Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

Sony's Xperia Z took the company into the big leagues this year: the company finally has a handset that turns heads and can compete with the established Galaxy and One brands. The Z and its plainer ZL variant weren't the only bullets in the Xperia revolver for 2013, though. Back in March, the company announced the Xperia SP and Xperia L handsets to fall in line behind its flagship. While the L is undoubtedly targeted at the low end of the Android spectrum, the Xperia SP sits in a strange middle ground, with a 720p display and internals that rival the flagships of 2012. It's not some kind of Xperia S and P fusion, either. The design is vastly different from the sum of its moniker, although the transparent element that defined those devices makes a comeback here.

And thus, with intrigue, we must put the Xperia through its paces the Engadget way. Is it just another Android handset put out so there's something with the Sony name available at a lower price point than the Z? Is there anything other than a transparent piece of plastic to set it apart from the plethora of other touchscreen rectangles that live in the shadow of their top-tier peers? Instead of pondering the answers to those questions yourself, save time by heading past the break for our full review.

Sony Xperia SP review

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Hardware

At first glance, there isn't anything particularly striking about the Xperia SP. After prying open the box, you're confronted with nothing more than a rectangle with a see-through bar at the bottom. If anything, our immediate first thoughts were about how plain the handset is -- there are no physical buttons on the face, for example. This is perhaps especially true of our black / grey model (refreshingly just called "black" on the spec sheet), but it's available in white and a vibrant red as well, should you prefer either of those options. No ringing endorsements in those opening words, you may be thinking, and yes, there are design flaws and quirks that we'll soon talk about. Describing exactly how it looks, however, doesn't tell the whole story. It takes a little bit of time to really get familiar with this Xperia, and when the introductions are over, you'll find a ton of personality to fall in love with -- warts and all.

You'll find a ton of personality to fall in love with -- warts and all.

Aside from a lack of any buttons to press on the front of the handset, there's one piece of Gorilla Glass framing the 4.6-inch display, with the primary mic below it and off to the left (apparently favoring the right-handed caller). The top-left corner houses the VGA front-facing camera, with a silver Sony logo beneath the earpiece at top-center. The back of the device is covered with a removable panel of rubbery plastic, which provides some welcome, light friction when sitting in your palm. There's only a micro-SIM and microSD slot (up to 32GB cards supported) behind it, however, so you'll have to make do with just the one non-removable 2,370mAh battery. While the back panel has a little give to it in the middle from the get-go, repeatedly pulling it off appears to have stretched it and nurtured this creakiness. It's something worth mentioning when you've got your reviewer cap on, but the truth is, after becoming comfortable with the phone, it sounded more like the crackle of a familiar leather armchair than the groan of a perilous jetty.

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

A neat silver Xperia logo lies in the center of the back panel, and you'll want to remove the cheap-looking sticker beneath it that signifies the NFC chip inside. Above the logo you'll find a hole for the secondary mic, and a tiny LED flash just above that, followed by the main camera lens, highlighted by a raised metal rim for scratch protection. Just to the left of the camera sits a small, oblong loudspeaker grille. The aluminum frame that wraps the sides of the handset adds a dash of "premium" seasoning to the overall build, with two small screws on the left and right edges letting you know care's been taken over its assembly.

There's also a pair of ports -- a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge that spreads into the back panel slightly, and a micro-USB charging port toward the top on the left side. The charging socket bloats the frame by a couple of millimeters, but the asymmetry isn't ugly. It's obviously set back to allow room for the display hardware on the inside, and there's no way it could fit on the bottom edge due to the "transparent element" commanding that region. For right-handed folks, though, the micro-USB port's placement means you can continue to poke at it comfortably while it's charging.

The only physical keys on the device claim the right edge of the frame: a two-stage camera button near the bottom, a volume rocker nearer the top and a machined-aluminum power key in the middle. That on / off button sticks out from the frame a good couple of millimeters -- more than on the Xperia Z -- and although it looks like a quality part commandeered from a high-end watch, we can only describe it as a blemish on an otherwise plain-but-pretty design. While it's located in the perfect place for rapidly waking the screen, it tends to scratch at your forefinger, drawing unnecessary attention to itself. Significant enough to be worth a mention, but we tended to forget about it easily, so we doubt it'll drive anyone crazy over a prolonged period.

