Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sony Xperia SP Review

Key Features: 4.6-inch 720p TFT screen; 8GB internal memory, expandable; 1GB RAM; 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon CPU; 8MP camera Manufacturer: Sony

Sony Xperia SP


After noodling around with so-so smartphones for a few years, Sony finally went hell for leather with the humongous Xperia Z and grabbed plenty of headlines as a result. However, thanks to its huge 5-inch screen it wasn't for everyone, nor could many people afford it thanks to its high price. If you're in this category then the Xperia SP might better fit your needs. It's got a smaller 4.6-inch screen and a much lower asking price – you can buy it SIM free for £350 or get it free on a £20.50 a month contract – but it still packs plenty of grunt thanks to it's 1.7Ghz dual core processor.

Sony Xperia SP - Design

In a world dominated by smartphones that essentially look like different sized slabs of black plastic, the Xperia SP's is refreshingly different. Available in red, black and white, we had the white version in for review which we think is the best looking of the bunch.

Sony trumpets this phone's aluminium body, but in reality the aluminium is limited to the band that runs around the outer edge of the SP. The bezel around the screen is instead covered in glossy plastic, while there's a matt finish on the removable rear cover.

Nevertheless, the handset feels very solid, partly because it's a bit on the heavy side at 155g, but also because it avoids the slippery feel of the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4. We had worried that the white plastic rear cover would quickly start to look grubby from finger prints and the like, but really that's not the case at all.

It's also great to see that Sony has added a dedicated camera button on the right hand edge, especially as it's stolen the Windows Phone trick of allowing you to jump directly into the camera app – even from standby – just by pressing and holding down this button. The usefulness of this feature really shouldn't be underestimated and it's something we wish other manufactures would start to add to their handsets.

The signature of the phone's design, though, is the translucent strip at its base. There are three LEDs placed just above this strip that are used to illuminate it. For example, when you view photos in the Gallery app it lights up with colours sympathetic to those in the pictures, a bit like Philip's Ambilight system on TVs.
The bar can also illuminate for notifications for stuff like incoming emails and texts. This is helpfully during the day, but it's too bright to use a night as the three LEDs tend to light up your whole bedroom just because you've received a new message. You can turn the light effects off, but it would have been better if Sony had allowed you to set times of day when they can be used and times when they're disabled.

Sony Xperia SP - Screen

The SP's screen doesn't reach the giddy heights of the FullHD display on the Xperia Z, but it's still no slouch for a mid-range handset, as its 4.6-inch frame packs in a resolution of 1280x720 pixels.

Sony has added a few extra features to the Xperia SP's display too. For example, like Nokia's high-end Lumia handsets, there's a special mode that you can turn on via the settings menu that lets you use the handset while wearing gloves. The works reasonably well unless you're wearing very thick gloves. 

Indoors the display looks quite bright and crisp, but with brightness set to Auto we found it a bit lacking in pop when using it outdoors under direct sunlight. We often ended up having to dig into the settings menu to crank it up a bit. Also, it's a bit less impressive than we would have liked when it comes to viewing angles, as colours wash out when you tilt the phone up or down in your hand. So, while the display is good, it's not the best we've seen on a mid-range phone.

Sony Xperia SP - Interface and Usability

Sony has chosen a dual-core rather than a quad-core processor for this phone, which is understandable given its more modest price tag compared to the Xperia Z. However, the processor is still fairly beefy as it's clocked at 1.7Ghz. There's only 1GB or Ram, though, rather than the 2GB that you get on high-end models these days and, as we'll see later, this does seem to have an effect on day-to-day performance. It doesn’t show up hugely in benchmark tests, though, as here the SP put in a good showing.

Its Linpack score of 338.688MFlops shows it's got plenty of grunt for number crunching, while its Geekbench 2 results of 1976 highlights that its overall performance is strong too. It's obvious from playing games like Real Racing 3 that it can easily handle today's latest 3D titles, and its result of 49fps in the GFXBenchmark backs this up.

The phone runs on the Jelly Bean version of Android. Jelly Bean feels a lot quicker and smoother to use than previous Android iterations, mainly due to the extensive work Google has carried out as part of Project Butter.

However, it's not all plain sailing as there are times when the SP stutters just a bit more than we're comfortable with. Sometimes it would randomly refuse to pop up the keyboard in the Chrome browser or when we tried to use the search box in the App Drawer. There were also little slow downs and pauses that we haven’t seen on other handsets running Jelly Bean, such as when you exit some apps back to the homescreen and it takes a couple of seconds to redraw the icons on the screen. These issues could, of course, be due to the 1GB of Ram that Sony has twinned with the processor, but we think it's more likely that Sony needs to better optimise its launcher and firmware to iron out some bugs.

The company has added plenty of extra bells and whistle over the top of the standard Android UI, though. For example, it has tweaked the multitasking screen a bit. When you call it up it shows a banner of tiles for the open apps down the right hand side that you can flick away as usual to close them, but there's also a row of icons shown across the bottom of the screen for a calculator, timer, sticky notes and voice recorder. These are mini apps that when opened float on top of the main app you're using, which is quite neat.

On the unlock screen you can unlock the phone directly to the camera or Walkman music player, and when you tap and hold on a homescreen to edit it Sony has added a button in the top left hand corner of the thumbnails. This allows you to quickly set any of them as the central one that the phone defaults to when you hit the home key.

