By Ray Nicolini
The Xperia Arc's physical design is very clearly targeted at fashion-conscious buyers. It's not ergonomically broken by it, but form has clearly led the way ahead of function (as illustrated by the camera lens being attached at the very top of the handset, its thickest point), but you know what, we don't really mind that. It's about time we admitted to ourselves that we buy phones as much for what they look like as for what they do, and we laud Sony Ericsson for having the audacity to pursue its target demographic with a highly distinctive design. Few things curb our enthusiasm as much as overly generic phones that try to be all things to all people and the Arc is commendably distant from that group.
Another important decision taken by Sony Ericsson is to equip this new Xperia with a 4.2-inch display, marking it out as the company's biggest Android handset to date and solidifying its credentials as an entertainment device. We generally enjoyed our time handling and using the Arc, which manages to fit within nearly the same dimensions as HTC's 4-inch Incredible S, but there is one significant flaw to its design we must point out: the back's curvature is going the wrong way. The Arc moniker wouldn't really make sense without the audacious concave shape, but there's good reason why the Xperia X10, Play, Pro, and Neo all have convex rear ends and it's that they simply fit better in the (human) hand. That's arguably the only concession Sony Ericsson has made in its pursuit of an aesthetically unique handset, but it does hold the Xperia Arc back from being one of the easiest-handling smartphones in the 4-inch-plus division. As it stands, it's merely very good, with neat curves wrapping around the sides and the aforementioned thinness and light weight (117g / 4.1oz) making it a pleasure to tote around.
Contributing to the diversity of Android key configurations, Sony Ericsson has opted for a trifecta of physical buttons on the Xperia Arc (the Back and Menu keys have swapped positions from the X10 arrangement), which are thankfully wide, easily identifiable, and highly intuitive to use. Aside from the good clicky responsiveness of each button, that's in large part down to the omission of the Search key, which we can't say we missed at all. Its absence paves the way for SE to center the Home button (a good thing) and generally simplifies a user control scheme that hardly needed to be quite so complex to begin with. The only downside to the Arc's buttonry is one we spotted with the Xperia Play as well -- there's no illumination for the key labels in the dark. You get a pair of lights marking the division between each key, but their purpose is basically indecipherable when the phone's used in the dark. An easily forgivable little foible, we'd say, on what is a very satisfying keypad.
The rest of the Arc's exterior is mostly uneventful, consisting of flowing, pretty lines, broken up by a volume rocker and MicroUSB port on its top left shoulder, a 3.5mm headphone jack directly opposite on the right, and an HDMI output and a rather tiny power / lock key at the top. There is a physical shutter button here, but it's positioned at the extreme bottom right of the handset, almost at the corner, which leads to awkward operation at times. Overall build quality feels robust and durable, though we're again under the impression that Sony Ericsson wasn't spending too richly in obtaining the construction materials. Nothing wrong with that for the most part, we don't begrudge manufacturers making savings where they don't cost the end product, but we did manage to induce a little creaking from the frame, particularly around the volume rocker.
You should be familiar with Qualcomm's hardware inside the Xperia Arc by now. The current 8255 Snapdragon and its Adreno 205 graphics buddy have already appeared in the myTouch 4G, Desire HD (and its US cousin the Inspire 4G), Incredible S, Desire S, and the rest of Sony Ericsson's 2011 Xperia line. The second-gen chip combo's characterized by distinctly improved power efficiency relative to the original Snapdragon and somewhere in the region of 15 percent better overall performance. 720p video playback is no problem and our Xperia Play testing showed all Android games will work flawlessly too.Today they will, anyhow. The same proviso that applies to the Play is valid here. This summer will be an extremely active time in terms of manufacturers upgrading their smartphone lines with dual-core processors and juicier GPUs, meaning that come fall, there could well be things and games your humble 1GHz Snapdragon core is no longer perfectly capable of handling. The 1500mAh battery inside the Arc doesn't quite match the Play's endurance, but will still give you a solid day's worth of regular use (and not much more). The slight gap between Sony Ericsson's two phones can be easily explained by the fact the Arc's powering a screen that's five percent larger and a great bit brighter than the Play's.
