Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc Review

It was just around two years ago that Sony Ericsson had the tech world at the edge of its seat when word of their first foray into the world of Android started trickling out. With every new leak we got glimpses of the handset that we know today as the Xperia X10. Touting a 1GHz Snapdragon Processor and 4 inch capacitive touchscreen these specs had every tech geek drooling and wondering when they could get one. Sadly though after a number of delays the X10 was eclipsed, spec wise, by other Android phones and most notably by the Nexus One which beat the X10 to the punch being the first 1GHz phone to be put out to market. Sony Ericsson did not let that deter them and in 2011 at CES announced the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc the follow up to the X10. In this review we will see if the Arc improves on the X10.

Overall Construction
Surprisingly, unlike its predecessor, the Arc was kept pretty much under wraps and out of the rumor mills until it's launch at CES. I believe this was a great thing for Sony Ericsson since the Arc's ultra thin construction really turned heads.

When I say this handset is thin, I mean this thing is REDICULOUSLY thin. At 8.7mm one starts to wonder where do all the internals go for this device. The thinnest point on the device is surprisingly in the middle, giving it some strange yet functional ergonomics. Unlike other phones the curve inwards to hug the users face during a call the face of the phone is flat while the back has the unique arc shape, paying homage to its name.

The overall design of the phone is simply amazing, in fact, I would go as far to say as it looks like a phone that should be on display in a museum. I am certain that a significant percentage of the sales of this devices will be solely attributed to the sheer sex appeal of the device alone. Much like the Motorola RAZR shocked the world with its thinness, the Arc has that same appeal.

Unfortunately, the materials used to put together this device aren't going to impress people looking for a little heft and more premium construction. The back plate used on the device is fully made of plastic with a glossy finish. While this allows it to visually appealing when clean, with regular use it catches so many fingerprints that calling it a fingerprint magnet would be doing it a favor. While I personally could tolerate this others will certainly be bothered by the need to wipe it down constantly. Of course this isn't a deal breaker since a case, which I imaging several people would be inclined to use, would alleviate the problem.

Nevertheless, the overall construction of the Arc is fantastic despite the plasticky feel. The device has surprisingly decent ergonomics for a such a thin device and felt pretty solid despite being extremely lightweight. Surely, Sony Ericsson could have used high end materials like aluminium, but weight was obviously a high priority for them.

Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc

With competing companies touting larger screens, various new screen technologies and sporting different resolutions Sony Ericsson had to step up with the Arc and step up they did. The Arc's 4.2 inch "reality Display" puts it in the same league as the "hummer" phones of the Android world like the EVO 4G, EVO 3D, Sensation, Desire HD, Galaxy S Infuse 4G and Galaxy S II.

At first glance, the front of the device looks like it is nothing but screen adding to the overall visual appeal of the phone. It is almost impossible to distinguish between the screen and what little bezel is found on the phone.

The Xperia Arc's 4.2 inch 480x854pixel LCD is visually a very good display. It delivers good color, contrast and viewing angles. Although the black levels don't seem to be as good as on competing devices such as the Galaxy S and the Incredible S. But I'd say it is better than on the Atrix 4G which with all due respect is a good screen itself.

Sony Ericsson learned a valuable lesson with the X10 where it launched the device with a touch sensor that could not detect more than two fingers and had limited multitouch capabilities patched in after their Android 2.1 update. This software solution suffered the same problems as earlier HTC devices that would often end up with reversed axis which could cause problems in certain applications.

The Arc unlike its predecessor has a natively multitouch capable digitizer that can detect up to 4 different touches. The sensor, in our tests, performed very well and were very accurate with few miss presses and the multitouch gestures worked great for browsing, pictures and for the homescreen.

For multimedia usage, the built in Bravia engine, is simply fantastic. Watching videos on the device itself is a fantastic experience. I don't have a TV to test the HDMI out capabilities of the phone but I assume the quality would be just as good if not better.

