Though Sony Ericsson maintains a vast, loyal fan-base, its products have been decidedly second-rate for a number of years. Between 2008 and today, the highest score that anyone from the CNET team has awarded a Sony Ericsson handset has been an 8.1 out of 10, with many of the 20+ handsets reviewed in that period being marred by a poor user experience, and many scoring 6s and 7s. So why is the Arc so much better?
Sony Ericsson is renowned for its stunning industrial designs, and the Arc takes this to the next level. The unique shape of the Arc is eye-catching from a distance, and its graduating metallic-coloured battery cover sells it on close inspection. The handset is also impossibly light; at 117g the Arc is amongst the lightest smartphones we've ever seen, though this might deter some who may think the Arc isn't as robust as they'd like. For what it's worth, we've enjoyed several weeks with this phone and the strength of the handset has never been in question.
On top is the new 4.2-inch Reality display, which is so black when the screen is turned off that you can barely see where the screen finishes and the bezel begins. This means that Sony Ericsson has managed to squeeze in a display that is 20 per cent larger diagonally that the iPhone 4 Retina display into a handset that is only 1cm longer and 0.5cm wider than Apple's iPhone. This blackness when off translates into deep, rich, vibrant images with the screen turned on, thanks to the quality on the panel and the fact that there is no air-gap between the panel and the glass protecting it.
The Arc is finished with a stainless steel trim around the edge of the handset, where you'll find volume control, a dedicated camera button, a micro USB charging port, a 3.5mm headphone socket and an HDMI-out port. The SIM slot and microSD card slot are located under the battery cover, and Sony Ericsson include an 8GB memory card and a mini HDMI-to-HDMI cable in the box alongside the usual stereo headphones and USB cable.
Central to our praise of the Xperia Arc is Sony Ericsson's new approach to Android. When the company launched the Xperia X10 last year it made a doozy of a mistake by burying huge chunks of its unique customisations deep into the Android firmware. Not only did this slow down the experience significantly, but it also made it difficult for SEMC to upgrade this firmware quickly when Google launched more advanced versions of Android. In 2011, this approach has been completely revised; now, the Sony Ericsson experience is a lightweight launcher app that sits on top of Android Gingerbread. This launcher is fast, well-designed and easily upgradeable.
Sony Ericsson include several unique widgets and you can view all widgets using the new Overview feature.
But this doesn't mean that the Sony Ericsson experience of Android lacks the features you might expect from HTC and Samsung. The look and feel of this launcher is immediately recognisable as coming from Sony Ericsson, and features a custom launcher bar, a number of unique widgets and an overhauled App Drawer featuring a number of usability tweaks, allowing you to rearrange your apps manually, for example. Other key features of the X10 from last year, namely Timescape and Mediascape, have been relegated to pre-installed apps, in the case of Timescape, or been removed completely. Timescape is there if you want to use it — you can apply it as a homescreen widget, but you needn't use it at all if you prefer the layout of the stock Facebook and Twitter tools.
Alongside the standard apps and tools included in Android's Gingerbread release, Sony Ericsson has packed in a number of features shared by the Sony stable of products. The screen is the same panel used in Bravia TVs with a software enhancement called Bravia Engine, and the 8.1-megapixel camera sensor borrows the Exmor-R back-side illuminated image sensor from the Sony Cybershot camera range.
The Bravia Engine is a real treat, though you'll only see it in action when you view images in your gallery or videos from your library. When you launch one of these items the Bravia Engine kicks in, reducing noise and increasing sharpness and contrast. Flicking through your photo gallery is the best way to see this in action: you can see the raw photos in a low-res preview followed by a full preview with the post-production magic applied. This software enhancement is also active when you display images and videos on your TV via HDMI, with the processing performed on the phone before the data is pushed to your flat-panel display.
Unfortunately, the Exmor-R sensor isn't as great a feature as the Bravia Engine; in fact, aside from lifting the light in dark situations, there doesn't seem to be anything remarkable about the photos we've taken with the Xperia Arc. Our test images were spoiled by a golden hue over the majority of photos taken, and the flash is too strong to be used unless subjects are a metre away from the lens, at least. Of course, this is where the Bravia Engine shines the most, and photos taken with the camera do look fantastic on the Arc itself; it's only when you view them on an external source, like your PC, that you will notice how noisy the pics are and how dull some of the colour reproduction is.
With the 100% crop inset, you can see how pictures can look great on the phone even though the actual photo is noisy and lacks definition.
Aside from these unique Sony Ericsson extras, you can expect to find a full, rich smartphone experience with thanks to the latest version of Android. Business users can connect to their work servers for email, contacts and calendar, and the young at heart can customise their phones and play awesome games via downloads through the ever-growing Android Market. Sony Ericsson has even branded the Market on its phones, replacing the "My Apps" button with a special Sony Ericsson portal.
Hardcore spec snobs may turn their noses up at the Xperia Arc's single-core 1GHz processor, but we urge you to look past this stat in spite of the fact that many of the Android handsets coming out at the same time will run dual-core processors. The Arc makes use of a Qualcomm Scorpion chipset, with a 1GHz CPU, an Adreno 205 graphics processor and 512MB RAM. Benchmarked against other single-core Android handsets, the Arc certainly holds it own.
Neocore 3D benchmark
- Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
- HTC Desire HD
- Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
- Samsung Nexus S
- Longer bars equal better performance 59.1 58.1 59.3 55.4
smartBench 2011 Productivity results
- Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
- HTC Desire HD
- Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
- HTC Desire Z
- Longer bars equal better performance 1053 1196 991 706
But more importantly than these numbers is the fact that we haven't experienced any lag or crashes during our testing process, unlike our experience with the Xperia Play. We did notice that the Arc does sometimes struggle to reconnect to a Wi-Fi network after you wake it up from standby, but perhaps this is one of the reasons why our battery life tests with the Arc matched Sony Ericsson's generous 7-hour talk-time estimations. All in all, we easily made it through a work day with the Arc, and only burned through the battery before nightfall when we played several hours of games on the handset.
The Xperia Arc is not only the best Sony Ericsson smartphone we've seen in years, it's the first great smartphone release of 2011. A perfect blend of design, features and performance, the Arc proves that you needn't sacrifice power for design, or design for features and connectivity, but that smartphones are best when designers find a balance between each equally important element. It's a shame that the camera doesn't live up to the hype of its Exmor-R sensor, but in the end this seems trivial in light of everything else that works well about this handset.