Review

Review: Sharp Aquos SH-12C 3D Android phone

Currently on the market there are two major 3D phone players: the HTC EVO 3D and the LG Optimus 3D, both laden with dual cameras and autostereoscopic displays. However when you head over to Japan, a third option becomes available – the Sharp Aquos SH-12C; a little known 3D-capable device, powered by Android and also available for import into Western countries.

Thanks to our good friends at MobiCity we can take a look at how well the Aquos SH-12C fares in a western environment, how well the dual 8 megapixel rear cameras function, how novel having a 3D display and what it’s like to use a 3D phone from another region.

Specifications

The MobiCity specifications page was a bit light-on with the specifications for the Aquos, however we did manage to dig up what is contained inside the device.

  Sharp Aquos SH-12C
Product Codes SH-12C
GSM Bands 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
3G Bands HSDPA 900 / 2100
Display 4.2-inch 540x960 (qHD) LCD
Autostereoscopic 3D parallax barrier technology
5-point capacitive multi-touch
Processor 1.4 GHz single-core Scorpion CPU
Qualcomm MSM8255T chipset
Graphics Adreno 205
RAM 512 MB
Storage 1 GB user application space
2 GB included microSD (Class 6)
microSD expansion slot
Connectivity WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP
A-GPS
Infrared
Camera Dual 8 MP rear cameras with autofocus and LED flash
3D photography
VGA front
720p video recording (rear) (2D & 3D)
VGA video recording (front)
Ports MicroUSB (charging, data)
3.5mm audio jack
Mini-HDMI
Sensors Accelerometer
Gyro sensor
Magnetometer
Light sensor
Proximity sensor
Battery Li-ion 1,240 mAh removable
Launch OS Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread
Sharp Tapflow UI
Launch Date May 2011 (Japan)
Size & Weight 127 × 64 × 11.9 mm
138g

The standout feature of the Aquos here would have to be both the 4.2” qHD 3D display and the dual 8-megapixel cameras which best both the EVO 3D and Optimus 3D and their 5 MP offerings. We were a bit disappointed to discover that there is only a single-core inside the device, but at 1.4 GHz with 512 MB of RAM it should hopefully be plenty.

The SH-12C does come with the correct 3G bands for Europe and Australia (900/2100), however the 1seg TV tuner that is also present in the device is completely useless. Luckily there is also an English option (enabled out of the box).

Design

We’re having mixed feelings about the design of the SH-12C. The front is, of course, dominated by the 4.2” display with sensors, speakers, small front camera and branding (NTT DoCoMo for a change) all around, however the front buttons are the issue. Being clear, raised plastic, they look and feel cheap and degrade the front design. A bonus though is the well placed LED status light, which is just the right size and brightness not to be distracting.

The button and port layout on the sides of the device is somewhat strange. To the top left you have the small, perhaps too small, power button; to the right and fairly low down are the volume buttons, search button (an unusual placement) and a large two-stage camera button. On the bottom and hidden behind a plastic cover is the microUSB port and to the top is a mini-HDMI port with 3.5mm headphone jack.

First off, the power button is simply too high to be comfortable. If it was around a centimeter lower, it would fit perfectly for both the left and right hands and would be effectively in the same place as the Galaxy S but on the opposite side of the device; currently it’s only good if you hold the device in your left hand. Second, the volume buttons are too low to reach comfortably and should be 3cm higher. Surprisingly though, the infrequently used search button seems to be at home on the side.

Now to the back of the device, which is dominated by the dual cameras for 3D imagery; again here the clear-plastic surround looks cheap and is raised just slightly too high from the body design. Above that is both an LED flash and an infrared port. Yes, in Japan they must still need infrared on their phones. Below the cameras is the speaker grill. Also you’ll notice the extendable 1seg TV antenna on the top side, which as we mentioned earlier is useless everywhere but Japan.

The overall shape of the Aquos is actually quite nice, with a square-plus-curved look that reminds us of a slightly more curved Xperia X10. The device is quite large in the hand, but is not uncomfortable or too thick and if the side button placements were adjusted it would be a great design.

