The Sony Xperia S is the first in a new line of Sony Xperia devices that all come sans Ericsson branding, since Sony bought out the joint operation entirely several months ago. The Xperia S is the flagship device in this new line, known as the "Xperia NXT series", that also includes the Xperia P and Xperia U that were both announced at MWC 2012.
For a flagship device you would expect a lot of flagship features, and that is exactly what you get with the Xperia S. Terms such as PlayStation Certified, Mobile Bravia Engine, xLOUD and Exmor R all appear on the back of the Xperia S' box and will be addressed in due course. Unfortunately though, the Xperia S does not ship with Android 4.0, instead coming with 2.3 and a sticker slapped on saying it is "Android 4.0 upgradeable"; a shame for this type of product.
As always a big thank-you must be said to our partners over at MobiCity, who kindly provided me the Sony Xperia S for this review. If you are in the market for the Xperia S or any new smartphone I highly recommend checking out their service: they currently have the Xperia S available for AU$699 unlocked, with no contract and free shipping, which in my case has always been very fast.
There are three major standout areas of the Xperia S' specification sheet. First is the 4.3-inch display which packs a resolution of 1280 x 720 for an impressive 342 pixels-per-inch (ppi) density; higher than that of the "Retina" display on the iPhone 4S. It's not Super AMOLED HD like the Galaxy Nexus, but we should still be seeing a great display on the Xperia S.
Secondly the Xperia S packs a 12.1 megapixel camera that features Sony's Exmor R (for mobile) sensor, which they claim is very fast to take photos and is good in low light performance. This is coupled with a rear LED flash, front-facing 1.3 MP camera and two-stage camera button that could mean the Xperia S is a suitable replacement for a standalone point-and-shoot camera.
Finally, the device is powered by a Qualcomm S3 Snapdragon system-on-a-chip, specifically the Qualcomm MSM8260 with a dual-core Scorpion processor clocked at 1.5 GHz, an Adreno 220 GPU and 1 GB of RAM. While this isn't a next-generation S4 Snapdragon that will be found in upcoming devices like the HTC One series, it should be more than enough to give a smooth feeling throughout the operating system and while playing high-end games.
|Sony Xperia S|
|GSM Bands||850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900|
|3G/4G Bands||HSPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100|
4.3-inch TFT LCD at 1280 x 720
342 ppi pixel density
10-point capacitive multi-touch
Qualcomm MSM8260 chipset
1.5 GHz dual-core Scorpion CPU
ARM Cortex-A8 based
|Storage||32 GB internal user storage|
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP
A-GPS and GLONASS
12.1 MP rear camera with autofocus and LED flash
1.3 MP front camera
1080p video recording (rear)
3.5mm audio jack
|Battery||Li-ion 1,750 mAh non-removable|
Android 2.3 "Gingerbread"
|Launch Date||March 2012|
|Size & Weight||
128 x 64 x 10.6 mm
Unlocked & Outright: AU$699 (~US$740)
On Contract: Coming to O2, Orange and Three (in the UK)
One of the few flaws I can see on paper is that the device has a non-removable battery and no microSD port, although 32 GB of on-board storage should make up for the latter. Also as this is a device designed for European markets with GSM-only networks, there is no LTE radio in the device for United States markets.
With the introduction of the NXT series, Sony has decided to move away from the more curved and plastic designs, instead opting for a very square and more polished look with the Xperia S. The front of the device is essentially a rectangular slab with slightly rounded corners, with the only really curve being width-wise to attempt to hide the thickness of the device along with making it more comfortable to hold.
As with all modern smartphones, the front of the device is almost entirely the display, which in the case of the Xperia S is a 4.3-inch TFT LCD. Above the display you'll find Sony branding and the thin in-call speaker; to the right is the prominent 1.3 MP front-facing camera and to the left is a hidden proximity sensor and multi-color notification LED.
Below the display is where things get interesting: there are three capacitive buttons as you would expect, but also there is a clear see-through plastic strip that has the button icons embedded inside them. In the same way that standard capacitive buttons are back-lit so you can see them at night, this entire clear strip lights up when you press the capacitive buttons, which needless to say is very impressive. What makes it more impressive is that there are actual components, such as a microphone, in the area below the strip.
Unfortunately, while the clear strip looks insanely awesome and greatly enhances the looks of the device, it does present some usability problems. The icons for the buttons are located inside this clear panel, but the buttons themselves are actually located above them as indicated by very small reflective dots. Initially this makes the buttons very hard to hit as they are not where you would expect them to be, and not only did I have trouble throughout my time with the device but so did other people that I gave the device to for short periods.
