Sony Xperia SP Review: Budget But Amazing

By Chris Mills on at

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Xperia SP is last year's flagship phone. The specs, certainly, look that way: dual-core processor, 4.6-inch screen and 8MP camera. In fact, the Xperia SP is this year's budget offering from Sony, and despite the £250 price tag, it's one of the best phones this year.

Sony-Xperia-SP-review-screen

 

What is it?

A mid-range Android phone, slightly smaller and slightly less powerful than its more expensive cousin, the Xperia Z.

Sony Xperia SP review

 

Who's it for?

Someone who wants a good Android phone, but for less money. Or, someone who wants a great phone, but doesn't want a mahoosive screen or power-sucking quad-core processor.

Sony Xperia SP review

 

Design

The Xperia SP is a bit of a design change from the rest of Sony's lineup. At 4.6 inches (although it's a small 4.6 -- I actually measured it at 4.5 inches with my ever-handy ruler), it's smaller the Xperia Z, or pretty much any other flagship phone released recently.

That small screen is mounted inside a fairly boring but ergonomically sound design. The edge of the phone is a flat band of hard plastic, while the back is soft-touch rubberised plastic, which bulges out slightly at the edges. That back snaps off to reveal the SIM card slot and a welcome microSD slot, though sadly (and rather strangely), the battery isn't removable. The front, meanwhile, is standard-smartphone-issue Gorilla Glass, with no hardware buttons to mar the uniformly sleek design.

Sony Xperia SP review

There's a healthy collection of buttons -- the ubiquitous Sony power button is halfway down the right-hand side, where it's flanked by a volume rocker, and an ever-welcome two-stage camera button. The headphone jack is on top, and the power on the top-left, leaving the bottom bare for an LED strip. This is probably the most striking hardware feature on the phone -- it's a piece of translucent plastic, that lights up when you get a message or email. Handily, this you can see the light no matter which way up your phone is lying. Moreover, it looks pretty sweet, and gives an otherwise-bland design a bit of a talking point.

 

Using It

The Xperia SP comes packing a 1.7 Ghz Snapdragon processor, which is notable in this day and age for having only two cores. On the face of it, though, performance doesn't suffer -- the phone zips around Android pretty nippily, with no real lag to speak of. Even the gaming performance seems to be up to snuff, no doubt due to the cutting-edge Adreno 320 GPU, the same graphics engine as found in the Xperia Z and HTC One.

All that silicon wizadry, of course, is there to power the screen. On the Xperia SP, that's a 720p 4.6-inch screen (for those of you keeping score at home, that gives a PPI of 319). Although the screen is as crisp and detailed as you'd expect from a Retina screen, it's still a bit of a let-down. Blacks are more of a flaccid grey, and the whole screen has a slightly washed-out feeling, kind of like a cheap ATM screen that's had the brightness jacked up to 11. Consequently, photos and videos don't 'pop' quite as much as on more expensive handsets, and reading stuff in bright sunlight is nigh on impossible.

Sony Xperia SP review

The Xperia SP runs Android 4.1.2, with a heavy dose of Sony's 'improvements' on top. By and large, they're not too intrusive -- a custom launcher, which makes little difference to the day-to-day use, and a bunch of random crappy apps, which you can ditch off the home screen and never look back at. The only feature that really merits a mention is Stamina mode, which is Sony's built-in battery-saving utility. It works, sort of -- when the screen is off, it restricts certain apps from using power or mobile data. In default mode, this gets quite annoying, when WhatsApp and Facebook messages don't arrive 'till you check your screen. Of course, you can whitelist certain apps to allow them data access in the background, but they there's almost no point in using Stamina mode in the first place.

The camera here is an 8MP shooter, mounted squarely on the back. Truth be told, it's pretty good -- certainly better than the Nexus 4's god-awful offering. Pictures were occasionally a little over-saturated, but all in all, the SP serves up crisp, well-balanced shots reminiscent of the Xperia Z. Thankfully, the SP also has the Z's excellent camera software, which provides the most intuitive and well-thought-out shooting experience on any smartphone at the moment, something that the SP's dedicated camera button just serves to enhance.

Sony Xperia SP review

 

The Best Part

The battery life on this thing is great. I was regularly getting two day's usage out of the Xperia SP, something I can't really say for any other smartphone for a while. This is most likely due to the combination of a 2375mAh battery and that dual-core processor, which makes the Xperia SP pretty frugal in stand-by.

Sony Xperia SP review

 

Tragic Flaw

Although it's not a deal-breaker, the SP picks up fingerprints like some kind of drug addict hooked on greasy finger-oil. It's fine if you're willing to carry a cloth round everywhere with you, or just accept your screen will be a blurry mess, but either way it's far from ideal.

Sony Xperia SP review

 

Testing Notes

- There's a glove mode, activated by unlocking the screen with gloves on. It works well enough, though you're not going to be doing accurate Fruit Ninja-ing with big mittens on.

- The SP has 8GB of internal storage (and about 6GB user-acecssible), which isn't great; however, you can easily and pretty cheaply expand that with the microSD card slot, so that's only really a concern if you have many, many gigabytes of apps.

- Despite testing on several different networks in London, it occasionally feels like the SP was having a hard time sucking down data, at some points completely refusing to do something simple like connect to WhatsApp. It's annoying, but also the sort of thing that gets sorted out with the first software update, so we're not too worried.

- McAfee mobile security is installed from the get-go, and is instantly and constantly a gigantic pain in the arse. Sadly, there's no easy way to remove it (without rooting, anyway), so you're gonna have to live with it.

Sony Xperia SP review

 

Should You Buy It?

If you're in the market for a budget Android phone, yes. The obvious competition here is the Nexus 4, which is the same price, with a slightly bigger screen, double the RAM and double the processor cores. However, it has no microSD card slot, shockingly bad battery life, and a pretty dreadful camera. Notably, the Xperia SP also comes in an LTE flavour, something the Nexus 4 has been lacking since day one. I've got a Nexus 4, but truth be told, I'm going to be sad to see the Xperia SP go.

For £250, then, the Xperia SP is a damn good phone. From a hardware perspective, the only thing that feels at all lacking is the screen, which leaves you feeling underwhelmed at times. From every other angle, though, it's a well-rounded package, and the usefulness of two-day battery life really can't be overstated.

Sony Xperia SP

Price: £250 off-contract
Processor: 1.7 Ghz Snapdragon
RAM: 1GB
Screen: 4.6-inch 1280x720p
Storage: 8GB (expandable by an extra 64GB)
Camera: 8MP
Operating System:  Android 4.1.2
Gizrank: 4 stars