The Display and 3D Effect

There is no doubting the fact that the screen on the SH-12C is absolutely stunning. Not only do you get a 4.2-inch display, you also get a qHD (540x960) resolution alongside the autosteroscopic parallax barrier technology that powers the glasses-free 3D effect. Before we dive into the 3D area, we’ll touch briefly on how it performs in 2D scenarios.

As the device has a qHD display, you are left with much easier to read text in applications and webpages, crisper photos, graphics and less visible pixels to the eye – which is why many new high-end smartphones are adopting the higher resolution display in their devices. As we noted in our HTC Sensation review, the browser benefits the most from the increased resolution, with the most zoomed out text becoming readable where a WVGA display would simply be a blur.

The display also has a great color balance, and while it doesn’t manage to outdo the Super AMOLED in terms of color vibrancy or black levels, whites certainly look great (and actually white) and black levels are good enough. The brightness of the display is also very good, with the screen being easily visible under direct sunlight.

The real stunner with the Aquos is by far the 3D effect given by the autostereoscopic display, which uses a parallax barrier to display images simultaneously to both eyes without the use of polarized lenses or shutter glasses. The 3D effect can be enabled disabled by software, and is very similar to that of the 3DS’ display.

At first, looking at a 3D image in the phone is quite a shock; it feels unnatural to see a 3D image on what was a 2D flat area. The effect is certainly very cool to look at and visually pleasing once your eyes and brain have adjusted to looking at your display properly. The 3D effect can be both going into and coming out of the display, and both look fantastic on the SH-12C.

It’s quite novel and for the time being a different feel on a mobile phone, and it certainly is a cool effect to show to your friends. At first we were sceptical of how well 3D could be pulled off on such a small (compared to a movie–sized) display, but we were surprised at how well it works and how great a 3D image can look without the need for glasses.

Of course with the parallax barrier technology used there are some downsides as to how it is displayed. A major one is the viewing angles, which require you to be pretty much directly in front of the display to see the 3D effect. Another is that the horizontal pixel count is halved when the 3D effect is enabled, as the parallax barrier must block a portion of the screen to show the correct pixels to each eye. This gives the display an interlaced feel (see below) and degrades what usually is a crisp picture.

The final issue we found was the eye fatigue that can be caused from two things: a misaligned 3D image caused by an uncalibrated 3D camera; and a strong 3D image that pops out quite far from the display or has a varied 3D range. Both these things can cause just a bit too much strain on the eyes, and at worst can cause minor headaches as we experienced while attempting to use the camera without properly calibrating it.

3D is undoubtedly a very cool effect to have on a phone, and we’re sure we’ll be seeing more devices adopting the technology to enhance the realism of photos and add extra depth to interfaces and games. For all the benefits though, the parallax barrier technology is not the best for displaying a 3D image, and while it is the only feasible glasses-free solution we’ll just have to wear the downsides.

Software

The software powering the SH-12C is Android 2.3.3 “Gingerbread” with a Sharp custom home launcher and some custom applications. Little skinning of included applications has occurred, so items such as the browser, messaging, calendar and so forth remain identical, but some applications have been replaced entirely. We’ll be looking at these below.

The home application is quite good, with the ability to turn the interface 3D via the simple press of a button. If you have a 2D wallpaper this moves the wallpaper into the screen, and if you have a 3D wallpaper it obviously makes it 3D. Rotating the phone in either mode gives you a 3D quick launcher with two screens of five applications and a moving 3D background. To save battery you’ll probably keep it in 2D mode a lot, but 3D is certainly very cool.

With the home launcher you can add and remove homescreens similar to Samsung’s TouchWiz via the press of a button; you can add up to 10 if you need. Pressing the dots along the bottom displays a window preview, and the docked icons below than can be replaced and added to (up to 10 apps fit in the sliding dock which was a welcome surprise). Along the bottom to the left is the app draw launcher and to the right is the application manager that also comes up when you hold the home button. From here you can switch applications and also kill them if necessary.

