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Review: Sony Xperia U
Prasad Naik
July 02, 2012
First Published: 12:33 IST(2/7/2012)
Last Updated: 17:32 IST(21/11/2013)
Sony Xperia U

We have seen Sony’s flagship smartphone, the Xperia S, in the past. Now we are looking at something that is at the other end of the spectrum, the Xperia U. The Xperia U is not a low-end phone, per se; far from it, in fact. But it is currently the cheapest of the new Xperia phones that Sony released ever since it acquired Ericsson’s stake in the company and became a single entity.

The Xperia U is technically a mid-range offering but unlike most phones in its price range, the phone runs on a dual-core processor. But does it actually offer better performance? Let’s find out.

Design

The design of the Xperia U is very similar to the Xperia S. In fact, the entire new Xperia family has the same block-like design. It looks simple and elegant without being bland or boring.

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On the front the Xperia U has the 3.5-inch display in the middle with the earpiece, front camera, notification LED and sensors at the top and the main control keys below. Just like with the Xperia S, the Xperia U has three dots below the display with the icons for each of these placed within a glass strip below them. Unlike the Xperia S, however, the Xperia U controls are a bit easier to use.

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On the right side of the phone are the power/lock key, volume control keys and the camera shutter key.

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On the left is a microUSB. 

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On top of the phone is the 3.5mm headphone jack.

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On the back is the 5 megapixel camera lens with an LED flash and loudspeaker. Just like the Xperia S, the Xperia U has the old Sony Ericsson logo placed near the bottom. The back cover can be removed by sliding it upwards. Underneath, all you’ll find is a SIM card slot on the left side of the phone (right when seen from the back). This is a full-size SIM slot, unlike the microSIM slot on the Xperia S. The battery of the phone is non-removable and is sealed within.

Coming back to the glass strip below the display, the one on the Xperia U differs from the one the Xperia S in one key area. Whereas the strip on the Xperia S lit up in only white, the one on the Xperia U lights up on various colors, including white, blue, green, red, pink, yellow, orange, etc. The strip colors changes in various situations. First of all, depending upon the theme you select for the phone, the strip will light up in a matching shade every time you press the keys below the display. The phone is also capable of changing the colors of the strip according to the dominant color in the image that you are viewing in the Gallery app. So if you are looking at a picture with, say, a lot of grass, the strip color will change to green. Lastly, the strip also changes color to match the color of the album art in the music player for the track that is currently playing.

While some might think this is cool, we thought it was a bit garish. Sony should have at least provided an option to switch them off for someone who doesn’t like the lightshow.

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Moving on, another thing that is different on the Xperia U compared to the Xperia S is that the plastic portion below the glass strip is removable. You get a choice of multiple color caps, four to be precise, including black, white, pink, yellow. The phone itself is available in black and white. Along with the phone, you get one color that matches the main color of the phone (black with black phone and white with white phone) and an extra cap, which can be pink if you have the black phone or yellow if you have the white model. The pink colored cap did help make the design seem a bit livelier on our black unit but it seems a waste to have this ability to change the caps and only provide one additional color.

The overall build quality of the phone was pretty solid. The phone has a smooth matte finish, just like the Xperia S but it also makes it show fingerprints and smudges quite vividly.

We have an issue with the location of the keys on the side. Due to the presence of the power button, the volume controls have been pushed down, which makes them awkward to use in almost every situation except for when you are on a call. It would have been better had the keys been placed above and the power button was placed on the top.

Display

The Sony Xperia U has a 3.5-inch, 854 x 480 resolution TFT LCD. If you read our Xperia S review, you’d know we weren’t all too pleased with the quality of the display on that phone. But interestingly, the Xperia U actually has a better quality display.

Whereas the Xperia S display mostly had to thank the incredible pixel density to please its viewers, the Xperia U actually uses a superior panel with rich vibrant colors and much better viewing angles compared to the one on the Xperia U. Also, since the display is only 3.5-inch in size, the pixel density is also quite good, which results in a great looking display. We still think the display on the HTC One V is superior overall but the one on the Xperia U is no slouch.

While some may frown at the small size of the display on the Xperia U, it has resulted in a phone that is a joy to hold. The phone fits perfectly in your hands, even when you are holding it upside down above you as you lie in bed and does not feel as if it would slip because your fingers are no longer able to contain the phone.

The glass cover did not have any oleophobic coating, which meant not only does it attract fingerprints but it’s also difficult to clean it afterwards. Also, despite supposedly being scratch resistant, our review unit had several scratches on the display.

