The Sony Xperia P is the piggy in the middle of Sony's new Ericsson-less Xperia range -- squeezed between the higher specced Xperia S and the smaller Xperia U. 'P' also stands for 'perched in the crowded mid-range of Android phones'.
Should I buy the Sony Xperia P?
The Xperia P sits at a very crowded point on the smart phone spectrum. Here in the mid-range, your money can be spent in multiple ways, and if you're buying on contract, you can bag a higher-end device than you might be able to afford SIM-free.
With so much competition, you'll need to be head-over-heels smitten with the Xperia P to slip it in your pocket. Not least because Sony hasn't bothered sticking the latest version of Google's Android operating system on board -- it uses plain old Gingerbread, not Ice Cream Sandwich.
Sony has said the P will get an ICS update -- possibly before the end of June -- but such timeframes often lapse. If you really want ICS now, you're better with another mid-range 'droid that comes fully loaded from the get go.
The Xperia P suffers from some build quality issues. And while performance is generally nippy, I found the software to be glitchy and buggy -- at least on the test unit I was using.
Alternative smart phones at this contract price run the gamut from high-end Android powerhouses such as the HTC One X to the perennially popular Samsung Galaxy S2, HTC's Speedy Gonzales One S or the super-high-res Sony Xperia S. It's worth noting that HTC's One Series devices all run Ice Cream Sandwich out of the box.
Design and build quality
The Xperia P carries the most striking design feature of all Sony's new Xperias -- a thin transparent bar near the bottom of the phone. This lights up to signify incoming calls and texts. I reckon it will polarise opinion in a Marmite-style love-it-or-hate-it way. But it does at least offer something different to the standard-issue black smart phone slab.
The plastic strip is also the phone's control bar as it houses the back, home and menu keys. Unlike the Xperia S, you do actually press right on -- rather than above -- the clear plastic to activate these touch-sensitive keys, so it feels useful and not just gimmicky.
The Xperia P has a rectangular form with blunted edges giving it a clean silhouette -- softened only by the curve of its gently rounded back. Its mostly metal casing does give it a more premium look than its two similarly styled siblings (the Xperia P's bottom edge is actually coloured plastic and not metal). Overall, the phone feels very light and sturdy in the hand. It's also nice and thin. The metal is a tad slippery though so butterfingered types may find it escaping their digits.
My review model was silver but there are also black and red versions on offer -- the red looks especially striking. It remains to be seen how durable these colour-coated metal models are.
While the Xperia P feels solid, I did encounter several build quality issues. The first time I touched the flap covering the micro-SIM slot, the metal cover started to peel off its rubberised plastic backing. The second time I touched it, it came off entirely. This is very poor.
There's also no guidance symbol to help you insert the SIM the correct way up. Try to push it in the wrong way and it can be very hard to prise out. (For the record, the gold chip should be facing down towards the back of the phone.)
There are other niggles with the finish of the Xperia P -- two small screws holding the case in place weren't perfectly aligned on my review model so they look slightly wonky. The screen also shares the Xperia S's tendency to attract dust and other small particles -- possibly owing to static build-up as I found the top portion of the phone to be slightly magnetic.
On my review model, the transparent strip had a slight visual flaw next to the home button, as if the gluing had gone awry. It's not a major problem but it would irritate me if I'd paid to own this phone.
A potentially more serious problem with the Xperia P was flagged up by my CNET Asia colleague, Aloysius Low. He found it's possible to attenuate the signal by holding the phone tightly in a so-called 'death grip' -- reminiscent of the antennagate issue that dogged Apple's original iPhone 4.
Instead of affecting calls, Low found that holding the Xperia P tightly caused the signal to drop off and affect data performance, slowing down web browsing. In my own tests, I was also able to get signal bars to drop off when holding it -- generally one or two bars. But I didn't notice any drop-off in browsing performance when using this death grip. Calls were also unaffected.
Another design gripe is that the physical buttons on the Xperia P are very low lying, especially the power and camera key, so pressing them can feel harder than it should -- making them seem spongy.
Sony has also sited all three keys -- power, volume rocker and camera keys -- on one side of the phone, which is a slightly cramped and awkward placing, especially for getting at the power key. The right-hand edge is also home to the phone's second speaker. Yet the top of the phone is clutter-free, with only a 3.5mm headphone jack.
On the phone's left-hand edge, there's the micro-SIM slot, along with a micro-USB port for charging and ferrying camera snaps, music files and more back and forth. You also get an HDMI port for hooking the Xperia P up to a larger display. Many Android fans will be sad to learn there's no microSD card slot. Nor can the battery be got at -- it's sealed inside.
On the back of the phone is an 8-megapixel camera plus LED flash. The lens is sited a couple of centimetres from the edge of the phone so you shouldn't have to worry about getting your digits in shot by mistake.
Also on board is near field communication (NFC) -- the contactless payments and info-sharing technology that lets you swipe your phone over other NFC-enabled objects to activate certain functions.
The Xperia P has a generously sized but not super-whopping 4-inch touchscreen that boasts Sony's WhiteMagic technology. This apparently makes it easier to see in bright sunlight. To test this claim, I took the Xperia P outdoors during a rare London heatwave -- bringing an iPhone 4S-owning companion to the park with me. After comparing both screens' performance in direct sunlight, set at their maximum brightness, neither of us thought the Sony screen looked any brighter or easier to see.
