Sony Xperia SP £349
31st May 2013 | 13:31
A mid-range marvel with a massively impressive spec list
The market for mid-level handsets is exploding, and manufacturers are hurrying to offer even more choice for those on a stricter budget, so the Xperia SP brings a mid-range price with a lot of technology borrowed from its bigger, Xperia Z, brother.
Sony has been busy since the split from Ericsson and has put out an ever-increasing number of Xperia models to try and capture customers at every conceivable price point and specs sheet. The latest is the Sony Xperia SP, a mid-level Android smartphone that sits below the flagship Xperia Z and above the budget Xperia E.
Sony is taking on lesser-known Android handsets such as the Acer Liquid E2, ZTE Blade 3 or LG Optimus G Pro with the Sony Xperia SP's £350/US$490 price point. But one look at the box is enough to tell you that the Japanese company still means business - even though this isn't the flag bearer for the Xperia line.
All of Sony's considerable tech expertise is being brought to bear on the Xperia SP. The packaging proudly bears the logos for Bravia Engine (screen), Exmor RS (camera) and PlayStation (gaming), all of which have found their way into the Sony Xperia SP's 131 x 67 x 10mm (5.14 x 2.64 x 0.39 inch) frame.
The phone itself is a step down from the 5-inch models that have dominated 2013's headlines. The 1280 x 720 pixel screen measures a pocket-friendly 4.6 inches, and the 10mm thin casing is blackened aluminium rather than the glass-slab Sony Xperia Z chassis.
Unfortunately, while other phones such as the HTC One have pushed the screen right to the edge of the case, there's still a noticeable bezel around the Sony Xperia SP's Gorilla Glass display.
Designers Jessie Zhao and Toshihide Umedan apparently started with a simple paper mockup when they began work on the Sony Xperia SP.
To us, it looks similar to last year's Sony Xperia S handset thanks in no small part to the transparent antenna running along the base of the handset.
It's functional as much as aesthetic, lighting up with notifications and incoming calls, as well as pulsating to music and getting stronger when you push up the volume.
While the curved frame is moulded aluminium, the removable back is a black speckled plastic polycarbonate that's smooth to touch and features the Xperia logo right in the centre. It's a more subdued design than the glittering back of the Google Nexus 4 and helps to give the Sony Xperia SP an air of premium quality beyond its price tag.
Our review unit came in black but there's also a choice of red or white to be had. However, the one rather obvious flaw with the build is that the back of the Sony Xperia SP does flex ever so slightly when pushed.
In keeping with Android Jelly Bean's soft key UI, there's no physical home key on the front of the Sony Xperia SP, unlike the Samsung Galaxy S4. The right-hand side of the phone is where you'll find all the physical buttons in the form of a volume rocker, power on/off switch and physical shutter button for the camera.
Forget, for a moment, the praise heaped on the camera-crafting skills of HTC or Samsung. Because the snappers that Sony has been loading onto its Xperia phones in the last couple of years have been some of the best in the market. Honestly, the Japanese company really knows its stuff when it comes to taking pictures.
The 8MP rear-facing camera on the Sony Xperia SP is understandably a few rungs below the Sony Xperia Z or the HTC One, but still manages to be an excellent substitute for an everyday compact camera. Sony uses the newly developed Exmor RS sensor to give the Sony Xperia SP some kick, and there's also a front-facing VGA lens for video chat and the occasional self portrait.
The removable back of the Sony Xperia SP reveals the microSD slot that enables you to swell the memory from the rather pathetic 8GB of native storage up to 32GB with a card. You'll need to as well, because only about 5.5GB of that is actually available to use.
The Sony Xperia SP uses the Android Jelly Bean OS, but Sony has overlaid this with its own TimeScape skin. It's being run by a dual-core 1.7GHz processor with 1GB of RAM and an Adreno 320 graphics chip.
