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Sony Xperia P (unlocked) review:

Sony Xperia P (unlocked)

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The Good With a stunning, metal design, the Sony Xperia P has sophisticated style. It's also compact, boasts a bright screen, and connects to Sony's large music and video stores.

The Bad The Xperia P is held back by a weak CPU, outdated Android OS, and short battery life.

The Bottom Line If beauty is your only priority, the Sony Xperia P will certainly satisfy, but power isn't this unlocked phone's forte.

CNET Editors' Rating

6.7 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 6.0
  • Performance 5.0

The smartphone market has grown ever tighter with even longtime electronics heavyweights finding it hard to create a hit. Sony, with its NXT line of handsets, clearly hopes that an aggressive blend of style and multimedia prowess will be enough to lure U.S. shoppers away from Apple, Samsung, and even underdog HTC. The company's fashionable device built for this purpose is the Xperia P. Sold direct and unlocked, the $479.99 Sony Xperia P is compact and has killer good looks, but unfortunately lacks the power and performance to please demanding Android experts.

Design
The Xperia P sits in the middle of Sony's new NXT line of Android smartphones, one step below the flagship Xperia S, but you'd never know that from just looking at it. With its premium metallic construction and electric-red paint job, it could easily be a flagship product. Unlike the Xperia S, which is crafted from more mundane plastic, this handset has the level of luxury only aluminum can bring.

I was also struck by how much easier this phone is to handle. Measuring 4.8 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick, the Xperia P isn't noticeably smaller than its sibling, the Xperia S (5 inches by 2.5 inches by 0.4 inch). Its slightly smaller girth, however, makes a huge difference. That was immediately clear from the moment I grasped the Xperia P in my hand. I found its lighter 4.2-ounce weight and more compact size made it easier to grip comfortably than the bigger Xperia S.

The Sony Xperia P is easier to hold than its big brother.

Also separating Sony's NXT line from the staid designs of typical smartphones is an illuminated clear bar running along the phone's base. Within this bar are three symbols hovering inside its transparent surface. In addition to looking downright sophisticated, they highlight Android functions for Back, Home, and Menu.

Unlike on the Xperia S and its sibling on AT&T, the Xperia Ion, these symbols indeed operate as actual buttons. Just tap the icons and the phone responds and provides a haptic buzz alerting you that you've hit your target. This is a huge improvement over button layouts on the Xperia S and Xperia Ion that force you to interact with tiny dots above each symbol, something I found difficult, especially in the dark.

Wrapping around the Xperia P is a clear bar that holds Android buttons.

In front is a large 4-inch LCD screen with a qHD (960×540-pixel) resolution. Above the display sit a VGA front-facing camera and a notification light that changes colors depending on the alert. The left side of the phone holds ports for Micro-USB and HDMI, and a micro-SIM card slot covered by a flap. On top is a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the right side features a tiny power button. Also here are a thin volume rocker and a dedicated camera button that will launch the camera app and even wake the phone up from sleep. Around back is the phone's 8MP camera with LED flash.

Display
The Xperia P's 4-inch qHD display uses technology Sony calls WhiteMagic, designed to help the screen be easier to read outdoors in sunlight. I can vouch that the handset's display is definitely brighter than other phones'. In fact I had no trouble viewing its screen in strong sunshine, unlike the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which was a lot dimmer when examined beside it under the same conditions.

That said, in more conventional situations such as indoors and in dark environments, the Xperia P's LCD screen isn't stunning. Stacked up against the HTC One X (AT&T) and Samsung Galaxy Nexus (unlocked), the Xperia P produced images with low contrast and narrow viewing angles. By contrast, the Galaxy Nexus 4.65-inch, 1,280x720-pixel Super AMOLED screen) showcased saturated colors, deep blacks, and excellent off-angle views. The HTC One X (4.7-inch, 1,280x720 Super LCD2) was a step behind, with bright whites, wide viewing angles, and natural colors.

Interface
While Sony's flagship Xperia S device has now been updated with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the Xperia P is still stuck in yesteryear running Android 2.3 Gingerbread. That said, as with the Xperia Ion, Sony makes an effort to add ICS-like enhancements to the Xperia P's interface.

For example, you can create and add folders to any of the Xperia's five home screens just by dragging app shortcuts onto each other. Near-field communication (NFC) is also included, though the feature sadly isn't compatible with Google's Android Beam feature. Beam, integrated in phones running Android 4.0 ICS and 4.1 Jelly Bean, lets you transfer pictures and other files to compatible phones wirelessly just by bumping them together.

Software and apps
As an Android 2.3 Gingerbread device, the Xperia P is capable of performing all the basic Android tasks and supports Google services like Gmail, Maps, Navigation (using the handset's GPS hardware), and the social-networking service Google+.

Sony also includes a helping of its own apps and services, such as the Timescape social-networking app that combines updates from Twitter and Facebook. A Connected Devices application lets you share and stream video and music (as long as it isn't copyrighted material) with and to Sony TVs and other electronics. Other noteworthy software includes a Power Saver app designed to conserve battery life, plus NeoReader to scan bar codes. Of course, a vast library of 700,000 app titles is also ready for download via the Google Play Android marketplace.

Sony Xperia P
On the Xperia P's home screens are widgets for keeping tabs on social-media developments. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony music and video
Deeply entrenched in Sony's multimedia ecosystem, the Xperia P supports the company's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited digital stores. If you have a Sony Entertainment Network account, these applications let you rent and buy movies, along with TV shows; you can also download and stream audio tracks right from the device.

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