The Xperia SP has a 4.6-inch TFT LCD touchscreen with HD resolution (1280 x 720 pixels). It runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro system-on-chip (MSM8960T), which houses a 1.7 GHz dual-core Krait processor and an Adreno 320 GPU, with 1 GB of RAM backing it up. The operating system is Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean with Sony's in-house user interface added on top.
The phone comes with 8 GB of onboard storage, 2 GB of which are reserved for the system, and can be upped to 32 GB with a microSD card. It has the full gamut of wireless connectivity: 4G LTE (100 MB/s), NFC, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS (A-GPS), even GLONASS. The rear camera has 8 Megapixels and films in Full HD 1080p at 30 frames per second.
DESIGN & HANDLING
The Xperia SP's sober, minimalist frame betrays its family resemblance to the Xperia line. One welcome aspect about the shell is that the contour is made of aluminium, a classy touch for a middle range phone. The perfectly positioned ON/OFF button along the side is also aluminium and identical to the ones found on the Xperia Z, Z1 and Z Ultra. The SP has relatively standard measurements for a phone with a screen this size (130.6 x 67.1 x 10 mm), but it's surprisingly heavy (155 grams), much more so than competing mobiles. But it's easy to get used to. Besides, the rubbery, soft-touch plastic back meshes well with the rest.
But the thing that stands out most about the SP is the illuminated band on the bottom. Sony judiciously resuscitated the famed coloured strip from 2012's NXT series (Xperia S, P and U). At first look it may seem like an aesthetic gimmick, and that may be true when it changes colours to match the ones onscreen, but it takes on a whole pragmatic purpose when it comes to notifications. Not only is the band difficult to miss, but you can customise it however you want and choose a different colour to denote different notifications, such as missed calls, incoming texts, social network updates, etc. And if you don't like it, you can always turn the light off.
The best thing about the Xperia SP is hard to miss—the screen. First of all, it's HD, which is pretty rare for a mid-range phone from a major brand. 1280 x 720 pixels on a 4.6-inch screen makes for a respectable pixel density of 319 dots per inch. It's odd that this mid-range smartphone has such a good screen, when all in all we were disappointed with the pricier Xperia Z's display. Our measurements only confirmed our initial impressions, showing a Delta E of 3.3, an excellent figure for an LCD screen like this that means that the colours are very close to being perfectly faithful. The brightness is also an excellent 438 cd/m². The only drawbacks to this screen are the middling contrast ratio of 644:1 and the narrow viewing angles.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
Like all the big-name brands that make Android phones, Sony doesn't let a single smartphone leave the factory without its in-house software overlay tacked on top of Google's OS. But Sony's overlay is less intrusive than most. It doesn't denature Jelly Bean too much, and even relies on the same principle: a menu for all your apps and home screens for shortcuts, widgets and folders. Sony even decided to follow Google's guidelines by having no physical buttons on the façade. Instead, there are the three virtual touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the screen that Xperia users already know well.
Some of the customisation options Sony included are a configurable lock screen, the ability to sort apps in the menu, a number of homebrewed widgets and several micro-apps. To bring up the micro-apps (calculator, dictaphone, web browser, etc.), you press the recently opened apps button, at which point you can use them as small floating windows, as shown below. The list is far from exhaustive and you can download new ones from Google Play or turn some of your widgets into micro-apps.
When it comes to responsiveness, the Xperia SP is evidence that Sony has gained mastery over Qualcomm's dual-core architectures. The Snapdragon Pro runs at the best of its abilities on this phone. The SP runs flawlessly, without a hint of latency. The phone is fluid and responsive. Of course, you can't expect supersonic navigation through the menus or when opening apps, but it's more than acceptable, if not admirable, for this price.
As for multimedia performance, we weren't expecting any miracles from the Xperia SP, but we were in for a pleasant surprise. First, let's get the only frustrating part out of the way: the video player. It isn't bad, per se, and it reads several of the most common file formats, but Sony keeps leaving MKV out of the mix, even on its flagship phones. But it's not the end of the world—you can still download any number of free apps from Google Play that will read it, such as MX Player.
For the audio Sony included its cherished Walkman music player. It doesn't have any new functions here, but it does its job well, all in a stylish interface. The headphone output provides a relatively clean signal with little noise, although in particularly sensitive earphones you can hear a very light hiss in the background. It has some difficulty reproducing the stereo image, and some sources sound approximate at times. The built-in speaker is more mediocre. It's fine for phone calls, but that's it. This is not a phone for hardcore audiophiles, but most users should be happy with it.
When it comes to running 3D video games, the Xperia SP isn't that far from most high-end smartphones. Games like Asphalt 8, Riptide 2 and Need For Speed: Most Wanted run surprisingly well.
On paper, the camera, which sports an Exmor RS image sensor, looks great. Not only does it boast 8 Megapixels, but Sony says it takes better pictures in low light. But there can be quite a difference between theory and practice, and the Xperia SP is proof. As is often the case, pictures turn out fine in good lighting. You can see a hint of blue overtones, and there are definitely smartphones out there that get more detail out of their 8-Megapixel sensors with less noise and less graininess... But all in all the picture is perfectly acceptable. In low lighting, however, the quality takes a serious hit.
Fortunately, videos turn out a bit better. You can film in 1080p Full HD resolution at 30 frames per second, with nice fluidity and good detail. There's an HDR mode that doesn't always work that well, but it's still an advantage on a phone this price.
To measure the Xperia SP's battery life, we performed our own tests and ran Battery BenchMark to give us some raw readings. The benchmark confirmed our initial (excellent) impressions, as it took the app 15 hours to wear the battery out. That basically means two full days of ordinary use, which puts the SP in the upper average for Android phone batteries.
It holds out for nearly 7½ hours of constant movie-watching and 6 hours and 20 minutes of web browsing. But the biggest shocker is the 3G talk time, which can last 20 hours. If you do more talking on your phone than anything else, then you're looking at a champion.