Sony was so intent on returning to the top of the smartphone tree in 2013 that it launched two high-end flagship devices. The Sony Xperia Z1 trailed the Sony Xperia Z by just six months.
But this rather misses the fact that the low-end is where all the excitement is with Android right now. The recently launched Sony Xperia L might be seen as Sony’s affordable effort, but the likes of the Nokia Lumia 520 and the Motorola Moto G offer a decent smartphone experience for well under the £200 (under $200, AU$230) price point.
Indeed, the Moto G pretty much redefined what a ‘cheap’ smartphone could be, both in terms of price and performance.
The question the Sony Xperia M has to answer, then, is one that we suspect every affordable smartphone will have to answer in the first half of 2014. Why should you buy one when you can buy a Motorola Moto G for less money?
The answer, we’re afraid to say, is that you probably shouldn’t. Unless, that is, you want an iPhone-sized screen in a cheap Android shell, or if you demand a physical camera shutter button on your phone.
Sony attracted a fair amount of praise for its 2013 smartphone facelift. By focusing on a severe, almost industrial, sharp-cornered black slab design it managed to stand out from the crowd of me-too iPhone copies and sculpted plastic efforts.
The Sony Xperia M makes a cursory nod to that immediate heritage, but it’s hardly a looker. Sony has once again gone with a somewhat anonymous blank-faced design with an all-glass (or mostly glass) front, with a slightly gaudy (but useful) notification strip-light hidden immediately below the screen.
The sides and rear of the device are all one plastic component. This can be peeled off via a neat access point built into the ridge of the microUSB port on the upper left hand side. Exposing the Xperia M’s innards provides access to its battery, as well as the SIM and microSD slots.
Though this approach is commendably tidy, I almost wish the microSD slot had been made accessible from the outside, as the Xperia M suffers from a cripplingly small amount of internal storage – a frankly pathetic 4GB, which works out to just 2GB of usable space once the OS has had its portion.
If you have anything less than a 16GB card, I fear you’ll be reaching capacity quickly.
Back to external matters, and by making its rear cover encompass so much of the phone, the Xperia M feels pleasantly solid. Turn it over, and the matte finish and blunted corners of the rear panel put us in mind of the recent Nokia Lumia range.
Those silver plastic edge strips just look plain tacky, though, and the tapered shiny plastic front panel surround reminds us of HTC’s designs from four years ago.
Sony’s ideas about control layout continue in the entry-level Xperia M – that is, keep the front section completely free of physical buttons and plonk some contrastingly chunky examples together on the side.
I quite like this approach. It means that you never have to take your attention away from the screen to press a button, even when you have to interact with one of the virtual controls that takes up a thin band of the display.
Yes, Sony is one of startlingly few manufacturers to adopt Google’s own virtual control set-up, but we’ll discuss that more a little later.
The side-mounted physical controls do the job far better than most rival offerings. The almost obscenely pronounced power button is as easy to find in a rushed pocket scramble as it is satisfying to press, and its location two-thirds of the way up the device make it fall naturally under your right thumb or left forefinger.
Just below that is the similarly well positioned volume rocker, which has a usefully pronounced concave curve from end to end.
Speaking of concave, the entire rear panel of the Xperia M dips slightly in the middle, with the top section (housing the camera) and the bottom section (housing the speaker) bulging out slightly.
The effect isn’t quite as pronounced as that of the Sony Xperia L, but there’s clearly some of that phone’s DNA in the Xperia M.
At just 115g it’s a fair bit lighter than most modern smartphones, and almost matches fellow 4-inch lightweight the iPhone 5S.
Suffice to say that overall, the Sony Xperia M is a solidly built phone that betrays its entry-level position with some less-than-premium components.
Sony is marketing the Sony Xperia M as an affordable smartphone that provides high-end features. But is that necessarily the case?
It’s certainly true that features such as NFC for quick connectivity to speaker docks and easy ‘one touch’ local data transfers is a relatively advanced feature. Neither the Motorola Moto G nor the Nokia Lumia 520 have the feature, for example.