Measuring 130.6 x 67.1 x 9.98mm (5.14 x 2.64 x 0.39 inches), the Xperia SP is closest in size to last year's Xperia T. Its footprint is a little bigger than both the Xperia S and P -- not surprising given the SP's bigger screen. Due to a curved back, it's also a hair thicker than the Z. The device's slightly rounded back panel, smooth corners, edges and general dimensions fit well in the hand, putting the SP comfortably below the cusp of unwieldy (something this editor can't say about the Xperia Z). Apart from an occasional niggle from the scratchy power button, getting around the 4.6-inch display with your thumb isn't a problem. The SP tips the scales at 155g (5.47 ounces), making it heavier than all the other members of the Xperia range previously mentioned. It doesn't require the guns needed to lift something like the Lumia 920, however, and the slight weight increase over many of its peers only makes it feel denser -- it speaks to the build quality, if anything.

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

You'll notice we haven't said much on the transparent element, but we wanted to save the best bit of hardware design for last. Some may think the revival of the see-through bar a gimmick, but it's a playful touch that (literally) lightens up what's otherwise an understated device. It looks especially at home on the SP, as it sits right in between the main body and frame, not flanked by another chunk of phone underneath like on the Xperia S and P. It's your beacon for missed calls, text messages, emails and the like, as well as a warning light when juice is low. While it naturally glows purple when you're active in Sony's Walkman app, one setting takes timing and intensity cues to pulse more-or-less faithfully along with whatever's playing, if you want to show it off on the bus. Another arguably useless but no less entertaining feature turns the bar a hue that most closely matches the predominant color of your pictures as you flick through in the Album app. The transparent element, like in the Walkman app, will also pulse in time with your ringtone, and glow solid when on a call, making even the most benign of conversations look important enough to illuminate.

Sony Xperia SP
Dimensions 130.6 x 67.1 x 9.98mm (5.14 x 2.64 x 0.39 inch)
Weight 5.47 oz. (155g)
Screen size 4.6 inches
Screen resolution 1,280 x 720 (319 ppi)
Screen type TFT LCD, Reality Display, Glove mode
Battery 2,370mAh Li-Polymer (non-removable)
Internal storage 8GB
External storage microSD (up to 32GB)
Rear camera 8MP, BSI, f/2.4
Front-facing cam VGA (0.3MP)
Video capture 1080p 30fps
NFC Yes
Bluetooth v4.0 with A2DP, LE profiles
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro (MSM8960)
CPU 1.7GHz dual-core
GPU Adreno 320
RAM 1GB
WiFi Dual-band, 802.11a/b/g/n
Wireless Charging No
Operating system Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean

Display

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

The Xperia SP's 4.6-inch TFT LCD screen boasts the same Reality Display tech as the Xperia Z, albeit at a lower 720p resolution, working out to 319 ppi. However, the display just isn't as good as the Z's, even after you take into account the lower resolution. We can't figure out whether there's just too much light coming through, or whether the closest to black it can get is a very, very dark blue, but the blacks are simply... off. It goes from noticeable when the two Xperias are compared, to shockingly apparent when placed next to the Galaxy S III's AMOLED display. Whites are spot on, though, and there's even a white balance adjuster in the display settings menu if you think you can do a better job calibrating it manually. Other colors are naturally vibrant without being cartoony.

On the SP, there's the option to enable Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2 to jack up the contrast when you're watching videos or looking at pictures. It's great when tucking into your favorite show on the go -- everything looks almost hyper-realistic and 3D. Glove mode is another of the display's special settings. Sony's version of Super Sensitive Touch, it engages when you unlock the phone with dressed hands, and worked very well when we tested it out using a fairly thick pair of faux leather gloves.

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

Sony's Android skin takes full advantage of the resolution. You'll struggle to find pixelation of any kind, and even the smallest font is easily readable. Viewing angles are subpar, with the display quickly washing out after about 30 degrees of tilt. Outdoor visibility isn't the hottest, either. That's nothing to do with the brightness, and you can still easily check notifications and such. But, it reflects most of the light that's thrown at it, so glare can get in the way of doing anything more entertaining. On the subject of brightness, the auto setting is somewhat strange. It appears to use the manual brightness setting as a peg, so it really needs to be manually set to full or nearly full before that auto box is ticked. Otherwise, it's too dark the majority of the time.

The Gorilla Glass panel that protects the screen is a magnet for grime and oil.

The Gorilla Glass panel that protects the screen is a magnet for grime and oil. If you're in the habit of buffing your phone's face on clothing even when it's not necessary, as this editor is, then it's not much of problem. It's confusing, though, to find that after only a few minutes of hands-on time, the screen looks as if it's been attacked by a horde of sticky-fingered toddlers. While the 720p display offers great detail in movies and games, it misses more boxes than it ticks.

