Not every smartphone needs to be a Samsung Galaxy S II. There's plenty of room in the market for a reliable workhorse that delivers smooth productivity and media without maxing out your credit limit. The Xperia Neo aspires to precisely this grounded ambition, selling for £320 ($515) off-contract in the UK (or free on contract from £20 per month), versus £400 ($650) for its bigger-screened sibling, the Xperia Arc. For the money, you'll get a Gingerbread handset with a 1GHz Qualcomm MSM8255 processor, 8 megapixel camera, and a 3.7-inch (854x480) display. The Neo rides a not-so-fine line -- it can be a trusty companion at best, or a cause of daily teeth-grinding at worst. Let's find out why.
Gallery | 24 Photos

Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo review






Hardware


There are plenty of well-built plastic smartphones on the market, but the Neo feels slightly more chintzy than most. This is partly due to the degree of flex in the back and sides, which can cause audible creaks when you grip the handset with any force. This was an issue at first, but the general adequateness of the build quality overcame our qualms after a couple of days of use.


The handset has a relatively flabby 13mm (0.5-inch) waistline, and we suspect this is one of the more serious comprises Sony Ericsson felt it had to make in order to hit its desired price point. By comparison, the Xperia Arc (compared in the photo below) is vastly thinner and more beautiful. On the other hand, the Neo's chubbiness is largely offset by the pleasant 126g (4.44oz) weight and the narrowness of the device -- it's just 57mm (2.3-inches) wide and fits nicely in the hand and in the pocket (although, as we'll explain in a moment, this narrowness can also be annoying). It's also worth pointing out that we didn't feel compelled to wrap the Neo up in a protective case -- something which can't be said of many slimmer phones that have to be bulked out with an extra layer.


If the Neo had a motto, it might be the tried-and-tested "under-promise, over-deliver." People just love to be pleasantly surprised, and that is exactly how we felt playing with the Neo's tactile buttons. These include back, home and menu buttons on the front (no search button, but we didn't miss it a great deal), and power/lock button, camera launcher and volume rocker on the side. The slightly excessive plastic-posing-as-chrome finish of the buttons initially called to mind a KIRF portable DVD player we used to own, and though we can't necessarily vouch for their longevity after just a week's use, they nevertheless felt solid, with virtually no wobble, looseness or obstinacy. Also, there's a couple of tiny lights between the front buttons, which serve no apparent function, but do help to mitigate the sense of cheapness.


If there's one area where the build quality will let you down, it's on the back side. Peeling off the rear cover exposes a MicroSD slot so poorly thought-out that the only way to remove the card is to loosen it from its slot and then turn the phone upside down and literally shake it out into your hand. This is not a fun thing to do when you're on the move and in a hurry. Likewise, the neighboring SIM card holder is just a plastic slot with no metal grips, and twice we had to jam our SIM in further and restart the phone to get it to register. Sony Ericsson knows how to make proper slots -- the Arc has them -- but they haven't managed to do that here. Fortunately though, SE has been generous enough to supply an 8GB Micro SD card (expandable to 32GB), to complement the 512MB of system RAM and 320MB ROM.

The Neo has all the 2G and 3G bands needed to work around the world, including HSDPA 850, 900, 1900 and 2100. Reception in London was generally reliable on Three. The network has plenty of dead spots, particularly indoors, but the Neo's reception bars give you an accurate reflection of this, and it's possible to make decent calls on just a single bar.


Performance

The Neo shares its 1GHz processor with the Xperia Arc, which we've already reviewed in depth. There's no need for another detailed examination here, so suffice it to say that the engine will handle everyday tasks, apps and multitasking with aplomb. You'll sometimes notice a slight pause when switching between home screens or pressing the home button in certain apps, but it doesn't grate much. For the most part, you'll be able to video chat on Skype, take photo notes in Evernote and scroll Spotify playlists without issue. Likewise, the browser rendered pages quickly and smoothly. YouTube and Flash videos give us nothing to complain about, and the media player renders playlists and album covers quickly too. For the most part, the battery let us do all these things all day without dying -- but we rarely had more than a few drops of power to spare at the end of the day.

There is one big exception to the Neo's all-round efficiency. A cold boot often took 80-120 seconds, with the majority of those seconds spent on the lifeless first logo screen with no evidence of progress. Each tick of the clock makes you wonder if it's crashed, and every muttered "Mississippi" recalls other phones you've owned that booted in a quarter of the time. In fact, 80 seconds is plenty long enough for us to undergo complete ideological shifts; to evolve from liberal to conservative and vice versa on a broad range of current issues, so that by the time we finally arrive at the unlock screen we are a completely different person from when we initially pressed the power button.


Keyboard and display

Sony Ericsson makes a big deal about its Bravia Engine, which is meant to automatically adjust colors, contrast, noise reduction and sharpness to improve the quality of still photos and videos on the LED-backlit LCD. A lot of this may just be marketing babble, but that doesn't stop the 854x480 screen from being colorful and vivid, especially when playing videos. There are some things we don't like about the screen, but we could dock many other phones for the same flaws: the maximum brightness isn't quite high enough, viewing angles are about average, and the screen isn't great outdoors compared to, say, Super AMOLED Plus.


