The flagship Sony Xperia Z may be busy stealing the limelight with its whopping Full HD screen and waterproof body, but Sony also has some good kit for those with a slightly narrower budget.
The Xperia SP is an upper mid-range mobile packing specs that would have had dedicated tech nerds hot under the collar just a year ago. Its 4.6-inch screen has a 720p resolution, it has a speedy dual-core processor, it runs Android Jelly Bean and, best of all, has a colourful glowing light on the outside to annoy your work-mates.
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Should I buy the Sony Xperia SP?
The SP's 720p screen, 4G connectivity and speedy dual-core processor would have been high-end specs last year, but up against the recent quad-core Full HD brutes, it falls into the mid-range. It's entirely happy being there though, and as such, comes with a price tag to match.
Its screen is pin-sharp and bright, while its dual-core processor gave an excellent serving of power -- beating the quad-core Google Nexus 4 in benchmark tests. Using the Android Jelly Bean software was swift and easy, although some of Sony's bundled software is less than impressive.
Physically, it's a good-looking bit of kit. It's a little on the chunky side, but its metal edging looks smart and it feels well put together. The pulsating notification light on the bottom won't suit everyone, but I found it to be a more soothing way of being alerted to a message or call than it vibrating rudely along my desk.
If you're after the best the smart phone world can offer, head on over to our reviews of the Sony Xperia Z or the Samsung Galaxy S4. If however you want a more modest phone with a good screen, enough power for all but the most demanding of tasks, a decent battery and an attractive body, the SP is certainly worth a look.
Design and build quality
With its silver edging, clear plastic strip on the bottom and curved, white plastic back panel, the SP is a different beast from the minimalist flagship Xperia Z. That's not to say it's bad looking though -- far from it.
Beneath the all-glass front is a white bezel, with the subtle Sony branding looking pretty smart. Sony says that silver edging is made from aluminium, but it's difficult to tell it apart from stiff plastic by feel alone. The back panel is a plastic affair that feels cheap when removed, but looks good when attached. There's a little flex in the casing that detracts slightly from the luxurious aesthetic, but that's offset slightly by the attractive metal ring around the camera lens.
At the bottom of the phone is a clear perspex bar. It flashes a variety of colours to let you know of incoming calls, messages and other notifications. The colours for each notification are customisable in the menu, so you can select a variety of hues and get your friends to call and text you to set off a miniature light show.
The flashing effect is subtle, and sometimes difficult to see properly, but it's quite handy to see when something's going on if your phone's turned upside down on silent. It's arguably a bit gimmicky, and not likely to appeal to everyone, but I was quite fond of it in my time with the phone. If you really don't want it, you can always turn it off altogether.
The phone itself measures 130mm long, 67mm wide and is 10mm thick. It weighs 155g too, making it feel quite hefty. If you're looking for the slimmest, lightest phone around, the SP isn't a good choice. The Xperia Z is physically bigger, but it knocks around 10g off the SP's weight.
Ports, storage and NFC
Stuck into that metal edging you'll find a micro-USB port for data transfer and charging and a 3.5mm headphone port. That's pretty standard, but it would have been nice to see a micro-HDMI output to hook up to a big TV. You'll also see a volume rocker, power button and a dedicated camera shutter button.
The SP comes with 8GB of storage, of which only 5.5GB is actually useable -- the rest is taken up by the operating system and other Sony firmware. That's not a whole lot of space for all your data, so you'll need to make use of the micro SD card slot underneath the back panel. I wasn't able to find a way to install apps to the SD card though, so you'll have to be very careful which big name games you download -- Real Racing 3 alone takes up almost 2GB of space.
The SP also features near-field communication -- or NFC to me and you. It lets the phone communicate with compatible devices simply by tapping them together -- similar to what you may have done with an Oyster card in London.
While Sony sells some smart tags that let you program your phone to activate certain functions when tapped -- as well as NFC-enabled speakers and TVs -- there's very little at the moment to really make NFC an exciting addition. Still, it's still a new technology and when NFC payments on phones become a bigger deal, you might be glad you have it on board already.
The SP packs a 4.6-inch display rocking a 1,280x720-pixel resolution. That's not pushing the Full HD resolution of its bigger brother, but it's still an impressive effort. It boasts 319 pixels per inch (ppi), which is a big step below the 441ppi of the Z, but you'd be hard pressed to tell much difference, side by side.
Only when you really get close enough to touch your nose to the screen will you be able to notice much improvement in clarity on the Z. The SP is very sharp, with clearly defined edges on icons and small text being rendered well.
It's powered by Sony's mobile Bravia Engine 2, which it claims uses similar colour reproduction wizardry as its massive tellies. Fancy tech aside, I was definitely pleased with the display's colours. It was bold, without being overly saturated. Samsung's Galaxy S4 has an extremely vibrant screen that borders on the unnatural at times -- by comparison, the SP is much more toned down.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
The SP is running on Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean which isn't quite the most recent version of Google's operating system, but it's modern enough for it to be acceptable. It's the same version you'll find on nearly every other recent phone -- with the exception of the S4, running version 4.2. The next major update -- Android Key Lime Pie -- is just around the corner though, so this iteration is about to take a step down.
Sony has thrown a few splashes of paint around the overall interface, but in terms of general interaction, you won't find anything too different from the standard Android experience you'll have seen on other 'droids. You get a total of five homescreens for you to drop down any of your apps or live widgets.
