Get borderless with the Sony Xperia XA1 & Xperia XA1 Ultra – Review
DISCLAIMER: The Xperia XA1 and Xperia XA1 Ultra shown and commented on is a pre-production model. The hardware, software and performance are subject to change prior to release.
When you first look at both the Sony Xperia XA1 and the larger XA1 Ultra, you will immediately notice Sony has done a good job designing these phones. They have been able to create an almost border-less design along the side edges. This gives the phones a slim look which is welcome and makes them easier to hold.
The specification on paper is also very impressive especially judging by the price of these phones. They are mid-range products, with the Sony Xperia XA1 being just £229 inc VAT and the Xperia XA1 Ultra 100 more at £329 inc VAT. It is good, especially when consider you both will have a 23-megapixel camera, a reasonable processor and good amount of RAM.
This offers a new lineup which does a good job of complementing the more powerful Sony Xperia XZ and upcoming XZ Premium.
The look and feel of both the Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra are similar to recent phones from Sony. They feature a very minimalistic design, featuring no excessive styling for a refreshing, clean look. Where they are different to the previous phones is in the refinement of this design. The borders around the display have been significantly reduced, giving an almost border-less look to the phone. The display appears to merge into the edge of the phone for a stunning impression while you are using it.
It is also noticeable how tall the phones seem to look. This is something we are now seeing more with the flagship products from the other main manufacturers like Samsung and LG. It is nice to see Sony is also using this design ethos with their more reasonably priced phones. As the reduction in the border around the display enhances the look and usability of these phones. This is of particular note with the ‘Ultra’ as otherwise some may have found it difficult to hold.
It is nice to find Sony is continuing with producing phones with subtle curved edges. This makes them easy to hold in comparison to the earlier ‘Z’ range, where the corners sometimes felt like they were digging into the palm of your hand. As they had corners which were very angled without any curve to offset them. This means you will find these XA phones more comfortable use than earlier models from Sony.
Out of the two phones, I gravitated to the slightly smaller Sony Xperia XA1 with its 5-inch display. This is because I felt it was easier to hold than the larger ‘Ultra’ version, although this is personal preference. As I’m sure there will be many who want the benefit of having a larger display, over the pocketability I prefer.
When looking at the two phones they actually look very similar. The only real difference is the Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra is noticeably bigger. This is no bad thing as it shows consistency in the Sony range.
Whichever one you prefer, you will find that Sony has done a great job with refining the design of these phones.
There are silver accents which highlight the cameras, also present along the top and bottom edges. These are nice to see as they break-up the otherwise monotone look of the phones; which is otherwise only accentuated by the power button – also silver. Overall there is no distraction from the Sony design ethos.
There is a USB Type-C connector on the bottom edge of the phone, which is ideal for charging on desktop cradles. It is also the arguably the best place for interfacing with any other accessories.
The audio jack has been well-placed on the top of the phone. This offers convenient access when you want to use the phone for personal music and means that you don’t have the difficulty of having to route any cables.
On the right side of the phone are the volume, power and camera buttons. The latter being now something of a rarity on modern phones, but one which Sony still offers. It removes all the hassles of having to press on the display to take a photo. Or using the volume buttons for taking a photo and not performing zoom functions. Overall it does seem a good idea and should make it easier and faster to capture great photos.
As you would expect there is little difference in the specification of these two phones. The main differentiator is the display on the Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra. This is larger at 6-inches and has a higher resolution to match.
With the ‘Ultra’ you get a Full HD 1080p display; the standard model’s 5-inch display offers 720p. This shouldn’t be a problem for most situations, since the smaller size display means you are unlikely to see any tangible difference when using it.
If however you are intending to view photos or videos on the phone on regular basis, you may wish to choose the ‘Ultra’. The screen of this model does result in sharper images, which seem to have more realistic tones.
Sony has made an impact by offering the benefits of 23-megapixel camera photography. This camera unit has become common with several recent Sony handsets. We are still amazed that they have been able to include it with these lower priced phones. It is a testament to Sony’s desire to bring high-quality photography to the masses, that they have included a camera with this level of detail in mid-range phones.
