Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo Review

sony-xperia-neoWhenever I approach a review for a phone, I try my best to do so without any pre-judgements about the device that I’m about to use. I’ll ignore the vast majority of reviews already written, and get a feel for things before loving or hating it, but for the Xperia Neo this is particularly difficult.

You see, as far as I was concerned, the Xperia Neo is simply Sony’s Xperia Play without the ‘Play’. It has a very similar look and feel to the so called Playstation Phone, with the same style chrome finished buttons beneath the screen and the same curvature around the edges. The only problem is I didn’t particularly like the Play until I used the Playstation app…

Still, I’m a firm believer in clean slates, and a clean slate is just what I gave the Xperia Neo. After all, it’s cheaper than its gaming relative and can still pack a fairly powerful punch. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

In the Box

We didn’t find much in the way of accessories in the box of our review unit of the Neo. There is, however, a bundled USB cable to charge the device, and an AC adaptor which will get your phone juiced up quicker than your computer can. For some reason, the charger has a USB port on its left hand side instead of the front, which is infuriating if you have it plugged in next to another large plug. It’s good to see that an effort has been made with the design to ensure that it doesn’t block any other ports, and the size of the unit isn’t much of an issue.

Sony also provides a protective sleeve with the device, although just how much protection it offers is up for debate. Compared to some of the neoprene sleeves that HTC provides with some of its units such as the now outdated Nexus One and Desire, this particular accessory isn’t much to brag about.

Specs

Smartphone specifications seem to be a fairly standard array of numbers nowadays, so let’s get them out of the way before diving into how the phone actually feels when you’re using it. Under the hood of the Neo, you will find a 1GHz Snapdragon processor with an Adreno 205 GPU to support it.

Unfortunately, you won’t find much in the area of built in storage, with the Neo getting a paltry 320MB to play with, although the phone does come with an 8GB microSD card. There is also 512MB of RAM for all of those applications you’re going to be running.

Look and Feel

Something that instantly puts off many people from the Xperia Play is its thickness thanks to the slide out game pad used to play games Playstation style. The Xperia Neo doesn’t have this burden on its shoulder, and so the frame of the phone is distinctly thinner than the Play. As a result, it feels comfortable to hold and to my surprise it doesn’t feel too cheap either, considering that this is a mid-range device.

The front and back of the device are covered in a plastic which is similar, if not the same, to that of the Play, and around the edge of the device is a nice looking chrome finish. The plastic casing on the back of the display also carries a blue tint on some units, including ours, and looks really nice as a result. On the side of the back cover is a noise cancelling microphone, which is great to see in a device which is as cheap as the Neo. Such features are normally reserved for higher end devices, so to see more and more phones coming with additional features such as this is really good news for consumers.

You will find a headphone jack on the very top of the device, allowing easy access when your phone is in your pocket. Thanks to the positioning of the jack, you can comfortably leave your phone in your pocket whilst your earphones or headphones are attached and still listen to your music without a problem.

There is also a port to either side of this jack. To the left is the USB charging port, with the HDMI port to the right hand side. Both of these are covered by little plastic flaps which, inexplicably, seem to be making their way across every phone Sony Ericsson makes. Yes, they make the phone look a little prettier, but they are near damn impossible for any male to remove with his fingers, so you’ll have to keep a credit card handy to pop it open when you want to charge your phone up.

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All other buttons on the phone’s exterior are located on the right hand side. Towards the top of the edge, you will find a power button which is nice and accessible when you’re holding your phone, so you can just switch it on and off with your thumb. The volume rocker dominates the right hand side of the phone, and although it looks good, the build quality didn’t impress me here. Each time I wanted to turn the volume on the device up or down, I would hear a very slight but noticeable squeaking noise from the rocking mechanism. Maybe this is something that will disappear with increased use, but I found it to be incredibly annoying.

Below the rocker is a physical camera button, which is always great to have on a phone like this. As you would expect, touching the camera button sends you straight in to the app to take a quick photo, although you have to unlock your phone before you can use it. I would love to see a software button on the lock screen that could also take you to the Camera app, as this would make it even quicker in some cases without unlocking the phone.

Another point of interest regarding the hardware lies in the buttons located underneath the display. On almost all Android phones, you will normally find buttons for ‘Back’, ‘Menu’, ‘Home’ and ‘Search’ here, although necessarily not in that order. Sony, in their infinite wisdom, has actually decided to drop the search button from the Xperia Neo, meaning that there are only three hardware buttons beneath the display. This actually fits the profile of the phone better, but a lot of people do use the search button on Android phones, so it might put a few potential buyers off.