There's obviously a lot of sparkling Japanese technology inside because, well, the Sony Xperia SP is a bit on the heavy side. Not too heavy that you'll worry about holding it to your ear for any length of time, but it doesn't have the lighter-than-it-looks reaction that the iPhone 5 and BlackBerry Z10 both enjoy.
Of course, there are different schools of thought when it comes to smartphone weight, and you might feel that the 155g (5.47oz) Sony Xperia SP actually feels better for having a bit of heft. The smaller chassis does mean the weight is more concentrated than on the larger 5-inch handsets.
Sony's Xperia SP doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to smartphone design. It's still a black, rectangular slab and the introduction of a translucent bar doesn't really change that, but it's really not a bad-looking handset. The smaller size means your fingers will curl protectively around it, and the all-black, unblemished front brings it into the BlackBerry Z10 realm of business dress.
Then there's always the price to consider. It's available SIM-free from Sony for £349/US$489.99, and UK customers can pick it up for free on a £21 monthly contract which, all things considered, is pretty damn reasonable.
Of course, you'll want to know how the thing performs - so read on, and be enlightened.
Like Samsung, Sony doesn't leave Android well enough alone. Using the Xperia SP will be easy for anyone familiar with Google's OS - but looking at it is completely different.
Everything from the font to the icons themselves has been changed thanks to Sony's own TimeScape skin.
Opinions differ on whether Sony's take on Android is a good thing, but we think it's a nice change. Although, a bit of clarification: the skin is actually called User Experience Platform (or UXP NXT) but has been shorthanded to TimeScape after a social networking tool that (until the arrival of the Sony Xperia Z and Socialife) came as part of the package.
The skinny white font is refined and the Sony own-brand widgets and icons have a mature look to them that will be refreshing after time spent with Samsung's colourful, Nintendo-like UI. You get plenty of opportunities to admire Sony's work as well, because there are a fair number of first-party media services that, if we're honest, you won't need. But more on that later.
Although it looks different, the layout of the interface on the Sony Xperia SP is still classic Android. You've got seven home screens to populate with apps and widgets, with four main apps anchored to the bottom of the screen either side of a shortcut to the grid view.
At any point, you can call down the notifications bar by swiping down from the top of the screen, enabling you to tinker with important functions such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or battery settings.
You can sit 16 apps on the 4 x 4 grid of each home page or alternatively group them into folders of four.
Larger widgets, such as Socialife, will take up more space, but the benefit is they can be arranged and customised according to your liking.
From the lock screen, you can access the Walkman and Camera shortcuts for playing music or taking a quick picture, and also swipe down to quickly check the notifications bar. Once you swipe upwards (or enter a pattern or passcode) you're into the interface proper.
We'll be honest: we expected the addition of Sony's skin to hamper the smoothness of navigating the Sony Xperia SP.
In actual fact, it was remarkably smooth - even on usual sticking points like exiting apps back to the home screen.
Much of the credit rests with Google's Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, which has been drastically improved when it comes to speed and smoothness.
It won't always be the case. After you've been using the Sony Xperia SP for a few months and you've loaded it with apps and software updates, you can certainly expect some lag. It happens with every phone in existence, so savour the buttery smoothness of those first few weeks before the 1GB RAM starts getting strained.
You can customise the home screens with a long-press on your desired space that will bring up the option to add in a widget or app shortcut and change the theme or wallpaper.
Either that, or pinch and draw your fingers together to zoom out. You'll then need to drag to your desired space and release. You can also change the wallpaper this way - either from the pre-selected Xperia choices or a third-party option from the Google Play store.
The three soft touch keys at the very bottom of the screen are your navigation tools. The Back, Home and Recent keys are a staple of Android and will stick with you through menus, apps, media and gaming.
At any point you can find your way back to the home screen or your last step with these keys, and you'll use them hundreds of times a day. Nice to see then that Sony has made them responsive and easy to hit in a hurry.
Because of the size of the Sony Xperia SP, you'll find you can mostly interact with the interface and the physical keys on the right side of the phone with just one hand.
