Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc (Alternative)
Review compliments of PDA247
When I was told that I would be received the Xperia PLAY and the Xperia Arc for review I was tempted to just ask for the PLAY due to lack of time. The Arc looked like just another in a long line of Android smartphones designed to offer a large screen and all of the specifications countless other Android phones include. The design also looked like a poor attempt to make it different by including a needless curved back for no other reason than aesthetics. But…
The iPhone 5 will need to be more like the Xperia Arc than the iPhone 4. HTC, Samsung, Motorola and the rest should take a long hard look at the Arc because it feels like a svelte slab of science fiction and it makes my iPhone 4 feel positively chunky in comparison.
This isn’t hyperbole. This phone is so undeniably different to anything I have used before that it really does feel like the first of a new generation of smartphone. It is a slab that is all screen and the weight is distributed so evenly that the size is barely noticeable when you are holding it. The arc at the back is a touch of design genius because you feel like you are touching the back of the screen when in the hand thanks to the thinnest part being so slim. Many phones look good in the marketing photos, but lose their balance when in the hand and are either top or bottom heavy. This phone feels perfectly weighted in every area.
In the box you get a healthy selection of goodies; 8GB MicroSD card, stereo in-ear headset, microUSB cable, Micro HDMI to HDMI cable, AC charger and 2 screen protectors (one pre-attached). Sony Ericsson has been making some real efforts with box contents, as was also seen with the Xperia PLAY, and hopefully this will spur others to bundle a little bit more with their smartphone. After all we are talking about spending more than £400 on the products.
So it looks great and it feels great, but what is it about the design that makes it feel so special? I can’t quite put my finger on it which I suppose is a sign of good design, but I believe it to be the minimal weight married with the large surface and super thin form. Words are hard to rummage up when describing the feeling so I would advise you to pop along to a local mobile phone shop and hold one for yourself. You will see what I mean.
All of the above is nice, but we are still looking at a high-end Android phone here that should perform roughly the same as the other large screened Android handsets from the likes of HTC and Samsung. The thing is that it doesn’t perform like them and for one very important reason; this is the first non-iPhone that feels as good as an iPhone to use.
I cannot overstate how important that last sentence is. Every single phone I have reviewed over the past year has felt like a phone and I could sense what was happening beneath the screens every time I touched them. I thought this was down to the operating systems or the clever screen / OS marriage of the iPhone, but it seems as though Android is perfectly capable of recreating the ‘magic’ that Apple is so fond of talking about. When I pick this phone up I just start using it without thinking. That is exactly what I, and almost everyone else, expects from a smartphone in 2011.
Looking closer at the physicals, there are only 3 buttons below the screen with the search button missing and the back button is on the left. SE also did this on the PLAY and it is a different setup from other Android smartphones. It isn’t a big deal, but some consistency would be nice (forced by Google perhaps?) to make the switching experience easier. Arguably the back button makes sense being on the left, but I am used to it being elsewhere and so some acclimatisation was required.
The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top left-hand side and this is a logical position, but the positioning of the other buttons left me slightly bemused. The on/off button is on the top side, but over to the left which I found quite tricky to use. This is a big phone and I am right-handed (as everyone who isn’t a witch is) and even with my large hands my thumb could not reach the top to turn it on. The natural position for the on/off button is top right so that a finger can be used, as shown below-
I have gotten used to using my finger over to the left, but the more natural position is still over to the other side in my opinion. The HDMI slot is over to the right at the top, which could of course have gone to the left, but that’s what we have so some adjustment is needed. I do like the fact that it is a proper on/off button and not one of those flush efforts that makes finding it difficult so there is an upside. The MicroUSB slot is top right which is not ideal for the future development of cradles and below that is a rather small volume key- this could do with being bigger. Finally there is a camera shutter button logically placed bottom right and this again is a proper button and not a hard to find flush effort.
Even though the button placements only take a matter of hours to get used to I do feel that SE could have used more logic when positioning them. It may be that the design could be the reason for this and if so I am prepared to forgive a lot because I seriously love the design of this phone.
There is little doubt that the Arc made a very positive impression on me in the first 24 hours. The design hit me between the eyes like a smartly designed bullet with an Xperia logo on the side and 3 days later I am still in awe of the way it looks and feels.
