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First Impressions: Sony Xperia SP – set to upstage its big brother?

Allan Swann
March 28, 2013

What Mobile’s review of Sony’s flagship, the Xperia Z, showed its no slouch – in fact it was our Editor’s Choice phone in the April Issue of the magazine (see our review here).

As well as leading to the release of its sister tablet, the rather confusingly named Xperia Tablet Z (which is due in May – see our first impressions from Mobile World Congress here), Sony has also been hard at work on the mid and low range versions of its smartphone range – the Xperia SP (mid-range) and Xperia L (low end).

Sony spokespeople wouldn’t feed us the launch date or pricing yet, other than to say Spring 2013 (which is kind of now, really) and that the SP would be priced at a lower bracket that the Xperia Z – so not terribly helpful.

Xperia SP – Sony’s mid-range 4G model  
Of the two, the Xperia SP stands out the most for me. One of the problems we had with the Xperia Z was that it is a colossal phone – complete with a 5-inch screen that may be a bit uncomfortable for females or those with small hands. It is not a discreet phone.

The SP resolves this somewhat, it has a 4.6-inch screen and a phone body that is closer to last year’s Xperia T or a Samsung Galaxy S3. It has a nice aluminium body that is classy, and feels nice and sturdy – with a nice industrial design to boot (screws and all) – it isn’t made of tempered glass like the Xperia Z. Pictures of the SP don’t really do it’s design justice.

Physically, it fits nicely in the hand and is slightly bigger than an iPhone 4S – it is a very usable phone and you should be able to text with both thumbs easily. However, the SP loses the shock, dust and waterproofing of its bigger brother – which, for most people, won’t be too much of a concern. A unique touch is that the bottom bezel of the phone is also an LED light – depending on how you set it up, it will flash when messages arrive, or the battery gets low. I have mixed feelings about this, it doesn’t look terribly useful and takes away from the otherwise excellent physical design. It will have to be tested further to see if its usefulness pays off.

It also boasts an impressive Qualcomm dual core processor at 1.7GHz, which should be more than enough for gaming, browsing and film watching. The Xperia Z is a quad core, but I’m still not convinced the benefits of quad core processors outweigh the battery drain.

The screen takes a bit of a downgrade from the Xperia Z’s full HD 1920×1080 resolution (441 PPI) – but isn’t as noticeable as you’d think. The Xperia SP’s 4.6-inches displays at 1280×720 – or around 320PPI – similar to the iPhone 5 and 4S.

In our short time with the phone, websites and other text heavy applications all looked excellent – as did photos and videos. The difference between the Z and the SP was more noticeable in media applications, you can’t watch 1080P video for example, and photos weren’t as clear. However running as a telephone, these are minor concerns. It still has the Mobile Bravia Engine 2 built in (which the L does without), so everything was rendered in nice colour and contrast.

The screen and processor make Sony’s version of Android a very usable experience – there was no discernable increase in website load times or apps. We were unfortunately unable to run the prototype devices through any benchmarking software, or install any high end games to judge the difference, but I’d expect it’d be minor.

We were unfortunately unable to test the camera in any real testing conditions (testing in an office under fluorescent lights is hardly fair), but it does take a downgrade from the Xperia Z’s 13Mp camera to 8MP. Again, this isn’t concern – 13MP is overkill for any smartphone camera – the software inside will be of more interest. Sony claims it has the Exmor RS sensor and engine inside and an image stabiliser (unknown whether this is digital or mechanical).  It does have built in HDR, which is a plus (HDR balances the light and dark sections of photos).

Onboard storage is limited, just 8GB, which is disappointing – you will need to get a MicroSD 32GB memory card to avoid clogging up your phone. Android itself usually uses up 2GB of storage – realistically leaving you 6GB for apps, games, music and movies – hopefully Sony’s cost savings here will be passed on to the consumer.

Software wise both the SP and the L will get all the bells and whistles of the Sony line – the new versions of the Walkman, Playstation and Sony video store apps (all looking much improved – especially the Playstation Game store) – alongside the more questionable, such as Sony’s Social Life and the Qriocity apps (now music unlimited).

For those looking for a 4G smartphone that isn’t a top of the line flagship, the SP will also work on the UK’s 4G networks (currently just EE – O2 and Vodafone will launch in the coming months), it also has NFC built in which means it is compatible with all of Sony’s (new) electronics – you can ‘throw’ music and video to Sony’s Bravia TVs and stereos for example, and it will operate as a second screen for the new Playstation 4 – details to be confirmed when it launches.

We couldn’t test battery life, but on paper the SP boasts a very reasonable 2370mAh battery – Sony claims 10 hours talk time, and 7h36m of video playback time – which is about par for the course.

So far, I’m impressed – even more so than with the Xperia Z. This model could be Sony’s sleeper hit if it plays its cards right – I found a lot of the Xperia Z’s added features extraneous (the kitchen sink approach), and wasn’t a big fan of the all-glass body. The SP looks like a more focused device.

Xperia L – the low end model
The Xperia L is a step back from both its big brothers – you lose 4G, the processor is a step back to a 1GHz dual core and the screen is just 4.3-inches (at 480×854). Even it design styling is last generation – it basically looks like the Xperia T (last gen’s flagship) complete with curved back – which is no bad thing. It keeps the 8MP camera and Exmor RS sensor, which is a plus. The L is made of plastic, and looks nearly identical to the Xperia J – last year’s budget model we didn’t like much (it got a 2-star review). It also only gets a 1750mAh battery.

Pricing
But of the course the main point of scrutiny will be the prices – Sony is staying mum. If the SP is priced around the £300-350 mark, it could have a winner on its hands. More realistically it will aim for the £399 mark (and possible £450 if they’re feeling a bit greedy). This just isn’t realistic when competing in a market that has the £239 Google Nexus 4,  and that is a smartphone that competes with the top end flagships (but doesn’t have 4G, remember).

The L should be significantly cheaper – i’d like to see it drop well below the £259 mark to compete, but it will probably come out around £299. This has been Sony’s problem in the past, non-competitive pricing – it can’t just match Samsung and Apple and expect buyers to go for its product above the established competition.

What Mobile will have full reviews of the two new phones at their release. As mentioned earlier, Sony isn’t being any more specific with release dates other than ‘this quarter’. It has confirmed that all the major carriers will get both phones.

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