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Sony Xperia P review

Strike two for Sony's NXT series?

The Xperia P is the mid-range entry in Sony's Xperia NXT series of smartphones announced at MWC earlier this year. It sits below the Xperia S and above the entry-level Xperia U. Sony's strategy with this trio of handsets invites comparisons to HTC's One Series: both aim to address the low-, mid-, and high-end of the smartphone market with devices that share a common design philosophy.

At first glance, everything is there for the Xperia P — a modern 1GHz dual-core processor, a 4-inch qHD display with some exciting new tech, and one of Sony's well-regarded Exmor R camera sensors. On paper, everything was there for the Xperia S as well, but while the One Series launched to near-universal acclaim, the Xperia S met with tepid reviews. Its Achilles' heel was shipping with Android 2.3, and the P fares no better in this department. So can the Xperia P rise to greater things? Or is it just a case of Sony miniaturizing its mistakes?


Design / Hardware

Design / Hardware

The Xperia P is a very attractive, flagship-quality device. Superficially, it looks like Sony has shrunken the Xperia S' shell to fit around a smaller display. Sure, it's still a black slab divided in two by a transparent sliver of plastic, but look closer and there are some subtle differences between the two.

Unlike its plastic elder brother, the Xperia P's main body is made of aluminum. Sony says it has a unibody construction because its rear cover is made from a single piece of metal, but that seems to stretch the definition a little. The important thing is that it’s sturdy, and whichever process Sony has put the aluminum through leaves it feeling very smooth in your hands. Unfortunately, the black portion below the transparency is made from plastic, which reflects light differently from the upper section and may thus annoy perfectionists. Using plastic does help keep the weight down, though — the Xperia P weighs 4.23 ounces (120g), just 0.018 ounces (0.5g) heavier than the featherlight HTC One S. It’s also very narrow: it sits just 0.035 inches (0.9mm) wider than the iPhone 4S, which has a significantly smaller screen.

The front of the device houses a precisely-inset 4-inch qHD WhiteMagic LCD, a front-facing VGA camera, a notification light, and a row of three capacitive buttons set inside the aforementioned transparency. One annoyance with the Xperia S was that its icons weren't actually buttons, so it's good to see Sony use some sense this time around. There’s taut haptic feedback from the capacitive buttons when pressed, and they’re also very easy to find in any light. Extra points are earned for the good distance between the screen and capacitive buttons, which makes accidental presses an impossibility.

This time the translucent icons actually do something

At 10.5mm, the Xperia P is quite a bit thicker than the best handsets out there. Fortunately, the back of the device is convex, which means from most angles it seems slimmer than it actually is. It’s only when you place the handset next to its contemporaries that you realise just how fat it is at its widest point. Thanks to what is effectively a one-inch lower bezel, this phone is also a bit taller than it should be, but it's still shorter than the 4-inch Nexus S.

Despite its curvature, the Xperia P isn't the most ergonomically-sound handset around. There are sharp angles, especially in the lower corners, that dig into your hand a little. It's not a huge problem and you'll get used to it, but Sony should've highlighted the issue in testing and softened things up a little.

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This is a premium device, no doubt about it
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Centered in a vertical strip along the back you'll find the LED flash, an 8-megapixel camera, and the old Sony Ericsson "liquid" logo. The first two are joined together by a thin etched line, which appears to be an attempt at adding some panache to the Xperia P’s barren features, but just comes across as a bit odd. The Xperia logo can be found at the base of the phone on both sides and is pretty inoffensive as far as branding goes.

The Xperia P's sides are a bit too busy for my liking. On the right side you'll find a loudspeaker, a power button, a volume rocker, and a shutter key. There’s simply too much stuff in such a small area. On the opposite side there's Micro USB, Micro HDMI, and a spring-loaded Micro SIM card slot that’s protected by a flimsy plastic cover. The buttons feel solid, especially the two-stage shutter key, which is without a doubt the best I've used on any phone.

