The $399 Sony Xperia XA1 might not have a fingerprint reader, but it has a camera that can almost go up against a flagship smartphone and a two-day battery life.
What we love
- Great camera, especially for $399
- Edge-to-edge display
- Two-day battery life
- Good value
What could be improved
- Dim display
- No fingerprint reader
- Boxy top and bottom bezels
- Too many preinstalled apps
What Is It?
The Xperia XA1 is technically Sony's second XA series device. You'd think Sony would have called it the XA2, but I guess the first XA phone was really the XA0 then. Product names shouldn't be this hard.
While the name might be confusing, it doesn't compare to a feature set that reads like a roller-coaster ride.
It's a $399 phone with a camera from a $899 phone. That's good.
But there's no fingerprint reader. That's bad.
It's got a swish design with a true edge-to-edge display. That's good.
But it's pretty dim. That's bad.
The XA1 is kind of the cursed frogurt of smartphones.
For every great feature, the XA1 makes a trade-off. This tends to be the case with more affordable devices, but the XA1 takes this to the extreme. The positives are genuinely amazing, while the compromises teeter the line between annoyance and deal breaker.
The XA1's design is a winner. It's one of the few phones on the market to use a true edge-to-edge display, meaning the display sits flush with its aluminium frame. This is something even the far pricier LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S8 haven't included, and oddly, not found in Sony's more expensive phones.
While the top and bottom bezels are a little too tall for my liking, the edge-to-edge display looks gorgeous, and results in a phone that feels wonderful to hold. When combined with solid polycarbonate body and subtle curves, the XA1 feels smaller than it actually is. This is great if you like using your phone one-handed.
The XA1's true standout feature is however its 23MP camera. It's one of the best cameras I've seen at "midrange" price points, even outdoing smartphones $200 to $300 more expensive. In fact, the camera is almost identical to the one featured in Sony's previous flagship device, the Xperia XZ, with some slight differences. A phone's processor affects camera performance, and since the XA1's chipset isn't quite as zippy as the XZ's, the camera is a little slower to boot up, and isn't able to shoot 4K video.
Despite this, the XA1's camera is a solid all-round performer. It's fast to shoot, delivers accurate colours, and takes good photos in lowlight reliably. The XA1's camera was good in a $900 phone, but in a $400 device, it's amazing. And as with many of Sony's other smartphones, there's a dedicated shutter button that can also be used to launch the camera.
The XA1 performs well as a daily driver - you might notice a bit of slowdown in 3D games - but I didn't have any major issues when it came to the standard smartphone fare. Battery life is also a winner, and most should be able to get about two days of usage in between charges; I found I typically had over 50% left at the end of day one.
What's Not So Good?
The oddest omission made by the XA1 is the lack of a fingerprint reader. When you consider that even sub-$200 phones are now shipping with biometric authentication, it’s weird to see a $399 device launch without. I mean, realistically, a fingerprint reader only saves you a couple of seconds each time you unlock your phone, but this adds up. This might sound like a first world problem, but once you've had the convenience of a good fingerprint reader on a phone, it's hard to go back to banging in PINs.
As aesthetically impressive as the XA1's screen is, it's hampered by a couple of technical factors: it runs at 720p, and it's a little dim. At 5-inches, 720p isn't a terrible compromise: it's still sharp enough for day-to-day usage, even if similarly priced devices have now made the move to 1080p.
Brightness could be more of an issue though: at maximum brightness, the XA1's screen barely outshines an iPhone 7 with its brightness set to just a third. Not only does this make the phone look a little washed out, it can affect viewing angles and outdoor visibility.
Given everything else the XA1 has going for it, it's a bit of a shame Sony didn't put a little more into the display.
While Sony's take on Android isn't massively different from the stock Android experience these days, the XA1 is bundled with a tonne of preinstalled software. Some of these apps - such as the PlayStation app and Xperia Lounge - are explicitly designed to promote other Sony products. In most cases, they can't be deleted, but you can disabled them. At the very least, you can stop them from cluttering your app drawer.
Who's It For?
Sony's Xperia XA1 is a solid choice if you want a phone with a great camera that won't break the bank. Priced at $399, the XA1 outdoes far pricier devices when it comes to photographic prowess, and can almost go toe-to-toe with flagships.
The great camera does however come with trade-offs: there's no fingerprint reader, and the display isn't quite bright enough. If you're okay with these compromises, your $399 will also get you two-days of battery life, a nifty design, and good all-round performance.
If you're looking for a device in the $300 to $600 price range, the XA1 should definitely be on your shortlist.
What Else Can I Buy?
Moto G5 Plus
If you'd prefer a phone with a fingerprint reader, the Moto G5 Plus is a solid option in the same price range as the Xperia XA1. The camera isn't quite as good, but the Moto G5 Plus is one of our top picks when it comes to more affordable smartphones.
If you're after something a little cheaper, OPPO's $328 A57 will save you a little bit of cash without making too many more trade-offs. The camera won't compete with the XA1's and OPPO's take on Android is heavily modified, but the A57 is nonetheless a good pick for a budget device.
Sony Xperia XZ
If you're after a little more grunt under the hood, check out Sony's Xperia XZ, the XA1's bigger brother. It's about twice as much outright, but on contract pricing is surprisingly cheap through Virgin Mobile.