- Surprisingly stylish and well built
- Great perfromance for a budget phone
- Really easy to handle
- Screen quite small by today's standards
- Only runs Android 2.3
- Review Price: £150.00
- Dual-Core 1GHz processor
- Android 2.3 operating system
- 3.5in, 480 x 854 pixel display
- Interchangeable coloured end caps
- Flashing clear plastic strip
The Sony Xperia U is the third tier in Sony’s current lineup of Android phones. Costing around £150, it’s comfortably within budget phone territory but, like the Xperia P, it belies its low cost, making for a handset that’s well worth a look. With a funky strip of flashing lights and interchangeable end caps, it has a bit more personality than most too.
Sony Xperia U Video Review
Please note, there is a mistake in this video in reference to the
phone not having a removable backplate. You can in fact remove the back
and access the battery but there is no microSD slot to expand the
storage. We will look to correct this as soon as possible.
Design and Features
Unsurprisingly, where the Xperia U feels most budget is in its design and build, but not in the way you’d expect. Its combination of a matt white unibody chassis and glass screen is as classy as most premium handsets, while the clear plastic strip that runs below the screen is a nice touch, just as it is on the rest of the Xperia lineup.
No, where the budget leaning is most obvious is the size of the thing. Although the screen is technically the same 3.5in diagonal as that of the iPhone, it’s considerably narrower and all told the phone looks and feels small. What doesn’t help is the thick bezel that makes the display look even smaller than it is.
Otherwise, there are just a few subtleties that further take the edge off, such as the thick black trim round the screen’s edge and the rather obvious gaping hole for the front facing camera, but neither of these are close to being deal breakers.
What’s more that smaller size makes this a superbly easy handset to handle. It weighs just 110g and with dimensions of 112 x 54 x 12mm it’s an easy fit in the hand. As with the rest of the current Xperia line, those stylishly squared corners do dig into the hand a little but not enough to really worry.
One point to note is that the matt finish of this white version does pick up dirt quite easily, which is something to be aware of if you’re a regular newspaper reader.
That removable end cap simply pulls off and alternates slide on. There was a spare yellow one in the box of our review sample which we tried and then promptly ditched – we weren’t all that impressed with the combination. You can also get a black version of the phone that comes with an alternative pink end cap. Gimmick? Yeah, pretty much.
Adding to the overall ease of use are a great selection of buttons and other features. Below the screen are three nicely responsive touch-sensitive buttons for navigating the main interface while the right edge is home to the three other main controls, the power, volume and camera shutter buttons.
The power button isn’t quite so easy to reach in left-handed use but for right-handers it falls perfectly under your thumb making for easy one-handed use. Likewise the volume rocker is easy to reach, and the shutter button is great for controlling trickier shots – hold it down and it’ll jump straight to the camera even when the phone is locked too.
Up top is a headphone jack while on the left edge is a microUSB socket for charging and hooking up to a computer to transfer files. There isn’t, however, a microHDMI socket for hooking the phone straight up to a TV.
You can remove the backplate to access the 1290mAh battery and (normal size) SIM slot but there’s no microSD slot for expanding upon the 8GB of built in storage. This latter point could be the deal breaker for many as in fact only about 4GB of this is user accessible. This will mean regularly having to remove and backup images captured on the camera to make room for more, swap in and out different music depending on your mood and possibly even having to uninstall some apps to make room for others.
We mentioned that the screen of the Sony Xperia U isn’t all that big but while it certainly doesn’t rival the big guns for watching video or playing games it’s actually perfectly adequate for everything else. It’s an LCD panel with a typical resolution of 480 x 854 pixels, which in combination make for a reasonably sharp display that’s easy to read emails or browse the web on. Viewing angles are good and it’s reasonably colourful too.
About the only area of concern is typing. We found it absolutely fine for typing on, despite the keyboard being visibly narrower than that of the iPhone, a phone that many people already find a little slim. But, for those that do find smaller phones a tight squeeze, this one is no exception.
What makes the typing experience so tolerable for us, however, is that the screen is super responsive and the word prediction excellent. We could type away at near enough as fast as we can on any touchscreen.
Part of what makes that screen feel so responsive is that under the hood of this phone is a nippy dual-core 1GHz processor. Dual-core is becoming more common in mid-range phones but it’s still pretty rare at this price point. It keeps the phone feeling fast and responsive during almost all typical activities, coping with graphically rich websites, fancy 3D games and, as mentioned, our feverish typing speed!
Putting that subjective feel to the test, we ran our usual suite of benchmarks and the Xperia U came up trumps. SunSpider, BrowserMark and Linpack scores of 2499, 66437 and 33.7 (single) and 64.7 (multi) show this phone is fast when it comes to raw CPU power while scores of 2178 and 1529 in the Egypt and Pro offscreen tests of GLBenchmark prove it has gaming chops too.
When it came to calling the Xperia U also held up reasonably well. A noise cancelling microphone is something of rarity at this price point and the earpiece delivered enough volume to keep us happy.
Likewise battery life was more than adequate with the phone delivering a reasonably heavy day’s use. Yes, it’s a charge every night scenario, but what phone isn’t these days?
Interface: Android 2.3 with Timescape UI
Like all of Sony’s current Android handsets, the Xperia U runs the older 2.3 version of Android but an update to 4.0 is in the works. That update will bring welcome enhancements in terms of both features and performance but even as things stand the Xperia U is a very capable and easy to use handset.
Hitting the homescreens, you’ve got five to choose from with four fixed shortcuts across the bottom of the screen – two either side of the main menu shortcut. These four fixed apps are interchangeable with any other app or folder, with a simple hold-and-drag gesture being all that’s required to move them around.
The main app menu can be ordered in a number of ways with the default being however you choose to arrange them. But you can also change them to be in alphabetical , most used or recently installed order.
As ever, there are more widgets loaded onto the homescreens than we’d ever want but it’s easy enough to remove a few and speed up the interface even more in the process.
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.
Score in detail
Screen Quality 7