(Pocket-lint) - The Sony Xperia P rolls out in the middle of Sony's line of NXT handsets following the separation from Ericsson. It is mid-range both in terms of specs and size, but falls into an extremely competitive market.
Can the Sony Xperia P shine, or will experienced rivals cast a long shadow over Sony's mobile aspirations?
The design of the Sony Xperia NXT line has that Marmite feel to it. Some dislike what Sony has done, adding a clear strip that's essentially just bloat to the frame; some don't like the flattened edges, claiming it makes the phone uncomfortable to hold.
The design is basically the same as the Xperia S, which at least means the phone will stand up should you want to perch it on your desk - like a monolith - which we inevitably do.
The smaller frame makes it a mite more comfortable to hold than the Xperia S, the 122 x 59.5 x 10.5mm dimensions meaning it sits well in the hand and isn't overly large when held to the face for a conversation. It weighs 120g.
The curved back and the angles of the edges make it feel secure to grip, even though the metal unibody design is inherently slippery. The great advantage over the plastic of the Xperia S is that it stays clean - it comes out of your pocket free from lint and fluff.
The silver colour of our review model has something of a premium look and feel to it. It feels solid, it doesn't flex, there are no dodgy plastic back panels to slide off. In terms of build quality alone, it's better than the Xperia S.
But then we return to the layout of controls. The Xperia P presents the three icons - back, home and menu - along the clear strip at the bottom. Unlike the Xperia S, the P is actually touch-enabled across this line, so you don't have the odd arrangement of having to touch in the space above the icon.
Down the left-hand side of the handset are the connections, with the micro HDMI and Micro-USB adjacent to each other and easily confused when trying to plug in your phone late at night in the dark. With no access to the internals, a slot on the left provides space for your micro SIM card.
Down the right-hand side you have a run of controls, with the power/standby button, volume rocker and dedicated camera button. That's in addition to the external speaker opening, nicely inlaid with metal mesh.
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The biggest marker of a mid-range phone is often the hardware specs it arrives with. The Xperia P comes with a 4-inch capacitive touchscreen, with a reasonable resolution of 960 x 540 pixels. This is a higher resolution than some devices at this size, with a sharp 275 pixels per inch.
The result is that text looks nice and refined and there is plenty of depth to the detail in pictures. It also saves the amount of zooming you need to do in things like webpages.
But the display isn't a patch on that of the Xperia S. Yes, it does feature auto brightness in the conventional sense, so adjusts to the ambient light conditions as you'd expect, but the display looks a little warm to us, with a yellow hue. This makes whites look yellow and yellows look green, which is slightly off-putting.
There is plenty of brightness, so despite it being fairly reflective, we found we could still make out everything on the display in bright sunshine.
Sitting under the hood is an Ericsson NovaStor U8500 1GHz dual core processor. This is ably assisted by 1GB RAM and 16GB of internal memory. It might not have the glamour of the latest run of quad core devices, but it isn't lacking in power for everyday operations.
Where you might be disappointed is in the lack of microSD card support. Like many of 2012's devices, the option to expand the memory is gone.
Software and user interface
With hardware that's capable and design that we, personally, find difficult to dislike, there is a lot vested in the user experience. Sony gets off slightly out of step, as this phone launches on Gingerbread, with an update to Ice Cream Sandwich promised for some time in the summer.
Although software version isn't hugely important at this point in Android evolution, it does mean things like Android Beam aren't available using the Xperia P's NFC function (Xperia SmartTags are, however). It also means you don't get recent apps, or the more dynamic swipe-away notifications, among a number of other tweaks.
Sony has put its own skin on the Xperia P, the same as the Xperia S. In many ways it isn't too offensive and does make the phone different. One of the features it's left alone, however, is the launch bar. It's dynamic enough to let you customise, add folders and so on to quickly get to what you want.
As you'd expect, you get a number of customisable home screens that you can fill with widgets, including Sony's take on social network integration in TimeScape, which we've never really liked. The Facebook and Twitter apps work well enough; adding another app to these services doesn't really have a place.
The lock screen doesn't offer shortcuts as many rivals will. It offers a swipe unlock and mute bar, but you don't get the app shortcut unlock action you do elsewhere. There is a shortcut to launch the camera on a long press of the dedicated button, but that's it.
