With the Sony Ericsson name now a thing of the past, Sony's new range of Xperia handsets is aiming for greater integration with the PlayStation and its related online services. The Xperia S is the top of the tree, and comes with stonking screen, 12MP camera and a host of other tricks.
It's a good-sized handful at 128x64x11mm and 144g, and is clad in tactile rubberised plastic. The 4.3-inch screen offers an impressively sharp 1280x720 pixels and it includes Sony's Bravia Engine colour processing technology to bring out the best in video.
Three Android controls (back, home and menu) are laid out on a touch-sensitive strip beneath the screen. This isn't quite as sensitive as you might expect, and sometimes took a couple of presses to activate. Beneath that is a luminous strip which is common across all the new Xperias.
It's packing a dated Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread, which comes as a bit of a surprise, though Sony promises an upgrade to 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in the spring. It's fast too, with a 1.5GHz dual-core processor backed by 1GB RAM.
Sony has tweaked the Xperia interface a little, so widgets like Timescape now look a little different (it's lost the tiles and is now a scrollable list of your social network and message updates).
Camera and features
The 12.1-megapixel camera is a bit of a star with Sony's Exmor R for mobile CMOS sensor, LED flash and autofocus. It also has Face Recognition and Smile Shutter, plus it's ready to go in a blisteringly fast 1.5 seconds. Picture quality is impressively sharp and detailed too, with video recording up to 1080p. There's a generous 32GB of memory on board though there's no microSD card slot to expand it any further. You can however add 50GB of cloud-based storage using the free Box app from the Android Market.
Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited tap into the increasingly vast Sony Entertainment Network online offering, and offer media streaming and downloads. Music has 15 million tracks on tap and you can have them all for £3.99 a month (or £9.99 for the Premium version, which gives you unlimited playback and a few other goodies). There's a 30-day free trial for new members too, though you'll need to hand over your credit card details.
Video is strictly a pay-as-you-go affair though, and once you've got your videos you can view them in hi-res on your TV using the supplied HDMI cable or wirelessly via DLNA over your Wi-Fi network.
Software and performance
New from Sony are Smart Tags, clever little discs small enough to fit on a key fob which use NFC (Near Field Communication) to activate settings on your phone. You brush the back of the handset against one, feel the vibration, and your phone will adopt whatever settings you've programmed into the disc. So when you get home, it might automatically switch on your Wi-Fi connection and open your remote control app. In the car it might activate your Bluetooth and fire up your satnav. It can't do compound settings however, so while it can open your music player, you can't set it to play a specific track.
Some networks are bundling the tags with the phone, or you can buy them separately -- about a tenner for a pack of four. It's a neat trick and genuinely useful, but you do need to have your NFC turned on all the time to take advantage of the convenience, and that will take its toll on your battery.
Great fun though the phone is, and a joy to use, all these functions take their toll on the battery and we struggled to get a full day out of it.
The Sony Xperia S is a beautiful high-end smartphone at a mid-range price and offers a neat break with the Sony Ericsson brand. Integration with Sony's cloud infrastructure makes perfect sense and both screen and camera are exemplary. The Smart Tag trick is a nice touch too. It's a great Android alternative to the iPhone 4S.