Sony Xperia M2
10th Jun 2014 | 15:21
A mid-range classic in the making, or a phone at the wrong price point?
Given the critical acclaim that the newly launched Sony Xperia Z2 has received, it is vital that Sony follows up with equally impressive mid range handsets if it is to compete with Apple and Samsung. Enter the Sony Xperia M2.
Not too long ago it seemed that Sony might have been out of the mobile running. Shoot forward to 2014 and Sony has established itself at the top, although the Japanese firm has yet to firmly prove itself with a truly decent midrange handset. Could things be about to change with the Xperia M2?
At first glance the Xperia M2 seems like a respectable proposition; a quad-core processor, 8MP camera and 4G LTE support, wrapped in a chassis that looks oddly familiar all for £230 (about $385, AU$415) or free on two year contracts starting at around £13 per month.
This means that the Sony handset has a tough fight on its hands, facing off against the newly relaunched 4G Moto G, as well as the Samsung Galaxy Ace 3, EE Kestrel and the OnePlus One, all of which come in with a similarly low price tag.
The competition is fierce then, but with the same Sony Omnibalance design aesthetics that has graced its recent flagships the Xperia M2 certainly stands out. This could really help the M2 succeed where the Xperia SP failed.
Sony could be criticised for its almost minimalist approach, but I have grown fond of the more industrial design nature that accompanies Sony handsets.
The large 4.8-inch screen dominates proceedings, packed with 540 x 960 pixels. This seems a little disappointing as the 229ppi pixel desnity is by no means razor sharp, although I never found the lack of pixels to be too much of a sticking point.
It should be noted though that the 4.5-inch Moto G comes in with a HD 720 x 1280 screen, so would be a better choice for those intent on watching a lot of movies or for heavy mobile gamers.
Back to the design I feel that the language of the Xperia M2 is far more reminiscent of the original Xperia Z flagship, albeit one fashioned out of plastic rather than glass and metal.
The plastic construction helps to keep the weight of the 139.7 x 71.1 x 8.6mm frame down to only 148g, although the M2 still has a reassuring heft behind it.
Over the course of my time with the Sony Xperia M2 though, I found that the shiny plastic back was extremely prone to fingerprints and it wasn't long before minor scratches became noticeable.
Along the base of the M2 you'll find the external speaker in the same place as on the Xperia Z. Those with a good memory will remember that this was a bit of a problem for the Z, especially when watching movies.
Although Sony has taken note of this and corrected it on the Xperia Z2, the problem persists here. Being seated at the bottom means that holding the M2 in landscape for movie watching causes the sound to feel distorted coming in just one ear.
While in portrait for gaming I found that my thumb was covering the speaker giving a heavily muffled sound.
Elsewhere the Sony design is evident with the large power/lock key sat in the middle of the right side of the Xperia M2, with the microSIM and microSD slots hidden at the top end behind a small plastic cover. The volume rocker and dedicated camera button sit towards the bottom.
Hiding the SIM and SD slot might appear to be a hint that the Xperia M2 has taken notes from its bigger brother in terms of water and dust resistance, although this isn't the case. I found this very disappointing, as it would certainly have given the M2 an edge over its nearest rivals.
On the other side of the handset is an uncovered microUSB port leaving the headphone port to sit along the top.
Interestingly there is a notification light that shows up just to the left of the speaker. This illuminates while the M2 is on charge, as well as when you have a text message. However I found that it only lit up once rather than repetitively and is so small it's almost unnoticeable.
At the base of the screen is another light, very discretely hidden. This light seems even more pointless as the only time I saw it light up was when a call was coming in, and given that the M2 spent most of its time in my pocket it wasn't seen.
Packed behind the screen is a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor backed up with 1GB RAM and 8GB of internal storage.
Despite the microSD support I was disappointed to find that only 5GB of the internal space was accessible. A 2300mAh battery is also included to power the M2.
An 8MP camera has been fitted to the back, carrying the same app features that can be found on the Xperia Z range. Round the front is a far more modest VGA camera for those desperate to take a self-portrait.
On paper the Sony Xperia M2 paints an interesting picture for itself, but the specs can only ever paint half the picture. Can the M2 live up to these high expectations?
Unsurprisingly Sony is marketing the Xperia M2 as a cut-down version of its Xperia Z2 flagship, retaining all the key features but at a much more acceptable price tag.
The big talking point I have found with Sony Xperia cameras is the app itself. Sony has clearly given the camera a lot of attention, making it a much nicer and more complete app than that offered by its Samsung rivals.