If you swipe upwards from the base of the phone at any point in the OS, you'll be greeted with Google Now - one of Android Jelly Bean's big new additions. It enables you to enter a quick search, and to have relevant internet-based information such as weather or sports scores delivered to your handset.
We don't want to descend into the customary Android vs iOS debate here, but we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that Apple's UI is still easier to use if you're a complete newcomer to smartphone systems.
Your mum, gran or dog will find using the iPhone 5 easier than the Sony Xperia SP at first glance - but if you put some time in you'll see Android has matured into a rich, layered interface with minimal performance issues that offer excellent options for customisation.
Contacts and calling
Why do you want a smartphone? To make calls, of course. Like any new handset, the Sony Xperia SP will store hundreds of numbers, as well as email addresses, birthdays and nicknames.
The main phone app is anchored to the bottom of the home screen by default, and enables you to select your contact book as one of four main functions.
The others are the standard dial pad, favourites and groups. The contact book itself is in your app drawer and is very similar in appearance and function to the majority of smartphone address books already out there.
Names are listed alphabetically and you can quickly scroll through them by swiping up and down.
A large letter appears denoting where you are on the list as you scroll, which helps to narrow down search time through your expansive list of friends and family.
The white background and black text means you get good visibility even outside and in sunlight. If your mates have a Google+ profile then their picture is displayed next to their name.
There's no option to set your own picture for each contact but you can set individual ringtones and an individual colour for the transparent strip to flash when that person calls.
Alternatively, you can sync the Sony Xperia SP with your Facebook profile to get all the relevant contact information - including profile pictures - added to your address book.
Each contact card gives you the option to set multiple numbers and email addresses, as well as link contacts together. You can star them into a shortlist of favourites or add them to groups such as family and co-workers.
You can tap the magnifying glass to search for a contact, and the plus one icon to add a new contact.
It's really pretty intuitive and Sony hasn't done much to change the way it works, so you shouldn't have any problems populating the Sony Xperia SP with numbers to call.
Making calls themselves isn't a problem either. The Sony Xperia SP has a noticeable microphone in the bottom left-hand corner of the handset and the ear speaker is laid into a groove above the screen so call volume isn't a problem.
You can always adjust it with the volume rocker, although this is a little fiddly if you're holding the phone in your right hand, since you'll have to use your thumb to grip and change volume.
Tapping the phone icon brings up the dial pad by default. It takes up roughly half the screen and is the same black-on-white colour scheme as the address book, making it very easy to bring up and use quickly.
As you dial, the phone will automatically bring up matching numbers or equivalent letters, kind of like Google's instant search, in the main window. This acts as another way to find people rather than just going through the address book.
When you get a call yourself, the picture of the caller will be displayed front and centre with two large buttons for either accepting or ignoring. If there's no profile picture assigned, then a large silhouette fills the screen instead.
Quality isn't a problem and we're happy to report there weren't any dropped calls during our time with the Sony Xperia SP. Obviously, you're going to struggle in places with heavy ambient noise, such as beside a busy road or out on a windswept moor, but all in all the clarity of the call - both incoming and outgoing - is very good.
Like virtually every other phone on the market, the Sony Xperia SP displays your messages in a running conversation, with different coloured bubbles for each person's messages.
If you've added one, then a profile picture is displayed next to each person's message. You can also tap this to bring up the information from their contact card and call them if necessary.
Start a message by tapping the pencil plus icon in the top-right hand corner and you'll bring up the same sort of message layout we're used to seeing on other phones. The Sony Xperia keyboard takes up the bottom half of the screen, while the main section shows your composition.
There's a small paperclip key that enables you to attach an image or file to the message, as well as dedicated shortcuts at the bottom for attaching a file, picture, doodle or location marker. And, as ever, the Jelly Bean navigation keys remain at the bottom in case you want to exit to the home screen.
Each individual message can be starred, which then adds it to the collection in the Starred folder in the main inbox settings. If you're a serial texter then this is an excellent way to keep particularly cherished messages that would otherwise end up buried in your inbox.
