Sony have been suffering from a somewhat detrimental identity crisis for the past 2-3 years now. From dwindling sales figures in each quarter, to a flustered device catalogue that have no inspiration – it’s difficult not to see how far the Japanese company have fallen within their mobile division.
It’s easily noticeable that they are trying to salvage what they have left in the tank and create a new name for themselves by shifting directions slightly. As an example, in 2016, Sony replaced the ‘Z’ line of devices that gave them huge success for a number of years in support for their latest ‘X’ line. There was no rhyme, nor reason from the Japanese company as to why this sudden shift had happened, but in my personal opinion it’s a spurt of reinvention from Sony as apart of their ongoing salvaging project for their brand integrity.
With the new ‘X’ name came a fresh design for their products under this tree. Gone are the days of the beautiful glass design, replacing it with full-fledged aluminium frames and, in some cases, faux-aluminium shells for the lower-line products. Unforunately this change in lettering did not change Sony’s way of thinking – as the 6-monthly flagship life cycle still exists to this day, as the announcements from MWC this past week have proven. I understand letting go of bad habits isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, but the sooner Sony can get over this hurdle and keep in line with the ways of its competition, the better.
As we’re on the subject of the ‘X’ line, the ever-so generous people over at Three have kindly sent me the Xperia XA in for review. The XA is the lower-end product of the three devices Sony launched at the back-end of 2016. In some cases and opinions all the same, the XA has arguably the better design of the three products Sony launched alongside the XA. Does it stack up against the ever-growing foray of devices in this price range? Let’s find out.
What’s In The Box
If there’s one thing Sony isn’t known for in all their years making mobile devices, it’s the packaging of said devices. As I have said many a time before, this isn’t usually a negative to the company as they don’t want to take anything away from the main product itself which resides inside the box.
The box of the Xperia XA is very plain, with the Xperia logo with a faded ‘X’ showing behind it along the front. Moving to the back you will see very basic technical specifications of the device with the now-standardised NFC, Bluetooth and Android symbol staking its claim on the very bottom-left of the rear of the box. The only criticism I have to give on the outer-cover of the box is that, especially on the rear, there’s a lot of wasted space that could have had a lot more prominence for the technical specification.
Along the sides of the box there’s effectively nothing, with the only thing of note being the ‘Xperia XA’ branding. Removing the outer cover of the box will reveal a very nice watercolour design along the inside the box, matching the default wallpaper the Xperia XA has when you first boot the device up.
You receive a UK plug (The plug you receive is entirely dependant on the country you live in), along with a USB cable. The unit I received did not have heaadphones but standard retail units do have Sony-branded headphones included.
If I were to describe the build quality of the Xperia XA in one word, it would be ‘uninspired’. I think I speak for an overall majority in the technology community when I say that back in 2016 when the ‘Z’ brand was no more, this would spur on a resurgence from the Japanese company in its hardware design. Don’t get me wrong, the glass design was simply gorgeous, but they overused the design with little changes after the Xperia Z2 and it became too predictable, possibly answering the question of the dwindling sales.
The Xperia XA has a smoothed-out plastic shell with a matte finish to give off a ‘Faux-Aluminium’ look to it. In feeling the device initially, you can instantly tell that this isn’t aluminium in the slightest, and in most cases it feels like a toy. For the price bracket it is placed in, the look of the device is fantastic. The minimal bezel, along with its very business-looking aesthetic, it gives off the initial impression of it bringing its definitive ‘A’ game. First impressions go a long way, and Sony obviously realised this in the execution of the looks of this device.
One thing I noticed straight away as I took the phone out of its box initially was how slim the bezel was. Not only is the bezel effectively non-existent, it gives off the effect that the glass has a slight curve to it, much like the Galaxy series in its edge foray of products. I’d like to point out that the XA does not have a curved display, but the effect it exhumed is very impressive and I’d like to see that a lot more in devices in this price range.
What came as a shock to me is that this phone is <£220 in most UK carrier stores at this moment in time, and looking at it without knowing the price would make you think it was worth 2x that, if not more.
Going round the device, at the bottom is, unfortunately an old-style USB connector instead of the new industry standard USB-C, with a singular speaker slot just to the left of it. On the left side you have a SD-Card and Micro-SIM slot residing next to each other. Flipping to the right-side and you will see something Sony is very much well known for since the first Xperia ‘Z’ phone, which is its very clicky camera button. It’s worth noting also that this camera button also has the two-phase press for focusing. Moving up on the right side of the device and you will see the trademark power button that takes prominence, albeit becoming slightly smaller each time Sony release a new device. Just above the power button is the volume up/down switches. Up top you have the 3.5mm headphone jack.
