WHAT IS THE SONY XPERIA XA1?
Sony’s latest mid-range handset is all about the camera, something that’s rarely offered in the sub-£250/$375 space. For that reason alone, the Xperia XA1 is worth considering – but with the decent camera come a host of compromises that not everybody will be happy with.
In a competitive market, where the likes of the Motorola Moto G5 (£180/$270) and Lenovo P2 (£200/$300 on the Three network) remain the most attractive choices, the XA1 faces tough competition.
As is often the case with smartphones, the best upfront price will find you locked to a specific mobile network. In this case it’s O2, where you’ll be able to pick up an XA1 for £220/$330, with a minimum £10/$15 top-up for a total of £230/$345. If you want it unlocked, you can head to Carphone Warehouse, where the device will set you back £250/$375.
The XA1 has a 5-inch screen, which has become a rarity these days; I suspect it’s easier to make a big-battery phone with a large screen – as it the case with the 5.5-inch Lenovo P2.
Sony deals with this challenge by making the top and bottom portion of the bezel more generous (by phone standards), while keeping the left and right portions super-slim. This gives the XA1 a rather elongated look, which I honestly didn’t mind. The design doesn’t affect my ability to use the phone, since the screen is a standard size, nor does it cause any issues when slipping the device into my pocket.
The design won’t be for everyone, and I wish I had one of the more attractive, coloured models instead of the plain white version. The rear of the handset is made of plastic; the sides are metal. There are gaps visible all over the phone – and it didn’t take long for the XA1 to become damaged, with white paint chipping off above the SIM slot. Not a great start, but it did survive a fall underneath a seat on the tube, which was impressive considering the amount of grit to be found on train floors.
All the buttons are on the right edge of the device, with a volume rocker, classic Xperia circular power button and a dedicated camera button. The latter allows you to take a light and focus reading, after which you can take the picture.
On the left is the SIM slot, which has space for a microSD card up to 256GB; this is alongside the generous 32GB of internal memory. A 3.5mm headset jack can be found at the top.
At the rear, the camera sits tucked into the back cover, with a protective metal ring around it to further distance it from scratchy tables and floors.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned a fingerprint scanner; that’s because there isn’t one. This is quite unusual these days, especially for a phone costing this amount. I’ve seen scanners on phones as cheap as £100/$150, so for Sony not to include one is disappointing.
The XA1’s screen is a 1280 x 720-pixel affair. Screen snobs will have stopped reading by this point, but for the rest of us this display is totally fine. Yes, text isn’t as sharp as it could be and hi-res images might not look great, but your Facebook and Instagram feeds will look just fine. The display can’t compete to the Moto G5’s 5-inch, 1920 x 1080 resolution screen, however.
For day-to-day performance, it’s fine. I could read it in direct sunlight at maximum brightness, although at night I found even minimum brightness a little too bright for my sensitive, sleepy eyes.
Whites have a slightly blue tinge to them and viewing angles are fairly narrow; but, again, colour images are well represented and there are no standout problems.
On the audio front, the downward-facing speakers are nothing more than mediocre. The microphone is a different story, however: it does a fantastic job of cutting out background noise and picking up the voices you want to hear.
The Xperia XA1’s 23-megapixel, f/2.0 camera is its most notable feature. However, the software that’s built around it really compromises the experience.
First, the good. Sony is the undisputed king of smartphone camera sensors, and the Exmor-branded chip included here is brilliant for the money. Images taken in daylight are packed with detail and display wonderfully vibrant colours.
Autofocus is super-fast, and there’s a manual mode that lets you dive into numerous settings. I preferred leaving Superior Auto switched on and, on the whole, it did a good job. Superior Auto’s only problem is that it won’t let you turn on HDR (high dynamic range) manually. This is annoying.
Shooting outside on a lovely May morning at Rochester Castle, I struggled to get a decent shot of the castle against the puffy white clouds and blue sky. With my trusty OnePlus 3, I could simply turn on HDR to get a nice castle and a clear sky. In the case of the XA1, I found myself constantly battling the automatic mode – and in the end just gave up, settling for a blown-out sky.
That’s a minor criticism, but there’s a more fundamental problem: its speed. The camera takes an age to launch if you haven’t opened it in a few minutes. Upwards of three seconds to see what the sensor can see, then another couple to actually get the shutter button to appear on-screen.
Being fair, I’m sure there’s a good reason for this: getting that excellent sensor and the image processing software fired up must be a challenge, but why pack such a great camera into a phone that then prevents you from using it at a crucial moment?
