The mid-range Sony Xperia SP has an aluminium frame, a 4.6in screen and 4G connectivity.
Design & display
The Sony Xperia SP makes use of a "precision-crafted co-moulded aluminium frame". The use of aluminium on a mid-range device is definitely a nice change from mostly plastic alternatives.
The aluminium frame gives the Xperia SP a slightly heavy but very solid feel and the visible screw heads on both sides are a nice touch.
The frame angles outwards towards the edges which gives it a distinctive look. It's comfortable to hold and feels like a phone that will survive more than a few bumps and bruises.
The large, bulging aluminium key on the right side is a nice design feature. We found it perfectly positioned for one-handed use and the placement of the volume rocker just above it is also ideal.
The Xperia SP's dedicated camera shutter key is a nice touch that you won't find on many other devices. However, it does require a firm press to activate and could have been raised a little more for better tactility.
The Xperia SP feels like a well constructed device overall but the removable, plastic back cover does feel a little hollow when pressed. Removing it allows access to the micro-SIM and microSD card slots but it's a bit of a chore to snap back on.
The Xperia SP's battery isn't removable and there's only 8GB of internal memory.
The most distinctive design feature of the Xperia SP is a transparent panel below the screen. It displays customisable notifications. You can change the colour of these notification lights to alert of incoming calls, missed calls, text messages and the alarm.
Using the built-in Walkman music player means the lights will pulse to the beat of music and they'll also change colour when you browse through photos or images in the Album app. The transparent bar means the notification lights can be seen when the phone is face down on a desk or table.
The Xperia SP's 4.6in screen is less impressive. The 720p HD display has a resolution of 1280x720 but while it has no trouble displaying relatively crisp text, it has poor viewing angles and can't display ultra deep blacks.
We also found the automatic brightness setting was ineffective as it often left the screen looking dull. A nice touch is "glove mode", which allows you to unlock the phone wearing gloves. It works as advertised.
Software & performance
Sony has skinned the Xperia SP with a simple but effective user interface. Unlike Samsung and HTC, which tend to favour a completely different approach, Sony makes minimal changes to the stock version of Android.
Most of the changes it has made actually add to the overall user experience. The Xperia SP runs the 4.1 Jelly Bean version of Android but should be updated to 4.2 in the near future.
Changes to the Xperia SP's UI include four toggles in the notifications drop down for sound profile, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and data, an applications drawer that can be sorted by multiple parameters including most used and recently installed, a revamped multitasking menu that includes "small apps".
We like the minimalist lock screen which includes an attractive, shutter unlock animation and allows users to quickly swipe into the camera and Walkman music app. However, Sony has pre-loaded some apps that you'll never use. We immediately disabled NeoReader, PlayNow, McAfee Security, Sony Explore, appXtra, Social Life and Sony Select app and replaced the default calendar app with Google Calendar.
Album, Sony's take on the Gallery, is fast, smooth and provides better sorting and scrolling options than other Android phones. We also like the Walkman music app, which offers an equaliser, a visualiser and has an intuitive interface.
One thing we wish Sony didn't change was the on-screen keyboard. It's functional and also has handy, Swype-like functionality that allows you to draw over letters in a single motion to type words.
However, its word prediction isn't as accurate as Google's stock keyboard or the excellent Swiftkey third-party keyboard, the gesture input system isn't as efficient or effective as Swype and the default mode lacks full stop and comma keys on the main layout.
The Sony Xperia SP is a smooth and fast smartphone. The 1.7GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM keeps things ticking over nicely and the phone doesn't exhibit any notable lag or slowdown during basic tasks. The Xperia SP is 4G capable for Australia, so it's compatible with the 1800MHz 4G networks used down under by Telstra, Optus and, in the near future, Vodafone.
One downside is the phone's Wi-Fi connection, which we found very weak. When connected to the same Wi-Fi network at the same distance as a Samsung Galaxy S4, the Xperia SP managed at least one, often two less bars of signal. Whether this is a hardware or software issue is difficult to determine, but we can only hope it's the latter so Sony can correct the fault with a firmware update.
Camera & battery life
The Sony Xperia SP has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with Sony's Exmor RS image sensor, which claims to offer higher sensitivity and less image noise in low light areas than traditional mobile phone cameras.
It works to an extent — we managed to capture reasonably good quality images in low light but we did find it a little difficult to keep these images in focus.
Photos in well-lit environments are more than adequate, though the camera does tend to oversaturated colours. Contrast is excellent and detail is notable for a camera phone, but on a whole, the photos produced are good without being great.
The camera records full HD 1080p video, but there's no HDR video mode, unlike the Xperia Z. A front-facing VGA camera handles video calls with reasonable quality.
The Sony Xperia SP has a 2370mAh battery that performs very well. It easily pushed us through a full day of use on most occasions. Your figures will obviously vary depend on use.
The addition of a "Battery Stamina mode" certainly helps. This feature prevents applications from running when the screen is locked, therefore saving battery and improving standby time.