It’s also true that most low-end smartphones fail to include an HDR camera mode (the quality of which we’ll discuss in the appropriate section).
However, in general terms the Xperia M is far from high-end. Most noticeably, its 4-inch display is well below what most non-Apple smartphone users have come to expect in terms of size.
Indeed, with Android phones specifically the bare minimum screen size seems to have been accepted as 4.3 inches.
There’s no doubt that the Sony Xperia M feels small in a way that even the iPhone doesn’t.
While iOS has been built with Apple’s gorgeous 4-inch display firmly in mind, resulting in a thoroughly pleasant experience throughout, the Xperia M’s Android OS feels somewhat cramped.
Part of that could be to do with the implementation of those virtual controls we mentioned earlier, which take up a small-but-noticeable portion of the screen.
With a 5-inch display like that found on the Nexus 5, it’s not a problem. Here, it makes things like games and websites feel all the more squished.
There’s also the unavoidable issue of sharpness. The Sony Xperia M only has an 854 x 480 resolution, which produces 244ppi.
That’s not bad, exactly, but trails behind new entry level devices like the Moto G (326ppi) or even older mid-range phones like the Nexus 4 (318ppi) by a little under 100ppi.
This means that text and images on the Xperia M look, if not exactly fuzzy, then certainly not quite as sharp or detailed as on other recent Android phones.
It’s also noticeable that the Xperia M’s display is positioned a fair bit below the external touchscreen surface, which leaves a slightly disconcerting gap and leads to a picture that doesn’t pop as much as it should. That’s probably not helped by the fact that there’s no Bravia technology to be found here.
One key feature of the Sony Xperia M that we’re fully behind, though, is its dedicated camera shutter button.
Not only does its offer a two-stage capturing system, negating the need for an unnatural and unsteady grip as with most touchscreen-activated phones, but it also offers a quick shortcut to the camera app.
Hold the shutter button all the way down and the Xperia M will jump you straight to the camera. Response times aren’t lightning quick, but they’re certainly swifter and more reliable than any touchscreen-only camera phone – particularly when you’re fumbling to capture that fleeting moment.
We’ve been big fans of this approach for some time, so it’s a shame that only Sony and Nokia seem interested in perpetuating it.
But the primary key feature of the Sony Xperia M has already been mentioned – its price. At £175 (around $195, AU$220) it’s currently the cheapest phone in the Xperia range, but it still feels overpriced to us when you can get sharper, faster, more desirable phones for the same or less.
Performance and battery life
As we hinted at in the previous section, the Sony Xperia M isn’t the speediest smartphone on the market. That’s thanks to its modest 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus processor backed by 1GB of RAM, which is a decidedly last-gen set-up.
Indeed, when benchmarked using the Geekbench 3 tool, we gained a pretty poor average multicore score of 625. This places the Xperia M in the company of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and only a little above the Samsung Galaxy S2 – both of which were launched in 2011.
Still, in real world usage it’s reasonably snappy. Games with advanced physics like Angry Birds Star Wars and rich 3D titles like Beach Buggy Blitz run quite smoothly, probably thanks to that undemanding sub-HD display.
There is a noticeable stutter that occurs as you transition between the seven default home screens, though. What’s more, when those home screens feature advanced elements like the gallery widget, it takes a second to load up.
Of course, this is likely as much of an issue with the Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean OS and Sony’s custom UI as any hardware concerns.
Speaking of which, the Sony UI is as functional as ever. It’s neither the most feature-rich nor the most attractive custom job on the market – those titles probably belong to Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense respectively.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sony isn’t in the habit of straying too far away from Google’s stock Android approach with any of its revisions, and it works all the better for it.
The notification menu looks and behaves similarly to the fine stock Android equivalent, while the lock screen is a tactile slide-up or slide-down affair, with shortcuts for the music player or, rather pointlessly given the aforementioned physical button, the camera.
