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Sony Ericsson Xperia neo Review

Jonathan Morris
July 6, 2011

Before I got my hands on Sony Ericsson’s Xperia neo, I figured I had the review sussed. On paper, the Xperia neo is near identical to the Xperia arc, bar the smaller size. So a nice easy search and replace job of my old review then?

Well, almost. After all, it packs in the Mobile BRAVIA Engine software to improve the colours and contrast on the screen, has the same resolution display (which means the 480×854 pixel resolution looks even more slick on the smaller 3.7-inch size than its bigger brother) and the same 8.1-megapixel autofocus camera with Sony’s Exmor R sensor technology. For all intents and purposes, it’s the exact same phone in a different shell, save for the front-facing 2-megapixel camera, which is the one bit of hardware the arc lacks.

However, it’s no bad thing to base this phone on the Xperia arc and give some more choice to those who thought the arc was too large. The neo has reintroduced the styling of an older smartphone, the Sony Ericsson Vivaz. This was a lovely phone to hold in the hand, but let down badly by the inclusion of an early version of Symbian’s new touchscreen operating system. It didn’t help that it had a resistive touchscreen either.

At the time of writing the Vivaz review, I recall writing that I loved the look of the phone but wished it had been running Android (just as I also expressed hope that we could have seen Nokia’s N8 running Android). Perhaps Sony Ericsson read my review because that’s exactly what they’ve done with the neo, and the keyboard-equipped Xperia pro model that will follow soon to continue on from the Vivaz pro.

The Xperia neo shipped in some markets earlier in the year, but was delayed due to the Japanese earthquake. This affected the production of some key components, so with the neo sharing components with the Xperia arc, the company took the decision to ensure the arc kept up with demand, pushing the neo release back by around two months and even more for the Xperia pro.

Now it has arrived, the company has gone on to announce another variant in the form of the Xperia ray, with a choice of colourful aluminium casings but essentially the same core. I have to wonder how many different variants Sony Ericsson can get out of this platform before it inevitably switches to a dual-core solution.

In case you’re wondering about performance, the Xperia arc is an excellent phone that, in recent tests against the latest dual-core monsters, was able to hold its head up high despite making do with a single-core processor. Qualcomm has stated that it doesn’t see any reason to drop single-core processors anytime soon, with plans to increase clock speeds to in excess of 2GHz on its single-core processor line. For now, the neo makes do running at 1GHz.

So why would you buy this over an arc? Well, firstly, the neo is cheaper, or should be once the price settles down (being the new kid on the block, early models are likely to have a premium). Secondly, it’s smaller and more pocketable. This may satisfy those who think the arc is just a little too big.

It has become thicker, however, but it could be considered to be a phone that actually feels like how a mobile phone used to be – something that fits in the palm comfortably. It’s what made the Vivaz a joy to behold, even if the OS sometimes made you want to bang it against a wall. It doesn’t feel like it will slip out of your hand, or break if you put it in your back pocket and sit down.

Then there are the other little details. The camera button on the side, for example, which was a particularly nice (and now somewhat rare) inclusion on the arc is bigger on the neo, and the volume keys are also larger. Above those is the power button that is equally easy to press.

But, at the same time, Sony Ericsson chose to place the micro-USB connector at the top, along with a cover that makes charging or hooking up to a PC an unnecessarily fiddly process. There was surely nothing wrong with putting it on the side, like the arc, so why change things for the worse?

I also dislike putting headphone sockets at the top of a phone, allowing water to get in if you use your phone in the rain. In terms of connector positioning, the arc definitely has the upper hand here. The HDMI output has a cover on both models, but isn’t something you’ll be using anywhere near as frequently as the others.

The three physical keys below the display, for back, home and menu, are smaller than the arc and angled inwards, making them a little hard to press until you get used to pressing them from slightly above, rather than below. If you’ve not used an arc (and there’s no reason to assume you would have) it won’t be an issue, but it does highlight the differences in the overall design. Neither is better than the other, but the arc does have the benefit of the keys being wider. Like the arc, there are two LEDs lighting up the gap between the three keys. Although not as bright as the original Xperia X10, they’re still somewhat pointless on account of serving no purpose at night.

Another difference is with the screen. Although there’s the same resolution, the physical screen size is lower on the neo, and even though you do get the clever Mobile BRAVIA Engine software to enhance the display, the screen on the neo is more recessed and loses some of the brightness. However, like the keys, you’d need to have the two phones side by side to really notice.

The upside of the higher dot pitch is that photos and videos look even more crisp on the neo, although many of you will prefer the larger screen size and a brighter image for multimedia playback.

