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Sony Xperia S with ICS: a love story

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Ambroos    803

Tip to read this review:

All links are screenshots that open in a new window, so feel free to click them to see what I'm talking about.


Hello fellow Neowinians! First I'd like to introduce myself. I've been a long time Sony (Ericsson) fan. I've never had any other phones, and after quite a long history I've arrived at the Xperia S. I've had it since launch date. I'm currently studying applied IT (which is a University College course including loads of Java, a bit of SQL, webdesign and assembler).

On holidays I work at The Phone House, the ex-Belgian branch of the UK-basec Carphone Warehouse, now part of a Belgian ISP. My job there isn't selling mobiles, it's selling the right mobiles for the right customer. I'm one of the only store employees not under commission, so I sell what people need, not what the sales team wants to sell. I try not to be biased in this, you'll find me recommending a Nokia Lumia as well as a Samsung Galaxy Mini or a HTC One X just as easy as a Sony device. I do try to keep customers away from LG, I think everyone understands why.


On the 21st of June 2012, an otherwise unremarkable day, Sony started the rollout of the long-awaited (but never delayed) ICS update for the Xperia S. As some regions got it before others and I absolutely couldn't wait, I flashed my phone with a Swiss software build to get the update from the first minute. Since it was only available on rapidshare I uploaded it to my own webserver, which got me a serious warning from my webhost since I managed to get over 2TB of traffic in under an hour.

Sony has been surprisingly quiet about the update. Where the devices from 2011 received two betas and a ton of information along the development process, Sony was completely silent about the Xperia S update. Just today we got the first bits of information from Sony, and they were quite minimal. After a few hours of thorough experimenting with the update I've found a lot of interesting things to show to you, things Sony chose not to brag with (even though they have a
to brag about).


I don't care much about benchmarks, and you shouldn't either, but you can't call something like this a review anymore without benchmarks. I've compared the scores with the

All benchmarks were done on a device with all my regular apps installed. No taskkillers were used, no root, no tweaks, and a ton of background syncs enabled.


Lower is better.

Score on 2.3.7: 536ms.

Score on 4.0.4:
- no difference


Higher is better.

Score on 2.3.7: 86.7.

Score on 4.0.4:
- a bit less good

NenaMark 2

Higher is better.

Score on 2.3.7: 37.5 FPS.

Score on 4.0.4:
FPS - no difference


Stock browser, lower is better.

Score on 2.3.7: 2587.

Score on 4.0.4:
- major improvement (beats Galaxy Nexus)!


Stock browser, Higher is better.

Score on 2.3.7: 74990.

Score on 4.0.4:
- good improvement


Many people (including me) don't like this benchmark, but I decided to include it for completeness. The score under 2.3.7 was taken from the Dutch

Score on 2.3.7: 6266

Score on 4.0.4:
- minor improvement.


The two only things on your phone you'll probably see every day are a very important part of the software. An annoying lockscreen or launcher can ruin your entire experience. Sony didn't change much, but not all changes were for the better.

On the lockscreen the only change you'll notice right away is that where there used to be an unlock slider and a silent mode slider, the silent mode slider is now replaced with a camera slider. While I can understand a fast way to access the camera for devices without physical camera button, it feels completely out of place. It was nice to be able to quickly turn off sound in class. I don't get why Sony decided to make this change. Of course all the other good stuff is still there. Another change for the worse are the music controls. While on 2.3.7 they still showed a (static) seek bar you're now stuck with just three buttons. It also no longer shows the artist but is now limited to the song title.


Another new thing is the ability to swipe open the notification pane from the lockscreen. You still get Facebook notifications and
you received. Of course the mandatory useless Face Unlock gimmick is present too, aside all the usual unlock methods.


didn't change much either. The only real ICS feature it introduced is the ability to resize widgets (which works better than I expected). There are some other changes. Tapping or long-pressing empty space now gives you a subtle bar at the top which allows you to either change the theme or wallpaper, or lets you add a widget. The widgetpicker does do a very good job in my opinion, I consider this a better approach than just adding widgets to the app tray. You still can't add or remove homescreens, you're stuck with the default amount of 5.


