Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo Review: Design and User Interface

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Rewind t


he clock a year back, and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo would have been a high-end Android smartphone, but as of 2011 the Neo has missed its proverbial ship and as result has ended at the top of the mid-range category. But if you’re willing to let go of a dual core processor and top tier price tag, the Neo has a lot to offer, perhaps more so than most other top range mid-budget phones.

However, you will regret buying this phone on a long term contract, because in two years the dual core app market will be flourishing and your single core phone will be left behind in the dust, so keep that in mind as we take a look at the Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo.

Design (4 out of 5)

Xperia-neo bl..e classic

The first thing that should be noted about the Neo’s design is that it stands out. Sony Ericsson should be given a high five for actually make a smartphone that stands out visually. While it looks similar to most of its siblings, it stands out easily from any other smartphone. Perhaps Samsung should take a leaf out of Sony Ericsson’s book, they seemed to have torn Apple’s book to shreds.

The Xperia Neo is neither the thinnest smartphone around, with dimensions of 116 x 57 x 13 mm, nor the lightest at 126 g, but that oblong back and the general styling make this phone a joy to hold. It feels as though it were made for your palm specifically. Build quality is not the best, to be honest. The all plastic make is of a much better quality then what Samsung uses, but it still feels very cheap and glossy, particularly the red version. The phone is a fingerprint magnet almost regardless of where you touch it, so have a wiping cloth handy, you’ll be using it a lot.

The Neo’s screen is an FWVGA 3.7 inch LCD screen with a resolution of 480 x 854 pixels, it is capable of supporting 16 million colors and it is LED backlit. The capacitive touch screen supports pinch to zoom and is designed to be scratch resistant, though the latter is not nearly always true – it’s a difficult screen to scratch, but not impossible. What’s truly unique about the screen is its inclusion of the Sony Bravia Engine, which is a software enhancement that creates bright, vivid, deep and rich colors, and the display looks absolutely fantastic. It can’t rival the likes of Super AMOLED but it’s not a slouch either – this is an amazing screen to watch movies on.


The phone has three physical buttons beneath the screen – Back, Home and Settings. Above the screen we see the brightness sensor, VGA camera, proximity sensor and ear piece all squeezed together, to the right side you find the physical shutter key, volume rocker and inverted lock/power button, at the top you find the covered HDMI port, 3.5 mm jack and covered USB port. The left side is completely bare.

The back has a centrally located camera lens, which means you won’t be covering it up with your fingers by mistake, and a small but unbelievably bright LED flash – it could easily blind a small animal. This is due in part to the Exmor R technology, which creates well lit pictures in low lighting conditions, and partly due to the fact they simply made a very powerful flash LED. Then there is the small loudspeaker grill towards the bottom and the secondary microphone hole.

Both the microSD card slot and SIM slot require the removal of the back cover, the microSD card is hot-swappable, the SIM is not.

User Interface (4 out of 5)

Android has gone to the dark side on the Neo, colors are usually between dark navy blue, maroon and silver, but mostly dark blue. Other than an overview of Timescape, it’s a pretty standard Gingerbread experience. If you do a pinch to zoom on the screen, all your widgets across any of the seven available home screens are brought onto one screen, and they remain decently sized and easy to select.

You also have four shortcuts docked…on the dock, these are, starting left to right – Media, Messaging, Phonebook and Phone (AKA the dialer), between the Messaging and Phonebook options lies the app icon. Touch it and up come all your apps, in a side-ways scroller with transparent background, so your wallpaper can still be seen, very iOS-ish indeed.

Speaking of iOS rip offs, a welcomed one is the ability to create folders, just drag an app icon over another, and you are prompted to give the file a name and type, do so and you’re the proud creator of a new file. This works with files as well, but not widgets.

You can arrange or delete apps as you see fit, and going into editing mode makes all your apps wobble slightly. It’s a pretty cool visual effect really, but the UI is prone to a second or two of lag from time to time. This is especially true if you exit the apps pane and immediately try to pinch and zoom all your home screen widgets. So it’s not a completely stutter free experience, though overall it’s pretty smooth sailing.

The phonebook is truly very good, your contacts are unlimited, you can video and photo tag them, their Facebook and Twitter details are also available. Though to access actual updates and live feeds of your contacts you have to rely on the Timescape app, which can be used as a widget on a home screen now. Unfortunately hyper links are not supported in Timescape, so you can’t jump directly to a link in Timescape, if you tap the the link, it opens either Facebook or Twitter and you can the access the link from there, really dumb work for a smartphone. Here is something even dumber, the phone has no Smart dialing, I have never seen the lack of Smart dialing in a “Smart” phone, at least the Neo makes up somewhat by having very accurate voice dialing capabilities.

Messaging is a bit of a disorganized mess, with separate Gmail accounts not capable of sharing a common inbox, slow IMAP and POP settings for Yahoo and other accounts, but at least the generic email account has live preview. Threaded messages, whether email or SMS or even MMS, are kept in a bubble like view reminiscent of IM chats. The keyboard is slightly less capable than the standard Gingerbread keyboard, but you can always just download a new keyboard, this is Android after all.

Features (3 out of 5)

There’s nothing particularly mind-blowing in the connectivity section, it’s all a standard GSM affair here, with 2G handled by the 850, 900, 1800, 1900 set of frequencies, and 3G handled on the UMTS 900 and 2100 set of frequencies. Local connectivity is on board via Bluetooth 2.1, DLNA, HDMI, Wi-Fi and microUSB 2.0. So it’s all the same as expected and it’s a pretty good deal, so no shame.

