- 3.7in LCD screen (480 x 854)
- Floating Touch and Mobile Bravia display technology
- 1GHz dual-core processor with 513MB RAM
- Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
- 8GB Storage (5GB usable) with microSD card
- 5 megapixel rear-facing camera
- Price as reviewed: £230
Sony Mobile has made much of untethering itself from Ericsson earlier this year and being welcomed into the fold of the wider Sony family.
It launched the NXT series of phones at Mobile World Congress in February with the Xperia S the flagship device. However all three NXT models missed out on Android 4.0, though the upgrade was finally released last week.
And so to the Xperia sola, a phone independent from the NXT series but which retains quite a few of the design accents which mark the Xperia S, P and U smartphones out. It also unfortunately lacks the Android Ice Cream Sandwich update.
The sola however does have one unique feature, its Floating Touch display, which Sony has developed, and will allow users to manipulate the screen without touching it.
But is this enough to make the sola stand out? Let's find out.
Xperia sola: Design and Build Quality
As we said, the sola copies a lot of design choices from the NXT range, most noticably the square form factor, which is immediately recognisable from the Xperia S, P and U phones.
In terms of dimensions, the sola sits between the larger Xperia P and smaller Xperia U. It measures 116 x 59 x 9.9mm and weighs in at a very light 107g. The miniature nature of the phone is immediately obvious when you pick it up, and the compact size means reaching all the buttons is easy and the phone is barely noticeable when you slip it into your pocket.
The phone's main design feature is that the screen sits on top of the main body, but only covers part of the front of the phone, resulting in a 'chin' which bears the Xperia logo.
This design won't work for everyone, but having used the phone for a couple of weeks, our initial worries diminished and we grew to like the look of the sola.
The 3.7in glass-covered screen dominates the front as you would expect, with three capacitive buttons below the screen for Back, Home and Menu. There is a slight edge with protrudes slightly above the screen, to facilitate the Floating Touch technology, and it does at times get in the way.
Above the screen you will find the Sony logo, speaker grille, as well as a charge indicator/event light though you won't find a front-facing camera here, which could be a drawback for some.
The button and port layout around the edge of the phone is a little bit different to many phones currently on the market, and it took some getting used to.
The main issue we had was the screen lock/power button location, which is on the left-hand edge of the phone, where normally it is found on the top edge, like the Xperia S, or the right-hand edge like the Galaxy S3.
There are no other buttons or ports on the left-hand edge with the microUSB port - used for charging and data transfer - along with the volume rocker and shutter button all located along the right-hand edge.
The top edge is home to the 3.5mm headphone jack, while the bottom edge houses a lanyard eyelet and the phone's microphone.
The rear soft-touch plastic cover of the phone features the 5 megapixel camera, LED flash, Xperia logo and speaker grille, all in a straight line down the middle of the phone.
When you get the phone first, you'll also notice a sticker with NFC written on it to indicate where the NFC chip is located.
Overall the design of the phone is nothing revolutionary but the combination of soft-touch plastic, which does a good job of resisting fingerprints, and the compact size, means the Xperia sola feels good and solid, if it does lack the design flourishes of more expensive models.
Xperia sola: Hardware and connectivity
The Xperia sola is certainly not a flagship model for Sony, but it is still powered by a dual-core 1GHz processor, though from the less well known NovaThor range of chips, which were created by the now defunct Sony Ericsson partnership.
This is paired with a Mali 400 GPU and a rather paltry 512MB of RAM. Internal storage is limited to 8GB, only 5GB of user is user accessible.
However the lack of internal storage is balanced by the presence of a microSD card slot under the rear cover which can accept up to 32GB of extra storage.
You'll also find the SIM card slot under the rear cover, but unlike the Xperia S, the Xperia sola uses a regular-sized SIM card.
The 1,320mAh battery is not user accessible which shouldn't be a problem, though if your battery does begin to perform poorly you won't be able to replace it without replacing the phone.
Battery life as with any smartphone is one of the main sticking points for users, however we found the Xperia sola to deliver easily over a day's worth of use, including web browsing, watching video, taking and making calls as well as downloading and listening to podcasts.
In terms of connectivity, the Xperia sola features the usual array of HSDPA, Wi-Fi b/g/n, DLNA, Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP and it can also be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
In terms of call quality, the sola preformed well, though holding decent reception was a bit of a struggle at times in area we normally have good service. The speaker was also clear and loud, while the people we spoke to did notice a little distortion is the ambient noise was anyway loud.
The sola also features an NFC chip and Sony has bundled a couple of its Smart Tags which can be used to switch on or off a range of settings and/or apps all at once depending on where you are.
While the system works well, we are yet to be convinced that many people would use the system on a long term basis, but if you do need to change a lot of settings when you get to work or into your car, then they could be a handy add-on.
Xperia sola: Screen and Floating Touch
One of the main selling points of the sola, is the Floating Touch technology embedded in the screen. This basically means the screen can differentiate between your fingers hovering over the screen (up to 20mm) and when your fingers touch the screen.
Sounds interesting, but what does it mean for the user. Well, the simple answer is - at the moment - nothing.
While Sony has implemented the floating touch technology in the sola, it has failed to provide any apps to take advantage of it, save for the browser and the live wallpapers.
In the browser, hovering your finger over a link highlights that link without activating it, which should ensure you don't click the wrong link. While it sounds like a neat idea, the feature, though enabled on the default Android Browser, doesn't really work and not many websites support it so far.