The first thing you'll notice about the Arc's 4.2-inch display, necessarily before you've turned it on, is just how black it is. There's a dark border framing the LCD, but as you can see above, there's almost no telling the two apart. This compares extremely favorably with most other handsets on the market presently, whose screens tend to be a dark shade of grey rather than properly noir, and gives the inactive Arc a thoroughly gorgeous and futuristic appearance. Sadly, that doesn't carry over once you switch the handset on, as the Xperia Arc can't maintain such black levels in operation -- it isn't, after all, an AMOLED panel -- and also suffers from narrow viewing angles, meaning you'll be seeing colors wash out relatively quickly as you move off-center. When viewed head-on, the Arc's display is actually above average in terms of contrast and color saturation, but we found ourselves getting annoyed with its dull appearance while looking at it lying on our desk. Viewing comfort at oblique angles hasn't tended to be a pain point for smartphones so far, but as they grow increasingly larger and fancier, it's becoming more important.
Of course, Sony Ericsson has a panacea for all our display worries with the inclusion of its Mobile Bravia Engine inside the Arc, leading it to describe the phone's 854 x 480 screen as a Reality Display. The Bravia voodoo embedded within basically does a host of image optimization to give you a sharp and eye-pleasing result, and we must agree with SE, it really succeeds at its task. The visual improvements are relatively subtle, but very much tangible in practice. The only fly in the Reality ointment is that the MBE only kicks in when you're looking at pictures or video and will do nothing to improve your general UI or browser experience. Still, the things you'll truly care to see in most detail will indeed be multimedia items, so the Bravia Engine is an appreciated addition. A further commendation is earned by the outdoor performance of the Arc's screen -- it impressed with its visibility in direct sunlight, though we couldn't conclusively determine how much the Bravia magic was helping with that. It certainly wasn't making things any worse.
Let's get the big news out of the way first, the Xperia Arc takes some really beautiful and detailed shots. It's able to focus quickly even under challenging conditions (in our side-by-side testing, the Arc managed to focus in a low-light situation where the Play could not) and its biggest antagonist is color noise when there's not enough light around. Sharpness is retained very well by the Exmor R sensor and there's no reason to fear noise reduction software will blast away the tender detail in your images. If there's one thing to bear in mind with the Arc's output, it is that SE is doing a little bit of its own post-processing to boost colors on every shot, resulting in occasionally oversaturated pics. We understand the reasoning behind this, as it most often improves images by making them appear more vibrant and less drab, but we would have liked the option to toggle this function off.
Though actual performance gave us little cause for concern, Sony Ericsson's custom camera software is more of a hit and miss affair. The hits are a pair of neat slideout menus, which are accessed in much the same way as Android's window-shade. Looking at the phone in landscape mode, you have one on your right, containing a gallery of the photographs you've taken, and one on your left filled out with camera options and adjustments you can make. The latter displeased us a little with its scant array of available tweaks, which curiously enough doesn't even allow you to toggle the Arc's Macro mode on and off. You have to set the camera to automatic scene recognition and it throws the macro on when it decides it's needed. This isn't unheard of, as other handsets such as Motorola's Droid X do the same, and is arguably not a huge deal for a consumer-centric phone; we'd certainly prefer to have auto-macro than none at all. In a less excusable turn of events, the camera software did freeze up on us a couple of times while processing images, and you'll see an example of it freezing a video recording for a couple of seconds in the sample below.