The quality of photos with either of the Sony Xperia XA1 phones is impressive. They produce sharp and natural looking images, which are just like the subject you are viewing. Looking at them on your phone or blown up larger on a TV is equally satisfying thanks to the level of detail it is possible to capture.
Sony’s ‘SteadyShot’ keeps everything in focus, removing the blur commonly experienced on smartphone photography. In fact, you have to go out of your way to blur shots by moving the smartphone erratically.
As you would expect it is easy to take photos with either of these smartphones. The dedicated camera button is a real benefit. Using it avoids the need to navigate through menus to find the camera app. It also truly improves the act of taking photos. Many people have difficulty taking photos when having to press on the screen of smartphones. If you don’t believe me, just watch someone who hasn’t done it before.
The manual mode allows you to tweak individual elements like focus and lighting during photos, thereby making it possible to finely tune your capture to the conditions. Most people will likely use the default Auto mode. This will be OK for taking most photos, but it is good to see you can do a bit of fine-tuning when necessary.
[HANDS-ON IMAGE GALLERY TO BE ADDED]
Besides the display, the front-facing camera is the main difference between these two phones. The ‘Ultra’ has a 16-megapixel camera which gives consistently better results. In comparison the standard XA1 has only an 8-megapixel unit. So the level of detail is not as high, but certainly OK when you compare it to similarly-priced phones.
The wide-angle lens is useful as it gives the ability to fit everyone into photos, or makes sure you can see all of the landmark you are standing in front of! An essential aspect of most self-portraits.
There weren’t any image enhancing features on the phone for improving your look, apart from a soft-skin mode. I expect Sony will add more options upon release. I am using pre-production units after all. It could also be that Sony is opting for a more natural look in the photos.
A larger display does as you would imagine result in a bigger and heavier phone. The Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra measures 165 x 79 x 8.1 mm and weighs 188 grams. Compare this to the Sony Xperia XA1 at 145 x 67 x 8 mm and 143 grams.
Looking at the numbers there doesn’t seem to be that much difference in them. The reality however is that the ‘Ultra’ is much bigger when holding it in your hand. With the display size of modern phones getting increasingly large this is likely not a consideration to many, who would rather have a phone with a large, clear display for apps and browsing.
Since the ‘Ultra’ has a larger display it requires extra power. Sony has chosen to include a 2,700 mAh battery with the ‘Ultra’, ensuring you don’t run out of power halfway through the day. This is standard practice when manufacturers add larger displays to premium models. It is good to see that Sony take this into consideration and are worried about maintaining the available usage time between the phones.
Beside the changes in the specification to accommodate the larger display, the other benefits you have with the ‘Ultra’ are an extra gigabyte of RAM and a front-facing camera with a higher resolution. This brings the total amount of RAM you have to a very respectable 4GB. While the front-facing camera offers the ability to take up to 16-megapixel photos. So any self-portraits you take with the ‘Ultra’ will be particularly good.
The extra RAM may make the ‘Ultra’ the better of the two for playing games or using certain apps. We certainly found playing games on the ‘Ultra’ was more rewarding with them being responsive. But it could be that the superior display was distracting us with its impressive visuals.
Besides the differences it’s worth knowing that both of these phones have very capable specifications. Especially when you compare them to other similarly-priced devices from other major manufacturers.
The list below highlights the other key features of the Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra:
- Android 7.0 (Nougat)
- MediaTek Helio P20 Octa Core 64bit (2.3GHz / 1.6GHz quad-core)
- 32GB internal storage
- microSDXC support (up to 256GB)
- 23-megapixel camera
- USB Type-C connector
- 3.5mm audio jack
The MediaTek Helio P20 processor was released back in 2015. It does offer, on balance, good performance for the price. It does need remembering that the pricing of these phones is mid-range, so it’s understandable that they don’t feature the latest technology available.
