Sony's having a good year. The flagship Xperia Z, is proving a big success but can the Sony Xperia SP conquer the mid-range phone user too?
It's tough trying to follow a phone like the Sony Xperia Z which has been praised by critics and proved popular with the public. However, the brand's latest - the Sony Xperia SP - is no also-ran: it lacks the headline features of the Z, such as waterproof casing, 13MP camera sensor and Full HD 5in display but it still has a lot going for it. The is essentially a replacement for the Sony Xperia S.
Sony Xperia SP: Size and build
First impressions are good. The phone looks attractive and the curved edges are softer in the hand than the Xperia Z's sharp lines. So although it's not as thin, this is a phone that feels good to hold. The soft-touch rubbery back that's more comfy than the shiny glass back on the Z improves the feel.
The SP measures 130.6 x 67.1 x 10 mm which makes it shorter and less wide than the Xperia Z, but fatter from front to back. It also weighs a little more at 155g against the older phone's 146g. You can choose from black, white or red versions.
Many high-end smartphones come as sealed units now, so no swapping batteries. Well, the Xperia SP has a removable back but you still can't get at the battery. The only point of removing the case is to insert the sim card or microSD card. It's a slightly curious hybrid arrangement but the case fits snugly so there's no creak as you flex the phone.
The most striking part of the design is along the base: a transparent plastic strip stretches the width of the phone. It's not too distracting, but its purpose becomes evident when you turn the phone on. There's a light in the phone which, when lit, illuminates the strip with a green glow.
The colour changes according to taste or to what's happening – it pulses to the beat when you're playing music, for instance. You can set it so a chosen colour is specific to a particular caller so you know who's ringing you from across the room. It's quite fun but we suspect many will turn it off as soon as possible.
Sony Xperia SP: Features
Sony doesn't put nearly as many features or software extras on its phones as Samsung does – and this is a good thing. Of course, there are still Sony specialities, such as Sony Music Unlimited which is the company's take on a Spotify-like streaming service that works well. There's also the Video Unlimited offering which is a movie rental and purchase system.
Of course, being a Sony product, there's also TrackID, the Sony version of Shazam which helps identify tracks you can hear playing. Like Shazam, there's something slightly magical about it when it works.
There's also Album, the photo gallery system Sony favours which sorts images according to a map to show where they were shot, for instance. In some views you can enlarge thumbnails just by a pinch-to-zoom manoeuvre, which is very nice.
And, of course, as this is a Sony the music player is a Walkman, and has an attractive, easy-to-use interface. Attractive is also the word to use for Sony's take on the Android OS, with cute icons and dark backgrounds.
Sony Xperia SP: Screen
The SP has a good-sized screen – 4.6ins – and impressive resolution. It may not be Full HD but it manages 720p which will be enough for many. This also means it manages 319 pixels per inch which, though no match for the Xperia Z or Samsung Galaxy S4, is higher-resolution than the Apple iPhone 5.
It looks glorious from the second you switch it on: even the loading screen with Sony's floating swirls of colour flashing across a black background looks impressive. The company's supplied videos look great.
“Landscapes” with its endless underwater, aerial and more mundane views shine with colour and detail, so much that you may hardly miss the 1080p screen on the Xperia Z.
What's more, like the Xperia Z, this is a screen that benefits from Sony's TV knowhow which shows in bright, realistic colours and decent, contrasty black hues.
Sony Xperia SP: Camera
This phone has an 8MP camera: last year these were top-of-the-range and are still not to be sniffed at, but the arrival of 13MP sensors on the Sony Xperia Z and Samsung Galaxy S4 means 8MP seems less exciting.
Even so, results are pretty decent, with the usual caveats about the limit of cameraphones to take good pictures in low light. There is a flash but it's of limited value. There's a dedicated shutter button on the edge of the Xperia SP, which makes taking images easier than tapping the touchscreen.
You can go straight to the camera from the lock screen by swiping the camera icon, and can even set this up so that as you do so it immediately takes a photo or shoots video. This is certainly quick but not always effective and does drain the battery a little.
Video recording is good – it shoots at 1080p – with the added bonus of HDR, which is still almost unheard of except on Sony phones.
Sony Xperia SP: Performance
Call quality was strong, not least thanks to the secondary microphone used to subtract background noise from the main microphone to make your voice sound loud and clear. Signal strength was similarly good.
There's only a dual-core processor in the phone but it's more than enough to soar along most of the time. Even multiple programs open at the same time has little effect on the Xperia SP's nimble responsiveness. It felt almost as zippy as the Sony Xperia Z which is quad-core and has extra RAM.
The Xperia SP uses Android Jelly Bean but not the very latest version, this is 4.1.2, though few phones have made the move to 4.2 yet – the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the main exception.
Sony Xperia SP: Battery
This phone has great battery life, gliding elegantly through a full day with ease. Sony quotes talktime of over 18 hours, which seems a little ambitious but it certainly doesn't choke by lunchtime, whatever you do with it. As usual, nightly recharges will give greatest peace of mind.
Sony Xperia SP: Verdict
Sony's excellent design and build quality are evident here. The Sony Xperia SP looks great, though the notification system, a Perspex bar at the base of the phone that glows with different colours for different purposes, will divide users.
The camera is not Sony's best, though the hardware shutter trigger is useful. Sony's special features like Music Unlimited and its video store are useful and can be inviting ways to spend money.
This is a solid, effective handset that's good value and has strong specifications. It may not be the Xperia Z but it's certainly worth considering.
Sony Xperia SP release date: Out now
Sony Xperia SP price: £350