Here we go then, with another handset in Sony's Xperia line-up. In some ways, the Xperia U is more of the same, but in others, it dishes up some real surprises for a smartphone that comes in at a price just tipping over £200 SIM-free. At that price, you don't really open the box expecting to see some impressive specs. But Sony seems not to have been pandering to expectations. Instead, it wants to raise eyebrows.
How so? Well the Xperia U has two features that a handset at its price ought not to be offering because they'll embarrass the competition. One of these is the screen. Now, it is small at 3.5in, and I'll have more to say about that later, but its resolution, at 480 x 854 pixels, makes it rather sharper than the average, with 280 ppi on offer.
Sony adds in its Bravia Engine and Reality Display, which between them ensure that colours are rendered well, and that video, in particular, looks good - better than it probably has a right to on a handset at this price. The screen is easier than some to see outdoors, too, though it does fade away if the sun is really bright.
The other rabbit Sony pulls out of the bag here is the processor. A dual-core 1GHz processor supported by 512MB of RAM pushes things along efficiently with apps loading quickly, web pages rendering at a perfectly acceptable pace, and a general feeling that as long as you don't want to go mad with advanced gaming then the Xperia U can probably handle whatever you might want to throw at it.
Despite these plus points, it's not all sweetness and light on the specs front, and the good things I've said about the screen and processor have to be tempered by some not so wonderful technical specification aspects. Most importantly, the Gingerbread Android 2.3 version is a disappointment. Ice Cream Sandwich (version 4) is now where it's at, and anything less feels, well, less - even though general usability is fine. Sony says an upgrade is planned in the third quarter of the year, but frankly I'd have liked to see Ice Cream Sandwich here from the outset.
What might irritate some people more is the lack of memory expansion. Now, not everyone wants to swap microSD cards in order to get data on and off their phones, but if you do, then look elsewhere because there's no memory slot here. And while you might see this handset being talked about as having 8GB of memory, beware. In fact, there's just 4GB for your own content, 2GB for apps and 2GB is not accessible to the user at all.
Sony has equipped the Xperia U with two cameras, the front-facing one being VGA and the main one offering 5-megapixel stills and 720p video shooting. There's a side button for launching the camera and taking photos. I found this button a bit too close to the surrounding chassis surface to be really comfy to use, and it felt somewhat unresponsive under the fingers too.
Shots are OK, but not wonderful, and really bright or very low light conditions can easily spoil the shots. However, the camera has a few tricks up its sleeve. Smile detection is broken down into Big Smile, Average Smile and Small Smile, and there's a face-detection option in the focus mode settings which also lets you toggle touch focus or auto focus. You'll also find that you need to drop down to three megapixels if you want a 16:9 aspect ratio photo. Five megapixel shots are taken at 4:3.
It's a bit irritating that you have one of two choices to get to the camera mode options. There's a button on a left-hand touch menu offering some options, while the handset's menu key offers the rest. You'll need to memorise which settings are under which button.
As already noted this is a small-screened phone. It is in fact the smallest of the Xperia range, with the Xperia S and the Xperia P both offering a bigger format. Its size means it is comfy for the pocket and easy to use with one hand. But it also has some downsides. Small screens make viewing video, looking at web pages and reading texts in general a little less comfortable than larger screens do.
And in this case the screen's dimensions are different to the norm - it is rather taller than it is wide. This has a knock-on effect when using the touch keyboard in portrait mode. I found this just too small for comfortable typing and got irritated even when making errors tapping out short SMS messages.
I'm conscious that I've not yet mentioned the physical design of the Xperia U. Like the P and S, the U is a blocky handset. It is thicker than the many handsets, and its squared off corners are distinctive. I don't particularly like the design, but that is a matter of personal taste and if you do like it, I'm happy for you.
The Xperia U comes in two colours. If you choose the black option then a small black section of chassis at the bottom of the handset can be pulled off and replaced with a pink section (included in the box). Opt for the white version and the removable section can be either white or yellow. It's all a bit liquorice allsorts for me, but again, if it is to your taste then it'll obviously appeal.
Between this removable section and the screen are two important design features. Immediately beneath the screen, three dots indicate where you need to tap to access Home, Back and Menu features. If you can't remember which is which then you'll have to squint at the clear plastic strip below, which has three tiny icons to remind you.
This plastic strip is the other design feature. It can be set to light up to issue alerts in a colour that corresponds to whatever theme you've chosen: sapphire, gold, ruby, amethyst, silk, turquoise or emerald.
Sony adds software extras such as its Timescape social networking utility and Friends widget, along with its own Video Unlimited service. There's nothing to blow the mind, but then that's what the Android Market is for.
If first impressions really matter to you then it's the chassis design that could be a key factor in whether or not you decide you like the Xperia U. The blocky look, interchangeable base sections and large blinking light beneath the screen could call out to you. Longer term it'll be the capable processor and impressive - if small - screen that retain your interest.
It is hard not to be impressed by the Xperia U's screen resolution or by Sony's efforts to squeeze in a dual-core processor. But on the other hand, Sony's failure to allow for memory expansion and the old hat Android 2.3 are downers, and overall the handset is a bit too small for my liking. You, however, might disagree, and if the design works for you, the Xperia U is worth considering.
Manufacturer and Model
Sony Xperia U
GSM 850/900/1800/1900 HSDPA 850/900/1900/2100
STE U8500 1GHz dual core
3.5in, 854 x 480 pixels
112 x 54 x 12 mm