In terms of performance, the neo matches the arc on account of having the exact same Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, clocked at 1GHz, with the same Adreno 205 graphics co-processor. It renders 3D at 60 grames per second, which should be more than ample for day to day operation (like playing Angry Birds Rio).

Dual-core models still win out on raw calculation and number crunching, but think carefully about what you’re going to do on your phone before worrying too much. If dual-core is a must, Sony Ericsson will have its own model announcement later in the year. If you can’t wait for that, you’ll have to look at another brand.

Doing that will mean giving up on a key feature of the neo, which is its 8-megapixel Exmor R camera that offers excellent low-light imagery, and 720p HD video recording. It’s also backed up by an excellent camera interface, with all the usual features you’d expect from a digital camera and an automatic mode that will display the mode it has detected before you take a shot. This even extends to switching to macro mode without having to change the focus settings.

Sony Ericsson has also shipped the UK models of the neo with the very latest software update, meaning it comes with Android 2.3.3, Facebook inside Xperia and a number of bug fixes and improvements (the main one being the camera app that could previously be left running in the background, draining the battery in a matter of hours).

If you use Facebook, you can not only sync your Facebook friends with the contacts (as you can do on most handsets these days), but also get easy access to their status updates, picture albums and the things they’re liking or sharing. This includes seeing all the top shared content, mostly in the form of YouTube clips, as recommended by your friends in a chart-like view.

If you decide to use Sony Ericsson’s Timescape app, which can collect Facebook and Twitter updates and mix it up with incoming messages and your call log, you can also see this within the contacts view.

Go to the gallery and you’ll now see all of your Facebook galleries too. If you’re worried about data consumption, and storage requirements, don’t worry as the phone only stores thumbnails of your content. When you view a photo, the full quality version is downloaded along with comments that may have been left. Sadly, for uploading photos to Facebook you must still do so on a photo-by-photo basis.

Now that Sony Ericsson has released so many new Xperia smartphones, it’s a shame it didn’t decide to standardise the positioning of things like the charging socket, headphone jack and HDMI output (or switch to the new MHL connector that combines the charger and TV output). If it had done so, it wouldn’t need to have released an optional universal dock that comes with an extendable lead to plug into wherever the socket is on your particular model, in this case the top that looks somewhat clunky and messy.

Would it have been that hard to think like Apple and standardise certain elements to encourage a range of accessories, not only from Sony Ericsson but third-parties too? Such an issue isn’t a deal breaker, however, given how most people won’t buy anything more than a protective case or pouch – with the phone already coming factory fitted with a protective film over the screen.

The more important issues are how the neo operates day-to-day, and once again, it’s basically the same as the arc. The battery is the same 1,500mAh capacity, so unsurprisingly it performs almost identically. The exception is if you feel the need to keep the brightness on maximum, which is more necessary than the arc (which can be used quite happily at around 50% brightness) as that will result in an additional drain that could shortern your standby time considerably.

Ultimately it all comes down to personal preference. The neo is the cheaper, more mainstream model, but with the delay in coming to market, it has gone on sale just as the Xperia arc is beginning to fall in price. As such, there’s not much of a price differential between the two models, making it even harder to choose one over the other.

The forthcoming Xperia ray, with its metal finish in a choice of colours just makes the decision making even harder again. In many respects, the rush to produce loads of new handsets has left Sony Ericsson competiting with itself head-on.

Only the Xperia pro, with its slide out keyboard, really offers something unique that makes it easier to decide. The only unique feature on the Xperia neo is the camera for video calling, but that’s unlikely to be something many people will care about – although Skype has recently been updated to support video calling, so for a certain audience this could be essential.

But, I have to make a decision and it is of my opinion that Xperia arc is the phone that offers the best overall experience, due in part to its higher-quality screen. However, if you think that’s too big or prefer the more rounded form factor, the neo comes an incredibly close second.

Verdict

The Xperia neo is incredibly similar to the Xperia arc, essentially shrinking in size at the expense of screen size. However, with the same resolution, the compromise is minimal and may be preferred by many. For one thing, the definition of the display is increased. The side buttons are also more accessible, but this is cancelled out by the awkward positioning of the charging/data connector with a fiddly cover. On the software side, the neo is identical to the arc with the latest version of Android OS and Facebook inside Xperia, and the camera and processor are equally matched too. With the same size battery, the neo is really an alternative looking arc that also supports video calling. It’s a tough call, but the arc probably wins – if only by a whisker.

Ratings

[wpgalleryimage title=”Editors-Choice-4Star” float=right]Performance: 4
Features: 5
Usability: 4

OVERALL: 4

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