Sony Xperia U review

There's an oft-used idiom about small packages, which frequently doesn't apply to the world of technology. That's to say that a diminished form factor often doesn't bring the "best things" with it. For example, Sony's NXT family members, revealed between CES and MWC, gifted consumers with the choice of three new handsets: the Xperia P, S and U. The last one in that list is by far the smallest, and in congruence with the general trend of mobile technology, the most lightly armored.

However, we're not ones to make assumptions, and heaven forbid we pre-judge something based on size alone. We're as willing to be surprised as anyone, and the new baby of the Sony bunch is as likely a candidate as any to throw us a curveball. Our initial impressions in Barcelona were largely positive, so this review -- as the firm says on its marketing material for the phone -- is all about (the Xperia) U.

Sony Xperia U review

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Hardware

We're not going to belabor the point any more, but it's true that the Xperia U is the proverbial runt of the latest litter, measuring 12mm thick with a 3.5-inch display, some way off its larger S and P siblings (4.3-and 4-inches respectively). This equates to a deceptively miniature-looking facsimile of its larger brethren, and, it has to be said, an altogether palm-friendly slab of phone. There's no doubting its heritage though, with the tell-tale geometric design and protruding chin letting you know that this is definitely a Sony.

There's no doubting its heritage though, with the tell-tale geometric design and protruding chin letting you know that this is definitely a Sony.

About that chin. It undoubtedly catches the eye, though we're not sure if it's the bold-colored plastic caps (less striking tones are available) or just the illusion of extra length, but it's certainly a defining characteristic. In fact, along with the distinctive illuminating bar above it, much of the handset's visual character – like it or not – is derived from that bottom end.

The rest of the jet black face does little more than conceal the front VGA camera, speaker grill and sensors. The rear isn't exactly a feature-full landscape either, with a matte finish white battery cover and the usual holes for the camera, flash and speaker keeping the Sony Mobile logo company. The right-hand side is where you'll find all the buttons the Xperia U possesses: power / sleep, volume rocker and camera shutter, leaving the left-hand side bereft of anything bar the micro-USB port. Put this all together, and you get a fairly satisfactory, but not remarkable, slice of phone.

Sony Xperia U review

Much like the Xperia S before it -– given that the similarities are many –- the baby U has its fair share of potentially dust-gathering ridges. The angular design is partly responsible, but the LED bar and removable cap serve up multiple channels for the daily dirt buildup to hide in. It's not terribly problematic, just an unwelcome side effect of the otherwise functional form. The LED bar also poses another tiny problem, at least during your first few days with the phone. Hidden beneath it are the back, home and menu icons that correspond to the touch-sensitive navigation buttons above it. When whipping the handset out of your pocket to quickly do something, you can find yourself mashing the redundant LED strip (i.e. aiming for the icon) instead. Sure, you'll get used to it soon enough, but it's counter-intuitive to begin with, and only further highlights the curious use of space.

That is until you see the humble, transparent strip's party trick. When browsing images, that innocent piece of plastic will adopt a chameleon-like ability to match the dominant color of your photos and album art. The same is true for the prevailing tone of your theme. When the bar lights-up, it'll be with matching luminosity. Nothing more than a trick, but a cute one nonetheless.

Sony Xperia U review

Lastly, that screen. It might not have inherited the WhiteMagic sorcery bequeathed to the Xperia P, but it definitely has no problems making itself seen when drenched in solar gold. That FWVGA display does have the appearance of being somewhat long, but again, that might be more to do with the dimensions of the phone, rather than the aspect ratio (given that it's bang-on 16:9). We did notice, however, that under direct light, a dotted grid can clearly be seen. This is only while the screen is black or in stand-by, and doesn't affect the quality when in use. In our experience, photos and videos came out brightly with bold colors, and provided a pleasing visual experience, which brings us neatly to...

