Sony Xperia U £169.99
5th Jul 2012 | 14:00
Sony's small Android smartphone offers a dual-core processor and plenty of charm
The Sony Xperia U sits at the cheaper end of Sony's range of Android smartphones, using similar styling to the much larger Xperia S and the slightly larger Xperia P and Xperia Miro, setting it apart from Sony's rounder phones, including the rugged Sony Xperia Go and budget Xperia Tipo.
The Sony Xperia U is the smallest of the three handsets, offering a 3.5-inch TFT display inside the same angular, black case as the Xperia S and Xperia P, and an odd transparent plastic strip acting as part design feature, part information panel and part silly light-up novelty.
Prices are relatively modest for a modern smartphone that says "Sony" on it, with the Xperia U popping up for £189 in the UK, or $340 in the US, SIM-free. But can you really get the style of the Xperia S on a budget?
It's pretty close. The Sony Xperia U is small and solid, offering much the same in balance and build quality as last year's excellent Sony Xperia Ray, with Sony putting three capacitive touch buttons beneath the display, indicated by tiny silvery dots.
There's an explanatory icon embedded in the transparent strip, telling Android newcomers these buttons are, from left to right, Back, Home and Menu.
The touch areas are big and very sensitive to presses, meaning it's easy to use the phone without thinking too much about your actions or having to aim your button stabs.
The smaller 3.5-inch display makes the Sony Xperia U fit the hand well, so one-handed use is possible with ease, too.
Above the screen sits the front-facing VGA camera, which can be toggled and selected within the camera app, producing low-res images that emerge from the camera at 640 x 480 resolution.
There's also a proximity sensor up here so the phone knows if you're holding it to your head and can dim the screen accordingly.
The sides are black with rather flimsy and plasticky buttons, with the 3.5mm headphone jack up top and the USB connector top left.
The right-hand side of the Sony Xperia U is where the party starts, because this edge houses the power button, which is nice and easy to find at the top right, along with the volume up/down rocker in the middle, then the camera button bottom-right.
The chunky power button's easy to find and the physical camera shutter button is always a useful thing to have, especially since the latter brings up the camera app when held down for a second or two, even when the phone's in standby.
The camera button is quite flat and well recessed into the Sony Xperia U's case, meaning you have to press it pretty hard to make it focus and register. We tended to end up using the on-screen button to take shots instead, because it's just easier.
And there's your big, exciting design feature - the strip lights up. In more than one colour. It's quite cool, especially when viewing photos in the gallery, because the Sony Xperia U detects the most prominent colour in the shot, then alters the colour of this strip accordingly.
It's hard to take a photo of. The strip's much brighter and more colourful to the human eye, more so in the dark.
And if you're even more colour obsessed, the black plastic beneath the see-through strip can be unclipped and replaced with something brighter. White. Or Pink. Or yellow. Which is great, if you're a child.
Removing the back is a rather hard and worrying experience. You have to press it down and push it up, which means squeezing the phone quite tight and putting a lot of pressure on the display.
We were quite worried we'd end up breaking the display from the pressure. But we didn't. We should probably stop worrying so much.
Inside the Sony Xperia U sits a full-size SIM card slot, although there's no SD support in here, so you're stuck with the relatively tight 4GB of accessible storage space Sony has put in here.
That's a bit of a shame, but at least the battery is replaceable, which will earn the Sony Xperia U some brownie points in this age of sealed, non-accessible phones, such as the iPhone.
All of this comes together to give the Sony Xperia U a quality, well-made feel, that apes the design of the high-end Sony Xperia S well.
It feels tough and durable, the display and buttons are sensitive, while the smaller 3.5-inch screen is bright and clear, so much so that it could be considered a worthy replacement for many bigger, more costly Android models.
Thanks to Three for sending us the phone
The Sony Xperia U arrives running Android 2.3.7, sporting the same Sony user interface skin we saw used to such great effect in the very pleasant Xperia S.
Not much happens on the lock screen, although if you're playing music you do see a little play/pause and skip section appear where the clock is, giving you some quick-access music control, which is handy.
However, given that the world has gone privacy mad, the lock screen does come with its own little settings screen, where you can dumb down the amount of stuff that appears in its notifications area, should you work in a place where your fellow employees are particularly nosy.
