It’s the season for marginal upgrades. Just as HTC has tweaked the Sensation smartphone with a new processor to create the Sensation XE, Apple has just done likewise to give us the iPhone 4S, pimping it out with a new A5 chip, eight-megapixel camera, and most importantly, iOS 5.
So perhaps we shouldn’t curl up our lips at the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S, which on paper is almost identical to the well-received Xperia arc from earlier this year. Certainly, if you’re prepared to forgo that sense of déjÃ vu, its spacious 4.1-inch capacitive touchscreen and WVGA 480×854 resolution is stunning.
And that frame is as stupendously slim as ever: measuring just 8.7mm at its thinnest point, it’s one of the skinniest smartphones you can buy in the UK today. But in the last six months, smartphones have been upgrading themselves at speed. Dual-core silicon chips are commonplace, qHD 960×540 screens and even sharper are on the way, and with the advent of Siri voice control on the iPhone 4S, smartphone software takes centre stage more than ever before. So is the Xperia arc S ticking all the right boxes at this point in time?
The Xperia arc S may lack the premium polish of a glass iPhone or aluminium HTC phone, but at 117g, and measuring just 125x63x8.7mm, it’s an impressive feat of engineering nonetheless. The front face is almost all screen, with three tiny tactile buttons below the screen (Back, Home and Menu, though no dedicated search key). They don’t ooze minimalist chic like capacitive soft keys do, but they get the job done. The left-hand edge houses the 3.5mm audio jack, while the right side accommodates the micro USB charging port, a small volume rocker, and a dedicated camera shutter button (which sadly proves a bit too tough to trigger easily).
The top trim sports the power/lock button and the HDMI connection behind a closed flap. Your only lasting impression of the Xperia arc’s design is its ergonomics. The back tapers inwards in a smooth, if plasticky curve, which rests neatly on your fingertips when held with one hand, adding to the sensation that it really is all screen. We were bowled over by the powerful and slender Samsung Galaxy S II, but there’s no denying its corners can sometimes be difficult to get a grip of compared to the Xperia arc S. As for that screen, it’s wonderfully sharp, and a pleasure to use.
Though viewing angles leave something to be desired, the TFT-LCD display is bright and visible outdoors in direct sunlight. Like the original arc, it lays claim to Sony’s Mobile Bravia engine, which uses some of the same image-processing techniques as the company’s TVs to reduce noise and increase picture clarity. Truth be told, it’s hard to say where breakthrough technology ends and marketing buzzwords begin, but there’s no denying that videos are a joy to watch on it.
The Xperia arc S is powered by a Qualcomm MSM8255 1.4GHz processor, which means it is faster than the original arc, though it doesn’t seem to have affected battery life: we found the 1500mAh cell was enough to clear a day and a half of usage with heavy 3G and Wi-Fi use. It’s also enough to crunch the image data required to shoot 3D panorama shots. Take a panoramic shot and you can see it in faux-3D as a moving image on a 3D-compatible TV. The effect is impressive, but really not a selling point on its own – we’re much more impressed by the 2D connection to an HDTV via HDMI, which works flawlessly, and even allows you to control your phone with a remote. Likewise, the 2D capabilities of the 8.1MP Exmor R sensor are also worthy of note: its still performance is unmatched by other Android phones, even if its 720p HD video resolution has been surpassed by the full HD 1080p filming on the Samsung Galaxy S II, LG Optimus 3D and HTC Sensation.
That new chipset may not be dual-core but it’s capable of handing smooth Adobe Flash video streaming and tearing through all the latest games. In other words, it’s enough for most users not to notice, and for the software to shine through – an admirable approach, which for the most part Sony Ericsson has got right. The Xperia arc S runs Android 2.3.4, a powerful operating system with hundreds of thousands of apps available to download, but at its core can be somewhat confusing when compared with the simple home screens of iOS on the iPhone and Windows Phone. Sony Ericsson has modified Android slightly with an intuitive launcher that you can customise at will: you can replace the icons in the dock and even create persistent folders, while the company’s ‘Facebook Inside Xperia’ software syncs your social networking buddies to their contacts on your phone, and stores the images you’re tagged in on Facebook to your phone’s gallery automatically. You can even take screen-shots by holding down the power button, a first for Sony Ericsson phones. This being Android, you can change what you don’t like, and certainly we’d recommend trying out another keyboard, such as Swype or SwiftKey.
There are a few things you can’t remove, however, which we’re a little disappointed to see: alongside its excellent DLNA media streaming app and movie rental service, Sony Ericsson has stuffed some download icons for dull promotional apps that you simply cannot erase (‘Hotshots’ has something to do with tennis, apparently, but it should be up to the user whether they download this or not, or want it cluttering up their menus). Don’t let that distract you, though: the Xperia arc S is still a friendly, slick smartphone, which is a decent Android rival to the Galaxy S II and HTC Sensation. And you can be safe in the knowledge that you’re holding the thinnest phone on the block – for now.
The Sony Ericsson Xperia arc S is a great smartphone, with more than enough power for all but the most discerning mobile geeks, and one that goes a long way towards overcoming Android’s greatest difficulty: user-friendliness. The fact that it looks incredible helps add the wow-factor, too.