Monday, July 16, 2012

Sony Mobile Xperia P review

Released just two months ago, the Xperia P is Sony's third 'NXT' Xperia smartphones to be released since Sony Ericsson folded as an entity. It is positioned as a mid-range device aimed at smartphone newcomers and upgraders alike. Despite having it for almost a month now, I have held back my review because I wanted to wait for Sony to release an ICS update. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened and it is doubtful that it will happen in the very near future.

STE U8500 NovaThor SoC with dual core 1GHz processor
Mali-400MP GPU
16GB Flash Storage
4 inch LCD 'Reality Display' with 540x960 resolution
8MP camera with autofocus, 1080p30 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, NFC, USB On-the-Go
Android 2.3 Gingerbread with Sony TimeScape UI

Sharing a common design language to the flagship Xperia S and entry level Xperia U, the Xperia P sits awkwardly in the middle. With a specification far closer to the Xperia U but in a far more premium body, the Xperia P reminds me of the HTC Legend - where style and form wins over pure specifications. The Xperia P is by far the best iteration of the NXT design language thanks to the use of metallic unibody cover, one that even the more expensive Xperia S can't claim to have.
Once upon a time, the 4" display here would be considered huge - but in a day where 4.7" displays are now normal and 4.3" are considered small, the Xperia P is positively pocketable. Even then, 4" is a tad too big to be able to comfortable use with only a single thumb (from my point of view at least - I have small palms). With an odd resolution of 540x960, the screen is sharp - perhaps not as sharp as the iPhone 4S or Xperia S, but the differences are negligible. The 'Reality Display' used here is in fact a Super LCD one, albeit one powered by Sony's BRAVIA engine, which enhances contrast and colour saturation.

In addition to the traditional RGB sub-pixel arrangement, the Xperia P's display also contains an additional white sub-pixel. This technology is dubbed WhiteMagic which Sony claims allows them to create a display that is unusually bright. In testing, this proved to be true but at some expense. In contrast to Super AMOLED and IPS technologies, the high level of brightness here tends to lead to washed out colours, reduced contrast and black-levels. Fortunately, it is rare that one would be forced to use the Xperia P at maximum brightness, though people in countries that are blessed with reliable weather should take note.

Below the display is the now recognisable transparent band that it share with its other NXT cousins. While the strip contains markers displaying the keys for back, home and menu, the actual touch sensitive buttons lies just above or below the strip. However, unlike the Xperia S's front buttons, it buttons here are sensitive enough that you do not require pin point accuracy to actually use. Above the display resides the secondary camera, notification LED and earpiece. Unsurprisingly, the Xperia P's voice call capability are good with the earpiece powerful enough to use even in the noisy pub.
In contrast to the rather minimalist front look, both sides of the phone are busy, having been populated by numerous amount of ports and controls. You will find the exposed microUSB charge/sync and microHDMI ports on the left side. Sitting below them is microSIM card slot, which is at least protected by a plastic flap. The microSIM slot is recessed so it can prove difficult to remove the SIM inside, but I am glad that at least one manufacturer has found a way of providing a microSIM slot that does not require a tool to open (or fragile micro USB door).

The right side of the Xperia P is even busier than the left side. Here you will find the loudspeaker, a conveniently placed power button, volume rocker and finally the two-step camera shutter button. The placement of the loudspeaker is great as it meant that it won't get muffled due to being blocked by your palms, even when used sideways. A single 3.5mm headphone jack resides on the top of the device.

Turning over, the backside is exclusively used for the 8MP camera and its solitary LED flash. Unlike previous Xperia smartphones, the Xperia P's camera is positioned away from the top so there is less chance for one to accidentally get their fingers in the way. The rather small 1305mAh battery is none-removable, which is a shame as the Xperia P's battery life isn't brilliant. In day to day life, it actually performs worse than the Xperia U, which isn't surprising as while they share the same processor, the Xperia P has a larger display with more pixels and subpixels to power.
The built quality of the Xperia P is easily one of the best I have seen from on an Xperia smartphone. The aluminium unibody gives it a premium feel unlike the previous NXT devices but at the expense of grip. This is one of the most slippery phone I have used! I do not have large hands so the phone tends to slide around my palms. It does feel great in my hands and the design of the phone, while not terribly ergonomic, is at least comfortable to hold for long period of times.