Somehow Sony Ericsson manages to pack in three of the usual Android buttons on the bottom of the front of the device which is almost all screen. The dominance of the screen presents an unfortunate issue can gets a bit annoying. The screen is so close to the buttons on the Arc that I would often would hit button on the screen when trying to hit the back or menu button. Without considering that issue, the phone has nice large buttons that require just the right amount of pressure.

The power button and the volume buttons were way too small, which was surprising considering the size of the Home Menu and Back buttons. The power button was also too flush with the phone making it a bit odd to turn on in some cases.

On the right hand side on the bottom of the device is a two stage camera button. The inclusion of a camera button is fantastic and should be on all Android devices. Unfortunately, it isn't that great of a button. It's far too small and takes an inordinate amount of effort to trigger the second stage. To put it simply we're glad it's included but wish it was better executed. It is possible that the thinness was a deterrent to making the button any larger so we will give Sony Ericsson the benefit of the doubt.

Battery Life
The 1500 mAh battery is about as middle of the road as you can get with an Android smartphone's battery capacity. That being said the battery is large enough to get the job done. A full day's usage was no problem even with a 4.2 inch screen sucking up most of the power.

Internal Hardware
At the time the X10 leaked out the specs were very ambitious and really fell short for various reasons. This time around the Arc has more tamed mainstream specs that probably allowed it to go under the radar, out of the rumor mills and more importantly escaped the delays that handicapped the X10.

- 1 GHz Qualcomm 2nd Generation Snapdragon Processor
- 512MB of RAM
- 1GB of Internal storage (320MB for apps) expandable with microSD card by up to 32GB
- Adreno 205 Graphic processor
- 14.4Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 8.1 MP Exmor R sensor camera with auto-focus and 720p HD video capabilities

If you're somewhat familiar with the hardware of high end Android phones from the past year, these spec will be strikingly familiar. You find very similar specs on the HTC Incredible S, HTC Desire HD, HTC Panache as well as the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play.

As with every other phone that uses the similar hardware performance has been comparable in regular usage such as navigating the OS, browsing, viewing pictures have all been a speedy and responsive experience.

As far as multimedia and gaming is concerned the Second Generation 1GHz Snapdragon processor and Adreno 205 GPU is an adequate combo. It will get the job done for most of your multimedia needs and will handle most of the games in the Android market.

Speaker and microphone
There isn't much to write home about as far as the speakers both internal and external are both status quo and par with most other phones in the same segment. The microphone was good and clear and made good use of the 2nd noise cancellation dedicated microphone.

Much has been made about the Arc's Exmor R sensor, and for good reason because the camera takes fantastic stills. In almost any lighting condition the Arc really does excel and takes fantastic photos in day shots, night shots, low light shots, you name it.

When tied in to Sony Ericsson's custom camera interface with various options, it makes for a very compelling package for the regular consumer.

Video quality unfortunately fell a bit short, considering how good the photos were it is a bit of a letdown. Nevertheless for the average consumer the 720p performance is more than satisfactory and will most likely please most buyers.

Unfortunately unlike the Xperia Play, the Arc does not have a Front Facing camera. While it's certainly sad not to have the option, it's understandable that it is not included given the challenges of cramming yet another camera in such a razor thin device.

Sample Pictures


Sony Ericsson's Custom UI
The Xperia Arc toned down ambitions were certainly seen in the hardware as they opted for a more mainstream set of hardware specs, perhaps allowing for fewer delays like the X10. This new philosophy seems to have permeated to the software as well since the Arc is running the latest Android build for smartphones Android 2.3 Gingerbread with fewer cosmetic UI changes than the X10.

Sony Ericsson seems to have taken a page out of Google's books and have gone ahead by decoupling a lot of the Sony Ericsson specific apps from the OS, namely Timescape. While much improved in this iteration it probably won't win over those who were turned off by it on the X10. Nevertheless, this will hopefully expedite the upgrade process for future iterations of Android on the Arc.