The app drawer is a horizontal-slide layout which contains different sections (all customizable) for different needs. For example by default, all media related apps are in the “Camera/AV” section and tools in “Tool”; while we prefer a vertical scroll this layout can be very handy for organization. We’ll also mention the notification pane here, which we think is fantastic – you get quick power options, some quick settings at the bottom as well as larger status icons that show battery percentage and data status.

The lockscreen is also worth a mention. We really like the overall layout with the smooth animation of the lock with a key when you swipe up to unlock. The clock and date are easily visible and the font is really nice, in fact we wish we could have this lockscreen on some other devices. Unfortunately it’s only a basic function lockscreen, so you get no music controls, no message notifications or any quick app icons like with HTC Sense.

On to the included applications and two critical ones are the dialer and contacts apps. The custom Sharp Phone application is very easy to use, although we can’t say the same for the contacts application. Contacts are sorted by tabs at the top, all of which include some sort of Japanese character and show no contacts. Putting the Address Book into groups mode then going to Google contacts shows the contacts, however they’re in an unordered list. Contacts themselves have a random shadow background of a person usually of the wrong gender and scrolling is slow. Simply put, the Address Book is horrible.

We’ll touch on the Camera/Video Camera apps in the Camera section later, but what we found interesting here is that Sharp has included two picture viewing apps. You have the stock Google Gallery 3D app (called just Gallery) and there’s also the Aquos-specific Picture (3D-capable) app. It’s not a pretty name, however the gallery itself looks great with the random size grid layout and cool folder views; plus it also views 3D photos where the Gallery app does not. Unfortunately each time you open the app it needs to load for around three seconds, which really slows down quick photo viewing, but otherwise it’s a fairly good application.

Also included are two media-playing applications. One called MusicPlayer seems to be a Sharp-created application to play music, and it’s visually very appealing. We only have two gripes with it: when you’re in song view it can scroll very slowly as it tries to load and show hundreds of songs’ album art; second is that it each time you close the app it unselects randomize if you previously selected it. This music player also allows for lyrics, although we couldn’t get any to display despite having them in the song tags.

The other media player app is SH m2U (no idea what that means). The music playback interface is quite bad so we recommend using the MusicPlayer app for that, but it does have support for videos where the other one does not. SH m2U also has this “Service” area where you can view music videos and internet radio, but naturally it’s all in Japanese with Japanese artists. As a quick mention you also get the Built-in 3D app which includes four 3D short videos to show off the display.

There are a few other notable applications on the SH-12C: the YouTube app allows you to watch 3D videos glasses-free; there is a full pedometer app which counts your steps, calories burned and more; there’s a 3D fish tank dock-mode app; the Clock app is very nice to use and there’s an included scanner (called Camera Reader) that even scans business cards and translates English to Japanese in real time. Also included are 3rd party apps Evernote and Documents to Go (free).

Finally worth a mention is the VeilView application, which utilizes the parallax barrier to display a pattern on the screen at a certain angle so people sitting next to you cannot see what you are doing on the screen while keeping the screen normal for you. It’s a very cool idea especially if you know people that constantly look over your shoulder while texting, and it’s easily enabled via the notification pane.

What’s disappointing about pretty much all the software on the Aquos is that it doesn’t make much use of the 3D effect. You can view the homescreens in 3D and you can view photos and the occasional video, but apart from that there are no other cool uses for the screen. There are not even any 3D games included with the device save for ones you can download after the fact (which are pretty bad), and there are pretty much no third party apps with support for glasses-free 3D on the Market, so you're basically left with the camera for 3D.

Translations

A huge flaw of this device is that it originates from Japan. It has NTT DoCoMo branding, it has a 1seg tuner that cannot be used outside of Japan and naturally there are loads of apps installed on the device that are not in English. These range from a TV station guide and GPS apps to game portals and ISP services. We counted around 28 non-English apps installed on the device including a finance app that would have been fantastic if we could understand what was going on.

As we’re never going to use those apps there’s no use complaining about them much more. However, it’s the poor English translations that naturally pop up around the place in the English applications that really are annoying.

When you turn on the device it tells you that your microSD card will be “destroyed” if you remove it. What we would normally call sound profiles are called “manners.” You can view the “Technical Regulations Conformity” if you like and select the “File transfer mail software.” Switching the “in/out” camera makes perfect sense and we did chuckle a bit while setting the 3D parallax barrier to “feeble” and changing the “phone vibe.”

