Sony's live event Sunday saw it introduce two new phones to hit the mid-range of its lineup, headlined by the Xperia U. With a four-inch display using a new ultra-bright WhiteMagic tech, a dual-core 1GHz NovaThor processor, and an eight-megapixel camera that purportedly has a second from sleeping to a shot, it's supposed to raise the bar for mid-range phones. But does it? Read ahead for our hands-on.
From a pure design perspective, it's clever. The aluminum unibody at once feels well put together and absurdly light; compare that to the relatively weighty iPhone 4 it's going to go up against. The transparent control buttons below the screen aren't just slightly eerie in appearing to defy logic, but also clever, as they hide antenna segments, too. It was hard to vouch for how effective Sony's WhiteMagic technology would be in controlled lighting conditions, but it was certainly bright and colorful while still staying accurate.
Control-wise, though, it's somewhat off. The bottom aluminum below the transparency also acts as touch controls, at least on the prototype we tested. It wasn't hard to accidentally back up a page on the web or go back to the home screen when you were just cupping the phone. It can be overcome, but it shouldn't have to be.
The software is mostly a match for what we saw in the Xperia ion and Xperia S at CES in January, and has a few clever touches, although admittedly elements such as folders are now covered by Android 4.0 (which should be coming to the Xperia P roughly when it launches). It's not very fast, however. In spite of Sony claiming that it would be fast, we still saw a slight amount of that signature Android lag, most of all in the stuttering browser. We suspect the graphics in the NovaThor chip, along with the two cores themselves, might be worked a bit too hard by the 540x960 screen.
We found that Sony was exaggerating slightly with the one-second claim for the camera. It was faster than waking and unlocking the phone yourself, but not by a huge margin. Camera quality was difficult to judge without getting to keep the photos. That said, it's largely the same eight-megapixel Sony sensor that the iPhone 4S uses, so while the optics might not be as good, the baseline performance should be good.
We didn't immediately get to try the Xperia SmartDock that's launching at the same time. It should be a slightly toned down version of Motorola's basic WebTop media dock, however: you can plug it into a TV for a larger screen view, or even plug in a USB keyboard and mouse for some basic e-mail and browsing. We hope to check both this and the Smart Headset, which has a button to launch a favorite app, shortly.
NFC SmartTags, a feature much like LG's that lets you automatically launch apps or other settings by getting close to a premade tag, weren't easy to find. That may speak more about the current significance of NFC than anything else; it's a nice-to-have extra.
The Xperia P is due to ship in the spring, and as mentioned, Android 4.0 should come hand-in-hand. At first glance, it's a solid choice for a mid-tier Android phone, but we'd seriously consider a Galaxy S II now that the price has dropped. Sony has the camera and resolution advantages, but we'll take speed and the better control scheme from Samsung. And if you're not locked to Android, the iPhone 4 is still subjectively faster and on an up-to-date OS.