Android Skin Review: Sony Xperia UI

In the third of a series on Android.Appstorm, I look in turn at each of the Android manufacturers and the changes they make to Android’s start up, interface and basic functionality. In each case, does the end result justify the huge investment in programming time and the resulting delays for end users in seeing each new version and update for the Android OS?

Having surprised myself by proclaiming both Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense to deliver more advantages than disadvantages, and given that Sony’s Xperia UI is arguably slightly closer to stock Android than the other two, you might probably guess at the same outcome here too, but for this ‘skin’, I’m definitely swinging the other way.


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Startup

As with TouchWiz, there’s a multi-step startup wizard on Xperia devices, getting new users up and running with the minimum of fuss. It’s good to see that manufacturers have learned and now present the WiFi set up before all the other account and sign-on screens – not every user has a working cellular data connection from moment one with the device.

Always good to see WiFi set up right at the start on a smartphone....

Always good to see WiFi set up right at the start on a smartphone….

Each manufacturer tries to woo new users by sucking them into their own content ecosystem – I’d love to see figures on how this is working out. I doubt it makes the companies significant money and, indeed, HTC Watch is in trouble already, it seems. With that in mind, why don’t companies stick to a leaner, less confusing experience for the new user (i.e. with just the official Google Play Store) and make their money just on the hardware?

You can't blame Sony for trying here, but only rabid fanboys will sign up or sign in...

You can’t blame Sony for trying here, but only rabid fanboys will sign up or sign in…

Then it’s onto the usual Google and social accounts, all slickly presented:

Account set up/sign in, and then you're done.

Account set up/sign in, and then you’re done.

The Xperia UI start-up sequence is a little shorter than for the likes of TouchWiz, but the basics are all here and I was up and running in just a couple of minutes.

Homescreens for Dummies

The impression I get from Xperia UI is that Sony has taken the stock Android experience and identified ways in which new users might be confused — there’s very much a sense of presenting options and shortcuts in as intuitive a fashion as possible. A good example of this is in adding content to homescreens. In stock Android a geek will know to plan ahead, finding the right spot on a homescreen, then dive into the app drawer and then tap on ‘widgets’ and then on the one they want and then long press it to hide the gallery…. you get the idea. It’s all a bit tortuous.

In contrast, Xperia UI works in the same way as more normal users’ brains. You see an empty space where you want a shortcut or widget and you long press on it. Instantly the homescreen shrinks to just the top 60% of the screen, with shortcuts to galleries of ‘widgets’ and ‘apps’ immediately obvious. Just tap and browse for the item you want, then either tap on it or drag it into place. Even better, the shrunken homescreen is also shown in the overall carousel and you can swipe to another homescreen without losing your place in the galleries, perhaps looking for a suitable spot for the relevant content.

Browsing for widgets (and apps) from a supplied swipeable panel - just drag and drop into the homescreen carousel. Easy!

Browsing for widgets (and apps) from a supplied swipeable panel – just drag and drop into the homescreen carousel. Easy!

It’s all terrifically well thought out and makes stocking homescreens, quite literally, childs play, rather than the back to front torture it is on stock Android.

Wallpapers

The panels also allow easy application of wallpapers…

Observant readers will notice the shortcuts to ‘wallpapers’ and ‘themes’ on the homescreen editing interface. The first you’ll be familiar with, of course, but themes take a cue from phones from the previous decade (think S60/Symbian) and override not only the chosen wallpaper but also many colorations and visual cues throughout the phone. So, for example, choose ‘Emerald’ or ‘Ruby’ and bingo, your phone has very different colours for most of its interface.

Choosing an Xperia UI theme and looking at a typically themed screen from a built-in application.

Choosing an Xperia UI theme and looking at a typically themed screen from a built-in application.

‘Most’. Not all, since many applications, including most of the Google ones, take over the whole display and present their usual interface, colours and visual elements. Still, I applaud Sony for bringing back themes to our smartphones after all these years, and I applaud it again for creating such a high quality set of themes to pick from.

Notifications

Xperia UI only adds one tweak to the Android notifications shade — small control icons for the most commonly changed settings – audio, Bluetooth, WiFi and mobile data, with a fifth icon taking you to the usual Android Settings application. It’s simple and it works, mainly because the icons are lit up when the setting is active (e.g. ‘on’) and greyed out when not active.

Just one addition to the standard notifications shade - the control strip of four icons shown here, plus a shortcut to Settings; (right) the 'Software Update' system is multi-tabbed here and isn't just for OS updates.

