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Sony Xperia U review: Sony Xperia U

The Android-powered Sony Xperia U is cheap, cheerful, cute as a button and -- provided you're not too demanding of it -- fleet of foot.

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Natasha Lomas
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Natasha Lomas

Mobile Phones Editor, CNET UK

Natasha Lomas is the Mobile Phones Editor for CNET UK, where she writes reviews, news and features. Previously she was Senior Reporter at Silicon.com, covering mobile technology in the business sphere. She's been covering tech online since 2005.

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8 min read

The Sony Xperia U is a petite, budget Android blower that packs a dual-core chip into a dainty, pocket-sized format. It boasts a strip of coloured lights that pulse and change as you swipe around. It's an eye-catching feature although jazzy mood lighting won't be to everyone's taste.

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8.3

Sony Xperia U

The Good

Dual-core power in a pocket-friendly package; Snazzy coloured mood lights.

The Bad

Not everyone will dig the mood lighting; No microSD card slot.

The Bottom Line

The Android-powered Sony Xperia U is cheap, cheerful, cute as a button and -- provided you're not too demanding of it -- fleet of foot. Large-handed folk may find it fiddly though.

Another colourful flourish is the U's swappable end caps. These let you personalise the look of the phone, turning a monotone blower into a snazzy two-toner, should you so desire.

With a SIM-free price in the region of £200 -- or on monthly contracts from as low as £10 a month -- this mid-range 'droid could be as light on your wallet as it is in your palm.

Sony Xperia U
The Xperia U is a pocket-sized blower powered by Google's Android operating system that hopes to light up your life.

Should I buy the Sony Xperia U?

You'll either love or hate the Xperia U's coloured mood lights. If you're a hater of this sort of peacocking, you might prefer the more conventional looks of the Samsung Galaxy Ace Plus instead. But if you're a magpie type attracted to bright shiny stuff, you'll dig the U's chameleon tendencies.

It's a small phone so large-handed folk should steer clear. The screen size is 3.5 inches on the diagonal, which is the same as the Apple iPhone 4S. However, the U's display is lots narrower so it's considerably more cramped. Typing can be very fiddly and desktop versions of websites feel very hemmed in.

If you're happy with a petite phone, the U has enough power to handle most everyday mobile tasks. It's not an Android powerhouse like its more premium sibling, the Xperia S. But its 1GHz dual-core chip is no slouch either. Indeed, it's the same as the engine inside its other more expensive stablemate, the Xperia P, but as it's paired with a smaller screen, there are fewer pixels to throw around.

Other mid-range Androids to consider at this price include the stylish but slightly sluggish HTC One V and the powerful but bloatware-stuffed Orange San Diego. Or there's Samsung's unflashy Galaxy Ace Plus.

Design and build quality

The stand-out design feature of the Xperia U is the transparent strip near the base, which pulses with different coloured lights depending on what you're looking at on screen. Shades are selected to match the hues of photos from the gallery or the album art of the music you're listening to. So if you're viewing a snap of one of London's iconic red buses, expect the lights to blush a deep co-ordinated rouge.

Sony Xperia U coloured strip
The glowing strip changes colour depending on what you're looking at or listening to.

Some people will find the U's festive mood lights tacky. Others will be mesmerised by their joyous, jewel-like colours. You decide where you fit on this colour spectrum. Just don't expect to be able to turn the mood lights off -- there's no settings for them. So bad luck cinemagoers trying to surreptitiously use your phone during a film.

The Xperia U's swappable plastic pants can add another splash of colour to the bottom of your black (or white) handset -- if mood lighting isn't quirky enough for you. The bottom cap isn't always easy to pop off but at least that means the phone's trunks shouldn't fall down of their own accord.

Like its big brother, the Xperia S, the U is entirely sheathed in plastic. I found its matte plastic back quite slippery to the touch. The phone's dinky dimensions do mean you can easily wrap your mitts around it though, so only real butterfingers should have to worry about dropping it.

Sony Xperia U cap
Slip your Xperia U into this fetching little yellow number or choose from a range of colours.

Being small, the U is relatively lightweight although it does have more heft (110g) than you might expect for a phone of this diddy size. And while it's not the thinnest phone in smart phone town, it doesn't look or feel too chunky.

Build quality is not super-premium -- it's more plasticky than classy. Squeeze the U around the middle and it will creak. But since you can remove the backplate to get at the battery, that's not a huge surprise.

If you're keen on the white model, be aware the plastic easily picks up dirt so it quickly starts looking grubby.

Also on board are Sony's xLoud and 3D surround sound technologies. The phone's rear speaker can pump out noise fairly loudly but audio quality isn't as rich as the Xperia P or S. To my ear it had a distinctly flat and tinny quality.

Internal memory is 8GB but only 4GB of that is up for grabs to house your photos and apps. There's no microSD card slot for expanding the U's digital shelves so if you want to load on lots of video and music, you'd be better off with a phone with more roomy storage.

Ports wise, there's a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge and a micro-USB port on the left side for charging and getting your snaps off the phone. Crack off the back of the phone and you'll find a SIM slot in the side and, above that, a removable battery.

The Xperia U has three physical keys housed along its right-hand edge -- the power key, a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button. The latter is a nice addition on a phone of this price.