Software

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

The Xperia SP ships with Android 4.1.2 running underneath Sony's custom skin. Granted, it's not the latest version, but you're not missing out on much. Compared to other manufacturers' skins, like Samsung's TouchWiz, it's simple and light, favoring performance to flamboyance. That being said, it's not devoid of tricks. From the lock screen, you can launch straight into the camera or Walkman app using dragging gestures, and swiping up or down to unlock the handset creates an effect that's like dragging your hand down window blinds. A similarly trivial animation happens when you hit the power button to induce sleep. The darkness closes in rapidly from top and bottom -- a comforting reminder of the days of CRT TVs. It never gets old.

Setting up the perfect home screen is seriously simple and quick.

Pressing and holding an unoccupied space on the home screen brings up a menu from which you can add or remove panels, change themes / wallpapers and add widgets or app shortcuts with ease. Setting up the perfect home screen is seriously simple and quick. The notification pull-down only has a few things to switch on and off on the fly, but there's a quick-settings widget that offers a greater selection. Also, the app drawer is a little too utilitarian for our liking, but at least there's a fast way to uninstall apps, like the pre-installed McAfee Antivirus & Security, which incessantly demands you register from the moment you boot up for the first time.

That's not the sum of bloatware, either, and much of it is uninstallable. You'll probably end up using most of it though, like Google's wares, Facebook, YouTube and various Sony apps (such as Walkman and Album, which make use of the transparent element as previously mentioned). We could do without Sony's media-sharing, music-streaming, feed-aggregating and store-curating apps, however. Sure, leave them on there for us to check out, but don't force us to stare at unnecessary icon clutter forever.

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

We've already mentioned the Mobile Bravia Engine 2 mode for video and pictures, and within the various menus are a bunch of other settings to play around with. Stamina mode adds battery-management options (although you don't really need to worry about battery life). Clear Phase and xLOUD tech will augment loudspeaker output, and in the Walkman app, you can enable ClearAudio+ that promises higher sound clarity. It delivers, too, making audio crisper and boosting volume slightly. A completely new feature debuting on the PlayStation-certified Xperia SP, and rolling out to other Xperia handsets later, is DualShock 3 controller support. Using an extra cable to connect the pad's charging lead to the SP's micro-USB port, it's recognized instantly. If you'd prefer to use it wirelessly, one tap will immediately pair the devices via Bluetooth. It's said to be compatible with loads of games, and while it worked perfectly in GTA III, communication was problematic in others. Touchscreens aren't the favored input method for some games, so if you remember to bring a pad with you, it could make for more comfortable sessions on long journeys. And when you get where you're going, you can transfer to a bigger screen via MHL out.

With a lack of physical keys on the front of the device, a substitute bar with buttons for back, home and recently accessed programs is (almost) always present at the lower terminus of the screen. While watching videos, it disappears to give you more real estate, but it's persistently awkward in some apps. For example, it remains on-screen while playing various games, and in portrait orientation, it sits there just begging to be accidentally tapped. And you will bump into it fairly often with frustrating results.

Camera

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

The Xperia SP has an 8-megapixel main shooter with a backside-illuminated Exmor RS sensor and f/2.4 lens, capable of 1080p video recording at 30 fps. Sony opted for a paltry VGA (0.3-megapixel) camera for the front-facer that lacks any advanced settings or features save for snapping stills while recording video, but it'll do for selfies and video chat. The settings for the main camera, however, are numerous and deep. In the normal camera mode, you can manually adjust white balance, ISO, exposure value, light metering and focus style. There's also image stabilization as well as HDR settings, but they can't both be enabled in tandem. A sweeping panorama mode that'll have you spinning almost 300 degrees, an obligatory filter mode, a Superior Auto mode and a scene-selection mode round out the states you can put the camera in. We only find use for the backlight correction + HDR scene mode to snap high-contrast pics in failing light.

Getting into the camera app can be done in one of many ways: launching it as normal, swiping an icon across the display from the lock screen or holding the two-step, dedicated camera button. The on-screen keys for switching between modes and tweaking settings are located on the left-hand side, with deeper menus opening in the middle and across the top. It's appreciably easy to navigate and tinker inside the app. There's an on-screen shutter key and icons for switching cameras or between stills and video on the right that are also easily accessible, but when in the correct setup, we used the well-placed physical key almost exclusively.

