Friday, June 1, 2012

Sony Mobile Xperia U review

The Xperia U is Sony's newest entry level smartphone aimed at replacing the demunitive Xperia Ray. For a small smartphone, it is rather well equipped with specs that would make more expensive and bigger phones blush with envy. However is a small smartphone now a handicap? Read on to find out. But first let's get those pesky specs out of the way, shall we?
  • STE U8500 NovaThor SoC with dual core 1GHz processor
  • Mali-400MP GPU
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB Flash Storage
  • 3.5 inch LCD 'Reality Display' with 480x854 resolution
  • 5MP camera with autofocus, 720p30 video recording
  • Quad band GSM
  • Dual band/Tri band 3G (depending on model) HSDPA 14.4Mbps
  • WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1
Part of Sony's new range of 'NXT' Xperia 2012 smartphones, the Xperia U features a similar design to the flagship Xperia S and Xperia P. Equipped with a 3.5" display, it is also quite a bit smaller, but with a resolution of 480x854, it is also pretty sharp. While the LCD screen does not perform well under strong sunlight and the maximum brightness isn't quite as bright as it should, it is powered by Sony's BRAVIA engine enhancing contrast and colour saturation.

Below the display is the now recognisable transparent band that it share with its more expensive cousins. While the strip contains markers displaying the keys for back, home and menu, the actual touch sensitive buttons lies just above the strip marked by three tiny dots. Like the Xperia S's front buttons, it requires plenty of effort and accuracy to press them. Above the display resides the secondary camera and earpiece. As expected, call quality is brilliant. Thanks to the noise cancelling microphone, your recipient will also be thankful.

Unique to the Xperia U is that the transparent strip actually illuminates in a colour of your choice. The band will light up for a couple of seconds whenever the menu buttons are touched. These colours can be switched by changing to a different theme and range from pink, green to blue and red. It is very bright and can't be switched off, much to my annoyance. Still young people, the target audience of this device, will likely appreciate it. As if to further confirm the device's youthful aspirations, the cap below can also be swapped. My black Xperia U came with interchangeable pink and black caps.
The built quality of the device is solid, but feels rather cheap. The rubberised body provides sufficient grip though they don't convey any sort of quality. The petite size and shape meant that it always felt comfortable in my palms, and at times I felt like I was using a classic candybar Sony Ericsson phone from the mid-2000s. Unlike the Xperia S, the battery cover here is in fact a real battery cover, giving access to both the SIM card slot and 1280mAh/4.8Wh battery. Despite the tiny battery, it is sufficient to power the Xperia U for a day of medium usage on a 3G network.

For under £200 sim-free, Sony aimed to introduce a smartphone featuring specifications that were only exclusive to high-end smartphones just last year to a new breed of smartphone newcomers. With a dual core 1GHz Ericsson processor paired with Mali-400MP GPU (the same GPU that powered the amazing Samsung Galaxy S2), the Xperia U sounds like a stonking good deal, on paper at least.
In reality, the Xperia U does suffer from some lag issues not seen on other dual core Android smartphones like the HTC One X and even the single core Xperia Ray and Xperia Arc, which is rather disappointing as benchmark results are impressive. It just goes to show that benchmark results doesn't mean much in real life and that Sony has a lot of work to go into optimising their proprietary NXT UI for this particular chipset.

Still it isn't all bad. The dual core processor does keep third party apps pumping along nicely. Some might complain about the 512MB of RAM as a limit, but it isn't really an issue unless you are planning on running multiple apps concurrently. As the Xperia U runs on Android Gingerbread, hopefully performance will improve once Sony gets their act together and actually delivers the much overdue Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update.
8GB of none-expandable storage is included, of which 6GB is user accessible, and of that only 4GB is available for media use - hardly adequate in this day and age. With cloud storage service by Dropbox and Microsoft Skydrive available on this device, you could theoretically store most of your media in the cloud, but it would always be better if local storage was sufficient in the first place. On the other hand, the microUSB port is USB-on-the-Go compatible, allowing one to connect any USB devices such as flash drives.