Moving to the back of the device and in usual Sony fashion there is not much to see. At the top in the center is the 12.1 MP camera, with an LED flash, rear speaker and microphone below in a line. Towards the bottom of the device there is the Sony Ericsson logo (despite the Xperia S not being a Sony Ericsson device) and again there is the very cool clear strip.
Around the sides of the device sees the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack to the top; a covered microUSB port on the left; a volume rocker, two-stage camera button and covered micro-HDMI port on the right; and a microphone and charm port on the bottom. The fact that Sony has decided to include a two-stage camera button on this device shows how focused they are at delivering a solid camera experience, as it is something you rarely see on current-gen Android devices.
The looks of the device are modern, minimalist and generally great, enhanced by solid build materials such as the soft-touch plastic (that encases the device) and strengthened glass. However, not all the design choices made by the Sony team are excellent ones, and there are quite a few usability issues that I discovered throughout a week of using the phone as my daily driver.
Apart from the issue hitting the capacitive buttons, the placement of the power button on the top left is a stretch for such a large device. What makes it worse is the 3.5mm jack just to the right of it, which impedes the power button's use while there are headphones attached. Also, the covers protecting the USB and HDMI ports are both hard to remove and replace - at times it felt like I was going to snap them off when removing them - which I expect will get tedious if you used the device for several months.
The final downside to the design is the thickness of the device: at 10.6mm thick you could hardly say that the device is breaking the boundaries of slender for modern devices. When putting it next to my extremely thin Motorola Droid Razr, the Xperia S looks rather obese, only hidden slightly by the curved nature of the build. Luckily, the phone is comfortable to hold and doesn't feel particularly massive in your pocket.
The Xperia S packs an impressive display when it comes to paper specifications: 4.3-inches diagonally with a resolution of 1280 x 720 for 342 pixels-per-inch (ppi) using TFT LCD technology; enhanced by Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine to improve the colors and contrast of the panel while looking at photos and video.
To my eyes, the display on the Xperia S is outstanding in some areas and poor in others. Luckily, the areas where it shines are in all the right places: media. Simply put, the Mobile Bravia Engine does a superb job at enhancing the colors of photos and videos where they otherwise might look just average on the LCD display. Where you think you may have taken an average shot looking at the camera preview, jumping into the Gallery you see an amazingly vibrant and accurately reproduced image: it's really astonishing.
Unfortunately this brings up the first downside of the display, which is that the Mobile Bravia Engine is only activated in certain first-party applications. As far as I can tell it's only in the Gallery and the video player, so disappointingly if you are looking at images in the browser or in any other third-party gallery application (I tried QuickPic and it wasn't activated) you won't get the amazing enhancements. The Bravia Engine also presents slight problems for the camera which I'll mention later in this review.
The other main area where the display shines is in the crisp reproduction of images and especially text thanks to the high-density 720p display. At 342 ppi it is actually more densely packed with pixels than the "Retina" display in the iPhone 4S, so if you can't see any pixels with your naked eye while looking at the iPhone's display you have no chance with the Xperia S. The density is particularly noticeable on fully zoomed-out webpages: you can still read the smallest text where on a qHD or lesser display it would be a stretch.
Even magnified, it's hard to determine individual pixels on the Xperia S' display
As reading text is so great on the Xperia S' display it's also good to see that the brightness is good enough to read easily outside. Even under direct sunlight it was quite easy to see what was on the display, with little-to-no reflection. As with some LCD touchscreen panels, you can see the thin metallic lines and dots of the digitizer at specific angles under direct sunlight, but under normal conditions its essentially invisible.
Strangely there is no light sensor included in the Xperia S' package, meaning there is no support for auto-brightness. According to the white paper for the Xperia S (PDF link) there should be an ambient light sensor, but there is no software support for a light sensor as seen in the device's settings and in the device statistics app Elixir 2, and also there are no visible signs of a sensor. It's only a slight downside but it is something to think about.
LCD technology is not known for its amazing black levels or contrast, and this is no exception for the Xperia S. In dark conditions the backlight is obviously visible when the display is showing solid black, where with a Super AMOLED you effectively see a display that is off and deeply black. However I do believe that when the Bravia Engine comes into effect the color reproduction of the LCD is superior to that of an oversaturated AMOLED panel.
