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Sony Xperia U (dnp till review)
Sony Xperia U (dnp till review)

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Sony Xperia U review

Three and out?

The Xperia U is the final piece of Sony’s NXT series puzzle. In March came the flagship Xperia S, a good device that shipped with outdated software. It’s only just been updated to Android 4.0. Our verdict? It’s not thinner, faster, stronger, or in any other way better than the pack. Next up was the Xperia P, a mid-range device that really impressed, but was difficult to recommend running Android 2.3. Now the Xperia U is here, presenting itself as an entry-level option for those looking for flagship qualities on a tight budget. Think of the Xperia U as Sony’s equivalent to the HTC One V — just as the Xperia P and S were pitted against the One S and One X.

Entry-level it may be, but the Xperia U doesn’t make too many compromises. It features the same 1GHz dual-core SoC as the more expensive Xperia P, but shrinks the amount of RAM down from the P’s 1GB to a still-adequate 512MB. The display size has also diminished from 4 inches to 3.5, which has brought some design challenges in the process. Sony has, however, made the U much more personalizable than its siblings: its transparent bar — the hallmark of the NXT series — has been fitted with LEDs that you can command to light up in an array of colors.

The biggest issue we had with the other NXT series smartphones was software. Sony seems to be having trouble letting Gingerbread go, and the Xperia U doesn’t buck the trend: it launches as yet another Android 2.3 smartphone, over half a year after Android 4.0 was released. The Xperia U doesn’t seem to right the wrongs of Sony’s recent devices — is it really three and out for the NXT series? Or can Sony’s miniaturization of a miniaturization — with a price to match — do enough to win us over? Read on to find out.

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

There was shrinkage!
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The NXT design identity Sony introduced with the 4.3-inch Xperia S was tweaked and, in my opinion, improved upon for the 4-inch Xperia P. The U takes that same language and shrinks it further, this time with only limited success.

Is it an unattractive device? No, absolutely not. It's mostly pleasant to look at and feels good in your hands. On picking up the device your fingertips will be treated to comfortable, almost luxurious soft-touch plastic, the sort that simply doesn't belong on a budget smartphone. There's a reassuring heft to the phone — sure, at 110g (3.9 ounces) it's lighter than your average smartphone, but with such a small footprint it feels denser than the Xperia S or P. The impression that this is a quality device continues with the power and volume buttons, which give a satisfying click when pressed and are perfectly weighted. They remain effortless to use, while still requiring enough force to make accidental presses a rarity. The dedicated two-stage camera key is a little spongy, however, and it’s a chore to take photos using it.

When its display is off, the Xperia U is a relatively low-key device — its all-black facade is only broken by the now-familiar transparent band that sits beneath the screen. The detailing is very precise: the front of the device is framed by durable black plastic, which neatly curves to meet the display. Above the screen a tiny slot-like speaker grille is joined by numerous almost-imperceivable sensors and the obligatory Sony logo. There’s a lot going on in a very small area, but thanks to clever design it doesn’t feel cluttered.

Sliding off the removable back cover reveals a 1320mAh battery and space for a standard SIM card — there’s no slot for microSD card. Given the relatively limited 4GB of (user-accessible) internal storage on offer, the lack of expandable storage may be a dealbreaker for some.

Beneath the screen, a transparent segment includes icons for the back, home, and menu buttons. The icons don’t actually do anything: they’re signage for a trio of tiny capacitive silver dots half an inch above. It's a slightly disorienting experience — my natural instinct was to press the icon rather than the dot above. The Xperia S has the same problem, but Sony proved it was possible to make the transparent icons functional buttons with the P, so the reason for the decision here remains a mystery.

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The Xperia SX looks like everything the U should've been

Beneath the baffling icons is another plastic segment which contains a cutout for the microphone and has an Xperia logo etched in on both sides. This bottom segment is actually a removable cap — there's another color included in the box. I was given a hot pink cap, but Sony is happy to sell you any number of different color options. After a brief test, the extra cap stayed in the box — not because I dislike the color, but because it clashed with another personalizable design element.

Remember when I called the design "relatively low-key?" Turn the display on and all that goes out of the window. Sony has fitted the transparent bar with LEDs that, when the display is on, glow in one of seven predetermined colors to match the software theme you've chosen. Sony says this phone is all about "U" — get it? More on that later, but for now, just know that the effect is anything but subtle: if you're in the market for a mature, understated device, look elsewhere.

