With impressive internals and a unique design, is Sony's new mid-ranger as good as it appears on paper?
Once an underdog in the Android world, Sony Mobile put out a strong showing earlier in the year with smartphones like the Xperia Z and Xperia ZL. With these devices the Japanese manufacturer seeks to differentiate itself with high-quality materials and outstanding designs. So it’s interesting to see that in its new mid-ranger, the Xperia SP, Sony is looking back to its smartphone design heritage, resurrecting ideas like the transparent element from last year’s NXT series.
On paper it’s packing reasonable specs, too — a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 1GB of RAM, a 4.6-inch 720p display and an 8-megapixel camera, not to mention LTE support. Not too long ago that would've been considered flagship territory. So, with a good-looking chassis and powerful internals, does Sony have a mid-range hit on its hands? Check past the break to find out.
Attractive design, good ergonomics, strong battery life and expandable storage. Impressive camera for the price. LTE on the cheap.
Screen is a fingerprint magnet and suffers from poor viewing angles. Occasional software lag. Sony UI is starting to look a bit stale.
The Xperia SP is a solid mid-ranger, but we’d hesitate to praise it anymore than that. It has the beginnings of a really compelling mid-level smartphone, and we shouldn’t understate the importance of getting an LTE-capable device for around the £300 mark. However it’s let down by issues of user experience — most significantly surrounding the screen and troublesome software lag. Some will see that as a sacrifice worth making. For others, it’ll be a deal-breaker.
The Xperia SP can be described as a mish-mash of earlier Sony designs. With a distinctive trim and rounded metal power key, it’s clearly recognizable as a member of Sony’s 2013 lineup. But it also incorporates a little of the company’s earlier design quirks, not least of which is the clear, illuminable “transparent element” beneath the screen — a holdover from phones like the Xperia S and Xperia P.
The SP isn’t quite as imposing as its 5-inch sibling, the Xperia SP, and its tamer design arguably makes it easier to hold and use. For as much emphasis as Sony is putting on thin designs and minimal weight elsewhere in its mobile lineup, the Xperia SP is a fairly hefty, substantial phone. Measuring in at 10mm thick and 155 grams, it’s not winning any awards for its svelteness. But the sides are slightly curved, as is the matte-textured back panel, giving it a comfortable, ergonomic feel. The front is almost exclusively taken up by the 4.6-inch 720p display, save for Sony branding and an earpiece up top. The metal-looking (but decidedly plastic-feeling) trim is punctuated by power, volume and camera keys on the right edge, with a microUSB port on the left and headphone jack up top. The camera button in particular makes a welcome return following its absence on the Xperia Z.
A glance around the back reveals an 8-megapixel Sony Exmor RS camera with LED flash, with a sizable metal trim. This protrudes slightly through the battery door, which is furnished with a surprisingly premium-feeling soft-touch finish — at least on the white Xperia SP model we’re reviewing. The battery door is removable, but don’t expect to find a removable juicer on this device. Instead you’ve got microSIM and microSD slots, and that’s about it.
Beneath this whole assembly you’ve got the trademark clear bar, which forms part of the antenna assembly while also doubling as a notification LED and disco light, should you use the bundled Walkman music app. It also gives a unique appearance to what might otherwise have been a fairly mundane profile. It’s incredibly difficult to ignore, however, on account of both its size and the amount of light it emits. This means it’s all but impossible to ignore if it’s sitting next to you on a desk, or basically anywhere within a darkened room. The fact that the band is exposed on both sides means that it’s also not possible to simply turn the phone over and block the light.
The device’s screen is a 4.6-inch, 720p “HD Reality” display, which is to say it’s a TFT LCD of some description sitting beneath the front glass. Viewed from head on, the display is plenty bright and clear, but look at it from even a slight angle and it’s plain to see the Xperia SP suffers from off-angle viewing issues, just like many of Sony’s other handsets. This is highlighted further by the fact that there’s a considerable gap between the front glass and the LCD — unlike most recent Sony flagship, there’s no laminated or “zero air gap” technology at work here.