Xperia S HD TFT LCD (left) vs. Droid Razr qHD Super AMOLED (right)
The final area of the display that I want to discuss is the odd phenomenon that occurs when the display is showing primarily white. I don't really understand how this happens, but visually it appears as though areas of color become desaturated and way too bright when the display is showing a lot of white, say on a webpage or while reading a document. It's fine in applications and games that show a lot of color, but when solid blocks of white come in to the picture everything seems just slightly washed out.
The result from this whitening out phenomenon is poor reproduction of images on webpages, and while it's not particularly bad or overly noticeable, it seems to be a problem with the particular LCD panel that Sony used in the Xperia S. It's sadly one of the poorer areas of a display that otherwise shines when it is showing media.
Out of the box, the Sony Xperia S is loaded with Android 2.3.7 "Gingerbread" along with Sony's Timescape UI that I first had hands-on time with on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray. It's really disappointing to see that Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" is not included out of the box on the Xperia S, but Sony has promised an upgrade in the second quarter of this year: a time-frame that is too vague for my liking and will effectively see the Xperia S upgraded a full 6 months after the launch of ICS.
For a device released after the launch of ICS, it really should have come with the device. It's simply a poor reflection of the collaboration between hardware manufacturers like Sony and the developers of Android at Google; a collaboration that I assume was virtually non-existent before the ICS launch.
That said, the experience that Gingerbread + Timescape provides is not that bad. Between the launch of the Xperia devices that the Ray is part of and the Xperia NXT series that incorporates the Xperia S, Timescape has seen adjustments that improve the skin and make use of the higher-density display and faster processor inside.
These screenshots were taken using the Xperia S' native screenshot function in the power menu
Many of the changes are simply visual improvements, changing gradients to more modern solid colors, removing unnecessary panes that look ugly and generally giving the interface a nip-and-tuck all around. The lockscreen, launcher and app drawer are essentially the same as I saw on the Xperia Ray, and many apps such as Messaging and the Browser are simple skins of the vanilla Android look.
Some apps such as the Clock and Calendar have received some new features in the new-look Timescape, but they are pretty basic things such as showing current events in the Calendar and the Clock gains a world clock, stopwatch and timer. The keyboard has also seen improvements to the Swype-like functionality and the size has been optimized for the display.
The Timescape app is still there as a means to collect all your social feeds in the one location that uses a 3D flowing pane interface to deliver critical information. Social integration is also present throughout other apps such as Contacts, Music and Gallery (which is essentially the stock Android Gallery) and makes the Xperia S quite a social device.
Timescape UI is not as heavy on including new features as TouchWiz or Sense is, so there is really not much to go over with in terms of software on the Xperia S. I also expect that a lot of the interface and features will change when Sony pushes the Ice Cream Sandwich update to the device, and according to them that should only be a few months away.
The last thing that should be expressly mentioned about the Xperia S' software is the bloat. I was surprised at how much crap was piled on the phone when I received it; even more surprising when you consider I got an unbranded carrier-free world version. A lot of the junk is portals to some of Sony's services and links to download apps, and thankfully a lot of these applications can be uninstalled from the device (yay!).
The Xperia S will probably be one of the last devices to ship with Qualcomm's Snapdragon S3 chipset inside, because the majority of new devices will be focusing on including the new and more powerful S4 chipsets with the updated Krait CPU cores inside. That said, the Xperia S is a solid performer for what it has and will surely suit the majority of users, just don't be surprised if newer devices outperform the Xperia S due to the generation upgrade.
When it comes to specifications, you can check out the full table at the start of the review, but as a quick rundown the Xperia S has a Qualcomm MSM8260 (Snapdragon S3) chipset inside that includes a 1.5 GHz dual-core Scorpion CPU, Adreno 220 GPU and 1 GB of RAM. The MSMx2xx designates that the device is GSM-only, and the fastest radio included in the Xperia S is Cat 10 HSDPA/Cat 6 HSUPA for a maximum speeds of 14.4 Mbps downstream and 5.8 Mbps upstream.
The MSM8x60 has featured in several devices since I first had hands-on time with it in the HTC Sensation, including the HTC Evo 3D, LG Nitro HD, HTC Rezound and some US versions of Samsung's Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note products. It's a well-loved and well-supported chipset as it has been available in smartphones for close to a year now, and in applications we should be seeing similar performance to the devices listed.
