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We take a look at the design language of Sony's new Arc family

At its IFA press conference, Sony Mobile launched four new Xperia smartphones -- Xperia T, Xperia TX, Xperia J and Xperia V. The announcement came just six months after the Xperia NXT series made its European debut, and saw Sony presenting two distinctly different families of devices within the same year. From the Xperia TX at the high-end to the Xperia J at entry-level, all four devices channel the design of a phone for which we still have something of a soft spot -- the Xperia Arc. And at a meeting at IFA 2012 in Berlin, we had the chance to learn more about this dramatic change in design direction.

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A little history

The NXT series -- Xperia S, P, U and Ion -- were the first Sony phones to appear following the Sony Ericsson takeover, and the manufacturer was eager to ditch its dumbphone past and move forwards with a focus on smartphones. The Sony Ericsson name, it was felt, was more closely associated with basic featurephones than the smartphone future Sony was aiming towards. (That’s to say nothing of the company’s widely-panned Xperia X10 and X8 series.)

To make a clean break, it was decided a radically new design language would be developed.

At Mobile World Congress earlier this year, we saw the result -- three new devices sporting a “transparent element.” This clear, illuminable area running between the screen and buttons made these phones unlike any other on the market. At an earlier design roundtable, Sony told us it wanted the NXT series to be a uniquely Sony product when viewed from any angle -- that was the job of the transparent element. But while the Xperia S and its siblings were undeniably unique, we found that the clear element and squared-off chassis introduced usability problems. The sharp edges made them less ergonomic than competitors, and the button placement above the transparent element was less than intuitive. In our opinion, Sony had achieved differentiation at the cost of usability.

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Evolution of the A​rc

While developing the NXT series, it turns out Sony was very much aware of the popularity of the Arc’s design. It may not have been the biggest seller of 2011, but with a convex back panel and zero-air-gap display, the Arc stacked up favorably against the contemporary competition. As such, Sony was keen to revisit this design, and according to design director David De Léon, the choice to go with a radically different language in the NXT series was the subject of some vigorous discussion within the company. But eventually the decision was made to go with the transparent element and squared-off corners, and save the Arc redesign for a future product family.

Smartphone designs are inching closer towards full-screen fronts and nondescript backs, and acting Sony Mobile design head Tom Waldner says that the company’s own market research shows consumers essentially want a floating screen in their hands. With that, the large bezels and light bars of the Xperia S were ditched, and Sony took things back to basics. On-screen buttons were implemented, in fitting with the Android 4.x design guidelines, and the convex back was brought back, albeit without the creaky battery door and glossy plastic found on the original Arc. Instead, matte plastic is used, and the battery is sealed in the device in most cases. At the high end, the Xperia TX is the best example of the aesthetics of what Sony’s calling the Arc series -- a large screen, solid build quality and a cleaned up chassis with a minimal amount of clutter.

There’s also less overall variety between members of the new Arc series. Instead of sweeping changes to the design for low, mid and high-end phones, Xperias TX, T, J and V are virtually identical, with the exception of subtle design accents like the V’s angled chin. Of course, not all Sony phones will conform to the new design -- some, like the Xperia Miro and Tipo, take a different approach.

De Léon refers to these as “strategic exceptions.” For example, low-end phones, or phones in markets where carriers closely control all aspects of device design. The U.S. and Japan were pointed out as examples of markets where carriers exert a much stronger influence over the phones sold on their networks.

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The cutting-room floor

The eventual body of each Arc family member went through many iterations and branches before the final design was arrived at, and Sony showed off some of these at the design roundtable, including the path the design process took to reach the original Arc. From crazy, metallic tear-shaped blocks to dummy units with sweeping curves and sharp corners, the Arc prototypes gave off a futuristic, almost sci-fi vibe. Elsewhere, one design track envisioned the Xperia T with a flat, two-tone plastic back.

We’ve included a few samples below. Remember, of course, that these are dummy units created during the design process, rather than actual functioning devices. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating look at a process that goes on at every smartphone manufacturer.

Xperia and Android

The other side of the design process lies in software, and here Sony continues to build its customizations around Android. Since the original Arc, Sony has paid closer attention to Android’s own design guidelines, and the result has been an experience closer to the vanilla OS than your average manufacturer’s skin.

On the flip side, Sony creates not just phones, but tablets, consoles and other devices, and De Léon told us there’s a need for Xperia products to adjust their software design to meet the rest of Sony. You’ll notice similar color tones and icon styles on the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, for example, and the default Xperia wallpaper bears more than a passing resemblance to the PS3’s cross media bar background. The need to present a common visual style across multiple product categories will always pull Sony slightly away from vanilla Android. So too does the Xperia icon design, which focuses on more realistic representations of objects than the more abstract stock Android.

On the subject of software and UI design, De Léon emphasized the idea of “dynamic minimalism,” a design trait first introduced with the NXT line. The aim here is to create a clear, clutter-free UI that’s both functional and clear. Examples presented included hiding certain functionality when not needed (e.g. DLNA buttons), or the camera app allowing customizable slots for frequently used features. The goal is to pair uncluttered hardware with similarly streamllned software.

As an Android OEM, though, Sony has to work with design decisions made by Matias Duarte and his team in Mountain View, and Sony’s designers don’t always have much warning of what Google’s going to introduce with each OS version. Visual changes need to fit with the existing Sony styles, and new features need to find their place in the Sony UI setup. That’s a challenge every manufacturer’s designers has to deal with (and, in turn, part of the reason why updates take time to arrive).

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What’s coming next

From our hands-on experience with the Arc line of devices, as well as what we’ve seen and heard of how they’ve been brought to life, it’s clear that Sony gets design. The Xperia T, TX, J and V will launch in Q4, ​and we think they represent a much stronger product line-up than Sony presented earlier in the year.

What remains to be seen is how the company will tackle the mammoth task of challenging Samsung in Europe and Asia, and breaking into the U.S. market, where it’s yet to be met with much success. Whatever happens, we’ll be watching closely to see how things unfold.