Sony Ericsson’s 2011 line has so far been dominated by devices with one or more standout features. The Xperia Arc was unbelievably slim and light, with an exceptional camera, while the Xperia Play made its debut as the first PlayStation-certified phone. The Xperia Neo, however, sees the manufacturer taking the hardware of the Arc and downscaling it into a more modest and affordable device. The result of its efforts is a solid mainstream smartphone that incorporates most of the Arc’s features, and even surpasses it in some ways.
Read on to find out how the Xperia Neo compares to the mid-range Android competition, as well as shinier, more expensive offerings from the same manufacturer.
Physically, the Xperia Neo is a relatively modest looking phone. It’s constructed mostly of black plastic, which is punctuated by its silver trim and buttons. Though something of a fingerprint magnet, the chassis is sturdy enough, and survived its two weeks as our primary device without picking up any obvious knocks or scratches. Of course, it’s not as pretty as the Arc (nowhere near, in fact), but the Xperia Neo is by no means an unattractive phone. The design isn’t going to be turning any heads, but it’s functional and well-built.
Just like the Arc, you’ll find three physical buttons -- back, home and menu -- under the device’s screen. The remaining power, volume and camera buttons are placed on the right side edge of the phone. The Neo also incorporates the same 8-megapixel Exmor R camera as its big brother, which is fantastic to see. The Arc’s camera is among the best we’ve tested, so we welcome Sony Ericsson’s use of the same tech in a mid-range phone. In addition, there’s also a basic VGA camera on the front for video calls, something which is present on the Xperia Play but lacking in the Arc.
On the top of the Neo is where you’ll find all its various ports. There’s the usual speaker jack and micro-USB port as well as a micro-HDMI port to allow HDTV connectivity -- another premium feature that’s still absent in many high-end smartphones. Unlike the Arc, though, there’s no bundled HDMI cable.
The Xperia Neo’s screen is a 3.7-inch Super LCD running at 854x480 resolution. It also incorporates Sony’s Mobile Bravia Engine, which helps out with enhancing color contrast and reducing noise during video playback. As we discussed in the Arc review, the difference is noticeable, but subtle. Although it’s technically similar to the Arc’s display, we found the Neo’s screen wasn’t anywhere near as bright. During our (completely unscientific) testing, we found that the Neo’s display at 100% brightness was roughly equal to the Arc’s with brightness set to 50%. Despite this, we didn’t have any real trouble using the Neo outside in bright sunlight.
Internally, the Neo is pretty much identical to the Xperia Arc. There’s the same 1GHz second-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, 512MB RAM and 512MB of internal storage, of which 380MB is available for apps to use. Proven technology, but nothing that stands out from the crowd. In particular, we’d have liked to see more than 512MB of internal flash, given that even mid-range devices are shipping with upwards of 1GB. But the fact that you get almost 400MB set aside for your own apps means the situation isn’t quite as dire as you might think. And there’s always the option to install apps to the bundled 8GB microSD card anyway.
Finally, we experienced no problems making good old-fashioned voice calls on the Neo. Cellular reception was comparable to other smartphones, and call quality was clear, with no noticeable issues.
The Xperia Neo’s software is more or less identical to that of the Arc -- you get Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread out of the box, alongside Sony Ericsson’s custom UI. Just like other 2011 Xperia phones, the software flies along without any visible lag or slowdown. Many high-end and even dual-core phones continue to struggle with software and home screen performance, but thankfully the Xperia Neo has this nailed down. We found the user experience was slick and fast at all times.
In addition to slightly re-skinned stock Android apps, the Neo boasts multimedia functionality including a DLNA-compliant streaming app and TrackID for music identification. As we mentioned, there’s full HDMI support too, though you’ll need to provide your own cable. Once you’ve done that, mirroring over HDMI will work flawlessly, locking apps in landscape orientation and sending a 720p signal to your HDTV.
Like all Sony Ericsson phones, the Neo interfaces with the manufacturer’s PC companion software, which provides a user-friendly way to keep the device up to date and synchronize personal data. This includes Sony’s MediaGo application, which helps with the task of getting your own music and video content loaded onto the device.
The Neo also allows media to be transferred to and from its SD card without unmounting it and connecting in “USB storage mode”, as most Android handsets require. This a great feature, and eliminates much of the hassle that’s usually involved in getting media to and from an Android device.
Sony Ericsson recently launched “Facebook Inside Xperia”, a collection of software features designed to bring closer Facebook integration to its range of Android phones. This came to the Xperia Arc and Xperia Play in the form of a software update, and is preloaded on the Neo. The added functionality can be seen in several of the phone’s stock apps. Contact information is synced with Facebook, and status updates and photos are available right in the Contacts app. The music player also includes a “Like” button, so you can share favorite tracks with your Facebook friends more easily. And photos from Facebook are streamed to the Gallery app for easy viewing. All relatively small changes individually, but when combined they make for a more connected smartphone experience.
The Xperia Neo ships with a 1500 mAh battery, just like the Xperia Arc. Given that it’s powering the same internals with a smaller display, you’d expect slightly better battery life out of the Neo. And you’d be right, although the gains aren’t as staggering as might be expected. Whereas the Arc will give you a full day of normal usage before expiring, our testing found that the Neo regularly made it past the 24-hour mark, but hit the critical 10% battery mark early into the second day.
Battery life always depends on usage patterns, but unless your average day consists of constantly snapping 8-megapixel photos and 720p video using the Neo’s rear camera, you’ll be fine with your usual nightly charge.
We’ve already heaped praise on the Arc’s 8-megapixel camera, and the sensor in the Xperia Neo is exactly the same, producing phenomenal still photos and great-looking videos, as you’ll see in the samples below. By default the camera is set to the newbie-friendly “auto scene detection” mode, which attempts to work out what you’re shooting and adjust settings accordingly. For more advanced users, there are a host of settings that allow tweaking of image stabilization options, white balance and focus modes.
The video camera records smooth footage at up to 720p resolution, regardless of lighting conditions. Even in low light, the frame rate remained stable and we were impressed by the picture quality. Generally you’ll get slightly softer looking footage out of the Neo (and Arc) than a 1080p camera like those in the HTC Sensation and Samsung Galaxy S II, however Sony’s Exmor R beats both of these hands-down in low light.
If you buy a SIM-free Xperia Neo that’s not locked to any particular carrier, you’ll be able to unlock the bootloader and tinker away to your heart’s content. The phone was only recently launched in Europe though, and has yet to see a North American release, so there’s not much of a development community right now. So for the moment you’ll have to make do with the stock Sony Ericsson/Gingerbread UI, but in the future it’s likely we’ll see more custom ROMs for unlocked SE phones, including the Arc and the Neo.
The Xperia Neo is a solid mainstream Android smartphone with a sprinkling of premium multimedia extras. In order to set the Neo apart from the crowd of similarly-specced phones out there, Sony Ericsson has included many of the features which make the Arc so desirable -- a fast, streamlined software experience with social networking integration, an excellent camera and some useful multimedia functions.
Screen size aside, the main thing you’ll be sacrificing if you choose the Xperia Neo over the Arc is aesthetics -- the Neo is somewhat frumpy compared to its slimmer, prettier sibling. But this is balanced by the fact that it offers a similar feature set at a more affordable £300 (SIM-free) price point. And that makes it a very appealing mid-range device indeed.