Last year, Sony released the Xperia Z5, Z5 Compact and Z5 Premium, the best looking range of smartphones. At MWC in February this year, Sony relaunched the Xperia brand with the new X-series devices, which promised new horizons for the OEM. The range would include three new smartphones in the form of the Xperia X, Xperia XA and Xperia X Performance. In early July, Sony finally launched the X-series in South Africa, and we recently had some hands-on time with the Xperia XA, the mid-range smartphone of the bunch.
Despite developing some of the most beautiful smartphones on the market, Sony hasn’t set the world alight in recent years with its sales across its Xperia range, and the rebranding has a lot to do with this. While I always enjoyed their releases, there has always been an element of lack on the premium range to compete at the highest levels against the likes of Samsung and Apple. With the recent push within the market for intuitive mid-range devices, most companies have released one or two devices to compete in this range, and Sony is no different. As the replacement for the Xperia M range (Xperia M5), the Xperia XA releases smack bang in the middle of an all out battle against the heavies, and even more newcomers than before. But does the XA have what it takes to stay in the game within this highly competitive space.
Build and Design
The Xperia XA isn’t the full metal unibody you’ll find on the Xperia X or X Performance, but it still looks solid with its plastic enclosure. Sony hasn’t ventured too far from the omni-balance design on previous Xperia phones, and only improves on the tried and tested. Arguably, the XA looks a lot sleeker than the Xperia X, with its edge-to-edge display at 72% screen-to-body ratio. In fact, there isn’t any gap between the edge and the sides, and the screen even curves ever so slightly as it meets the side of the device. The overall device is very sleek with very little protrusions, even from the power button, volume rocker and dedicated camera button, all found on the right hand side of the device.
The microSD card and SIM slots hide behind a flap on the top left of the XA, while the microUSB port and loudspeaker sit on the bottom of the device. The 3.5mm audio jack is found on the top of the device on the left side, while the rear camera is also positioned on the top left of the rear. Everything is neatly positioned, almost off to the side and out the way to prevent it upsetting the flow of the design. Unlike the M5, however, the flap and ports aren’t sealed, so you don’t have the IP-rating on XA, which starts to feel strange considering that it became a feature of most of Sony’s previous smartphones for many years.
The unit weighs just 137g and is 7.9mm thick, and feels comfortable in hand, without the worry of losing control or sliding off smooth surfaces. The biggest difference between the XA and the other two devices within the X-series, apart from the design materials, is its lack of fingerprint sensor on the power button. The XA does come with its own range of smart cover accessories, but I’m not much of a fan for smartphone covers to be honest, although some of these are quite unique and nifty.
Screen and Display
Over the years, Sony has always managed to compete at the highest level when it came to its displays. Given it’s mid-range restrictions, the XA isn’t quite what I would have expected. Sony has fitted a 5″ LCD IPS panel to the XA, which has a 720p resolution at 294ppi pixel density. In such a competitive market, it would have been good to see at least a 1080p display on the XA. That said, the display isn’t bad. With Sony’s in-house Triluminous technology, which produces bright colours on images and videos. Users also have three options in the display settings menu, which includes the Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2 and Super Vivid modes, as well as to have them both turned off. Interestingly, these modes only have an effect on images and videos viewed from within Sony’s Gallery app, and anything outside of this uses a default colour profile. This means that wallpapers and games may have flatter imagery than one is used to on previous Sony handsets.
Viewing angles are reasonable, as well as daylight viewing in direct sunlight. If you look closely enough and focus on the display, some users will be able to spot some antialiasing effects to smooth out icons and some images, as well as the odd pixelation effect. This isn’t a significant concern, but with the likes of Huawei and Motorola operating in the same market space with some quality devices and displays, it does make you wonder why Sony wasn’t able to add more bang for your buck on the XA. During long periods of usage, I also noticed that the screen tends to smudge, which means I have to clean it a lot more frequently than I would have liked. And the smudges do affect certain game performances, especially for those click-happy apps.
Performance and Battery
OEMs tend to fall within two categories when it comes to mid-range smartphones, those that use older chipsets and those that use lesser known, or less powerful ones. In the case of the Xperia XA, it’s the latter. Sony has gone with the Mediatek MT6755 Helio P10 chipset within the XA, which has an Octa-core 2.0GHz Cortex-A53 CPU, and Mali-T860MP2 GPU. Alongside this it has 2GB RAM, and 16GB internal storage, although it is running the latest Android OS, 6.0.1 Marshmallow. For the most part, the performance is quite good when opening apps and running games. There are, however, a few drawbacks that are experienced on a far too regular basis. Every so often, the device would either freeze, lag, or stutter when performing certain functions. And it doesn’t even have to be resource intensive, and something as simple as a WhatsApp message could cause a few issues. I often restart the device at this point, as I don’t have the patience to wait the 2-3 minutes it takes to rectify itself.
The non-removable 2300mAh battery is supposed to be capable of lasting up to two days between charges, but hardly ever reaches a complete 24 hours. In fact, I find myself having to top up late evening, while I charge my device before work every morning to be on the safe side. And that doesn’t even include the more heavy-use days, when I’m required to charge even before leaving the office.
Camera and Software
The 13MP rear-facing camera makes up for some of the performance concerns on the XA. Standard with phase detection autofocus, LED flash, geo-tagging, touch focus, face detection, HDR, and panorama mode, the 1/3″ sensor takes good photos in well-lit environments. While the quality does drop in lower lit areas, it isn’t too bad.
Software-wise, Sony does a decent enough job offering Marshmallow on its mid-range smartphone, but this should be the norm in 2016. I was surprised at some of the preinstalled apps on the XA. While I was able to disable many of the apps within the settings menu, you can’t completely uninstall them, which may become a greater factor later on with the limited 16GB internal storage, more than 50% of which is already in use at first boot. The latest security patch is also dated back to April, which is quite some way behind many other leading OEMs’ patches, leaving it quite vulnerable.
If you’re looking for a beautifully crafted mid-range smartphone, without too much fuss about the performance and battery, then perhaps you’ll find the Xperia XA a suitable candidate. For most users, however, it isn’t simply about the looks. Without the decent camera, the XA is simply a sub-par take on a mid-range smartphone. At a cost of around R5,500, there is some stiff competition for the market, especially in other, international markets.
When I consider my Sony Xperia Z3 Compact I still have lying around at home, which I use on a regular basis, it may be a better purchase seeking out one of those older Sony devices, provided you’re able to upgrade to the latest software. I find it a lot more appealing, and can only hope the Xperia X and X Performance deliver better results.