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

Lovely, crisp images are easily achievable with the SP's main camera, and the Superior Auto setting will work in your favor the majority of the time, taking the pain out tinkering with the individual settings in the normal camera mode. In all modes, we favored the automatic white balance setting, which only betrayed reality slightly under artificial light. The Superior Auto setting only takes a maximum of 7-megapixel images, but as all eight megapixels are available in other modes with the same aspect ratio (4:3), it's hard to pick out any significant drop in quality. To get the beautiful high-contrast HDR images, however, you're better off using the normal camera mode. That's not to say that color saturation is bad with Superior Auto -- you just can't get the full HDR pop.

Low-light performance is better than expected.

Low-light performance is better than expected, but outside of Superior Auto, it's hard to keep pictures in focus and anything but really steady hands results in blurry shots. Let the software take over, though, and you can snap at normal speeds with the sensor still managing to suck up every bit of available light. Despite the absence of a burst-capture mode, the focus speed and shutter response mean you can be ready for the next picture in under a second. The small pulsed LED flash tends to wash images out, but can provide an extra burst of illumination at the correct distance if the low-light modes aren't enough.

Video quality at 1080p is also good on the SP, with no complaints of focus stuttering or jittery changes to exposure. Like on the front-facing camera, you can snap stills while recording, but only 1-megapixel's worth. With image stabilization turned on, the display tells of a really smooth clip being shot while walking. When viewed on a computer, you can see the video warp in places where the software is compensating for your strides. The microphone picks up all the ambient sounds you want it to, as well. Low-light video comes out noisy when viewed on anything other the SP's screen, but it really draws in a lot of light. You'd be surprised if you knew how dark it really was when we were filming the low-light sample footage in the clip below. There's no HDR video mode, by the way. That's one of the few things the lesser Xperia L has that the SP doesn't. In summation, the camera is a solid all-rounder and more than passable for casual use. It's a minor improvement over the Xperia P's 8-megapixel shooter with Exmor R sensor, but doesn't match up to the photo quality of the Xperia Z.

Xperia SP sample shots

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Performance and battery life

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

Beating away inside the SP are myriad components that make it quite hard to call it a mid-range phone. With a dual-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro (MSM8960), Adreno 320 GPU and 1GB of RAM, it's more like a 2012 flagship. One blip on the spec sheet is the 8GB of internal storage, and you can only use 5.5GB of that for your own data. There's a microSD slot to top that up, but sadly it only supports cards up to 32GB, so you can only stretch it so far. See the benchmark table below for an indication of how it measures up against Sony's big hitter, and a few peers hailing from 2012.

Xperia SP Xperia Z Xperia T* Galaxy S III One X+
Quadrant v2 8,088 8,019 4,981 5,875 7,457
Vellamo 2.0 HTML5 2,517 2,198 2,375 1,626 1,897
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt 1080p Offscreen (fps) 31 29 55 15 12
CF-Bench 14,382 16,079 9,568 12,922 14,558
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,051 1,900 1,775 1,194 1,107
AnTuTu 16,466 19,876 6,977 10,344 15,921
Battery life (rundown test) 6:34 5:35 N/A 9:02 7:32
SunSpider: lower scores are better; * benchmarch on ICS

The numbers show the SP trumps several 2012 flagships in practically all performance benchmarks, barring the One X+'s negligibly higher CF-Bench score. The Xperia Z slightly bests the SP in several categories, but that's expected given its extra cores and additional gig of RAM. As they say, though, the proof is in the pudding. General performance is absolutely solid on the SP. Rifling through menus and home screen panels is fast and slick. The phone keeps up with even the most frantic of swiping. Apps load quickly, and you won't find yourself waiting around like you might with lesser hardware. Internet performance is equally as good, as highlighted by the near 1,000 ms score in the SunSpider test. Mobile and desktop sites loaded up in a second or less, and only very rarely did we notice tiling when zooming out from a page. There really isn't much else to divulge when considering basic use, which actually says a lot about how capable the device is.

