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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Even though Sony's selection of movies and music is large, it isn't the easiest service to navigate. For example, there's no way I've yet found to browse the entire library of content online via desktop browser. I could only see a handful of movies and audio tracks presented under what was most popular. I was able, however, to see what appeared to be Sony's full music collection via the phone-based Video Unlimited app and the Media Go software, but the experience is clunky and not very intuitive.
Transferring Sony media to my Xperia P test device was just as confusing. I accomplished this with the Media Go PC software, but the interface is clunky and difficult to comprehend. Another frustration is that purchased video content can only be downloaded to your phone once per transaction and only to a single device. So if you switch Xperia phones or a glitch happens during the transfer, you may not be able to watch what you bought, fair and square, unless you fork over more cash. Unfortunately, this is a pitfall I learned about the hard way.
Prices for what Sony offers seem reasonable with movies costing $2.99 to rent (24 hours) and $14.99 to buy. Video quality, however, is limited to standard definition, not HD. Also, the most compelling titles I could find were only priced to own, not to rent.
Sony's Music Unlimited costs $9.99 per month and provides on-demand playback of any track in Sony's library, offline storage of playlists you create, and specially curated stations crafted by Sony staff.
The Xperia P packs an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash. Unlike my experience with the Xperia S and Xperia Ion, the phone took almost 2 seconds to capture an image. The Xperia P shared those phones' penchant for pictures with soft details, color noise, and artifacts, particularly in low light. For example, images the Xperia P took of an indoor still life were grainy, with muted colors.
Outdoors in strong sunlight, the phone fared better, but not by much. Images did have brighter colors, though details were two-dimensional. The 1080p HD video I filmed outside lacked impact, too, with soft details and weak color. That said, motion was pleasantly smooth with no stuttering or jerkiness to speak of.
The Xperia P does come equipped with healthy number of camera features. You'll find a wide range of capture modes, including multiple panorama functions, smile detection, and resolutions beginning at 2MP and maxing out at 8MP. Pressing down the dedicated shutter button activates the Xperia P's camera even when the phone is asleep. Rousing the camera in this fashion also immediately snaps a picture for fast capture. You can switch this function off, though, if all you want the button to do is jump to the camera. See how the Xperia P's camera stacks up against other phones in our Camera Phone Image Gallery.
An underpowered dual-core 1GHz U850 NovaThor processor paired with 1GB of RAM pushes the Sony Xperia P's Android 2.3.7 OS along at a steady but slow clip. The handset often stumbled and stuttered through menus and while opening apps and felt slow on the draw overall.
Not surprisingly, the phone logged a low Linpack (multithread) score of 60.5 MFLOPs completed in 2.79 seconds. That's a lot less than the Xperia S managed (81.4 MFLOPs), with its old but still faster 1.5GHz Snapdragon S3 chip. Smartphones powered by the newer S4 CPUs, such as the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S3 (also 1.5GHz dual-core CPUs), turned in much better performance. The HTC One X earned a much higher 170.2 MFLOPs, while the mighty Galaxy S3 logged an impressive 175.7 MFLOPs.
As an unlocked GSM phone able to connect to GPRS/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900), UMTS, and HSPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100) bands and data standard, the Sony Xperia P is strictly a 3G device. With it operating on AT&T's GSM network in New York, I measured an average download speed of 1.43Mbps. Uploads were even lower, with throughput limited to an average of 0.56 Mbps.
In New York and linked to AT&T's voice network, call quality on the Xperia P was mixed. Callers reported my voice to be clear except for an annoying background hiss. I on the other hand enjoyed clear audio through the earpiece, though bear in mind that callers were dialing from landline. Sound in the Xperia P's earpiece wasn't very loud, even with the volume turned all the way up. The same goes for the speakerphone, though people on the other end said quality was on par with the earpiece.
Sony claims the Xperia P will provide a talk time of up to 6 hours. In anecdotal testing, the phone was able to play an HD video file continuously for 4 hours and 46 minutes before shutting down. That's much shorter than the run time of the Xperia S, which lasted for 6 hours and 51 minutes performing the same task.
You have to admit the Sony Xperia P is a gorgeous smartphone. Flaunting a stunning design crafted from premium materials, it's a mobile device that has good looks to die for. Unfortunately its major weakness is an underpowered processor, which has serious repercussions. It doesn't have enough speed to run its aging Android 2.3 Gingerbread software, let alone Ice Cream Sandwich as its higher-end sibling, the Xperia S, can do. Frankly I wish Sony had spent as much effort on dropping a robust CPU into the phone as it did on its exterior. The Xperia P's uninspiring camera does pack a lot of features but doesn't match the quality of competing devices, such as the HTC One X or even Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Its $479.99 unlocked price is high, but not as steep as the Xperia S' at $559.99, however. I know the Xperia S has a higher rating since it lasts longer and comes with a slightly better processor, but honestly both phones are sluggish. If it came down to a choice between the two, I'd pick the less expensive Xperia P on style points alone, not to mention ease of use. Of course my current unlocked phone of choice remains the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, hopefully running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, which is just fast enough for me to forgive its 5-megapixel camera.