Sony’s experiences as a handset manufacturer have been full of ups and downs. There were times when I wondered if the company would ever get it right again. But on the rollercoaster that seems to be its smartphone life, Sony is on the up. The Xperia Z, with its 5in screen and grunge/water resistant credentials was a real winner for me. And Sony appears to have done it again with the Xperia SP. A smaller handset with a 4.6in screen, the Xperia SP is less expensive than the Xperia Z by £100 and might just be the more popular of the two in the longer term because of that.
The design and build are fantastic. The Xperia SP takes some cues from the Xperia Z most notably the round on/off button that sits half way down the right edge and the long, thin volume rocker that’s just above it. But here there’s no water- and dust-resistant design, so the top-mounted headset slot and the micro-USB slot on the upper left edge are not covered.
It is now a characteristic of Sony Xperia handsets that the touch buttons for Home, Recent Apps and Back functions are part of the screen. This does mean they consume a few pixels of display area, but they rotate when you swivel the phone in your hands so orient appropriately, and they aren’t visible when the phone is turned off. They’re also used pretty intelligently, so that, for example, if you’re watching video in widescreen mode they disappear so that the video fills the entire 1,280 x 720-pixel screen area.
The build is generally solid, with a thick frame of aluminium all around the edges that gives the phone a rigidity that easily resisted my attempts to bend or bow the chassis with my hands. If you are looking for perfection then the Xperia SP is a bit fat at 9.98mm and a bit heavy at 155g, but neither of these are outside the realms of what is acceptable. The backplate is rather flimsy, and that does often seem to be the way these days. Your micro SIM and microSD cards sit under the backplate, and both can be hotswapped. There’s also a second microphone here, which is used to assist with noise cancellation during calls.
But there’s a surprise in store here too. The battery is not accessible. The 2,370mAh battery seems on paper to be capable, but it did run down surprisingly quickly for me, largely because I liked to dial up the screen brightness. As a result, I’d want access to mains power during the day.
There’s a side button for using the cameras. The main camera shoots at up to 8-megapixels and although you can press the side button half-way for focusing, there’s also touch focus. Sony’s 'Superior auto' settings mode has a go at making scene settings for you, but if you have it switched on the maximum shot resolution available is 7-megapixels. You have to switch to normal mode to get the full 8-megapixels at your disposal. Video capture is full HD, of course. By comparison the front-facing camera is a let-down with its VGA resolution something of a disappointment.
Looking under the hood, the general specifications are perfectly good enough for a handset at this price. The processor is a 1.7GHz dual-core Qualcomm model, and it is supported by 1GB of RAM. There’s 8GB of memory, but checking my review sample out-of-the-box, it reported 5.3GB free. That microSD card slot will come in handy if you are a mobile music or video junkie.
There’s NFC on-board, and the micro-USB supports MHL so you can access HDMI output if you buy the required cable. The Android version is 4.1.
Sony is well known for cramming its handsets full of apps and that continues with the Xperia SP. Sony’s own cross-marketing gets its usual puffing up with Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, PlayNow, PlayStation Mobile. There’s a Walkman app in addition to the Android music player, with Sony’s offering access to the Internet for extended features.
Sony also includes Smart Connect, which is the updated version of LiveWare. You can set this to launch a specific app when you attached an accessory – for example a headset. Meanwhile Xperia Link lets you share the Internet connection on your handset with a Sony tablet. And there are plenty more add-on apps too.
A real Sony coup comes in the form of Small Apps. This is not new to the Xperia SP of course, but it’s something I hope Sony puts some effort into building. Hit the Recent Apps shortcut and you can open up a calculator, timer, notes taker and voice recorder. There are more Small Apps in the Google Play store that you can add to the suite.
Timescape has finally bitten the dust and is now replaced by Socialife. This brings together various social media interactions including Facebook and Twitter. It is easily ignored if you’d rather manage such interactions in a different way.
Sony is trying very hard to give its Xperia range a distinctive look and feel, there’s no doubt it is succeeding on both the hardware and software fronts. Neither the blingy lighting system nor some of the software enhancements will be to all tastes, and Sony’s insistence on cross-marketing its wares may grate for some, but they’ll please many. There are some signs of greatness here, from the (easily disabled) high-pitched tinkle that Sony has implemented for screen taps to Small Apps. Onwards and upwards, Sony.
The Xperia SP is a nicely made, well-specified handset that has some alluring features. Sony might do well to consider that sometimes less is more on the features and apps front and not everyone is going to want all those cross-platform, Sony-specific apps. Nonetheless, the mid-range smartphone sector has just been bolstered by another impressive entrant.
Manufacturer and model
Sony Xperia SP
1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core
4.6in, 1,280 x 720 pixels
130.6 x 67.1 x 9.98mm