These are just a few of the many translation problems present on the device that you simply wouldn’t see on a Western device. At first it can be a bit of a laugh to see exactly what the translations are but it quickly becomes very annoying and frustrating when you just cannot understand what the manufacturers are saying. It can also make changing critical settings harder as they appear hidden by poor translations.

What makes matters worse is that there is no English dictionary loaded in the device, meaning you have absolutely no auto-correct/prediction while using the Gingerbread keyboard. This is extremely annoying and pretty much forces you to install a third party keyboard that loads their own dictionary to use (we recommend SwiftKey X).

Performance

Inside the Aquos we are seeing a Qualcomm Scorpion 1.4 GHz single-core processor with 512 MB of RAM, and with specs like this you would expect a generally fast experience. Bizarrely however, the phone sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s that powerful at all.

The homescreen performance is pretty good but suffers from lag when adding homescreens and enabling the 3D effect, which is somewhat disappointing. The browser is generally good but can lag when browsing intensive websites such as Engadget and also slows down when Flash is present. Scrolling long lists seems to lag a fair bit as well but moving between apps seems quite responsive.

We’re not entirely sure what the issue is for the mixed performance from the SH-12C. Our Galaxy S with just a 1 GHz single-core seems a lot faster to use than this device, which is strange, so we went digging a bit. From what SystemPanel is reporting, there are a huge number of unnecessary background services running on the device ranging from the music player to random GPS apps and more – and killing them just results in them restarting after minimal interaction with the device.

In GLBenchmark the device scored below all other devices we have tested, which was disappointing and must indicate that the device does not have a very powerful GPU (just an Adreno 205) despite somewhat needing one for the 3D effect. In the rounded AnTuTu benchmark the SH-12C scored just above the Galaxy S, which is to be expected considering the slightly faster processor.

In gaming the SH-12C generally performed well; not as well as we saw previously with the HTC Sensation, and the Galaxy S was also a better performer due to the more powerful GPU, but the Aquos still held its own in most situations. After going through Japanese websites to download 3D games we found that those too worked well, but suffered from some slight lag whenever you touched the screen and the 3D effect was working.

One really annoying thing about the phone’s performance is that it reboots often when you’re in a low 3G coverage area as it struggles to choose between 2G and 3G. It also reboots sometimes when taking photos with the camera or viewing photos you have taken. Any unwanted reboots are very annoying and obviously waste battery, we can only hope Sharp will address these issues with an OTA update.

Camera

We’re going to put this before everything else in this section: you must calibrate the dual 3D rear cameras before use. If you don’t, the effect will barely work, and as we mentioned before, it causes massive eye strain to use. You will need over 10 metres of space to calibrate the cameras (outside somewhere is best), but it's well worth it.

For still images there are two modes: 3D, which can take photos at 2 MP or Full HD (1920x1080) max; and 2D, which takes a single 8 MP image. It was a bit disappointing to see that the maximum for 3D was Full HD as we’re sure it could go higher, however to be fair we doubt you’ll be viewing your 3D images outside of your 3D phone or Full HD 3D TV.

The camera is one of the highlights of the SH-12C. The 3D effect given by images is absolutely outstanding, and you can really make flowers pop right out of the screen and make wide shots sink back in. High detail shots such as one of grass we took were detailed in 3D and looked simply superb on the display. While 3D might not be much use elsewhere, it certainly comes to life with the camera and can even be made into red/blue 3D images (as we have done below) using simple 3rd party software.

There is almost nothing we can fault about the camera’s quality, it is simply outstanding in all ways for a camera present on a phone. Not only do you get a 3D image if you desire, but color reproduction is simply fantastic and remarkably accurate with only minor washing-out problems in situations with lots of sky visible; focal range (in 2D) is also great with both distant and close-up shots remaining in focus.

Low light performance without the flash displays more light in the captured image than present with surprisingly little grain (top-left image below), and there is a flash which, while not being particularly powerful, combined with good low light performance can create some nice shots in low-light situations. There was the occasional time when low-light images of black objects wouldn’t focus properly, but these occurrences were infrequent.