This is about where the compliments stop though, as I found that the images captured by the 8MP sensor weren't anywhere near as crisp as I expected.
On the surface they look clear and crisp, but any amount of zooming in highlights some pixilation and noise that I wouldn't expect from such a sensor.
Sony is also keen to talk about the 4.8-inch qHD screen, highlighting not only the inclusion of Sony's TV expertise but also the size. It seems odd that Sony would call 4.8 inches the perfect size for entertainment given that the more expensive flagship is actually 5.2 inches.
I agree with Sony on the size though. For those that are finding the rise of phablets to be a little daunting the 4.8-inch screen is perfectly sized. You are able to hit the entire screen one handed with relative ease while also making the M2 the right size to sit in your pocket.
As for the resolution, I am a little more sceptical. Given that Motorola has been able to pack in a HD screen for the same price tag I was a little disheartened. The lack of pixels became a little more apparent while texting, as the text felt a little fuzzy throughout, with movie watching also slightly hampered.
That said viewing angles are certainly impressive.
Finally Sony is also keen to point out the inclusion of Qualcommm's Snapdragon 400 SoC, with its quad-core CPU clocked at 1.2GHz.
I found this meant that the Sony Xperia M2 ran very smoothly throughout. When swiping between home screens or gaming I never felt the Xperia M2 was struggling.
Given that this is the same CPU that sits behind the EE Kestrel, a handset that I found to be a little sluggish at times, I was impressed by the work that Sony has put into ensuring the M2 was smooth throughout.
Interface and performance
When it comes to choosing an Android phone, the interface can prove to be as important as the specs. First and foremost is the version of Android, currently Android 4.3 Jelly Bean on the Sony Xperia M2, although an update to KitKat is thankfully on the cards.
Sony's UI doesn't come with any particular name, where Samsung has TouchWiz, HTC has Sense and Huawei has Emotion UI, it's something that Sony might want to look at.
It's hardly important, but makes it easier to talk about to friends. I'm voting for Sony Superawesome UI.
That's because the Sony UI is a highly polished interface, one that doesn't feel overbearing at any point, being far subtle in its implementation than Sense and TouchWiz. This allows the Android OS to shine through.
Moving around the Sony Xperia M2 was easy, unsurprisingly not as fast as the higher end flagships but at no point did I feel that I was left waiting.
From the notifications bar, with its minimalist approach to the quick power toggles, to the app drawer and its menu located to the far left, it's clear that Sony has given the UI a lot of thought.
Themes can be applied to give the Xperia M2 a new feel, changing the background as well as the accent colours throughout the device.
Should you feel that none of the ones on the M2 are to your liking, you can always download more. I found the Spider-man one particularly tempting.
The lock screen has an interesting shutter effect as you swipe up and down, and also houses the ability to turn widgets on/off. This is something that is becoming popular among manufacturers, and while I can see the appeal it isn't something that I found myself using an awful lot.
Side swiping the top of the lock screen accesses these widgets, with a swipe right bringing up widgets and a swipe left loading up the camera.
I found this particularly confusing as the Sony Xperia M2 comes with a dedicated camera button that instantly loads the camera. This space on the lock screen could definitely have been used more efficiently.
One area that I think Samsung has gotten it right with TouchWiz is the ability to launch into a multi window view, allowing the easy copying of text between, for example, an internet browser and the SMS app. Sony has implemented a similar idea, but it feels a little less useful.
By pressing the multi-tasking Android key you're greeted at the bottom with the ability to load up floating windows. These include a browser, screen shot key and a calculator. More apps are available to download from the Google Play Store should you desire them.
The batteries that currently sit behind smartphones are always under heavy scrutiny, with the minimum expectation of a day's worth of use.
In order to make sure that this target is achieved, Sony has given the Xperia M2 a 2300mAh battery. This sits within the sealed chassis so there is no way to swap out the battery when it dies.
This shouldn't prove too much of a problem though given the availability of portable power packs.
Sony appears to have been very generous with its battery here, given that the Moto G ships with a 2070mAh battery and the EE Kestrel with only 2000mAh. The Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 lags even further behind at only 1800mAh for the LTE version.
I am pleased to report that the battery held up very well during day-to-day use. Due to the novelty of the camera app I found that I kept pulling the Xperia M2 out of my pocket to show people and snap silly photos.