The app tray received a minor facelift too. As it's supposed to with the ICS style guidelines most controls have been moved to the top of the display. The home button to return to the homescreens has been removed, you'll now have to use the hardware back or home buttons to do that. You can still rearrange apps as you wish or sort them alphabetically, by install date or by most used first. As long as you don't have too many widgets operation is generally very smooth, better than it was on Gingerbread.



As an early sign of what's going to happen now Sony Ericsson dropped the Ericsson the Music app has been rebranded to Walkman. Might be a good way to get people familiar with the brand again after the iPod years. The app itself didn't change all too much. The theme got a bit more Holo (no more edges, aside the album art). Don't get me wrong though, it's by far the best looking and most functional music app I've used on any smartphone, including the iPhone.


It's the first time I've found a proper way to manage the
on any portable device, something I've always found extremely important. You can save your play queue as a playlist just as easily. Another rare thing is a
, including an automatic album art downloader (powered by Gracenote). You can even let the
download album art and artist images automatically, which will then fill your library artist views with nice photos, almost Zune-style. It is extremely slow though, it'll probably take about 4 hours for it to download images for all my 1300 songs, even over WiFi. Something I'll leave running overnight (will update thread with images).


Another good thing about the music player is the customization. You can add shortcuts to artists and albums to the library view to find your favourite songs even faster, or you can just use the excellent
. If you prefer your sound more bassy or with more treble you can use the
(plus Clear Bass, a Sony technology that works really, really well) to tune everything the way you want it to. Sony's
widens the stereo a little, but not everyone likes those things. I find the Studio setting to be quite pleasant.

The Walkman app is an excellent music player. While it isn't perfect it's easily the best I've tried. It can be extended with plugins, unfortunately plugins from 2.3.7 (like the scrobbler) seem broken. It's a shame Sony couldn't preserve plugin compatibility.


It might be a bit early to draw a conclusion so fast, but I'm quite confident about this. The Album app is terrific. It's extremely fast, has full geotagging support, a good editor, proper DLNA, very good integration with online photos and a great interface.


By default you browse your photos by date. You can also view photos with geotags directly on a map, or
. With a simple swipe to the left or right you can adjust the thumbnail size, and you see everything rearrange itself with wonderfully fluid animations. The editing tools include a full array of Instagram-like filters (
) that will make any hipster happier than a hipster is allowed to be. You can even give people a
, whatever those might be.

Everything is extremely fast and works very well, this is probably the best new app in the whole update, and it's something other manufacturers should take a very, very good look at.


The Films app good and not good at the same time. While it's a good thing Sony decided to split up the Album and Films, it's a shame it still doesn't play all popular formats. Okay, I have to admit, it's not that bad. h264 or XviD video with AAC or MP3 audio plays fine, usually even in MKV containers, but aside that everything acts weird. MKV's with an AC3 audio track play without audio, but some MKV's don't play at all. It's a shame the app doesn't offer you to play them with DicePlayer instead, like the Gallery on 2.3.7 used to suggest.

But like I said, there are good things. It's very nice how it manages to recognize files in some magic way and fill it with nice images. Your Inception movie gets a proper
, and your Mad Men episodes get grouped up nicely under a picture of Don and Joan, and upon tapping the series you get a
. No more renaming files or reading The.Walking.Dead.S01.E02.x264.obviouslypiratedcopy.[releasegroup].720p.mkv, since even those things are properly decoded into something like "The Walking Dead S01 E02", which is quite readable. It just works. Very nicely done!


Another good thing is that all videos that play with hardware acceleration can benefit from the Bravia Engine. It doesn't do very much, but it gives videos that little bit of extra contrast, saturation and sharpness. It's useless for 720p, but works nicely for things in a lower resolution. And oh yeah, the app remembers how far along you were in each file.


And that brings us to another issue, this time with the Xperia S in general. The internal memory is formatted in FAT32. That wouldn't be so bad if FAT32 didn't have a 4GB file size limit. A one-hour TV episode in 720p will fit fine, but don't think about watching full movies in 720p on your Xperia S or using HDMI. They just don't fit. I can understand FAT32 if you chose to allow mass storage, but since the Xperia S only lets you access the memory through MTP, Sony could've easily formatted the internal memory in a more flexible filesystem, ext3 for example.