Camera

Sony Xperia U review

The Xperia S might be able to boast a double figure megapixel count (12 in fact) but for the U it's firmly back down in the more pedestrian single numbers: five. This might be a good thing, considering the phone only has 8GB of storage, and only four of those are available to the user. You should never be a slave to the peer pressure though, as five megapixels with a good sensor behind it can still be a winning combination. Is that the case here however? All in all, we're saying yes. This isn't a phone that particularly sells itself on its camera credentials, and as such, it just kind of gets on with the job. You can see from the sample shots yourself that quality is a bit of a mixed bag. Give this camera some good, healthy spoonfuls of sunshine, and it'll serve up vivid, reasonably sharp shots. However, snatch some of that light back (or, rather, have conditions do it for you) and the Xperia U starts to get a little upset.

Sony Xperia U sample shots

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This isn't a phone that particularly sells itself on its camera credentials, and as such, it just kind of gets on with the job.

Some of our sample shots were taken in a slightly overcast London. While light was in reasonable supply, the default settings (auto everything) left some of the images washed out, almost feeling like there is a thin, misty veil over the lens. When the sun did come out to play, though, this cleared up a treat, giving crisp and bright images. There are a selection of manual options for you to poke about with, which do give a modicum of control, and some novelty panorama / 3D modes for the occasional creative flirtation. Our guess, however, is that if you are eyeing this phone as something to potentially live with, the 5-megapixel shooter, set to default, will do just fine for those candid moments and occasional memories you need to preserve.

It might come as no surprise, then, that video mode fares just as sufficiently. You're not going to be filming any masterpieces, but it's adequate for YouTube fodder. Our sample video below caught lots of vibrant inner-city wildlife, but some pixelation can be seen when movement is sudden. All in all, it's a very average affair.

Software

Before you groan about the out-of-the-box Android 2.3.7 install, give us a moment. Yes, it's not ICS, but that's not necessarily a crisis. Sony's skinning is pretty light, and at the top level, doesn't look all that different from the UI of Android 4.0, even if you have to squint a little bit (and choose the blue theme). In a weird interpretation of "out with the old, in with the new," Sony says that ICS will come to the Xperia U in Q2 – so very soon – but will still be hidden under its Timescape UI. That means it'll largely look and feel the same anyway, but with the more recent features.

As is the law, the first thing you must do with a new telephone is flick the app screens left and right. No? So many snap judgements are made during those first vital seconds as you mindlessly flick left and right. Performing that less-than-scientific test here is reasonably gratifying. We already noted in our hands-on, that navigation was neither zippy nor sluggish, and that about sums it up. The 1GHz dual-core ST-Ericsson U8500 processor does its best to leave your experience unhindered. That said, once you've had the phone for a while, and more and more applications compete for resources, this might start to change. For now, however, we're quite pleased with the speed and ease at which we got around the user interface.

Sony Xperia U review

Beyond that UI, Sony has filled the Android room with a few bits of its own furniture, notably its audio and video services. That's hardly surprising given its recent departure from long-term beau Ericsson. Now that it's got the place all to itself, it's evidently keen to leave its mark, and that means Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited take pride of place. You don't have to use these, of course, as there are other media playing options. But, if you're already a signed-up member of the Sony-Unlimited club, then you'll jive to the Xperia U's beat right from the off. One corner of the Sony universe that doesn't get explored, however, is its PlayStation franchise. There's nary a mention of the PS Store or PlayStation certification, which might not be surprising given that the bigger Xperia P also seems to have been left off the invite list.

If you're still in any doubt about it, the short version is that the software is more of the same that we've come to expect from the Xperia brand. There's the good (some Android 4-esque features like app folders), the bad (McAffee's persistent antivirus) and the ugly (connecting to a Mac to transfer files needs a cable and more software). The good news is that most of the stuff that you don't like can either be uninstalled or easily ignored, leaving you to mold the phone to your liking.

Performance and battery-life

When you have less display to light-up, you stand a good chance of being able to do it for longer. The 1,320mAh battery is a sliver over that of the Xperia P's 1,305mAh, and this, factored with the lessened screen demand, do help keep the juice flowing a little longer. On our standard battery-draining test (WiFi on, brightness at 50 percent, and a continuous video playing) the Xperia U's engine room kept it huffing and puffing for a smidgen over five hours, which is better than the P could manage, and about on a par with the larger (and more power-endowed) Xperia S. That five hours isn't all that far off of the "up to" six hours in the press materials, which obviously tend to err more on the optimistic side.