Pinching the display pops up Sony's overview mode, which breaks out all the widgets you have on your various home screens and pulls them together on the one screen.
Pressing one takes you to its screen. You'd probably be better off just scrolling to its screen in the first page, seeing as there are only five to manage here, but it's a nice enough little visual touch.
Open her up and you get those five home screens to play about with and populate with your own choice of widgets and icons.
A long-press anywhere on an empty bit of screen brings up the customisation window, from where you're able to add app shortcuts, interactive widgets, pick from a selection of pre-installed Sony visual themes or create folders to stick yet more app shortcuts in.
It's a very versatile system, with Sony adding the floating dock area to the editable space - plus it's possible to dump folders in that permanent bottom area, too.
As with more recent versions of Android, folders are created on the fly by simply dragging one icon on top of another.
Android famously supports widgets, the little live desktop apps that give you quick access to features, with Sony filling the Xperia U with some pretty clean and stylish custom widget options.
The software here's identical to that on the Sony Xperia S, so you get a weather widget that sort of unfolds to fill the screen, a miniature power bar/feature toggle that does the same, plus Sony's reworked social networking tools.
The Sony Xperia U dedicates an entire home screen to social networking out of the box (long-pressing on widgets enables you to remove them if you hate people), with the top widget pulling in a selection of your Facebook and Twitter friends, if you've signed in to the networks on the phone.
The lower widget is a specific timeline aggregator that has your big list of people rambling on.
It's still a front end to the familiar old Timescape system Sony's been putting on its Android phones since day one, although Timescape itself is more marginalised than ever.
Clicking Facebook and Twitter posts from the widget brings up their own little custom viewing window instead of Timescape, where you can reply to tweets without troubling a standalone app.
It's a nice-looking, functional widget we'd happily use, although scrolling and managing the little active window and settings on the Sony Xperia U's small screen can take some concentration. Plus it never feels like it's actually updating as regularly as it should.
This rather drab, marketing-led home screen also greets you upon initial boot, featuring a link to Sony's own video store, a shortcut that encourages you to download its Music Unlimited app, plus the useful Track ID system, which cleverly identifies tracks then enables you to buy them.
TrackID can stay, the rest are off into the waste basket.
And that's what happens when you long-press on a widget or icon and drag it up to that little integrated Facebook strip along the top.
If it's downloadable by others, the Sony Xperia U generates a status update, complete with a shortcut to the app's Play Store listing.
Handy for sharing things. Also handy for annoying people who don't care what apps you have on your telephone.
Contacts and calling
The Sony Xperia U's contacts section is pretty similar to that offered by most other Android smartphones these days, pulling in data from your SIM, your Google account, Facebook, Twitter and doing everything apart from scanning in your local phone book.
Fortunately, there are options to sort out this avalanche of people you half know.
The phone enables you to filter contacts, with options to show only those who have phone numbers attached to their accounts or only people who are specifically online and signed into some sort of messaging service or Facebook.
Or you can toggle entire swathes of automatically imported people out of existence and have them hidden from view altogether. And calm is restored.
But if you live the always-connected, social networking dream, Sony's Facebook integration is very impressive indeed.
Each Facebook contact is given their own tab within your phone's contacts section, which pulls in their photos for you to leaf through, comment upon and like, without having to trouble the Facebook app at all.
You also find Facebook integration within the Sony Xperia U's photo gallery, where your photos are synced and displayed in additional folders.
It's very clever and is one of the ways Sony's user interface really stands out from the rest. If you're a Facebook user.
The dialler's a simple, useful tool, which supports Sony's own form of smart dialling.
Start to type a number and it'll pop up similar numbers in the space above the keypad, plus this also works with predictive text input - so start typing someone's name and it'll also attempt to match it with someone from your contacts.
Call volume on the whole was good, voices came across quite loud and clear and sounding relatively natural, while signal coverage was similar to what we've observed from using other handsets. It's definitely also a telephone.
Sony's text messaging system is pretty straightforward, offering a minimalist and quite stylish solution for those after an easy way to tell someone you're going to be late.
You're able to add photos and videos to messages, which the phone crunches down to multimedia message size, or you're able to directly record a video or take a photo from the SMS message attachment menu, should you be able to predict when something noteworthy is about to happen.
