The Xperia SP is Sony’s mid-range Android handset; not quite as flashy as the Xperia Z, but with a lot of design ideas clearly meant to evoke its attractive frame.
Smartphones of 2013: Sony Xperia Z
Sony Xperia SP: On the plus side
You can normally expect to get a mid-range experience out of a mid-range phone, and there’s little doubting that the Xperia SP is pitched as a mid-range phone. Underneath its 4.6″ 1280×720 pixel display screen sits a 1.73Ghz dual core Qualcomm processor, 1GB of RAM and a relatively mediocre 8GB of storage. A couple of years ago that would have been top-notch, but in 2013 it’s less impressive.
That didn’t stop the Xperia SP surprising me with a Geekbench 2 score of 2124… which means, for that benchmark alone, it actually outscored the premium Xperia Z. Benchmarks, in other words, aren’t everything, but even beyond the synthetic, the Xperia SP is a nice little performer.
Sony, like most other smartphone manufacturers has realised that there’s not a whole lot of benefit in cluttering up Android with their own skins, especially when said skins negatively impact performance, and the Xperia SP’s Android experience, while not entirely just stock Android, is still reasonably close.
The main “hook” for Xperia SP buyers is in the notification light that can pulse to indicate messages or other status updates. That’s not a new idea for Sony — it’s used it previously in the Xperia S — or indeed for Android handsets, with HTC’s Rhyme having its pulsing Charm accessory. The notification light works, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag; on the one hand if you do need to know when you’ve got contact it can be useful, but on the other hand the fact that it’s a bright full bar would make it hideous in, for example, a cinema.
It’s also a plus that the SP is 1800Mhz LTE capable, even though we’re still relatively early in the 4G rollout in Australia. I’ve been testing the review sample with a Telstra 4G SIM (Telstra technically isn’t one of the SP’s carriers, but you could always buy one outright), and when it connects to 4G, it does so quickly. It wasn’t that long ago that 4G was a feature for the top end only.
One of the biggest gripes I had against the Xperia Z was that there was only one way I could get the battery to last me a decent time, and that was by engaging its “Stamina” mode, which cuts most communications save for phone/SMS. It works, but that’s like lobotomising your smartphone for large chunks of the day, which I really don’t like. The SP has the same Stamina mode, but I found that its usage of its 2370mAh battery was much more moderate, which is to say that, unlike the Z, I had few issues getting it to last a day’s testing.
Sony’s made a lot of noise about the quality of the SP’s camera relative to its price point, and they’ve got a point… to an extent. Its 8MP camera does a fair job for most photos, but still struggles in poorly lit environments, with its flash often overpowering photo subjects. The inclusion of an actual camera button on the side of the SP is a nice touch, though.
Sony Xperia SP: On the minus side
The Xperia SP is meant to look a lot like the premium Xperia Z, and in one sense that’s no bad thing, because it’s a particularly striking design… right up until you lift it up and realise that the back of the SP is rather cheap feeling plastic. It’s a removable back cover, which should give it some utility in the expandable storage and removable battery stakes.
However, only one of those things is true, because while there is a microSD card slot snuggled into the Xperia SP’s exposed rear, the battery is resolutely fused in place. Why would you do that from a design viewpoint? The SP isn’t waterproof in the way that the Z is, so it’s not like you couldn’t have popped the microSD and SIM slots on the side under a flap anyway. Making the battery visible but sealed is just teasing.
Sony Xperia SP: Pricing
The outright RRP of the Xperia SP is a very reasonable $499. In contract terms, it’s available from Virgin from $34/month ($250 “worth” of calls, unlimited Au texts, 250MB data, 24 month contract, minimum $816) or Vodafone, who (according to the release for the SP) should have been offering it for $40/month ($250 “worth” of calls, 500 MB data, 24 month contract, minimum $960) by now, although a check of Vodafone’s Web site for the phone at the time of writing showed no sign of the phone at all. Maybe they’re holding it off until their 4G network formally launches?
Sony Xperia SP: Alex’s Verdict
The Xperia SP isn’t a premium phone, but it doesn’t pretend to be; it’s very much a solid play for the middle ground Android experience in almost every way, except that in a lot of respects it’s slightly better than most mid-range Android handsets.
I can’t quite see the point in contracting at this kind of price — marry a $369 handset up to a twelve month $20-$30 prepaid plan and you’d still have a serviceable (or sellable) phone after a year, whereas in two years I suspect the SP’s hardware is going to look increasingly clunky. Or spend just a little more on contract and get an actual premium smartphone experience.
That aside, the Xperia SP delivers above its price point, and on that basis alone it’s got my seal of recommendation.