With a dual core 1GHz Ericsson processor paired with Mali-400MP GPU (the same GPU that powered the Samsung Galaxy S2), the Xperia P sounds like it should be able to handle Android with aplomb and the benchmark results seems to confirm that. In reality, the Xperia P suffers from significant interface lag not seen on other dual core Android smartphones like the HTC One S and even the single core Xperia Ray and Xperia Arc, which is rather disappointing as benchmark results were competent. Sony has plenty of work to do if they are keen on optimising their proprietary NXT/Timescape UI for this particular chipset.

Still it isn't all bad. The dual core processor does keep most third party apps pumping along nicely. There is a hint of lagness when compared to the Xperia U - but I attribute that due to the higher resolution display. The inclusion of 1GB RAM was a surprise and is plentiful. No expansion slot is included, though a generous 16GB of storage space is built-in. You can however augment the storage temporarily by connecting a flash drive using a USB On-the-Go cable (not included).
Perhaps explaining the performance issue is the fact that the Xperia P is powered by Android Gingerbread. For a phone released barely two months ago, this is almost a disaster. In fact, thanks to Google's recent Jellybean announcement, the Xperia P is now two generations behind! In theory, the poor performance that I have mentioned could be fixed if Sony actually delivers the much overdue ICS/Jellybean and bring hardware acceleration. Last year Sony (Ericsson) made a big deal about how they would be the first OEM to release ICS update on their older phones - something which they now backtracked considerably.

The NXT launcher is the same one that powers the Xperia S and U 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 and terrifying, it is simple to use and master. However the widgets can get quite a bit overwhelming for a first time smartphone 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.
This being an Android device meant that to get the most out of it, you will first need a Google/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), as well as artificially inflate Google's statistics of the number of active users they have. 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.

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.

With Google Maps now supporting full offline support for maps, Android is fast becoming an ideal solution for SatNav users. As a standard feature on most phones, the Xperia P contains a GPS receiver. When used alongside wireless positioning via WiFi or mobile masts, the Xperia P's GPS received was able to provide a full lock within seconds, a fair improvement over just a few years ago when gaining a GPS lock under two minutes was considered an achievement of sorts.
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 on a modern OS. 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 out of the box.

Like the Xperia S, the Xperia P also features a hidden talent in the form of NFC/RFID. Near Field Communications is the latest trend in smartphones and is said to be able to revolutionise the way we interact with our gadgets. Sony sells SmartTags, designed to work with NFC devices like the Xperia P. These SmartTags aren't actually programmable, but you can set your Xperia P up to tell the tell the phone what actions are to be performed whenever certain tags are scanned. You could leave a tag in at work, which will then tell your phone to connect to the office WiFi and switch off 3G data when you scan it. The possibilities are endless. Just got home and want to immediately listen to some music? Scan a tag that instructs your phone to connect to a Bluetooth speaker and starting up the Music Player automatically.
Images taken on the 8 Megapixel Exmor-R camera are sharp with good amount of detail, but exhibits all the usual issues associated with mobile phone photography such as poor dynamic range (though this can be fixed with using a HDR app - unfortunately there is no built-in HDR mode) and noise, even when shot with low ISO. Thankfully, the images produced are sufficiently vivid rather than the usual boring bland colours you normally get on other Xperia cameras. It isn't the best 8MP cameraphone I have used (the HTC One X wins in this category), but it is close. You will find a more detailed review of the Xperia P's camera here alongside a number of image samples.

When it was announced, the closest competitor to the Xperia P was the HTC One S, a device with a far superior specification (it has a next generation Snapdragon S4 SoC) and offers similar imaging capabilities, though the price difference has now widen in favour of the Xperia P. At its current price point (£275 from Amazon), there is almost no competition to the Xperia P when it comes to a 'new device' with comparable talents. Look backwards however and you will find the year old HTC Sensation to be priced slightly lower, new. A proven device, the HTC Sensation has even been updated to ICS a couple of months ago making it, theoretically at least, a better buy. Sure it lacks NFC, but with NFC still developing, the technology is a more of a niche for geeks rather than a must-have.

After close to a month with the Xperia P, I have actually come appreciate the NXT design even more than the higher priced Xperia S. This is mainly to do with the size and 'premium feel' of the device. It does lack the superior camera prowess of the Xperia S. The software engineers at Sony need to make ICS/Jellybean update a priority, as the Xperia P is suffering without it. In another world I wouldn't care if it ran on an older platform - as long as it ran well. But the changes in ICS are just too huge to ignore, that it makes sense to demand a new phone that comes with a new version of Android.

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