Because of the over-ladened sides, the top and bottom of the device are almost completely empty — up top there’s a headphone port, down below, the microphone. The headphone port is upsetting: it's set off-center and so close to the edge of the phone that most headphones will sit wider than the phone itself. It’s a purely visual thing, but everyone that’s seen the Xperia P has noticed it without my prompting them, so it’s not just pedantry at play here.

A quick word on accessories: in addition to the standard power adapter / Micro USB cable combo, Sony packs in a very good pair of headphones, a small microfiber cloth, a screen protector, and a Micro HDMI cable. That's quite a set of freebies for a mid-range device.

All told, this is a very well thought-out phone. It looks stunning — more so than the Xperia S — and everything about it feels like it was precisely machined. At its MWC launch we also saw the handset in silver and red, but to me black is definitely the best look for the Xperia P.

Display

Display

WhiteMagic is so much more than just a bad name
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The Xperia P's display has a whole heap of jargon attached to it. Sure, it's a 4-inch qHD (960 x 540) IPS LCD, but it's also got WhiteMagic and it’s a Reality Display powered by the Mobile Bravia Engine! My hatred of techno-jargon aside, WhiteMagic represents a relatively exciting development in the field of displays.

In addition to the red, green, and blue subpixels you'll find on a regular LCD display, Sony has added an additional white subpixel to to the mix, making this panel RGBW. Although that sounds a little like the dreaded RGBG PenTile setup, don’t fret — this is a stripe arrangement, meaning everything is neatly organized in rows, just as it should be, rather than PenTile's crazy mishmash of subpixel shapes and sizes. There is one potential downside to the Xperia P’s RGBW arrangement: in very dark images you’re effectively losing one out of four subpixels, but as the display is so tightly packed, it’s not an issue here.

Because of this arrangement, Sony says that this display saves up to 50 percent of backlight power in low-light conditions by allowing pure light through the white pixels. In addition, WhiteMagic technology can be used to up the display’s brightness, all the way up to 935 nits, which Sony claims is double the brightness of an average LCD. That's a great statistic to show off, but what does it actually mean for the usability of the device? Put simply, in daylight, the Xperia P’s display is hands-down the most readable smartphone display I’ve ever come across. Even in direct sunlight, text remained entirely legible and colors were still accurate.

Cutting through more of Sony’s jargon, Reality Display is Sony’s name for a laminated LCD display and Mobile Bravia Engine represents a set of software enhancements which are supposed to improve image quality when playing back media. Photos and videos do look great, but we'll never know how they'd look without Sony's tweaks.

Aside from the brightness, the display performs as an IPS should: viewing angles are near 180 degrees and colors are accurate however oblique the angle. Given that many manufacturers are still pumping out 4.3-inch WVGA (480 x 800) devices, it's fantastic that Sony has put so many pixels on such a small display without compromising on quality. qHD resolution on a 4-inch display is just a delight to behold, and pixels are nigh imperceptible at 275ppi.

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One of the best displays around
Software

Software

How is this still happening?
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In case you've lost count, it's now been six months since Google released the source code for Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. If you're a regular reader of our reviews, you'll know exactly what's coming next: the Sony Xperia P is running Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

Now, I believe Sony when it says that an Ice Cream Sandwich update is right around the corner, but frankly, I don't care. There's just no excuse for releasing a device without ICS at this point. Even Google Play is still called "Market" when you first boot the device, unlike recent Gingerbread devices like the Optimus 3D Max. While there's no real difference to the end user, it's a good indication of just how old this particular build is — the Google Play switch came two and a half months ago.

Having said that, Sony's current Gingerbread skin is light and well organized. There's a whole suite of custom widgets, some of which are great, if a little flashy for my tastes. The gallery carousel widget is probably the standout, along with a handy set of eight toggles for wireless, radio, and sound settings. However, there are many that are unneeded, unwanted, and impossible to remove — something which unfortunately also applies to pre-installed software.

