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Sony Ericsson Xperia arc Review (part 2)

Jonathan Morris
March 29, 2011

Going by the hits on our site, you’re eager for part two of the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc review! Well, after having some time to properly play with the phone it’s now possible to give a verdict…

At the start of the year, it quickly became clear that 2011 will be the year where devices will get slimmed down, repeating similar battles in the late 90s with 2G handsets. Sony Ericsson’s Xperia arc is 8.7mm thick, with LG close behind with 9.2mm for the Optimus Black. Samsung has since entered the game with the 8.5mm thick (or thin) Galaxy S II. Even Apple’s iPad 2 hints that the next iPhone will likely shed the pounds.

The other thing for 2011 is dual-core processors and faster graphics. The arc doesn’t have a dual-core processor, but it does have a newer version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor than the original X10. Sony Ericsson insists that it’s still going to give other handsets a run for their money, especially when dual-core processors are some way off from realising their full potential.

Combined with the slimline design, the arc is incredibly sleek but the plastic cover raises the question of how strong the phone is going to be if you, say, accidentally sit down with it in your back pocket. The phone has a toughened screen, but the bulk of the phone is plastic and the battery cover is definitely a weak point, although at least it didn’t creak when given a good firm grip.

As a result of being so thin, the keys around the edges have to be small too. The volume is controlled by rocking a small button, while the power button requires a precise and firm press to lock. For unlocking, you can alternatively press the home key, which is more convenient to find than fumbling around along the top.

The micro-USB charging socket is no longer covered, and moved to the right hand side to allow the HDMI socket to take its place on the top. It’s much better here, allowing for easier connecting and disconnecting of the USB/power cable without the need to pick open the cover. A small LED to the side shows the charging status. On the top left is the obligatory 3.5mm headphone jack.

There’s also a dedicated camera button, which is a rarity on handsets these days, but it’s tiny. It also needs an incredibly firm press to activate initially and operate when taking pictures, which means that you have to hold the phone very tightly and ensure you’re not then covering the camera sensor, or touching the screen itself.

When shooting video, you’ll find it near impossible not to shake the camera when pressing the button to start and stop recording.

On the front, there are three keys for back, home and menu, missing out the search key that can prove so useful in a myriad of apps. The Xperia PLAY managed to get one, so it’s a rather surprising omission. Sony Ericsson has also retained two LEDs that point at you from between the keys gaps, although this time they’re not as bright. I have as little idea on why they exist now as I did when the X10 was released.

On the back of the phone is a very minimalist design with the camera pushed over to the far edge of the phone, on the right hand side. A LED lamp sits above and to the left. Further in from the right is a second microphone, used to improve video recording and reduce background noise by comparing noise with the voice picked up by the primary mic.

The screen

By switching to a taller screen, Sony Ericsson has been able to shoehorn an impressive 4.2-inch capacitive screen into the arc without making it wider than the X10. However, it has grown in height, but that’s the price you pay for such a big screen. Sony Ericsson will be hoping the decrease in depth will more than compensate.

You also get more pixels, as the screen can now display 480×854 pixels, which is 54 pixels more than most phones (Motorola being the other company to use these screens). It certainly makes a difference and if you’re worried it is in any way non-standard and might limit the availability of apps, or introduce compatibility problems, don’t be. The screen is placed in the same category as 480×800 pixel screens from a developers point of view, so everything will work fine.

Besides more pixels, Sony Ericsson has also introduced a new feature to improve the display. The Mobile BRAVIA Engine is designed to make everything look as gorgeous as on a standard Sony BRAVIA television, and it certainly seems to work. It doesn’t merely increase sharpness, boost contrast and enhance the saturation to silly levels, but analyses the screen images in real-time, like most modern televisions that have something similar to a BRAVIA engine to enhance the picture displayed.

When we first saw the arc for our early preview back in January, Sony Ericsson had modified the firmware to allow us to toggle the BRAVIA Engine software by tapping the volume key. Unfortunately that’s not an option on the final release software (now you must go into the settings menu to change it) so it’s not really easy to do a proper comparison of the phone with and without the engine turned on.