The processor is a single core 1GHz Scorpion processor, it has the Adreno 205 GPU chip to handle graphics and 3D acceleration and of course the latest Gingerbread 2.3. The amount of memory that keeps all of these microchips and cards running is rather miserly, nor is it very well tuned, there is 1 GB of internal memory of which the user can access a measly 325 MB and 512 MB RAM. At least you can support additional memory via a microSD card, it can suck up to a maximum of 32 GB. The lack of RAM explains those lags in the UI we mentioned earlier.

The Xperia Neo is really a phone meant for photography, and as such it could have done with a few more shooting options. You’re pretty much limited to Scene recognition and Smile detection when capturing photos, and for tinkering you can choose from the Landscape, Sports, Beach, Night mode, Document, Portrait and Party options. You can also choose to use the front facing VGA camera. Panorama, multi view, split screen, ISO balance, are all not here for the party, guess someone forgot to invite them.

Pictures turn out a bit washed out and very, well, white looking. Strong hints of white always creep into pictures. There is also a bit of shadow lag between pictures, something called the staircase effect, it occurs mostly when shooting a fast moving object in a constant but similar motion, like a car tyre, fan or windmill. The Exmor R technology on the other hand works brilliantly when in low-light conditions, but low-light does not mean no-light, in darkness pictures tend to be shallow and very green tinged. So Exmor R needs some sort of light to work with.

Video recording is done in 720p HD (16:9), and videos are good. You can enjoy almost lag free videos if you shoot carefully and colors are rendered truthfully with yellow being a bit on the strong side, but overall it’s a very satisfactory performance from the recorder.

The music player is not bad, it looks very similar to the now long gone Mediascape music player, and its functionality is a clone of the phonebook. You can sort out tracks by Album, Genre, Artist and all the usual options, plug in the earphones and you can access some pretty well tuned equalizer settings. Album art looks great on the screen, there is a quick YouTube look up option, TrackID is as good as ever and overall everything seems to be in good order, but appearances can be deceiving.

You can only use the boxed earphones, try to use your own and sound quality goes right down the drain, it gets even worse if you try to pair it with a wireless earpiece or headset. What was Sony Ericsson thinking by forcing their users to use only its own earphones? What’s worse is that sound quality on the provided earphones is about average, not stellar in any way. It’s actually better on the loudspeaker. Not cool Sony Ericsson, not cool at all. There is also an FM radio app, plain, simple, dark blue UI and RDS are on board, enjoy.

The video player fares pretty badly, there is no native DIVX/XVID support, you’re stuck watching MP4 and 3GP videos. But thankfully this is an Android show, so you can just download the appropriate app, also you can watch 720p HD videos without a problem, and the screen does make for some very pleasurable viewing indeed.

A notable piece of software in the Neo is something called LiveWire, which allows you to define a pre-programmed behavior when an external artifact is plugged into the phone, so you can tell the music player to start up whenever you plug in earphones, or for the phone to enter storage mode when you enter the microUSB wire – stuff like that.

The Document viewer does not allow you to actually edit documents, you can only read and send them, you might also want to check the Market for a file manager, cause you’re not going to find one on the Neo. Other features on the Neo are – GPS/A-GPS, JAVA, digital compass, SNS integration, organizer, voice memo and predictive text input. You’ll have to turn to the Market once again for a stopwatch, world clock and timer.

Performance (4 out of 5)

The people in charge of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo got a lot things wrong, but call quality was not one of them. Calls sound sharp, vivid and clear, there is almost no background noise and the loudspeaker works amazingly well. Even in a noisy environment you should still be intelligible to whoever is on the other line, and of course the same applies vice-versa. Signals hold on very well, the chances of getting a dropped call are very slim indeed.

The browser experience is overall pretty good but it has some flaws, the least among them the stuttered pinch-to-zoom effect. Pinch to zoom a bit too fast and the phone lags. Another problem is text re-flow, it is there but only if you use the tap to zoom option, use the dedicated zoom keys or pinch function and you’re left without a reconstituted text area to read – pretty dumb once again for a smartphone of this caliber. At least you can enjoy YouTube and the Internet as a whole to its fullest due to Flash 10.2 integration, though you’’ll have to first download Flash itself free from the Market, but once it’s up and running you’re all set to go.

Now for the battery life, it comes with a respectable Li-Po 1500 mAh battery, which lasts about the entire day on average use, but start to stress the phone by using the camera all day and watching HD movies, you’ll be lucky to pull off 8 hours of battery life. Overall this phone will need to be charged at least once every two days on absolutely minimal use.

Verdict (2 out of 5)

As a smartphone, the Xperia Neo is a bit on the dumb side really, considering its price tag and high end mid-range pedigree, it should have been more capable, smarter and functional, almost all of its rivals in the same category are ahead of it.

The Neo has this weird distinction of missing out on essential features on all its important aspects. It is almost as if it were done on purpose. The Dialer has no Smart dialing, the Reality LCD Bravia enhanced screen has awful sunlight legibility, most normal apps and small functions are missing from the organizer, a browser that supports Flash first needs Flash to be downloaded, instead of coming pre-installed, the Music player has locked down earphones, no native DIVX/XVID support on an HD capable player, the list goes on…

It almost feels like the team in charge of the Aino were given a second shot at redemption on this phone – bad idea. Just buy the Samsung Galaxy S or HTC Desire, and if you can stomach Symbian ^3 maybe the Nokia N8. Either way the Neo is not a good investment.