The Sony Xperia M2 was also connected to rather patchy Wi-Fi signal meaning that the drain was also a little higher, yet I was able to make it through a full day of work with about 35% left.
This is backed up further by our battery tests of mobile gaming and video watching, two of the biggest battery drains.
Putting the Xperia M2 through its paces during gaming gave only a 2% drain after 10 minutes. This was tested with both the BBC's Top Gear Race the Stig game (a game based heavily on Subway Surfers or Sonic Dash), as well as running the more traditional Temple Run 2.
This is in stark comparison to the EE Kestrel. Given that the Kestrel has the same resolution screen, the same powered internals and a relatively similar battery size it was shocking to see that the Sony managed to outperform the Huawei built handset.
Even running the standard TechRadar battery test of a 90-minute HD video (run at full brightness of 320 LUX) showed some really impressive results. Where the Kestrel drained by 30% and the Moto G by 33%, the Xperia M2 lost a mere 17% battery life.
Sony helps push the battery even further with its quick toggles in the notifications bar, as well as its stamina mode found within the settings menu.
When it comes to using the Sony Xperia M2 in day-to-day use, there are certain things that you just want to know work properly.
Like many I have found that the phone function of smartphones now seems to have taken a back seat, meaning that I consider the keyboard to be one of the most important features. It runs throughout the entire phone being used in every single app that requires even the most basic of text input.
This is one area that Sony really excels in, with one of the best pre-installed keyboards that I have come across.
Turning the device on from the beginning and firing up the keyboard immediately gives decent results, although take a second to hit the little magic wand key and you'll be presented with the ability to personalise how you want the keyboard to operate.
Of all the options my favourite is the ability to long press to get symbols up, as it makes typing a lot faster and a lot easier.
You can also personalise your corrections by connecting the Xperia keyboard to your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts so it can learn your writing style. Swype style messaging is also supported.
This keyboard is likely to be used most prominently within the SMS and email apps, the latter of which is handled ably by both the Gmail app and a native email app. Both email apps come well stocked with every feature that you can expect, providing nothing extra of note.
The SMS app is slightly different though. I'm a big fan of the SMS app as it makes the most of your contact's pictures, putting them beside the messages. This makes the app very visually appealing and is a big step up over the stock offering.
Of course the Xperia M2 still doubles up as a more traditional phone. The main things to make the phone a success are call quality, signal holding and contact integration.
The former was very good; I was able to hear what was being said and vice versa.
The nifty feature of being able to text or recall a contact after hanging up if you've forgotten something if unfortunately not present here, but there is nothing that ultimately lets the M2 down.
Signal holding was also equally impressive, picking up signal in every area that it was expected although still suffered from the same network black spots that I am used to.
In terms of contact integration I was also pleased with Sony's efforts. Smart dialling is available through the phone app, the main way that Sony wants you to locate contacts. To access the contacts app you have to navigate to the app drawer.
Here you're presented with a list of contacts in much the same way as HTC Sense, with the same alphabet on the right as found on TouchWiz. Integration with social media is handled well, pulling in contacts from WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter and combining them well, although I feel HTC handles this slightly better.
The other major area that needs to be looked at while checking out a modern smartphone is the browser. This is an area where I must applaud Sony as the Japanese firm offers only one app; Google Chrome.
This not only makes the most of the 4G speeds, but also doesn't suffer thanks to the quad-core CPU underneath making sure that even the TechRadar site fully loaded in 6 seconds, having been visible after only 3.
In all the Xperia M2 handles everything that you would expect from a smartphone very well, not leaving you wanting for something any more powerful.
The camera app is one that Sony has given a lot of attention, perhaps because of the massive sensors that are packed into the high-end Xperia flagship devices like the Xperia Z2.
When it comes to camera apps Sony's is one of, if not the best, app currently sitting on a smartphone. Samsung has undoubtedly put a lot of effort into its camera app, but Sony trumps it here thanks to a variety of impressive features.
The auto mode focuses fast, easily recognising the level of focus needed for each particular shot. This means that for general day-to-day snapping you won't have to fiddle throughout the various settings menus, although that option is there for those that want to take a little more control.
Unfortunately I can see those that will want to take a little more control opting for a different camera phone.
Selecting a different mode from the button in the bottom right gives the option to select a few different apps. These include the Social Live app, Timeshift Burst, AR effect, Picture effect, Sweep Panorama and Portrait retouch. You can even add more apps from the Sony Select store by tapping the plus icon.
