What is the Sony Xperia M?

Working its way through the alphabet, the Sony Xperia M is a 4-inch screen Android smartphone that’s certainly no Xperia Z1 or Japan-bound Xperia Z1f. You don't get the 20.7-megapixel camera or HD screen of those phones, but for £180 what you do get are some pretty decent specs.

The Xperia M also manages to adopt some of the sleek design traits from its more expensive Xperia compatriots to make it a great cheap Android phone.




Sony Xperia M - Design

It's no real surprise that the glass front and back panels on the high end Xperia phones have been swapped for a matte plastic body in the Xperia M. It's closer in look and size to the Xperia L. But the arched back is more subtle on the M it doesn't have the bottom edge jutting out like the Xperia L, used in that _phone_ to accommodate the notification light bar.

If you are planning to take this for a swim or in the bath, you will be sadly disappointed to find out that it's not waterproof like the Z and Z1.

Available in black, white, purple and yellow, the Sony Xperia M incorporates Sony's OmniBalance design giving it an evenly weighted feel in the hand whether you are holding it in portrait or landscape.  The bezel is thicker above and below the display and slimmer at the edges to give it a movie-friendly 16:9 screen ratio. 

With its 4-inch display and 124mm height, it feels very similar to the iPhone 5S in the hand. At 9.3mm thick it’s not as slender as Apple's smartphone, but at 115g weighs just 3g more.



On the Xperia X's edge is an aluminium on/off button and standard volume rocker,  next to a dedicated camera button. The microUSB charging port is over on the opposite side of the handset and the good news is the back is removable (from the bottom of the handset) hiding away the battery, micro SIM and microSD card slot.The customisable notification light bar at the bottom of the _phone_ is still present but it's been merged closer into the body to keep things nice and trim.

It’s got a nicer more comfortable feel in the hand compared to the Xperia L and while it lacks some of the more premium design qualities of the Xperia Z and Z1 it’s still a well-built, good looking smartphone. 


Sony Xperia M - Screen quality

With a 4-inch TFT 854x480 screen resolution the Xperia M sits around the two year-old Samsung Galaxy S2 in terms of quality. There's no Trilluminos or X-Reality Bravia engine to give you TV-quality picture and it struggles to deliver the same, vibrant colours as Samsung’s AMOLED display. The 245 ppi pixel density means it's never going to give you Retina-like clarity, but for reading web pages, text is nice and clear. For brightness and colour range, it performs pretty well for a low-end Android phone even if it lacks the sharpness to make it a really great screen.

As can be the case with TFT displays, the Xperia M struggles for visibility when you are outdoors and in bright sunlight. The viewing angles also really suffer resulting in colours looking extremely washed out. 

Similarly priced phones like the Nokia Lumia 520 and the bigger Nokia Lumia 625 are also let down in the screen department. The screen is one of the Xperia M's weakest attributes but for general browsing, watching the odd movie and gaming, it will do the job just fine.




While the Xperia M largely can disappoint on the viewing front, we can have no real complaints about the screen responsiveness. The 4-point multi-touch display reacts well to swiping through homescreens, opening apps and scrolling through settings.

Sony Xperia M - Software

Running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the Sony Xperia M isn’t bang up to date with the latest version of Android (4.3) but it’s generally the same experience you can expect too get on most Jelly Bean-running Xperia handsets. You can still download apps from the Google Play store, create widgets, make app folders and access Google Now. Sony’s presence is developing into one of the better Android interface skins and it’s still very easy to use to get around once you spend a bit of time with it.

Something we do have an issue with is the keyboard in portrait mode. It’s quite cramped compared to typing on the Xperia Z or the Xperia Z1 and it can take some getting used to write messages and simply search for something quickly in Google.




 

Sony Xperia M - Apps

There are plenty of apps on board including Sony’s native offerings. Walkman, Track ID (Sony’s take on Shazam) Sony Connect, Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited are among the ones that make the cut. Xperia Link is just one of the many connectivity options you can use to send data and video between other the Xperia M and accessories like laptops and TVs. There’s also NFC and DLNA support and Sony's Throw app to send content to other Sony devices.

On the Google app front there’s the usual suspects including Gmail, the Chrome browser and Google Plus. Facebook is already installed and with OfficeSuite already on board, there’s more than enough to keep you going before you have to venture into the Google Play Store for more.



Sony Xperia M - Performance

The Xperia M has a 1GHz Qualcomm S4 Plus dual-core CPU, 1GB RAM and a Adreno 305 GPU. It’s more than suitable to keep things running smoothly.

Browsing is quick, not lightning fast, but there's no cause for serious complaint. There’s little sign of lag swiping through homescreens or launching applications and it’s more than capable of streaming video.

It also handles more demanding gaming like Dead Trigger, however the small 4GB of internal memory becomes an issue if you want to download more than one of the bigger-sized games. In reality, after you take into consideration the room Sony's software takes up you only have 2GB to play. Having the expandable storage option is necessary if you want to download and play Real Racing 3.



