Review: Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc – Slim is In

SonyEricsson-Arc-overview

Sony Ericsson announced the Xperia Arc at CES back in January, which wowed the crowds with its slimness and style. Their last stab at the big and beautiful powerhouse Android smartphone was the Xperia X10, which launched with out-dated software and unappealing customizations. Since then, Sony Ericsson has dialled things back for the entry level with the X10 Mini, Mini Pro, and X8. After polishing up their social networking app (Timescape), Sony Ericsson is ready to take another shot at the upper-tier with the Xperia Arc.

It borrows a lot of the slick styling of its predecessor, includes all of the latest software, and keeps apace with the specifications bar set by the competition. The real question now remains: can the Arc bring Sony Ericsson back to being a solid option in top-of-the-line smartphones?

 

Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
Available from Rogers for $99.99 with 3-year contract

Specifications (Specs-sheet)

  • 4.3-inch Reality Display capacitive touchscreen FWVGA (854 x 480)
  • 1 GHz Snapdragon processor
  • 8 megapixel rear-facing Exmor R camera with LED Flash
  • HSPA 3G connection
  • 720p video capture
  • 1 GB of on-board memory
  • Wi-Fi (b/g/n) with DLNA and mobile hotspot
  • GPS (with compass)
  • microSD card slot (up to 32GB)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (with A2DP)
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Proximity sensor
  • Accelerometer
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack
  • Notification light
  • Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS

The Good

  • Excellent software customizations
  • Smooth performance
  • Slim, stylish design

The Bad

  • Screen flickers at low brightness
  • Screen and chrome siding lack toughness
  • Middling photo quality (though close-ups are great)

Hardware

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc boasts all of the specs you would expect from a top-tier smartphone, while cramming it all into a svelte package. The slim 8.7 mm profile is the most striking thing about the phone out of the box, but after booting it up, it’s clear that there’s significant horsepower underneath that pretty hood.

Design

The Arc definitely catches the eye in press photos and public alike. Like the X10, it’s designed with an excellent marriage of smooth curves and sharp lines. The LED indicator light is situated on the right side of the phone, which is a relatively unique positioning, and give the Arc at least one thing that physically sets it apart from the many other skinny big-touchscreen slate phones coming out. On the flip side, there’s the lack of a hardware search key, which is sorely missed in many applications.

Build Quality / Fit and Finish

Unfortunately, the materials don’t meet the premium quality you expect from the looks. I had been carrying the Xperia Arc with me alongside a BlackBerry Torch 9800 and a first-gen iPod touch throughout BlackBerry World last week, and though it was a bumpy ride, both of them handled the trip fine. The Arc didn’t however, and suffered quite a few dings in the screen from standard (albeit busy) day-to-day movement. You can make out some of the damage in the gallery below. The painted-on chrome along the outside of the device also felt like it wouldn’t withstand the test of time, and eventually chip, looking cheap and used.

It’s too bad about the construction, considering Sony Ericsson’s Xperia X1 kicked off the brand with such a great reputation for quality materials, but the issue isn’t insurmountable, so long as you’re willing to pack a case or screen protector on the Arc. Besides, I imagine the slim, light, and stylish design is more than enough of a draw for most folks.

Camera

By and large, the 8 megapixel camera on the Xperia Arc doesn’t feel particularly improved over the X10. It does get an honourable mention for the quality of close-up pictures (on par with the X10 Mini and Mini Pro), but detail is lost at longer distances and low-light without flash generally produces a lot of noise. Both still and video shots are generally good enough to share to Facebook, if nothing else. There are exposure options available to compensate for too much or too little light, which is nice, but in the end I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference in quality between something shot with the Arc’s 8 megapixel camera and a 5 megapixel camera on anything else.

Call Quality and Battery Life

As always with the big-screen Android devices, the built-in power management options are invaluable. Having a home screen widget that lets you easily toggle sync, GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth ensures that you can get through a full day of using the Xperia Arc. The 1500 mAh battery is listed as getting about 7 hours talk time and 400 hours standby, which just about lines up with my experience. Having sync on, screen brightness at a medium level, and regular usage will more or less guarantee the Arc is dead by bedtime.