It's a shame, because the rest of the design is classic Sony — neat, tidy, and above all, functional. On the back of the phone there's a centrally-aligned camera, flash, and the old Sony Ericsson 'liquid' logo, along with an off-center but well-disguised loudspeaker. The precise nature of the detailing is, like so many elements of the Xperia U, something I’d expect from a far more expensive device.

Mashing much of the Xperia P's tech into a 3.5-inch frame inevitably has its downsides, and in the U's case, the trade-off is thickness: measuring 12mm (0.47 inches) thick, it's a porky little phone. Worse still, the same arc that disguises the P's girth does nothing but accentuate the U's. The angle of the curve feels harsher — Sony just didn't have enough space to achieve the design drama found in other NXT devices. As such, the U feels like a step too far for what is admittedly one of my favorite industrial designs in recent memory.

It's difficult to look at any of Sony's NXT series smartphones without drawing comparisons with HTC’s well-received One series. For the One series, HTC decided that the design language found in its One X and One S smartphones was either unsuitable or impossible to achieve for its lower-end One V, and scrapped it entirely. The One V, as a result, took a life of its own; HTC drew on past designs like the Hero and Legend to make a memorable, individual device. I can't help but feel that Sony would've been better-served to do the same here. As is, the Xperia U is a well-built device, but it comes across as an ugly duckling when compared to its elder, pricier siblings.

As if to compound its error, Sony recently introduced the Xperia SX in Japan, which from what I've seen is everything, design-wise, that the U should've been. It's slightly taller than the U, but much thinner, and even has on-screen buttons for controlling Android as Google intended. Perhaps it's not fair to directly compare the two devices — they fit into very different price categories — but the SX illustrates perfectly that Sony has plenty of design ideas it could've turned to. A single, focused design identity is a nice idea, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of aesthetics, dimensions, or usability.

Display

Display

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Sony has a fantastic habit of taking regular resolutions and squeezing them into unusually small displays. It started the trend with the Xperia S' 4.3-inch 720p display — still the most pixel-dense smartphone around — before cramming qHD (940 x 540 pixels) onto a 4-inch screen with the Xperia P. I'm happy to say that Sony has given the Xperia U's 3.5-inch display the same treatment. It’s a FWVGA (Full Wide VGA) panel, which has an extra 54 vertical pixels over regular WVGA, giving it a 16:9 aspect ratio and 480 x 854 pixels.

If you look back through our recent reviews you'll find us moaning about WVGA-type displays far too often. But on the Xperia U’s 3.5-inch display it's almost perfect. Of course, there's another 3.5-inch device that outdoes Sony's effort, but I have very few complaints about a display that offers 280 pixels per inch. Its colors are vivid without ever appearing over-saturated, and viewing angles, daylight visibility, and overall brightness are also top-notch. This is one of the cheapest phones in its class; the quality on offer is nothing short of dazzling.

The only issue I take with the visual experience the Xperia U offers is that the display is too small. I regularly carry an iPhone as part of my menagerie of mobiles and actually lean towards smaller screen sizes, but my problem with the U’s display is its 16:9 aspect ratio. It means the 3.5-inch display is only 43.5mm (1.71 inches) wide — quite a bit narrower than the iPhone's 49.3mm (1.94 inches) compared to 1.94). While a .23 inch-disparity may seem insignificant, it makes a big difference. I coped with the onscreen keyboard reasonably well despite the narrow screen, but with my admittedly large hands I had to be diligent to ensure I was pressing the right buttons, and certain UI elements required squinting.

If you’re upgrading from another small device the Xperia U delivers exceptionally high quality when compared to the Android competition, but if you're used to a 4-inch-plus device you should definitely consider visiting a store to see if size is an issue for you.

High quality, but is it too small?
Cameras

Cameras

Not the best, but far from the worst
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The Xperia U’s 5-megapixel camera does what you’d expect it to and very little more. Daylight scenes are clear and crisp, if a little washed out, and images captured using the built-in flash are quite balanced. The sensor copes with low-light environments reasonably well, with noisy but usable images the norm.

As I mentioned previously, the U has a very spongy two-stage shutter key; it was very difficult to capture photos using it that weren’t blurred due to the inordinate amount of force required to press the button. Luckily Sony’s software suite has touch-to-focus, tap-to-shoot, and an on-screen shutter button, and I used the software button to capture all the images you see below.

The software suite is identical to Sony’s other smartphones, offering the usual white balance, focus, exposure, geotagging, and ISO settings, along with more exotic features like smile detection. There’s also Quick Launch, which lets you launch the camera app and take a photo while the Xperia U is locked by holding the shutter key. It’s very useful for capturing a quick moment.