In the benchmark scores the Xperia M fares reasonably well. The 257 score in the Peacekeeper browser benchmark tests suggests it's only just above the ropey Xbox 360 and PS3 browsers, however we found browsing to be generally fine. In the 3D Mark Ice Storm benchmark test the M scores a 4152 beating the similarly-specced LG L7 II (2290). In Geekbench 3, the M manages a 625 which is once again above the LG L7 II (421).

Sony Xperia M - Camera quality

For taking photos, you have a 5-megapixel 'fast capture' rear-facing camera and VGA-quality front camera at your disposal. The main camera has an LED flash, 4x digital zoom, autofocus and there's a dedicated camera button. It's not exactly camera specs to blow you away and as expected deliver a mix bag of results.

The camera UI is identical to the one used on the Xperia Z and Xperia Z1 albeit without the number of modes and settings to choose from. There's no Superior auto mode so you will have to make do with a Normal mode along with video camera, picture effect, sweep panorama and scene selection settings. 

There’s some manual shooting options available letting you adjust exposure levels and you can shoot HDR photos to get sharper, more detailed images.

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In bright, well-lit conditions, the Xperia M's shutter speed is quicker to jump into action than the Xperia L (around a second). It can hamper results when objects are moving, but it's very useful to have on board. Thanks to the LED flash, images are bright and offer good levels of detail. Colour accuracy can be a little off. Using HDR definitely helps to push the quality of images and can add more vivid colours.


Image taken in HDR mode with 5-megapixel resolution



5-megapixel resolution photo using HDR mode



Same 5-megapixel resolution image taken with HDR mode turned off


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5-megpixel resolution photo taken in Normal mode (no flash)


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5-megapixel resolution photo taken in Normal mode using 4x digital zoom (no flash)


In low light, without the flash, the picture below will tell you all you need to know. It really struggles to fully capture the entire scene and you can just about make some of the objects in shot. With the LED flash on, results are substantially better and while there is some noticeable noise, colours and detail are okay for a 5-megapixel camera.  


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5-megapixel resolution image taken with no flash in low light


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5-megapixel resolution images taken with flash in low light

If you want to film, you can shoot 720p HD video at 30fps. The continuous focus really struggles and recording at a live football match content was blurry and massively out of focus.  Sound recording is actually one of the better aspect of video recording picking clear, distinct audio.

The VGA front-facing camera can take photos and record video and unsurprisingly will not blow you away in terms of quality and performance. It should make do for video chats but we have definitely seen better front-facing cameras in action.

Sony Xperia M - Battery Life

Behind the Xperia M's removable cover lies a 1750mAh capacity battery more than capable of giving you two days plus play time with careful use. Sony also includes its Stamina and Low Battery features to disable battery-draining features and helps keep the impressive battery life going even further.

In more extreme testing conditions running the downloaded film Ice Age on maximum brightness with sound on, the Xperia M manages 9-9.5 hours before running completely out of life. That's also without dipping into the power management modes. The Xperia M is also a quick charger picking up around 15 per cent battery from a 30-minute charge, starting from critical battery level (below 10 per cent).

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Sony Xperia M - Call Quality

Like the Xperia L, the Xperia M suffers from some distortion on both ends of the call and things can struggle to come out exceptionally clear. There are no signal dropping issues and the inclusion of Sony's HD Voice no doubt helps eliminate background noise. Inside a packed pub we still needed to move away from the crowd to take the call. Things do improve when you are using the speakerphone, but clarity far from impresses.


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Sony Xperia M - Speaker Quality

While call quality is not up to scratch, the rear speaker actually does a decent job particularly when watching films. The Xperia Z and Z1 suffer from bad speaker placement so it's nice to see Sony get it right on the Xperia M. Situated on the lower part of the removable back, there's very little chance of cupping the reasonably sized speaker.

Dialogue in video comes out loud and clear however it's more of a strain for music. It lacks the punchy bass of HTC's BoomSound speakers but then that's a problem for most smartphones. For a sub-£200 phone, it's one of the better speaker performers we've heard.

Should I buy the Sony Xperia M?

For £180 SIM-free, there is a lot to like about the 4-inch Sony Xperia M. It retains some of the design elements that make the top end Xperia phones great to look at and you can forget you are actually holding a budget Android phone. It's got really good battery life and the dual-core CPU is good match for the features on board. It's only until you take a look at the screen and take a picture that you know what you are dealing with.

For the around the same money the Android-running LG L7 2 (£169) has a bigger 4.3-inch screen with better viewing angles, an 8-megapixel main camera, but significantly worse performance. If you are willing to consider a Windows phone 8 handset, the 4-inch Nokia Lumia 520 is cheaper at £115. The screen is about the same in terms of quality, and it's definitely a stylish alternative to most Android phones below £200.

If you are looking for a cheap Android phone that can play high end mobile games, offer good battery life and has a decent enough screen for watching films the Xperia M is a good shout.

Check out our round-up of the best mobile phones

Verdict

The Sony Xperia M at £180, is an Android phone with good looks and a decent all-round performance to make up for the shortcomings in the screen and camera department.