While we continuously wait the next flagship to be released by OEMs, the mid-range market has seen a flurry of activity this past year. Each of leading manufacturers have one or two respectable products lined up to entice your style and preference, with even the likes of Apple joining in the race in recent years. And it’s not only the large companies operating in this space.
Going back a year to the release of the Z3 and before, Sony was still considered one of the leading OEMs in the smartphone market, but over the past year they’ve slowed down their release schedules, so much so that we have yet to see the “announced” Xperia Z4 anywhere near our shores. While we wait, and amidst the rumours of the Z5, Sony has, however, released a few mid-range handsets. One such device is the Xperia M4 Aqua.
Build and Design
The M4 Aqua is noticeably Xperia, with the design and layout based on the same template we’ve come to enjoy over the years. But unlike many of Sony’s other mid-range smartphones, the M4 Aqua is strikingly thin and good looking, resembling very close to the more premium Z-series. The only difference, of course, being that the M4 Aqua is not built from the same premium materials, but rather their plastic counterparts. And it’s mostly all plastic. At less than half the price of the Z3, it’s to be expected. Besides the front glass on the screen, the back and sides are plastic. But the transparent plastic on the rear and glossy finish on the sides, the illusion of premium materials are not easy to spot. Truth be told, if I were to hold up the M4 Aqua to 100 individuals, perhaps only a 2 or 3 would be able to tell the difference between it and the Z3, especially in black. Again, given its pricing, it does make me wonder if the impression of premium materials make that much of a difference over the actual product. Perhaps, as with most things, it’s psychological.
At this point, it would seem a little pointless going through the layout of the M4 Aqua, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s pretty much in line with almost all other Xperia units, and identical to the Z3. And as always, the only real gripe with the layout, as stunning as it looks, is the corner positioning of the camera, which is, more often than not, prone to a few finger shots, requiring a reshoot. And unlike many other smartphone manufacturers offering IP65/68 certified devices as gimmicks or passing fads, Sony has remained true to their water and dust proof devices, minus a few entry level units.
Screen and Display
The M4 Aqua has a 5” screen with an IPS LCD display with a mid-range standard of 720x1280px resolution. This translates to an average 295ppi pixel density. This means that image quality isn’t the greatest, but not enough to complain about pixilation and the likes. But pixels and sharpness, although lacking slightly, aren’t the be all and end all. That said, the colours of the display are good, with plenty of vibrancy, with brightness only a touch behind. While colours are bright and good looking, they aren’t always adjusted to perfection for each image, often coming across as bit cooler. This does, on occasion, cross over into the washed out look, but, at the same time, only really matters if you’re really picky, and looking out for any variances.
What’s good about the M4 Aqua, as has become the standard lately, there is an opportunity to correct the colour palette with something more suited to your perspective. Sony has included a manual controller for the red, green and blue channels by simply going to the Settings, into the Display, sub-menu White Temperature (you can choose a default of 7400K or 6500K). The display is also very legible under bright sunshine, but not entirely under direct sunshine.
All in all, the display does its job with what is available. And while the debate rages on about human perception of 720p over higher 1080p and 2160p resolutions, paired against a 1080p and even 2160p displays, you will notice the difference in quality, but not so much as a standalone.
Performance and Battery
While it may resemble the Z3 in design (not build), it is to be expected that there would a lot more disparity in terms of the innards. But, it isn’t all doom and gloom. The M4 Aqua actually sports an Octo-core, 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. The first Quad-core pushes out up to 1.5GHz, while the second only 1GHz. All this alongside 2GB of RAM and you’re looking at some good performance, on paper that is. But in reality, it’s just as good as it sounds (or reads). It does help that the unit has a near-vanilla Android 5.0 Lollipop installation. During my two-week operation of this device, not once did I experience any sort of lag, apart from a few gaming and browsing glitches, which may not be linked to the processing in the first place. [There is also the issue on the camera app, but we’ll address this separately.] The GPU is an Adreno 405, which isn’t the greatest by any means, but also gets the job done quite well considering the lower 720p resolution.
The M4 Aqua packs a 2,400mAh battery under the hood, but compared to the closeness in size to the Z3, I find it a little strange the device doesn’t get closer to its 3,100mAh battery. Battery life on the unit is said to last up to two days, but in truth, as a heavy user, be prepared to do a daily charge. That said, it does make it comfortably through the average work day, but nowhere close to the two-day forecast from the manufacturer. There are some battery optimisation options to prolong the battery life to extend it into said two days, but this limits functionality, mostly in terms of receiving notifications for data-based applications.
Another interesting point to raise is the limited internal storage. With a measly 8GB onboard, we’re looking at 2013 averages, which is something quite annoying considering how much we’ve progressed since then, not only in terms of memory offered, but also sizes of apps, images and videos. Given that an addition of an SD card would solve quite a chunk of this, it still remains a bit annoying on the whole.
Sony has fitted the M4 Aqua with a 13MP front-facing camera, and 5MP rear-facing camera. The 13MP camera also has a single-LED flash and f/2.0 lens capable of recording full HD video. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends in terms of the camera capabilities.
From the point of opening the camera app, there is a notable lag in camera prep time before the image focuses and allows you to get trigger happy. Then there’s the HDR option, which is there, but doesn’t allow you, the user, to decide if it’s to be used or not. Instead, the app somehow decides this for you. Moving onto the image quality, you’re out of luck there as well. While the images do have a high resolution, the quality isn’t all that appealing. The colour and white balance are, more often than not, off, leaving your photos appearing washed. The video capture experience is pretty much the same oat bag. Interestingly, although only a 5MP camera, the selfie shot camera does a lot better. Although the overall quality isn’t great either, there’s a lot less expected from it, but it does have good facial detail.
The Sony Xperia M4 Aqua is a really good mid-range smartphone. Its uncanny resemblance to the Z3 with far less premium build quality underneath, makes it even more impressive. Makes you wonder why all mid-range units aren’t capable of at least looking the part of their much better funded flagship siblings. While this is certainly the standout, the battery and overall performance are also worth a good mention. But, there are some downsides. That of the poor camera functionality, and limited internal storage. While an SD card is able to rectify the latter, it’s the former than is hard to forgive, considering the tightly contested market.
Unfortunately for the M4 Aqua, there are a few other hundred mid-ranges units popping up across the country, and even more across the globe, which not only match it with slightly better price ranges, but just as many, when compared head to head, surpass it. One of my favourite reviewed this year was the Huawei Ascend G7, which not only offered a bigger screen, but a lot more features to boot, still leading the way, in my opinion, amongst other mid-range units.