Conclusion: a decent app with some very good ideas, but more supported file formats are really needed. A fix for the 4GB file size limit would be nice too. In general, nothing worse than you get on another phone, but it doesn't come close to the versatility of third-party offerings.


Sony did a great thing here. They were the very first "big" manufacturer to properly embrace Holo. HTC decided to go with their usual horrible color scheme and terrible icons (and decided to leave use hardware buttons but leave out a menu key), Samsung just does whatever it wants with the cheap-looking TouchWiz as usual, and LG, well, I'm not going to bother with LG. Did they actually show a working ICS yet?


Sony did much, much better, and they wanted to. Their new devices (GX and SX) have on-screen keys, and all their apps in ICS (for the 2012 range) is fully optimized for ICS. The menu key has been retired, or is at least ready to be replaced by a menu button in the (already present) app bar, almost everything fits nicely to the style guidelines. Button bars and tab sections have been moved to the top of the screen and have been given a touch of Holo, for example in the
app. The
app had a smaller but still fitting adjustment. The
app has been given a reskin with some new app bar buttons and the built-in
, still sporting the lovely landscape preview pane. I really like the light color scheme for work apps (mail, calendar, ...), it feels very natural in a way.



It was available on the X10, then it wasn't anymore, then it was sort-of implemented in PC Companion, but now it's finally back. A proper back up and restore application that doesn't require you rooting your phone. I haven't tested the functionality yet, but it sure looks like it is fully capable of backing up
, along with contacts, messages, settings, alarms, notes, ... You can even save the backup
connected through USB on-the-go. I might finally not have to re-do all Angry Birds levels every three months when I wipe my phone!


When I first started up the phone, I was surprised to see this little magic wand pop up on the keyboard when I wanted to enter my WiFi password. I was even more surprised to see what functionality hid behind the magic wand! The Xperia Keyboard received many more customization options. You now have three keyboard modes:
or the newly introduced
(with numbers and symbols on long-press). You can choose to
t if you're not that kind of person, all to make room for a nice and wide spacebar. There are now three color themes (
, the
) to choose from too, another new addition.


But that's not the best thing. Let me remind you of how awful it usually is to switch languages on a phone keyboard. If you're lucky you can just tap a button to switch, if you're not you have to go into a menu and scroll through a list. Especially for people like me who switch between Dutch and English in almost every sentence this was usually horrible. Sony came up with a great solution. You can now
. This means you get spelling corrections for both languages at the same time. It's something I've really, really enjoyed these past few hours, not having to worry about what language my keyboard was set to, but just being able to type in my usual mix of Dutch and English words the way I want. This is something I won't be able to live without anymore, I think, and I'm sure many more people will really enjoy this.



Another new addition is the Notes app, made by Evernote (and syncing with your Evernote account). It's quite basic, but doesn't really need more. It can do regular text notes, you can attach audio fragments to it, you can draw
and you can easily share notes. You do have to be careful, because only the notes you actually put in your "accountname" folder get synced with Evernote. And you can't just move a note to another account. It's a nice addition though, something that had indeed been missing from the Xperia's.


Of course this isn't everything, but I've chosen not to show all standard ICS features to keep the review to a reasonable length. Everything else (aside the standard ICS camera app) is included as well, and everything runs very smoothly. Android Beam works fine, the new Calendar and Gmail widgets are useful additions. I was surprised to see the difference in speed was actually this obvious.


Sony seems to be really determined to succeed this time around. With every new software update they add a ton of features, and unlike other manufacturers they actually provide already released devices with tons of new features too. If you compare the capabilities of the Xperia Arc in february 2011 with what you can do with it now, you'll notice how huge the difference is. The first months it was lacking any sort of proper timer or stopwatch, the music application was horrible, there wasn't a way to take notes, the calendar was limited and hard to use, there was no smart dialing, no panorama photos, no DLNA - want me to go on? If you see how far Sony got right now, and what they managed to add again with one single updates only three months after the release of the phone you can't do anything but be impressed. Add the extreme openness to developers (unlockable bootloaders, extra sources, loaning/gifting devices for development, clear communication, ...) and you should realize they're not as bad as some people think they are.

I hope Sony sticks with this strategy, and remains as committed to bringing updates to already released devices as they are now. It's working great so far and it could really help them get back to what they were in their 'golden years'.