The SP takes around 45 seconds to boot, but another 15 to 20 before Android and Sony's skin have loaded fully and it becomes useable. Gaming performance -- this editor's favorite part of reviews -- is really something. As we've said, you get a lot of detail from the 720p screen, and the SP handles games like Riptide GP and GTA III on the most demanding settings with only the odd dropped frame. For the more passive kind of consumption, the Bravia Engine really makes video pop out at you, and there's the option to enjoy it on an HDTV as the SP supports the MHL standard. The audio performance through headphones will keep your head nodding -- you get a nice range, from treble right down to bass, and the ClearAudio+ tech adds to the quality, and the volume. That extra bump in volume is important. With leaky headphones that hang in your ear, cranking it all the way up will only just about drown out the rattling of a London Underground train. That being said, it's not worth mentioning if you've got a set of in- or over-ears. The small loudspeaker on the back of the handset is fine for hands-free calling, but don't even bother trying to play music out of it. It becomes a distorted cacophony of ill-defined noise.

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

Using our standard battery rundown test, the SP's sizeable 2,370mAh pack ran dry after six hours and 34 minutes of looping video (with the contrast-boosting Mobile Bravia 2 engine disabled). What does that mean in the real world? Well, it goes a heck of a long way. It'll survive a full working day of basically constant use -- pictures, video, browsing, the lot. Moderate to frugal users who stick to less intensive tasks, such as checking the odd website and answering a few emails, should get from waking up one day to home-time the next before having to recharge. It's really nice not to have to worry about being caught out, because even when the percentage charge starts getting low, you know it's still got a lot of life left. Incidentally, after a complete drain, the SP takes just under three and a half hours to fully recharge using the supplied wall adapter and USB cable.

The real kicker on the SP is WiFi reception.

No complaints need be logged regarding network reception. Call quality is nice and clear, with no qualms from those on the other end. The SP sports Bluetooth 4.0 with support for A2DP, a pair of low-energy profiles and several others. It identifies peripherals quickly and makes connections just as fast. Assisted GPS and GLONASS location are both supported, with homing in taking a matter of seconds, at most. NFC pairing was inexplicably intermittent (is NFC still a thing?), but the real kicker on the SP is WiFi reception. Abominable, horrifying, atrocious -- all valid words to describe the range at which it'll stay connected. We assume Sony will be able to address this with some kind of future firmware tweak, unless the antennae were lifted from the back of a truck in Shenzhen in 2007. When connected, the signal remains solid, but at 20 feet away from a router with one wall in its path, it's incredible to see it just about maintain a connection.

There are three distinct models of Xperia SP: C5302, C5303 and C5306. Ours is the C5303 that, for reference, supports GSM (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900), HSPA+ (850 / 900 / 2100) and LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20) networks. The C5302 is an HSPA+-only model, while the C5306 supports a different range of LTE frequencies. Unfortunately, we didn't have a 4G SIM to test LTE speeds on, but over HSPA+ in this editor's South London area, speeds averaged 10 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up.

Wrap-Up

DNP Sony Xperia SP review lights, camera, performance

Despite being a brand new Sony handset with LTE and plenty more to offer, no US carrier partnerships for the SP have been announced to date. Over here in the UK, however, all the major carriers are on board. While the SP hasn't yet launched with O2 and Vodafone, you can pick one up for free from £20.50 per month at Orange or £21 per month at T-Mobile, which also offers a pay-as-you-go price of £250 (around $385). If you want to make use of that 4G radio right away, however, you'll need to hit up EE. Again, the phone can be had for nothing on plans starting at £26 per month. To put that in perspective, HTC's One SV is £10 per month more expensive right out of the gate. While we like the One SV as a budget 4G offering, it makes the Xperia SP a relative steal, with Sony's offering trumping it in performance and screen res, among other things.

The Xperia SP is by no means perfect. It's got a grime- and glare-loving screen that misses the mark despite its HD resolution. Other problems: a penchant for bloatware and other small flaws like the terrible WiFi reception. The design may be a little bland for those who aren't interested in the transparent element, but the build quality is solid. Also to its credit are the capable shooter, long battery life and internal hardware that delivers serious performance for the price point. Something that's hard to get across when you're reviewing individual facets is just how charming the handset is. You know it's not punching in the same weight class as the HTC One and Galaxy S 4, but it comes close. So close, in fact, that if you want to consider this a mid-range device, it would be easy to conclude the the Xperia SP is the best mid-range device. It's attractive, does what you ask of it without complaint and has character, to boot. What more could you want from a pocket companion that's easy on your bank balance?

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Sony

Sony Xperia SP

Pros

  • Well-built, attractive design
  • Good all-around camera performance
  • Capable performer

Cons

  • Underwhelming display
  • Only 8GB of internal storage
  • Terrible WiFi range
Conclusion

An understated, but good-looking LTE device that delivers outstanding performance at a fair price.

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Sony Xperia SP review: lights, camera, performance