Reviewer: Phillip Brown
Sonyâ€™s mid-range Android mobile gives you 4G speeds at an attractive price point.
Slowly but surely, Sony is edging its way back from also-ran status in the mobile game to a serious player. After ditching partner Ericsson, it has cranked out a series of impressive touchscreen models running Googleâ€™s app-packed Android operating system, culminating in this yearâ€™s epic, the waterproof Sony Xperia Z, which is every bit a Samsung Galaxy S4 rival.
Now itâ€™s back with a mid-range effort, aimed at capturing the attention of punters put off by the super-high prices of the latest 4G all-singing, all-dancing smartphones on lengthy contracts. With an HD screen to call its own, it might just be a more affordable alternative, but do its older competitors offer even more of a bargain?
LAST YEARâ€™S DESIGNÂ
If the Xperia Z looked like an old school Sony Walkman on diet pills, the Sony Xperia SP harks back to last yearâ€™s Xperia S flagship instead, with a thick 10mm profile, straight sides and slightly curved back and translucent notification strip underneath the screen. Thatâ€™s a love-hate decision on Sonyâ€™s part: there are definitely some people who dig the brandâ€™s inherent â€˜boxinessâ€™, but weâ€™re not among them.
The star of the show is the 4.6-inch TFT display however. It doesnâ€™t feel large in the same way that screens on rival phones from Samsung do, for example, striking a perfect balance of size and screen real estate. The 720p HD resolution screen is excellent: though there are now sharper full HD phones on the market, like the Xperia Z, youâ€™ll honestly struggle to discern the pixel difference. Colours are sharp and viewing angles are broad too.
Peppered around the sides of the Xperia SP are your standard ports, including a headphone jack on the top and a well placed, raised circular power button halfway down the right hand side thatâ€™s easy to trigger (HTC made a huge error by omitting this on the HTC One recently), plus a micro USB socket that you can use to hook your device up to an HDTV via an MHL adapter.
Thereâ€™s just one oversight however; while you can prise off the back panel to add in a micro SD card (and with less than 6GB of 8GB internal storage free to the user, youâ€™ll probably want to), you canâ€™t get at the battery still. Thatâ€™s a bit of a downer when the Xperia SP is so thick, and at 155g, rather heavy too .
One of the likely causes for all this girth is the notification strip, a unique element to some of Sonyâ€™s smartphones: instead of a flashing LED, you get a whole see-through panel beneath the screen, which pops off like a disco when you get a message. You can even customise the colours so you can see whoâ€™s pinging you (or turn it off completely), something we think recent BlackBerry converts especially will love.
The other thing, of course, is the camera. The Sony Xperia SP packs an eight megapixel snapper thatâ€™s frankly disappointing compared to the 13MP stunner on the Xperia Z, with poor low-light performance, noise streaking across pictures and a surprisingly slow focus time. Itâ€™s far from the worst weâ€™ve seen recently – itâ€™s certainly not as pathetic as the dire sensor on the BlackBerry Z10 – but itâ€™s not a reason for the Pro column if youâ€™re torn.
One thing the Sony Xperia SP does have going for it is support for super fast 4G LTE download and upload speeds, across all the bands UK carriers are planning to use soon, so your choices wonâ€™t just be limited to EE.
Now, we love the substantial download speed boost 4G gives you. It is already available in large swathes of the country (its real advantage though is for stupidly quick uploads, so mobile YouTube users will love it), and thereâ€™s plenty to take advantage of with the superb screen on the SP. But the fact remains that 4G remains vastly over-priced, and capped at miserly amounts. Before you let this become a selling point, youâ€™d do well to wait and see what EEâ€™s rivals will offer. Thereâ€™s nothing like a bit of competition to make prices fall.
Hereâ€™s proof that 2013â€™s mid-range phones arenâ€™t always the bargain they seem: check out these deals we found on 2012â€™s best phones…
Samsung Galaxy S3
Price now: Â£332 SIM-free, free on Â£17, 24-month contracts
HTC One X
Price now: Â£346.40 SIM-free, free on Â£14, 24-month contracts
Cruelly overlooked last year, HTCâ€™s polycarbonate HD affair now runs Android 4.1, and represents an absolute bargain on a long-term contract.
Price now: Â£289.95 SIM-free, free on Â£11, 24-month contracts
A twelve megapixel camera and an HD screen for the same price as the SP SIM-free and a pittance on contract. Hand me that pen, where do I sign?
The Sony Xperia SP runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean out of the box (Itâ€™s true, Android 4.2 is out there now, but few phones still run it), and such are the leaps and bounds that Googleâ€™s mobile team have made in the last 18 months that itâ€™s really difficult for phone manufacturers to muck that up at this point. Itâ€™s amazingly powerful and customisable and even if you could get iOS on any phones other than an iPhone, you might not want to switch.
But itâ€™s also easy to use, with a now familiar grid of icons and widgets you can re-arrange to your heartâ€™s content, plus Googleâ€™s suite of core services that now includes the incredible Chrome browser alongside Google Maps and Gmail. If you donâ€™t like anything, including Sonyâ€™s extras like its own keyboard, just change it.
Thankfully Sony hasnâ€™t ruined the Jelly Bean formula, simply adding a few extra fun features like floating widgets that stay on top of the screen, if you like to take notes instantly, say.
The company has even cut down on its nasty habit of loading phones up with useless software extras and icons that prompt you to install something that could never be removed,Â although inexplicably, there are two Sony download stores on the phone, both of which you should ignore in favour of Google Play Store and its 700,000 apps.Â
The whole package is powered by a top of the line dual-core 1.7GHz Krait with beefy Adreno 320 graphics that we found more than enough to handle all our demands, from music streaming and game playing to full HD video recording. Itâ€™s lacking the extra cores of an Xperia Z or Samsung Galaxy S4, but the dedicated graphics should at least mean gamers wonâ€™t spot the difference ever, and youâ€™d be hard pushed to get better performance for the price.
Battery life too is substantial. A chunky 2370mAh battery resides in here, actually bigger than the one found in the Xperia Z .
If youâ€™re already using an iPhone or Android smartphone, you might actually be surprised to find battery life improve when you upgrade this time round; certainly, we got a solid dayâ€™s use out of the phone, checking emails and watching the odd YouTube video. Switch to 4G and youâ€™ll see things drop much quicker, but at least youâ€™re at a higher starting place to begin with, right?
The mid-range market has become surprisingly less crowded in the last year, as the likes of HTC and even Samsung focus all their efforts on the very top tier.
That leaves Sony with something of a void it is able to fill, with only really Nokia still competing in this space. While the Finnsâ€™ phones are pretty, they run Windows Phone and canâ€™t seriously compete with the 700,000 apps on the Google Play store for Android. The Sony Xperia SP might just be the best smartphone in its category this year.
But shop around a little: if 4G LTE isnâ€™t a must have for you, itâ€™s not quite the bargain it seems. Youâ€™ll pay way over the top for 4G speeds right now, and last yearâ€™s top of the line Android phones, as well as the 2011 iPhone 4S, can all be found for around the same price online, even if your network isnâ€™t willing to tell you about them in the store.
If youâ€™re prepared to pay cash upfront for a Pay As You Go deal or a cheap SIM-only package, then the Google Nexus 4 remains the phone to beat. Until that changes its hard to recommend the Sony Xperia SP and if 4G LTE isnâ€™t a must-have for you, itâ€™s not quite the bargain it first seems.Â