I was happy with low-light performance, however. A dimly-lit pub proved no great challenge for the sensor, with it producing relatively lively and blur-free photos.
There’s good coverage of light and dark spots in this photo (although our website’s image compression doesn’t show it off very well)
When you get things right, landscape shots look great…
But the camera can sometimes be inconsistent with how it handles the sky
Good detail, but the sky proves a problem again
The camera is quick to focus and can pull some delightful bokeh effects
The 8-megapixel selfie camera is a surprise, with a wide lens that lets you cram in numerous people, and decent processing tech that makes faces appear clear.
Video can be shot at up to Full HD at 30fps, and there’s a decent amount of image stabilisation at work to make for smooth and reliable videos. You can also shoot photos while you record video.
The XA1 comes with Google’s latest Android 7.0. It’s a largely unfettered experience, with a few additions here and there (notification badges on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, like on iOS, and the ability to show and hide certain elements of the notification bar), but it’s all rather pleasing.
While keeping the actual design simple, Sony has crammed in a boat-load of its own software. Not all of it is bad, however. The ability to pick themes from Sony’s theme store is great, but there was lots of other stuff I could have done without. Xperia Lounge, What’s New and PlayStation, for example, seem to be variations on the theme of shoving pointless content, apps and ads into your face.
It’s a relief, then, that all of Sony’s pre-installed content apps can be uninstalled.
Aside from the slow camera, the XA1 does have a few other minor performance niggles. The first is that apps hang when you first open them, which is similar to the camera. Websites in the Chrome browser loaded pretty quickly with minimal lag, however – even on the ad-heavy TrustedReviews.
However, there was an occasion where the phone seized up to such an extent that even a 15-second press of the power button didn’t seem to do anything; the software and hardware seemingly completely disconnected for that period.
Experiencing such issues only a week into my time with the XA1 doesn’t fill me with confidence. Even under less extreme circumstances, I found switching apps could sometimes take several seconds, and the phone would be unresponsive during this time.
3GB of memory doesn’t appear to be sufficient for today’s apps, which means app switching can be quite a slow process.
In the benchmark tests the XA1 managed 59,274 in AnTuTu, which puts it a little way behind the Lenovo P2, but it’s more powerful than the Moto G5 by quite a margin. But power doesn’t count for much if there are software stability problems.
Wi-Fi, too, proved an issue. Not only was the XA1 slow to connect to networks, it often failed to pick the best network when I found myself in a location with multiple access points, such as a house with Wi-Fi extenders. The device was also very slow to realise that I’d walked away from a Wi-Fi network and didn’t disconnect for far too long.
The XA1 also had an annoying habit of disabling mobile data when connected to a Wi-Fi network, even if that network had no access. This is particularly irritating if, say, you walk past a Starbucks and get automatically connected to its free network but don’t sign in. The phone will complain it has no internet access but then proceeds to do nothing about it.
In terms of mobile data, the XA1 comes with Cat 6 LTE, which is faster than the Cat 4 radio found in the Moto G5. That makes it roughly double the speed of the G5 at a maximum of 300Mbps, and data has proven that having a higher-spec 4G radio also improves overall network stability.
The Xperia XA1’s 2300mAH battery is smaller than the 2800mAH pack of cells in the Moto G5. But with a lower-resolution screen, I didn’t experience any problems getting through a full day of streaming music and browsing the web on my commutes. Although, spending an entire out and about taking photos and checking maps, I did find myself reaching for the charger by about 8pm.
But you can plan ahead, and the Xperia’s Stamina Mode is very effective at cutting out background tasks and generally keeping things neat and tidy on the battery front. If you know you have a long day (or night) ahead of you, flick on Stamina Mode and you’ll be fine.
An hour of Netflix at half brightness consumed 10% of the battery, so expect 10 hours of non-stop streaming.
SHOULD I BUY THE SONY XPERIA XA1?
If having the best possible smartphone camera for the money is a priority, then the XA1 is a no-brainer. You’ll have to put up with a slightly fiddly manual camera mode and deal with the HDR-hating Auto mode – plus, be wary of its slow launch times. But if you can look past all that, there’s no better phone for the money.
For everybody else, there are too many drawbacks for this phone to receive a recommendation. The screen isn’t brilliant, processor and Wi-Fi performance is so-so, and the aforementioned camera niggles will be annoying for more casual point-and-shoot fans.
The Lenovo P2 has an amazing battery, a better screen and performance for £200/$300, while the Moto G5 also has a better screen and comes in £50/$75 cheaper.
The XA1 has many positives, but it’s a few software updates from being a complete package.
A brilliant camera with a mediocre phone attached.