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New phone - Sony Xperia U

It is that time again. Time to give up my old contract as it reaches the end, and come up with a new contract. Telephony in France is freakishly expensive - I am with Orange for both my ADSL and mobile.
ADSL costs €40 a month, and mobile (500Mb data, 1hr to landlines, 3 mobiles unlimited) costs me €35 a month.

I wish to remain with Orange for ADSL. I'm at the end of 4.7km of ancient cable and don't have a real telephone (it is a VoIP line). Thus while I could change to a cheaper supplier, I don't fancy being in the game of paying my subs while the telco and the internet provider argue over whose fault the problem is. At least if Orange supply the wires and the internet, it's up to them to fix it, there's nobody else in the equation.

I looked at SFR (a rival network) for mobile access, but when you add in the 3 unlimited numbers, the price was about the same and the range of phones on offer was not so good. So to Orange - to renew. If I accept a contract for 24 months, the Sony Xperia U will cost me €39, and I have a coupon to get a reimbursement of €30.

But, no, I don't pay €75/month. The mobile phone is now tied into the Livebox, with one group payment for both. About €60. Plus for choosing them for 24 months, they offer 10% reduction (€6) for the first six months.

The guy in the Orange shop also signed me up for a special insurance (€9/month) plus special Orange antivirus/firewall (€5/month). Without asking me first. I have unsubscribed from the antivirus thing (I have Avast!), and I will soon unsubscribe from the insurance (home insurance ought to cover a phone, plus there should be no fraudulent calls as I keep my SIM locked when the phone isn't in my possession).
Xperia U SIM insertionI get a new number. Again. I kept my original number active (from the Defy) as I knew it by heart. The man explained some waffle that I think is just put there to be a pain. Apparently you can transfer your number from other networks with ease, but transferring an old number on the same network requires you to jump through hoops. I don't believe it isn't possible, it's just that Orange (maybe others) just don't want to do it.
Oh, and the guy took several attempts to get the phone to power up correctly. You see, he kept trying to shove the SIM in incorrectly, something my luddite mother figured out right away, and there was really no excuse as there was a diagram on the inside of the phone (as shown here).

I will talk about Orange's service another time. However, apart from the time they failed completely (on a Friday evening too), the service has seemed to be fairly reliable. I can moan that I only get 2mbit, but this is no doubt more down to the obscenely long length of wire than any specific action on Orange's part. Actually, within the last couple of months I've noticed my downstream rate has dropped from 2mbit to around 1.5-1.8mbit (depends upon the weather); however the artificial 256kbit cap on uploading has been removed so uploading new runs around 6-700kbit. This is about all I can expect in the winter due to dampness, cold, attentuation, and dozens of other complicated excuses. But it more or less comes down to "how loud a piece of equipment can shout into a rusty old wire". I'm paying for "up to 20" and getting "a little under 2". But I console myself with the fact that if I was living in the UK and BT was running the show, I'd be able to get my internet for a third of the price.....only not here as it wouldn't be cost-effective to supply it. Etc.
I notice, incidentally, from Orange's DSLTest, that the reference of what is "acceptable" has changed from around 1.6mbit to 461kbit. I've just given my line a quick test via my previous mobile (the Xperia Mini Pro) and here is the result:

My ADSL speed - 2013/01/13 at 18:32
Measured ADSL speed, 2013/01/13 at 18:32
I suspect that the economic problems are affecting Orange so they are less able to support outlying areas. This sucks for those who live in such areas, but given what is going on in the world it isn't so surprising. It does make me giggle when I see plans for projects to bring ultra-high-speed internet (100mbit or more) to everybody in Brittany. Yeah, right. Pull the other one, it has bells attached.

Either way, I have no specific complaints about Orange at this time. I trust my rates will improve in the spring when the weather should (hopefully) improve.

 

Now, the phone

There are several things I like on a phone:
  • Keyboard - but these are becoming rarer and rarer
  • SD card slot - for expanding internal storage
  • Responsive - a laggy phone sucks
  • Decent photographic capabilities - by this I mean 5mpix and 720p HD video with a good level of clarity in the photos
  • Good display - bright, clear, well-defined colours, and sharp
They make phones that do all that I require in the several-hundred-euros category. I'm informed that one of the Galaxy Note family would be all that I want and more. I hope so, for that sort of price!
My budget - in the ballpark of fifty euros.

For fifty euros, your range of Android handsets tends to offer you:

  • Lowish quality displays (try 480×320 with 256K colours)
  • Bottom end processing (600-800MHz)
  • 3mpix cameras, can do VGA (640×480) video and maybe FWVGA (854×480) if you ask nicely.

Enter the Sony Xperia U. This would appear to Sony's attempt to make some ground in the lower end of the market by cutting corners to offer a higher than expected specification with a few compromises along the way.