During this review, we didn’t meet any problems with using either phone for daily tasks with a bit of gaming. Some might benefit from the extra RAM available with the ‘Ultra’. But overall both phones are responsive and we didn’t encounter any slowdown or other issues.
With 32GB of internal storage, there is plenty of space for most users. You can also use up to 256GB SD cards with these phones, offering plenty of space for all your photos, videos and music.
Charging of these phones was quick and easy thanks to the Quick Charge feature. This lets you get several hours use from just a few minutes of charging.
The battery life in comparison didn’t seem to be what we would have expected for a Sony product. On occasions both phones drain faster than we were anticipating. They were losing charge within a day and not the 2 – 3 which the Stamina mode was indicating.
This could have been due to the amount we were using the phones, or possibly as a result of them being pre-production units. The latter is more likely – a colleague of mine has seen similar on a pre-production XZ Premium – so hopefully this is an early issue and performance / battery drain will be addressed in the launch firmware.
We were looking forward to trying out the Xperia Tips and Xperia Actions. According to Sony these adapt to your usage habits.
‘Xperia Tips’ provides you with new ideas on how to use the phone based on past interactions. ‘Xperia Actions’ changes settings depending on the environment you are in.
Both of these software features sound promising. Unfortunately they were not implemented on the units we received. So like everyone else we will have to see what they are like when the product release occurs!
The units we were given did have Android 7.0 (Nougat) installed, which is a recent major release. It offers many improvements including multi-window view and quick switching between apps. These add to the productivity of the phone and make it possible for you to jump between apps. You can for instance watch a video while writing notes at the same time.
Updates to the notifications allow for easy customisation, so you can edit which icons appear. This gives you the ability to edit the shade your own needs and requirements.
It is also now quick and convenient to reduce your data needs by using the ‘Data Saver’. This makes it possible to instantly stop apps in the background from being able to use mobile data. Thereby keeping your mobile bill in check.
All of these refinements are available and are didn’t seem hindered by the Sony interface in any way.
Sony has kept the user interface clean. They do however add their own apps for playback of music, viewing photos and watching videos. These work well and offer all the functionality you need.
In the case of the ‘Music’ app there is convenient integration with Spotify, so you can easily use this service and switch between it and your other music. Hopefully, this ‘clean’ look we have seen is representative of the final release and the extra features will come in the form of a couple of extra apps. On past experiences, Sony doesn’t generally add too much in the way of unnecessary apps.
As you would expect, the PlayStaion app is available for the gamers out there. It offers easy connection to your Playstation account, and for using the smartphone as a second screen.
These are all very good apps, which work well and offer extra features, or an alternative interface to many Sony customers.
The ‘What’s New’ is less likely to be used, as it pushes customers to Sony products or ones they wish to promote. Most people are now used to using the Play Store for their app needs, so the inclusion of this app makes a bit less sense.
When you consider the amount of technology you are getting with both the Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra, both of these phones are excellent value for money.
Sony has done a great job of offering a specification, which while not ‘flagship’, does what most people want.
OK, the processor is not the latest or most powerful, but it is able to deal with the most commonly used apps. The interface is responsive, and rarely did I experience any slowdown unless pushing the phone hard. The 3 / 4GB of RAM help here.
The 23-megapixel camera supplied with both of these phones give superb results. In many cases exceeding the capabilities of more expensive smartphones. Sony’s Exmor RS mobile image sensor and f/2.0 lens, deliver plenty of light in photos. These give good results on both clear days and more challenging conditions.
Video recording is also good with clear imagery, but there appears no option to record 4K content. This is an omission which many may find surprising due to the capabilities of the camera. Obviously, Sony has their reasons for doing this, but it is a shame it is not included.
Overall, both of these both are good options to buy if you are thinking about buying a mid-range phone.
Would I buy one? That is an interesting question and the answer to it is most likely yes if I were in this market. They both look good and offer a lot to the average buyer. Due to my own personal tastes, I would opt for the smaller Sony Xperia XA1.