Physically similar to the Xperia S, does the U have what you need to get you through the day? Is it a good daily companion for people looking for a compact smartphone, but who are less demanding than a smartphone junkie who's willing to pay exorbitant prices for the hottest new specs? Answers and more in this week's smartphone review.
The Xperia U may not have as impressive specs as the P, T or S, but they're in line with the price. It has a 3.5-inch display with 480 x 854 resolution; a 1 GHz ST-Ericsson processor; 512 MB of RAM; 8 GB of storage for photos, videos, music and apps (only 4 GB of that are user-accessible, and it's non-expandable because there's no microSD card slot) and a 1,320 mAh battery.
At the time of writing this, the Xperia U costs around £200 SIM-free.
DESIGN & HANDLING
So many smartphones these days have this sober, I-must-appeal-to-everybody look that can inspire prolonged bouts of déjà vu. The Xperia U is not one of these. Like the Xperia S, it has its own, original visual style. Now, you may like it or not, but we think Sony at least gets kudos for their efforts in creating a design that stands out from the masses.
Like the rest of the range, the Xperia U has the now-familiar see-through band just below the screen that changes colours depending on what images are being displayed onscreen. Of course, you can always turn that function off if you want something more subdued. In these photos the cap on the bottom is pink, but you can replace it with a number of other colours (black, white, etc.).
Don't let the back, home and menu icons above the see-through ring fool you, the place you're supposed to touch is right above each icon on tiny touch-sensitive dots that can be surprisingly wilful. It's common to have to try more than once to get it to recognise that you've touched one of the dots. And the opposite also happens, where it will return to the menu even though you never touched anything! Errors do occur with these icons.
The Xperia U isn't the thinnest phone out there, but it's comfortable to hold. The surface is matte, so it won't slip easily from your hand, and the slightly rounded back makes it fit nicely in your palm.
The Xperia U is definitely for people who don't want a massive phone or who would have no use for a large screen anyway. Generally speaking, the 3.5-inch display's image is respectable. The colours could be more accurate, but they aren't terrible (the Delta E is 5.4, compared to the Xperia S's 7) and the brightness goes high enough to read the screen easily even with the sun beating down on it (368 cd/m²).
We've seen better contrast (768:1). But contrast ratio aside, this display is actually slightly better than the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini's.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
Sony has added to the not-so-recent version of Android (2.3) its own software overlay. TimeScape is a somewhat scaled-back version compared to Samsung's TouchWiz and HTC Sense, but it's enjoyable to use and has some practical features that, for example, provide quick access to the functions you use most often.
When it comes to speed and overall responsiveness, you can't be overly demanding with the Xperia U. When put to the benchmark test, it gets a humble 1/5. That's lower than average, even for this price range. The low processing (CPU) and graphics (GPU) performance do not offer the U exemplary response times or any great fluidity.
It doesn't take long to realise that the phone struggles at times—it's even more noticeable if you've already owned a higher-end smartphone. Web pages don't scroll up and down very smoothly and it takes longer than usual to download apps. And multitasking doesn't help matters. An Android ICS update would certainly make the Xperia U more comfortable to use.
The only thing we'll bother mentioning about video games on this phone is that you'd might as well drop all hopes of playing big, recent games—the hardware just can't hack it.
As for the 5-Megapixel camera sensor, let's just say it's better... than not having one. It's fine for taking snapshots at parties to publish them on social networks, as long as you don't zoom too much. But the picture lacks detail (sharpness) and contains a lot of noise, and that's in good lighting. So in low lighting, forget about it.
The Galaxy S3 Mini's 5-Megapixel sensor, which we recently reviewed, came out better than this. It's just further proof that resolution isn't everything! Even when the number of pixels is the same, no two digital cameras will give the same results. The picture quality depends on what sensor you're using.
The Xperia U has a physical 'shutter release' button on the side of the phone. That's a big plus for anyone who prefers an actual button to a touch-sensitive icon to snap shots. To open the camera function, you hold down the button for a few seconds.
The video function gives mediocre images with little detail.
Web browsing: a last resort
The U's audio output gives decent sound that's faithfully reproduced and loud enough for most portable headphones. The speaker, however, delivers very mediocre quality at relatively low volume. That said, it falls within average (that's just where the industry's at right now for smartphone speakers). Like the camera interface, the audio interface has lots of options—rare for an entry-level phone.
We should point out again that the Xperia U has 8 GB of storage, with just 4 GB accessible to the user, and it's non-expandable. That's low!
The Xperia U has a small battery (1,320 mAh). For raw battery performance we use Battery Benchmark, an app that runs Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Internet, multimedia and varying levels of screen brightness to create a balanced stress test that tends to correspond to what we observe in our practical tests. In practice and in terms of raw results, the Xperia U works for 8 hours, which, based on our rating system, earns it three out of five stars.
A brief comparison: the Google Nexus 4 lasts 10 hours, the Razr i lasts 13 hours, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 lasts 15 hours, the GS3 Mini lasts 12 hours and the HTC One S lasts 11 hours.