Mobile Review: Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

Sony Ericsson have been among the earliest providers of consumer friendly smartphone technology, long before the term ‘smartphone’ gained widespread traction among today’s increasingly mobile-savvy shoppers. Throughout the early to mid noughties they produced a line of Symbian-driven touchscreen handsets that helped define a vision of what convergence devices had to offer. Over the past few years Sony Ericsson have invested heavily in their Xperia line of smartphones, which now use Google’s Android platform. With the Xperia Arc can they combine the experience of the past with the technology of today to once more offer us a tantalising vision of the future?

Hardware

Australians have an expression for something that is visually pleasing, that being it’s “easy on the eye”, and it’s an expression that’s entirely valid in the case of the Xperia Arc. Before you even turn it on your eyes bask in the elegant sweeping lines and gracefully curves that give the Arc its name. It’s a shame that upon closer examination the beauty of the device is marred slightly by the revelation that the body has a mostly plastic construction. I have seen some of Sony Ericsson’s promotional material online and there they describe it thus…

“Start with premium materials. Stir in some beautiful curvature. Squeeze down to 8.7 mm. And there it is, a perfect palm fit: the slim, lightweight and strong Xperia Arc.”

Maybe it’s me just being snobbish but since when did plastic get elevated to the status of “premium materials”? Still, that aside, its plastic body helps keep the weight down to a svelte 117 g. This, combined with its overall dimensions of 125 mm long, 63 mm wide and 8.7 mm thick (at its thinnest point), make for a generally pleasing experience in the hand – assuming you have long fingers that is. Some of the controls at the top and bottom extremities of this slender but long device might feel a little awkward to operate in a one-handed manner.

The top of the handset features a surprisingly small power/lock button that is only slightly elevated above the level of the body (which requires a sturdy press initiate a response) and a microHDMI port concealed under a small plastic flap. The left hand side is where the 3.5 mm headphone port is found (an unhelpful position from a usability point of view if you tend to keep your phone is a narrow trouser or jacket pocket). The right hand side features a tiny LED charge status light, an uncovered microUSB port, a volume rocker switch and a physical camera button which, like the power/lock button on top, is quite small and demanding of a good firm press to operate (I frequently found the necessary level of force required to make the button work properly was also enough to make the device move ever so slightly at the moment the picture is taken which resulted in shots that were slightly out of focus and using the on-screen shutter activation process produced far better results). The bottom of the handset has a small microphone hole and an area for attaching a lanyard.

The entire rear of the device is the curved backplate that is made of a polished silvery-grey sparkle-finish plastic (which, incidentally, is nowhere near as naff as it sounds). At the top is the 8.1 megapixel HD camera, which has a Sony Exmor CMOS sensor that Sony claims “let’s you capture high-quality movies and stills in low light”. There is also a LED flash next to this and further down near the bottom is a small speaker aperture. The front of the device is dominated by the screen (which we’ll get to in a moment) and above this is the earpiece speaker and proximity sensors. Below are three physical ‘back’, ‘home’ and ‘contextual menu’ buttons with a chrome finish which, like the chrome trim that runs along the edges of the device, makes for a nice contrast to the highly polished piano-black plastic. Generally the build quality is reasonable although I found when gripping it tightly the backplate was prone to flexing slightly accompanied by an audible creaking noise.

The screen on the Xperia Arc is a 4.2″ TFT one with a 854 x 480 resolution which Sony Ericsson calls their ‘Reality Display’. While it may not quite rival the stunning ‘Retina Display’ of Apple’s iPhone 4 it does a remarkable job of maintaining deep, rich, blacks and well saturated colours thanks to the on-board Sony Mobile BRAVIA Engine (an adaptation of the same technology that Sony uses in their televisions). We may be seeing dual-core smartphones gaining rapid adoption at the moment but the Xperia Arc seems to chug along quite happily with it’s 1 GHz single-core processor and this, along with the Mobile BRAVIA Engine, did impressive work of keeping the action smooth when watching movies. The size of the display means it’s excellent for browsing the web or reading emails as you can fit a lot on the screen at any given time. It’s even good enough to read in daylight without any significant visibility problems and a lot of this comes down to the fact they have the display sandwiched very close to the protective glass leaving a screen far less prone to reflections and distortions.

Under the backplate is a 1500 mAh battery, a SIM card and a bundled 8 GB microSD card which you can upgrade to 32 GB – a move I would advise as there is only 400 MB of on-board storage (at least with the version of Android on this device you can chose to have apps and media files live on the microSD card rather than taking up precious on-board space). The battery did an impressive job of getting through the day and with moderate use I could even stretch out use of the phone over a couple of days before charging was necessary. I’ve said it before but no matter how many features a phone has they’re useless to you if it doesn’t have the juice to let you use them and this is one area where the Xperia Arc did well.

The 8.1 megapixel camera generally produces very sharp and detailed shots but there are a few issues I had that disappointed. It may have a Sony Exmor CMOS sensor for better image quality in low-light conditions but personally I found there was still a noticeable degree of noise present when trying this out. Still, it managed to pick out detail in low-light conditions that other phone cameras simply couldn’t match so you may find your mileage varies in how useful this feature is to you.

I also found that that shots that initially looked great on the screen lose a fair bit of detail once you start zooming in and I suspect it’s a little aggressive on the image compression front.