If you know me in any capacity, you will know that I love researching display technologies and how much it has advanced over the years that smartphones have become mainstream. My favourite company for smartphone screens have shifted slightly in those years also. It was once Samsung with their AMOLED technology that becomes impressive each year that goes by. Recently my opinion has changed, however. In terms of calibration and colour reproduction, Sony seem to have the best middle ground between vibrancy and mutedness. The XA doesn’t stray too far away from Sony’s excellent display calibration. The colour reproduction is full of life, almost as if you could pick out each part of the picture on-screen like it had come to life right in front of your eyes. The screen is 5″ exactly, and the absent bezels make it the most immersive experience I’ve had with a smartphone since the Galaxy S7 edge.
As this is a 720p panel, though, you do notice that the XA isn’t as intensely sharp as some of its predecessors on the market. The higher in screen size you get, the more pixels are visible for loss of sharpening. In normal use cases, you hardly notice the under-sharpening effect, especially in broad daylight.
It goes without saying that the production of the whites on this display, for an IPS panel, is almost like looking at a sheet of A4 paper. I was surprised that this screen had no burn-in issues or had a colour temperature that didn’t lean in one direction. It is very much in the neutral ground, which is more than okay with me.
The display can go up to a profound 568 nits, which, to compare it to a similar device in this price range, is almost over 100 nits brighter than the Google Nexus 5x at 487.
In outside conditions, especially in direct sunlight, the XA shapes up and holds its own next to the likes of the iPhone 7 Plus. There’s no degradation to the colours, nor the images it projects back to you. This, among many other things about this device have sold me on how far low-mid range devices have come in such a short space of time.
With low-mid range phones usually comes a shortcoming in some capacity along the way. That comes in the way of the MediaTek Processor featured inside the Xperia XA. Don’t get me wrong, MediaTek have improved extraordinary in the last 6 months and have proven to be a true contender in the not-so-distant future if this progression keeps up at the rate it has. On the other hand, in an equally drastic measure, their mid-range chips just aren’t up to snuff next to the likes of the Snapdragon 400 series of CPUs.
To go into more specific details, the Xperia XAs performance can be some more of an obstacle rather than a doorway into the things you’d like to do. Applications tend to crash on more occasions than the apps actually working, and the phone has a tendency to reach quite a warm temperature using even the most basic of applications. On one particular incident the phone had frozen to such a degree that it took me to hard reset the device for it to pick its steam back up once again.
It isn’t all doom and gloom for the performance of this device, though; specifically with gaming performance. I have been through the usual suspects in the increasingly popular Android games out there, and each game has performed immensely well, if not better than what the Huawei P9 has to offer. Loading times are instant, even for first-time use, which is more of a praise for the memory management.
For normal use, the Xperia XA will suit you just fine, as long as you don’t constantly open and close apps on a frequent basis. Scrolling through the core operating system doesn’t show any slowdowns are jitters along the way, it’s mainly the apps that have a detrimental to affect on the CPUs load.
If there’s one constant in the world of Sony, it’s how well they make their software. It doesn’t steer too clear of Google’s design standards, but it situated itself in a world of its own. The best way to describe it is that it’s taking a huge inspiration from what Google believe is the best way forward, and making a sleeker, streamlined version of it.
The Xperia XA comes pre-installed with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, and there’s no other word to describe it as other than wonderful. I’ve always had the best software experiences with Sony devices, and the XA certainly isn’t an exception to that. It has a very ‘welcoming’ feel to it from switching it on for the first time, to using it as your main phone. It caters towards the most avid Android fan, to the newcomers who aren’t as educated on how the operating system works. Sony provides a glut of tips and hints to get you on the way to being most comfortable using the device for the forseeable future.
Due to Google’s shifting policies after the Marshmallow release, there isn’t an over-convolution of Applications that make it confusing to the average consumer – there’s one app for each thing you need, which was a big issue for Google as they had no real control over the open-sourced ecosystem. Now these are in place, the XA doesn’t have the same detrimental impacts that Android once had. The first-party applications i.e. Phone, Contacts, Calculator etc. follow the same design principles Google provide as a reference point, but Sony being Sony, they spruce it up a little bit to make it their own.
As this is a Sony device, the theme store makes a return if you like to customise your phone to that next level. I am currently using the ‘Evening Sea’ theme, which is very tranquil looking and adds an extra aesthetic to the device that the device more than shows for in its looks.