Predictive texting is in place for both the main message input and selecting the addressee. Sony's skin extends to its own keyboard, which on first inspection looks small, but actually functions quite well.
It's a standard QWERTY layout, with an additional button in the bottom-left that calls up the symbols and numbers. Like most Android Jelly Bean handsets, the Sony Xperia SP has an alternative input method called Swype.
Rather than lift your finger away from the screen, you can move your digit across all the letters in the word in one motion, and the predictive text does the rest. It doesn't always work perfectly but, for the most part, it is pretty accurate.
There's also an impressive list of emoticons built into the Sony Xperia SP for you to add to your messages, if that's your thing.
If you need a bit more space, then turning the phone into landscape orientation will automatically stretch out the keys and give you a bit more room for typing.
Of course you don't just need to rely on SMS to message people, and the Sony Xperia SP will enable you to email to your heart's content. The standard Android client enables you to add multiple POP3, IMAP or Exchange Active Sync server accounts in one place, and comes pre-installed on the Sony Xperia SP.
Alternatively, each email service has their own dedicated app available from Google Play, which can then be synced up to deliver emails to you wherever you roam.
Sony has loaded the Xperia SP with dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n and HSDPA at 42Mbps and HSUPA at 5.8Mbps. If you're out and about and need to tether another device, it can also be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Like other Android smartphones running Ice Cream Sandwich and above, it arrives with a choice of two browsers pre-installed. One of these is the standard Android browser and the other is Google's recognisable Chrome browser, conditioned for mobile.
Essentially, these both work in the same way, both offering you the option of tabbed browsing, bookmarks and the option of viewing mobile versions of websites or their full-fledged desktop counterparts.
One of the benefits of using Chrome is that you can sync it with your desktop Google account and carry over the pages that you bookmarked and marked as favourites. By tapping the three dots in the top right-hand corner you can access options such as auto-fill forms and save passwords.
Next to the settings button is a small box with a number in it, which denotes the tabbed page you currently inhabit. If you tap this, Chrome zooms out and enables you to swipe between, or close, certain tabs.
This is great for multitasking - although it's not often you'll have legions of tabs open at any one time. If you do, you can expect the strain to show on the Sony Xperia SP's 1.7GHz processor. While browsing for the most part was very smooth, the speed fell away as we opened more tabs.
Unfortunately, skipping around a complex, image-heavy web page will result in a fair amount of empty grey space while you wait for the Sony Xperia SP to catch up. This is certainly tolerable for the most part when browsing on a Wi-Fi signal, but expect it to take a bit longer if you're surfing over 3G. There's also a second's delay when switching from portrait to landscape orientation.
Flash isn't enabled on the Sony Xperia SP, which doesn't surprise us. We don't rate this as much of a problem as the web shifts towards HTML 5. It can be annoying if you want to visit older sites that aren't supported, but it's something you'll just have to live with.
If your tastes run to some of the questionable materials available for viewing on the internet, then you'll be glad to know that both the stock Android browser and Google's Chrome have an Incognito mode.
This won't protect you from malware or eyes looking over your shoulder, but it will stop the offending website from being listed in your internet history or leaving cookies on your phone.
Alternatively, if you're proud of the sites you visit and want to boast about it, a quick tap of the Share option will enable you to post the page to a variety of social networks, including Facebook and Google+.
Chrome and Android's stock browser are the two options you're most likely to use, but there are plenty of others, such as Opera or Firefox, available to download from Google Play if you fancy a change.
We mentioned in the introduction that Sony's camera prowess should be well regarded, and the bundled 8MP rear-facing camera on the Sony Xperia SP is one of the phone's highlights, shooting at 3,264 x 2,448 pixels. It uses Sony's new Exmor RS sensor, which has shifted some of the circuitry behind each photodiode in the sensor to create a slimmer design.
The usual bells and whistles have been added including a scene selection mode, sweep panorama and the ability to add on-the-fly picture effects. The effects are pretty trivial, and will be bested by dedicated camera apps on Google Play, but it's nice to have some choice built in. You can select the likes of Fish-Eye, Kaleidoscope and Nostalgia, among others, to change your usual photo routine.
