The low-end/midrange market segment has always been a very competitive space. Sony’s latest offering, the Xperia J, is finally on sale for S$398 or ~Rs. 18k after launching alongside the Xperia V and Xperia T at IFA 2012. Sporting a 4-inch display, a slim form-factor and a distinctive design, it’s clear that this dinky smartphone isn’t really any enthusiast’s, geek’s or power user’s next phone, but does it fit the bill if you’re an average user upgrading from a feature-phone and are looking for a smartphone that gets the job done, can stand up to everyday use without too much frustration on your part and won’t land you too far out of pocket? Let’s take a look.
The Xperia J makes a rather positive first impression – even though it comes in a small and flimsy box and doesn’t come with a pair of earphones nor a microSD card, giving away its budget-conscious positioning, the device itself feels excellent in the hand. Just like the V and the T, the Xperia J marks a return of the distinctive curved body first introduced in 2011 with the original Xperia Arc, but it has evolved to be more angular and aesthetically pleasing. Far from feeling like a cheap plastic toy, the Xperia J can boast build quality that is on par with many of its more expensive peers; there is no creaking or flexing to be found, and it feels substantial enough for its size. Its matte plastic back does collect its fair share of fingerprints, but otherwise contrasts nicely with the (fake) chrome trim running along all 4 sides of the Xperia J and the glossy plastic bezel around the display.
The front of the Xperia J is dominated by the display, interrupted by a Sony badge, the earpiece, front-facing camera and a microphone accompanied by 3 capacitive touch buttons for Back, Home and Menu. That’s right, it’s the end of 2012 and Sony still refuses to adhere to conventions introduced with Android 4.0 that saw the hardware Menu button being depreciated in favour of a button for the app switcher with the Xperia J. The only ports are the microUSB port and a 3.5mm audio jack, both of which are well-positioned; the only physical buttons on the Xperia J are the sleep/wake button and volume rocker positioned on the right side of the device; the back of the Xperia J is relatively unadorned, occupied by the lens for the 5-megapixel autofocus camera, a single LED flash, an Xperia badge and the mono loudspeaker. With the Xperia J, Sony has toned down the on-device branding quite a bit; the old 3D Sony Ericsson logo is nowhere to be found and there isn’t an Xperia badge on the front unlike pretty much every Xperia smartphone that has ever existed. Taking the back cover off reveals a very shiny interior, a 1700mAh battery, a standard-sized SIM card slot and a microSD card slot; all three should be welcome sights to all of you who pine for removable batteries, the ability to use SIM cards that you already have and have as much storage for your media content as you want.
Yet, with everything that Sony did right with the design of the Xperia J, they made a whole array of thoughtless decisions that severely dampen the appeal of this device. It’s not unreasonable to expect devices in this price segment to be well-designed even if they are challenged in areas such as performance and raw specification, and the Xperia J simply isn’t a well-designed smartphone. There is no ambient light sensor on this device – how much do those cost these days? And those capacitive touch buttons I mentioned above? Well, their touch targets happen to occupy the entire bottom bezel of the Xperia J right up to the edge of the display. What this means in plain English is that in the very first day I tried to use the Xperia J as my main phone, I kept hitting the Home button unintentionally when entering text quickly on the virtual keyboard when I’d really meant to insert a space. Even though the placement of the icons for these capacitive buttons suggest a gap between the display and the buttons themselves, there really is no gap at all.
The sleep/wake button, as I mentioned, is positioned on the right side of the device just above the volume rocker. One point to Sony for placing the sleep/wake button in a spot that is easy for a user to press without involving two hands. However, the button, being relatively small and sunken, is both hard to find and hard to hit. The volume rocker, on the other hand, protrudes significantly more than the sleep/wake button and is physically larger. What this means is that I keep hitting the Volume Up button by mistake when trying to turn on the display in a hurry. It is frustrating that Sony’s designers could take something as simple as buttons on a smartphone and screw it all up. If you do end up owning an Xperia J, I’m sure you could get used to it over time, but you should prepare to be infuriated. Personally, I consider the issue with the capacitive buttons to be pretty serious.
Continuing our discussion on thoughtless decisions, the placement of the mono loudspeaker on the back of the Xperia J is also particularly poor. The physical design of the Xperia J means that only the top and bottom portions of the back panel come into contact with any hard surface that the device is placed on, and Sony decided to position the loudspeaker, which is actually satisfyingly loud and clear, exactly on the spot where the back panel comes into contact with, say, a wooden tabletop. This causes the volume and clarity of the loudspeaker to be decreased significantly each time you put the Xperia J down. This is very disappointing, because even though phone makers have placed loudspeakers on the back of their devices for a very long time, there are ways to prevent this issue from occurring which typically involve creating a tiny air gap between the loudspeaker and the hard surface that the phone is placed on. It’s not rocket science.
There are two notification LEDs on the Xperia J. One is large and bright, hidden in the chrome trim at the bottom edge of the device. It’s a very nice design flourish, and it actually glows in different colours based on the colour theme that you have selected. You can see it in action each time you wake the phone up. However, it is also a complete and utter gimmick because it isn’t utilized by almost all 3rd-party apps (an exception is Twitter for Android). The other is a pinhole LED located right beside the front-facing camera. That’s the one that third-party apps use. That’s the one which indicates the charging status of the device. Meanwhile, the awesome-looking hidden LED only kicks into action for missed calls, unread texts and Twitter notifications. It is lame. Very lame. I don’t even understand why there is the need for two notification LEDs, or why 3rd-party apps can’t make use of the former as it is far more noticeable than a tiny dot.