The non-removable app list is as follows: Connected Devices (DLNA), Timescape (Social Networking), Setup Guide, Facebook, Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, TrackID (Shazam alternative), and Recommended (a curated list of apps that links to Google Play). There's one question that comes to mind — why? I can understand Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited being non-removable — Kaz Hirai's One Sony should be offering all of its services on every device it ships. The others vary from useful (DLNA media streaming functionality out of the box is always nice) to utterly useless (Recommended).

Taking the total bloatware count to 18 are WhatsApp Messenger, Wisepilot, McAfee Security, NeoReader, Media Remote, EA Games, ASTRO, Power Saver, OfficeSuite, PlayNow, and, everyone's favorite, the Function Validation Tool. Thankfully, all of these apps are removable — a small mercy. Unbelievably, amidst all of the software, there's no task managing solution. Perhaps I've been spoiled by Samsung, LG, and Android 4.0, but I expect a smartphone to come with a simple way to halt applications. I was forced to download a third-party app from Google Play.

Other than bloat and Android 2.3 woes, there's little to complain about here. The lockscreen is a simple slider — swiping from left to right unlocks and from right to left toggles sound / vibrate modes. It also offers one-line previews of messages as well as notifications for missed calls and voicemails, all of which can be swiped to the right to enter the appropriate application. While there's nothing particularly novel about the idea, the notifications stack from the bottom, look great, and are particularly unobtrusive — I hate being bombarded by huge boxes every time I turn on my phone.

Is the promise of an update enough?

There's NFC onboard, but although the app is present, Sony didn't see fit to include any of its SmartTags that debuted with the Xperia S. Also missing is PlayStation Certification, but given the sorry state of the PS app and suite, that's not a huge loss.

When an update to Android 4.0 comes, it won't be a huge jump visually, but it'll bring improved core apps like Gmail and Calendar, compatibility with Chrome for Android, superior performance, the ICS multitasking menu, and — hopefully — the unified Widget and App drawer. Whether you're willing to lay down the cash for hopes and dreams, however, is down to you.

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Cameras

Cameras

Yet another superb camera from Sony
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The Xperia P's f/2.4 8-megapixel camera is fantastic and holds its own against Samsung and Apple's best efforts. Photos are crisp and detailed, and even at full crop display a surprisingly low amount of noise for a smartphone camera. It's good enough to replace a mid-range point-and-shoot camera in almost every circumstance.

As mentioned previously, the Xperia P's dedicated shutter key is a pleasure to use. Pushing it halfway gives a satisfying click and triggers the autofocus, while fully depressing it takes a photo. I found the amount of resistance and travel to be just right and rarely used the other options, but there's also a software shutter key, along with tap-to-focus and touch-to-shoot.

When the Xperia P is asleep, holding the shutter key will automatically power on the device, autofocus, and take a photo in around a second. You can also set it to boot to the camera app without taking a photo, but I found the instant shot feature far more useful.

You'll shoot usable photos in almost any light, and although noise will get progressively worse as the software cranks up the ISO, the results are better than most. The Xperia P's LED flash also performs admirably, and although it still over-exposes nearby objects a little, it rarely ruins a photo. The front-facing VGA camera isn't much use besides video calling, but it at least copes quite well in low-light situations, handy if you want a late-night Skype session.

The software suite is well put together: there's everything you'd expect to find, including geotagging, white balance, light metering, focus, exposure, and ISO settings, along with some neat additional touches. The built-in smile detection actually works, although I can't really see much use for it and there's a mode that automatically stitches together a panorama as you pan through a scene. Another nice UI touch happens after you take every photo: it joins a stack in the bottom right corner, and swiping away from the stack to the left will arrange the five latest in a row, ready for your perusal.