Other options include geo-tagging and a self timer, as well as the excellent Quick Launch option. This enables you to configure the Sony Xperia SP so that the physical shutter button acts as a launcher for the camera app.
So, if you want to quickly capture what's going on, you don't have to go through the business of unlocking the handset and navigating to the camera app. It was a feature Sony initially introduced back with the Sony Xperia S, and we're glad to see it remains in place here.
The front-facing VGA camera is sufficient, but little more than that. It'll allow for video calling but the image is a little on the grainy side and looked somewhat over-exposed to our eyes.
For the complete novice using the main camera, there's the illuminated Superior Auto setting, which selects optimal settings for 36 different types of scene to give you the best possible picture without the need to faff around with settings. Unfortunately, during our testing this was pretty hit and miss - the SP especially had trouble with motion blur.
Obviously the Sony Xperia SP can't compete with the top-tier of handsets, and a side-by-side comparison with the Ultrapixel-toting HTC One confirms this. But, taking into account its mid-level credentials and price tag, we feel the Sony Xperia SP is punching above its weight when it comes to the camera and can certainly stand in as a replacement for your regular compact.
These settings are a bit gimmicky, and while we don't think the Fish-Eye or Nostalgic settings impress, we quite liked the outcome of the Sketch setting. There are numerous other modes to play with on the Sony Xperia SP, and all your pictures can be edited with apps from the Google Play store.
The Panorama mode is included on most smartphones these days, and we were happy to see the stitching on the Sony Xperia SP was quite accurate - although there is still noticeable blurring of moving targets.
The Sony Xperia SP's 8MP sensor can capture video in Full 1080p HD, even though the Sony Xperia SP's screen resolution is limited to 720p. The camera captures video at 30fps with video stabilisation built in.
The quality and detail in videos shot during the day are both more than suitable for a phone at this price point, although the colours are a little too saturated. Even so, we were happy shooting video in daylight with the Sony Xperia SP.
Unfortunately, shooting video in low light isn't as accomplished, and you can see the grainy pixels reflected in the white surfaces in our sample video. Detail on nearby objects, such as the lamppost, is picked up on, but overall the result is a poor one.
The media credentials of the Sony Xperia SP are bordering on the obsessive.
It's one area where Sony's influence can really be felt as the Japanese company tries to get you to accept its proprietary services instead of the existing delivery system put in place by Android.
It can feel a little like overcrowding, and we doubt that you're going to want to sign up to even more services with Sony when you've already got a Google Play account that can furnish you with all the media you could want.
Delivery systems aside, the actual method of using your media on the Sony Xperia SP is very good, thanks to the excellent Walkman and Movies apps. The Walkman app, in particular, looks gorgeous.
You're greeted with a lavish dashboard that divides up your music into the usual channels: Artists, Albums, Tracks and Playlists.
Then there's also the option of linking Friends' playlists from Facebook and listening specifically to tracks imported from Sony's Music Unlimited store.
There's even a SensMe option that uses GraceNote to subdivide your music into emotional channels. If you're feeling relaxed, energetic or mellow, tap that channel to be greeted with the relevant music.
Once you've selected your track, the layout changes to display the album artwork in the middle of the screen with the name of the track, artist and album at the top.
What's impressive is that the entire colour scheme (including the transparent phone antenna) changes as you move through tracks with different artwork. It's a show for the eyes as well as the ears.
The usual options such as shuffle, repeat and skip are included, as is the option to explore the track in more detail using the internet. Tapping the cross symbol to the right of the track name brings up an array of options, including searching for lyrics on Google and searching for the music video on YouTube.
Sound quality itself is helped with Sony's ClearAudio+ technology that enhances the sound for more clarity. If that's too hands-off then you can also access an equaliser to change the playback yourself.
We found the audio clear and full of volume, albeit with a slight favouring of the treble over the bass - something that can be altered with the bass settings within the equaliser.
