Sony's flagship Xperia Z smart phone seriously impressed us with its sleek, waterproof, all-glass design, Full HD display and powerful quad-core processor. It's far from cheap though, so what do you do if you want to pop a Sony in your pocket but don't have the cash to splash on the top model?
You take a gander at the Xperia L. It's a 4.3-inch smart phone, boasting Sony's attractive stylings, a dual-core processor and an 8-megapixel camera. It's not 4G enabled, so don't expect to take advantage of super-fast data speeds. Those specs are much lower than the Xperia Z, but then so is the price -- the Xperia L is available now for £230, SIM-free from Sony, or for free on contracts starting at £25 per month.
Should I buy the Sony Xperia L?
In a word, no. The Xperia L's matte black body, arched back and silver detailing do make it among the more attractive phones at the affordable end of the price range, but otherwise it doesn't impress.
It's running what's now quite an old version of Android Jelly Bean that I found to be somewhat buggy. The screen, while displaying decent colours, is quite low resolution and the dual-core processor didn't particularly impress. Nor did the low amount of storage.
If you really want to stick with Sony then by all means take a look. The Google Nexus 4, however, boasts a much better 720p display, a powerful quad-core processor, more storage and, best of all, only costs £10 more than the Xperia L. In almost all respects, the Nexus 4 is a much better value option.
Design and build quality
If you think opting for a cheaper phone means sacrificing style, think again -- the Xperia L is really rather good looking. It has an arched body that's reminiscent of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S phone, with a matte black back. The arch makes it comfortable to hold. It's 128mm long, 65mm wide and 9.7mm thick -- not super-skinny, but you won't struggle to get it into your pocket.
That expanse of black is offset by a silver Xperia logo, a silver speaker grille tucked into the bottom, the big camera lens at the top and the power button on the side. It doesn't have the all-glass elegance of the Xperia Z, but it's still quite a mature design. Its dimensions are roughly identical to James Bond's own Xperia T, but the black and silver touches give it a more stylish edge.
The front of the phone is much more plain, with a simple Sony logo at the top and a slender silver strip running around the edge. At the bottom however is an LED that pulses to alert you to notifications. It's a subtle effect, but it's just about bright enough to catch your eye when it's sat on your desk.
The plastic back feels firm and sturdy. It doesn't have any flex to it when it's attached to the phone and it seems to avoid scratches quite well. The matte coating is a total grease magnet though, so you'll want to give it a clean before taking it anywhere fancy. Around the edges is a micro-USB port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume rocker, a big, silver power button and a dedicated camera shutter button.
There's a microSD slot, meaning you can expand the phone's storage, but only for photos and videos -- you can't install apps to it. That's a big let down, given that the L has only 4GB of onboard storage. You'll really have to be careful about how many big games you download -- N.O.V.A 3 alone takes up almost 2GB of space.
The Xperia L's 4.3-inch screen has an 854x480-pixel resolution, giving a pixel density of 227 pixels per inch. That's really the minimum I'd expect to see on a lower mid-range phone. By comparison, the Acer Liquid E2's 4.5-inch screen has 245ppi, while the Google Nexus 4 -- only £10 more than the Xperia L -- packs 320ppi into its 4.7-inch display.
It might not have the same amount of pixels as its rivals, but it's not exactly a blurry screen. Icons and text don't have the same crystal clarity as its Full HD big brother the Xperia Z, but they're perfectly legible. High-definition pictures don't have the same pop and small text is more noticeably fuzzy -- if you want to read ebooks, you should probably go for the 720p screen of the Nexus 4.
The colours are pretty good though, making it at least good enough for checking out some kittens on YouTube. It has decent viewing angles too, so you won't need to be square on to the screen the whole time to get the best view.
Software and processor
The Xperia L comes running Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, which is now quite an old version of Google's mobile software. Android 4.3 has now been released and even lower-end phones like the Acer E2 are launching with version 4.2 on board. It's a shame the L doesn't have more recent software out of the box, particularly as Sony doesn't tend to be too forthcoming with updates.