Of these, Social Live is perhaps the most interesting although the one that I see being used the least. It allows you to broadcast live video on Facebook, holding a live web chat that allows interaction with your friends.
Timeshift Burst is far more useful. This allows you to swipe through a whole raft of photos taken when you've only snapped the button just once. The Xperia M2 starts to record photos before you hit the shutter allowing you to go through and choose the one that is most in focus, helping to negate effects of motion blur.
AR and Picture effects are less useful although more fun and will certainly appeal to a younger audience. That's not to say an older audience won't enjoy them though, with Sony phones fast becoming known as the dinosaur amongst friends thanks to the dinosaur AR mode.
The Xperia M2 layers different scenes or image effects over your images, with the picture effects being the ones that are likely to populate Instagram or Facebook. Portrait retouch is also there to help produce better selfies, although the real time effects it produced were less than negligible.
This could possibly be attributed to the poor camera that has been placed on the front of the Xperia M2. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but a VGA camera just won't cut it in the modern smartphone market, especially amongst younger users that have taken to Snapchat as a primary means of communication.
Things are a little better round the back, with the 8MP sensor dwarfing the aforementioned 5MP sensors on the current competition.
Motorola, Samsung and Huawei can breathe a little easier though as the photo quality of the Xperia M2 is nothing short of abysmal.
For those that have read the Xperia Z Ultra review, this shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Despite its 8 million pixels, the Xperia M2 only operates well in perfect lighting conditions. Taking the M2 into a small walled garden in overcast conditions really left the camera struggling.
Given Sony's impressive background in media, Betamax aside, it should be no surprise that the Sony Xperia M2 has a rich media centre built into it.
Before I move onto the apps that Sony has provided, I feel it's important to quickly point out the hardware on offer here, the first of which is that 4.8-inch screen that dominates the front of the Xperia M2.
As I have mentioned a few times, the screen delivers a decent performance but is by no means the best screen on the market. The Moto G comes packed with a 720p screen that easily bests the Xperia M2 thanks to a much higher resolution.
Secondly is the position of the speaker. This is something that I commented on earlier as it suffers from the exact same problems that beset the original Sony Xperia Z.
With the Xperia M2 sat on the side blasting out audio it isn't a problem, but fire up a movie and with all the sound reaching one ear it is very off putting.
Hold the handset in portrait to play a few games and the L shape I make with my thumb and index finger to support the M2 perfectly cover up the speaker.
Playback through the external speaker also offered a few problems, suffering quite badly from a lack of bass. ClearAudio+, located behind a settings menu, helped a little to solve the problem and I was a little surprised to find that it wasn't turned on by default.
Looking at the apps and it's a different story. Just like the camera app, Sony has clearly given the media apps a lot of thought. They are, again like the camera, perhaps the best native apps found on a smartphone.
Within the Walkman app there is a rather obvious push towards Sony's own media services, the Music Unlimited app coming built in rather than operating as a standalone app.
This might prove a little annoying to users that just want to be able to fire up the app and select their music but I didn't find it too intrusive.
A small icon in the lower right of the tile denotes the Music Unlimited services. For those that really don't want to see them, a quick look in the settings menu allows you to hide these tiles.
DLNA streaming is also available, allowing you to "throw" media to an enabled device such as a smart TV.
The movies app has also had a decent look although there is a lot less emphasis on Sony's Video Unlimited app, something that baffled me a little bit.
One of the greatest features of the app is that it plays a small snippet of the last video that you were watching. It's only a small touch but the movement makes the app feel a lot more interactive and alive. Sound settings can also be toggled.
For gaming, the majority of games can be downloaded from the Google Play Store. Sony is keen to push the PlayStation connection thanks to a PlayStation mobile store, although strangely I found that there wasn't a single app or game on the store. Hopefully this is just a glitch with the review handset rather than the store as a whole.
The PlayStation store connection is also furthered with the ability to connect a DualShock 3 controller, the same one found on the PlayStation 3, in order to get a better mobile gaming experience.
This isn't something I see being used a lot, although could really take off given a decent variety of apps and TVs to connect to.
Moto G 4G
In terms of high-end yet affordable handsets there has been one stand out in recent times, the Motorola Moto G. To take it one step further the newly purchased mobile manufacturer has recently added a 4G version that comes complete with a microSD slot.
Inside the Motorola handset is another Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SoC meaning the same quad-core 1.2GHz CPU and Adreno 305 GPU to keep everything running smoothly. It also comes with a pure Android KitKat experience, with the Xperia M2 currently sitting on Jelly Bean.