By far my biggest complaint with the camera was with colour reproduction. While many colours came out fine, scenes with strong browns, reds or yellows in them appeared noticeably lighter than they were in real life. For example, shots of a tan leather messenger bag came out with it looking more like a deep mustard yellow colour. I could achieve better results with some tweaking of the settings but I really shouldn’t have to.

Video recording was adequate but nothing to brag about and there were a few focus issues here and there. At least you can use the microHDMI port on the top of the phone to route your works of art to a television and make them easier to share with a group.

Overall the camera and its features are underwhelming and seem like a missed opportunity. They’re better than on some other smartphones but even a fairly low-end compact digital camera would beat it hands down in most areas so don’t think of it as a substitute for your trusty dedicated point-and-click model.

Audio quality while making phone calls was good, as was listening to media files using a decent pair of earphones. The external speaker produced rather shallow, tinny results (especially at higher volume levels) but, to be fair, this seems par for the course – very few smartphones have external speakers that have anything near decent clarity and punch.

Software

The Xperia Arc runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and it benefits from this is many ways. Touch response from all elements of the UI is pleasingly snappy with absolutely no discernable lag anywhere. Sony Ericsson’s Android overlay is more in line with Samsung’s TouchWiz rather than HTC’s Sense in that it’s minimal and fairly unobtrusive. If you like the stock Android experience then this is a decent alternative.

The lock screen presents a nice feature in that if you swipe the unlock bar from left to right you unlock the screen, much as you would expect, but if you swipe the unlock bar from right to left you can switch back and forth between the standard ringer profile and the vibrate profile – a smart way to quickly ensure you or the people you’re with don’t get disturbed by a variety of rings and chimes from the vicinity of your pocket.

There are only five home screens rather than the usual seven to be found on other Android phones but unless you’re an absolute widget fiend who has loads of them spread out all over the place, this really isn’t a concern.

Pressing the on-screen applications button takes you to where all your applications live but rather than having the usual long grid of icons which you can scroll and up and down they are spread over a number of transparent ‘pages’ which you can swipe back and forth left and right. There is also an option to rearrange them in alphabetical, most used or recently installed order, all of which can be helpful under certain circumstances. Many of Sony Ericsson’s own application icons sit at an angled perspective which is in keeping with the way they’ve done phone icons for many years now and it’s a little touch that older Sony Ericsson fans will appreciate, carrying over some of their prior design aesthetics to this newer platform.

Of the proprietary software features Sony Ericsson include on the Xperia line, one of the foremost is the Timescape application. Timescape is a social feed aggregator that you can pull up through a widget on one of the home screens, looking to all intents and purposes like a virtual stack of cards that you can shuffle through. It’s an interesting idea but one that seems more driven by visual appeal than usefulness in its execution. You can only have so many cards visible at any one time and there’s an awful lot of wasted space around the screen when viewing feeds in this manner. It also takes each Facebook and Twitter users avatar pictures and expands them, often resulting in blurry and heavily pixelated images appearing as the backdrop of each card. This looks ugly and quite out of place among the rest of the slick UI.

When you press on a card, say one with a tweet that a friend has posted, by default it will open up the browser and take you to the Twitter mobile web site rather than open up the Twitter app if you have it installed – a rather counter intuitive move that slows the process down. It may not be quite as fancy looking but I prefer my social feeds in a good old fashioned list view where I can see more of what’s going on and more easily scan which items are of particular interest to me.

On the subject of browsers, the stock one is perfectly adequate but if, like me, you prefer Mobile Firefox it’s one of several browsers you can download from the Android Marketplace and set as the default in preferences. The Xperia Arc supports Flash in a browser window – useful if there is the odd Flash video you’ve just got to see but that’s about it. I experienced choppy frame rates and poor resolution when watching some Flash videos although I don’t blame the Xperia Arc for that one bit – Flash is a bit rubbish on just about every smartphone I’ve ever used.

The soft keyboard is fairly basic but generally responsive. It doesn’t seem to be especially intuitive and it’s a bit pathetic when it comes to punctuation too. It doesn’t come with the option of using the Swype keyboard, like some other recent Android handsets do, but once again you can take a trip to the Android Marketplace and find an alternative keyboard that suits you better if the basic one isn’t to your liking.

Conclusion

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc is a real mixed bag. It looks fantastic, handles responsively and has a screen that puts some other smartphones to shame. Nevertheless there are some big let-downs, particularly in the heavy use of plastics in its build and a camera that makes big promises but falls short in delivery. Still, at the beginning of the article I reminded readers that Sony Ericsson were an early participant in the smartphone market and wondered if they still had what it takes to carry on in such a rapidly growing and ever competitive arena. The Xperia Arc isn’t perfect, but then what smartphone is? They all have their compromises that we accept and adapt to in order to benefit from the greater good of their ownership.

I think that, despite its flaws, the Xperia Arc is a fine device, there’s a lot to like and shows a lot of promise in terms of what Sony Ericsson is capable of. If they continue to refine what they already have, smooth down the rough edges and dial up the quality a notch then there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t expect to see them being a name to be reckoned with in the future of smartphones.

I score the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc a GeekNative score of 7 out of 10.

Review handset provided courtesy of 3 Mobile who were rated the No. 1 network for smartphones in a recent YouGov survey.

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