(Pocket-lint) - With Sony getting out of the blocks early, it's one of the first companies in 2013 to reveal its wider portfolio of devices. The Sony Xperia SP technically slips into what we'd traditionally call the mid-range, but with specs matching 2012's flagship devices, the Sony Xperia SP doesn't lack power.
That's a huge positive, because it means you get a great experience from a device that's now perhaps £200 cheaper than it might have been 12 months ago.
But is there really any space for this sort of device, lacking the glory of the top spot and falling well into the long shadow of the excellent Sony Xperia Z?
The Sony Xperia SP mashes together the S and P names and in theory brings together elements of those forebears, mainly with the specs of the S and the aluminium design of the P, together with the translucent strip design common to the S, P and U Xperia devices of early-2012.
However, the design has taken something of a departure, because although this phone carries an aluminium frame, the back is a conventional clip-on plastic shell which can be removed to give you access to the important SD and SIM card slots, but that's all.
In reality, the contrast is rather nice. You have the solidity of that metal frame, cool to the touch around the sides, then the warmth and tactile feel of the plastic back, providing some grip against your fingers to make it a little more secure in the hand. The angles of the sides provide plenty of grip too, the high points fitting into the joints of your digits to ensure that this handset isn't going to go flying from your grasp. Measuring 130.6 x 67.1 x 9.98mm, it isn't too large, but the 155g weight is pushing up towards the top end: it weighs more than the larger Xperia Z or HTC One, for example.
READ: Sony Xperia Z review
But the biggest design feature isn't the choice of materials, it's the inclusion of the illuminated bar across the bottom of the phone. This replaces the notification LED, giving you coloured flashes when you have a message, as well as changing colours when viewing photos - rather like Philips' Ambilight TV technology.
It brings a dash of colour to what you're doing and it is a bit of fun, although we found that flashing can be a bit too much, especially at night, when an email alert may well end up illuminating your whole bedroom. We're sure it will appeal to some; for us, a simple LED notification will do, but that's personal choice.
The physical controls are placed around the device in typical Sony fashion, with a central power/standby button on the right-hand side, along with the volume rocker and a dedicated camera button, which can be used to launch the camera directly from locked.
All on display
Encased within the somewhat quirky design are a set of display specs that are altogether more solid. There's a 4.6-inch display on the front, with a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, giving you an impressive 319ppi pixel density. The result is a nice sharp display and plenty of space for Android to show off its talents.
Of course the resolution has now been bettered by those Full HD displays, with the likes of the HTC One being fractionally larger, but plenty sharper. Considering that the price is a step down though, the Xperia SP serves you well, although you will need to accept that the viewing angles aren't brilliant.
The display itself is good, but not the best out there. The auto-brightness seems to be a little reluctant to react, often needing a prompt to get a perfect level. You've also got Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2 included, that will boost colours to give you more-vibrant images. It works, but can result in the photos you take looking a little better on your device than they do when you share them with friends.
But our biggest gripe about the device is that we've spent our time constantly trying to clean smears off it. The Xperia SP is topped with Corning Gorilla Glass, but it seems to spend more time being smeary than any other device we've used recently.
Hardware and performance
Driving the Xperia SP is a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, clocked at 1.7GHz, and backed by 1GB of RAM. It isn't the latest generation of processor, nor is it the most powerful and that's somewhat reflected in the experience. Although the SP is pretty fast, it lacks the snap that the latest devices give you, but given the device's positioning, we're happy with that, and it will set about your Android tasks with relative ease.
There's 8GB of internal storage, of which 5.37GB is available, although you can add up to 32GB via microSD card.
In terms of physical connections, the Xperia SP has a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top and a Micro-USB supporting MHL on the left-hand side. On the wireless front, this is available as a 4G LTE handset in some markets, and you have all the wireless wizardry you'd expect, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, GPS, DLNA support and so on.
The whole thing is powered by a 2300mAh battery, which is pretty impressive considering the level of this device. We're pleased to see that Sony Mobile didn't opt for a lesser capacity, as the SP really needs that to power this hardware.
Typically, the phone will make it through the day and we found that we'd get through 12 hours fairly easily. On light days we had no problems at all. It used to be the case that "mid-range" devices did well when it came to battery performance because of the lower specs. In the case of the Xperia SP, that's not really the case.
However, there are also a lot of smart options for managing the battery. As we found with the Sony Xperia Z, you can customise how the phone behaves with a stamina mode. This will let you say exactly what elements of the device are shut off when the level dips below a certain figure - 30 per cent by default.
You can turn off background data, but cleverly you can nominate those apps you want to stay connected. That means, for example, you could keep WhatsApp active for your social connections, but let all your Google syncing go quiet when the battery gets low. You also get hardware controls, so you can easily manage the endurance of your device when the battery level gets critical.
The result is that the Sony Xperia SP is a good performer on the battery. Sure, push it hard and the battery will drain itself in 6 hours or so, but with sensible use, the SP will see you through the day easily enough and Sony's smart battery management options really work well, with all the flexibility we want.
The call quality of the Sony Xperia SP is good and there were no complaints from callers when using the phone. We also found the reception to be pretty good, with a good strong signal in places that some phone struggle with on our test network.