Sony has told us that more apps will use the hover feature when the phone gets the update to Ice Cream Sandwich, though a date for that has yet to be set beyond "summer 2012."
"Native Android APIs for hover events are only available in Ice-Cream Sandwich and floating touch will make use of this for third party developers in an upcoming upgrade," a Sony spokesman said.
However if you want to manipulate the live wallpaper on your homescreen without touching the screen, then this works flawlessly, but this excitement lasts for all of 2.3 seconds before you realise it is completely pointless.
Looking at the screen itself, the 3.7in LED-backlit LCD has a resolution of 480 x 854 pixels giving it a pixel density of 265ppi.
While the screen is nothing to write home about, it is still above average for this price point, thanks in part to Sony's Mobile Bravia technology, ported from its TV business. This provides decent colours, good contrast and a crisp screen which a lot of phones at this level just fail to provide.
However there are issues, contrast shift is very noticeable and viewing angles are not good, with the screen getting a washed-out, bluish tinge when you move even slightly from the ideal viewing angle.
Xperia sola: Camera
Sony traditionally has very good cameras on its phones, with the flagship Xperia S featuring a 12 megapixel sensor.
Here we are dealing with a 5 megapixel sensor but that apparent drop in quality is not noticeable to as much of an extent as we would have thought.
This goes back to the debate about the importance of megapixels and using this camera and the 12-megapixel one on the Xperia S, we think that processing power and other factors are just as important as megapixel count.
The image quality achieved (as you can see below) is good. A lot of noise reduction is done in processing the image but there remains decent amounts of detail and colour accuracy is good.
The addition of an LED flash is welcome but there was a tendency to over expose in certain conditions.
We welcome the addition of a physical camera button but unfortunately it is so poorly implemented here, we found ourselves using the onscreen button more often than not. Pressing the physical button requires such pressure at times, that all our photos ended up being blurry.
The camera button can be pressed at any time to activate the camera app, even when the phone is locked.
What happens next is customisable, letting you open the camera app and automatically capture an image or simply open the camera app without automatically grabbing a picture.
The camera app itself is also pretty good. In landscape mode, you'll find the still/video toggle, on-screen shutter button and link to gallery along the right-hand side of the screen.
Along the left-hand side are four customisable icons linking to various menu options such as scene setting, flash, white balance, and shooting mode with thwe rest of the available settings easily called up using the menu button.
Among the more interesting modes available are sweep panorama and sweep multi angle. The sweep panorama directs you in which direction to move the camera after you tap the shutter button, while sweep multi angle is used in the same way but creates what can only be described as an animated GIF.
Xperia sola: software and performance
One of the major drawbacks of the range of phones Sony has launched in the last six months is the lack of the latest version of Android.
Like the NXT range, the Xperia sola comes with Android 2.3.7 (Gingerbread) though Sony is promising an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) this summer.
While most people won't notice the difference, we moved from using an ICS phone to the sola and we noticed a marked difference in both performance and the availability of some apps - most notably Chrome for Android.
Again, this for most people won't be noticeable but with more and more apps only working on the latest version of Android, phones like the sola could soon look and feel very dated.
Unlike a lot of the tweaks made by manufacturers when skinning Android, Sony has done a pretty decent job by adding some well-thought-out features. The first is the lock screen which now gives you access to music controls without having to unlock the phone. The lock screen will also show up notifications from Facebook, missed calls, new messages and emails as well as calendar events.
Unlike Ice Cream Sandwich, you can't launch straight into an app from the lock screen, but remember you can always jump straight into the camera app by pressing the shutter button.
Having unlocked the phone you are faced with five homescreens where you can put widgets and apps to your heart's content. One feature we really like from Sony is the addition of an Overview mode. Simply pinch-to-zoom on any homescreen and you will see all active widgets float into view, letting you easily access any of them with a single tap.
On the bottom of all homescreens are four customisable icons, separated by a shortcut to the app drawer. These can be customised to whatever you want and can be single apps or folders with multiple icons in them.
Some of the widgets exclusive to the Xperia line include the Timescape widget, which brings all your contacts most recent activity (email, Facebook, Twitter) into one place, and Mediascape, which collates all the music, video and photos on your phone. These are fine if you like that sort of thing, but we find them a bit too fiddly.
The standard notification bar and task switcher are also present, without any tweaks from Sony. However Sony has added in one feature which is normally only available on Android 4.0, a data monitor, which will let you set alarms so you are warned if you are about to go over your monthly data allowance.
Overall the UI is decent, with navigating around the OS showing no noticeable signs of lag. However where you will see the sola slowdown is when you throw some Full HD video at it, or try to play games which are anyway intensive, such as Temple Run.
Xperia sola: Verdict
The Xperia sola is an odd phone. It is a perfectly decent low-to-mid range phone from Sony but why is didn't include is as part of its NXT range is beyond us.
Costing around £230, the sola is certainly not cheap and there are Android phones out there running Android 2.3 and with similar hardware specs which cost over £100 pounds less than it.
However, a decent camera, decent screen and the promise of an Android 4.0 upgrade means the Xperia sola certainly has something going for it. The Floating Touch feature is. for now, a pointless addition, but if you are looking for a compact phone with decent features that won't cost the world then the Xperia sola could be for you.
Xperia sola: Scores
- Overall: 7/10
- Battery: 8/10
- Design: 7/10
- Screen: 8/10
- Value: 7/10
No front-facing camera
No Android 4.0 from launch
Poor shutter button