Review: Sony Xperia U

Sony's budget-priced NXT-series Xperia U hits above price level (June 18th, 2012)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Sony

Price: $30CAD (2 yrs, Fido), $0CAD (3 yrs, Fido), $300CAD

The Good

  • Affordable
  • DLNA media sharing with compatible devices, including PS3
  • Headset, SIM card adapter, screen protector included
  • Responsive thanks to 1GHz, dual-core processor
  • Handy size
  • Customizable chin piece
  • Sony UI allows folder creation for apps
  • Great resolution, brightness from display
  • Android 4.0 update coming

The Bad

  • Narrow screen
  • 4GB of user storage, no microSD card slot
  • No way to turn off gimmicky chameleon light
  • Chins collect dust and grime
  • Weak performance from rear-mounted speaker
  • Android 4.0 update coming

We have now received the Sony Xperia U for a more intimate test after we got our hands on it at its MWC debut. Alongside the larger and costlier Xperia P and Xperia S, the three represent Sony's NXT range of Android phones that are the first phones released after the split with Ericsson. Interestingly, the green Xperia circle logo with a white swoosh running through it that's long been associated with Sony Ericsson products is on the back of the phone. Also known by the ST25a model number, the handset looks like a shrunken version of the 4.3-inch Xperia S.





Design
The relatively small form factor, along with the low price of entry, make this device suitable for the younger set. The matte finish makes the device warm and soft to the touch and easy to hold. It can also be had with a white back, though we see this getting dirty in quick order. The bottom chin piece can be swapped out for other colors, and ours shipped with the black one attached along with a hot pink spare in the box. Yellow and white can also be purchased. Sony also includes a microSIM to full-size SIM adapter, a screen protector sticker and some tools to help apply it, along with a headset.








The 3.5-inch, 480x854 display may be the same size as the iPhone's, but its slightly taller and narrower dimensions mean the Apple's feels and looks roomier. The phone itself is narrower and shorter too, as well as significantly lighter, at 3.9oz versus 4.8. It measures in at 112x54x12mm.





The transparent plastic band between the chin piece and soft buttons lights up in various colors, matching the color of the theme or the predominant color of a photo or album art, but not during video playback, as it'd be distracting. The bar also initially lights up when users press the power button to unlock it, but eventually dims and turns off when in a screen for a long time. The feature is likely to be found funky by its target audience, but once the gimmick wears off, or when conspicuity is called for such as in movie theaters or plays, and users want to turn it off, there doesn't seem to be a way to do it. This allows for the phone to double as a tiny glow stick, we suppose.





On the right side, users will find all of the device's hardware buttons, including the power, volume rocker, and camera button. The top houses the 3.5mm headphone/headset jack and a second microphone. The left side gets only the microUSB port for charging and syncing. The squared off corners allow the handset to be stood up on any end, which is welcome when viewing media and something that can't be done on more stylish or thinner devices.






Swapping the chin pieces is simple but requires a firm tug. Doing so often may wear out the pieces, however, along with the plastic tabs that hold each in place. Sony offers a color-matching software theme for each plastic tack-on.





Hardware
Processing power comes from a dual-core 1GHz NovaThor, ARM v7-based processor which also does duty in the larger Xperia S. It returns decent, if not head-snapping, performance. It's paired with 512MB of RAM as well. A 1080p video shot by a friend's Galaxy Nexus and transferred to the Xperia U over Bluetooth wouldn't play back, likely due to restrictions stemming from the processor. Videos from a Canon point-and-shoot in 720p played back just fine, however.

The screen has an LED backlight that can be switched off to save battery life, though this makes it nearly dark and should only be done in the dark. There is Sony's Mobile Bravia engine onboard for graphics and it does a good job, for the most part. The 280ppi sharpness and rich colors of the display really impress in the class.










Click for full-size version





The dedicated camera hardware button will let users take photos without having to unlock their phone, even if it's got a passcode set. Long-pressing the button will not only open the camera app but also snap a photo, with the whole process taking just under three seconds. It produces 2,560x1,440-pixel images. The front camera is a VGA unit, though we had to work hard to find a use for it, never needing a mirror. Enabling the Multi-Focus setting made shots crisper throughout, though at the cost of contrast in some cases, blanking out the clouds in the sky in the background, for example. A 3D Sweep Panorama mode lets users capture a panoramic photo that can be viewed in 3D on a compatible TV.







Videos, while they are said to offer 720p resolution, are jaggedy and moving the phone or recording action scenes results in some blurring. Still, the first test we subjected the phone to of kids jumping on a trampoline and shot through some safety netting wasn't exactly an easy challenge. The continuous autofocus got confused at one point by the grid, making the scene blurry for a second. Geotagging of photos and videos is possible, though the GPS receiver needs to be powered on.

The rear-mounted speaker leaves something to be desired, however, even with Sony's xLOUD enhancement feature turned on. Plugging in the included headset does wonders for sound quality, however, as expected. Whether listening to the FM Radio, locally-stored tracks, or streaming content, there was enough volume and clarity to make this a viable iPod alternative.