I was lusing Rogers in Ottawa, Ontario, and only had one dropped call over a little over a week of usage. Audio came in good and loud, though the earpiece is a little small, and occasionally took some adjustment when taking a call to make sure I could hear the other side fine. Bluetooth is supported, in case you prefer to go the hands-free route, though the phone itself has a secondary microphone on the back to help cancel out ambient noise.. As usual, Android syncs up all of your contacts from the cloud, so phone numbers can be easily synced across services and devices.

Software

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and the core paradigms, like multiple home screens, a pull-down windowshade to access notifications, and user-peaceable home screen widgets are all there.  Like any manufacturer, Sony Ericsson has added their own flavour to Android with a variety of apps and core OS tweaks. I did three tests on each of the major benchmark apps on the Arc – here are the results:

  • Neocore – 58.6, 58.7, 59
  • Linpack – (32.696 MFLOPS, norm res 5.68, precision 2.22) (36.817, 5.68, 2.22) (36.898, 5.68, 2.22)
  • Quadrant – 1390, 1439, 1645

User Interface

The Xperia Arc wins major points in the UI department. As is standard with Android, you’ve got five home screens, which can be populated with apps, widgets, folders, and other shortcuts, with everything else tucked away from view in a hidden app menu at the bottom. The bottom of the screen also hosts icons for four apps of your choice, so you can easily access them regardless of which of the five home screens you’re on. What’s particularly nice about Sony Ericsson’s take on the full app menu is that you can sort by recently installed, most used, or stick with the default alphabetical.

Sony Ericsson’s UI customizations are really impressive in very subtle ways. Long-pressing a home screen widget to move it around gives it this really cool wobble effect, and even the trash bin at the bottom has a lot of character, sliding up, flipping open, and clanking shut when your widget gets sucked into it Ghostbusters style. Another way the Arc really nails user interaction is through their overview screen. Much like HTC’s handsets, you can pinch the screen to see all homescreens at once. The difference here is that Sony Ericsson simply shrinks the icons currently on screen, and drifts in the rest from the sides. That translation from off screen to on screen follows the exact speed and position of your pinch gesture, so you can slowly pull them on, then push them out a bit, then haul them back in. Toying with home screen widgets like an evil mastermind may be useless, but damn is it engaging.

Sony Ericsson’s signature Android app, Timescape, has seen a marked improvement since the X10, and now runs smoothly, and is extensible thanks to plug-ins for Linkedin and Foursquare. Even carriers can horn in on the action, with Rogers and Verizon pimping their wares in the ongoing feed. While Timescape isn’t good for much more than simply browsing social network updates, it fills that role exceptionally. Tapping updates launches into mobile sites rather than apps, but I see that as a good thing; dedicated official clients will update all the time, which would make it hard to stay connected with Timescape reliably. I would rather Sony Ericsson stick with the browser and stay out of trying to make their own Twitter or Facebook client since it would just end up competing with the official clients (as on HTC handsets).

Sony Ericsson also recently planted their flag in the official Android Market, which was a great spot to find Xperia-specific software. With it, I found out about cool new home screen contact widget that’s still in beta called life.contacts. It’s also where I got up to date on Timescape extensions, and was tempted to get a Liveview by the variety of custom-built apps that communicate with their watch accessory.

I always loved the customizability of Android, but I’ve found that given the amount of content available on Android these days, 5 home screens are very easy to fill up with quality widgets, even with folders to organize your most commonly-used apps. That being said, I’m really looking forward to spending some quality time with an Android tablet since there’s so much more screen real estate for widgets.

Keyboard

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc’s big screen makes for excellent landscape typing, though some may prefer the gesture-based keyboard from Swype since tapping accuracy is hard to guarantee while on the move. Cursor manipulation is particularly good, as the guide arrows are really wide, making for an easy target to tap. Still, it’s hard for me to give up the BlackBerry’s tried and true keyboard, but that may be an easy sacrifice to make for those more interested in consuming content rather than creating it.

