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.
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
than they need to be. Too much space is allocated to other buttons like shift and backspace, which simply don't require it.