The Sony Xperia Z flagship may have been at the forefront of the company’s 2013 handset lineup, but it’s now time for a new device to help flesh out the company’s latest portfolio. Say hello to the Sony Xperia SP.

With a powerful dual-core processor at its heart, an HD display, NFC, 4G (LTE) and a host of Sony services, the Xperia SP looks to offer up a far more premium user experience than the term ‘mid-range’ would have you believe.

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We came away with a smile from our initial encounter with the SP, but now it’s time to drill down to see whether the SP holds up in day to day usage.

Sony Xperia SP: Design 

2011 introduced Sony’s Arc design language, in 2012 the aesthetic of the Sony Xperia S was encompassed under the Human Curvature name and in mid-February this year we were given the OmniBalance design, which debuted on the Sony Xperia Z.

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Just as last year’s Sony Xperia T harkened back to that Arc aesthetic, the Xperia SP is an amalgamation of both the Human Curvature and OmniBalance designs which results in an inoffensive and sophisticated overall look.

Not as showy as the Xperia Z, the SP adopts matte and satin finish plastic on the back and sides respectively. 

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Although not technically unibody, the SP’s solid construction is highlighted underneath the removable back panel, which only serves to grant access to the SIM slot and microSD slot as the battery remains hidden away. We would have preferred to see flaps rather than a whole removable back panel, as found on the flagship Xperia Z.

The light rounding and bevelling along the sides and corners paired with the finish of the bodywork makes for a comfortable feel in the hand with reassuring weight behind it. 

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The left side of the phone accommodates all of the SP’s hardware controls, which include a volume rocker, centrally mounted aluminium power/lock key and the welcome addition of a dual-detent hardware shutter. 

The finely polished camera surround elicits a sense of power and as another nod back to Sony designs gone by, the SP also features a transparent antenna at the base of the display which doubles as a multi-coloured LED notifications bar. This reflects the prominent colour in either a gallery image of album artwork, adding a fun element to an otherwise cut and dry design.

Sony Xperia SP: Screen

An unconventionally sized 4.6-inch 720p HD LCD panel dominates the phone’s front, however Sony’s techno-wizardry has helped improve the overall viewing experience with help from their BRAVIA Engine 2, which helps push contrast, colour balance, reduces noise and preserve detail.

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Indeed still imagery and HD content look impressive, clear and vibrant, although the panel used does suffer from the same shortcoming of the Z’s display, with anything other than head on viewing greatly reducing contrast and colour vibrancy as well as increasing colour distortion of certain hues.

Sharpness is easily best in class given the price of the Xperia SP, though we wish the screen didn’t look quite so washed out when sat alongside phones like the HTC One S, XL and Nokia Lumia 820.

Sony Xperia SP: Operating system

Running Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, the Xperia SP totes one of the latest iterations of Android complete with Sony’s own customisations and tweaks. 

The Sony UI overlay is clean, consistent and works wonderfully on the SP’s hardware. Unlike other Android overlays, the lockscreen grants fast access to the music player and camera, two shortcuts that aren’t customisable, but are nonetheless useful. 

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We also like the highly interactive shutter blinds animation of the lockscreen, which reiterates the premium quality and attention to detail that the UI possesses.

Start it up and a customisation walks you through your new phone. The Xperia SP also gives you control over homescreens, widgets (both stock and Sony made), app shortcuts, wallpapers and UI themes.

Other thoughtful elements involve the inclusion of Small Apps which can be found under the onscreen task switching key, all of which have the ability to float over whichever screen you may be looking at. In addition, the notifications bar has quick toggles for things like Bluetooth and WiFi.

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The Xperia SP also has a wealth of Sony-made applications pre-loaded on it; some for app recommendation such as Sony Select, a feed aggregator called Socialife, their Music and Video Unlimited subscription services, the WISEPILOT navigation app - tailored for Xperia phones and of course, the PlayStation Mobile app which features both new Android-specific games and allows you the ability to play classic PlayStation One titles.

All in all, the user experience on the Sony Xperia SP feels robust, if not lacking a little character.