In terms of general navigation of the operating system, you will feel right at home if you have used a ‘stock’ Android device in the past. It doesn’t try too hard to make itself set apart from the rest, but it doesn’t need to if the already-working algorithm in place works just fine as it is.
Using this phone for the past 2 weeks, the software experience is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the plethora of other Android devices I have used in the past. It’s easy to use, beautiful to look at – and most importantly, it has everything you need to keep you happy with this device if you decide to take the plunge on a 24-month contract. The animations are smooth, although due to the CPU that I touched on earlier, they tend to slowdown if you fluster it with opening and closing applications. A pop-up message does appear when the animations slow down, saying as much.
There’s no word on if the Xperia XA will get Nougat (Android 7) in the near future, but as the Xperia XZ is getting Nougat at this moment in time, the XA shouldn’t be too far behind.
I don’t profess to be a master photographer, so please bare with me on this section.
The camera on the Xperia XA is somewhat lacking in each sub-section it professes to excel in. Sony informs us in their promotional material for the lower-end phone that it takes beautiful, punchy and vibrant shots in outdoor lighting situations, but I noticed quite the opposite using this device as my main phone for the last 2 weeks. Most images come out blurry, oversharpened and too oversaturated, giving the object of the image a completely different colour in most cases.
The images do come out looking quite decent, but the oversharpening situation is something that the ‘Superior Auto’ mode has been suffering with for a good while now. Sony provide the best camera sensors in the world, to the likes of Apple and even Samsung – but they’re the prime example of missing the mark when it comes to configuring the software in conjunction with the sensor. Just because you have a 13MP sensor doesn’t make it the best by default, it’s in the execution where it comes the most.
Video output is excellent, as the sharpening doesn’t appear too promenent after the processing has done its work, but colours do end up on the other end of the spectrum from the photos, which is that they’re muted. Focusing appears to be quite quick when panning across on a video, and catches up with itself almost instantly.
In low-light situation, and in some cases moderate lightning, the XA will not be for you if that is your use case. The images come out fuzzy, oversharpened and overbrightened due to the post-processing of the image. If you manually process the image yourself, you can produce a fairly decent image. But the amount of human intervention needed can take a while to get that image perfect.
A lot of work is required from Sony to get their Camera software perfect, the main improvement required is in its superior auto mode. Looking through the viewfinder before the image is taken, the picture looks as it should: True-to-colour, vivid, and punchy. Unfortunately the post-processing takes all of that and blends it into an oversharpened mess.
Unfortunately due to only having the one speaker residing at the bottom of the device, the audio quality produced is quite tinny with no real sign of bass in these. The treble is a little on the high side and as you increase the volume to its loudest, you do notice quite a bit of distortion.
In terms of how loud the speaker can go, it is ear-bleedingly loud. But as I mentioned, the one speaker would be its downfall as you can easily cover it up, having next to no audio at all coming out of it. This is most prominent during gameplay in landscape mode, or watching media such as YouTube etc.
Headphone quality, on the other hand, is simply phenomenal. Due to Sony’s fine-tuning of the audio chip, which was made in-house, it proves that Sony are one of the best at audio quality control and will be for a long time to come. I tried my high-end Panasonic headphones in there, as well as the Apple Earbuds, and both produced some of the best quality I have ever heard after using these headphones for a prolonged amount of time.
Sony proclaim that the battery life on the XA can last up to 2 days with moderate usage. I wish this were the case, but I got more like 1 days’ usage out of the device before going completely flat.
My normal use case on a daily basis revolves around checking Twitter frequently, playing less-graphics intensive games like Hill Climb Racing 2, listening to Spotify and watching the odd YouTube video. Doing this on a consistent basis daily gets me 1 day out of the battery before needing to charge it. It’s not the best battery life in the world, but it got me through a day and I charge my phone at night usually.
The charging on this device has a spirit animal of a slug, meaning it’s very slow and takes up to 2-3 hours to charge it fully from 0% battery.
The Xperia XA won’t win any awards for phone of the year, or even design of the year – but there’s a bigger, hidden message here. This phone is £200, and it performs, acts and looks like a device worth >£300. It does exactly as it proclaims to do and then some in my opinion. It holds up, even beating some phones apparently better than it.
Sony have done a pretty excellent job with the XA for the price they’re asking for it. The message here is that no phone, be it low-end to mid range, is not enough for the consumer out there. Buying a phone for £200, like the XA, will do everything you need it to do and do it while looking business-class in an economy price-range.
I enjoyed my time with the Xperia XA, and I can’t wait to see where Sony take the ‘X’ brand.