Sony's Music Unlimited service offers you yet another way to stream music at the fairly standard price of £10/US$10 a month.
It's worth considering if you don't already own a music subscription to Spotify or Napster, and it can be played on your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, PS3 or Sony Bravia TV.
Of much more use is the TrackID feature that comes pre-loaded on the Sony Xperia SP. It operates in exactly the same way as Shazam and enables you to tag songs you hear on the radio, TV or out and about. You're also given the option to instantly buy the song on Music Unlimited.
When it comes to videos, Sony takes a similar approach, but with a little less flourish than its musical counterpart.
Movies are grouped in large thumbnails that gives you a still of the film, and each is labelled with a title and runtime. There's also a brief synopsis listed underneath the title taken from the GraceNote online archive.
Video is subdivided into Movies and TV Shows, so you can keep Game of Thrones separate from Lord of the Rings.
And, similar to the musical offerings, Sony's Video Unlimited service will enable you to stream or buy films directly onto your device.
Sound and display modes can be altered during playback if you want to change the brightness or adjust the white balance.
There is also the option to switch the Mobile Bravia Engine 2 on or off, which enhances the contrast and clarity of the video.
One neat feature that comes in most Sony Xperia phones these days is the ability to throw your content wirelessly to a DLNA-compatible TVs or stereo.
Given that the Sony Xperia SP doesn't have any kind of HDMI connection, this is the best way of showing your photos or videos on a larger screen quickly and easily.
Sony started including the Throw function with the Sony Tablet S and has kept it in the Sony Xperia SP as another way to differentiate it from the rest of the budget Android army.
This being an Android smartphone, there's also the full range of media options available from Google's own stable.
Google Play movies offers all the same new films and TV shows as Sony's store and will enable you to either rent or buy using your Google credentials.
You'll also find Play Books and Play Magazines that take advantage of the recent expansion of the Google Play store. Other Android basics - such as the Movie Studio editing app and the FM radio - are also included.
Pictures are arranged in a thumbnail collage separated by the date they were either captured, imported or downloaded.
A nice touch is that you can pinch the display to make the thumbnails either smaller or larger depending on how you want them displayed.
Alternatively, you can click the tab at the top of the screen to display by album.
The pre-loaded albums include Facebook pictures, camera shots, Picasa and PlayMemories and Globe - which shows your geotagged pictures on a 3D image of the planet.
Just like the Walkman app, Sony has included a SensMe option that enables you to quickly view your photos in a custom slide show.
The Sony Xperia SP will enable you to select your own theme and music and then jump through your pictures in a manner that's a lot more entertaining that just regular swiping.
Sony has obviously put a great deal of thought into the way its Xperia range handles media, and we're glad to see that even though the SP isn't a top-of-the-range model, most of the advanced features have made the cut.
Little touches such as the changing colour scheme and SensMe customisation make the Sony Xperia SP a real gem when it comes to viewing media.
Just be aware that you'll need to expand the 8GB internal memory considerably before importing too much media onto this phone.
Battery life and connectivity
Take video streaming, for example, and you can expect to run the battery dry in about five hours if you've got the brightness and the audio cranked right up. However, graphics-heavy games like Grand Theft Auto 3 or Sega Virtua Tennis will reduce the Xperia SP to empty in as little as three hours. If you've got a cross-country train journey coming up or spend a lot of time commuting, this won't impress you.
Sony must have understood this because it has included a Battery STAMINA Mode (why everything has to be in capitals with this company, we don't know) that recognises when the display has been switched off (ergo, you're not actively using the phone) and switches off all the non-essential applications. When you hit the power button, it immediately fires everything back up again.
Similarly, Wi-Fi and mobile data traffic – the two biggest draws alongside the display – are disabled when the STAMINA mode is engaged. You'll still get incoming calls and text messages but everything else gets put on standby.
