A sizeable yet slender device that feels solid and looks slick, although the rear does pick up scuffs and marks far too easily
Occasionally one-handed use can be tricky thanks to the hefty build, but the touch-screen is responsive and bashing out texts or emails is a cinch
The smart tags make practical use of NFC, while the 12.1-megapixel camera is sharp and impressive in low light
A dual-core CPU handles Android perfectly, even when running complex games and apps
You'll get over a day of use from a single charge, even with regular email checks, constant app play and the occasional short call
After Sony's much-publicised split with Ericsson last year, we were keen to seen what solo smartphones the Japanese giant would concoct. Thankfully the Sony Xperia S is more John Lennon than Ringo Starr, a beautifully designed media mobile that packs an excellent camera and actually makes proper use of NFC.
To find out which Sony Xperia smartphone is best for you - the Xperia S, the Xperia P or the Xperia U - check out our quick comparison feature!
Sony's prior efforts, such as the Xperia Arc S, rocked curvy designs that felt good in the hand and massaged our eyeballs with shiny goodness. The first shots of the Xperia S looked a little bland in comparison, but we love the final result, which is copied across its Xperia P and Xperia U models too.
The talking point of the Sony Xperia S is that transparent band at the bottom, which lights up when you receive a notification or push a button. Pointless it may be, but it does look cool and adds a novelty to the design.
You'll see no push buttons cluttering the front of the Xperia S, as the Back, Home and Menu buttons are touch-sensitive spots just above the band. The edges also keep it simple, so on the left side you'll find a covered Micro USB port, and the right side house the volume buttons, shutter button and a covered HDMI port.
A rounded rear gives the Xperia S a little extra thickness, but at 11mm it won't bulge out of your pocket. However, it is a little tricky to operate one-handed thanks to its overall size. We occasionally struggled to prod links when browsing the web, and had to switch to two-handed mode.
We also noticed that the soft rear picked up scuffs and marks in no time at all, even when we handled it carefully. Perhaps we just have sweaty fingers, but after a few hours the back was already marked with ugly streaks.
Those 'sweat patches' are pretty much impossible to remove, even with hardcore scrubbing
The Xperia S is a fantastic way to take in a movie on the move. That 4.3-inch TFT screen is a marvel, and we spent half an hour just watching HD trailers on YouTube to take in the beautiful visuals. The Avengers: Assembled trailer is a perfect showcase, the comic-book colours and extravagant explosions all brilliantly recreated in miniature form.
The 1280x720-pixel resolution keeps your films and photos crisp. Even the viewing angles are excellent, with no fading or colour loss as you tilt the screen away from you.
We also ditched our MP3 player to use the Xperia S for tunes. The bundled earphones are surprisingly good, actually producing full-bodied and static-free sound. They do an okay job of blocking out external noise and aren't leaky like Apple's efforts, so the entire bus won't know your secret love of Michael Buble. Unless you use the powerful built-in speaker, of course.
With 25GB of usable storage, you'll have plenty of space for your films and albums, although there's no memory card slot. Sony has also thrown in an HDMI cable, so you can show off your photos and movies on your big screen when your mates come around.
A dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm processor, coupled with 1GB of memory, powers the Xperia S. We're sure it'll provide all the rev you'll need for the duration of a two-year contract.
Sony has openly shrugged its shoulders at quad-core mobiles, saying the detrimental effect on battery life means it won't be producing these devices in 2012. We're happy with that verdict, as the Xperia S runs the latest games and apps without issue, and still lasts well over a day with near constant use. With NFC, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on, you'll get closer to 24 hours before the smartphone dies.
Our review model was running Android Gingerbread 2.3.7, but an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich is coming in Q2 according to Sony. We didn't mind, as Gingerbread with Sony's Xperia tweaks already looks good. The fluid wavy themes are slick as ever, adding a touch of class to your desktop, although we're still not a fan of the Timescape widget, which always takes ages to update. The PlayStation widget was also rubbish, again taking a lifetime to refresh and providing you with little more than the latest Sony news.
The 4.3-inch screen isn't just good for enjoying movies. We bashed out texts and emails in record time, and a handy setting lets you choose how often auto-correct kicks in – often, because you type so fast, or not at all. Browsing the web was also a pleasure. You can zoom in and out with a simple pinch as usual, and you don't get any kind of blur or stuttering you might see on other handsets.
If you take a lot of snaps on your phone, you'll immediately love the Xperia S. From hibernation, hold down the dedicated shutter button on the right edge and the camera starts up in around a second – perfect for those spontaneous shots. Auto-focus is similarly speedy, taking a second or two to lock onto your subject and make them razor-sharp. If the lighting conditions are good, your photo will take almost as soon as you hit the shutter button again.
Outdoor shots are sharp and boast realistic colours, as you can see from our test photos. We did encounter a couple of overexposed photos, but on the whole they came out well.
Here's a typical daylight scene
And some flowers to test the colour reproduction
Even in dim interiors we were impressed by the camera's capabilities. You'll often get away with not using the flash, as the lens takes a little longer to pull in as much light as possible, without blurring the shot. Low light shots occasionally appear grainy, but no worse than any other smartphone camera we've used. The shot below was taken in a darkened restaurant with flash.
You may not get the shutter-burst mode and other crazy features that the HTC One X sports, but you can shoot fantastic panoramas, and even capture your surroundings in glorious 3D (viewable only on a 3D TV, of course).
Here's the Panorama mode in action:
And we shot a short HD video using the camera.
Most of the phones we saw at MWC had NFC technology built in, but didn't really implement it in a useful way. If you're yet to experience the joys of NFC, it's basically a way of connecting wirelessly with other devices, similar to Bluetooth – not exciting in itself, but it means you'll soon use your smartphone to pay for items in shops, or get you through station barriers, simply by swiping it Oyster card-style.
The Xperia S has built-in NFC, but those clever chaps at Sony have come up with a practical use for it too. Bundled with your Xperia S are two little ‘smart tags', coin-sized chips that your phone can ‘read'. The idea is that you leave them in different places - for instance, one at home and one at work – and use them to adjust your mobile's settings without fiddling around with menus.
At home you might like your phone on top volume, with a photo of your kids as wallpaper. In the office you stick with vibrate notification, and a plain black background. Just tap your Xperia S on the relevant chip when you arrive and your profile's instantly updated. However, it doesn't stop there – swiping a chip can also load up specific webpages, play a song or open your favourite app.
The Xperia S comes with two tags and you can buy packs of four for £12 online. Check out our video of the Smart Tags in action.
Sony's first solo effort is a masterpiece, and a great way to enjoy movies, music, apps and the web. A sterling camera and desirable body round off an excellent Android mobile. We're already looking forward to checking out the rest of the Xperia family, the Xperia U and Xperia P.