Perhaps the most noticeable Sony addition is the swirling desktop which dances and flows as you tap the screen. There are plenty of other equivalents on other Android devices but this if one of the nicer and more obvious versions we’ve seen.
Okay, we lied, the most noticeable addition is the flashing clear bar that chops through the bottom of the phone. This glows all manner of different colours depending on what app you’re in, whether you’ve got a message or a call, or if the phone is charging. Perhaps the neatest trick is that the collection of lights will do there best to match whatever’s on screen when using the Gallery app, a bit like a tiny version of Philips’ Ambilight TVs. Otherwise, it’s essentially an oversized version of those little pin-sized LEDs you get on BlackBerrys. It’s a nice, if somewhat superfluous, addition.
On a more practical note, another key Sony addition is that of Timescape, which is a social network feed aggregator that brings together updates from Facebook and Twitter and presents them in one long stream. It’s quite nice in a way but the snaking style of the app makes it a bit impractical. The accompanying widget is quite effective though.
You also get Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited streaming services, both of which offer a reasonably competitive selection of content at a reasonable price - films are around £3.49 a pop to rent and £12 to buy while music is delivered based on a flat monthly fee of £9.99. Ultimately, though, there’s little reason to pick either over a rival service.
All told, it’s not the most convincing implementation of Android we’ve seen but it’s easy enough to get along with and includes full access to the vast Google Play Store app library.
The Sony Xperia U has a 5megapixel camera on its back and a 0.9megapixel front facing one. The rear one comes with autofocus and an LED flash so is a reasonably versatile tool. But, like most phones cameras, it’s still fairly limited in terms of picture quality. On a dull day like when we took our test shots, the London skyline looked almost totally devoid of colour, and the overall look is fairly patchy. As ever, the rule of thumb is that it’s fine for small social snaps but doesn’t really stretch to anything more.
The shutter button is also of less use than we’d hope as, like quite a few phones that include this feature, it requires quite a hard press to activate it, greatly increasing the chance of making your shot wobbly. Still, we’d rather have the option than not.
Detail is reasonable but the Sony Xperia U over emphasises the dullness of this day.
Touch focus means you can easily pick out the object you'd like to focus on.
The flash is reasonably powerful but like most it struggles to focus in the pitch dark.
You get a pretty decent selection of scene and shooting modes, including the really easy to use sweep panorama feature where you simply pan the camera left or right to build up an ultra-wide shot. The overall interface isn’t all that slick, though, paling in comparison to HTC’s for instance.
Much the same can be said of the phone’s 720p HD video performance in that it’s fine for grabbing the moment but certainly doesn’t reach new heights.
It doesn’t seem long ago where even £200 was being a bit stingy to get a genuinely satisfactory smartphone experience but in the last few months several top-dog cut-price blowers have hit the market. Nonetheless, the Sony Xperia U offers a great combination of features for its price.
The ZTE Grand X offers a much larger, sharper screen for a little more money while the Huawei Ascend G300 is much cheaper, has a slightly bigger screen and a microSD slot, though it does only have a single core processor. Another alternative is the super stylish and well built HTC One V, though again it’s only single core.
The Sony Xperia U isn’t perfect but then what phone is for little over £150? It’s compact yet has a screen large enough for core smartphone duties, it’s fast thanks to a dual-core processor and it’s just plain easy to use. An easy recommendation for anyone looking for a phone on a budget.