The glass itself also gives us cause for concern. It’s not covered by one of Sony’s plasticky, permanently-affixed screen protectors — which is good — but it doesn’t seem to have any sort of oleophobic coating, either. This means it’s very quick to smudge up with finger grease, further compromising the viewing experience. Considering the manufacturers history in screen technology, it’s perplexing to us that it continues to struggle with its smartphone displays. On a modern mobile device, the screen is your primary input and output device — get it wrong and the impact on usability is significant.
One redeeming factor for the screen is Sony's excellent Mobile Bravia Engine technology, which kicks into reduce noise and boost contrast in photos and videos. Despite the SP's lackluster viewing angle, the Bravia Engine picks up a lot of the slack during multimedia tasks.
On the inside we’re dealing with solid, mid-range components. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU is running the show — the dual-core 1.7GHz variant, as opposed to the quad-core version in some other devices. That’s backed up by an Adreno 320 GPU, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, of which there’s 5.37GB available for your own apps, media and other bits. Internal storage can be expanded upon using the microSD slot, though this space can’t be used for apps.
Connectivity-wise, we’re looking at Wifi 802.11 a, b, g and n support, as well as Bluetooth 4.0. The Xperia SP supports cellular data over 2G, 3G (DC-HSDPA) and 4G (LTE), meaning you’ll get the best 3G speeds available, as well as future-proofing for 4G networks. By the end of the year all major UK network providers will be offering 4G services, and so LTE support is becoming increasingly common in mid and low-end devices — that’s great to see.
HD Voice support is also included, allowing for higher-quality voice calls on supporting networks.
If you’ve used a Sony phone in the past year or so, the software experience on the Xperia SP will be familiar territory, as things haven’t changed a whole lot. At the core of the Xperia SP’s firmware is Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. An update to 4.2.2 is promised soon, though in the meantime you’re not missing out on much by being one OS revision behind. Key Jelly Bean features like “project butter” performance enhancements and Google Now are alive and well, and due to the Xperia SP’s use of on-screen buttons it’s easy to get to the latter with simple swipe-up gesture.
Despite the smaller screen and slightly slower internals, the experience of using Android and the Xperia UI on the SP is almost identical to that of its larger sibling, the Xperia Z. Sony hasn’t strayed too far from the vanilla Android design language, and the manufacturer’s customizations are on the whole fairly muted compared to the competition.
The main differentiators for Sony can be found in its app suite. In line with the “One Sony” philosophy, you’ve got the company’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited apps loaded out of the box, along with integration for the former in the Walkman music app. Sony’s windowed “small apps” are along for the ride, too — accessible from the task-switching menu and useful in a pinch, though we’ve yet to see third-party “small apps” take off in a big way.
Socialife is a little-advertised (and if we’re honest, horribly-named) application that aims to fill a similar role Flipboard and HTC BlinkFeed, displaying a constant feed of social and news updates in an attractive grid layout. For photo-sharing you’ve got PlayMemories — in addition to 50GB of bundled Box storage. For gaming, there’s PlayStation Mobile, though Sony’s mobile game store is a mere shadow of its presence in the console space, and the selection of top-tier games is pretty meager.
Similarly, while many of the built-in apps like Walkman, Album and Movies fit well with the overall UI design, the connected aspects of Sony’s software experience seem somewhat disjointed, with no coherent visual message running through them.
Performance and responsiveness remain significant issues for Sony, and it was disappointing to run up against periodic instances of lag in the Xperia UI, most notably in the home screen launcher. With fast, multi-core CPUs and graphics chips like the Adreno 320 used in the Xperia SP, there’s just no excuse for lag of this kind. We’ve seen a marked improvement in this area from the next iteration of Sony’s UI, which ships on the Xperia Z Ultra — however the speed of that device is likely down to hardware as much as software, as it packs Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 800 chip.
Overall you’re looking at a software experience that ticks most of the right feature boxes, but is left looking somewhat stale next to the latest Android “skins” from HTC and Samsung. A refreshed Sony UI is coming, though, and we’ll see it shipping in devices like the Z Ultra later in the year.
