It seems like nearly all the phone makers are doing it. Take the latest flagship release, add some welcome (but relatively minor) technical tweaks, slap an extra S on it and release to an adoring public not much more than six months after the original hit stores. Sony Ericsson's Xperia Arc is the latest (but certainly not the last) to undergo said refresh. The new Arc S appears identical on the surface, still carrying the stylish curvature that wooed us the first time round. Internally, most of the parts remain the same as its predecessor, aside from a bump to a new CPU, a 1.4GHz Qualcomm chip. Alongside the minor hardware change, this is the first Xperia handset arriving with Sony's 3D sweep panorama feature, capable of creating 3D stills for consumption on your compatible TV back home. Does the extra 400MHz make enough of a difference? Are sweeping panoramas enough to warrant a phone refresh at a time when dual-core, big-screened Android phones are the high-end standard? Read on to get the full picture.
Xperia Arc S
High-quality still camera
4.2-inch screen is a TFT wonder
New features are niche, bordering on gimmicky
Not enough here to recommend itself above the original Arc
The Xperia Arc S is a minor technical upgrade to the original Arc. Although the hardware here is still sound, there are better phones available if you're willing to pay just a little more.
It's a relief to see a stylish phone that's actually distinguishable from the mostly black oblongs we stare at each day.
The Xperia Arc S sticks with the convex profile, virtually identical to the smartphone that came before it. It's a relief to see a stylish phone that's actually distinguishable from the mostly black oblongs we stare at each day. Our model arrived in a white finish, which helps to a reinvigorate a phone design that's already done the rounds once. We did notice that the (slightly) flimsy backing seemed slightly more rigid on the refresh, though this could just be the fresh out-of-the-box condition. However an occasional creak does remain in the battery cover, a shame considering the more solid feel of its smaller stablemate, the Xperia Ray.
The power button, found on the top edge alongside the micro-HDMI port has slightly more give, but remains a little small for our tastes; that 4.2-inch screen (and additional over-sized bezel at the top) means our fingers felt overstretched pushing on the petite button. Though not a major issue when the original Arc arrived in stores, top-drawer Android specifications haven't stayed put, and the Xperia Arc S is still conspicuously lacking a front-facing camera. It's a bit of a mystery, given that Sony Ericsson had no issues packing one inside the lower-priced Xperia Neo. Sony Ericsson hasn't messed with the physical buttons either, another three slivers under the screen will send you back, home or to the menu, with those still lacking any back-lighting. Though it's not a deal-breaker, though you may have to wait for muscle memory to kick in and teach you which button does what in low light.
The 4.2-inch screen remains a formidable performer. Despite its LCD roots, Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine seems to perform minor miracles on the 854 x 480 display, with sharp detail and rich coloration. While its effects are limited to pictures and video, menus and icons still look rich, and blacks look black. With over four inches of space for your fingers, that's plenty of real estate to browse the web, play games and type on the stock keyboard. Sadly, tilting the screen shows up its limitations -- this isn't an IPS panel, and whilst we understand it's doing its best, nor can it stand up to the might of Super AMOLED plus.
Packing the Exmor R sensor, the eight megapixel camera performs just as admirably as when we tested it on the original back in March. Since then, software updates have added more customization options. To get to the photography meat, you'll need to switch off the automatic scene recognition mode, and you'll find the slide-out options on the left take a life of their own. Here, you can adjust to macro mode, or choose whether to use touch-to-focus or even multi-point focus. Metering and white balance can also be adjusted in the menu, and there are a handful of preset scene options that offer up some quick automatic settings for those not wanting to wrestle with ISOs and focus options. The Arc S also retains the two-stage camera button, something still not deemed a standard requirement despite the impressive optical chops of recent smartphones.
The phone is capable of 720p video capture and maintains good detail over distance, though the sensor still has issues with big moving objects, adding a shuttering 'tilt' to your video if the action gets a bit too intense. Given the zippier processor of the Xperia Arc S, we'd hoped it may have been enough to allow for 1080p, but that looks likely to remain the domain of dual-core phones.
With Android Gingerbread, you get a similar slice of Google to the Xperia Arc S' predecessor. Nudged up to Android 2.3.4, it also brings with it Sony Ericsson's Facebook layer, conveniently adding status updates, photos and more to your contacts that are linked to Facebook. There's also a screen grab function embedded into the power-off screen - a convenient time-saver that means we can now avoid more complicated third-party solutions. The web browser ably displays, scrolls and zooms on the 4.2-inch screen - shrugging off a bit of vigorous scrolling with no need to catch its breath.