I really like this update. It feels like I have a new phone that can do things no other phone can. And the best thing about that is that it's true. The Xperia S right now does things no other phone does. Sure, it doesn't have a (fake) Siri and still lacks some other things, but I personally prefer the things Sony did. They delivered a coherent OS, sticking to the ICS style guidelines, and improving on it. It's actually the only version of ICS I'd prefer over the standard ROM. Why? Because it doesn't detract anything from the core ICS experience, it only improves upon it. Nothing got worse, everything got better. Not perfect, but better. All is well.

If there are any questions about Sony's ICS update at all, please, feel free to ask!

- Ambroos

Feel free to use any material/screenshot in this review, or just the complete review. You can post it on your own website, blog, whatever, as long as you don't modify anything and give credit to
, including the Twitter link. It'd be nice to get featured on the front page too, of course ^^

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Pajter    15

Great review Ambroos.

Just like you, I couldn't wait either and flashed the Swiss ROM. I'm glad that I did. The phone was already great, but this update just improves on everything so much. Sony are really doing a great job. :)

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Ambroos    803

Made some new screenshots of the Walkman app to show off the excellent artist images it downloaded:



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jackkk1    8

Great, detailed review, but unfortunately that's all i can say about sony's phones .... emmm regarding ".... I have a new phone that can do things no other phone can..." actually i haven't noticed anything unique or mind-blowing feature that already haven't been implemented in other phones, but ok whatever, i hope you will enjoy your phone.

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Dot Matrix    7,114

The music player looks ALOT like Zune on Windows Phone. In fact, I'd almost call it a direct rip. :no:


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Ambroos    803

The music player looks ALOT like Zune on Windows Phone. In fact, I'd almost call it a direct rip. :no:

It's just the playback control icons. They look a lot like Zune indeed, in the Gingerbread ROM's they didn't have the circles.

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Javik    3,961

Looks nice, Sony have really upped their game with this. Who says all custom UI's have to look like crap?

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Raa    1,405

Very nice review mate.

I think I might have to put ICS on my Droid 3...

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Azusa    930

My contract can't end soon enough!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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hapbt    0

what's so special about this phone?


i never thought someone could be this much of a fanboy for 'sony phones' of all things, but presumably you're going to show this to your boss at the cell phone store or something?

my old junky Infuse does all these things and i can install any of the programs you have suggested if i wanted to, and that goes for 99.9% of all the other android based phones on the market today.

personally i use the stock google apps for everything and they are great :)

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Ambroos    803

what's so special about this phone?


i never thought someone could be this much of a fanboy for 'sony phones' of all things, but presumably you're going to show this to your boss at the cell phone store or something?

my old junky Infuse does all these things and i can install any of the programs you have suggested if i wanted to, and that goes for 99.9% of all the other android based phones on the market today.

personally i use the stock google apps for everything and they are great :)

There isn't much really special about it, but it's just one of the best phones available right now, especially if you take price into account. It's a lot cheaper than other flagships, and for quite a low price you get 32GB of storage, a very good camera, killer display and fast performance. If you want those specs from any other brand you'd be paying a lot more.

Aside that, Sony's software does have that little bit extra. Tiny features and small interface elements that make it nice. But that's my opinion of course, I know there are people who prefer Sense or TouchWiz and I respect that.

And no, I didn't show anything of this to anyone at my work, school or anything. It's just on the internet, I haven't contacted anyone about it. I did get a reply from one of the senior software project managers at Sony Mobile on Google+, most of the people on the Xperia S software team have read the review, and they really liked it.

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tsupersonic    1,324

This looks like a decent mid-end phone, I wouldn't call it high-end. The specs would get destroyed by other flagships. You can't even say it's reasonably priced - It's $480 from Amazon unlocked, and that's on the expensive end for a mid-end phone. I personally don't see what's so special with this phone - to me, it just falls in with every other mid-end phone. I saw reviews on other sites, and the picture quality from the camera looks average at best. Megapixels are over-rated, just give me a good sensor. I have read many reviews claiming bad build quality, which is not good. The whole package this phone provides just seems so unappealing and boring, almost like driving a Toyota.

Nice review, but definitely not the phone for me.

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