In terms of UI performance the device is outstanding, delivering a smooth feel to absolutely every nook and cranny of the OS and Timescape UI. The only time where I felt the processor was just slightly inadequate was in the browser, and that was only when pinch-zooming intensive websites such as The Verge and using sites that make heavy use of Flash; otherwise you should be very happy with the Snapdragon inside the Xperia S.
Grand Theft Auto III running on the Xperia S
Real-world application and game performance was also outstanding, delivering an insignificant delay to launch applications and solid performance in ones that I use on a regular basis such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Maps. I was surprised at the solidness of gaming on the Xperia S considering the high-resolution display, as games like Grand Theft Auto III, Shadowgun and Dungeon Defenders had absolutely no trouble running with solid frame-rates.
For in-game performance you would be looking at the same performance as the HTC Rezound, which uses the exact same configuration of a 1.5 GHz MSM8x60 along with 1 GB of RAM and a 1280 x 720 display. Comparing it to a qHD (960 x 540) device such as the HTC Sensation, the GPU has to push to 78% (~1.75x) more pixels on the 720p display of the Xperia S; depending on how the GPU functions this could equate to between 40-50% lower game performance compared to a qHD device at native resolutions.
As usual I ran my two synthetic benchmarks so you can compare the Xperia S' performance to other devices I have benchmarked in the past.
In Smartbench 2011 (we'll update this bench to use Smartbench 2012 at some point soon), you'll see the speed bump in the MSM8260, from 1.2 GHz in the HTC Sensation to 1.5 GHz in the Xperia S, is delivering a good amount more performance. The clock speed bump of 25% is delivering a 29% higher score in this benchmark, which is very close to the expected gain; but it still can't catch the 1.2 GHz Samsung Exynos 4210 in the Samsung Galaxy S II which claims the lead by delivering a 9% better score.
As I mentioned previously, the Adreno 220 has to render 78% more pixels for the 720p display compared to a qHD display such as that found on the HTC Sensation. In GLBenchmark 2.1 this has caused a drop in performance of 20% for the Egypt test and 30% for the PRO test, which is great considering the expected performance decrease was greater than 40%; this also matches the real-world performance I experienced which was quite good despite the increased resolution.
There are many possible reasons for the lower-than-expected decrease, such as a greater CPU clock speed, more RAM in the system, faster access to storage, increased GPU clocks and how the GPU pixel-pushes; although it's not clear what combination of factors contributed. It's also worth noting that at the same resolution of 720p, the Adreno 220 is 9% faster at the Egpyt test but 11% slower at the PRO test compared to the PowerVR SGX540 in the Galaxy Nexus.
One other thing worth mentioning is related to the internal storage: it is a generous 32 GB (25.8 GB user accessible and 1.7 GB for apps) which I'm sure will please many people despite the lack of a microSD expansion slot, but it isn't the fastest memory going around. To copy my entire music collection of 11.6 GB (1,500 files averaging 7.7 MB) to the device it took around 65 minutes, indicating a transfer speed of roughly 3 MB/s; you couldn't exactly call this fast but then again I have seen worse.
Media is the star of the show with the Xperia S, so Sony have gone to great lengths to ensure a stellar camera experience on the device. You get a 12.1 megapixel rear camera with autofocus, f/2.4 lens, 4.48 mm focal length and LED flash, capable of 1080p video recording at 30 frames per second and enhanced by Sony's Exmor R mobile sensor. There is also a supplementary 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera that is capable of 720p video recording, and a huge array of features and camera modes in the Camera application itself.
As soon as I started looking at the images the Xperia S' camera produced, it was clear that the strong set of specifications are backed up by a strong set of results. Focusing is very quick thanks to a solid autofocus module and the ease-of-use of the two-stage camera button, delivering crisp text and solid depth of field results. Occasionally the camera had trouble focusing on close objects on automatic settings, but this was often corrected by changing the shooting mode to macro.
Color accuracy and vibrancy probably surprised me the most about the 12 megapixel shooter on the Xperia S: it's really very good, often portraying colors in a lifelike manner without desaturation or dullness. In fact, some seemingly boring shots such as the one below of a bunch of Ethernet cables have really vibrant colors which I was happy to see; also the shot of the flower on the ground (above) is remarkably close to the colors I saw with my eyes.
Keep in mind that the Bravia Engine used by the photo viewer on the phone can make images look more amazing than they really are. That said, the quality when viewing them on a PC is still outstanding so you shouldn't see much of a reduction in color vibrancy and contrast at all.