Display

The display on the Xperia Play left me wanting a little bit more. The resolution of 480 x 854 left a bit to be desired on a 4-inch display, and I would have liked to see more pixels packed in there. On the Neo, the resolution is the same as the Play, but the LED backlit display is only 3.7-inches, resulting in a higher pixel density level. As a result, everything looks nice and sharp on the display, and I haven’t had any troubles with the brightness.

Like the Play, however, the display is particularly reflective which makes it somewhat difficult to use outdoors. You might get away with it in England as you don’t have to deal with much direct sunlight on your screen, but even when it’s cloudy outside you might struggle to see everything that’s going on with your phone.

Camera

The rear camera on the Xperia Neo is technically capable of shooting at 8MP, but in order to do so you have to shoot in 4:3 mode which no one wants to do as most standard photo sizes have a widescreen aspect ratio. That means that most people will be shooting photos on the Neo at 6MP.

When I was testing the camera I found it to be surprisingly good. It struggled in dark conditions, despite the LED flash which is situated next to the rear camera, but that’s to be expected with every smartphone camera on the planet right now, so you can’t really complain about that. In light conditions, however, it proved to be as capable as most other phones on the market, both indoors and outdoors. As well as taking solid still photos, you can also shoot 720p from the Neo, which is a great feature for a mid-range device to have.

In addition to the rear facing camera, Sony also ships the Xperia Neo with a built in, front facing camera for video calls and narcissistic photos of ones self. The quality of this camera isn’t fantastic, but if you’re talking phone to phone you will get away with it. If you’re using an application such as Skype and talking to someone using a computer with a large display, you’ll look like pixelated mush, so bare this in mind the next time you have an urge to Skype someone from your phone in the middle of nowhere.

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Software

The hardware of the Xperia Neo may differ quite substantially from the Xperia Play, but as far as the software is concerned things are pretty much identical. Again, though, minus the ‘Play’ part. Like the Play, the Neo runs on Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread), Google’s latest operating system for phones. We’ve all seen enough articles covering Android, so I’ll go easy on this one, but there are a few things that are worth pointing out.

Due to the custom skin that Sony have placed over Android, though, an upgrade to Ice Cream sandwich once it is released will probably take quite some time and may not happen at all. Speaking of skins, Sony’s isn’t as horrific as some others that you will come across in the world of Android, but this is far from the ‘Stock Android’ experience.

Sony seems to be pushing its ‘Timescape’ widgets almost as hard as HTC pushes their Sense UI these days, but I can’t say it’s a particularly enjoyable experience, at least not right now. Timescape pulls all of your social networking feeds together into one scrollable widget, so you can see all of your Facebook and Twitter updates at once. Unfortunately, the user pictures behind the posts look incredibly pixelated and just detract from what could otherwise be a decent experience. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot that Sony can do here, but the widget was one of the first things that I removed from the home screen of the phone when I turned it on. The auto-update feature works well, so if you can put up with pixelated images of your friends’ faces on your home screen then by all means knock yourself out.

The list of changes to Stock Android includes an app drawer which scrolls horizontally instead of vertically, although there is also a useful feature bundled here as well, because you can choose to change the order in which your applications appear, given the choice of ‘Own order’, ‘Alphabetical’, ‘Most used’ and ‘Recently installed’. With the drawer set to your own order, you can change the icons around between screens, and order it in a way that you like best. This is something that Stock Android makes infuriatingly difficult, so I hope that this change is carried over into Google’s own version by the time we see Ice Cream Sandwich on our phones.

Wrap-Up

I can honestly say that my experience with the Sony Xperia Neo was actually a much nicer one than I had with the Play. The phone feels better in your hand thanks to its slim profile, and the array of features normally reserved for high-end devices, such as a noise cancelling microphone, HD capable rear camera and front facing camera are all present and accounted for in a phone that you can buy without a contract for little over £200.

It’s because of these additional features that I would recommend the Xperia Neo to anyone looking to buy a smartphone on a budget. For the same price, you will struggle to get a device which will prove to be as capable as this, and if you can put up with the skinned user interface then this just might be a match made in heaven.

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo is available to buy from Three in store, or you can buy it without a contract from around £230 from any retailer. If you own the Neo, or you’re planning on buying one, let us know what you think in the comments!