The main, principal, and absolutely insurmountable compromise is that the phone is fitted with 4Gb on-board. To my mind this is pretty insufficient in this day and age. In France, SD cards tend to run at approx. €1/Gb. Now consider Sony mass-producing these things at trade costs. Surely it would not have been such a hardship to install at least 8Gb?

I have copied across my MP3s, two animé episodes, and a film off YouTube (so only ~300Mb) and my storage has around 0.6Gb remaining. I am going to feel this!

However. For a phone bundled with the contract at €39 and undercutting pretty much everything else, it offers me:

  • Good display - bright, sharp, clear. 854×480 with a full 16M colours. 3.5" with ~280ppi density.
    I think this display even tops the one in the Motorola DEFY.
  • 5 megapixel (2592×1944) autofocus camera with LED flash, lots of scene options, image sizes, ISO control, smile detection, etc etc.
    Doesn't appear to suffer the quirk of the Xperia Mini Pro where using the flash gives everything an incorrect hue.
  • HD 720p video recording, with lamp, scenes, auto-focus, white balance, metering, etc etc.
  • Useful feature: When the phone is on standby (powered up but otherwise 'off'), hold down the photo button to quick-launch the camera. It can work as start up (as I have it) or start-up-and-take-a-photo.
  • Android 2.3.7 (Gingerbread), still. To give Sony some credit, v4.0 (ICS) is available for this model of phone, though I'm not sure if there is a "for Orange" build at this time. And, they've done some quite nice things with 2.3 so it looks newer, fresher, nicer than the 2.3.4 on the Xperia Mini Pro.
  • Dual-core 1 GHz Cortex-A9 processor (NovaThor U8500 with Mali-400 graphics).
    While this is the slowest of the NovaThor (Ericsson/STE) processors, it is no slouch. To give you an idea, I have always bemoaned how long it takes Android to start up. This phone does it in around 26 seconds from pressing the button to swipe-to-go-to-home-screen. The unit is not quite capable of rendering 720p HD H.264 video completely in software, however it can do it without trouble with hardware assistance. The Mali-400 is an interesting graphics chip in that it doesn't support a graphics display device. Instead it will render into memory and leave something else to do the actual shove-it-to-the-screen part. The U8500 has a single core GPU. It would appear to be pretty much a slightly slower Exynos part.
All in all, it seems to have a specification rather higher higher than you might expect for this section of the market.

While there is Facebook integration in the phone, it doesn't throw it in your face like the Xperia Mini Pro.

 

So now let's look at the phone. It is larger than I expected, flat, and plasticky. But that said, it doesn't feel cheap, for the back has a slightly grippy surface.

The Xperia U
The Xperia U playing Chihayafuru #2.01 (480p)
You can see in the photo a pink thing that is a replacable end-cap for the phone to "customise" it - you can buy other colours from Sony. I rather wish they left that out and put in better ear buds instead...
The thing stuck to the display is a matt screen protector. I added that.
As you can see, it is a big clear display that gives good colour reproduction and doesn't even mess with digital cameras!

Along the bottom are touch sensitive areas for the three Android functions - Back, Home, and Menu. And then possibly one of the most pointlessly flashy gimmicks since the iPhone. I'll let the photo speak for itself:

Xperia U's gimmick
A glowing gimmick!
A bar that lights up. It tries to match the colour of your theme. If you are looking at a photo, it tries to match the predominant colour of the photo. Likewise when using the built-in music player (though I prefer an older WinAmp before all the useful stuff was taken out to make a paid-for version).

 

Welcome to the UI

When you press the on/off button, you will see something like this:
Android lockscreen
It is the standard Android lock screen, but it can display various notifications along the way.

There are five homescreens provided. Here is my layout (the leftmost screen is currently unused):

My homescreens
My homescreens (click image for full size version)
I have removed the animated gently swishing amethyst stuff in the background and replaced it with a static image as my battery life is descending a little too rapidly for my liking. It is a new phone, so hopefully a few charge/discharge cycles will bring the battery back up to shape as well.

Some of the widgets are pretty nifty. Here's the media "folder" expanded:

Media folder
Expanded "Media" folder
This, in theory, allows you to fit a lot more into your homescreens by offering pop-up folders that can contain apps and functions grouped by what it is. In this respect, it reminds me a lot of the UI on the Psion 3a.

You'll see a tiny control panel under the weather widget on the main screen. You don't need to try to tap stuff that small, just tap on the widget and it will open a large version of itself:

Control panel
Control panel, everything for easy access

As for weather, asides from the weather widget you can see on the main screen (edited to say "Somewhere" instead of my location), there are bar widgets so I can tell at a glance that it is a rainy morning in Tōkyō, less rainy in Ōsaka, a cloudy day in Catonsville (America, East Coast), and a partly overcast night in Clisson (pretty town near Nantes, France):

Forecasts, overview
My four picks for forecasts.

