Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
Sony Xperia SP Android phone
An aluminium build, clean UI and good performance make the Xperia SP one of the best phones in its class
- Solid aluminium frame
- Clean, intuitive UI
- Good performance
- Screen is a little lacklusture
- Poor Wi-Fi signal range
- No HDR video recording
The Sony Xperia SP is a relatively inexpensive mid-range Android phone that boasts an aluminium frame, a 4.6in screen and 4G connectivity. It has a lacklusture display but its solid aluminium build, clean UI and good all-round performance make it one of the best phones in its class.
Sony's flagship Xperia Z is one of 2013's most impressive smartphones but can Sony repeat those heroics in the mid-range market segment? It's attempting to do so with the Xperia SP, a relatively inexpensive phone that boasts an aluminium frame, a 4.6in screen and 4G connectivity.
Aluminium frame, transparent glow
The Xperia SP stands out for all the right reasons.
Mid-range Android phones are usually bland affairs but Sony has made an admirable effort to make the Xperia SP stand out for all the right reasons. The phone makes use of a "precision-crafted co-moulded aluminium frame". We're not sure what defines precision exactly but the use of aluminium on a mid-range device is definitely a positive change from mostly plastic alternatives.
The aluminium frame gives the Xperia SP a slightly heavy but very solid feel and the visible screw heads on both sides are a nice touch. The frame angles outwards towards the edges which gives it a distinctive look, though the rounded back tapers inwards towards the sides of the handset. It's comfortable to hold and feels like a phone that will survive more than a few bumps and bruises.
The transparent bar means the notification lights can be seen when the phone is face down on a desk or table.
The large, bulging aluminium key on the right side is a welcomed design feature. We found it perfectly positioned for one-handed use and the placement of the volume rocker just above it is also ideal. The Xperia SP's dedicated camera shutter key is a handy addition that you won't find on many other devices. However, it does require a firm press to activate and could have been raised a little more for better tactility. There's a micro-USB port for charging on the left side and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on top.
The Xperia SP feels like a well constructed device overall but the removable, plastic back cover does feel a little hollow when pressed. Removing it allows access to the micro-SIM and microSD card slots but it's a bit of a chore to snap back on. Oddly, the Xperia SP's battery isn't removable and there's only 8GB of internal memory.
The most distinctive design feature is a transparent panel below the screen.
Perhaps the most distinctive design feature of the Xperia SP is a transparent panel below the screen. It's a feature Sony first debuted on last year's Xperia S and one that certainly gives the phone a unique look. The transparent displays customisable notifications. You can change the colour of these notification lights to alert of incoming calls, missed calls, text messages and the alarm. Using the built-in Walkman music player means the lights will pulse to the beat of music and they'll also change colour when you browse through photos or images in the Album app. The transparent bar means the notification lights can be seen when the phone is face down on a desk or table.
The Xperia SP's 4.6in screen is less impressive. The 720p HD display has a resolution of 1280x720 but while it has no trouble displaying relatively crisp text, it has poor viewing angles and can't display ultra deep blacks. We also found the automatic brightness setting was ineffective as it often left the screen looking dull. An added extra is "glove mode", which allows you to unlock the phone wearing gloves. It works as advertised.
A clean and effective Android skin
Most of the UI changes Sony has made actually add to the overall user experience.
Sony has skinned the Xperia SP with a simple but effective user interface. Unlike Samsung and HTC, which tend to favour a completely different approach, Sony makes minimal changes to the stock version of Android. Most of the changes it has made actually add to the overall user experience. The Xperia SP runs the 4.1 Jelly Bean version of Android but should be updated to 4.2 in the near future.
Appreciated touches to the Xperia SP's UI include four toggles in the notifications drop down for sound profile, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and data, an applications drawer that can be sorted by multiple parameters including most used and recently installed, a revamped multitasking menu that includes "small apps". These pop-up apps can sit on top of other apps allowing you to, for example, browse the Web or type a message with the calculator sitting on screen. Third-party developers can create further small apps and there was a reasonable list in the Google Play Store at the time of review.
As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
We like the minimalist lock screen which includes an attractive, shutter unlock animation and allows users to quickly swipe into the camera and Walkman music app. However, Sony has pre-loaded some apps that you'll never use. We immediately disabled NeoReader, PlayNow, McAfee Security, Sony Explore, appXtra, Social Life and Sony Select app and replaced the default calendar app with Google Calendar.
Other apps are far more useful. Album, Sony's take on the Gallery, is fast, smooth and provides better sorting and scrolling options than other Android phones. We also like the Walkman music app, which offers an equaliser, a visualiser and has an intuitive interface.
The phone doesn't exhibit any notable lag or slowdown during basic tasks.
One thing we wish Sony didn't change was the on-screen keyboard. It's functional and also has handy, Swype-like functionality that allows you to draw over letters in a single motion to type words. However, its word prediction isn't as accurate as Google's stock keyboard or the excellent Swiftkey third-party keyboard, the gesture input system isn't as efficient or effective as Swype and the default mode lacks full stop and comma keys on the main layout. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
The Sony Xperia SP is a smooth and fast smartphone. The 1.7GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM keeps things ticking over nicely and the phone doesn't exhibit any notable lag or slowdown during basic tasks. The Xperia SP is 4G capable for Australia, so it's compatible with the 1800MHz 4G networks used down under by Telstra, Optus and, in the near future, Vodafone.
One downside is the phone's Wi-Fi connection, which we found very weak. When connected to the same Wi-Fi network at the same distance as a Samsung Galaxy S4, the Xperia SP managed at least one, often two less bars of signal. Whether this is a hardware or software issue is difficult to determine, but we can only hope it's the latter so Sony can correct the fault with a firmware update.
Adequate camera, decent battery life
The Sony Xperia SP has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with Sony's Exmor RS image sensor, which claims to offer higher sensitivity and less image noise in low light areas than traditional mobile phone cameras. It works to an extent — we managed to capture reasonably good quality images in low light but we did find it a little difficult to keep these images in focus.
To say most users should be satisfied with battery performance is a huge understatement.
Photos in well-lit environments are more than adequate, though the camera does tend to oversaturated colours. Contrast is excellent and detail is notable for a camera phone, but on a whole, the photos produced are good without being great. The camera records full HD 1080p video, but there's no HDR video mode, unlike the Xperia Z. A front-facing VGA camera handles video calls with reasonable quality.
The Sony Xperia SP has a 2370mAh battery that performs very well. It easily pushed us through a full day of use on most occasions. Your figures will obviously vary depend on use but to say most average users should be satisfied with the Xperia SP's battery performance is a huge understatement.
The addition of a "Battery Stamina mode" certainly helps. This feature prevents applications from running when the screen is locked, therefore saving battery and improving standby time. You can individually select apps to bypass the feature if you wish.
The Sony Xperia SP is available now in Australia through Virgin Mobile. The telco sells the device on five contract plans over 24 months, ranging from a AU$5 per month handset repayment on the Big Plan AU$29 (AU$34 per month), to no handset repayments on the AU$89 Topless plan.
The Sony Xperia SP is available in New Zealand through Vodafone. It's available on a NZ$80/month Smart Data plan (24-month term) for nothing, or NZ$599 outright.
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