Just one addition to the standard notifications shade – the control strip of four icons shown here, plus a shortcut to Settings; (right) the ‘Software Update’ system is multi-tabbed here and isn’t just for OS updates.

Lock Screen

Continuing the ethos of keeping it simple, the lock screen offers swipe gestures to go straight to the Walkman (i.e. music player) application and the Camera, and…. that’s it. The wallpaper for the lock screen is set in your theme of choice, though you can override this in Settings if needed.

Lock screen examples, just two side swiping shortcuts, plus swipe up to unlock.

Lock screen examples, just two side swiping shortcuts, plus swipe up to unlock.

Actually unlocking an Xperia UI phone is done by swiping up, with a ‘shutters’ visual effect confirming your upward swipe. Tastefully done and effective, even if there’s nothing to fiddle with or add, Samsung style.

Application Organisation

Another annoyance of stock Android is that your application ‘drawer’ is what it is — a strictly alphabetical layout of all apps on your device. Nothing’s hidden, nothing can be moved, nothing can be organised. Very clear — and not very productive, if you have to dip into it very often.

Xperia UI tackles this in a slightly less drastic way than Samsung’s TouchWiz. Whereas the latter lets you hide application icons that you never wanted to see again (and risk not finding them again in the future, if needed), Sony’s application drawer has a big pick list prompt right at the top, with four different ways of ordering things.

Ordering and customising the application drawer...

Ordering and customising the application drawer…

‘Alphabetical’ is the default and as it sounds, while ‘Own order’ offers a way of long pressing and dragging icons to create the perfect ordering for your particular needs (e.g. the 16 applications you think you need the most on the first ‘page’).

Intriguingly, there’s also ‘Most used’, with the OS itself tracking which applications you launch the most and presenting apps in that order. This sounds great but has the huge disadvantage that every time you open up the application drawer the exact order will be slightly different, so you can’t use ‘muscle memory’ to launch something that used to be… there… and now it… isn’t.

Finally, there’s ‘Recently installed’, sorting in reverse chronological order and, to be honest, ending up just as confusing as ‘Most used’, though it does have the use for finding something you know you installed recently but for which you can’t remember the exact name.

Extras

As with the other manufacturers, Sony has a neat set of applications which make it onto all its branded smartphones. The highlights in the Xperia line-up are:

  • Backup and restore: to and from microSD – ‘cloud’ backup is mentioned but doesn’t show up in the dialogs curiously,
  • File Commander: a professional file manager,
  • Movie Studio: a video editor,
  • Neoreader: a barcode and QR code scanner,
  • Polaris OfficeSuite – though only the viewer portion on most devices,
  • and Track ID: music recognition over the microphone.
Good to see a backup option, though most people will be fine with the standard Android cloud-syncing to Google's servers (plus Dropbox and others)...

Good to see a backup option, though most people will be fine with the standard Android cloud-syncing to Google’s servers (plus Dropbox and others)…

Scanning a barcode and looking it up, courtesy of the bundled NeoReader

Scanning a barcode and looking it up, courtesy of the bundled NeoReader

Using TrackID to sample some Stevie Ray Vaughn - the software got it in one!

Using TrackID to sample some Stevie Ray Vaughn – the software got it in one!

File Commander in action - very slick...

File Commander in action – very slick…

Nothing you couldn’t find for yourself in some form or other in the Play Store, mind you. As with Samsung and HTC, Sony also tries very hard to sell you content through its own channels, here represented in Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited, Play Now and Sony Select. Best stick to generic Android content through the Play Store unless you have a particular bent for Sony. Unlike on TouchWiz, there’s no way to hide application icons that you’re unlikely to use.

Video

Sony’s Video Unlimited, a rather expensive way to consume content, given that it’s locked to your Sony account.

Verdict

As with the other manufacturer ‘skins’, the question to ask is whether Xperia UI adds enough to justify its existence. The problem for me is that, in slightly scaling back its pretensions on top of stock Android, it has now left its UI in a shape which doesn’t really offer enough advantages over the vanilla experience. Yet it is different enough to need Sony’s input every time Android is updated, with subsequent delays in bringing out new versions of the OS to its hardware.

It’s fair to say that Sony’s target market is probably newcomers to smartphones, who won’t care about any of this, of course. And some of Xperia UI’s highlights are in cosmetics (e.g. the themes), which again play to the new user. But, as a self-professed geek, I’d rather see manufacturers go all out to really and truly add value, or revert to stock Android and stay on the cutting edge. Sony has done neither, somewhat disappointingly.


Summary

Review of Sony's 2013 skin on top of Android...

  • Sony Xperia UI