All that really matters is that it looks amazing. It really does! What’s more, everyone else who looks at the phone will be equally impressed, and it’s not as if there aren’t loads of decent screens on the market today.

I’ve not done a scientific test here, and won’t pretend to, plus without a second arc there’s no way to do a side by side comparison. You will therefore have to take my word for it, or go into a store and take a look for yourself.

Another reason the screen looks so good is because the LCD has been raised up to just behind the outer screen cover, with an airtight seal. It really couldn’t be any closer.

Audibly challenged

Should you decide to watch a movie on the phone, you’ll obviously need to add some sound. This is where it seems the Sony Ericsson designers were perhaps off sick with flu or something. I can’t find anything good to say about the internal speaker on the back, which – for want of better words – sucks.

Ramp the volume up and it sounds far too tinny, with signs of audio clipping and distortion. There’s absolutely no bass at all. It’s a common problem for many phones, especially thin ones, but there are ways of getting good sound from a small speaker and Sony Ericsson has missed a trick here by not trying harder to work out a solution.

One of the pre-loaded video clips for Final Fantasy is encoded at a very impressive 5,433Kbps, which looks stunning visually, but until you hook up some headphones, speakers or connect the arc to a TV, you won’t be able to enjoy the equally amazing sound that accompanies the visuals.

An HD output is a nice addition, and something that will soon be as essential as Bluetooth once was. Sony Ericsson has included an HDMI cable in the box of UK retail units (perhaps other regions will get this too?) so you’re good to go straight away.

Xperia arc with HDMI CEC supportOutput is at 720p and the phone also supports HDMI-CEC, allowing you to control the phone from your TV remote on compatible televisions (which should be most sets sold since 2009). When you first connect the phone, you’re given a screen that says which controls are available, such as pressing blue to go back a screen, or yellow to open the status bar. Sadly, on my TV I couldn’t this to work.

The TV simply mirrors the phone screen, unlike the Motorola ATRIX that can output an independent picture, but it’s perfect for watching films and looking at pictures in a group.

Spending time at home

Sony Ericsson has created a new home screen app that has taken clear influences from a number of different home screens, including Samsung’s TouchWiz UI front-end and the iPhone. You get five panels to scroll between and at any time you can pinch (the arc supporting full multitouch) to show all the widgets in use on one screen, hiding apps and folders as necessary.

Like the iPhone, you can also drag one app over another to create a folder automatically. You then choose an icon for the folder and give it a name. At the base of the screen, you can have four folders or app shortcuts that are displayed at all times.

Pressing the central icon brings up the app launcher, which is viewed in a series of panels that grow as you install more apps. These can be listed in your own personal order, alphabetically, by most used or recently installed. It’s incredibly easy to use and fast, which every home application needs to be. When you move icons and widgets around, everything is animated in a very Apple-like style showing a good deal of attention to detail.

Sony Ericsson hasn’t created loads of widgets for the arc, or even made any Live wallpapers of its own, as the company has probably realised that it’s better not to fill the phone with loads of junk that people don’t necessarily want or need.

The lack of customisation is also the reason that these new handsets should be amongst the first to get upgrades to future Android OS releases. The arc ships with 2.3.2, and the change in policy has now allowed Sony Ericsson to give the original X10 a free update to Android 2.3 in the coming months.

After the standard Android apps, there are some widgets for the media player, on/off buttons for things like Bluetooth, GPS or flight mode, a new gallery widget (which lets you flick up and down through your photos) and a Timescape widget.

The Timescape widget can be set to display everything (everything being Facebook, Twitter, calls and messages, so perhaps not everything if you’re still using Myspace or want access to services like LinkedIn), or just one if you’d prefer to split your feeds up. The widget can also start up the Timescape app, which now lets you scroll left and right quickly to view individual feeds, or as one single aggregated view.

