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Sony Xperia P (unlocked) review: Sony Xperia P (unlocked)

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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.

Sony Xperia P
The 8MP main camera offers a number of scene modes, including multiple panorama functions. Sarah Tew/CNET

Still-life shots were soft with muted colors. Brian Bennett/CNET

Under low light, color noise and artifacts were visible. Brian Bennett/CNET

Outdoors colors improved, but details remained flat. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

Data speeds on the Xperia P were strictly 3G. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

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