Sony Xperia XA1: A mid-ranger with a great camera

Sony wants to make some moves in the mid-range market with the Sony Xperia XA1 hitting Singapore shores in May.

In a competitive market, where the likes of the Motorola Moto G5 and the several cheap low-to-mid range devices that Xiaomi has to offer, Sony’s new XA1 faces plenty of tough competition. Most mid-rangers are often a let-down in the camera department, but the XA1 puts its best foot forward with its 23 megapixel Exmor sensor.

Can it truly stand out to budget-minded buyers? Let’s find out.

Let’s get the specs out of the way first:

Body: Aluminum frame, polycarbonate back, scratch-resistant glass (>9H pencil hardness).

Display: 5.0″ TFT LCD, 1,280x720px resolution, 294ppi.

Rear camera: 23MP Type 1/2.3″ sensor, f/2.0 aperture, 24mm-equiv. focal length; autofocus; single LED flash; 1080p/30fps video recording, SteadyShot EIS.

Front camera: 8MP Type 1/4″ sensor, f/2.0 aperture, 23mm-equiv. focal length; autofocus; 1080p/30fps video recording.

OS/Software: Android 7.0 Nougat.

Chipset: 16nm Mediatek Helio P20: Octa-core CPU (4×2.4GHz Cortex-A53 + 4×1.6GHz Cortex-A53), Mali T-880MP2 GPU.

Memory: 3GB of RAM; 32GB of storage; microSD slot up to 256GB.

Battery: 2,300mAh Li-Ion (sealed); Mediatek Pump Express Plus 2.0 fast charging.

Connectivity: Single-SIM (model names G3121/3123/3125) and Dual-SIM (G3112/G3116) versions; Cat. 6 LTE (300Mbps/50Mbps); USB Type-C (v2.0); Wi-Fi a/b/g/n; GPS, GLONASS; NFC; Bluetooth 4.2.

Misc: single bottom-firing loudspeaker, 3.5mm jack, dedicated two-stage hardware shutter release button.

Design

The Xperia XA1 is a classic Sony smartphone, even in 2017, the year of tiny bezels and curved sides. The XA1 is a bold rectangle, the phone equivalent of a sharp tux.

While it looks like a phone made of metal, it’s actually plastic all-around except for the sides. The phone still feels premium in the hand though, like Sony smartphones always have.

My gripes with the design is the really tall frame. The screen is a standard 5 inch panel, but the bezels on the top and bottom are simply ghastly. The bezels on the side, on the contrary, are practically non-existent. How narrow the phone is, however, may be a positive to some users.

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At this price range, the design of the XA1 sure delivers. It definitely is a lot easier on the eyes than the likes of the Moto G5.

The bummer with the XA1, however, is that it only sports a 720p screen. All the budget kings around this price, like the Moto G5 and Honor 5X, have 1080p displays. Also, XA1 doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner. This is an issue given the cheaper Moto G5 does, but you’ll just have to decide whether it’s a deal-breaker for you or not. The Sony Xperia XA1 also lacks the water resistance common among more expensive Xperias.

 

Camera: Pixel Prowess

The camera is simply remarkable for the price of the device.

The huge 1/2.3in sensor clocks in at 23MP, which sounds eerily similar to the IMX230 camera module used back in the day on the Xperia Z5. Except now you’re only paying a fraction of the price for it.

Feed it a bright, sunny day and you’ll get a lot more detail than the average mid-range 13-megapixel phone.

The camera doesn’t do too well when you zoom in though. Even with the high megapixel count, the image processing makes the picture look jiggery and grainy rather quickly.

Don’t zoom in, and you’ll get great crisp shots from the very capable camera.

If camera is important to you and you’re looking for a phone with a reasonable price-tag, the Xperia XA1 is for you.

Oh, and if you’re into selfies, the XA1 has an autofocus selfie camera, which is a nice touch.

Here are some samples:

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Software

With Android 7 underneath, the XA1’s custom Xperia interface feels almost identical to every other Sony phone. For example, you have a lot more control over how your apps are arranged and the apps menu comes in pages rather than as a great big scrolling feed.

The interface does feel rather dated, especially in comparison to the modern stock UI that the Moto G5 comes with.

Some parts of the UI, such as the notification shade, remain untouched. While I appreciate any manufacturer leaving the notification shade the way Google intended it to be, I find the contrast between the design language of the launcher and the notification shade rather jarring.

But if you’re not too much of a fan of Google’s vision of the Android interface, you’d be happy with Sony’s rendition.

Sony’s special trick is that it adds a lot, without once seeming to overcomplicate the software. Keep things as they are out of the box and you’ll see familiar home screens and an apps menu as clean and simple as any out there.

There are few things that make me frown, however. For example, there’s a ‘bonus’ screen to the left of the apps menu that shows off some ‘recommended’ apps for you to download.

Nobody likes to see ads in their launcher.

Performance & Battery Life

The XA1 is surprisingly well-specced for a budget/mid-ranger. The MediaTek Helio P20 CPU is an octa-core chip with Cortex-A53 cores, paired with a decent 3GB RAM.

Don’t let the “MediaTek” brand fool you – the XA1 soundly beats the Moto G5 in Geekbench 4 with 3676 points to the Moto’s 2600~. The Helio P20 is designed to handle phones with up to 1080p screens, and this one is only 720p. This makes games run surprisingly well, and the lack of top and bottom bezels makes for a rather immersive experience.

For all the praise the chipset receives, the battery is simply unremarkable. At 2300 mAh, the battery lasts you a day, but only if you’re not pushing it too hard. The 720p screen does make it easier on the battery, but the battery is still small for this day and age.

Just don’t expect it to be a marathon runner like similarly priced affordable phones from Xiaomi.

Final Verdict

If you’re not a fan of the cheaper and better all-rounders from Xiaomi or Motorola, or if the camera is important to you – go ahead and get the XA1. Just be wary of the tall form factor and the battery than falls on the short-side of adequate.

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