Motorola's handset also has the Sony beaten hands down on the screen, packing in a HD 720p screen with a pixel density of 326ppi. In terms of specs the camera is a little worse off in the Moto though, coming only with a 5MP rear sensor although the forward facing snapper does come with 1.3MP rather than the VGA resolution of the Sony.
In a final battle the Sony wins hands down with a battery test, outperforming the Motorola. Where the Motorola recorded an average 33% drop the Sony achieved a mere 17%.
Perhaps one of Sony's biggest rivals in the UK is the EE Kestrel. Contract prices are remarkably similar, although PAYG and SIM-free prices differ quite considerably with the Sony coming in about twice the price.
This makes the Huawei built Kestrel a much better alternative for those after a cheap second or festival phone, as well as a more ideal handset choice for a much younger audience.
Internally there is little difference between the Kestrel and the Sony Xperia M2; both come with a quad-core CPU clocked at 1.2GHz, both have a 540 x 960 qHD screen and both run Android 4.3 Jelly Bean.
That said, the lower cost means a smaller 5MP camera, a lower build quality and smaller battery that drained 3 times faster than the Sony while mobile gaming.
Samsung Galaxy Ace 3
Despite the fact that the Galaxy Ace 3 is now almost a year old, it is currently on sale at a very similar price tag to the Sony Xperia M2.
Like the other two comparison handsets the Galaxy Ace 3 comes packing 4G LTE technology inside, although with less overall power. Samsung's offering comes packing a dual-core rather than quad-core CPU although is also clocked at 1.2GHz, but does come with the same Adreno 305 GPU.
Elsewhere is a smaller 5MP camera, lower res 480 x 800 4-inch screen with a density of 233ppi and Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. There have been hints that the Galaxy Ace 3 will get KitKat, although that is looking unlikely.
The smaller screen does mean that the Ace 3 is much smaller than the other handsets here, as well as coming in a lot lighter at only 119.5g.
Given the critical success of Sony's Xperia Z2 flagship it is vital that the Japanese mobile firm maintains momentum with a strong showing in the mid range market, exactly where the Xperia M2 rolls up.
The design of any phone will always be entirely subjective but I am a big fan of the way Sony has taken its flagship Omnibalance design and carried that down to the cheaper end. The curved sides make the Xperia M2 easy to hold, and the plastic chassis felt fitting of the lower price tag.
The battery was also really impressive. It could be a mixture of a bigger battery and lower screen resolution but to beat the Moto G by almost double in the standard battery test is outstanding.
Gaming tests also showed a minor drop. I'd feel very confident that I'd not miss a thing due to dead batteries with the M2 in my pocket.
Finally comes a shout to Sony's UI, complete with the impressive camera and media apps. Each manufacturer puts its own stamp on Android, with Sense and TouchWiz both being impressive in their own rights but Sony's UI feels very polished. Its minimalist approach will appeal to many, feeling far subtler than others. All it needs now is a catchy name.
One of my biggest fears with the Sony Xperia M2 is just how easy it seemed to scratch the back of the handset. Despite not being thrown around, with just the one drop off the arm of the sofa onto a carpeted floor and being kept in my pocket, a number or minor scratches have appeared. It's by no means a deal breaker but a brand new phone shouldn't be this scuffed.
The speaker should also get a look at. Sony did so well to move the base mounted speaker on its Xperia Z2 handset but it hasn't changed this design flaw on the Xperia M2. It makes watching movies feel very disjointed and when holding the M2 in portrait I found that I was all too often covering it up.
Finally is the camera. I heaped a lot of praise on the app itself because Sony has clearly taken a lot of time and given a lot of thought to it. However, the sensor behind it doesn't back it up. This is a real shame as it is a complete let down to the phone. The front facing sensor is also a massive let down; VGA just doesn't cut it anymore.
Sony has launched its Xperia M2 handset into a very crowded market, one populated with ageing flagships and some already impressive new handsets. Can it build upon the success that the Xperia Z2 has brought though?
In short, yes, but that is the really short answer. I can't help but feel that Sony's impressive flagship offering sets a very high standard, and will leave consumers expecting a little more from Sony's midrange offering.
Strong competition from the cheaper EE Kestrel in the UK and the slightly better equipped Moto G will leave many looking elsewhere but Sony has given the Xperia M2 more than enough to warrant a second look, especially if you're going to be signing up to a two year contract.