There are default custom widgets for such things as weather, settings toggles (though this acts as a rather pointless shortcut to an expanded menu), a music player and the aforementioned gallery.
There’s also a rather neat TrackID shortcut that lets you find out what’s playing on the radio or from your neighbour’s window using the Xperia M’s mic.
It’s a nice nod to Sony’s music-centric Walkman past, which is also reflected in the name and design of Sony’s music player app.
Arguably the most impressive thing about the Sony Xperia M is its battery life. It’s only a 1,750mAh unit, but it sure stretches a fair old way.
I easily cleared two days of moderate usage – checking mails, taking a few snaps, playing a couple of games and switching the phone to airplane mode over night – on a single charge, and with around 20 percent left in the tank at that.
Again, it has to be down to that small, low-res display that the Sony Xperia M can last so long.
A quick check of the battery usage tool during this period revealed that this power-hungry component was responsible for around 42 percent of power usage – and that was with the brightness whacked up to full.
It can’t hurt that the Snapdragon S4 is such a power-efficient processor, and is clocked at a relatively low 1GHz (high-end smartphones tend to run at more than double that).
However, when subjecting the Xperia M to TechRadar’s usual HD video battery test, the Xperia M was rather less impressive.
The test involves running a 90 minute 720p video, with the screen brightness cranked right up and all notifications on. The average remaining battery capacity of 72% wasn’t exactly bad, but it didn’t quite reflect the battery’s strong performance in general usage.
The Xperia M, then, seems to have been designed for those who aren’t glued to their mobiles all day, and who don’t use them extensively for media consumption. Which makes sense when you consider that display.
Sony also includes some extra power-saving options in the settings menu. Stamina mode will disable mobile data whenever the screen is off, while you can opt for Wi-Fi to turn on automatically when in range of a recognised network.
You can also customise a low battery mode, which can be made to kick in when the power level drops below 30%.
Screen brightness and timeout, vibrations, GPS and more can be tweaked according to your needs.
Also in the Xperia M’s favour is that fact that you can remove and replace the battery by removing the back. Pack a fully charged spare and you’ll be good for a solid five days of usage without the need of a power point.
The essentials and camera
As we’ve discussed, the Sony Xperia M has a handful of key features that mark it out from other affordable Android phones, but it does the general stuff pretty well too.
Call quality is crisp and clear, and the rear-mounted speaker is notably loud and clear when playing media or receiving phone calls.
The latter is thanks largely to Sony’s xLOUD technology, which simply makes the sound output… well, louder, but without distortion.
While the Sony Xperia M is strong when it comes to outputting calls and media, it’s not a great messager. That small screen, combined with a cramped Sony keyboard, makes tapping out messages a bit of a chore – at least until you get to grips with it.
I came to the Xperia M directly from using an iPhone 5S as my daily driver, so I’m accustomed to using a smaller 4-inch device for typing out messages.
I suspect that anyone coming from a larger phone will struggle even more than I did.
Of course, this being Android, all that was needed was a free download of Google Keyboard (or a paid download of SwiftKey) and the problem was significantly lessened.
On the apps front, Sony has included most of the main Google apps as standard. That means using Chrome as the default (and only) web browser, which really shouldn’t still be a noteworthy inclusion for new Android phones, but somehow it is.
Gmail, Maps, and Hangouts are also included. We’d recommend booting the latter up and setting it as your default SMS service, as it’s much more pleasant to use than Sony’s default effort.
Likewise Google’s own gallery app, Photos, is that little bit crisper and cleaner than Sony’s Album equivalent, and it ties in with Google+’s excellent auto-uploading and enhancement features. Both apps are included here from the off, so the choice is yours.
Speaking of Sony software, we should note that the company continues to require you to hook your smartphone up to your computer when there’s a new firmware update to install. It’s a mystifying and frankly irritating decision.
What’s more, when plugged into my MacBook I had to manually search for the appropriate piece of bridging software – the automated installation didn’t seem to work.
