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Sony Xperia P (unlocked)

The Sony Xperia P is one of the better handsets from Sony Mobile this year. It has great build quality, and the display is bright enough to use outdoors.

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Editors' note: Because the Sony Xperia P was reviewed by our companion site CNET Asia, we are publishing this review as an in-depth hands-on article without an official starred rating.

Announced in February at Mobile World Congress alongside the Xperia U, the Sony Xperia P follows the Xperia S in featuring Sony's NXT design. The result is a very Sony handset with a brilliant display and a design that shows more than a bit of style. Yet, when compared with the HTC One X and Nokia 808 PureView, its feature set was one of the least interesting that we saw at the show. There's a time and a place for midrange Android phones, of course, but the 1GHz processor and Gingerbread OS don't scream for attention.

Compared with the Xperia S, the slightly smaller Xperia P is much easier to hold, and the brushed metal has a solid feel. With its 4-inch display, the Xperia P is still usable with just one hand, even if it's slightly wider than the Apple iPhone 4S. It comes in several colors including the red hue seen in the photos above, and you can stand the phone up on its bottom end.

Located above the micro-SIM card slot on the left side are the Micro-USB and Micro-HDMI ports. In a change from the Xperia S, the ports don't have plastic covers. Up top is the 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the right side are your power, volume, and camera shutter buttons. Note that the handset's speakers are located on the right side as well. That's an interesting design choice, to be sure.

The handset sports a 4-inch qHD (960x540-pixel resolution) display, which uses Sony's WhiteMagic technology to showcase images and text with great brightness. The company claims that the display is bright enough for comfortable viewing in direct sunlight. I found this to be true and had no difficulties when using the phone outdoors.

Below the display is the same opaque band that we saw on the Xperia U and Xperia S. It also lights up in various colors, which you can change, and it has the icons for Back, Home, and Menu touch controls. Yet, instead of the annoying arrangement on Xperia S where the controls are actually above the icons, Sony combined them on the Xperia P. That makes much more sense.

Weighing 4.23 ounces, the Xperia P feels light enough in my hands, though at 0.41 inch deep it's much thicker than most phones. Lastly, the handset comes with a nonremovable 1,305mAh battery.

Unlike the smaller Xperia U, the Xperia P has built-in NFC, which will allow you to make full use of the Sony Xperia SmartTags the company is touting. With the programmable tags you can quickly launch apps and services by simply tapping a tag with your Xperia P. Unfortunately, though, no SmartTags are included in the package. See our Xperia S review for more about this feature.

Other connectivity features include HSPA, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. The handset comes with 16GB of onboard storage, though only 13GB is available for use. Unfortunately, the phone doesn't have an expandable memory slot.

Sadly, the Xperia P won't have the latest version of the Android operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich, at launch. Instead, it runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), but Sony has promised an update for the handset in the future.

Since that may not happen for a while, Sony has added tweaks to enhance the user experience in the meantime. As in Android 4.0, you can add notifications for messages on the lock screen, jump straight to a message from the lock screen, and create folders by dragging apps on top of another.

The 8-megapixel camera uses Sony's Exmor R backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor. There's no shutter lag and I like that you can take a quick photo from the lock screen by holding the shutter button down. I noticed, however, that the white balance didn't adjust properly when I used this feature. Shots taken in normal mode will allow the camera time to adjust properly, though the process takes more time.

Sony Xperia P
Outdoor test shot Aloysius Low/CNET Asia
Sony Xperia P
Macro test shot Aloysius Low/CNET Asia

Photos taken with the Xperia P's camera had lots of detail, but colors were a little washed-out. What's more, in low-light situations and with the flash turned on, there was an ample amount of noise. For a midrange handset, the Xperia P's camera is just above average, in my opinion.

Sony Xperia P
Indoor test shot Aloysius Low/CNET Asia
Sony Xperia P
Indoor test shot with flash Aloysius Low/CNET Asia

While it doesn't have a quad-core processor, the Xperia P's dual-core 1GHz processor was more than sufficient to keep things running smoothly.

The battery lasted for a full day of moderate usage with two Gmail accounts, Facebook, and Twitter all set on push. Still, I'd advise carrying a battery charger since the nonremovable battery means you can't swap in a spare power cell in an emergency.

I had no problems with voice quality or call reception, but I did experience an attenuation issue when I used the Xperia P indoors. In fact, when I gripped the phone with my palm touching the back, signal strength decreased. I was able to make calls, but data speeds worsened, with load times of most Web pages slowing to a crawl. Despite its odd location, I could hear the external speaker without any problems.

Sony Xperia P
Here's how you do the death grip on the Xperia P. Aloysius Low/CNET Asia

Strangely, the Sony Xperia P is a more compelling device than the Xperia S, especially when it comes to build and battery life. Also, though the screen resolution is not as high as on the Xperia S, it remains bright and vibrant and you'll have no problems using it outdoors. Yet, the problem here is that I don't know what the Xperia P wants to be. It's certainly pretty, but that's not enough reason to buy the smartphone no matter how long the battery lasts. If it had Ice Cream Sandwich, sharper performance, and a better camera it could be a top Android draw. But for right now, it's just another Android smartphone.

The Xperia P is now available in Singapore from SingTel for 248 Singapore dollars ($197) with service. In the United States, the Xperia P is currently sold only as an unlocked model that will cost you at least $500. There's no word as to when or if it will be officially added to the lineup of a U.S. carrier (which would mean a lower price with contract). When and if that happens, we'll review the U.S. version of the phone.

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