A couple of years ago, when SonyEricsson decided to re-invent their new flagship mobile product in Xperia X1, I bought their vision, literally. The phone, despite running on Windows Mobile platform, wowed me with their sleek design and their UI panel concept. Hey, I even contributed to their vision by developing a navigation panel. The quality of the phone was far from perfect, and I promptly returned the phone back to the service centre when they offered a buy-back proposal to appease my dissatisfaction. That was my last impression of a Xperia product.
Then SonyEricsson ventured into the Android segment, I had a close look at X10. I loved the big screen, but got turned off by its Eclair-Android platform when its competitors were already beginning to release Froyo-based phones. In fairness to them, X10 was launched around the same time (or just after) Froyo was announced by Google . Not wanting to take any chance, I had to give it a pass, and went on the rendezvous with the likes of Desire Series and Galaxy S.
When I switched from Samsung Galaxy S for the HTC Desire HD, I find myself constantly frustrated by the latter’s multimedia capability. The screen display looked so pale when pitted beside the Galaxy S; Photos and video capture function was (and still is) so bad that I have given up using my phone to snap candid photos and videos.
So when Samsung first announced the Galaxy S II earlier this year, my mind was immediately fixated on the Galaxy S successor. Just as I thought I have to endure another month or two, came the new SonyEricsson X10 successor. I was originally invited for the Xperia Arc product launch event but I had to give it a miss due to my busy work schedule. Opportunity usually does not knock on your door twice, but for Xperia Arc, it sure did. The whole select, browse and purchase experience seemed to be predestined. I was casually reminded to give the phone a second thought. By chance I happened to walk pass a SonyEricsson outlet so I went in to have a close look on Xperia Arc, although I was attracted to the Xperia Play instead. It finally ended with a deal put forth to me by an associate, which was too good for me to give it a miss. Within 14 days, I finally had my hands on the new Xperia Arc.
The unboxing experience was pleasant. I got a misty silver Arc, and as I inspected the phone before powering it on, I thought the silver look finishing does add a tint of elegant feel to its sexy appeal. With the new Arc, SonyEricsson seems to have perfected its sleek arc design since the Xperia X1 days. Opening of the battery cover was easy although I was so worried I might just break it with the prying. Thanks to its light-weight casing, the phone feels so much lighter than my Desire HD, and made me realised how much of weight I have been carrying all these while since Galaxy S days. Upon powering up the phone, I was greeted by a vibrant colour, high contrast display. It just reminded me the feasts my eyes have been missing in the last 6 months with the dull-looking Desire HD screen. Having said that, the jury is still out (at least for me, until I see for myself), on how the Bravia Engine display would fare against the new Super AMOLed Plus in Galaxy S2.
On the other hand, I am not a big fan of “bling bling” chrome trimming, and the 3 long chrome buttons at the bottom of the screen. If the misty silver finish adds to the classy look, the chrome trimming and buttons minus it off. The 3 system buttons (back, home and menu) are not backlit, even though SonyEricsson tried to use two tiny led points to indicate the positions of the buttons. While I can appreciate the tactile feels that only a physical button can offer, i thought the size and layout of the three system buttons spoil the otherwise sexy and classy design of Arc.
Once powered up, I was greeted by a very well thought-through setup wizard process. Setting up my office and personal accounts and having all my emails, contacts and calendars synchronised into the phone was a breeze, although I would attribute that largely due to Google Android platform. Within seconds, I could start using the phone productively, no need to worry about phone content migration. The key missing feature I found in Arc is the Market app restoration. I had thought it is a Gingerbread feature, as I had experienced in my Desire HD where the market actually restores applications when I upgraded the phone to Gingerbread. So the call for rooting the phone, and thanks to Chainfire’s Gingerbreak, I got it rooted fairly quickly and uses TitaniumBackup to restore all my applications and data.
The operating of the phone feels smooth and fast overall. There are some momentary lags here and there, and most of the time the lags happen when there is multi-tasking going on (e.g. running an app while another app is being installed). The boost in speed is also largely attributed to Gingerbread, which I thought has addressed some of the memory management and multi-tasking issues in Froyo and Eclair. The challenge I think most OEM face is how their software development effort can be seamlessly integrated into Android platform, and I thought SonyEricsson did very well here. The home launcher may not be as sophisticated as HTC’s sense, but it sure has its own DNA unlike the Samsung’s home interface. Perhaps because of its lightweight, the launcher operates with almost zero lag as one switches from one home screen to another, with live widgets and wallpapers running in the background. That said, I thought SonyEricsson suffered from its own success. While it has set a very high bar on its user interface with a lot of bells and whistles (e.g. animated navigation actions), it seems to have lost sight on how to make its application usable from the content experience point of view. The concept of Timescape is good. HTC has similar concept in Friendstream, Motorola has MotoBlur (I think) and Samsung has SocialHub, but I thought Timescape has a more complete concept around content aggregation and syndication. The navigation and interface is sleek too, I love the animation of messaging cards stacking up on each other. But will I be able to productively use it to share and review all the social media messages and updates? I’m not sure, and so the answer is probably not.
Camera wise, Xperia Arc beats Desire HD hands down. Thanks to the Exmor R for mobile, a Cmos sensor supposedly leveraged from that found in Sony’s full-fledged camera series, Arc could really take good photos in poor lighting condition. There were already reviews on carrying out real life comparison between Arc and other mobile devices (e.g. here and here), so I would not want to repeat myself here. The video capturing capability is as good, if not better, than Galaxy S, and definitely put all the HTC devices to shame. If anybody really cares about camera feature or visual display, HTC phones should not be in their shopping consideration at all. Arc has a simple video editor pre-installed, good and easy to use tool if you just want to save a section of the captured video. Any more sophisticated needs beyond that, you should look for a proper video editing app or transfer it to your desktop for further editing.
No matter how good the device is, there is always shortcomings, and Xperia Arc is no different. Apart from the poor chrome trimming and buttons layouts, the doubt over Timescape’s practicality, there are some nagging concerns on the Wifi performance, occasional lags and the “bloat wares”. But my main gripe with the phone *so far* is lack of community-based development work. No doubt there is work-in-progress on CM7 porting, some modification on UI and bootloaders, but the results are insignificant when you compare them against the development widespread in the HTC community. I think it is time for developers to realise there are better phones out there in the market. On the other hand, the manufacturers need to be more open on how the developers can gain access to their products, to entice them to develop useful applications. That is why HTC remains to be so popular in the xda-developers community, despite some of its mediocre offerings that can be found even their flagship products. Fortunately, SonyEricsson is beginning to think likewise to engage the developers, with their attempt to reach out in xda-developers forum, and officially sharing how to unlock their signed bootloaders so that developers can try out different custom ROMs on their phones. Having said that, not all mobile users would be bothered by such factor, but I think there must be a fine balance which manufacturers need to handle. For now, I can only hope for a better change, and for a start, I am looking forward to the Gingerbread 2.3.3 upgrade in the next 2 weeks.