Sony has significantly changed the interface though, so you won't immediately recognise that it's running on older software. You'll still have the same multiple homescreens to plaster with apps, but Sony has customised the app menu, letting you easily arrange icons by most used, alphabetical, or a custom order.
It's replaced the image and video galleries with its own software too, which I'm not really keen on. The gallery is more cluttered and awkward to navigate -- it certainly doesn't add anything useful over the stock Android gallery. Sony has installed its Music and Video Unlimited streaming services too, but you will need to pay extra for subscriptions.
With the slight exception of the gallery, the core interface isn't particularly complicated or difficult to use. You shouldn't struggle to get to grips with it if it's your first Android phone and there's enough to play around with to keep seasoned smart phone veterans happy too.
It's powered by a 1GHz dual-core processor, which is very much at the bottom end of what I'd hope to see on a smart phone of this price. The Acer Liquid E2 costs less yet packs in a capable quad-core chip, while the Nexus 4 has a very swift quad-core chip for £10 more. To see how it stacks up, I took it for a spin.
It achieved 4,118 on the Quadrant benchmark test -- a fair, if hardly astounding score, putting it way below the 5,200 achieved by last year's Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X, which scored 4,904. In my own use, I found it to be a mixed affair.
Swiping around the homescreens was mostly quite responsive, with little lag or delay in the page transitions or when opening apps and menus. On some occasions though, the interface was extremely sluggish, with delays of several seconds just opening the settings menu. It didn't handle playing back 1080p video footage, although it coped fine with photo editing in Snapseed. I also found it to have a few bugs in the software.
On one occasion, the background image became corrupted and distorted, which required a restart to fix. When swiping around the homescreens I once noticed odd glitches and flashes of what appeared to be a menu of some sort appearing for a split second on screen. Although the phone was still usable, if they persist these bugs will become very annoying. No matter how cheap your phone is, you shouldn't have to put up with unpolished software.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City would barely load on the phone and when it did, it was full of glitches. It could be just an incompatibility issue, as the more demanding Real Racing 3 installed as normal and played fairly smoothly, as did Riptide GP. Intense shooter N.O.V.A. 3 ran fairly well too, but the frame rate dropped quite a lot in some scenes. It won't suit the dedicated gamers among you.
The Xperia L packs an 8-megapixel camera around the back. That's much less than the 13 megapixels of the Xperia Z, but given its considerably lesser price I'm more than happy to forgive it. It uses Sony's Exmor RS image processor, which the company reckons makes it better in poor lighting conditions.
In my own tests, I wasn't particularly impressed. While it managed to expose fairly well for this indoor scene, the picture contains a lot of image noise in the more shadowy areas of the scene. Whatever Sony has done to the sensor, it doesn't seem to have made it any better than similarly priced phones.
The colours were at least pretty good though, and I was happy with the colour quality on my second test shot of our walled-in ball pit. It'll be adequate for some snaps of your mates, but do make sure you're outside in the sun or under some good lights indoors.
Providing the juice is a 1,750mAh battery, which was pretty mediocre. Although it held its charge fairly well in standby, it dropped quickly when gaming or browsing the web. Sony reckons you can get 8 hours 30 minutes of talk time from the phone -- bear in mind that will be under optimum conditions.
If you keep screen brightness to a minimum and avoid demanding tasks like video streaming, you might be able to eke out a day of use, but don't expect anything more. If you're more demanding you'll almost certainly need to top it up over lunch if you hope to have any power to see you through your night out.
No smart phones have battery life far beyond that -- the days of having a week of use are long gone -- but I was left underwhelmed by the L's performance. The Nexus 4's 2,100mAh battery put in a marginally better effort, but it too is far from brilliant.
With its sleek black and silver design, the Sony Xperia L is definitely among the better looking budget bunch. It's let down though by its lacklustre performance, older, glitchy software, meagre storage and only adequate camera. With the far superior Nexus 4 only £10 more, I can't recommend the Xperia L unless you absolutely crave a Sony phone on a budget.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Sony Xperia L doesn't have a microSD card slot. This has been corrected and the score has been changed from 2 to 2.5 stars.