There is just 4GB of storage space available to the user, though the total capacity is 8GB. With no way to expand storage, the target demographic will turn increasingly to cloud-based storage and services, racking up mobile data charges. We see this as the biggest downfall of the littlest Xperia.

Battery life is average and nothing special. The 1,320mAh battery gave us about 18 hours of use down to 10 percent after the first charge, which isn't bad considering we used the phone moderately to update its various apps over the 3G network, played around with settings and made a few short calls. Standby time with only occasional phone use is more than adequate, however.

A native Power Saver app lets users set when they want certain radios or features to turn off. These include time, and battery level cut-offs, with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, backlight, auto-sync, and background data all able to be turned on or off.

Software and Interface
Android 2.3.7 was preloaded onto our tester, with Sony's Timescape UI laid atop it. Many of the Sony customizations are welcome, with the ability to create folders for apps chief among them. Sony's PC Companion software is preloaded onto the phone, which will prompt users to install it once plugged into a USB port.





There are five homescreens with widgets anchored on each. Pinching any of the screens to zoom out results in all of the widgets floating around on the display in what Sony calls Overview. Touching the widget takes the user to that homescreen. At the bottom of the screen is the launcher shortcut flanked by two docked shortcuts on either side. They can be customized or made into folders.





A radios and sensors widget allows for a quicker method of turning off the GPS, Bluetooth, data or Wi-Fi radios in the interest of balancing performance with battery life. It also has options to turn off roaming or enable the airplane mode.





Sharing content wirelessly with a DLNA-certified device such as a PS3 on the same Wi-Fi network is a welcome feature, especially since there is no HDMI output, as on the larger and costlier Xperia offerings. Those without a PS3 can download apps such as Twonky to share multimedia with other devices, including the Apple TV. Through the app, content on local servers can be controlled for playback on connected devices. A Media Remote app from Sony lets users control their compatible BRAVIA HDTVs and DVD or Blu-ray players.

Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services are preloaded, with the former requiring a subscription while the latter offers a la carte rental rates and digital copies to own. The quality of music in the former, whether over the broadband or Wi-Fi network, left something to be desired. Audio controls that include track forward/fast forward, play/pause and track back/rewind appear on the lockscreen as well, though only when local music is played back. And they replace the large clock.

As for sound customization, users get a number of equalizer presets or can custom-tailor it on their own with the ability to adjust five frequency bands. An oversight we stumbled upon involves the ability to play Music Unlimited content and the local tracks at the same time. The same doubling occurred when we then opened the TuneIn Internet radio app we downloaded. A combo of the Tune In and local sound couldn't be reproduced, however, so the culprit is the Music Unlimited app.

There is deep social network and services integration, letting users stay on top of the latest happenings in their social or part-time work lives. Turning on all notifications will likely come at the detriment of battery life and their data allotments, however.

An upgrade to Android 4.0 is promised to arrive to the Xperia U before the end of September.

Testing
As a phone, the Xperia U cannot be faulted. The second microphone cancels out ambient noise and call quality was consistently good, so long as the signal was as well. The loudspeaker is average at best, though this is nothing new.







There is a quad-band 2G and 3G radio, with 14.4Mbps HSDPA and 5.76Mbps HSUPA data speeds supported, where networks allow. Subjectively, downloading content from Google Play or streaming music or videos was never an issue.

Bluetooth 2.1 allows for pairing with wireless headsets, vehicle hands-free systems, and other handsets for sending multimedia or contacts information. There is no NFC radio onboard, which isn't a surprise considering the phone's positioning in the market.

Web browsing, gaming and web video viewing performance was also above par, with the biggest complaint being simply the small screen of the device. Yes, it offers a 16:9 aspect ratio but this is simply too narrow or long for practical use.

While a plethora of documents can be viewed (PDF, Word, Excel, PowerPoint) thanks to the included OfficeSuite5 app, editing them requires upgrading to a paid version of the program.










In performance benchmarks such as Vellamo's browser test, the Xperia U returned scores in the mid 800s, with one of the best being 872. This places it above such devices as older Sony Xperia Arc and Xperia Play devices but behind more powerful ones including the Galaxy Nexus and HTC One X.

The Quadrant test returned a score of 2,243, ahead of the HTC Desire HD and Samsung Nexus S, but behind the likes of Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Motorola Atrix 4G and HTC One X.

In the NeoCore 3D graphics test, the Xperia U managed an impressive 56.9 frames per second.

In comparison, older/larger brother Xperia S with its 1.5GHz CPU managed
3,109 points in the general-purpose Quadrant test, 1,242 in the Vellamo browser benchmark, and 59.6 frames per second in Qualcomm's own NeoCore 3D benchmark.

Value Proposition

The Xperia U is a great little smartphone, and especially so when considering its price. And it will only get better once Android 4.0 arrives. What would make this handset just about perfect for many is more memory or a microSD card slot for expansion. A larger screen also wouldn't hurt, but generally, the phone packs a punch that's well above its weight class.


by Paul Rachwal


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