Tap one of the forecasts and it will open itself up to give a better overview of the upcoming weather:

Forecast, detailed
Forecast in more detail
You can also tap on the 15 day forecast to go on-line to retrieve a forecast of longer duration. Having said that, we may get snow this week (and next?) or we may not. The weather forecast changes more often than my mind!

I'm going to go fairly quickly through the rest, as there are no big surprises inside the phone - it is pretty much standard Android stuff with some Sony tweaks to make it look and feel better. So I will just show some screenshots of stuff in action.

First up, text messages. And for what it is worth, I have no idea who Céline is. I think she got the wrong number:

Text messaging
Threaded text messaging

Now for email. It looks like regular email, only the screen is large enough that it is realistic to have a pane on the right to show messages with a list on the left. You can drag the centre division around to make the list narrower (and the email wider):

Email
Email in action (scaled to fit)

Amazon on the browser:

Amazon on the browser
Amazon (mobile version) on the stock browser

RISC OS Open's forums on the browser - with this sort of resolution it is actually readable at this size!

RISC OS Open on the browser
RISC OS Open on the browser (scaled to fit)

MXPlayer connects to JPopSuki TV without problems, plus plays XviDs, MKVs, etc with subtitles and all looks good. I cannot provide screenshots as the video layer isn't captured by the screen capture utility. Likewise with NHK World that streams the channel.

A display of this resolution was built for PDFs and manga scanlations:


Mango showing "Blood Alone" ch. 0, pg. 9
However, the meagre 4Gb may get in the way of this. Hmmm...

And finally, JED, which - like everything else - can get a lot more on the screen at any one time:

JED
JED - Japanese/English Dictionary

 

Display

In case you haven't noticed, I like it.

Sound

Capable, not that you'd guess it from the lowish quality ear buds. Unfortunately the four-pin plug wiring is different to that used with the Xperia Mini Pro so I can't just recycle the hands-free kit.
For what it is worth, my benchmark is "Shell" by Bana from the Witch Hunter Robin soundtrack. It kicks into some pretty heavy bass at +14s which is a good way to tell if the audio/headset/speakers (etc) are any good. The Xperia U can deliver, but the supplied hands-free kit cannot.

Also, Sony seem to prefer to put the equaliser into their music player (with bass boost, it really delivers) rather than having it as a system-wide setting (as on the Moto Defy). This is a shame as it would be nice to apply settings to apply across the board to counteract quirks of specific listening apparatus.

GPS

I only tested the GPS in so far as it locked in and told me where I was.

Email

All of my POP3 mailboxes are now set up. Orange's site was malfunctioning (<cough>again) so didn't want to tell me the password for the second mailbox. With a little bit of lateral thought, I set up a server on my PC (hMailServer) and switched on logging of the POP3 communication. Then I turned off SSL and pointed my Android phone at my PC. It tried to log in, failed, but left the UID and password in the logfile. ☺

Photo

Sometimes the photos can be slightly fuzzy as if the focus wasn't quite right. It is a lot better than the Defy in that you can try for a good focus before pressing the button, however the button itself is somewhat stiff and recessed, so I wonder if that in itself is the reason for the blurring?
A few small-scale tests, the imager seems to cope quite well with night time shots. There is a fair bit of noise in the picture, but the results are bright and jolly, while I've seen better cameras fail and give washed-out dark images. Colour reproduction is surprisingly good on a cloudy day, I've not tried it in sunny weather (still waiting for that!), though I did note some lens flare showing up if the angles were correct.
Here is an unscaled cut-out. I have cropped this out of a 5mpix photo of the front of the house from the west end of the drive (about 35 metres away from the front door) to give you an idea of quality over distance. And remember, it's a piddly little imager with a cheap plastic lens in a mobile phone, you will expect a dedicated digital camera to perform better than a "feature" on a phone...
Photo quality
Cut-out from a 5mpx image to show distance clarity - it's surprisingly good

Anything else?

Yes, there's more to say, but not today...

 

Your comments:

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joe, 17th January 2013, 10:34
Hi Rick, 
All the best in 2013 for you and your Mother. 
 
I think, you've been short changed by Orange, my mobile broadband is at least 4 times faster than your adsl, on the other hand my adsl 2+ was only 2 times faster, at night dropping below your speed, 4km from exchange. I had to change modem settings to ADSL, only because of constant disconnections, gave up at the end. 
I have changed to cable, download speed 19 - 25 Mbps. 
Cable and landline (200 GB and unlimited local calls) - $100.00 a month, mobile broadband 12 GB a year $180.00 
In Australia, landline users are charged per phone call, not per minute.

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