The blue-ish hues of the old X10 interface have made its way to the Arc's interface and overall adds some unity to the UI (as you can see from the screenshots below) by seeping into the crevices of the Stock Android UI. The menu background, browser, text selection, keyboard, music player, and other elements all sport a similar color scheme which is pleasant to see.

Much like other Android manufacturers the default scrolling page of apps is out and the swiping of "pages" of apps both left and right is in. One nice touch that Sony Ericsson added was various options with which to sort the apps. From "Own order" to "Alphabetical" to "Most used" and finally "Recently installed" these options add a nice layer of customization to an otherwise boring app drawer.

On the bottom on the homescreen the App Drawer button is flanked by not two but four customizable buttons. Allowing users to put whatever shortcut they want is certainly a nice touch and again add a nice layer of customization.

As mentioned earlier Sony Ericsson has gone ahead and decoupled a lot of apps that used to be tightly integrated with the OS in previous versions. Now if one wanted to use a specific version of the Timescape app they would obtain it via the "Sony Ericsson" section in the Android Market.

Being a carrier subsidized phone, you will find the usual offering of carrier branded "bloatware" and in the Arc's case Rogers has included their usual bevy of pre-loaded apps. While most aren't particularly useful the only app I could see myself using is the My Account app and we're glad it's included.


Mobile Bravia Engine
While from face value the Mobile Bravia Engine seems like a load of marketing "magic", in reality it's certainly not the case. Mobile Bravia Engine doesn't kick in until you look at pictures or view videos and it makes a HUGE difference. When consuming any multimedia content colors were vibrant and images and video were crisp and detailed.

Where other manufacturer have touted great hardware to improve multimedia experiences, Sony Ericsson goes off the beaten path by offering great software improvements, and those improvements certainly show.

The Xperia Arc is, without a doubt, an overall well rounded phone with a very daring and unique physical appearance. But while it stands out in Rogers' Android lineup it's hard to say whether it's worthy of being that flagship device that has geeks and tech enthusiasts foaming at the mouth as it is in a tough spot against phones like the Atrix 4G, Sensation or Galaxy S II.

Regardless of its middle of the road hardware, the Arc's curves, thinness and overall design will surely win over many of the mainstream consumers who don't need the most bleeding edge specs and will in all likelihood deliver them a good experience. With the upcoming arrival of the EVO 3D and Optimus 3D to Rogers the Arc will slip down from being a flagship device to being the best choice for the "high end" spectrum of the mid level priced smartphones in Roger's lineup.

It is a worthy successor to the X10 and surpasses it in EVERY away. It's clear that Sony Ericsson took many of the lessons learned with the X10 and applied them to the Arc. With this steady improvement on both hardware and software, I'm personally excited to see what's next for Sony Ericsson.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9 /10
- If only it was made of more premium materials even at the cost of weight, it could have score a perfect score. Even a matte finish to the back rather than glossy would have made a huge difference.

Screen: 7.5/10
- While it isn't a Super-(insert screen technology name here) screen, it still holds its own and at 4.2 inches it will certainly turn heads.

Buttons: 7/10
- Good Android buttons, tiny power button that was too flush with phone, camera button was small and a bit frustrating to use and volume rocker could have been a bit longer.

Internal Hardware: 8/10
- It isn't top of the line hardware, and is easily overshadowed by the Dual Core craze. Still is solid for all around use and really will fit the needs of the majority of people.

Speaker and Microphone: 8/10
- Good speaker, microphone and external speaker

Camera: 8.5/10
- Fantastic stills, left me wanting more in terms of video capture

UI Changes: 8/10
- Great job launching with the latest version Android 2.3 and UI modification less obtrusive

Addition Enhancements: 9/10
- Mobile Bravia Engine is simply awesome

Included Apps/Bloatware: 6.5/10
- Several Rogers apps pre-loaded and cannot be uninstalled

Final Score: 8.0/10

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