Anyway, I need to move on from my smartphone glee and look at what is inside.
The camera is very impressive for stills. Even thought it is rated at 8 Megapixels this is rarely a guarantee on a smartphone that good pictures will come out of it, but here the story is in the quality of the output. Examples are below-
Video capture quality is also impressive and I would put it at a similar level to the iPhone 4. It is different, but largely similar in output. Shapes in dark conditions tend to be smoothed out more, thus losing minor detail, but you do get to see clearly what you are capturing which is not always the case with the iPhone 4.
All in all though this is one of the best smartphone cameras I have seen on an Android phone and very likely the best yet.
It seems that Timescape is a bit of a battery hog at times and it is worthwhile playing around with the sync frequency, but even on high I managed two days use before a charge was needed. This is good for me and better than I can managed with the iPhone 4 under the same conditions. Very heavy usage will require a daily charge, but at least you can feel secure knowing that a day of extreme usage is possible.
Very, very good. Indoors it is wonderful for media and the 4.2” size makes for an immersive movie watching experience. The Bravia engine is supposed to bring better definition and colours to images and I guess it works. It is, however, hard to tell because everything looks great on this screen.
I tested it outdoors on a very bright day and could still use it for everything I needed to. It isn’t the best in bright conditions, but it matches up to the Super AMOLED experience on the Galaxy S.
On the whole the experience is smooth and hassle free. I noticed the occasional slow down in Timescape (I wouldn’t use it personally no matter how well it is presented) and when many apps were open, but standard to power use should present no problems at all. The performance is particularly strong though when rendering complex web pages with Flash or high encoded videos.
Voice and signal quality
The call quality to the ear is vibrant and works well even in windy conditions. The speaker phone is also good, but a little tinny when the volume is pumped up to the maximum. It says something that a good quality sound can still be produced from the external speaker in a phone so slim when others struggle to match up on much thicker phones.
Signal is good with the magic ‘H’ appearing almost constantly at home, work and on my journey to work. It still isn’t BlackBerry level, but is adequate for what most people will need.
Media / web browsing
As I said earlier video playbook looks great on the huge screen and the viewing angles are terrific. Music quality is decent even with the supplied headphones, but a better set brings out the pedigree that Sony obviously has in this area. Throw in a lovely gallery app and a high visual music interface and the whole experience feels much better than you see on most Android phones.
Web browsing is even better. We all know that the default Android browser is good, but I spent a lot of time testing this on the Arc and little things like watching Flash videos on the BBC website add a lot to the experience. I have to say that I didn’t experience any glitches at all and the performance was excellent throughout. I am sure that some sites will present a problem, but I would expect them to also present a problem on my Mac Mini as well.
The debate about Flash and its performance on smartphones is of course valid, but all I can judge is from what I experience and Flash makes for a big positive on the Arc.
Sony Ericsson has sparingly added a couple of widgets and left the operating system alone. There are some clever themes included which make the interface feel more organised and it all works well together. I could write three more parts to this review if I wanted to go into each app because there are some brilliant tweaks that have been made to contacts and many of the other standards. I think SE has got the balance right here between offering standard Android with just enough additions to add genuine usability.
Mediascape and Timescape are wonderfully presented, but heavy Timescape use could slow down the device a little so your mileage may vary. When I say slow down I am talking relative here because on the whole it is extremely quick and any tiny stop is more noticeable than it would normally be so you can rest assured that the software will work near perfectly with the hardware on the Arc.
I didn’t get enough time to fully explore all of the differences in this version of Android, but tested Navigation, PIM, the Android Market and every other app I could find. One word- flawless. Android is coming of age and as each release passes more pieces of the puzzle fall into place. This is by far the best Android experience I have had so far and could quite happily use it every day.
This is my favourite part of any touch screen phone to complain about, but even here I am struggling a bit to shake off the positivity. The large screen aids data input greatly and there are various options built in to auto-correct words etc. I have to say that the auto-correction could be better though because some times it does fly off at a tangent. Remember though that you can substitute the standard keyboard with others from the Android Market.
The Arc is without doubt an all round superb smartphone. It does almost everything right and I am left wondering how so much was crammed into such a small space. The improvements in Android are gradually starting to work together to create a more rounded experience and when it is sensitively squeezed into a piece of hardware like this something special happens. This is my new favourite smartphone.