This week, I have been reviewing the Sony Xperia U, an Android smartphone. I have had some good and bad experiences with the device - all will be shared below.
The Xperia U is the entry level smartphone Sony pitches along with its Xperia S flagship device. The U is similar to the S in the way of design, and the way the software is used on the phone, but, to be honest, apart from that, there are very few similarities. The U is a very small device compared to the S - and most other Android phones being made at this time - making it a less obvious choice for the smartphone addict. Add this to the low specs and you have a phone that any true ‘geek’ would not want. But, if you are reading this and you are not a geek, not overly interested in technology and just need a phone that is fast, reliable and able to do everything - even if it isn’t the best at doing it - you should definitely be interested in Sony’s offerings.
First, I’d like to share a few things about the design of the phone. Let’s pretend you just got it, and are taking it out of the box. The first thing you see is its physical form, so it has to impress. The Xperia U is unlike many phones with its design; it is actually thicker in the middle than the top or bottom, with a smooth, curved back. This is strange in a time where sleek, anorexic models are the in thing, but sometimes you have to ask yourself if we actually need to continue slimming down. The thickness of the phone aside, it’s quite small. Perhaps this size is more relatable if I say the display measures just 3.5" across, exactly like the iPhone (all of them have 3.5" screens, though the next generation is expected to have a larger one), but it has a larger bezel around it.
The bottom of the device has a bumper - a custom bottom cover, if you will, for the phone which can be swapped out for multiple different colours; my model had a black and pink one, but you can get your hands on pretty much any colour you can think of! - which lies under the physical, capacitive Back, Home and Menu keys. Between the bumper and keys is a transparent gap, a striking line which breaks up the form of the phone. This panel has icons for each button (printed under each one) and contains some LED lights; these allow the transparent gap to glow in either the colour of the chosen theme on the phone, or even the predominant colour of a photo you view in the gallery - this is a minute, but effective step towards making interacting with the phone more immersive.
For a face-by-face comparison, here’s a quick overview of the layout of things on the phone: on the front, from top to bottom, there is the light sensor, speaker and front-facing camera, then the screen, followed by the capacitive keys, transparent bar and bumper; the top houses the 3.5mm headphone jack; the bottom is left clear; the left side has a micro USB charging slot near the top; the right has four buttons, from top to bottom, again, Power, Volume Up, Volume Down, and a two-stage Camera button; and the back sports the single LED flash, camera, the second speaker and some Sony and Xperia branding.
For me, the above setup is fine, but not quite perfect. Everything is well placed, with the exceptions of the micro USB slot and volume keys. The charging slot on the side makes for an awkward position on my desk when it was plugged in, and on my bedside table when charging - minor things, but they affected the way I used the phone. I also found the volume keys to be too low down the side of the phone for my liking. I had to adjust the way I was holding it every time I wanted to change the volume. This lessened the ease of using the phone in day-to-day situations. This is why I like to spend some time looking at the actual design, and layout of the various buttons around the phone: they really do make a difference when you start using it all the time, and it’s important to know if the design will be a hindrance to you, and what layout you like.
Now that I’ve covered the design of the hardware, I’ll move onto the other pieces that are important in the Xperia U. First, the camera; the U’s camera is 5MP and has 16x digital zoom. Because the zoom is listed as a specification instead of the aperture, you would probably assume the camera’s sensor is of low quality – you’d be right. I found the photos it took to be quite grainy and, although it wasn’t the worst at low-light shots, the colours weren’t very accurate. This certainly won’t beat the top of the competition - the HTC One S' camera is the best I have seen on a phone ever! - but, for a mid range phone it certainly isn’t bad. The camera was perfectly acceptable when it came to everyday snaps - the quick photos one might share on Facebook (reserving Instagram for sharper shots). The camera isn’t even a main attraction of this device, whereas on the One S it is, so, even without the massive price difference, a comparison of the two would be unwise. The fact is, for the price, you will not get anything better (or perhaps worse) than the Xperia U’s camera.
It’s also worth noting the Xperia U has a front-facing VGA camera for video chatting. It too does the job very well; no better or worse than anything else available due to the simple nature of the feature.