Again, the Xperia S excels at capturing wide shots, delivering supreme, vibrant colors along with a crisp image. Due to the 12.1 megapixel images the device captures (4000 x 3000), while viewing them full size on a PC monitor or TV you should see no artifacts or quality issues due to the downscaling of the image to fit the display. However, the small size of the sensor shows itself when looking at a 100% crop: it's not amazingly crisp nor awfully unclear, and probably falls to the better end of crispness.
The Exmor R mobile image sensor really shows itself in low-light situations. Just like I saw with the Xperia Ray (which uses a similar sensor with Exmor R technology), the Xperia S is amazing in low light situations, delivering shots that are often brighter than reality without annoying grain. You only really need to use the LED flash when things are physically hard to see, and as you would expect from a smartphone flash it has a low area of effect.
The above image was taken with the flash on
The front-facing camera is above average for its type, but it should still only be used for video conferencing and taking self-shots. It is capable of (average) 720p video recording but fails to live up to the quality of the rear sensor.
Despite the Xperia S supporting image stabilization, and I had it enabled when I recorded the sample below, it doesn't appear to work very well: videos are incredibly shaky when I thought I was holding the phone relatively stable and still. The phone also seems to take a long time to autofocus and you can't seem to control it using the shutter button on the device. Apart from that, the quality seems quite good as you can see in the sample.
There are also a few cool features that the Xperia S camera can do. Using a camera mode called "3D Sweep Panorama" you can create 3D panoramas that can be viewed on your 3D-capable TV through HDMI-out (there is also a regular 2D panorama mode). Sweep Multi Angle mode has a similar effect instead it creates a single 3D image and a strange preview that appears to move around the object photographed when you tilt the device left and right, although often these images don't turn out so well.
As I've mentioned several times so far, the Xperia S is a media-centric device, so the expectations that the Xperia S performs well in the media playback arena are quite high.
Music playback is really very good on the Xperia S, enhanced by the fact that you can fit a lot of songs on the device thanks to 32 GB of on-board storage (I got my whole collection on there with room to spare). The music player application is solid, focusing on album art with social and information connectivity embedded, and along with the audio chipset in the device it delivers a solid listening experience through the headphone jack.
It's hard to describe the quality of sound without a method to quantify what I am trying to say, but there was nothing to complain about the sound of the Xperia S through headphones. Some devices sound bad out of the box, but this was definitely not the case with the Xperia S and I don't think it will disappoint anyone who will be using the phone to listen to their library of music.
The rear speaker is enhanced with what Sony calls "xLOUD" that supposedly enhances the loudness of the device, but in my testing it was no louder than my Motorola Droid Razr and still sounded very average and quite tinny. It should be adequately loud to hear your ringtone in your pocket, but the external speaker really shouldn't be used for much else.
Video playback is tested, as always, through my seven-part media playback test that is designed to test the compatibility and performance of the device playing popular and common media formats. For the first time, I will also be testing the native video player against a 3rd party solution which is the free-to-download MX Video Player available on the Google Play Store; this app has support for software decoding a large number of formats where the native player may fail.
|Medium||Native Playback||3rd-Party Playback|
Cordy Gameplay (.wmv)
640x360 WMV3 video @ 3046 kbps
WMA2 2ch audio @ 96 kbps
|Not recognized||Perfect playback using the fast software decoder|
The Big Bang Theory (.avi)
624x352 XviD video at 1082 kbps
MP3 2ch audio at 128 kbps
|Perfect playback||Perfect playback using hardware decoding|
Epic Rap Battles of History 7 (.mp4)
1280x720 H.264 video at 2531 kbps
AAC 2ch audio at 128 kbps
|Perfect playback||Perfect playback using hardware decoding|
TRON Legacy (.mp4)
1280x720 H.264 video at 2461 kbps
AAC 6ch audio at 401 kbps
|Perfect video playback but no 6-channel AAC decoding (so no audio)||Perfect playback using hardware decoding for video and software decoding for audio (the latter needs to be enabled)|
Black Swan (.mkv)
1920x800 H.264 video at 17025 kbps
DTS 6ch audio at 1536 kbps
|Perfect video playback but no DTS decoding (so no audio)||Perfect playback using hardware decoding for video and software decoding for audio (the latter needs to be enabled)|
THX Amazing Life (.mt2s)
1920x1080 H.264 video at 9011 kbps
AC3 6ch audio at 640 kbps
|Not recognized (this is usual for an MT2S file)||Plays using the fast software decoder, but video is extremely laggy and the audio cuts in and out|
1920x1080 H.264 video at 2701 kbps
AAC 2ch audio at 128 kbps
|Perfect playback||Perfect playback using hardware decoding|
For the Xperia S, using the native video player is recommended as it enhances the quality of the video using the Bravia Engine. That said, it doesn't decode any 6-channel audio, so if you have ripped Blu-ray movies with 6-channel audio you will need to convert the 6-channels to 2 before the native video player will play the files with audio. Alternatively, use MX Video Player to play these with a mix of software and hardware decoding, which works absolutely fine.