Overall, Sony's skin is pretty slick, but there are a couple of irritations. Firstly the phone has a habit of stuffing the top notification line on the display full of icons for stuff like NFC, battery saving mode, warnings about your usage of internal memory and the like. After a while it starts to look very visually noisy, but there's no way to really clear them out of the way. Secondly, the are a few too many pauses, such as the delay in redrawing homescreen icons that we've already discussed above.

Sony Xperia SP - Contacts, Browser and Calling

The Xperia SP uses the standard Android contacts book, so there are no surprises in this department. It'll automatically important contacts from online accounts such as those provided by Google, Yahoo and, complete with pictures alongside the usual email address and phone number information. The contacts books supports groups, so you can segment your contacts into categories such as Friends and Co-workers, which can be very useful for managing very large contact books. 

When it comes to call quality, the SP performed extremely well. It's got a second microphone on the rear to help with noise cancelling on calls. People we called using the phone confirmed that it did a good job of delivering clean speech while callers sounded loud and crisp via the earpiece. It also performed well in lower signal areas, largely avoiding dropping calls unless the signal dropped out completely.

Sony has stuck with the standard Chrome browser, which is no bad thing. It's got a nice tabbed browsing interface, you can share bookmarks between the desktop browser and the version on the SP, and it quickly lets you switch to viewing the desktop version of a website if you’re not getting on with the mobile version that the browser defaults to.

However, there were times when after tapping in the search and address box the keyboard would fail to pop-up or take a long time to do so. Also, websites and blogs that are image heavy are generally a bit sluggish to load. This seems to be down to bugs in Sony's software rather than Chrome, as in Broswermark the SP scored fairly highly at 2185. 

Sony Xperia SP – Camera

The SP has both a front facing, basic VGA camera as well as a main 8-megapixel shooter on the rear, so you can use it for video calling if you're away on holiday and need to check in at home or just want to be able to show off the kids to grandparents that might be living in another country.

The rear camera has both an LED flash and autofocus. As we've already discussed there's a dedicate camera button that you can hold down to launch the camera even from standby, which is a very handy feature.

Sony has packed the camera app full of various different modes and settings. For example, there are lots of scene presets covering stuff like sports, beach and night time settings, as well as various filter effects. With the latter, the SP is able to preview them all live on the same screen at the same time – impressive stuff.  

Results from the camera are pretty good. Colours are very rich and bold and if you use the normal shooting mode focus is also sharp. However, on the superior auto mode the camera actually seems to be a little bit worse at focus. The other issue is that there's quite a bit of noise in captured images. Even on shots taken outdoors on a sunny day you can see noise in elements of the image, such as the blue of the sky.

Sony Xperia SP – Apps and Multimedia

The SP has 8GB of memory onboard, but after the built-in apps have taken their share you're left with around 5GB. As a result you'll probably want to invest in a memory card for the phone's microSD card slot, which is tucked away under the rear cover. It can take cards of up to 32GB in size, which gives you a decent amount of room for storing media files.

Sony has preloaded a few of its own apps on the phone, but they're a bit of a mixed bag. Sony Select suggests apps that you might be interested in, but has no real value when there's Google's Play store onboard anyway. You also get SocialLife, a sort of news stream made up of Facebook and Twitter updates as well as news feed from various different services. However, it's rather clunky to use and not really worth the effort.

However, the Walkman music app is rather good, as it's got an easy to use interface and also gives you plenty of controls over audio thanks to its graphic equaliser and various sound enhancement options, such as xLoud.

Sony's video player is also surprisingly useful. It supports a wide range of formats including AVI and MKV files and can automatically sort TV shows and movies into correct folders and name them with series and episode numbers via the Gracenotes database. This is not something we've seen other manufacturers try to do in their video apps.

Sony Xperia SP - Battery Life and Connectivity

Weirdly, despite the fact that the rear cover of the SP can be removed, this only gives you access to the SIM and microSD card slots. The battery is fixed and can’t be removed. To be fair, Sony has kitted it out with a relatively hefty 2370 mAh battery. Unfortunately, despite this the handset's battery life is still distinctly average.

We found we could only get a days usage and no more out of it for the usual stuff like listening to music, tracking runs with the Endomodo app, web browsing and calls. Perhaps this was because we felt we had to up the screen brightness a bit to make it more legible outdoors, but the phone rarely had much charge left at the end of a day.

You can improve things a bit by enabling the Stamina mode in the settings menu, which cheats by turning off mobile data when the screen is off. Thankfully, you can also set up a whitelist of apps that are still allowed to sync in this mode, such as Gmail and Whats App. Still, it didn't seem to hugely improve battery performance for us. 

The SP leaves no stone unturned on the connectivity front. It's got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G and 4G support (although some other counties will have a presumably cheaper non-4G version) and there's NFC built-in too. The microUSB port is also MHL compatible, so if you shell out for an adaptor you can use it to feed video to your TV via HDMI. Sony has even added Miracast functionality even through it's not officially supported by Android until V4.2 – the SP runs V4.1.2 at present.

Miracast is a bit like a standardised version of Apple's Airplay for video. As we had a Sony Bravia TV in for review at the same time with this feature integrated we were able to try it out. It's a little bit slow to establish a connection, but it worked flawlessly once the link was set up.

Sony Xperia SP - Verdict

The Xperia SP is a very likeable mid-range phone. It's reasonably powerful for the price, has a stellar line up of features and looks pretty fly too. However, Sony needs to iron out a few quirks in its software, and the phone's battery life isn’t quite as impressive as specs would suggest.

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//PART 2