The phone handles 720p video capture admirably and auto-adjusts focus and exposure very swiftly. The autofocus can get a little confused by fast moving objects and busy scenes, but the effect is no worse than the average smartphone camera. There’s also the obligatory front-facing camera that, as usual, is good for video chat and the occasional vanity shot. It’s a VGA (0.3 megapixel) unit, but handled a few low-light Skype conversations reasonably well.

The Xperia U’s cameras offer decent all-around performance but are definitely a few steps down from the dizzying heights reached by the Xperia S and P. Once I learned to stay away from the shutter key there wasn’t a single occasion where I was left with an unusable photo or video.

Software

Software

There's not much left to say about Sony's Android 2.3 skin that hasn't already been said in our Xperia S and P reviews. The more time I spend with it, the more convinced I am that Sony's effort is the most attractive Gingerbread will ever be. Visually, it has more in common with Android 4.0 than some ICS skins like Sense 4.0.

There's some Xperia-only software included, such as Timescape (a social networking hub), TrackID (a Shazam-like music identifier), and the Music and Video Unlimited apps that offer you access to content over multiple Sony devices (provided you pay a subscription fee). There are also a few attractive, simple widgets for the Timescape, TrackID, gallery, and music apps, among others. Unfortunately, our review unit arrived with a lot of bloatware. It came with over 20 (non-Sony) apps pre-installed, most of which were removable. Some were not, however, including Amazon (the bookstore, not the app store), Facebook, and portals to Three's music and video stores.

Themes

Sony has included a theme manager with most of its recent phones, but up until now I've largely ignored it. My reason was simple: each theme (in this case there are seven) not only changes the color of Sony's very pretty Cosmic Flow live wallpaper, but also all of the settings menus. As I like my settings to be black and white, I've always just changed the color of the live wallpaper through the standard wallpaper menu instead.

However, with the Xperia U your theme also dictates the color of the LED lights beneath the display, which made exploring the options much more appealing. You can choose between the default Sapphire (blue, and the only theme that lets you keep your settings black and white), Gold, Turquoise, Ruby (pink), Amethyst (purple), Emerald (green), and Silk (white). Select a theme and your LEDs will change to mirror the color change almost flawlessly. It's a very fun touch and I'm quite enamored with the Amethyst wallpaper-and-LED combo, although I wish Sony would let me keep my settings plain and simple. As tacky as they may be, even my cold heart warmed to the lights — after a few days with the phone I’d already started changing themes to match my outfit (but never vice-versa, I promise).

Sony could've included more options for personalizing the LEDs

The LEDs also come into play when viewing photos with the gallery app, doing their best to mirror the dominant color in each photo, and also in the music app, where they match the album artwork. It's a little hit and miss, but when it works well it's fun. I'd have liked to see more options for personalizing the LEDs — an option to mirror the colors of any wallpaper would've been nice, as would granular control of the colors on offer.

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Sure, Sony's 4.0 skin looks great, but why isn't it here yet?

Gingerbread and beyond

Overall, Sony's skin is one of the best around, but — and it's a big but — it's still underpinned by Android 2.3. There's just no getting away from the fact the Xperia U is now two generations behind the Galaxy Nexus. It must be tough to be a Sony fan right now, but the saddest fact is that the company isn't alone — there are far too many companies behind the curve when it comes to delivering the latest OS to their customers.

The flagship Xperia S has now been promoted to Android 4.0, but unfortunately the update hasn't trickled down to the U just yet. To see what prospective buyers are missing out on, I procured myself an Xperia S with Ice Cream Sandwich pre-installed and, in the limited time I've spent with it, I’ve been impressed by the performance gains and enhancements Android 4.0 offers. As you'd expect, you get the ICS multitasking menu, resizable widgets, smoother performance, and improved core apps. You'll also find a tweaked lock screen that offers quick access to the camera app and a new stock browser that's far better than the one found on Gingerbread (although with Android 4.0 comes compatibility with Chrome, which essentially renders the stock Android browser obsolete).

Sony also includes a couple of great additions on the software side with its Android 4.0 ROM. There’s a new Walkman app which replaces the current Music Player app, and "Album," a direct replacement to the gallery app. The pair are beautifully designed and improve on the equivalent stock experiences both visually and functionally. I'd delve in deeper, but the fact remains that these apps aren't yet on the Xperia U. Yes, Android 4.0 is coming and yes, Sony's enhancements are definitely something to look forward to, but that’s no excuse for delivering a phone with an outdated OS.