There's plenty of softness in that video, in spite of the almost ideal lighting circumstances of a rare sunny London afternoon. Ironically, whereas stills are handled with little noise reduction by the Arc's software, there's clearly a very aggressive noise suppression algorithms at work when it comes to video. It's used in an effort to make the picture appear "smooth" -- something we saw with the Xperia Play as well -- but it leads to the unsatisfying outcome of killing fine detail and replacing it with a smeared appearance. This could again be excused by the fact the Arc's intended for a casual audience (and the videos do indeed look quite spectacular on the phone's own display), but there's an HDTV-loving HDMI output among this phone's ports and you won't be best pleased with the results once you decide to look at them on an actual big screen television. Wind noise also figured its way into the equation, but that's mostly owing to an unfortunate angling of the phone that allowed wind to channel its way to the mic; we've yet to encounter a phone that's not susceptible to that issue.
There's little on the Xperia Arc that we haven't already discussed in our Xperia Play review. It features Android's finest mobile build to date, skinned with Sony Ericsson's mostly successful aesthetic tweaks and performing smoothly and responsively. For the most part. As highlighted in the camera section above, the Arc benefits from a customized camera app, which is certainly an improvement over the default in terms of functionality, but managed to crash on us a couple of times. Moreover, the Timescape widget can be a real spoiler with all its resource consumption, forcing the occasional stutter in UI navigation, however given that it's merely an optional extra you can remove within seconds of turning the phone on, we can't bemoan it too much. The onscreen keyboard, particularly in portrait mode, would've been better left in its stock Gingerbread form, though we really like Sony Ericsson's changes in the messaging, contacts, and applications subsections. All three work spectacularly, with nary a hint of lag, and look splendid. Additional, though entirely superficial, marks are earned for the neat ghosting animation you're treated to when tapping the unlock or mute sliders on the lock screen.
Browser performance is a little unconvincing, as neither scrolling nor zooming is on the same level as what the finest Android, Windows phone 7 or iOS devices can do. That said, the Arc can chew through web-based Flash video like a champ, which is likely to be a lot more important to users than the amount of butter their scrollwheel's been greased up with. Beyond those Sony Ericsson peculiarities, you're really looking at your standard Android user experience. You get access to a truly vast array of applications, games and content, backed by the knowledge that the insatiable growth of the platform will only attract further development efforts. Amazon has just delivered an Appstore and a music cloud storage service tailored specifically to Android, while RIM has made its PlayBook tablet compatible with Android apps -- it's an OS with a truly bright future ahead of it. Having version 2.3 preloaded on the Arc also means you're starting at the highest possible entry point and won't have to fret about upgrades for a good few months at least. Additionally, if you're a big Gmail and / or Gtalk user, there's no better phone OS than Google's own to make use of those services on the move.
Sony Ericsson could've called this the Xperia Art and no one would have been surprised. Its 4.2-incher is one of the most photogenic smartphones we've come across yet and its design exhibits an artistry and a flamboyance we rarely get to see. Construction materials might have been better, but then the Arc comes in at a very reasonable £425 ($680) price off contract -- placing it at the lower end of the Android smartphone pricing scale in the UK -- so some tradeoffs have to be expected. Where we can't hide our disappointment is in seeing poor video recording attached to a strong camera sensor. It just feels like a missed opportunity for Sony Ericsson to not match the hardware's capabilities with suitably strong software and thereby tie this up as a comprehensive multimedia standout. We also can't help but be vexed by the Arc's shallow viewing angles, though they were admittedly offset by strong performances in video playback using the Mobile Bravia Engine. The UI tweaks on top of Android, while pretty to look at, do look to be more resource-intensive than the stock stuff and Sony Ericsson's input does seem to have led to a tiny bit less stability and responsiveness all round.
All that said, we liked the Arc and we think it has a lot to offer to the right sort of buyer. If you're obsessive about display technologies and vanilla Google software like we are, we'd advise looking at the tried and tested Nexus S. But if you just fancy an uncomplicated, big-screened phone to enjoy movies on during your daily commute, the Xperia Arc might just be your perfect candidate. It doesn't really lack anything on the feature front, but it's Sony Ericsson's execution and occasionally odd design choices that hold it back from being a triumph.