The native keyboard has also gained an upgrade, with a distinctly Swype-ish typing function that can be switched on and off from the keyboard settings. "Swipe to write" works by picking up letters as you slide your finger from key to key, and taking your finger off the screen finishes the word. In action, it's pleasantly responsive, with a stylish highlighter trail mapping the letters on the screen. Sony Ericsson have also included a simpler keypad layout for those used to nine-key typing, a welcome addition to anyone finding those QWERTY keys just too small. While there are a handful of incremental changes, there's nothing major here that we hadn't seen on the original, aside from the pre-installed 3D sweep panorama, a feature proudly emblazoned on the back of the box.
Given the single lens, the camera actually doubles-up on itself to create the 3D effect, and you'll need to be in possession of your own 3D-capable screen; no parallax 3D screen here. But how does it look once you get it up on the big-screen? Well, it works -- to an extent. Sadly, the picture, similar to three-dimensional stills from those 3D-capable Android phones, stutters as it scrolls across your huge screen. Pictures also seem to lose some of their clarity in the process; and the camera sensor won't adjust to lighting differences (check out the brightness flare in the sample seen here) and due to the motion of "sweeping" your phone to capture, expect to see detail lost.
The panorama capture setting didn't like it when we scrolled too slow, but speed up too much, and it didn't like that either. Keeping up with the phone also means that you'll often get undulations on straight edges like buildings and roads - the only solution for this is a tripod. If you haven't bought into the three-dimensional revolution just, you may find the panorama sweep for 2D images just as useful - it's pre-installed, though it suffers the same juddering motions. We're skeptical that the feature will see much use outside of its first showing, and its arrival on all 2011 Xperia devices in a firmware update very soon -- not to mention the high chances of inclusion within Ice Cream Sandwich -- means its chance to differentiate the Arc S from its forebear is all but non-existent.
Whilst the newer phone consistently scored higher than the first, we were hard-pressed to notice any meaningful difference.
The improved processor makes itself known in several benchmark tests. Its Qudrant score bested the original Arc's by 200 points, while it notched an average score of 14.2 in Nenamark 2, up from 13.3 with the first-gen Arc. Whilst the newer phone consistently scored higher than the first, we were hard-pressed to notice any meaningful difference. As we noted, if you're prone to visiting graphically intense sites, or have an itchy scrolling finger, the Arc S is generally more than capable of keeping up with you. For media-streaming apps, the Arc S was also several seconds ahead of its ancestor, as were start-up times from off. Within the curved silhouette, Sony Ericsson have crammed in the same 1,500mAh battery found on the original Arc, and (despite the minor hardware and software changes), battery life seemed roughly equivalent. We managed to push six hours of non-stop video playback, and the phone also managed to last a day of standard use which included connecting several times to WiFi networks, occasional web browsing about two hours of music playback alongside push email and a medley of social network notifications. Using the phone's built-in battery monitor, we found that it was that rich Reality Display that was drawing on most of the battery and that toying with the brightness settings helped eke out a little more life from the dying cell. Call quality was superb, with due praise going to the secondary mic, which was able to cancel out a good chunk of ambient noise when making calls.
The Xperia Arc S is a very capable single-core smartphone and debuts alongside Sony Ericsson's latest Gingerbread retweaks. Sadly these don't add enough to recommend it much beyond the original Xperia Arc. The 3D Panorama Sweep may get an obligatory party-trick showing a handful of times, but it's difficult to imagine it'll be a regularly-used feature. In comparison to its predecessor, the upgraded CPU doesn't seem to give much of a boost to day-to-day use, aside from ever-so-slightly reduced (but by no means instant) start-up times and load times for streaming media. There's really not much here to push the Xperia Arc S beyond what we've seen on its predecessor-- this is even more true once that software upgrade hits the eight-month-old original. (Even rival phones that get upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade look likely to pick up a panoramic sweep option too.) Both the screen and camera remain the strongest weapons in the Xperia Arc S' arsenal, and priced beneath more powerful headliner smartphones, both the Arc and Arc S are very capable, attractive offerings. Yet, they can't stand toe-to-toe with the likes of rival flagship handsets like Samsung's Galaxy S II, which offers up a stronger combination of power, screen technology and build quality. The Xperia Arc S is now available in Europe, priced off-contract at £340 ($529). If Sony Ericsson are holding back on their own dual-core wonder, we'd advise they got around to getting it out here -- everyone's doing it.