The NXT launcher is the same one that powers the Xperia S and it doesn't appears to be any different. It is based on the same launcher that powered most of Sony Ericsson's 2011 Xperia line-up, which I was rather fond of. While aging, any power users will feel right at home. Despite looking rather complex, it is simple to use. However the widgets can get quite a bit overwhelming for a first time user.
The app drawer is flat based and can be sorted based on your own order, alphabetically, most used and recently installed. Apps can also be uninstalled directly from the app drawer, Folders can be created on the homescreen by dragging one shortcut over another - similar to the method on iOS. Widgets bundled includes Sony's socially friendly Timescape, TrackID and LiveWare. The homescreen also does lag at times and I hope this will be fixed when ICS update arrives with hardware acceleration.

In order to get the best out of the Xperia U, you will first need a Googla/Gmail account. This will allow you to sync your emails, contacts and calendar while also giving you access to the Android Market (now called Google Play Store). Sony has also added their own section on their Android market where you will be able to find a smaller section of curated apps optimised for their phones.
The web browser here is standard Android affair that has been reviewed time after time. It is a lovely browser - perhaps one of the best mobile browsers out there. Tab browsing is also supported, as is text reflow. Zooming can be done via either double tapping or pinch to zoom. The UI is clean with only the address bar and bookmark icon visible when first entering.

Pressing the menu button will bring up six keys allowing you to open a new tab, access the bookmark, switch between tabs, go forward, refresh page and enter the options where you will find the browser’s settings. Here you can change the text size, disable JavaScript or images, clear cache and cookies as well as disable the ability of web pages to access your geo-location. Adobe Flash is also supported.
A key Android feature is notifications. Notifications allows one to glance at an assortment of details we would otherwise miss. You access the notification bar by swiping downwards from the top display. Here, any notifications that appears will be listed here, be it your missed calls, text messages, Facebook messages, emails and Twitter mentions, Foursquare check-ins etc, as well as the opportunity to dismiss them all. One a small smartphone like the Xperia U, the pull down notification is brilliant as it is easy to reach even when using one-handed.

The 5 megapixel camera here is likely to prove sufficient for its target market. It won't win any photography awards, but images taken are usable. Despite the ample processing power, the video camera is only capped at recording at 720p30. The default setting for the camera is a poxy 3 megapixel widescreen, which one should always rectify by switching to the standard 4:3 aspect ratio mode. In addition to sweep panorama, the camera is also capable of capturing images in 3D format, including panorama 3D. Unfortunately I do not own a 3D TV or display so I have no way of testing this feature. The two-step camera shutter button is a little small, but it does fire up the camera app from sleep in a couple of seconds.
With a small sensor, images taken were fuzzy with barely any detail, but well focused and correctly exposed. It is also nice to see the correct white balance applied most of the time, though I do wish Sony would dial up the vividness. Pictures often look rather 'dull'. You get the usual issues associated with mobile phone photography such as poor dynamic range (though this can be fixed with using a HDR app) and noise, even when shot with low ISO. Overall, the camera is good enough for typical web use, but you wouldn't want to print them. You caa find more samples here.
Sweep panorama
The Xperia U's closest competitor is Sony's own Xperia sola device, recently announced but not offered under general availability in the UK yet. It lacks the distinctive NXT design, but it does trump the Xperia U in other areas like display size and expandability. If design is important I would suggest checking out the HTC One V, recently reviewed here. It may suffer from using an even slower chipset but it features a better design, built quality, has a microSD card slot and runs on ICS out of the box. Outside of Android, the HTC Radar is a superb alternative, offering plenty of performance and easy to use features. The Nokia Lumia 710, despite being a tad on the ugly side, is also worth a look considering its brilliant value for money.

Suffering from storage deficiencies, the Xperia U isn't quite the multimedia player it could have been. Sony's delayed roll out of ICS has also been rather discouraging, considering how much they promised last year regarding their older Xperia handsets. Despite my misgivings, the Xperia U is immensely pocketable and the price is just about right for a device of this caliber. For £15 a month, I suspect this model to be particularly popular among teenagers and young adults.

Many thanks to Three UK for loaning the Xperia U. It is available on PAYG for £169.99 and on monthly contract from £15.


Anonymous said...

Seriously? Comparing a low end Xperia to the One X?

Amos said...

Good review, Jon. Keep them up!
Would love to see your thoughts on the new Xperia T.

Jon Choo said...

Thanks Amos!