When it comes to core functions, your Google services, everything falls nicely into place and runs smoothly. Unfortunately Sony has tinkered with things like the calendar and the loss of the agenda view is an irritation, as is the overly compact view. Android made calendars simple; Sony seems to have made them complicated again.
The keyboard is reasonable. It is fast enough to respond, but the predictive suggestions aren't all that clever. As we always say, installing something like Swiftkey X makes for a much better overall experience and is easy enough to do.
The browser is pretty standard too, supporting Flash video and offering you up to eight tabs to explore the internet. It lacks some of the Ice Cream Sandwich features, like a selectable desktop mode or the option for an Incognito mode, but runs smoothly enough.
There is a front-facing camera for video calling or self-portraits, but most of the attention will be on the 8-megapixel camera on the rear, with LED flash. We're impressed with what Sony Mobile has done with the camera interface, as combined with the dedicated button you get a pretty good camera experience.
Not only can you use a half-press on the button to focus the camera, but you also get a range of focusing modes. If you'd rather have multipoint focusing you can, which we prefer to use, or you can opt for touch focusing as you'll find on a number of other smartphones.
Arguably everything could be faster, but you like the reassurance of being able to see exactly what is in focus. You also get things like Sweep Panorama, as well as the 3D version, common to Sony products.
There are a number of settings to tinker with, and although you'll get a faster response from the likes of the HTC One S, we like the results we have from the Sony Xperia P.
As a camera phone it suffers where all do, with low light noise and softening, as well as fringing on high contrast scenes. Very bright conditions can be a little washed out, but generally, you'll get nicely balanced, natural, colours from the camera.
Video is offered at Full HD and again garners nice results. Continuous autofocus keeps things sharp as you move the camera around and for the most part focus is changed quickly without too much seeking.
Media and entertainment
As this is Sony, it is no surprise to find that Sony's services have been included with the device. A fair amount comes preinstalled, which you can essentially take or leave, including the Music and Video Unlimited services.
The Connected Devices app had no trouble finding our home media server and within seconds we were streaming video, as the Xperia P, like the Xperia S, seemed exceptionally quick at negotiating the file system to get to our videos. The same app will let you use your phone as a media server so you can share device content a compatible TV, for example.
Video playback looks great on the display, although as we've mentioned, it isn't the best display around and you don't have the wow factor of larger devices. Getting content on to the device is simple enough using the Sony Bridge software, which will offer to convert videos that aren't compatible.
The music player has been skinned and isn't the best around - replacements are easy to find on Google Play - but you do get music controls from the lock screen. Sadly you only get a link from the notifications bar, rather pause or skip options, which are always useful.
Paired with a decent set of headphones (we used the Klipsch Image S4A) the Sony Xperia P sounds fantastic. The external speaker also sounds good, whether used for media or as a speakerphone.
Calling and battery
When it comes to calling, the Xperia P is a comfortable size to hold, although we found the slot design of the ear speaker meant that sometimes we'd have to re-adjust to be able to hear our caller. It also didn't seem to be especially loud, so in busy locations, such as a station or airport, we found we struggled to hear the conversation.
When it comes to the battery, unfortunately the Xperia P doesn't stand out, often one of the advantages of "smaller" phones. The 1305mAh battery doesn't give you much advantage over larger devices and we found that it would typically run out late afternoon. That's not great, especially when you can't change the battery, so you'll have to keep a charger to hand.
Overall the Sony Xperia P is something of a mixed bag. Our experience with the Xperia S tells us that the design will divide opinion. The core hardware means this is a reasonably powerful device and the way it handles everyday tasks is a testament to that, with no complaints in that respect.
But there are some elements that just seem to get in the way. Launching on Gingerbread is a disappointment for Android fans and some of Sony's design choices when it comes to the user interface are a little disappointing. We don't mind manufacturers skinning Android, but when it makes something like the calendar more difficult to view, we have to question what benefit there is for the end user.
Finally the battery life and a screen that doesn't look entirely natural leave us with a device that, despite exhibiting great build quality in that metal body, starts to feel decidedly average.
An update to Android 4 here and the choice application of, erm, apps from Google Play and the Sony Xperia P starts to feel much more appealing. The Sony Xperia P is a phone that performs, but could be better.