If you engage the stamina mode and temper your usage to the occasional browsing session, the odd email and perhaps using TrackID to discover a tune or two, then you can get a full day's use from the Xperia SP's battery. You'll be able to make it 36 hours with very careful usage but, realistically, this is a phone that you'll be charging every night.
The battery-saving features are useful and we know from first hand experience that most of today's smartphone's struggle to retain the juice, so we can't treat the Xperia SP too harshly for its average battery life.
The only physical connectivity you'll find on the Sony Xperia SP is the micro USB/MHL port used for charging and syncing with a PC or external display, and the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the chassis.
One of the definite benefits of the Android operating system is the plug-and-play mentality of the connectivity. If you want to swap some music tracks or pictures between your PC and your phone, you can simply plug the Sony Xperia SP in and transfer between folders like any other device.
Bluetooth version 4.0 is included, as is Near-Field Communications (NFC), which immediately makes the Sony Xperia SP compatible with the vast majority of wireless speakers, headsets and game controllers out there.
Sony has plenty of first-party NFC accessories such as the Wireless SRS-BTV5 speaker and the Sony Xperia SmartTags NT2 that work simply by engaging the NFC and touching the Sony Xperia SP to each one. Its one-touch symbol is clearly displayed in the notifications panel on the top of the home screen and on a sticker on the back of the phone's case itself.
It can be used for streaming music or quickly sharing photos and files in a similar way to Android Beam. Of course, in order to get the full experience you're going to have to buy into the Sony ecosystem, so we'll leave that particular decision to you.
Telephony hasn't been left out, and the Sony Xperia SP comes with 4G support. For UK users, this is something that will become an important decision later in the year when the rest of the networks start rolling out 4G tariffs. US users can already benefit from an established choice of 4G plans.
All the connectivity options can be accessed in the Settings menu while some, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, can also be quickly accessed through the notifications bar at the top of the screen.
There's also a dashboard widget included that'll enable you to toggle various settings on or off straight from the home screen.
Maps and apps
The Sony Xperia SP arrives with Google Maps all ready to go - and this is pretty much the only navigation app you're going to need. It's pretty much the de facto maps app for both Android and iOS smartphones alike, and there are plenty of features to take advantage of.
Turn-by-turn navigation is built in and you can select whether you're driving, walking or taking public transport. As usual, you're given the option to view the map as a satellite image and you can select favourite places as well as see recommendations for pubs and restaurants nearby.
The Sony Xperia SP found its location very quickly when we went out for a stroll, and the general performance of the app was up to scratch when we wanted to zoom in or out.
It slowed down slightly if we had other processes - such as music playback - running at the same time, but ultimately coped as well as any other smartphone at this price point.
We're fairly certain you'll bypass the Sony Select app gateway and head straight for Google's own burgeoning app store.
Sony Select is a rather sorry affair, although it does factor in Facebook suggestions. Divided into apps, music and games, the interface doesn't look as polished as Google Play, and the selection of apps in itself is pretty minimal.
Google Play's simple interface is very easy to use and is separated into apps, games, movies, music, books and magazines.
Any app you download will automatically be installed and a shortcut generated on some available space on the home screen.
Widgets are also available to select from the Google Play store and will end up in your app drawer for selection later.
While Sony is usually one of the worst manufacturers for including pre-loaded bloatware apps on its phones, the Sony Xperia SP is noticeably free of them. That might be because of the limited 8GB storage, but whatever the reason, it's a blessing.
All you really get in terms of Sony home grown talent is Wisepilot for Sony Xperia - a navigation tool made rather obsolete by Google Maps - and the option to download PlayStation for Xperia.
This gives you access to a Sony-exclusive PlayStation Store for smartphone games. Unfortunately, better games can be found on Google Play and there doesn't appear to be any sign of PlayStation's vast gaming history. Why no Crash Bandicoot or Tomb Raider?
By far the most interesting app available is the Socialife app, which replaces TimeScape as Sony's own social network aggregator. Once you've selected your region and added your account details you can get Twitter and Facebook updates in one place. There's also the option to channel other nuggets of information, such as news headlines and sports scores, into the feed.