Also irritating was the fact that my Xperia M handset continued to tell me I had an update pending, even after I had installed the latest update and rebooted several times.
I eventually realised that I had to manually refresh the update monitor in order to help it to realise it was up to date. It’s a relatively minor niggle, but it’s not one that a big company like Sony should really be making.
Sony’s smartphone cameras are typically some of the strongest out there, as you might expect given the parent company’s wider expertise in the area. However, you shouldn’t expect particularly wondrous things from the entry-level Sony Xperia M.
It possesses a 5MP camera backed by an LED flash. Other than the physical two-stage camera button we mentioned earlier, that’s a pretty bog standard set-up.
Images are actually set to 3MP 16:9 by default, and if you manually switch to the full 5MP you’ll find yourself stuck with a somewhat old fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio. Still, it lends itself better to those Instagram moments.
There’s an HDR mode on board, which you don’t always get with cheaper phones. I found that this noticeably brightened up the landscape images I took on one particularly cloudy day, but at the expense of blurry edges and some slightly false colour reproduction. Utilising HDR mode indoors with multiple artificial light sources, meanwhile, resulted in a complete blurry mess.
Even general shots in decent natural lighting revealed a certain graininess and a general lack of detail, as well as a somewhat washed out colour palette.
Still, the Xperia M does feature a relatively comprehensive list of software features for such a cheap phone. These include manual settings for white balance, ISO and the like, and even a range of filters for those popular Instagram-like effects.
Video goes up to 720p, so there’ll be no Full HD capture here. You shouldn’t expect anything more than mediocre performance, either, with a shaky and somewhat blurry picture that struggles with motion.
In short, the Sony Xperia M’s camera offers precisely what you’d expect from an entry-level smartphone. But that’s still a little disappointing coming from Sony.
Click here to see full resolution image
Click here to see full resolution image
Click here to see full resolution image
Hands on gallery
Sony might be pitching the Xperia M as a fully-featured smartphone at an affordable price, but this entry-level effort doesn’t hit the mark convincingly on either count.
Its 4-inch display isn’t quite large or sharp enough for the modern Android OS, and the phone suffers from a critical lack of storage space. With the vastly superior Motorola Moto G available for less money, I just don’t see where the £175 (around $200, AU$220) Xperia M fits in.
It’s oddly refreshing to have an ‘iPhone-sized’ 4-inch smartphone running the Android OS, and the Sony Xperia M is a lot lighter and more compact than most of its peers.
The Xperia M is a solidly built phone with a well though-out set of physical controls – including an all-too-rare camera shutter button.
There’s also no denying that the Xperia M is extremely affordable, making it the ideal entry point to those particularly enamoured with Sony’s design work, or those who want an Android phone with iPhone dimensions.
The Sony Xperia M would probably have felt like reasonably good value had it been launched at the end of 2012, though even back then its specs would have been underwhelming.
With the staggeringly good value Moto G now on the scene, low-end smartphone standards have been raised to an extremely high level, and the Xperia M just cannot compete.
Regardless of this, the Xperia M’s compact display is simply not sharp or vibrant enough in this day and age, and its lack of storage means that you’ll need a substantial microSD card just to be able to use the phone as intended.
What’s more, unlike the rest of the Xperia range, the M can’t fall back on a decent camera as a stand-out feature.
You have to feel a little sorry for Sony. It produces a perfectly solid Android smartphone with a handful of neat features, all for a low price tag, only to see it completely undermined by the Moto G.
Even taking such an exceptional competitor out of the reckoning, though, the Xperia M finds itself flanked by high quality low-end rivals like the Nokia Lumia 520 and the Huawei Ascend P6. In such company, the Sony Xperia M simply doesn’t provide enough distinctive bangs for your bucks.
Unless you’re specifically looking for a cheap Android phone that matches the iPhone’s dimensions, we can’t see why you’d choose the Xperia M over its rivals.
First reviewed: January 25 2014