Sony's first Android 4.0 updates took six months to roll out, and many devices (including the U) will get ICS over nine months after the source code was publicly available. A scenario that would have Xperia U owners wait until April 2013 for a Jelly Bean update (assuming Sony has the PDK already) seems unthinkable, but given Sony's record perhaps it's not. Something to bear in mind if you're buying the Xperia U on the promise of an imminent update.

Performance

Performance, call quality, and battery life

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The Xperia U, as previously mentioned, shares the same 1GHz dual-core ST-Ericsson NovaThor U8500 processor and Mali-400 GPU as the Xperia P. While the SoC powers the P just fine, I found that the Xperia U's less-demanding FWVGA display actually makes it a more powerful device in everyday use.

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Sony Xperia U 2,466 1,090 20fps 10fps 5,430
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

The results from our benchmark suite mirrored my experiences —the Xperia U edges the more expensive P in every category except GLBenchmark, a graphical test which runs off-screen and is not affected by display resolution. The other tests have graphical portions, which explains why two devices with the same SoC perform differently. This disparity accurately details the performance gap between the two phones — it's not huge, but it's enough to mark a real improvement over what was already a fairly brisk device. As you can see, it’s not likely to trouble many phones for raw power, but you won't be found wanting in day-to-day use.

Swiping through homescreens was snappy and for the most part lag-free, but, as with the Xperia P, if you throw a ton of widgets on your homescreen there will be moments when the UI stutters. In general, however, the U will plow through any task without issue. Gaming performance is wonderful, with virtually no slowdown to be found in any game, although the screen dimensions don't make for a particularly immersive experience.

Battery life

Another area in which the U outperforms the P is battery life. The improvement over the P can be put down to a slightly larger (1320 mAh vs 1305mAh) battery and a smaller display which draws less power. I've had the phone for quite some time (in anticipation for an upgrade to Android 4.0 that never came) and at one point I had the phone sitting on my desk for days without paying it any attention. After five days of barely using it, I powered on the screen to find the U still had 7 percent of its battery left — pretty impressive, and an indication of how efficient the ST-Ericsson SoC is when idle.

The U lasted 5 hours and 58 minutes in our battery test, which constantly cycles through websites and images with the screen set to 65 percent brightness until the battery dies. While using the Xperia U as my primary device I had no problem with it reaching the end of the day and well beyond; occasionally it lasted through to the second night without needing to be recharged.

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Callquality




Call quality / 3G performance

I have few complaints regarding call quality — callers sounded loud and clear, and the arced back means that the loudspeaker throws out a fair amount of noise when placed on a flat surface. The microphone is great, although in busy environments the noise cancellation isn't as effective as in other handsets.

3G performance was, as always, limited by the speed offered in London. On UK carrier Three's network I managed to achieve 7.3Mbps down and 2.2Mbps up — virtually identical to every modern phone I've tested and seemingly the peak of what London can offer.

The Sony Xperia U surpasses the similarly-priced competition in many ways. A 3.5-inch screen definitely isn't for everyone — at least at this aspect ratio — but apart from its size it's a premium display. In fact, virtually every area of the phone is endowed with features and finish that belong on a far more expensive device. It's not all perfect though — for one, its slightly-awkward, gimmicky design holds it back; Sony's NXT series ID doesn't quite translate to the U's tiny footprint, and its LED band is likely to annoy far more people than it will amuse. There's also the matter of Android 2.3. We're told that an update to Android 4.0 is imminent, but owners of recent HTC and Samsung devices are already looking forward to Android 4.1.

This is a great budget phone, but the One V offers a good all-around package and already has Android 4.0, so where does the Xperia U stand? Well, it's available for £149.99 ($235) on Three prepaid or £198 ($311) SIM-free, making it significantly cheaper than the One V, which is around £199.99 prepaid, and the current market leader at this price point. Once Sony sees fit to update the Xperia U to ICS, you’ll find its skin far more palatable than Sense. It's very difficult to recommend an Android 2.3 handset over a more up-to-date contemporary, but at around 25 percent cheaper, it's impossible to ignore the Xperia U.

If you're searching for an Android device that offers solid performance and doesn't break the bank, take a long hard look at the Xperia U. If you can get past its design quirks and don't mind the wait for Android 4.0 — or the even longer wait for 4.1 Jelly Bean — you’ll have trouble finding a better device at this price point.

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