The external speaker is located on the back of the phone and isn't great. It sounds rather tinny and there are certainly phones that give a much better account of themselves when being used for music and movies with the external speaker.
The Sony Xperiance
Sony's customisation of Android is now at a level where it doesn't inhibit much of what you love about Android. Some of the distractions of Xperia devices of old have been moved aside, so there's no longer any Timescape or Mediascape, but there's still a fair quantity of bundled apps and services.
But thanks to support for folders in the apps tray on this Android 4.1.2 (at launch) device, you can easily move any number of apps you don't want into a folder. While we'd much prefer to be able to remove them, at least you can hide them away easily.
There are some superficial changes to the calendar that we don't think really add anything over the stock Android offering and although Sony has added a great deal to its keyboard, we still don't think it stands up against Swiftkey or the new Swype, which we used predominantly on this phone.
But Sony is sticking to some core Android elements. Chrome is the browser you're supplied with out of the box, rather than having some other customised browser getting in the way. We like that approach, just as we like that Sony follows the Nexus line and eschews capacitive buttons in favour of on-screen icons for device control, which can be dimmed when you dive into things like movies, making for a nice, clean experience.
Perhaps the integration of your social networks - Facebook and Twitter - could be a little better, as it's all too easy to lose an update you share via Twitter for Xperia for example, but as we found with the Xperia Z, Sony's user interface has reached a point where it feels right.
We did find a few quirks however. The camera seems to slow things down a lot. Launching the camera takes longer than expected, moving into previews feels slow, and returning to the camera once you've viewed a shot takes even longer. It's almost as though there's too much going on, which may well be the case.
We also found the returning to the home screen sometimes left us with lots of blank spaces where there should be app shortcuts or folders, as though the SP was lagging behind what you were asking it to do. With the power on offer, this shouldn't be the case, so perhaps points to something in the software that needs fixing. Not a deal breaker, by any means, but it detracts slightly from the package.
Photos, movies and music
Sony being Sony, it wants to own the entertainment space. Where you really feel the impact of its tinkering is in the entertainment apps. That means that visually, as well as operationally, things like the Gallery, here called Album, change dramatically. One of the things we like about Sony's Album is the zooming to change the view of photos, a feature Sony has offered over a couple of generations of Android smartphones. It's great to be able to zoom in and out of the whole album view and watch everything rearrange itself.
You also get in-built editing options, so you can add common effects like Lomo, change the saturation of a picture, crop, rotate, change highlights, shadows and a whole host of other things, so if the picture you snap isn't looking its best, you can easily make some changes.
The Movies app is something of an oddball as it doesn't give you all your movies, like those from the camera, which are accessed through the normal album. Movies will, however, pull together those videos you sideload, as well as those you might buy through Sony's Movies Unlimited, but not those you download from Google Play.
Movie playback looks good head-on, although the display's viewing angles will see the colour drop out if you lie it down flat. There's good native support for a range of different file formats, however, as well as integrated support to share content or access content on a media server.
We're still not totally sold on the music app. Even though it sports the Walkman branding, the home page for the music app feels a little antiquated with the top section given over to the depiction of a record player. When it comes to finding and playing your music we don't have a problem with it, and the sound quality is pretty good through a decent set of headphones, with various enhancements available to tweak the sound to your liking.
Sony packs a huge amount of functionality into the camera of an Xperia handset. The Xperia SP has an 8-megapixel camera on the back and a 0.3-megapixel camera on the front. The rear is supported by an LED flash and as we've mentioned, there's a dedicated camera button.
This button will let you launch the camera to get into snapping straight away. There are various options for its function, but we suspect that to launch the camera will be the most popular. It launches in a fast capture mode, basically in fully automatic, and seems blighted by inaccurate focusing. The majority of pictures we took via this method didn't come out well, so its use is limited.
We also don't like the "superior auto" mode. It limits your options and doesn't seem to give you the superior return you might expect given the name, so it's best to head into the normal shooting mode and tweak things to your liking to get the best results.
But the Sony Xperia SP suffers with noise, both in low light conditions and in good conditions, with blue skies turning speckled on a fine day, even with a reported ISO of 50. These shots are fine for sharing where the viewing size will probably hide those imperfections, but it's not the best performer out there.
The slightly misleading thing about the Xperia SP, as with the Xperia Z, is that the Mobile Bravia 2 option often makes these pictures look better on screen than they actually are. That's fine for showing to your friends on the phone, but fire them to your TV and they lack some of the punch you might be expecting.
The front-facing camera isn't great either. Its low resolution shows, and although it's not bad at giving nice colourful shots, they're mostly mushy and lack detail.
Full HD video capture is offered and the results from video are pretty good, with continuous autofocus.
The Sony Xperia SP is a good mid-range phone. There's power and flexibility on board and there's the performance to back it up, aside from a few minor quirks.
The design of the handset is good too with the metal frame giving the SP a nice solid feel. We're not sold on the flashing bar however, it just seems a little too much at times, especially when you're lying awake at night, watching it illuminate your bedroom.
The camera performance isn't great. Although there's a lot on offer, it just doesn't seem to all come together and give you the good shots you'd sometimes expect, with focusing being the thing that frustrated us the most.
However, the Sony Xperia SP is reasonably priced and for that you get a good display and a device that will showcase the fun of Android nicely, with a battery that will get you through the day.