Below are some photos taken with the Xperia U's back camera:
(click to enlarge)
The Screen of the Xperia U, as I mentioned, is 3.5" diagonally. It has a resolution of 854x480 and uses Sony’s Mobile BRAVIA Engine making it a ‘reality display’. But none of that matters; what does is how it actually looks. The display is very clear. Pixels are virtually unnoticeable making the interface appear crisp. When doing common actions in the Android operating system, the screen looks very nice. The only time I noticed a deterioration in quality was when viewing photos. Whether this is an issue with the display or the software - some issue with the full resolution off photos not being utilised; a problem which is present in the gallery app used on the Xperia U - I am not sure, but I would guess a future update to the software will sort the issue. So, most of the time, the screen is perfectly acceptable, not HD, but as good as any casual user could wish for. The few issues it has could be easily sorted, and I expect they will be.
One thing about the Xperia U that did surprise me was its battery life. Despite only having 1320mAh capacity, the phone is sufficiently efficient and has the ability to last an amount of time far beyond that of ‘best-in-class’ smartphones. Because of its relatively low quiescent current draw (energy usage), it can sustain extremely long usage times. Compared to the other smartphones I have tested, it is the best. I would unplug it in the morning, use it all day (and I use my phone a lot!), then come home at night with over thirty percent battery life remaining. For the everyday person this is all anyone could need - a good battery is a must for anyone moving from a feature phone - you know, those brick things no one uses anymore for anything other than bludgeoning people - to a smartphone due to the massive difference in battery between the two; feature phones can last weeks! So, for a new smartphone user: perfect; for someone who’s used one for years, it’s almost beyond expectations.
As I mentioned, the Sony Xperia U runs on Android: not the latest version, 4.0, but an earlier one, 2.3. There’s no way about it, the base software is outdated, but that’s not to say it’s a bad experience. The Timescape overlay Sony employs does a good job of making Android Gingerbread usable. It takes a step towards the futuristic design that Ice Cream Sandwich brings, and a big one away from the orange, square highlights of Gingerbread. While this does make it look better than stock Gingerbread devices, there are a lot of features which it simply does not include. For example, Face Unlock and Android Beam aren’t available, and nor is the cornucopia of other features ICS brings - for instance, the massively improved apps. This said, Sony has made a few attempts to bridge the gap; native screenshot capturing has been added - not very effectively, but added nonetheless.
When you get the phone, it is clogged up with a huge number of apps pre-installed. I went straight to Settings and deleted all of them - every single one of the near-twenty disgusting examples of crapware. If you get this phone, make sure you delete the pre-installed rubbish; save space, save speed.
To summarise, Timescape does very little to actually improve the software, but the visual improvements are enough to satisfy anyone who isn’t a tech geek (we like the freshest of alphabetically ordered deserts!).
Who Is This For?
As you can probably tell from what I’ve said so far, I do not believe this device is for hardcore tech enthusiasts. It is for our friends and family - those who are either getting their first smartphone or have just found they don’t need all the jazz in the most complicated devices. I think this is ideal for anyone who perhaps bought a smartphone when they were first picking up in popularity, never used it to its full potential and are now looking for something more tailored to their needs. The hardware - the cameras, battery, the display and physical form - is perfect for the price, and, while it doesn’t match other phones, it’s all any 'normal' person could need.
If you are a geek, I advise you stay far away from this device - I will be. It just will not be good enough for you. I advise you look into the Xperia U’s older (better) brother, the Xperia S. You’ll probably want to check out the competition too: the HTC One S and One X have the best cameras out there; the iPhone 4S is good for anyone looking for the all-in-one package; the Galaxy S III is also an option for those looking for the latest device; and the Galaxy Nexus is always available for the true stock Android fans, themers, modders and the like.
- Desirable design
- Amazing battery life
- Acceptable camera quality
- Cheap off-contract
- Still running Android 2.3
- Bloatware, crapware and a whole load of other-ware pre-installed
The Sony Xperia U is a very nice phone; it has fantastic design and is very nice to use. The camera is good and the screen is bright, and, with the addition of the transparent, light-up bar, creates an immersive experience. The battery life is incredible, which really surprised me, as the software is designed to be light and doesn’t drain energy. Add this to the old, but well designed and customised software experience and you have an impressive phone for the price it’s offered at.
(For me: Don’t buy)