It's certainly possible to make out content on the Xperia P's screen when outdoors in full sunshine. But in my experience, the display doesn't look especially bright or vibrant so don't expect WhiteMagic to work miracles. Bright sun will still make its presence felt and your stuff will be plenty paler and more ghostly than when you're indoors.
Sony terms this screen its Reality Display -- the aim being to reproduce colours that are more true-to-life than some of the over-saturated screens out there. Colours on the P's display are certainly more muted than AMOLED screens such as the Samsung Galaxy S2 but they still look sumptuous. The Xperia P apparently uses Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine -- a technology it uses in its TVs.
The Xperia P's display is noticeably softer than the Xperia S's super-pin-sharp screen. Its resolution is 960x540 pixels, which equates to a decent but middling pixel-per-inch count of 275. Compare that to the whopping 342ppi on the Xperia S. Videos still look sumptuous and colourful on the Xperia P's screen though, and the viewing angle is good.
Sony has said the Xperia P will get an update to ICS before June is out, but you're still going to have to spend some time mooching around waiting for an update -- especially if you buy the Xperia P locked to a mobile network.
Atop this solid -- if slightly stale -- Gingerbread base, Sony has laid down its software icing. If you've seen the Sony Xperia S, you'll be familiar with Sony's skin. It's a fairly bog-standard Android cladding, with five home screens embroidered with some rather ugly widgets (which can thankfully be deleted), and bulked up with various Sony service offerings. It's not as polished an interface as HTC's Android topper, Sense 4.0, but it's fairly simple and easy to use.
With Sony's music and movies pedigree, there's no shortage of options for getting films, music and games onto the Xperia P. Sony's Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and PlayNow app store are all there, offering to take a cut of your cash in exchange for digital goodies. Plus you're pointed to an EA Games app store and Google Play for thousands more Android apps.
If anything, there are too many ways to load stuff onto the phone -- it's not exactly streamlined but you can't complain about lack of choice.
Sony has also pre-loaded several of its own apps, including a Media Remote app to use the phone in conjunction with a Sony TV should you be so inclined, plus some bloatware and the usual Google offerings such as Google Maps and Messenger.
Processor and performance
Under the Xperia P's aluminium hood is a 1GHz dual-core chip -- so it's not as beefy as its 1.5GHz dual-core brother, the Xperia S, but it's still pretty nippy. Menus swish back and forth with alacrity and the phone generally feels nice and fast -- with a few notable exceptions. The gallery view in particular takes its time to render your snaps so you're left staring at ugly blurs for seconds longer than your eyes would like. This lag also affected the Xperia S so it's likely to be an issue with Sony's software interface, rather than a lack of hardware clout in the Xperia P.
Web browsing slightly jitters when you move at slow speeds, rather than being butter smooth. It's a minor gripe but one that set my teeth on edge.
I did encounter some software glitches while using the Xperia P -- with the camera app freezing up twice and crashing the entire phone. Other apps also crashed on being fired up. I found the camera sometimes had trouble accurately handling very bright colours, with shades bleeding into others or producing an almost solarising effect (see Camera section below).
On Antutu's CPU and memory test it managed a mid-range 5,231, while the Quadrant benchmark ranked it towards the lower-mid, with 2,192. I also ran Geekbench's standard Egypt 3D graphics test -- the Xperia P achieved a middling 32 frames per second.
Compare the Xperia P's scores to the HTC One S, which can be picked up for a similar price on contract, and there's clear blue water between the devices. HTC's dual-core device puts in a ludicrously speedy performance. For example, the One S ran Geekbench's standard Egypt test at 60fps.
The Xperia P's battery performance was low-to-average smart phone fare -- so certainly expect to charge the phone every night if you're a heavy user. Sony says the Xperia P will last up to 4 hours when playing video, or up to 6 hours of talk time.
Call quality and audio were both good -- the side speaker can pump out some decent sounding noise and goes fairly loud. As a telephone the Xperia P proved itself perfectly capable. I didn't experience any dropped calls during testing and the hand-friendly size makes it comfortable to hold as you chinwag.
The Xperia P has an 8-megapixel snapper -- sitting pretty between the 12.1 megapixels offered by the Xperia S and the Xperia U's 5-megapixel lens.
Sony is a dab hand when it comes to camera sensors, so I had high hopes that the Xperia P would be more than capable of turning out a photogenic image or two.
I found the P's lens to be unpredictable. It can produce some really beautiful, colourful shots and stunning close-ups. But it can also be glitchy -- crashing or blending bright colours in unintended ways (see the sickly flower snaps above).
In lower light conditions, the Xperia P shares its big brother's tendency to speckle shots with grainy noise. But when the light is right, the Xperia P can punch above its mid-range weight.
Sony has included a dedicated camera key, for better control over photo snapping on the Xperia P. You get a front-facing camera for video calling too.
The phone captures video at up to Full HD 1080p resolution. Quality is slightly soft on crisp detail but colours are strong, and audio is fairly good. The level of detail falls off very quickly once there is any movement in the frame.
Shooting video at lower light levels quickly results in very grainy footage.
The Sony Xperia P looks more premium than its pricier sibling, the Xperia S, thanks to a metallic rather than plastic casing. It also nestles nicely in the hand with a size that's palm and pocket friendly. There's a decent snapper on board and a screen that's easy on the eye. Sadly though, the phone is let down by some unfortunate build quality issues and software glitches.
It comes with last year's Android flavour, Gingerbread, rather than Ice Cream Sandwich at launch. If you're truly smitten with Sony's services, you may be willing to wait for the ICS update. But there are more up-to-date Androids on the mid-range market calling for your cash right now.