Timescape isn’t a bad way of gathering your social feeds, text messages and calls in one place, but neither is it a particularly good way. It puts a drain on the battery and doesn’t update quickly enough, even giving errors that remain in the notification bar until cleared when Twitter is having one of its ‘turns’.

TweetDeck is probably a better way of managing Facebook and Twitter, with support for multiple accounts, configurable notifications and better searching. Timescape also continues to open up the web browser to load the Facebook and Twitter websites instead of their Android app equivalents, which are also better than Timescape.

Hopefully Timescape will be gradually phased out completely in the future, or replaced with something far more powerful. The question is, does Sony Ericsson need to bother when there’s TweetDeck and others?

There are a few other Sony Ericsson apps on the arc, including LiveWare manager. This is a software alternative to putting a magnet inside the back of the phone to detect when docked or placed in a pouch, as used on BlackBerry handsets and the Motorola Milestone. With this app, you can configure the phone to trigger an app when you do certain things, like put the phone on charge, plug in headphones or add speakers.

The Media Server app turns your device into a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) server, for sharing content with compatible devices on a Wi-Fi network. This is fine for sharing media with a compatible TV or sound system, but it doesn’t allow operation in the other direction (e.g. playing movies from a NAS).

Sony Ericsson has also preinstalled the BBC iPlayer app on the phone, presumably as way to show off the ability to play Adobe Flash content. The phone came with Adobe Flash 10.1, but is easily upgraded to 10.2 in Android Market, along with minor updates to other core Google applications that have changed since the phone went into production.

Beyond a copy of Let’s Golf (full version), TrackID music recognition service, Touchnote to send photos as postcards and a Support app that offers a range of help files and video tutorials on getting the most from the phone, there’s not a lot else besides the standard Android apps.

In fact, besides the Sony Ericsson wallpaper and colour scheme, the phone is pretty much a native Google phone, similar in many ways to Google’s Nexus S. You won’t therefore need to spend ages trying to uninstall apps, or get frustrated by the time-limited demos and apps that take up all the storage space and can’t be removed unless you root the phone.

With just 320MB of storage space on the arc, you need all the space you can get. Even if you do install as many apps as possible on the SD card (an 8GB card is bundled, but it will happily take cards up to 32GB in capacity), this is a limitation that doesn’t compare well with handsets that offer significantly more space (like the extremely generous 2GB storage on the Motorola DEFY).

The phone does come with a more generous amount of RAM (512MB), and when it comes to the processing power, the 1GHz Snapdragon (MSM8255) processor with Adreno 205 GPU (Graphics Processor Unit) performs a lot better than the older variant, with the older Adreno 200 GPU, used on the X10 – as shown on our Neocore test, between the Xperia PLAY, Xperia arc and X10.

The camera

There is one thing that is anything but native Google, and that’s the camera. Unlike the Xperia PLAY, you won’t find the standard Google camera application in use here. And, as you can see from part 1 of the review, there are plenty of options within the camera to make it perform like an ordinary digital camera.

The Sony Exmor R sensor has a larger aperture to capture more light at a higher shutter speed, which is designed to reduce the blurry results you usually get when the light fades.

By doing a comparison test with the X10 in almost no light (see below), it’s certainly the case that the sensor can pick up detail in light conditions that has the X10 struggling considerably, just as we’d expect all other handsets to do too.

But, before anyone breaks out the champagne, it’s clear that you still end up with very noisy images that will need some image processing work if they’re to be used for anything important, or printed out. Don’t be under any illusion that the sensor is going to give you results akin to a DSLR or anything. It’s good, very good even, but there are still limits.

With the LED light enabled, things improve immensely, especially with the fill-in flash option that will make sure that things close-up (like faces) will be well defined and ‘clean’, even if things in the background may still remain noisy.

The arc doesn’t overly compress images either, with the resulting file sizes averaging around 2.5MB per image, as against 1MB or less on the X10.

It seems Sony Ericsson has finally realised that heavy compression can ruin good photos, and storage space is no longer at a hefty premium. Overall, the camera is extremely good and the biggest complaint is the tough camera button. Thank goodness you also have a touch-to-shoot option as an alternative.

