You’d be forgiven for not noticing the arrival of Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Arc S in the smartphone market when it was launched a few months ago. After all, it’s becoming harder to differentiate between the phones that carry the “Xperia” name as the branding is used on more models every quarter.
The last time we took a look at a Sony Ericsson device was back in September 2011 when we reviewed the Xperia Neo and although it felt like an Xperia Play without the ‘Play’, it definitely hit the mark for its price point.
The Xperia Arc S has a slightly higher price point than the Neo, at around £300, but for the extra cash you’ll be getting a 1.4GHz Scorpion CPU running the show, as opposed to the 1GHz model which you will find present in the Xperia Neo. The phone feels nice to hold when you’re using it either indoors or when you’re out and about and it has a very thin profile compared to some of the more bulky HTC units that are available on the market right now, although it does have a lot of Sony Ericsson’s signature, cheap-feeling plastic casing holding it together. The glossy, black material is a fingerprint magnet too, so those of you who like to keep things spotless may need to carry a cleaning cloth around with you when you’re using this phone.
On the front of the device, you’ll find three physical buttons below the screen – there is no dedicated search button on many of Sony Ericsson’s Android phones like there is on many other phones from manufacturers such as HTC – for navigating back, going home and revealing the on-screen menu for whichever app you happen to be in at the time.
The screen on the Arc S has the same 480 x 854 resolution as the Xperia Neo, but the screen itself is half an inch larger, at 4.2-inches. This means that pixel density isn’t as good as it could be on the Arc, and it’s noticeable when placed side by side with newer phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which has a very high pixel density. That being said, for the price point of the Arc S you couldn’t expect a massive amount more. This phone isn’t one which is aimed at people who want the absolute best and will settle for nothing less than that, it’s an affordable unit for users looking to join the smartphone game.
As is the norm for most smartphones now, the Arc S charges using a standard USB connector, and the microUSB port is exposed on the right hand side of the phone. Not having a cover masking the port makes it significantly easier to access it for charging or data transfers, and it makes the whole process much less frustrating, as you don’t have to fiddle around with impossibly small flaps that cover the ports on many other phones.
In our camera tests, the still pictures taken were quite sharp, with a 6MP resolution. The 8MP camera mode will only allow you to take shots in 4:3 mode, so if you want to take widescreen images like you would on most smartphones, you’ll have to downgrade to the lower megapixel range. Although the images taken weren’t bad for a smartphone, the colours appeared washed out which made the entire scene look somewhat dull. Being in the UK on a cloudy day doesn’t help this at all, but when using other smartphones such as the iPhone 4S to take the same image and compare, you could tell the difference. For most people who care about image quality, this won’t be a huge issue as it’s easy enough to touch an image up using common photo management programs, such as iPhoto on the Mac, or even a free web service such as Google’s Picasa. Even with an auto-adjustment, the difference is noticeable.
A noticeable feature missing from the Arc S which is present in most other smartphones coming to the market at the moment is a front facing camera. With the explosion of video calling apps of late, most manufacturers are beginning to include front facing cameras on all of their mid to high range units, but there isn’t one to be seen on the Arc. Considering that the camera on the back of the unit is such a good quality one for the price point, this will no doubt come as quite a surprise for potential buyers.
Thanks to the 1.4GHz Scorpion processor and 512MB of RAM, the Xperia Arc S is a very quick device. Unlike budget smartphones such as the HTC Wildfire, you won’t find any lag when navigating between menus and different apps, and all of Sony’s widgets work without skipping a beat on the home page. Considering the faster processor that’s in the Arc S, the battery life doesn’t suffer for it. The 1500 mAh battery that comes with the phone is more than capable of lasting a full work day, and as long as you charge it before you sleep at night, it will be ready to go for the next day without you having to worry about it dying on you.
Of course, if you’re playing games a lot during the day and using a lot of CPU intensive applications, then battery life will be reduced accordingly; 4 hours straight of Angry Birds may just be enough to kill of most smartphone batteries, so don’t get your hopes up too much, because this phone is in line with the rest of the market when it comes to the amount of juice it can hold.
The Arc S is currently running Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread), but Sony Ericsson has shared its plans to upgrade the phone to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) at some point in the future. Unfortunately, we have little idea when this is going to happen, as with most Android software upgrades, so it’s just a waiting game for current owners and potential buyers at the moment. When I first received the review unit, I was excited to see that a “4.0” upgrade was available, but it referred to Sony Ericsson’s software, not Google’s Android version numbers, so I was left even more disappointed after the excitement of witnessing the phone upgrade to something I still haven’t utilised.
That’s not to say that the experience on the Arc S is a bad one with Gingerbread. On the contrary, thanks to the 1.4GHz CPU everything is as fast as you could expect from a smartphone. That being said, the Sony Xperia line is starting to look a little tired, both in terms of hardware and software. Every time we review an Xperia unit, it’s running the same software under the same skin that Sony insists on applying to Android.
Like the Xperia Neo and the Xperia Play that came before it, you will become familiar with Sony’s Timescape widgets very quickly if you purchase the Arc S. A number of default widgets are scattered across the home pages, and only one of them is a stock widget. Personally, I remove most of Sony’s widgets as soon as I turn on the phone, as they take up a lot of space that could be used for other, more crucial pieces of information. In many ways, Sony’s Android skin fails to impress, but it does have a nice little feature that allows you to store a folder on the launcher at the bottom of the screen, which gives you quick access to a number of applications without scattering their icons allover your home screen. By default on our review unit, Three used this feature to show off some of its applications outside of the app drawer, but it is a nice proof of concept for what you can do with your own apps.
If you pinch inwards on the screen with two fingers, you are presented with an “overview” of all the widgets that occupy the various home screens, but curiously you can’t view the home screens themselves. This is typical of Sony’s widget-centric attitude, but it’s still a very nice feature to have handy if you want to quickly access a widget but can’t remember which screen it’s currently sitting on. This will work not just with Sony widgets, but also stock widgets and custom ones that you can buy from the Android Market as well, so it could prove to be quite useful if you have a collection of well chosen widgets on your phone.
As with the Xperia Neo, Sony Ericsson’s own Android skin makes one thing much nicer when compared to stock Android; when you’re in the app drawer, you can choose the order in which you want your applications. You can keep them organised alphabetically, or by which apps you have used the most, or you can even choose your own random order for the apps to be in so that you know where everything is without even thinking about it. It’s incredible to think that even after 4 major versions of Android, we still can’t organise apps the way that we want to in the app drawer, so this is a very welcome addition to the software.
Although the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S isn’t the best phone we’ve ever reviewed, it does a solid job for its price point. Considering that it costs just £300 off contract, you’d be hard pressed to find better value for your money, especially as it packs a 1.4GHz processor and there is a planned future upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich at some point this year. The camera is solid, and although I’d have liked to see a higher pixel density on the 4.2-inch display, the resolution is pretty standard for units at this price.
Those wanting to take advantage of some of the newer video chatting applications which are available in the Market will want to look elsewhere, however, due to the lack of a front facing camera. Even the Xperia Neo, which is available for £100 less than the Arc S, has a front facing camera built in, so this remains to be somewhat of a mystery.
To wrap-up, if you’re looking for a device that’s affordable and runs a recent version of Android, then the Arc S is a great phone for the price point. Obviously, the more money you spend the more tech you’ll be able to get, but if you don’t care about having the latest and greatest technology as soon as it comes out then this will be a good purchase for you. The Sony Ericsson Arc S is available to buy from Three UK.