Try to attach a whopping great 720p video to a text message and the phone will admonish you for your lack of knowledge about the capabilities of the ancient text messaging network, dumping you out to a video trimming tool. Here you chop the start and end off your file until it complies with the file size rules.
The QWERTY keyboard's great to use, very fast, accurate and responsive.
Even on a fairly small 3.5-inch display we found the accuracy to be excellent, plus there's word prediction in here and Sony's own take on line-drawing input, as popularised by the Swype alternate keyboard.
The line drawing tool is not activated by default, for some reason, but once you've switched it on you're able to write by swiping a line between the letters of a word. It's pretty accurate, too.
Punctuation is handled well, with the word prediction bar changing to a list of common punctuation marks after you press the space key.
It's a bit of a shame there are no long-press alternate keys for accessing numbers, mind, which have been farmed out to a second screen.
Sony has also pre-loaded the WhatsApp alternate messenger service on the Sony Xperia U.
Verify this through inputting your phone number and you have access to cross-platform messaging services with other users of the app, should they be on a BlackBerry handset, iPhone or something old and weird from Nokia.
The email app has been very stylishly skinned by Sony, also coming with a useful preview pane to quickly access messages.
Setting it up is as simple as entering your email address and password for most of the major email providers, with the app automatically filling in the server details for our Hotmail account.
The Sony Xperia U's 3.5-inch display runs at a decent resolution of 480 x 854, meaning text and icons appear nice and sharp here - much like they did on the similarly sized and extremely loveable Sony Xperia Ray.
The dual-core processor does a great job of loading, displaying and scrolling through websites, plus there's Flash support in here for straightforward playback of embedded videos and all the associated animated advertising that tends to accompany them around the edges of pages.
Double-tapping on a chunk of text automatically zooms in the view for easy reading, and although scrolling can get a little crunchy if you try moving pages around too much while they're loading, the Sony Xperia U is certainly good enough for use as a pocket browser 99% of the time.
Embedded Flash content works pretty well, for the most part, although we found a few clips would see their audio and video lose sync quite badly.
Text selection is pretty useful, though. Long-pressing any chunk of text pulls up these movable little tabs, which enable you to select a start and end point - then press the highlighted area to copy the text to the Sony Xperia U's clipboard.
Behind the scenes, the browser's pretty bland and lacking in any Sony polish. Bookmarks and favourites are found through the Menu button or brought up by holding the Back key, and you get a rather outdated white-on-black text system that definitely errs on the functional side of things.
You get plenty more to play with through the browser's menu, where you can search the page, share a link to a web page through the usual Android share menu, manage your open tabs and more.
Sadly, it's nothing like as sophisticated as the enhanced Android web browsers we see from the likes of HTC and LG these days, but hopefully the imminent Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update, which should hit the Sony Xperia U some time in the summer of 2012, will add a bit more in the way of thrills to the phone's web use.
The Sony Xperia U comes with a 5 megapixel camera, the same as the Sony Xperia Miro, which is disappointing given the 8 megapixel unit Sony managed to fit into the Xperia P, and the 12MP on the Sony Xperia S.
And if you want to take your shots in 16:9 ratio, you have to bust that down to only 3MP size, which is bordering on the budget phone range. But at least you get a flash.
What is nice is the camera button quick-launch system that's found in the Sony Xperia S. Holding down the camera button automatically unlocks the phone and boots the camera app, plus you can toggle a further option to have the Sony Xperia U instantly take a photo once it's opened.
We found we invariably ended up with a photo of our hand when using that option, so it's best to just have it open the camera up so you can line up the shot properly, or balance it on something and use the self-timer.
The Sony Xperia U's camera app is quick and responsive, plus you get a little pop-out preview gallery of recent shots along the bottom-right.
The main scene modes are accessed through that icon list down the left, but there are more options behind the Menu button, too. This is a bit fiddly, but you'll soon remember where the things you need are.
You get to enable smile detection, with four types of smile! Plus there's single or multi-spot autofocus options, face detection and a touch-to-focus toggle for taking a little more manual control, along with an exposure slider, ISO choices (100, 200, 400 and 800), and a few white balance modes for helping the sensor cope with your kind of light bulbs.
