Great things come in threes, or so the saying goes. Sony Ericsson will fill out its top-end range of handsets in 2011 with a trio of Xperia-branded phones sharing the same internal components but varying on their external design. The Xperia Arc came first, the Xperia Ray will come later in the year and in the middle is Neo, a blast from the past and an exclusive member of the Telstra Next G club in Australia.
Blast from the past? That's right, this isn't the first time that Sony Ericsson has used this particular handset design. Fans of the brand will spot it immediately, we imagine; how similar the curved battery cover of the Neo is to the chassis on the Sony Ericsson Vivaz; a phone we reviewed in April of last year.
Not that this is a bad thing; in fact, if there was one phone that deserved a re-release, it was the uniquely designed Vivaz, which was originally let down by its woeful Symbian software. With Android on-board, the Neo is already leagues ahead, and in some ways, this design has been further refined. Sony Ericsson breaks up the midnight-blue plastic of our review unit with a stainless steel trim running around the edge. This trim houses the volume rocker, power key and dedicated camera button. Its plastic build helps to keep the Neo lightweight, although it does feel somewhat cheaper than the plastic construction of the Xperia Arc.
One of the key elements dividing the Xperia trio is the size of the screens used in each handset. The Arc is the big daddy, with a 4.2-inch screen; the Ray is baby bear, with a 3.2-inch screen; and the Neo falls slap bang in the middle, with a 3.7-inch display. This screen benefits from the Sony Bravia Engine software that we saw in the Arc, helping to make photos and videos looks fantastic, and it looks great for everyday use, as well.
The strength of Sony Ericsson's Android offerings this year is its improved, lightweight user interface. The Xperia Neo runs on Android Gingerbread, which delivers all of the performance tweaks from Google's end, with the simplified Sony Ericsson UX over the top. The end result is an easy-to-use Android smartphone with smooth performance most of the time.
Those of you familiar with last year's Xperia Androids may be wondering where the Timescape and Mediascape elements that dominated the UI have gone. Both applications still remain in this year's Android builds, but they take a back seat to the simpler, faster user experience in place. Timescape is now a standalone app that you can choose to use or not, and has a widget that you can deploy on the home screen to help to stay in touch with your feeds. Mediascape has been broken down into its various pieces, with the music player and video gallery incorporating some of the social integration that Mediascape delivered.
After years of clear separation between Sony Ericsson and its parent company Sony, we're finally seeing Sony Ericsson's handset range benefit from the experience of the Sony PlayStation team, the Bravia TV team and the CyberShot photography team. The Xperia Neo uses a variation on Sony's back-side illuminated Exmor-R image sensor and should, in theory, deliver outstanding low-light photography, perfect for night clubs or trying to secretly photograph Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
For what it's worth, the low-light photography is pretty good. The photos we took in under-lit environments turned out predictably noisy, but we can see where this would work when you have no other options available. Our issue with the camera in the Neo is focused more on when lighting conditions are good. As you can see from the images below, photos taken with the Neo can be inconsistent, even under similar conditions. Sometimes the colour reproduction is good, and other times, images can appear washed out. This is only really a problem if you intend to upload pics to Facebook or move them to a PC; if you only view them on the phone itself, then the Bravia Engine does a great job of polishing up lacklustre pics.
Multimedia and the web
The Neo may not look like the most capable multimedia smartphone next to the enormous screens of the Galaxy S II or the HTC Sensation, but this is one of the this phone's strengths. Sony Ericsson's applications for music and video are excellent, and video looks great after the Bravia Engine software kicks in. This software bump doesn't just improve video and images played back on the device, but also media seen on a TV or a monitor after connecting the Neo using its built-in micro-HDMI port. You might want to buy a larger micro-SD card than the 8GB one provided, but, otherwise, the Neo is a standout portable media unit.
One extra multimedia function that we like a lot in Sony Ericsson's software is the various levels of Facebook integration across multimedia apps. For example, there is a Like button on the music player to publish the track that you are listening to onto your Facebook wall, and there is a music-discovery widget that aggregates all of the music video links published to Facebook. We see parts of this integration in other handsets in market at the moment, but none do this as simply or as completely as Sony Ericsson.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, Sony Ericsson opts for the same hardware configuration across all of its top-line Xperias this year, packing a Qualcomm Scorpion chipset into the Neo with a 1GHz processor, a dedicated graphics processor and 512MB of RAM. This isn't the biggest and baddest of the smartphone CPUs that we'll see this year, but it manages to keep up with most day-to-day tasks quite well. With thanks to Sony Ericsson's lightweight user experience, the Scorpion processor offers a smooth, seamless experience most of the time, but don't be alarmed to see a lag spike now and again when the workload increases.
If there's one clear advantage of avoiding the dual-core processor craze that we've seen this year, it's that the Xperia Neo manages far better battery life than the more powerful smartphones. We managed between a day and a half and two days of usage between charges, with in excess of three hours of screen-on time. This is very roughly about 50% more battery life than you can expect to see out of the Sensation or the Galaxy S II.
As a sum of its parts, the Xperia Neo stands side by side with the Xperia Arc, but it still feels like the ugly stepsister in comparison. Sony Ericsson's "human curvature" handset design is built on a well conceived ergonomic theory, but it's far less sexy to stare at, and it feels bulky in the pocket of a pair of jeans. But what really separates these two excellent phones is the size and quality of the displays used. The Arc's 4.2-inch screen is one of this year's best displays, with its air-less panel-to-glass relationship delivering outstanding contrast.
Compared with competing brands, the Xperia Neo delivers a few features that you won't find on HTC or Samsung handsets; namely, a micro-HDMI port built into the handset, but, for us, the Exmor-R image sensor doesn't deliver photos to best the cameras in the HTC Incredible S, the Sensation or the Samsung Galaxy S II (GS2), and with Telstra pricing the Neo at the same price point that Optus and Vodafone price the Incredible S and the GS2, it makes recommending the Neo even more difficult. Being a Next G handset does bring a few unique aspects to this offering, including Telstra's new HD voice service, but the Neo is a good example of why we think Telstra needs a $0 on an AU$49 plan option.