Sony Xperia SP: Camera and multimedia

The rear snapper on the SP’s back, so beautifully highlighted by its metal surround, features an 8-megapixel sensor and like the display. Although the camera is great and features like a hardware shutter key are welcome, it isn’t without flaws though.

By default the intelligent auto mode will suit most mobile photographers as it takes all the legwork out of choosing the right settings. Naturally you can go in with a more manual approach to change the capture resolution of both stills and videos, set flash modes and drill down further still to access features like auto-upload, self-timer and smile shutter.

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Partly as a result of the display’s Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2, shooting at the 7-megapixel resolution allowed in iAuto mode produces incredibly clear, vibrant shots in bright sunlight. Primary colours pop, particularly blues, making for a striking overall feel, but it’s simply too saturated and vibrant. Good for Instagram, not for hardcore amateur photographers.

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In low light the camera deals well with high contrast. Noise is quick to show unfortunately, less of a problem in brighter conditions where the SP can shoot in HDR (High-dynamic range) mode. 

Macro focus proves smooth and the decent depth of field adds a richness to shots. So while it doesn’t quite live up to the camera prowess of the Xperia Z, as an all rounder it’s better than OK.

Video can be shot at up to Full HD (1080p) resolution and is good. It does have a few quirks such as over active image-stabilisation having the tendency to lock and track things unnecessarily, resulting in a ‘jolt’ of the feed (as seen in the video sample). Colours aren’t as over-vibrant as in pictures, but blues in particular continue to pop slightly unnaturally.

Alongside the camera capabilities, the SP has a wealth of media consumption tools at its disposal – the Music and Video Unlimited services being two such examples. 

With NFC it’s easy to pair the phone up to compatible speakers and on top of that it natively offers the ability to throw your music and videos to all manner of connected devices, really making a great device for enjoying content.

Sony Xperia SP: Performance and battery

The hardware under the solid body of the SP consists of a speedily clocked 1.7GHz Snapdragon Pro dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, the same Adreno 320 that is found in the Xperia Z and a host of connectivity options.

The greatest appeal of the SP in our eyes is that its user experience appears to be at the level Sony had always hoped for and promised. UI lag is almost completely absent and whether it’s down to the extra time they have had to work with the underlying coding or simply better hardware optimisation, it genuinely feels more fluid and responsive than that of the company’s quad-core toting, 2GB of RAM sporting flagship. It’s fair to say that this may offer the best example around of the Sony user experience.

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Considering the multimedia skills the SP demonstrates, it’s a little disappointing that of the 8GB of internal storage on-board only 5.8GB is user accessible and the microSD slot ‘only’ accommodates cards up to 32GB rather than 64GB, but these are small sacrifices when considering the overall package, with 32GB being plenty for most.

Being the second 4G phone in Sony’s handset portfolio those put off by the price tag of the Xperia Z may feel more comfortable with the SP and naturally battery life is another big point of consideration. 

With an Everything Everywhere 4G SIM inside and WiFi on we had no trouble hopping around London, blistering through web pages. That it lasts a full day makes it one of our favourite EE phones of the moment.

Should you need to conserve battery, you can activate Power Stamina mode and turn off LTE, stretching the Xperia SP’s life to a potential two days.

Sony Xperia SP: Conclusion

For a mid-range LTE phone we’re hands-down impressed. 

At just £250 on T-Mobile right now, the Xperia SP is arguably the first true competitor to the Google Nexus 4 out there in terms of value.

Despite lacking four cores and a unibody design, it betters the Google phone in many ways, offering LTE, a much better battery life and expandable memory, not to mention a superior camera experience. 

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Other LTE rivals include the Nokia Lumia 820, the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE or for those on a tighter budget the HTC One SV, but truth be told, they can’t touch the Xperia SP spec and price-wise.

Despite niggles therefore, the Xperia SP is one of the easiest sub £300 phones to recommend right now.

To be in with a chance of winning this great phone with Expansys, just tweet @ExpansysUK the answer to this question before Monday 13th May, 3pm.