Photos are very nice and colourful, given the 5 megapixel maximum. Detail's pretty good, images are quite sharp and certainly good enough to print and share at modest sizes.
What you don't get is any form of image filter. There are zero silly colour modes in the Sony Xperia U, which is OK by us, since they're useless.
The face recognition option helps produce great portrait shots, which appear surprisingly clear given the 5 megapixel rating.
Sony's photo stitching software tool is on the Xperia U, which does a fine job of building up a super-wide scene as you slowly move the camera from left to right. There's a 3D option too, should you have a DLNA-enabled 3D TV to share the resulting 3D stills with.
There's no particularly noticeable benefit to be gained from engaging Sony's Bravia Engine display option. Images look great on the phone's sharp screen whether it's on or off, so no complaints there.
Video is a bit of a disaster on the Sony Xperia U. Despite being technically rated as 720p capable, the sensor's simply not up to the job.
There's a huge amount of blockiness and digital mess on our clips, with some darker areas of the images resembling nothing more than a few rough, black squares.
In decent light when nothing's moving it does a slightly better job, but you won't really want to be recording too many of life's magic moments with the Sony Xperia U.
The music player is one area where the Sony Xperia U's Android 2.3.7 software is much better than the stock Android options or the user interface Sony put on last year's range of Android handsets.
Opening up the music player pulls up a very simple front end for your music - whether they're MP3, SMF, WAV, or Ogg vorbis files - which is much more accessible and prettier than Sony's previous version.
Plus, you get a stylish little home screen widget, for quick access to play/pause and track skipping.
Playlist support is straightforward when creating and editing (a long-press on a track title does the job), plus there are plenty of automatically generated playlists that chart your recent additions, tracks you've made favourites by adding a little star to or pulling out ones you've not yet bothered listening to.
Music is loud and clear when using the external speaker, thanks in part to Sony's xLOUD technology.
You also get a graphic equaliser that really does have an effect on the quality and feel of the output. It'd make a nice little kitchen radio, this one.
There's Gracenote integration for automatically downloading artist information and album art, plus there's the Sony Infinite button that we've seen on plenty of its phones over the last couple of years, which enables you to instantly search YouTube and Wikipedia for the currently playing artist, or buy tracks through Sony's PlayNow shop.
Prices are a bit steep, at £1.50 per track (paid for by a premium rate text message), but it's nice to see a well-stocked official channel for buying tunes direct on the phone.
However, the rather tatty PayForIt window that pops up when you try to make a purchase doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the vendor.
Onboard memory is a mixed bag. It's very welcome having 2GB to store apps, but the 4GB usable partition that works as the Sony Xperia U's built-in SD card isn't really enough for a phone these days. It really could do with an SD card slot.
In terms of your own video playback, the Sony Xperia U supports MP4 files and 3GPP only.
You won't get any joy with AVIs or anything too exotic here, although supported movies and photos can use Sony's DLNA service, which adds the Play On option to sharing menu screens, enabling you to beam media to any other DLNA device on your home network.
The Sony Xperia U contains a battery rated at 1,320mAh, which the company says is good for 6 hours 36 minutes of talk time, or 472 hours of standby time.
Modern smartphone users will laugh themselves sick at that standby claim.
In real terms, when it's being used for Twitter and Facebook and as a camera and for all sorts of other things to alleviate our boredom, it's a surprisingly good performer.
We easily sailed through a day of relatively solid Twitter/camera/app use with the Sony Xperia U, making it one of the easiest Android phones to live with on a daily basis.
Sony provides you with a sweet little power management app, which enables you to put your phone to sleep on schedule overnight, or set battery management features to automatically turn power-hungry features off once you hit a certain level of remaining battery.
Maps and apps
The Sony Xperia U has something a little rare inside, given that it's powered by a dual-core processor from ST-Ericsson, rather than the infinitely more commonplace and various Qualcomm kits we see in other phones.
And it works very well indeed. The Sony Xperia U feels sharp and snappy in use, managing to throw about Android Home screens, menu pages and apps without any glitches or performance wobbles. Google's fantastic Maps app is a joy to use, plus the Navigation features are equally quick and usable.
Those of you new to Android will be extremely impressed by the speed and usefulness of Google Maps and its Navigate feature.
It's as simple as determining your current location through Wi-Fi or GPS, then typing in your destination and watching Google calculate a route.