Press and hold on any of the homescreens and you'll bring up a box that lets you quickly throw down a new widget, app or wallpaper and change the phone's theme. Along the bottom of any screen are four interchangeable app icons that provide quick access to essential tasks. Any apps you don't want on the homescreen are dumped into a grid of apps which can be arranged by alphabetical order, most used or a custom order.
There are three navigational touch-sensitive buttons below the screen. The one on the right brings up a handy list of recently opened apps, making it simple to flick between tasks. It also lets you open 'small apps' which are essentially little tools -- calculator, note pad -- that hover over the Android interface, regardless of where you go. I found it handy having the note pad open, as you can easily jot down info from a website without having to switch apps.
It's powered by a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor running at a spritely 1.7GHz, along with 1GB of RAM. That's not going to tickle the fancy of the hardcore tech fans -- especially compared to the supercharged quad-core chips found in the Xperia Z or Galaxy S4, but it's got more than enough power for everyday use.
In my own use, I found it to provide swift navigation around Android, with none of the telltale delay and lag that hints at a slow processor. Opening and scrolling through menus was immediate and it didn't bat an eyelid when it came to 3D gaming in Riptide GP.
There was little I could find that really taxed the processor, but you can expect things to slow down a bit once you bog it down with masses of apps sucking juice in the background. It achieved 2,117 on the Geekbench benchmark test -- an impressive score for the price, and roughly the same as I saw on the Xperia Z. With its quad-core chip and more generous RAM, you can expect the Z to handle multi-tasking more fluidly.
Most mobile manufacturers tend to bundle a whole armada of extra software on board their phones. Sony is no exception to this, although it's not loading its phone up with anything like the amount of bloatware as you'll find on the S4 -- which is no bad thing. There are a few points to note though.
For one, you'll have access to Sony's Music and Video Unlimited services. Video Unlimited lets you download or rent movies. It's got a decent selection of new titles and isn't vastly expensive -- The Hobbit can be rented for £3.99 or downloaded for £11.99, both in standard definition. Music Unlimited is a music streaming service that's basically the same as Spotify. Pay £9.99 for unlimited ad-free access to millions of streaming songs.
Sony does overcomplicate things a bit though by providing two different app selection stores, PlayNow and Sony Select. PlayNow is a supposedly dead store that for some reason is still being installed as standard on new devices. Along with various spelling mistakes, you'll find a "Sounds" category, with subcategories including "Retro Ringsounds", "Crazy Animals", "Scary Stuff" and the most disturbing "Trapped Celebs". There's nothing of any worth in here, but if you want a laugh then fill your boots.
Sony Select is more up to date, providing hand-picked content for Sony's devices. As a store, it's pretty pointless as clicking on an item simply takes you to the Google Play Store to download it, but you might find the odd gem that you'd otherwise have missed. Having three separate stores will certainly be confusing for novice 'droid users though so I recommend just sticking to Google's own service.
For the gamers, Sony has a little game store called PlayStation Mobile. It includes titles such as Aqua Kitty, Super Crate Box and Tractor Trails -- please try and contain your excitement. It's a real shame you can't get older PSOne titles like Crash Bandicoot or Cool Boarders. They're only available on the Vita though, not for mobile devices.
You're also apparently able to hook up a PlayStation 3 controller wirelessly to play certain games from the Google Play store. You need to get yourself a cable and converter that will let you physically hook up your phone's micro-USB port to the controller's mini-USB port to do this. That's seriously annoying, as you only hook it up in order to set up a Bluetooth connection -- I have no idea why you can't just use Bluetooth without forking out for an adaptor.
The SP packs in an 8-megapixel snapper which is a bit of a step down from the 13-megapixel might of the flagship Xperia Z. The camera features auto-focus, an LED flash and shoots video in 1,080p. On the front is a VGA camera for video calling.
I was left somewhat underwhelmed by the snapper in my test shots. The lighting is far from brilliant in the CNET office in the morning, so it's a good test of how a camera copes with lower-light shots. It did a fair job of exposing for the scene, with only the bright window at the back being washed out, and no areas lost in shadows. It resulted in very poor clarity, however, and a lot of image noise -- particularly noticeable in the white areas on the left.
I also found it often struggled to focus, with many of my test shots being totally unusable. If you're outside in good sunlight then the camera will do fine for general snaps, but it doesn't fare well in dimmer conditions.
Some of the heft of the phone comes from a pretty chunky battery. Sony reckons you can get an impressive 18 hours and 53 minutes of talk time on 3G. I think that's perhaps a little ambitious, but the battery is certainly better than average. Assuming you don't spend the whole day playing Real Racing 3, you shouldn't struggle to eke out a full day of use.
If you're worried about losing power then keep screen brightness down, avoid intense tasks like video streaming or gaming and, if possible, avoid using wireless data. There are battery saving options you can activate when your phone drops below a preset level. These dim the screen, limit the processing power and even turn off wireless networking when the phone is in standby.
The Xperia SP's specs won't trouble the flagship phones, but it has loads to offer for a more modest price tag. Its 720p screen is sharp, its dual-core processor is enjoyably swift and the crisp white design and flashing notification light will certainly find a few fans.
Its camera didn't impress in my tests and Sony's own app stores and controller connections needs some improvement. If you're looking for a well-performing all rounder though, and don't want to spend upwards of 600 smackers, the SP is an excellent option to consider.