Probably the biggest headline feature of this phone is its 720p HD screen. With a resolution of 720 x 1,280 pixels, it's a notable step up from most 480 x 800 screens of last year, and although not quite as sharp as the iPhone 4S's 326 pixels per inch (ppi), the overall resolution is higher and it's still a very sharp panel.
There is a very sound argument that more pixels in less space is of limited benefit but the sort of step up seen here feels like a marked move forward. Pictures, video, games, websites and much more simply look more realistic, smoother and just plain nicer, while you can actually fit more information on screen without compromising readability. Websites in particular benefit from the extra screen width, making it almost possible to read full desktop websites fully zoomed out.
There is a slight problem, though; viewing angles aren't all that great. It doesn't take much of an angle to either left or right to notice a drop off in colour accuracy and contrast. Is this a catastrophe? No, not at all, as the general quality of the LCD screen is good with vivid yet accurate colours, high brightness and deep blacks. However, some other premium handsets are that bit better in this regard.
The Sony Xperia S currently runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) but an update to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) is on the horizon. It's a bit of a shame to have to wait as ICS does have some fairly significant improvements but at least you know it'll arrive at some point. Sony hasn't tweaked the interface too much but there is a light sprinkling of Sony flavouring.
Starting from the top, the lock screen lets you either unlock the phone or switch between silent mode and normal mode. Hold down the power button and you can also take a screen shot as well as switch to airplane mode and turn off the device.
Once on the homescreen, you have access to five screens to fill with apps and widgets. Sony has loaded a decent number of widgets onto the phone, including a weather viewer, an apps/games/films recommender, a handy hints and tips viewer, a best buddies grid, a social network feed, a media player, a music & videos posted by your friends viewer, picture and video preview, a Shazam-like music identifying app, and links to Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services.
Most feel a bit pointless – you're better off using the space more efficiently and just putting an app there – but the quick switches, music player, clock and Google search bar are always useful. One thing that's notable on this handset is just how little impact widgets seem to have on the performance of the device.
There's no slow down when moving between pages crammed full of them, and when rearranging them the fancy 3D animations don't stutter a bit. In fact, in general this phone is lightning fast thanks to its 1.5GHz dual-core processor (Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon). We put it to the test with our usual range of benchmarks and although it trails both the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Apple iPhone 4S, it's clear there's still plenty of oomph on offer.
The iPhone 4S still dominates for gaming grunt.
Along the bottom of the screen Sony has added its Media folder to the usual selection of icons, giving you quick access to the Gallery, Music Player, FM Radio and Camera, as well as the Google Play Shop (previously known as Android Marketplace), main app launcher, Messaging and Phone. You can of course change these to whatever you like.
Open the app launcher and Sony has made its familiar customisation whereby you can select to have apps shown in alphabetical, most used, recently installed or your own custom order (potentially useful though we always opt for the Android standard of alphabetical).
Drag down from the top edge of the screen and there are no customisations to the notifications area – there's no quick access to a media player or quick switches for turning on Aeroplane mode or turning off WiFi, as is quite common on other Android smartphones.