Review by Dan Seifert on Sunday July 29, 2012.
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At first glance, the Sony Xperia P can appear pretty small when set next to some of the more popular Android smartphones on the market - and that's because it is. Measuring only 122mm x 58.4mm x 10mm (4.8in x 2.3in x 0.4in), the Xperia P is a tad taller than the Apple iPhone 4S and is dwarfed by the Samsung Galaxy S III or even Sony's own Xperia S. The P's smaller size makes it much easier to use one-handed, however, and there was never a point during my review where I thought the phone might fall out of my hand because it was too big. The Xperia P weighs 119g (4.1oz), which puts it on the lighter end of the smartphone grid.
Sony calls the P's construction an aluminum "unibody," but I think that is stretching the definition of unibody a bit. The P doesn't have the same feel as a true unibody smartphone, such as the Nokia Lumia 900 or the HTC One X, but its seams and joints are all very tight and there are no loose parts to be found. The back of the phone is indeed aluminum, and sports a soft matte finish that does a great job at hiding fingerprints (unlike say, the finish on the Xperia ion that was a fingerprint magnet). Our review unit has an attractive silver finish that I am a big fan of, but if you don't like it, you can also get the Xperia P in red or black color options.
The back of the phone is also where the 8 megapixel camera and LED flash are found, and the ends are a plastic material to house the phone's various wireless antennas. Underneath the back panel is a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip and an embedded 1305mAh battery that, unfortunately, is not user accessible.
The sides of the Xperia P are fairly busy, and they are where the majority of the ports and hardware buttons for the phone are located. The right side features a two-stage camera key, volume rocker, and power/sleep/unlock key in addition to the phone's external speaker, which is in a pretty unusual location. The buttons are stiff and click nicely, but the shutter key is a bit too stiff for my tastes. Along the left edge are the micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports, as well as the phone's micro-SIM card slot, which is found under a flap door. There is no microSD card slot to expand upon the Xperia P's 16GB of internal storage.
The top and bottom of the phone are pretty sparse, with just the 3.5mm headphone jack located up top and a microphone pinhole on the bottom.
Around front, the Xperia P features a 4-inch Reality Display with the company's Mobile BRAVIA Engine and new White Magic technology. The screen has a qHD resolution (540 x 960 pixel), which gives it a pixel density of 275PPI - plenty sharp for my eyes. The display has great viewing angles and bright colors that don't cross the line into over-saturation.
The Xperia P debuts Sony's new White Magic display technology, which puts a white pixel next to each group of RGB subpixels in the screen's array. This lets the display ramp up its brightness considerably more than other smartphones, which is great when viewing it outdoors in direct sunlight. The Xperia P's screen is so good in sunlight that it gives Nokia's ClearBlack displays a good run for the title of best display outdoors. The White Magic technology also features a power saving auto brightness mode that Sony claims is much more power efficient than other displays. White Magic is pretty awesome, and Sony needs to get it in its higher-end smartphones post haste so we can get the bad taste of the Xperia S and Xperia ion's disappointing displays out of our mouths.
Above the screen one finds a VGA-resolution front-facing camera and the earpiece. There is a multi-color notification light hidden in the left side of the speaker grille, which is always nice to see.
Below the display is where the other unique design aspect of the Xperia P is found. The Xperia P features the same clear plastic strip that is the hallmark of Sony's NXT line. On the P, the strip is also where the capacitive keys for back, home, and menu are found, which is a much better implementation than what we witnessed on the Xperia S, where the clear strip was just used for indicators and didn't respond to touch. The buttons on the Sony Xperia P are responsive and sensitive as well, unlike the capacitive keys on the S or the ion. The clear plastic strip is backlit, but it could stand to have a brighter light, as most of the time I couldn't tell that it was on. Additionally, while I really like this feature and I think it is both cool and useful at the same time, it appears that Sony still has some manufacturing issues with it, as there is noticeable glue residue in the clear strip on my particular review unit.
The Sony Xperia P features a dual-core 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. This is a slower processor than we are used to seeing in new smartphones these days, and the benchmark tests reflect that. But for all intents and purposes, I didn't notice any major performance issues with the Xperia P, as apps opened quickly and the phone was generally fast to navigate. The only time there was a hiccup or lag was when paging through home screens loaded with heavy widgets. The Xperia P also had no problem handling the latest high-end 3D games, despite its older chipset.
Like we saw with the Xperia S and Xperia ion, Sony has chosen to launch the Xperia P with Android 2.3.7 Gingerbread instead of the newer Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system (the Xperia S has since been updated to Android 4.0, but an update has not been released for the Xperia P yet). This means that you lose out on all of the performance and interface benefits that come with Android 4.0, not to mention the apps that are exclusive to Android 4.0 and up. Frankly, it's really disappointing to see a phone released part way through 2012 with an operating system from 2010, and it's a major blemish on the Xperia P's mostly good report card.
Sony has included its custom user interface on the Xperia P, and it has tried to incorporate some of the features that come with Android 4.0. The lock screen offers notifications for missed calls, new text messages, and new email messages in the email (not Gmail) app, and the home screens feature a drag-and-drop folder creation system that is very similar to Android 4.0's folders. There is also a built-in screenshot function accessible by long-pressing on the P's power key.
The home screen drops the common "helicopter" preview of available screens when you pinch in for Sony's widget-only preview. Tap one of the widgets and you will be brought to the corresponding home screen where it is found. I think this feature is cool and fun to use, if not as practical as the more common helicopter preview used on other Android devices.
Sony has also customized the app tray with side-scrolling pages and the ability to uninstall apps directly from the tray itself. You can also customize the app shortcuts in the Xperia P's dock, just like in Android 4.0.
But at the end of the day, no matter how hard Sony tries to make Android 2.3 look like Android 4.0 or 4.1, it is not, and the Xperia P is at a disadvantage because of it. Sony has promised to update the Xperia P to at least Android 4.0 in the future, but we don't have a timeline for when that update will be available to users.
The Sony Xperia P is offered here in the U.S. as an unlocked phone, which means that it can be used with any compatible GSM carrier. The P supports 3G
Call quality on the Xperia P on AT&T's was very good, as the earpiece was loud and clear. Likewise, I had no complaints with the P's speakerphone, despite the speaker's odd position on the side of the device.
Like many of Sony's recent smartphones, the Xperia P features support for Near Field Communications (NFC) and is compatible with the company's Xperia SmartTags. Unfortunately, the P is not compatible with Google Wallet, so the uses for its NFC features are pretty limited at this point. Additionally, there is support for Wi-Fi, GPS, and stereo Bluetooth connections.
The Xperia P comes with a slightly-skinned version of the stock Android 2.3 messaging app. It supports SMS and MMS messages and has conversation (threaded) view. It also has support for basic group messaging features, but not much else. The Xperia P comes with the WhatsApp and Google Talk instant messenger services pre-installed.
Sony's standard email app is one of the most basic email apps we have seen for modern Android devices. It supports IMAP, POP3, and Exchange email accounts, but it lacks features like conversation view and any sort of message organization capabilities. Sony did include a preview pane for browsing messages without leaving the inbox, but something tells me that more users would benefit from being able to file an email into a folder than viewing a message in the preview pane. Fortunately, Gmail users can ignore the included email app entirely and just use the native Gmail app for Android, which comes pre-installed on the Xperia P.
Dan is MobileBurn.com's Editor-in-Chief. Based in Poughkeepsie in New York, Dan can be found on Twitter as @DCSeifert.