Also hidden to the eye and settings is a front-facing camera. It’s not as good as the rear cameras and can only capture a VGA image, but it’s useful to have and makes the overall camera package even better.

To complement this great camera package is a stellar application. Camera mode information is easily visible and via a single tap reveals more, the 3D/2D toggle is well placed and there is both the on-screen shutter button and physical button to take photos. There are also so many settings – we thought our Galaxy S had a lot of camera settings but this just blows it out of the water. You have a wide range of options to control face-detection, ISO, shutter speed, focus, flash, self-timer and a nice 25 scene options to choose from. Once you discover all the settings that are available you’ll be quite happy.

Video recording is 720p maximum in 3D and 2D, and you can see our sample 3D video below (you might need to click through to YouTube to watch it in 3D). When watching the footage on a non-3D computer you see the file is in half-half stereoscopic so when viewing it through YouTube they automatically interlace the two halves together for you. Again colors are very good and there is continuous autofocus but audio quality unfortunately has artefacts in it.

Media Playback and Call Quality

On the rear of the SH-12C you have a single speaker that, as with all mobile devices, is not particularly great. It punches out high tones quite well but it lacks pretty much all bass tones (you can’t even hear the bass rumble at the start of Knights of Cydonia). It’s also a decent volume so you should be able to hear the phone ringing in your pocket, which is the only real use of the speaker.

Through headphones the sound quality is remarkably good. When comparing the quality to the usually stellar Galaxy S and iPhone 4, it actually sounded slightly richer and fuller through the SH-12C with better balance in the mid-range. Where the Galaxy S at times pushed out overpowering bass to the in-ear earphones, the Aquos seemed extremely balanced so we were very impressed with the quality.

For video playback below we have the results of our seven-part video test:

Media Result
Cordy Gameplay
SD 640x360 WMV
WMV3 video, WMA2 2ch audio
Perfect playback
The Big Bang Theory
SD 624x352 AVI
XviD video, MP3 2ch audio
Not recognized; no playback
Epic Rap Battles of History 7
HD 1280x720 MP4
H.264 YouTube video, AAC 2ch audio
Perfect playback
TRON Legacy
HD 1280x720 MP4
H.264 video, AAC 6ch audio

Some digital artefacts at the start of playback (recovers shortly)
Video eventually plays back fine however no audio
Most likely due to the phone not supporting 6-channel audio streams

Black Swan
Full HD 1920x800 MKV
H.264 video, DTS 6ch audio
Not recognized; no playback
THX Amazing Life
Full HD 1920x1080 MT2S
H.264 video, AC3 6ch audio
Not recognized; no playback
MysteryGuitarMan
Full HD 1920x1080 MP4
H.264 YouTube video, AAC 2ch audio
Recognized but refuses to play.
This is proabably due to the phone having limited 1080p support

Not recognizing the MKV and MT2S is standard with most mobile devices; however we would like to see some manufacturers include support for MKV as it is widely used for HD content. Not having AVI support was an unfortunate surprise considering it is one of the most popular containers, and there appears to be no 1080p playback at all as a test sample 1080p MP4 failed to play where the 720p sample does play.

For media playback on the SH-12C you are restricted to 720p MP4 files for the highest quality, and it only supports the playback of 2-channel audio. Surely the 1.4 GHz processor is powerful enough to decode 1080p videos, so this along with no AVI support is a major let-down in this department. However, when you use the right codec you’ll get perfect 720p playback and the screen is only qHD so the only annoyance here would be if you needed to downscale or convert your media files.

The Sharp Aquos SH-12C also supports HDMI-out, however a mini-HDMI to standard HDMI cable is not included in the box. We really wish Sharp would have put one in because it is a necessary cable to experience all the features of the device.

Call quality through the SH-12C is average, with no complaints about audibility from either the listener or caller. The earpiece can go quite loud so it’s audible over some background noise; however there is no second microphone for background noise reduction so the receiver will just have to bear with any loud background noises in your calls.