It's slightly surprising that the Xperia S does not play WMV files natively, but nowadays H.264 (in MP4 or MKV containers) or Xvid (in AVI containers) format video is preferred. The Snapdragon SoC supports decoding both of these types of video files natively up to resolutions of 1080p, and high bitrates (such as 17.0 Mbps for the test MKV file) didn't seem to affect performance at all. Again, if the audio is more than 2 channels it likely won't play.
The Bravia Engine is working its magic on the above image
I'm very happy with the video playback on the device as every major format is played perfectly using MX Video Player, which is a free download, and some video formats can be enhanced using the Bravia Engine if you play them back using the native player. Coupling this with the 720p, crisp display for watching movies, the great music playback and stellar camera and you have an all-round amazing media-centric device.
Also briefly worth a mention is the in-call quality, which as with all modern smartphones is perfectly fine and enhanced by active noise cancellation. For people who frequently place calls, this shouldn't be an issue in this department.
Unfortunately I can't give much praise to the battery in the Xperia S for a number of reasons. The first is that it is non-removable, despite the entire back cover being replaceable; you would think that if Sony were going to have a removable back cover that the battery would be replaceable, but not in this case. It also really needs a user removable battery, which brings me to my second point: the battery life of the Xperia S is not particularly amazing.
At 1750 mAh you would expect a decent amount of juice out of the device, but that wasn't really what I was seeing. With little-to-no usage, WiFi connected but no SIM card installed and background sync enabled the device drains at a rate of around 3% per hour, giving a projected battery life of 33 hours with essentially no usage. This may seem alright, but this drops off after you start using the smartphone regularly.
With general day-to-day moderate usage, which involves sending several messages, placing a call, taking a picture or two, browsing the web for around an hour and using social networking applications, the Xperia S will definitely require a charge by the end of the day. I also did some gaming, playing Grand Theft Auto III without a SIM card installed, and the battery drained rather quickly, so if you want to game during your work day you might find the battery not large enough.
As the battery is not replaceable, there is not much you can do to improve the disappointing battery life without using bulky external batteries or bringing a charger with you.
Didn't want to read the entirety of this review? I quickly go over the key points in this hands-on overview, while showing off some of the design flaws I previously mentioned.
There is no doubt in my mind as to the market the Xperia S is going for: it's a media-centric device for people that don't want to carry around multiple devices to create and access media on the go. The 12 megapixel camera included on the device is good enough to replace a point-and-shoot, and the combination of Exmor R sensor, crisp 4.3-inch 720p display and Bravia Engine makes browsing already captured images a fantastic experience.
The device is also powerful enough to enjoy playing modern 3D games without lag thanks to the dual-core Snapdragon chipset, and media playback is fantastic due to a mix of great hardware decoding, Bravia Engine (again) and fantastic audio playback. The software also helps to enhance the experience, with the music player being particularly good and a decent amount of social integration throughout the Timescape UI.
I'm not convinced though of the business and all-round benefits of buying an Xperia S over other similarly-priced devices on the market such as the iPhone 4S, Galaxy Nexus or (upcoming) Lumia 900. The battery is let down by being non-removable and having very average life, and coming with just Android 2.3 installed out of the box is a huge disappointment that sees the user initially missing out on a great many new features.
Then there is the design which has left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, the square design looks modern and professional, feels great in the hand and has a very cool clear plastic strip that looks amazing; on the other hand the power button is in a stupid position and the covers protecting the USB and HDMI ports are way too hard to remove and replace, not to mention the bad positioning of the capacitive buttons relative to their icon locations.
If you are looking for a device that is focused on delivering a solid media experience, the Sony Xperia S will likely deliver one of the most solid of the year and really is the best option available. However, if you are after a great all-round device, I fear that the Xperia S is not going to live up to your hopes and that you are better going after a similarly priced device such as the Galaxy Nexus.