Not everyone has the money to shell out for a top-end handset, and to be honest even if you do have the money you might be well advised to take a look lower down the scale anyway. As my end of 2013 roundups showed, you can get some superb mid-range and entry-level handsets right now.
Sony has recently wowed us with it top notch Xperia Z1 Compact, but the company also has its eye on the important mid-range and entry level sectors. So, the Xperia M is a sub-£200 handset that sits in a pretty crowded part of the market – and a part of the market that Motorola has recently made its own with the Moto G.
Sony has made the Xperia M fit with its current handset line-up in design terms, but there have been clear compromises in build quality and also in terms of the aesthetics. So, on the plus side, we have the tell-tale circular silver on/off button just above the mid-point on the right edge. There’s a dedicated camera button on this edge, too, which has the usual ability to launch the camera if you give it a long press – then it will focus on a half press and take a shot on a full press. There’s a volume rocker on this edge, as well.
There’s also a good quality backplate with a grippy rubber-feel finish. Mine was black, though there are white, purple and yellow options too. The backplate hugs the sides of the handset providing protection there and ensuring a snug fit and a tough, resilient feel. Rather than the sides of the handset continuing the rubbery feel, they’re given a metal-look finish. It’s a touch of distinctiveness I rather like.
There’s a characteristic “thinner in the middle” styling to the overall design which helps make the Xperia M comfy to hold in the hand. Its relatively small size should increase its appeal for those with little hands and pockets.
The Sony Xperia M is tall, though – far too tall, actually, for its 4in screen. There’s a fair bit of side bezel and a huge amount of top and bottom bezel. I measured 18mm between the top of the screen and the top of the handset, and a slightly less but still plentiful 15mm at the bottom.
Part of that bottom bezel is given over to a horizontal notification light. It glows red when you’re charging the phone, and green when the charge is complete. You can specify colour settings for missed calls and SMS, incoming calls and SMS, and for alarm notifications – white, turquoise, yellow, green, red, blue and purple lights are available. For some this will be a welcome spark of individuality, for others it will be irritating. The latter group will be pleased to know that as well as having all those colour choices you can select none and just do away with the feature.
At 4in the screen is pretty small for a modern handset, and it doesn’t do justice to websites and video. The resolution of 854 x 480 pixels does it no favours and, because it lacks Sony’s display frills – Triluminos and X–Reality are absent – it’s a pretty standard looking screen. Viewing angles aren’t great. The Motorola Moto G, which is selling online for around £140 sim-free as I write, has a 4.5in 1,280 x 720 pixel screen. On that basis alone it is a better buy in my book.
While I am grumbling about the screen, it is worth pointing out a couple of other annoyances. A strip along its bottom edge is used for the Android touch buttons, so you miss out on a bit of viewing area. The keyboard is tiny, and I found accuracy to be an issue. Viewing angles aren’t great either and the keyboard seems rather a long way under the glass front, as it were – it looks rather last generation in that respect.
The camera shoots stills to 5-megapixels which is really an entry-level specification these days, and you’ll only get that if you don’t mind giving up on wide 16:9 resolution in favour of 4:3. If you want 16:9 then you’ll get 3-megapixel snaps. You have to hold that side button down for a fair while before the camera app pops up, but on the plus side there’s an HDR option with saves the camera from being a disappointment. There’s also a VGA front camera on board.
Sound is delivered through a back-mounted speaker which goes fairly loud, but is not of the highest quality.
The general specifications are also less than stellar. The processor is dual-core and runs at 1GHz, and it’s only got 1GB of RAM in support. To be fair, it’s not sluggish, but still, this does seem a bit last generation. Even worse, Android is way back in the dark ages at version 4.1.
A big problem with the Sony Xperia M is its lack of storage space. There’s just 4GB of memory installed, but a quick check of my review sample straight out of the box showed just 2GB of this was free. You’ll need a microSD card pretty quickly – but note that the card lives in a slot under the backplate next to the microSIM, so hotswapping is a bit painful.
Fans of NFC will be pleased to see it present in such a low cost handset, but the real silver lining has to be battery life. I found that it easily extended past the full day mark. Of course if you want to game or watch video for hours on end you’ll deplete the 1,700 mAh battery rather more quickly. But still, Sony’s very useful power management utility is a winner.
You can select three power options. One of these lets you leave Wi-Fi off in the knowledge that it will turn on automatically when it comes near a saved Wi-Fi network. Another lets you specify what the handset should do when the battery gets below 30 per cent. Options include turning off Wi-Fi, vibration, GPS, Bluetooth, auto-sync and mobile data, and changing the screen brightness and time-out settings. And a third option, stamina mode, lets you specify which apps will remain active when the battery gets low.
You get the usual gamut of Sony add-on apps which will please fans of the company’s ecosystem, though as already noted these and a few additional extra apps are responsible for eating into the fairly slim storage capacity of the phone.
This handset is clearly a budget effort, and while it does have a few pleasing features there’s not enough of the good stuff present to warrant any kind of strong recommendation. Like every other maker sniffing around the £150 to £200 mark, the Moto G looms large as a key rival, and quite simply, unless you are a diehard Sony fan, you should be looking at the Moto smartphone rather than this one.
Manufacturer and Model
Sony Xperia M
1GHz dual-core Qualcomm
4in, 854 x 480 pixels
62 x 9.3 x 124 (WxDxH)