Movies are recorded at 1080p and are generally very good. No matter how quickly you move the camera, jerks and wobbles are kept to a minimum and the image stabilization works almost flawlessly. You may see an occasional distortion or jumpy moment, but they're so rare it's basically a non-issue. My only real gripe is with the autofocus. It generally works well but there are occasional moments where you'll end up waiting a good second or two for it to realize it's out of focus. The natural solution would've been to set the shutter key to refocus with a half-press. I've deliberately chosen clips that suffer from focusing issues so you can see a worst-case scenario.

Performance

Performance, call quality, and battery life

The Xperia P is powered by an ST-Ericsson NovaThor U8500 SoC — a dual-core 1GHz processor joined by ARM's Mali-400 GPU. Before you get excited, the GPU here is a much less powerful variant than the Mali-400 found in the Galaxy S II. When you add the increased screen resolution found in the Xperia P, it's clear the diminutive device isn't going to bother the recently-dethroned champion of Android benchmarks.

That said, I have no major complaints about the performance levels that the Xperia P offers. The processor handled everything I threw at it with composure and UI stutter was very rare — when it did happen, it tended to be while I was swiping through homescreens with a number of graphically-heavy widgets.

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Sony Xperia P 2,215 1,035 20fps 10fps 5,273
Galaxy Nexus 2,002 1,065 28fps 14fps 6,079
HTC One S 5,141 2,420 57fps 29fps 7,107
HTC One V 2,060 1,155 32fps 18fps 2,515
Galaxy S II 3,022 1,129 53fps 26fps 6,142

Scores in AnTuTu, Quadrant, and Vellamo are influenced by display resolution, as the graphical portions of the tests have to render more pixels as the resolution rises. The HTC One V and Galaxy S II have WVGA (480 x 800) displays, the One S and Xperia P have qHD (960 x 540) displays, and the Galaxy Nexus has an HD (1280 x 720) display. GLBenchmark runs off-screen and is not affected.

Gaming

If you're a gamer, this might not be the most future-proof device out there. I managed to play through an hour of Shadowgun and Samurai II with very few issues, although there was a hint of slowdown in the busiest scenes. Given the Xperia P's lack of raw power, I'm worried that it will struggle to cope as games start to take advantage of the latest crop of processors and GPUs. If all you're looking to do is play a bit of Temple Run or Fruit Ninja, though, you don't have anything to worry about.

If you're serious about mobile gaming, look elsewhere
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Battery life

Coming into this review I was concerned about how the Xperia P's tiny 1305mAh battery would cope, but its SoC seems relatively good at sipping power. The Xperia P managed around 14 hours of use, including an hour and a half of camera work, watching a two-hour video, two hours of gaming, and over an hour of calls. In reality it’ll get you to the end of the day without any issues, and if you're not a heavy user you'll get a couple of days out of it.



3G performance

Reception and call quality were also top-notch, and no one I spoke with had any complaints. The loudspeaker and mic both performed admirably when in speakerphone mode. There’s been an iPhone 4-style signal-killing "death grip" reported on recently, which I did my best to replicate. While I succeeded in dropping some bars, it's very difficult to trigger by accident, and, in an area with good signal, doesn't even prevent you from making a call — much ado about nothing, as a number of phones suffer from the same issue. Data speeds on 3G maxed out at around 7.4Mbps down and 2.2Mbps up, which is almost identical to the speeds you'll find on the iPhone 4S, Galaxy S II, or pretty much any modern smartphone.

The Sony Xperia P is a solid mid-range smartphone, and were it endowed with Android 4.0, it would be a true competitor. Its obvious rivals are both the HTC One V and One S, along with LG's new L-Style L7. It outperforms the One V and L7 in day-to-day use and bests all three with its far superior screen and camera.

However, the fact remains that the Xperia P is priced within striking distance of the One S. For around $100 more the One S delivers a tried-and-tested Ice Cream Sandwich experience as well as one of the best processors money can buy.

If you don’t require the One S’ power and the promise of an upcoming update is enough for you, there's very little that would stop me recommending the Xperia P. Sony just has to keep the price down and put Android 4.0 on it, fast.

Compare this: Xperia P vs. One S vs. One V vs. L-Style L7

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