Sony has had some very strong contenders at the entry level: the Xperia U was the cheapest dual-core you can get for a long time and the M is its spiritual successor. Most phones in this price range have Cortex-A5/A7 chipsets and can't shoot 720p video.
The Sony Xperia M has a lot going for it - attractive design, compact size and good build, and a reasonably powerful chipset for the class. The uninspiring screen and subpar camera will hold it back, but with a dual-SIM option it should still be able to do well in emerging markets where WP8 handsets like the Lumia 520 are on the rise since they beat the low-end Androids in terms of specs.
Even in developed markets, there's a place for the Xperia M. Phones grow bigger every year and instead of getting cheaper, manufacturers tack on new (often unneeded) features to keep them at the same price. The Sony Xperia M is at the point where it's good enough for daily use (we're talking regular users here, not geeks who drool over core count and screen resolution).
The Xperia family has two members that are closely related to the M. The Sony Xperia L has a bigger screen (4.3" FWVGA), an 8MP camera with 720p video, more built-in storage (8GB) but it has the same battery capacity, lacks LTE and a dual-SIM version. At the moment it costs about the same, which is why we expect the Xperia M to quickly get cheaper and become more attractive than the L.
The Xperia C is a dual-SIM phone too, but with a 5" qHD screen (220ppi), a quad-core Mediatek chipset (1.2GHz Cortex-A7, PowerVR SGX544 GPU), an 8MP camera with 1080p video recording and a 2,390mAh battery.
Surprisingly, the best alternatives for the Xperia M outside the Sony lineup come from the Windows Phone 8 family tree. The Nokia Lumia 620 matches most of the specs of the M, but adds goodies like free satellite navigation for one country, 8GB of expandable storage, Nokia Music and its 5MP camera shoots better 720p video.
The HTC 8S has great build quality, packs a 1,700mAh battery, Beats Audio and, while it only offers 4GB of expandable storage, boasts a 4" screen against the 3.8-incher of the 620. Both are cheaper than the M.
We started off with WP8 handsets, because other alternatives from well-known makers are either pricy or have their flaws.
The Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 for example is a fine phone with a dual-SIM version and optional LTE (single-SIM only), but it has an old Cortex-A9 chipset by Broadcom, fails at 720p video and is a good deal more expensive (we're talking 50+ euro). The LTE version has a 1,800mAh battery, but the others have only 1,500mAh.
Then there's a bunch of phones, each priced around the same as the Xperia M, with a dual-SIM option, 4.3" WVGA screen (217ppi), dual-core Cortex-A5 processors and Adreno 203 GPUs, expandable storage and no 720p video capture.
The Samsung Galaxy Core is the only one of the three with 1GB of RAM and 8 gigs of storage. It's also the only one with a 5MP camera. The LG Optimus L7 II and HTC Desire SV both have 8MP cameras and 4GB of storage. The Optimus L7 II packs a beefy 2,460mAh battery. The Desire SV comes in dual-SIM flavor only and it's the most expensive of the bunch (pricier than the Xperia M too).
See what we mean? In this price range and level of equipment, you get low-power chipsets, no 720p video capture (not that the Xperia M is a star in this category, but still), mostly no NFC (besides the Lumia 620 and the LTE version of the Ace 3) and better specs like LTE, 8MP cameras or bigger batteries are rare.
While we wish Sony had put a little more effort into tweaking the camera software or spent a little extra on a brighter screen, the Xperia M has all the potential to become a smart buy for the budget-conscious. Just wait a little while as right now it's priced the same as the Xperia L, which doesn't make much sense. What it means though is that a price drop is as good as inevitable.