The Sony Xperia SP was an interesting handset to review. The only really fantastic Xperia I have picked up recently is the Xperia Z: that groundbreaking superphone that brought the magic back to Sony. When I started living with the Xperia SP, I thought I'd be disappointed: turns out I couldn't have been more wrong.
What Is It?
In short, it's the Xperia Z for the rest of us.
The Sony Xperia SP is powered by a dual-core 1.7GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and features a 4.6-inch 1280x720 (319 ppi) screen, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, a 2370mAh battery, 4G antenna, 8-megapixel camera and 8GB of internal storage.
Compare that to the flagship Sony Xperia Z and you find that the SP's processor has less cores but a faster clock speed, half the RAM, half the storage and a lower resolution screen.
Specs-wise, the Xperia SP is half as good, but twice as exciting.
One of our greatest complaints with Xperia handsets previous to the Z and the SP has been the fact that Sony loads a phone with brilliant hardware before handing it off to the folks in the software department to ruin it. That's always been a huge shame: look at the Sony Xperia TX (better known as the Bond Phone) as an example.
That's not the case with the Xperia Z, nor is it with the Xperia SP.
The Xperia SP runs pretty much the same Android UI as the Z, which means it's fast, light, beautiful and gets out of your way as much as possible. It doesn't slow down the experience of using Android, while helping to tie Sony's features in nicely.
The Xperia SP isn't the world's most special phone to look at, but one feature that really stands out is a transparent strip at the base of the handset. Intriguingly, that's where the LED notification light lives. It's an idea nicked from an earlier Xperia and perfected for the SP. It has different gradients of red to white when it recharges and different apps light up different colours on the strip. Facebook lights up blue, for example. It's a great take on an old trick.
Furthermore, the Xperia SP's specs mean that it's fast. There's no menu lag and it's the fastest-booting Sony we think we've ever seen. More than that, though, the SP blitzes GeekBench 2 benchmarking tests, clocking in with a score of 2117. To put that in perspective, it's faster than a Galaxy Note II and it just edges out the LG Nexus 4. Interestingly, it scored two points higher than the Nexus and just two points lower than the Xperia Z. Weird. Just goes to show that the amount of cores you have in your device really makes no difference whatsoever.
Finally, it's really nice to see Sony sticking with the Stamina Mode battery tweaks that let your phone last longer on standby. When Stamina Mode is active, components like the 4G antenna, data services, push notifications and background-GPS all fade away so your battery can last longer. You can make exceptions to these rules in the menu, but either way, it's saving you precious power.
This thing is heavy. Like Nokia Lumia 920-heavy. It's not unwieldy, but like the Lumia you pick it up and slide it into your pocket and wonder where all that weight is actually coming from. There are worse things on the SP, but that's the most immediate.
Stamina Mode technology aside, the battery leaves a bit to be desired. We had it on heavy use and struggled to get a full day out of it. Stamina Mode supposedly doubles the standby time, but once you unlock the device and actually start using it, you notice your juice drain away fast.
Meanwhile, the SP is packing an integrated battery for some reason, so that when your power does eventually pack it in, you need to find a charger instead of just pulling an additional battery out of your bag. That's just needlessly frustrating.
The camera is also rubbish, especially in low-light. Images are noisy, out of focus and look awful on the screen. Never mind about blowing them up. You should only use the camera on the SP as a primary shooter if a reclamation destroys all the other dedicated point-and-shoots in the world.
The worst thing about the camera on the SP is that it feels like it has been needlessly nerfed to make the Z look better. It's slow to find a focal point, slow to boot and slow to take the first shot. It's a fast phone: it just shouldn't take that long.
Also, for a mid-range phone, it's kind of expensive. The only reason you're really going to buy the SP is if your carrier doesn't support the Xperia Z. Seeing as how that's most of them, this excellent 4.6-inch clone probably won't get a look in a lot of the time.
The Best Part
The best part of the Xperia SP is nothing to do with the physical handset and more to do with Sony. When we saw the amazing Xperia Z, we thought we'd seen the first and last great Sony smartphone for the decade. "They couldn't repeat that, could they?" we thought. We were wrong, and I have never been happier to be so.
The magic is well and truly back at Sony if this is the way forward: fast, well-specced handsets that have interesting designs and don't suffer in the software department. If that's the future of Sony, sign me up.
Should You Buy It?
If you're desperate for the Xperia Z but your carrier doesn't support it, that's ok: the Xperia SP is here to fill the Z-shaped hole in your heart. The only differences you'll notice are in the spec sheets and in the design, but as we said, the Xperia SP is easier to hold, so that trade-off doesn't really fuss us.