Once in a while I like to dip my toes in unfamiliar waters. Lots have changed since the last real Android device I played with, a HTC G1. It was the first Android phone more than two years ago. To see how Windows Phone’s competition is fairing today, I got my hands on one of the latest 2011 model Androids, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S.
This is the successor to the Xperia Arc from just 6 months ago. The “S” might stand for speed as the only notable differences is the 1.4ghz CPU, over the previous 1.0ghz. Since Androids seems to have a thirst for CPU cycles, this can only be a good thing.
Hardware build: A bit jealous.
Straight out of the box, the Arc S feels as slick as it looks. At 8.7mm thick and 117grams, it’s a slice off the Samsung Omnia 7 Windows Phone which is 11mm and 138grams respectively. Even the much adored Nokia Lumia 800 is slightly bulkier at 12.1mm and 124grams.
Hardware buttons: Not jealous.
It appears the same diet the Sony Ericsson designers applied to the hardware casing was also applied to the power and camera buttons because they’re unhealthily anorexic. Not only are they too small but they barely extrude from the casing. In the case of the two-stage camera button, it’s a nightmare to hold and press to quick activate the camera app.
Hardware extensibility: Jealous.
Besides supporting the latest hardware and connectivity standards, one of Android’s strong points has always been hardware differentiation and the Arc S is no exception. With it’s Sony association, it boasts native HDMI output capability that not only mirrors the display but also displays high definition content for media content like photos and video. Great for sharing high quality photos taken straight from the phone.
In addition, the phone also supports ANT+ connectivity which is used in some new-generation fitness equipment to monitor data outputs wirelessly.
HD Voice (wideband audio): Super jealous.
Telstra in Australia recently enabled HD Voice making them the largest mobile network in the world now to support the new wideband audio technology. The Xperia Arc S is one of the few phones that support this.
Upon testing it with another fellow HD Voice user, the difference was phenomenal. Not only is the voice clarity like the transition to high-definition video, it’s also far better at reducing background noise. It’s like having a high-quality Skype call at the convenient of just a normal call.
Apparently the Samsung Omnia 7 sold by Orange in the UK supports HD Voice but I haven’t heard this for any other device or carrier.
Camera features: Jealous.
The Arc S has a f/2.4 aperture lens, the same wide-aperture featured on the new iPhone 4S which allows for much better low-light and depth-of-field photos, like above. Having said that, some of the 2nd-generation Windows Phones have an improved if not better aperture, for example f/2.2 Carl Zeiss on the Nokia Lumia 800.
The custom camera app in the Arc S comes a smile detection mode that automatically takes a photo when it detects people smiling and sweep panorama which makes panoramas in one continuous shot. Although these might seem gimmicky, both actually works really well.
Android 2.3: Not jealous.
Recently, there’s been many good posts surrounding why the Android UI performance is sub-par to iOS or Windows Phone. This couldn’t be more true after using Windows Phone full-time. Although Android has made improvements in this area over several versions, there’s enough momentary freezes and unresponsive keyboard touches to annoy you.
Since Sony Ericsson has cemented plans to make available the Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 update to all Xperia Arc and Arc S owners in early 2012, it’ll be worth watching if the user experience improves much for existing hardware owners.
Bundled/third-party software: Not jealous.
If first impressions mean anything, the first thing I saw when I booted the phone for the first time was a prompt from “McAfee Security”. Like most Android phones today, the Arc S comes with a selection of OEM and carrier apps that either customizes the default Android apps or adds additional functionality. Some of these are useful, most are not.
An example of a bundled app I actually found useful was the Sony-customized radio app. In this, they added their proprietary TrackID music matching service which identifies songs played on FM radio with a single tap. Unfortunately the same usefulness wasn’t true to the other dozen or so trialware.
Sony Ericsson also took it upon themselves to develop a Timescape widget which aggregates friends and messages from social networks in a carousel on the home screen. Coming from Windows Phone, this actually reminds me a little of the People hub.
What I found interesting was that it was extensible by third-parties. Some of the extensions available adds additional content from the likes of YouTube, Foursquare, Google Reader and news outlets.
In conclusion, it’s nice to see Android phones doing what they do best, differentiate themselves through compelling hardware. The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S is a pretty solid Android device with some features worth boasting about. Amidst its issues, I’m hopeful Android ICS can deliver some of the improvements the platform needs. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.