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Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra review: Sony’s mid-range phones look stunning

David Court
27 Feb 2017

It’s hard to get excited about mid-range Android phones but the XA1 has two significant points of difference

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Sony has launched a tonne of smartphones at MWC, as per. This time around it’s launched the Xperia XZ Premium, Xperia XZs, Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra. Here we’re focusing on what Sony is describing as its two “super mid range” devices.

The first thing you need to know about the XA1s is that they’re made up of from a mishmash of specs. Some really good; some pretty “meh”. Here are a few key points to get your head around:

  • Great design
  • The lack of bezel looks great
  • The rear-facing cameras are stunning (for mid-range Androids)
  • 960fps super slow motion!
  • Average battery
  • Decent RAM
  • USB Type-C

For more detailed analysis of the XA1s, read on.

Sony Xperia XA1 & XA1 Ultra: Display

As its name suggests, the Xperia XA1 Ultra is the bigger of the two mid-range phones. It has a 6in Full HD IPS display with what Sony is calling a “borderless edge-to-edge” screen. The standard XA1 is slightly more modest, possessing a 5.2in, 720 IPS screen. Both look pretty sharp in real life, but definitely lack any “wow” factor.

Sony Xperia XA1 & XA1 Ultra: Camera

Let's start with that camera. Sony has always equipped its phones with above-average cameras, but this one is really generous. The 23-megapixel camera in the XA1 is great. I took a couple of pictures with it at the hands-on area here in Barcelona and was pretty impressed with the quality and sharpness of the images. Detail in the picture only started to struggle when I pinched to full zoom on some poor stranger's face 10+ metres away.

There are a couple of strong flagship features inside this Motion Eye camera too. The ability to capture super slow motion at 920fps is one; predictive photography is the other.

Super slow motion: A mid-range phone that records slow motion at 960fps sounds impressive. And it is impressive – the iPhone 7 for example only records at 420fps. However, there's a catch. Sony only lets you record super slow motions in bursts of 0.182 seconds, which turns into six seconds of playback at a normal frame rate.

The other slight issue is actually capturing the slow-motion footage. You have to open the Camera app, select Super Slow Motion mode, start recording, then press the Super Slow Motion icon when you want to record your 0.182 seconds of 960fps action. Tricky to get right. That said, when you do get it right, the footage you get looks stunning. Hopefully there'll be a software update that enables longer bursts of slow-motion capture.

Next on the list of Sony’s “new reasons to buy a Sony smartphone” is the "predictive photography" feature. Sony has put a dedicated memory chip in its camera makeup. This acts sort of like a RAM just for the camera. Sony is using this hardware to offer predictive photography to its users. Software in the new Xperias has been designed to capture images when the camera detects movement in a shot. So if you miss capturing the perfect photo by a few milliseconds, the Motion Eye camera has your back, allowing you to view and save the automatic "predictive photography" images the phone has taken for you.

Sony Xperia XA1 & XA1 Ultra: Battery

What Sony is not shouting about is the 2,700mAh battery in the Ultra. This is the same size its predecessor's, and then general consensus from that model was that this was too small.

As usual, there are some advancements with battery-management techniques and the same charging software found in September 2016's Xperia XZ that will fight against battery deterioration. But will that be enough? This remains to be seen. The XA1 proper has more reasonable (for its size) 2,300mAh battery

The TL;DR takeaway from here is that there's nothing much to write home about. So I'll stop here.

Sony Xperia XA1 specs

5.2in 720p display; 3GB RAM; Android 7 Nougat; 23-megapixel rear-facing camera; 8-megapixel front-facing camera; 32GB storage; microSD slot; USB Type-C; 2,300mAh battery

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra specs

6in 1080p display; 3GB RAM; Android 7 Nougat; 23-megapixel rear-facing camera; 16-megapixel front-facing camera; 32GB storage; microSD slot; USB Type-C; 2,700mAh battery

Sony Xperia XA1 & XA1 Ultra Verdict:

It’s hard to get excited about mid-range Android phones. Essentially they’re shiny oblongs filled with the specs found in previous year’s flagship smartphones. This XA1 has two significant points of difference from the rule above, however. First, the camera is excellent. And second, the design of these phones is fantastic.

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