Review: Sony Xperia SP
The new mid-range marvel? Oh yes.
Sony’s flagship Android smartphones have been a bit of a disappointment to me. But if the Xperia S and Xperia T didn’t quite cut the Colman’s, the cheaper follow-ups, the Xperias P and V, were more convincing. Sony, it seems, is better in the middle than at the top.
Now the new Xperia Z - another high-end Sony that didn't really tickle my fancy - has been given a lesser sibling called the Xperia SP. I think it’s one of the best mid-price smartphones money can buy.
Mid-range marvel? Sony’s Xperia SP
Let’s start with the price. You can pick one up unlocked for £300 and on PAYG for £50 less. For that you get a 4.6-inch, 1280 x 720 Gorilla Glass-covered screen; a 2370mAh battery; 8GB of storage with a microSD slot for more; an 8MP camera; a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Krait-class Snapdragon processor; and an Adreno 320 GPU. That’s all the smartphone many people - including me - will ever want or need.
For the the same sort of money you could buy a Nokia Lumia 720, but the 720 simply isn’t in the same league as the SP when it comes to hardware spec. The same is true of the obvious Android competition: the SP blows the likes of the Motorola Razr i and Samsung Galaxy S III Mini clean out of the water.
The back comes off, but the battery is fixed in place
Physically there’s a lot of Xperia Z design heritage at play here, but the SP is a more rounded and less slab-like interpretation of the basic concept. At 155g it’s not the lightest of smartphones nor, at 10mm (well, 9.98mm, but what's 20 microns between friends?), is it the thinnest, but it feels very solid thanks to a moulded aluminium frame.
Nestled within the bottom part of the frame is what Sony calls the Ambience light, which is a notification LED writ large. Very large. Notifications aside, it can glow to match the dominant colour of photographs and pulse in time to music, colour-keyed to the album art. It’s an idea that first saw the - ahem - light of day on the Xperia S, but here it’s given a much bolder implementation.
Games like Shadowgun play perfectly. Try that on a Lumia 720...
Gratuitous eye candy aside, having a humongous notification light, especially one that is visible from both the back and the front of the handset, does have its uses. A quick glance instantly lets you know that your attention is required. As you’d expect, different notification types can be assigned different colours.
Here’s a short video of the light pulsing along to some music and then glowing in Philips Ambilight-like sympathy with images from the gallery.
The excellent control layout copies the Xperia Z, so you’ll find the volume rocker, a large aluminium on/off button and a two-stage camera shutter key all on the right-hand side. Because the SP makes no claim to waterproofing, the Z’s fiddly rubber port covers have been discarded.
Everything is illuminated
The curved plastic back has a pleasantly tactile finish to it which makes the SP much more comfortable to hold than flat, cold and clammy handsets like the Xperia Z and iPhone 5. The back panel does unclip but only to access the micro SD and micro SIM slots. The battery is firmly fixed in place, which will be a deal breaker to some, though I’d be lying if I said it mattered to me.
The difference between the Xperia Z’s 441dpi and the SP’s 319dpi screen is nowhere near as obvious as you might expect. In fact, unless you peer very closely indeed it’s hard to differentiate between the two. The SP’s panel is certainly the brighter though, as with the Z, contrast and viewing angles are no better than average.
The notification bar glows red when charging, green when charged
Thanks to Sony’s Mobile Bravia Engine 2 processing, which makes good on its boasts of enhancing contrast and sharpness, reducing noise and improving colour saturation, videos look good on the SP. This makes up for some of the inherent failings in the bog-standard LCD panel.
It glows round the back too
The UI is consistently fluid and even demanding games run cleanly. That’s mainly down to the Adreno 320 GPU, which is the same graphics chip used in the Xperia Z, UK-spec Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. I ran the Epic Citadel demo which uses the Unreal Engine 3 and got very similar average frames-per-second numbers to the S4; though admittedly, the S4 was running at its native 1920 x 1080, rather than the SP’s 1280 x 720.
With a dual- rather than quad-core processor, the battery takes less of a shafting. With it being unusually capacious by the standards of this, or any other price, category, I was able to get the thick end of two days of general use from one charge.
By “general use” I mean around an hour of web browsing, an hour of HD video playback and an hour of yakking on the phone each day with the screen brightness on automatic, the Wi-Fi radio on and a 3G SIM in play. Your mileage may differ. The less equivocal 720p MP4 video loop test drained the battery in eight hours and 25 minutes, which is impressive.
The SP currently runs Android 4.1.2 but it’s a fair bet a 4.2 upgrade will come along in due course. Beyond that, getting new versions of Android is in the lap of the Gods - though Sony, like most other major OEMs, does seem to be getting better at this update malarky.
In Epic Citadel, the SP scores the same as the Galaxy S4, albeit at 720p rather than 1080p
I’m not a big fan of the design of Sony’s Xperia launcher but switching to an alternative like Nova or Apex involves no hardship or cost and you don't lose anything in the way of functionality. Even Sony’s widget-like mini apps continue to work as advertised.
Sony does deserve a pat on the back for its connected video, gallery and Walkman music apps, though. They are absolute crackers in terms of features, design and functionality. In fact, I’m using hacked versions on my Motorola Razr i, that’s how much I like them.
The cameras fitted to the SP on the other hand are merely mediocre. The 8MP main shooter produced results that were rather noisy and showed less than perfect colour balance, while the webcam’s 0.3MP (640 x 480) resolution is low by modern standards.
The controls are very well laid out
At least the launch-and-shoot feature, which takes a snap automatically when you press the shutter key, worked on the SP - it didn’t on the Xperia Z I reviewed - making it a dab hand at spur-of-the-moment photography. But that’s just icing on an otherwise rather tasteless photographic cake.
Shooting video was more successful, with the SP recording impressive 1080p content at a reliable 30f/s, especially in HDR mode. Like the Xperia Z, though, if you capture a still image while shooting you have to make do with a grotty 1MP picture.
Another failing common to both the SP and Z is the low rent loudspeaker. The SP’s speaker actually makes a better fist of things than the Xperia Z’s but it still sounds a tad tinny even with Sony’s xLoud Experience sound processing trying to make up for the hardware failings.
Sony’s video player is superb, as are gallery and Walkman music apps
The SP does better when it comes to connectivity. The micro USB port supports USB On-The-Go hosting as well as MHL audio-visual output, and there’s support for MirrorLink and NFC too.
The final feather in the SP’s cap is an LTE radio covering the 800, 850, 900, 1800, 2100 and 2600MHz bands. This gives it a handy level of future-proofing and is something none of the competing devices offer. The Wi-Fi radio may only support 802.11n rather than 802.11ac but at least it’s dual-band. I’ve no problems to report with call quality or signal reception.
Xperia launcher isn’t the prettiest and the icons don't auto-rearrange
The Reg Verdict
The Xperia SP suffers from some of the same failings as the Xperia Z but also benefits from many of the same strengths. The difference is that the failings are fewer, and, at the price, more forgivable. The strengths, again at the price, are more gratifying. The large screen, top-notch build quality, impressive battery life, powerful yet efficient chipset and LTE radio are all very welcome on a handset you can pick up for £300.
Nokia’s Lumia 720 is another alternative if you can live with Windows Phone 8, but the 480 x 800 display counts against it, as does the limited amount of Ram, which rules out some of the apps and games in the WP8 app store. None support 4G. ®