Battery Life

For a device that has to power a 4.2” parallax barrier display, dual cameras and 1.4 GHz processor we were surprised to discover that the SH-12C only packs a 1240 mAh battery under the rear cover. As a result, the battery life of the SH-12C is not great.

During one day of heavy testing and one day of moderate usage, both times we managed to kill the battery before the day was out, with day one lasting 8 hours and day two lasting 10. We used the 3D feature of the screen for around 1-2 hours on both occasions as well as using the 3D camera to take a few shots plus the usual texting, calling and web browsing over 3G.

The home launcher in 3D mode and the camera really drain the battery quite quickly, along with several reboots like we mentioned previously. Keeping usage to a minimum we managed to make the battery last 19 hours; this was very disappointing as most other phones on the market would last at least a day and a half with little-to-no usage.

If Sharp had included a more powerful battery, maybe around 1500 mAh or more, you could probably make the phone last 12 hours (enough to last the entire day) and perhaps even longer if there weren’t so many reboots throughout the day. Instead we are left with a weak battery that really isn’t up to the task of powering this device and almost requires you to carry a replacement with you.

Fixing the Issues

We have mentioned throughout this review several issues with the SH-12C (such as the pointless TV tuner antenna below). Luckily, some of them can be fixed – it’s obviously a pain for those buying the device to have to fix these issues but we’ll include a section in case anyone is stuck with the problems.

It was mentioned before, but to fix the 3D camera you have to calibrate it. The setting to do this can be found in Settings > About Phone > Twin Camera Calibration. You can also calibrate the VeilView and 3D parallax mode in Settings > Display settings.

For some reason vibrate mode is hard to get into as there is only a completely silent “manner.” To get into vibrate mode, leave the phone in the standard manner, then reduce the volume of the ringtone to nothing in Settings > Sound settings > Volume. Tick the Phone vibe box and then go to the Messaging, Mail and whatever other apps you like to set the vibrate modes in there.

To fix several of the reboot issues you will have to compromise your GSM settings. Go to Settings > Wireless & networks > Mobile networks > Network Mode and set it from 3G/GSM(Auto) to either 3G or GSM depending on your coverage. To switch between them you will now need to do it manually.

The included Maps build is broken, to fix that simply download the newest one from the Market. Unfortunately to remove the Japanese apps you must root the device to access the /system folder, and no root options are available, so you must stick with these apps for now – you can however move them into their own pane in the app drawer. As was mentioned earlier we recommend SwiftKey X to replace the keyboard as it uses its own dictionary.

The included contacts app is horrible, so we recommend flashing GO Contacts to replace it. Download it here through the Market. Also, to save you searching for the 3D-capable games included through the Japanese portal on the phone, we have Market links for you (Super3DShooter, Super3DBilliards, Road Jumper 3D, Breakout 3D, Super3DMahjong)

Conclusion

The Sharp Aquos SH-12C currently retails for AU$700 (US$730/£445) and for this price it is simply too expensive for what is given to you. The highlight of the phone is the amazing camera which shoots stunning 8 MP 2D photos and fantastic 3D photos with serious depth and life; of course alongside the autostereoscopic parallax barrier display that literally gives the phone a new dimension.

Despite this, there are too many downsides to ignore. Coming from Japan, you must deal with pointless NTT DoCoMo apps, poor translations and features (eg. the 1seg tuner) that don’t work overseas. Some apps are very nice such as the music player and gallery but on the other hand some are simply awful such as the Address Book or don’t make good use of the 3D capabilities.

We saw some innovative features such as the jam-packed notification pane and the cool privacy tool VeilView, however you’ll have to manage using these apps in between phone reboots and deaths due to the short battery life.

With some simple tweaks, translations and fixes for the region plus a better battery the Sharp Aquos SH-12C could have been a better package than what it is currently – but right now we suggest you look towards either the AU$650 LG Optimus 3D or hope the HTC EVO 3D lands in a GSM country soon.

Thanks to MobiCity for providing us with our Sharp Aquos SH-12C for review. For the review we were running Sharp’s customized Android 2.3.3 “Gingerbread” with baseband v1.00 and build number 01.00.04.

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