Sony Ericsson was once one of the biggest names in mobile phones, but its reputation took a bit of a tumble with the original Xperia a couple of years ago, which was a dog’s dinner of a smartphone – lots of good ideas, but badly executed.
Things improved with the Xperia X10 version last year and this latest effort is easily the best yet, with the latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS, an 8.1 megapixel camera with Exmor R sensor and a Sony Bravia engine powering the screen.
Design and build
Skinny is probably the best way to describe the Arc’s ultra-slim casing. It’s actually 125 x 63 x 9mm and 117g but seems even slimmer thanks to the ‘human curvature’ feature that SE began using with the Vivaz.
The bend here is subtler, but helps to give the impression of a wafer-thin device. The chrome and graphite finish gives it a very classy look too.
On the sides are a camera button and a teensy volume rocker, as well as a microUSB power/sync slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
This last would have been better on top if you like to keep your phone in your pocket while you’re listening to music but it’s not a disaster.
The 4.2in screen dominates the front, with just enough room for three very thin control buttons beneath it. And it’s a bit of a gem, with the resolution boosted to 480 x 854 pixels and moved slightly closer to the glass cover so that’s it’s easier to view in sunlight.
With LED backlighting it’s powered by a new version of Sony’s Bravia processing engine, with technology derived from Sony’s TV screens.
Just how close it is to the company’s TV tech is unclear, but it’s impressively sharp and bright, with vibrant, but not unrealistic colours.
Interface and OS
It’s a bit of a surprise that there are three control buttons on the front instead of four as with most Android handsets (back, home and menu are present, but search isn't).
And when we mention Android, we're happy to say it's the very latest 2.3 Gingerbread version. It’s not a huge leap on from the last version, to be honest, but there’s still a goodly selection of tweaks and updates.
The big name additions are support for NFC (Near Field Communication) and SIP VoIP calling, but both are more likely to become useful later, if and when virtual payments by phone take off, or when Google Voice becomes available in the UK.
If you want to make VoIP calls now, you can do so using Skype or other VoIP clients available from the Android Market.
Like many of its Android rivals, Sony Ericsson has opted to top the raw Android look with its own user interface. So while the icons and widgets have the same functionality as on other Android phones, they look different, and you can spread them across five home screens.
Usefully, the Timescape widget we saw on the X10 is back, pulling together your social networking and message updates in a similar way to HTC’s FriendStream.
Gingerbread also sees a redesign for the virtual keyboards, both in portrait and landscape modes. The direction keys have gone, and there are now smart suggestions that allow you to change a word later and improved tools for editing text.
This isn’t a dual-core handset, but the 1GHz processor keeps things moving nippily enough, helped by Gingerbread’s improved memory management.
The 8.1-megapixel camera wastes no time getting started, booting up in about three seconds from when you press the side-mounted camera button.
It takes pictures quickly too, and is ready to go again about a second after you take a snap. Features include a bright LED flash, smile detection and autofocus but there’s also an Exmor R camera sensor, which is usually associated with Sony’s mid to high-end cameras.
It’s a back-illuminated processor designed to improve results in lower light conditions without the need to select a specific exposure mode.
There isn’t a huge range of tweaking features, but the quality of the pictures was generally very good, with realistic colour balance and sharp edges.
Noise seemed to be kept to a minimum too, even in low light conditions. It will record video in 720p HD resolution too, and the HDMI connection allows you to plug it straight into your HD TV and play the results back on the big screen.
Apps and browser
The Android browser works a treat, helped by the screen’s multi-touch capability, which allows you to pinch to zoom.
It renders pages well, automatically running text around so there’s less need to scroll around larger pages and the Flash video support means you have access to some fancier pages than the iPhone can manage.
It’s a shame SE didn’t include the search button on the front though.
Media and connectivity
Videos look great on that large 4.2in screen with its 480 x 854-pixel resolution, which delivers an impressively high level of detail, even with dimly lit scenes.
SE would no doubt claim this is due to its use of a Bravia processing engine, though to be honest, it was hard to see much of a difference whether this feature was switched on or off.
It’s a shame there’s no option to stretch films to fit the screen in the native video player, though there are others available from the Android Market which will do this.
Music features include the ‘infinity’ function, which searches online for additional YouTube content related to whichever track you’re playing and there’s an FM radio on board too, though its reception seemed to be limited, delivering less stations than built-in radios from HTC or Nokia.
The supplied headphones offered a better than average sound with plenty of tightly controlled bass and a transparent midrange, plus there’s a 10-setting equalizer to help you get the sound you want.
The Xperia Arc comes with an 8GB microSD card already supplied though it can handle up to a maximum of 32GB if you need more room.
Performance and battery life
Battery life held up pretty well, delivering a little more than a full day of fairly heavy use.
- Attractive, stylish design
- Android Gingerbread on board
- Decent 8.1-megapixel camera
- Generous screen size
- No dedicated search button
Verdict: The Xperia Arc is a big jump on from its predecessor and puts Sony Ericsson back in Android smartphone contention. Whether you prefer its design tweaks over the best from HTC, Samsung or LG is a matter of personal taste, but with the latest version of the OS, a good quality camera and an excellent screen, it’s well worth considering.
More info: Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc spec
Price: From free on contract; £425 SIM-free