Video recording may also have some mixed results, with dropped frames when the movement ramps up, but it still captures at an impressive 6Mbps. Suffice to say, you’ll find it rather a lot easier to consume the whole 8GB memory card if you do decide to do lots of filming. It’s worth noting that the Xperia PLAY uses the native Google camera app, and as such doesn’t offer HD capture at all.

Performance

With my concern about the audio quality from the internal speaker, the earpiece is clear and crisp for making calls (if you should ever find yourself wanting to use it as a phone – do people still do this?). The dual microphone works well at eliminating noise, and the arc also supports the ‘HD voice’ codec supported by Orange in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

A 1,500mAh battery is the absolute minimum these days to allow you any chance of being able to take advantage of the screen to watch films or play games, then hope to have something that still works by nightfall. Luckily that is exactly what the arc has inside.

The screen is going to be the killer here, without any doubt, as there’s no automatic brightness control. It’s going to be far too hard to voluntarily cut the brightness to save battery consumption when it looks so good, but you’ll have to do it to avoid low battery warnings by late-afternoon.

Nevertheless, I loved the arc. Despite the large screen, it doesn’t feel too big in the hand and the concave rear fits nicely in the hand. It’s as nice to use as a phone as it is for using apps and multimedia, and it becomes hard to put down.

If you’re now sat wondering which of Sony Ericsson’s new Xperia smartphones to buy (and from Sony Ericsson’s point of view, it’s great that people are now in such a position), it’s pretty easy to choose between the arc and the PLAY. Do you want gaming or imaging? In the case of the arc versus the neo and pro, it’s harder. The pro has a keyboard, but the neo is essentially the arc in a smaller, but thicker, casing. It will be cheaper too.

But, the arc is the flagship and is the one you’ll really want. Sony Ericsson has taken two Sony technologies and put them to good use, without going over the top and splattering huge logos on the casing.

Despite the fiddly camera button, and the terrible internal speaker, there’s really nothing you could consider a deal breaker. Future updates will hopefully tweak the camera and improve HD video recording, but as it stands today you’ll be more than happy to own this phone.

UPDATE 6th April 2011: Sony Ericsson has now issued a firmware update for the Xperia arc – which can be done via the Sony Ericsson Update Service (PC-only). Checking for an update via the phone will still say it is up to date, so ignore that and use the PC route. You can opt to do a non-destructive update (retaining all your data and apps) or do a complete erase and reinstall, and the firmware file is a 171.9MB download. So far it is not clear what has been fixed, or if a similar update will be released for the Xperia PLAY.

Ratings (out of 5)

[wpgalleryimage title=”Editors-Choice-5Star” float=right]Performance: 4
Features: 5
Usability: 4
OVERALL: 5

In this review, we’ve left out details about the finer details, like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS and 3G/HSPA. Suffice to say, it includes everything any Android 2.x handset would do.

Go to the next page for the key specifications…

Key Specifications

  • Size/Weight: 125x63x8.7mm, 117g
  • Frequencies: 2G (GPRS, EDGE) + 3G (HSPA)
  • Screen: 4.2-inch, 480×854 pixels (capacitive) with Mobile BRAVIA Engine
  • Camera: 8.1-megapixel, Exmor R CMOS autofocus sensor with LED flash and 720p HD video capture @ 30fps
  • Operating System: Android 2.3.2
  • Processor: Qualcomm MSM8255 processor with Adreno 205 GPU (1GHz)
  • Memory: 320MB storage, 512MB RAM + microSDHC (8GB supplied, 32GB max)
  • Battery: 1,500mAh (7 hours talktime, 430 hours standby)
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, DLNA, USB, Bluetooth
  • Navigation: A-GPS
  • Other: FM radio with RDS, Timescape app, TrackID, Sony Ericsson home screen/launcher

Image gallery

With comparison of low-light performance between Xperia arc and Xperia X10 (with with 8-megapixel resolution)

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