turn on Bluetooth and Google Maps Navigation. Going to bed? Tap one on your bed side table to silence your phone and turn on Wi-Fi.
Sadly, the number you get varies with your retailer. O2 will give your four in the box, Three will give you two. Everyone else expects you to sort yourself out (Two for a tenner online), which isn’t exactly the attitude that’s going to see this sort of tech hit critical mass. Pity, really.
It’s worth remembering, of course, that Sony Ericsson was almost certainly working on the Sony Xperia S for months, if not years, before the buyout – in fact, some prototypes on show at CES in January still bore the Sony Ericsson glob on the front.
This isn’t so much an opening salvo from Sony as a swansong from Sony Ericsson. I’m not sure I’d want my company to be remembered with an elegy to out of date software and specs that aren’t as impressive as Samsung’s. Yet that’s what the Sony Xperia S is.
Even if we were to remove the iPhone 4S from the equation, the Sony Xperia S is still a tough sell. There’s no easy way to say this: we simply wouldn’t recommend the Sony Xperia S over the four month old but bang up to date Samsung Galaxy Nexus, or even – gasp – the now year old Samsung Galaxy S2.
B Minus. Must try harder, Sony.