The internal specifications of the Xperia J are nothing to shout about. It has a Qualcomm MSM7227A single-core 1GHz CPU with an Adreno 200 GPU, which means that it shares its SOC with devices like the Lumia 610, the LG Optimus L7 and the Huawei Ascend G300. It also means that if you want to play demanding games and capture or view 720p video with the Xperia J, you are pretty much out of luck. In fact, even the 2011 Xperia devices such as my Xperia Mini Pro have a better SOC under the hood than this device. In terms of memory and storage, the Xperia J packs 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage, with 768MB available for apps and a 2GB chunk set aside for media. That does not sound like much at all, but you do have expandable storage to help you out here, unlike certain smartphones with similarly low amounts of user-accessible built-in storage but no way to expand it.
The 4-inch LCD display has a resolution of 854×480 pixels which gives it a density of ~245PPI. Just two years ago, this display size and resolution was only available at the high-end; text and icons look smooth on the Xperia J, and while you can probably spot the individual pixels on the display if you look hard enough, it’s hard to really criticize it, at least until you realize how overly saturated and inaccurate this display is at displaying colours.
I have no idea what is going on with the display on the Xperia J. We all love bright and vibrant displays, but Sony takes things too far with this device. Sure, I think you will be impressed by the Xperia J’s display looking at it in a store. You probably won’t realize that Foursquare has a turquoise-coloured top bar in its Android app and it appears a bright, rich blue on the Xperia J. You won’t see how the blue and grey colour scheme in the Instagram app suddenly looks like it has been given an extra, unnecessary coat of paint. You won’t realize how unnaturally dark the grey Holo-style dialog boxes in Android 4.0 are. But placed beside the Xperia S, the differences are clearly noticeable. The Xperia J’s display is so saturated that skin tones turn out unnatural as well. You won’t be able to get an accurate idea of how photos shot with the Xperia J actually look by viewing them on the device. Worse still, it’s physically tiring on the eyes to look at the Xperia J’s display for long periods of time because it’s so bright and vibrant that even the minimum brightness setting isn’t low enough. I cannot live with this.
On a slightly more positive note, the Xperia J ships with Android 4.0.4 out of the box, and the internals, aged as they are, seem to be more than up to the task when it comes to everyday usage. It certainly does not strike me as a particularly speedy device, but neither is it annoyingly laggy or slow; the UI animations on the Xperia J are definitely not the smoothest I’ve seen, apps don’t launch quite so quickly and the camera can be a bit slow, but you will feel the limits of the Xperia J most when trying to browse desktop-class webpages in Chrome. Panning and zooming performance leaves much to be desired, and you may be able to eke out better performance in the stock Android browser app, but the Xperia J is by no means a powerhouse when it comes to handling demanding tasks.
Even though it’s not surprising to see the Xperia J launch with a version of Android onboard that is now 2 releases behind the latest and greatest, what Sony has done to Ice Cream Sandwich is a complete mess. They have gone ahead and stuck their Timescape UI/UXP NXT mashup that they foisted on the 2011 devices on the Xperia J as well, which has nowhere near the level of polish and refinement that UXP NXT (available on devices like the Xperia U and Sola) has. With the Xperia J, you’ve got the launcher from Timescape UI that first debuted on Android 2.3. It looks dated, and deservedly so.
You also miss out on Sony’s customized UXP NXT built-in apps that are actually very good, such as the Calendar, Contacts, Clock, Calculator, Messaging and Notes apps; for the most part you’re stuck with customized apps from the Android 2.3 era, and with the Xperia J there is strangely no standalone Timescape social networking app at all. You don’t even get the much-improved virtual keyboard that was introduced in UXP NXT, or any swipable lockscreen notifications like what my Xperia S has got. In my opinion, the custom UI on the Xperia J just does not satisfy me from a visual standpoint, and trust me on this – I could hardly bear with it on my Xperia Mini Pro either, which is why I have been running custom ROMs on my Mini Pro for a long time. That is not yet possible with this device.
The cameras on the Xperia J are nothing to shout about; in fact, the front-facing camera is hilariously bad. If you’re standing outdoors with ample amounts of natural light, it works as expected even if it puts out grainy and low-resolution images. However, it is completely unusable indoors, as evidenced by the image below; I don’t even see the point of including a front-facing camera on the Xperia J instead of an ambient light sensor if it is going to be stunningly poor. The 5-megapixel rear camera is slow to focus, puts out relatively soft images and is pretty much useless in low light. For its price segment, the Xperia J’s imaging performance is par for the course, but I wouldn’t even use this smartphone’s camera for indoor shots of children and social gatherings and expect to be happy with most of the results.
With the Xperia J, we have a device that resides in a very competitive market segment with loads of options. While these budget Android devices are often a balance of compromises, I do feel that the Xperia J isn’t anywhere near being the best device you can get for your money; the only aspect of this smartphone that I feel is remarkable is its battery life; the J should have no problems lasting an entire day and more even with heavy use, which is more than can be said for higher-specified devices with components that are far more power-hungry than what we have here. Otherwise, what we have is a low-cost Android smartphone with several significant hardware design flaws, mediocre performance, unappealing software onboard and little chance of being upgraded in future. Rivals to the Xperia J that spring to mind are the HTC Desire X, One V, low-end Samsung Android devices such as the Ace 2 and even the Nokia Lumia 610, which is actually substantially cheaper than the Xperia J at this point; you would probably also be able to find older but better-specified devices going for comparable prices.
Despite its obvious appeal to prepaid users with a built-in SMS counter and a standard-sized SIM card slot, I’m afraid the Xperia J is a tough recommendation against everything else that is out there.
Clinton Jeff contributed to this review.