The only major downside of the screen is the size, which may make typing in portrait mode harder for some people. The screen is 3.7-inches along the diagonal with a 16:9 aspect ratio, resulting in a edge-to-edge width of slightly under 1.8-inches. Even after a solid week of use we continued to make numerous errors on the long, thin keys in portrait mode, largely because they're even longer and thinner than they need to be. Too much space is allocated to other buttons like shift and backspace, which simply don't require it.
Gallery | 13 Photos

Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo sample shots


Camera


First off, the camera is extremely responsive. The dedicated camera button only needs to be held for a second to quickly load up the app and be ready to shoot in a couple of seconds. Press the shutter and it finds its focus, adjusts exposure and activates the flash (if necessary) in around a second. The phone is also blazingly quick to begin video recording.


Our 720p shots looked delicious on the phone's screen, and also when watched within a small-ish window on a PC: vivid colors, plenty of detail and no evidence of ghosting. However, things weren't so sparkly when we plugged the phone into our 32-inch TV using the supplied HDMI cable. At that size we really noticed the absence of image stabilization, as well as the high level of compression and an over-saturation of colors.


The Xperia's camera also has smart auto-exposure. We found it to be consistently correct in its decisions about which subject needed to be properly exposed, and it often found the right type of compromise in high contrast scenes. For the sake of comparison, shots that seem slightly underexposed on the iPhone 4 tended to come out bright and vibrant on the Neo -- at least when viewed on the phone's LCD.

Regrettably, there is a serious flip side to all this. Once you've taken a picture, it just doesn't look as natural and rich as an iPhone 4 photo. We're using the iPhone 4 for comparison here not because it's the best camera on the market (the Galaxy S II and Nokia's recent handsets are arguably better), but because it achieves a lot with a relatively low 5MP resolution. In contrast, the Neo has the same 8MP Exmor R sensor that impressed us on the Arc, but it's severely let down by the image processing. The Neo compresses all photos down to a measly 1MB (usually somewhere between 900KB and 1.3MB). Meanwhile, the iPhone stores images with much less compression, with a file size of around 1.7MB, so pictures look a heck of a lot better even though they are lower-res.


The native Android camera app, as seen on the Nexus S for example, allows you to adjust the degree of compression, but that option is simply missing on the Neo's camera app. Also, when you want to share a photo by email, the iPhone gives you four different size options, whereas the Neo always emails out at 1MB. High compression may be forgivable with video, but less so with stills, so this is a serious flaw. Sony Ericsson could fix this over the air -- and we'll certainly update this review if they do.


A quick disclaimer when looking at the Neo/ iPhone 4 comparison: there are a lot of variables at play here. For a start, focus might have been better on the iPhone 4 by pure chance, and you also have to factor in that all images have been re-processed when uploading to this site. There's also the argument that the iPhone 4 sometimes over-saturates in order to make images artificially more pleasing -- which is what might be happening with the billiard table above. And, of course, we're largely looking at the effects of compression here, rather than just the respective quality of each lens or sensor. The camera hardware in the Neo is extremely promising -- it's just the software that is at fault. We're quietly harboring the hypothesis that Sony Ericsson deliberately hobbled the camera in this way in order to push the more expensive Arc. If that's the case, then it's despicable -- and Sony Ericsson really ought to put out a fix.

Software


Aside from the camera app, Sony Ericsson hasn't fiddled around a great deal with Android 2.3.3 on the Neo. That's no bad thing, as it's a zippy and uncomplicated OS. But one area where Sony has decided to add their own twist is social networking, in the form of Facebook contacts integration and the TimeScape widget, which aggregates your incoming SMS messages, Tweets and Facebook updates.


When you link your Facebook account, the phone populates your contacts with Facebook contacts, allowing you to see their picture, email, photos and likes. However, unless a FB contact exactly matches an existing contact, they won't be merged, and there's no option to merge them later, which seems like an oversight. (Update: turns out this was our oversight -- you can merge individual FB and non-FB contacts by long-pressing them.)

The TimeScape widget collects social networking messages into a vertically scrolling central column, which you can set to update manually or automatically (at the expense of battery life and data usage). Each message is marked with the original sender's name, as well as his or her profile picture. You also get an indication of how old the event is, plus a couple of buttons -- one to reply using the appropriate platform, and one to filter other communications from that person. Serious social networkers might find the widget limiting, but they can also junk it and use dedicated apps.


Wrap-up


So, how worthy is the Xperia Neo? That all depends on how you plan to use it. If you look to a smartphone as a relatively basic, all-in-one communication tool, and you do a lot of old-fashioned stuff with it (like phoning people) then you'll find a lot to like about the Neo. The price is attractive, as is the fact that you don't have to worry too much about scratching the plastic case or bulking it out with military-grade sleeves. The hobbled camera won't be too much of an issue for you either, because you'll mostly create and consume all your media on the device itself, rather than use the phone to replace your point-and-shoot camera. On the other hand, you'll have to contend with a ridiculously slow boot-up time, and a keyboard that will often hinder your ability to bash out decently spelled messages on the fly (although there are admittedly ppl out there who wont care.) If you can look past those flaws, then you and the Neo could make a happy couple. You have our blessing.
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Sony Ericsson

Xperia Neo

Pros

  • Decent build quality
  • Vibrant screen
  • Mostly vanilla Android

Cons

  • Two-minute boot time
  • Native camera app over-compresses images
  • Hard to type accurately, especially in portrait
Summary

Google+ app for iPhone now available