Multimedia

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc hosts all of the amenities you’d expect from a top-tier smartphone when it comes to multimedia: 4.3-inch WVGA screen, HDMI-out, standard headphone jack, stereo Bluetooth support, and even some stuff that you might not traditionally see out of the box, like music ID, Wi-Fi media server thanks to DLNA, and FM radio for those into old-school wireless. One hidden feature that I didn’t get to try out was LiveWare; basically, it’s a software system to communicate with smart accessories, which for now only includes the Sony Ericsson LiveView, but there are already options there for headphones and speakers sitting in the LiveWare app. Sounds to me like a natural fit for Google’s new accessory initiative

One problem I had when listening to music was that my Bose in-ear headphones played back distorted audio unless I held down the in-line mic button. I’ve had that issue a few times with sources other than smartphones, but you’d think the Xperia Arc would be built with that kind of thing in mind. The lone speaker at the bottom of the phone isn’t something I’d want to listen to music through on a regular basis, but does the trick as a speakerphone. The native music player continues to push Sony Ericsson’s Infinity button, which basically just does a YouTube search for your song. SE’s been using this for awhile, and I still think it’s just confusing and a waste of screen real estate. At least they aren’t pushing it on contacts anymore.

On the video side of things, the big high resolution display and sharing to the TV over HDMI or Wi-Fi (DLNA) obviously gives the phone a decided advantage, but despite the prestigious Bravia branding, I didn’t find the screen to be particularly mind-blowing, and even found the screen to flicker as if on a slow refresh rate when set to low brightness. That wasn’t a problem generally speaking, since most days I had the thing set to at least middle levels, but when checking a few things in bed and in the dark, it was pretty clear. Regardless, the Xperia Arc handled a variety of video formats just fine, even Flash in the browser.

Is Slim Really In?

The Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc has a lot going for it in the looks department: it’s got an incredibly slim profile, a smooth user interface, and polished customizations. The build quality isn’t quite what I would like, especially considering the original handsets in the Xperia series, but the design can easily make up for that shortcoming. That being said, those who put style first will be able to unabashedly pick up an Xperia Arc and fit in fine with their more tech-oriented friends. Those who are heavy messagers will probably opt for something with a physical keyboard, but luckily for them SE will be producing an updated version of the X10 Mini Pro soon.

The Arc is certainly up there among the top Android phones available these days, and given the option, I’d take it over the Incredible S. The display and camera are good, but don’t let the Bravia Engine or Exmor R camera hype set your expectations too high. Oh, and get a screen protector if you’re thinking of picking one up at Rogers for $99.99 on a three-year contract.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jeff.thom Jeff Thom

    Could you tell me if it is possible to install FlexT9 on it? I’m looking a buying the Arc from Rogers but I would like to make sure the phone will work it FlexT9 for voice recognition. Thanks!

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      Sorry, I had to ship it back. I’m sure you could get a sales rep to let you try out a live unit and see if it’s available in the Arc’s Market.

      • Anonymous

        Everything below the first image links to that image. You might want to close your image insertion tag. :)

        In other news:
        After the x10 I swore off sony ericsson, now I’m not so sure anymore.

        • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

           Some back-end wonkiness going it, it seems. Thanks for spotting it, all fixed!

  • MazzStrikerz

    Hi, just a short note. The problem you have with your lose headphones is due to the fact that your in-line cable with Mic is made for the iphone pin layout. The contacts on the 3.5mm jack is different from the layout arc uses. Just switch the cable of your headphones with the ordinary cable without mic. You will realise how good the arc sounds. I love the sound quality of my arc.

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      I dunno, the headphones work fine with my laptop and BlackBerry Torch, and most phones that I review… If I was really in love with the Arc, I’d probably be willing to ditch my current headphones for a compatible set, but it’s not a sacrifice folks shouldn’t have to make.

  • MazzStrikerz

    **Bose headphones I mean

  • mech

     Is the blue backgroung changeable with other colors or photos?

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