The Xperia SP packs an ample 2370mAh battery, which we found was able to power its way through a full day of use with emails, social updates and instant messages syncing in the background. Certainly, a full 13-14 hours out of a single charge isn’t out of the ordinary, and we feel safe saying the SP has above average battery life for an Android smartphone. At the same time it boasts excellent efficiency when idling with the screen off — a reassurance, since we’ve known earlier Sony phones to struggle in this area.
If you’re after even better screen-off efficiency, Sony includes its full suite of power management options on the Xperia SP, including its much-vaunted STAMINA mode. This allows all data transmissions to be disabled when the screen is off, and certain apps to be allowed through this firewall if desired. We’d always prefer to stay connected, and would argue that this feature is more useful on a tablet than a smartphone, but it’s a great option to have in reserve if you know it’s going to be a battery-heavy day.
Finally, we should note once again that the Xperia SP’s battery is non-removable. That means if you want a mid-day power boost, you’ll need to consider an external battery.
In addition to a very, very basic VGA front-facing camera, the Xperia SP packs an 8-megapixel Sony Exmor RS rear shooter. This is based on the manufacturer’s latest “stacked” sensor technology, in which the light-sensitive part of the assembly is maximized by moving all the other gubbins underneath it.
That’s paired with much the same camera application we found on the Xperia Z — a full featured app that’s easy to navigate, with an impressive “Superior Auto” shooting mode that intelligently adjusts between scene modes. For instance, if you’re shooting a landscape shot with daylight in the background, it’ll switch to backlit mode so you’re not left with a bleached-out skyline.
Overall still photo quality from the Xperia SP’s camera is good across the board, with a few quirks. In particular, we were concerned to see a fair bit of noise in most still images, even in well-lit conditions. And it some images it was evident that there’s quite a bit of noise-cancellation going on, as in some instances fine detail was scrubbed away along with visible noise.
In the past Sony has managed to cram some very impressive cameras into its mid-to-low-end handsets, and the Xperia SP matches the manufacturer’s track record. Particular areas of strength included indoor, low-light photography and macro shots, and at the £300 price point you’d struggle to pick up a better cameraphone.
Video performance from the rear camera was reliable, if not mind-blowing. The Xperia SP records at up to 1080p resolution with 30 frames per second, with decent dynamic range. What’s more, the software stabilization feature does an adequate job of keeping things stable, even in less than ideal conditions, and we noticed no artefacting or other any other telltale aberrations. Colors appear just a little washed out when viewed away from the phone’s Bravia Engine-enhanced media player, however, and as was the case with some still shots, you don’t pick up a whole lot of fine detail even at 1080p.
If the Xperia Z, Z Ultra and Tablet Z represent the future of Sony, then the SP is awkwardly positioned with one foot in the past. We’re fans of the design, and there are plenty of third-party apps to take advantage of the dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro’s speed. But parts of Sony’s own UI, most notably its launcher, suffer from frustrating stutters and slowdown. On a similar note, it seems crazy that a company like Sony can’t source a screen with decent viewing angles for a high-profile — though admittedly not high-end — smartphone like this. The fact that the surface is a grease and fingerprint magnet doesn’t help matters either.
The Xperia SP is a solid mid-ranger, but we’d hesitate to praise it more than that. It has the beginnings of a really compelling mid-level smartphone. It’s solidly constructed and good-looking, and the matte back feels great in the hand. It’s got one of the best cameras on a mid-range smartphone, and we shouldn’t understate the importance of getting an LTE-capable device for around the £300 mark. However it’s mostly let down by issues of user experience — most significantly surrounding the screen and the troublesome software lag. Some will see that as a sacrifice worth making. For others, it’ll be a deal-breaker.
At the current price point of around £300, buyers might also consider Google’s Nexus 4, or one of last year’s flagship handsets like the Galaxy S3 LTE or HTC One XL if 4G support is important.