Hardware and software

The Sony Xperua U runs on the ST-Ericsson NovaThor U8500 SoC. It includes a 1GHz dual-core Cortex A9 CPU, Mali-400 MP GPU and 512MB of RAM. As for storage space, there is just 4GB of internal memory with no expansion slot. This is where we come across the biggest problem with this phone. Only 4GB memory would have been laughable two years ago and now it is simply appalling. We don’t know what the people at Sony were thinking when they thought 4GB would be enough but it simply isn’t. We couldn’t even get most of our music collection onto the phone, and then there was no space left for the photos, videos and apps. The phone has a separate 2GB for apps but even that runs out pretty quickly when you put some high quality games on the phone and then you can’t even move them to the main storage as even that is likely to be full. During the course of our review we had to keep adding and removing content to make space for more content, just to remove it again later for something else. To say that it was a painful experience would be putting it lightly.

There is, however, one way out. The Xperia U supports USB On-The-Go, which means you can get an adaptor and connect a USB flash drive to the phone. If this was not a terrible solution to begin with, the phone only supports USB flash drives that are FAT32 formatted.

Moving over to the software side, once again, things are not that great. The phone runs on Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread in a day and age where Google has announced Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Although Android 4.0 support is announced it would take some time and even after that it would still be behind the latest version of Android. We are still baffled as to why Sony would be releasing phones with Android 2.3 in the middle of 2012 when other companies are releasing Android 4.0 devices.

Performance

If you are going to expect incredible performance from the phone just because it says ‘dual-core’ on the box, then prepare to be disappointed. Although adequately powerful, the Xperia U cannot come close to matching the performance of even older dual-core phones such as the Galaxy S II. The performance falls between single-core phones such as the HTC One V and more powerful phones such as the Galaxy S II, with it being closer to the former rather than the latter.

With usual tasks such as calling, messaging, launching applications, web browsing, etc. the phone seemed to be at ease, even though it was running Gingerbread. Gaming performance, however, left a lot to be desired and the Mali-400 MP was on par with the GPUs in other single-core phones in its price range, such as the One V rather than its quad-core sibling on the Galaxy S II. Not that it is a bad thing, as it does get you through all the current popular games. Just that it has little headroom to cope with more demanding games that are rapidly starting to appear on smartphones.

Audio quality on the phone was great through the earpiece as well as the headphones. We especially loved the earphones that were bundled with the phone. They weren’t of the in-ear variety as seen on the Xperia S, but they sounded great nevertheless. The loudspeaker wasn’t that great, however. It wasn’t loud enough with the Sony xLOUD feature disabled and even after it was enabled it still wasn’t particularly great.

As usual, we tried playing some videos on the phone to see what it’s capable of handling. The stock video player can playback videos in AVI, MP4 and MKV formats with MP3 and AAC audio. We managed to play videos up to 720p resolution but 1080p videos were no dice. Similarly, videos with AC3 or DTS audio failed to play back. Then again, anyone who buys this phone obviously doesn’t care about video playback (among other things) because with just 4GB of memory, you are not going to be able to store any meaningful amount of content anyway.

Camera

The Xperia U has a 5 megapixel camera capable of recording 720p videos. The quality of images is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the colors look natural and the details are really sharp. But on the other hand, the white balance is off, so the images almost always look cold and the dynamic range is also poor. Low light images also have a lot of noise in them, unless you manage to stabilize the phone and turn the ISO level down manually.

As for the 720p videos, here too the quality was lacking. The videos had an oversharpened look to them and had tons of compression artifacts. There was also a heavy jello effect whenever you moved the camera around, possibly due to the image stabilization algorithm.

Overall, the camera quality was passable and on par with most phones in this price range but nothing special on its own.

Battery life

The Sony Xperia U has a 1,320mAh non-removable battery. With a relatively small display and a dialed down processor, the Xperia U doesn’t really have a lot to power, which is why it manages to go through a day even with that fairly small battery. While playing back HD videos, we managed to get around 5 hours of battery life before the phone shut down.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia U seems is a fine phone in general. It looks good, has a great looking display, compact and easy to use and offers generally decent performance. At Rs. 16,490, it is even priced very well. So overall, it does seem like a pretty good phone.

That is until you find out there is only 4GB of memory.

We really don’t know what Sony was thinking when they decided to fit this phone with just 4GB of internal memory with no memory card slot. But for us, it’s a deal breaker. We wouldn’t have tolerated this little memory on even a budget feature phone, leave alone a fully-featured Android smartphone. We don’t think anyone out there would want a phone with this little memory. Even if you think it would be enough for you, it won’t and sooner or later, you will find yourself constantly deleting content to make space for new one, as we did.

Just for the memory situation alone, we are going to suggest you avoid this phone. Luckily, Sony has the Xperia sola for you, which comes with a slightly more sensible amount of memory, along with a memory card slot. It also has a bigger display, which is a bit nicer to use compared to the one on the Xperia U. If you have a budget of around Rs. 20,000 for an Android smartphone, the Xperia sola is definitely is a more sensible option.

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