Enhanced features include the option to scan ahead to junctions, then press a button to open up a Street View image of the turning, so you recognise the turn when you get there.
The Sony Xperia U's been packed with plenty of apps from Sony, too, some of which are very keen on encouraging you to use its Video and Music Unlimited services to consume your media, rather than Google's own Android film rental services.
The leader in this scheme is Sony's Recommender home screen widget and app, which operates something of a "bait and switch" on you.
It recommends apps and games to download mostly sourced from Google's Play Store, but when it comes to selecting films to rent and buy through your phone, you're magically transported to Sony's own Video Unlimited service.
Somewhere out there in the world there may be a man bored enough to buy a digital copy of Catch.44 for £11.99 (about $18.80) through his phone. And if there is, we would not like to meet him.
Sony has still put Google's own Videos app on here too, for extra choice of rentals through Google's own Play Store film section.
There's also a standalone EA Games app, which offers a few rather old Android games, which are downloaded from EA's own servers rather than the Google Play Store, while some of the game recommendations also shove users off to Gameloft's mobile site.
Which is a weird way of doing things, no doubt borne out of cross-promotional marketing budgets, rather than any thought of user convenience.
Still, there's some good stuff on here all the same. Sony's Friends' Music & Videos app enables you to see what people have been liking and sharing on Facebook without actually having to go to Facebook.
You also get the ASTRO file manager, for nosing about your SD card. It's odd that Android doesn't feature something like this as standard, meaning that phone makers have to resort to putting in ad-supported options like this on their phones.
Sony's also continuing its partnership with McAfee, which sees a free, fully functional version of its McAfee Security app pre-loaded.
Setting it up requires a bit of fuss with PIN numbers and creating a "buddy" who will be alerted should your phone be reported stolen, but it's possibly of some use.
Plus, of course, there's all the usual Google stuff on here, including YouTube, Gmail, Navigation, Places, Latitude and Google+, along with a few other useful little utilities such as NeoReader for scanning QR codes, a Sony Media Remote controller app, OfficeSuite for read access to MS Office files and the Wisepilot alternate sat nav system.
Hands on gallery
The Sony Xperia U is a solid, well made little phone, that manages to squeeze a high-res and very sharp display into a modestly sized chassis.
The dual-core processor handles everything from apps to web use without fuss, making it an impressive performer - and one of the best around at its £189/$340 SIM-free price point.
The 3.5-inch screen and Sony's combination of its Reality Display and Bravia Engine tech makes for a really readable, usable screen that's bright, sharp and easy to see and use, even outdoors.
The dual-core processor keeps Android running without a hitch. Home screens fly about even when loaded with widgets, the Play Store app's smooth and apps themselves download and install quickly.
The smaller (in today's size-obsessed world) 3.5-inch display is very easy on the battery. Combine this with the ST-Ericsson dual-core processor and you get a capable phone that easily gets through a day of serious use. A big plus point, that.
4GB of internal storage space and no SD card places quite a limitation on the Sony Xperia U. Recording 720p video hoovers up the memory, then you've got your photos and music to fit on there, plus all sorts of app downloads to store. You'll be shuffling things around to save space within a week of buying it.
The camera's another odd compromise. Only being able to take 3 megapixel shots in 16:9 ratio dumps the Sony Xperia U down among the budget Android phone crowd, which is a particularly odd decision given the excellent 8 megapixel sensor Sony put in last year's lovely, similarly sized Xperia Ray.
As much as we like Sony's implementation of Android 2.3 and its many tweaks and additions, some areas, such as the web browser, really need jazzing up.
The Sony Xperia U's scheduled to receive an update to Ice Cream Sandwich some time this summer, which would help paper over some of the weaker points here.
If you're not caught up in today's obsession with enormous display sizes, the Sony Xperia U is a great choice of smartphone.
It has all the speed, power and features of the larger Android phones that cost two or three times as much - your only compromise here is seeing it all through a smaller display.
The only noticeable weaknesses here are the phone's video performance, which is terrible despite the 720p claim, and the lack of onboard storage space.
If you can live with those niggles, this does everything else just as well as the high-end Android flagship handsets. And the battery will last longer, too.
Big thanks to Three UK for sending us our review unit.