The Xperia U managed to give us nearly two days of service, before it'd start pulling at our trouser leg, asking us to feed it.

What about when you're not settling in for marathon movie sessions, which, let's face it, is likely most of the time? In our time with it, the Xperia U managed to give us nearly two days of service, before it'd start pulling at our trouser leg, asking us to feed it. This is with WiFi and data always on, regularly checking emails, browsing the web and, well, the typical tasks of a fairly demanding user. This means that if you're away from the security of a wall port for more than 36 hours, then you'll be fine, but you'll likely want to be charging it most nights just in case, as is unfortunately the norm.

Sony Xperia U review

Of course, it's not just lighting up that screen, and juggling all the radio signals that drain the battery, those dual-cores will be taking a slice of the power-pie too. Yes, this brings us onto the more measured performance, and those all-important benchmarks. As you can see, the little Xperia U equaled, or saw off its Xperia P label-mate across the board showing that there's plenty of fight in the fella. In fact, it also pushes HTC's nearest current phone into the sand on most tests.

Sony Xperia U

Sony Xperia P

HTC One V

Galaxy S Blaze 4G

Quadrant 2,125 2,161 1,636 3,600
Vellamo 870 845 1,155 1,009
AnTuTu 5,348 4,965 n/a n/a
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 2,696 3,010 3,214 3,068
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 19 19 n/a n/a
CF-Bench 5,346 4,855 n/a n/a

These results are fairly congruent with our own experience. Playing Cut the Rope and other such reasonable light, fluid games felt no different (bar the screen real estate) than on, say, our Galaxy Nexus. Perhaps if we literally played one after the other, differences might begin to show, but if there are any, they aren't significant enough to show on their own.

Call- and browsing-wise, the phone's quad-band GPRS (850, 900, 1800, 1900) and HSPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100) dished up solid connections throughout our repeated testing both in central London and in more rural areas. Call performance and download speeds were always in tandem with what the UK O2 network could provide.

Wrap-up

Sony Xperia U review

We admit that we've spent a lot of time talking about what this phone is not. So, now we'll sum up exactly what it is. The Sony Xperia U is a good phone, if you are looking for something a little smaller. It is perfectly capable for most daily-use situations. It plays your media well, and snaps photos and videos that will be fine for most pedestrian users. The Xperia U is perfectly nice to look at, and serviceable in almost every respect. However, it is also a little short on the internal memory front, and with no option to fix that up at your own expense. It is also a fiddle to get working with your Mac if you want to free up some of that memory in batches (which you likely will).

Those are the facts. But what about that less tangible of qualities? How we actually feel about it. Well, this is where the Xperia regains some merit. Despite its fairly modest specification, and occasional software quirk, it possesses some endearing characteristics. In a world where the limits of the human hand are being tested, the Xperia U fits like a pair of comfortable shoes. Likewise, the initially harsh-looking geometric form, and superfluous chin give it a distinctive (no pun intended) edge over its target-market colleagues such as Samsung's Galaxy Ace 2, or HTC's One V. The kicker being that, at $330 SIM-free, it also out-prices the above pair by around $50. There's also the Xperia P to consider, which might command more of your money, but fixes some of our main issues with it. Ultimately it comes down to how appropriate these trade-offs are to your specific requirements. And loathed as we are to agree with marketing spiel, as Sony would put it – it is all about U.

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Sony

Sony Xperia U

Pros

  • Smooth performance
  • Bright screen
  • Comfortable to use

Cons

  • Limited storage space
  • Old Gingerbread OS
  • Some minor software quirks
Conclusion

While the Xperia U might appear to be the next one down from the P, better battery life and general performance make this a worthy consideration if you have an eye for a smaller phone.

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Sony Xperia U review: a little slice of Android that punches above its weight