I found all these keys a little low lying and spongy, especially the camera key. You have to squeeze pretty hard to fire off a shot.

Sony Xperia U back
The Xperia U is neither skeletally thin nor too chubby -- it's a 'perfect 10'.

Screen

The Xperia U's TFT screen is definitely one of the areas where Sony has shaved a few yen off build costs. Push down hard and the glass will flex to touch the surface of the display, producing an oily sheen and discoloured patches of pixels. This sort of flex is unsightly but it's also typical of cheaper phone screens.

The U's display is 3.5-inches on the diagonal -- the same as Apple's iPhone 4S. However, the U's panel is narrower than the iPhone screen and it definitely feels much more cramped for typing. There's also not enough space to properly enjoy browsing full desktop versions of websites, making it best suited to eyeballing apps and mobile sites.

The touchscreen panel itself is nice and responsive -- so too are the three touch keys sited along the bottom edge of the screen (just above the clear strip). These are the back, home and menu keys.

Screen resolution is 480x854 pixels, which equates to a pixel-per-inch count of 280. This is a pretty decent amount of tiny squares for a budget phone. You certainly won't be embarrassed about showing off your photos on the screen, or eyeballing short video clips.

Sony has added its Mobile Bravia TV technology to the Xperia U. Colours aren't hyper-vibrant but their slightly muted tones come across as more realistic than the over-saturated displays you get on some smart phones. The display can look slightly murky at half brightness and only really comes alive with the dial turned up to 11.

Sony Xperia U screen
There's Sony's Bravia TV technology in the Xperia U's display -- colours are sumptuous without being eye popping.

Camera

On the back of the U is its 5-megapixel camera, which is a fairly typical amount of pixels for this price. You get a single LED flash and a front-facing camera for making video calls -- also nice to see.

Results from the rear camera aren't bad for a budget blower, although like its two siblings, the U suffers from a tendency to speckle shots with noisy grain, especially if you're snapping in less than super-bright light.

Sony Xperia U camera test
In the depth of field test, the Xperia U chalks up a good-looking shot (click image to enlarge).

Brighter colours can appear with a hazy halo and lens flare can be an issue. But as a basic snapper for firing out Facebook-friendly snaps, the Xperia U is fine.

Sony Xperia U camera test
The bright flowers look detailed but the Xperia U's lens struggles not to be dazzled by the bright white wall (click image to enlarge).

The phone can record 720p HD video. Video results were less impressive, producing a chewed up look. As a quick YouTube clip creator, the U will suffice but don't expect great things from its unrefined eye.

Software and performance

The Xperia U runs Android Gingerbread, rather than the latest version of Google's OS, Ice Cream Sandwich.

It's definitely a shame Sony didn't stick ICS on from day one but the company says the U will get an update before the end of June. Hopefully it won't be too long before you can use the front camera for Face Unlock party tricks. In the meantime, you get all the goodness of Gingerbread including access to scores of apps -- many of them free -- via Google's Play store. Music and videos can also be downloaded from Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited hubs.

Sony has added its software interface on top of Gingerbread. This isn't the most slick, elegant or well-designed Android skin around. For example, the messaging and camera interfaces aren't as intuitive as they could be. But it's reasonably straightforward to use.

Sony Xperia U angled
Sadly, it doesn't run on the latest version of Android, put we're promised an update soon.

Sony has included a Swype-style interface so you don't have to tap out individual letters on the keyboard, but instead drag your finger over letters to form words. The only problem is Sony's take on this typically faster input system requires you to tap the space bar after you've formed a word -- rather than lifting off or going straight on to the next word -- which slows things down.

With a 1GHz dual-core chip powering a palm-sized display, the U is generally zippy and responsive. It won't handle everything with aplomb -- it's happiest with lightweight apps and mobile versions of websites. While it may not be a multi-tasking or 3D gaming powerhouse, as a lightweight device for snacking on the web, gobbling up your email and gently nibbling at apps like they're canapés, it's a trusty pocket rocket.

During testing there were a few glitchy moments, with apps not always loading or syncing properly and selection errors sometimes getting in the way of web browsing. But overall, the phone seems stable and reliable.

In benchmark tests the U produced solid mid-range results, scoring 5,328 on Antutu's test, 2,271 on Quadrant's benchmark and 888 on the Vellamo browser test. It ran GL Benchmark's standard Egypt 3D graphics test at 35 frames per second.

Sony Xperia U
Availiable storage for music and video is a meagre 4GB and there's no SD card slot to expand that.

Sony says the Xperia U's battery is good for up to 6.5 hours of talk time, 6 hours of video playback or 45 hours of music. I found it would easily last a day's moderately heavy use but you should still expect to charge it every night.

Call quality is fair although I did hear some interference during one test call. This may have been down to T-Mobile's network. The people I spoke to didn't report having any trouble hearing me.

Conclusion

For Android lovers looking for a cheap smart phone for dainty snacking on apps and mobile websites, the Xperia U is a worthy contender. It's cheap, cheerful, cute as a button and -- provided you're not too demanding of it -- fleet of foot.

The dinky screen is too small to suit every palm but small-handed folk with a love of bright, glittering lights will definitely want to pop it in their pocket.

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