The best part of the app is easily the excellent widget that makes flipping through the most recent updates particularly easy. It's great to be able to do this directly from the home screen - but be mindful that the continued connection will drain the battery even quicker.
There's a built-in feature called Smart Sorting that learns your interests by what you click on and changes your news feed subtly to favour your choices.
This is a long shot from HTC's Blinkfeed, but if you can't be bothered to swap regularly between apps to check the latest goings on, then you might find this particularly useful.
Again, the biggest barrier to apps on the Sony Xperia SP is the limited storage options. Large games such as GTA III or The Dark Knight Rises can easily swallow a gigabyte of storage space, and unfortunately the Sony Xperia SP just doesn't have that much to offer.
Hands on gallery
Throughout the entire review, we had to keep in mind that the Sony Xperia SP was a mid-level handset costing £350/US$490, which is a good deal less than the top-tier smartphones available today. The very simple reason for this is that it kept threatening to break out of that classification and asked to be judged as a premium device.
The Xperia SP is a very accomplished handset from Sony, and it's with a tinge of sadness that we acknowledge it will probably fail to get the attention it deserves. Brighter lights are shining in the smartphone world these days, and the fact is that last year's superstars such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and iPhone 4S remain very solid, affordable handsets
If you don't fancy the 5-inch screen size touted by top smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z or HTC One, then the Sony Xperia SP is a very attractive alternative. There are plenty of people out there who are quite content to have a 4.6-inch device that doesn't require a hand like a baseball glove to keep hold of.
Top marks go to the Sony Xperia SP's camera. The range of settings and the quality of the images it produces were well beyond what we would expect from a smartphone at this price. It's become an indispensable tool of any modern smartphone, and Sony has concentrated its efforts to make sure this part of the Sony Xperia SP really punches above its weight.
Another positive inclusion is the addition of a microSD slot. It's pretty much a necessity really, and if Sony hadn't included one, it would have made this phone all-but-unpurchasable.
Lastly, we have to give a mention to the Walkman app. The way it looks is far more attractive than the standard Android music player found on other smartphones, and the interactive antenna is gimmicky but endearing. Music is a big part of Sony and the sheer amount of options available for organising, cataloguing and playing music shouldn't go unnoticed here.
As we repeatedly mentioned, the 8GB of storage space on the Sony Xperia SP really hampers it. You'll only get 5.5GB of actual usable space, which will quickly fill up with some albums, a couple of movies and a handful of apps.
Luckily, a microSD card won't set you back very much these days, which is a good thing, since you'll need one here, but does preclude downloading massive games to really test the internals.
The battery life also leaves a lot to be desired. Sony appears to have taken note of this with its Stamina software, which goes some way towards addressing the problem. However, if you're going to be away from home or the office for a day, there's no getting around the fact you're going to need to bring a charger with you.
Despite Sony's attempt to dress the Xperia SP up with a good-looking interface, premium design and extra features, this is still a phone with a dual-core 1.7GHz processor.
At times, it shows. If anything, you'll forget this is a mid-level handset and try to overstretch it with tasks, resulting in a bit of lag when surfing the internet or using apps. What we will say, though, is that it handles Android Jelly Bean very well - moving around the OS is a real pleasure on this phone.
Despite noticeable shortcomings with storage space and occasional processor speed, we really came to like the Sony Xperia SP. It's a handset that so desperately wants to be able to sit at the grown-up table even though it's really only a mid-level device.
The excellent camera and range of connectivity that includes NFC and 4G go hand-in-hand with a great design and a screen size that will be just right for someone that doesn't want a high-end 5-inch monster.
If you're on a budget, we'd consider it ahead of last year's high-flyers, and it's certainly better than Sony's previous Xperia T model.
Heavy users will likely get frustrated with the moderate battery and mediocre processor. But if you want to save a bit of money and still own a smartphone that you can show off at parties or around the office, you could do a lot worse than picking up the Sony Xperia SP.