- Gorgeous, compact design
- Impressive camera
- Long battery life
- Not the fastest
- No fingerprint sensor
Sony’s affordable Xperia XA1 smartphone packs some serious style into a pleasingly compact frame. Our Sony Xperia XA1 review offers our in-depth thoughts after more than a week of using it as our full-time mobile.
Sony's Xperia XA mobile, launched just last year, really tore me apart. I absolutely loved the edge-to-edge design work, which made for an attractive and easy-to-handle handset. However, the XA’s battery life was less than stellar and performance was choppy at best.
This year the XA has been revamped, giving us the familiar but improved Xperia XA1. That gorgeous body work has been further refined, while all-new specs (including an updated 23-megapixel camera) make for a much more enticing device.
So, is the Xperia XA1 the smartphone that we hoped the XA would be? Is it as good as top-tier rivals such as the Moto G5 Plus and Lenovo P2? Here’s all you need to know - and head over to our feature on the best Sony phones to buy in 2017 for alternative Xperias.
Sony Xperia XA1 review: Design
As far as mid-range handsets go, the Xperia XA1 tops the charts for pure eye candy. The candy bar design is quite unique, while the edge-to-edge finish of the XA has thankfully been retained. In other words, there are practically no bezels to the left and right of the screen.
The result is certainly aesthetically pleasing and there's a practical reason for this slim finish too. Namely, the XA1 is a doddle to use with one hand. Great news if you often find yourself answering texts while lugging shopping bags around.
Personally I prefer the look of the XA1 even to Sony's flagship phone, the Xperia XZ. You get the same funky flat top and bottom edges, in a more compact form, along with a more resistant finish. After more than a week of heavy use, this phone does have a few light scratches on the back - but that’s only obvious when the light hits it just so. Sure, the back end is a total grease magnet too. Thankfully that's nothing a quick spit and polish won't sort out.
The Xperia XA1 isn't water resistant, the same as most handsets around this price point. However it is perfectly splash proof, so you can still use it in rain.
Sony Xperia XA1 review: Screen and media
Although most mobiles around the £200 mark now sport a Full HD display, the Xperia XA1 makes do with a 720p resolution panel. Look close and you'll spy the individual pixels, if your eyesight is up to the job. However, photos and HD movies are reproduced with a respectable sharpness by Sony's 5-inch IPS screen.
If you're after a true media machine, we'd probably point you towards the Moto G5 instead. Lenovo’s great-value device has a formidable Full HD panel that's also pleasingly vibrant, for a solid movie viewing experience. That said, the Xperia XA1 can also produce surprisingly rich colours with Sony's Super Vivid Mode activated. Contrast levels are also impressive, with deep blacks and clean whites. You’ll also have no trouble with visibility in bright conditions, although this isn’t the brightest screen around. Bumped up to max, I could clearly read text even on a powerfully sunny day.
Sadly the Xperia XA1 doesn’t offer support for Hi-Res Audio, like some of the more expensive Sony mobiles. Neither can it upscale lower quality tracks, although you do get the likes of the Dynamic Normaliser feature for regulating volume differences between songs and videos.
You get 32GB of storage space for your media as well as apps and the rest. Around 10GB of this is already used up by the OS and other essentials. However, you can quickly and easily expand up to a further 256GB by slipping a microSD memory card inside, if you wish to carry around a big pile of albums and films.
Sony Xperia XA1 review: Features
The Xperia XA1 runs Google’s Android OS, version 7.0 (lovingly dubbed Nougat). This will be familiar to anyone coming from another Android phone, as the general look and feel hasn’t changed much in recent times.
You now get some funky features such as the split-screen mode, which allows you to run two apps side-by-side. Some of the general navigation and menus have been updated too, while the behind-the-scenes magic has been tinkered with to make the OS more efficient. But this is basically the same Android we know and love.
Of course, Sony has tweaked the XA1’s interface to give it that unique Xperia finish. The Unified Design theme matches the colour of your handset, be it black, white, gold or pink, for a consistent appearance throughout. I really like the swirling desktops, so I kept the Xperia XA1’s wallpaper for a good few days rather than immediately customising it, as I do on most other phones.
One feature conspicuous by its absence is a fingerprint sensor. While pretty much every other Xperia phone has a scanner mounted on the right edge, the Xperia XA1 sports Sony’s iconic rounded power button instead.
To unlock the handset, you’ll need to enter a PIN or password instead. That’s obviously more clunky and time consuming than tapping your finger to a sensor, although Google’s Trusted Security feature is an alternative for those who want it. This automatically unlocks the mobile whenever you’re in a ‘trusted place’ such as home, or when the XA1 is connected to one of your Bluetooth accessories (like a watch or headphones).
A year ago, we wouldn’t have been surprised by the scanner’s omission. In 2017 it’s less forgivable though. Many rivals such as the Moto G5, Lenovo P2 and Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus all sport their own sensor, for a more convenient user experience.
Still, Sony has packed a couple of unique features into the Xperia XA1 that you won’t find on other affordable phones. For instance, you can stream Playstation games to this handset over your home WiFi network, to blast through your games from anywhere in your house. Always handy if your lounge TV has been commandeered.
Sony’s Assistant feature is also on hand for smartphone newbies. This offers up a bunch of tips on how to get the most from your phone, as well as shortcuts to the likes of the Smart Cleaner (which clears junk files from memory) and Stamina Mode.
Sony Xperia XA1 review: Performance and battery life
One of our biggest bugbears with the Xperia XA was its stunted performance, which made for a juddery and disappointing user experience. Sony has updated the specs for the Xperia XA1, although it’s more of a little hop than a massive jump.
You still get a basic Mediatek processor stuffed inside, this time a P20. Thankfully the RAM count has been boosted from 2GB to 3GB, which makes a difference to the everyday running too. So while our benchmarking tests revealed only a slight improvement (a 60k average AnTuTu score compared with Xperia XA’s 47k), the Xperia XA1 experience does feel quite a bit smoother.
Apps occasionally load with a brief pause, but they tend to run well once they get going. I was also surprised by how well this phone handled side-by-side apps play, using Android’s split-screen mode. You can happily watch a YouTube video as you browse the web, for instance.
Battery life is also a big improvement. While the Xperia XA only managed around a day of life between charges, occasionally struggling to make it to bedtime, the Xperia XA1 lasts well into a second day. In fact you can often make it through two full days on a single charge, something bettered by next to no rivals. The Lenovo P2 is the only real exception.
The Xperia XA1 supports quick charging and also boasts the same Qnovo Adaptive Charging tech as the more premium Sony phones. This ensures that the battery doesn’t overcharge, which could damage the cell and impact longevity over time.
Sony Xperia XA1 review: Cameras
One of the biggest updates compared with the original Xperia XA is the Xperia XA1’s new 23-megapixel rear camera. Compared with the old 13-megapixel snapper, this camera is a serious upgrade.
You might not be able to shoot 4K resolution video, but HD footage shot with Sony’s SteadyShot image stabilisation looks rather lovely. Superior Auto mode does a great job for everyday photos, coping well with demanding lighting conditions. You also have full manual controls if you want to tinker with the settings and get the perfect shot.
Check out our Sony Xperia XA1 camera review for photo and video samples and our full thoughts.
Sony Xperia XA1 review: Verdict
Sony’s Xperia XA1 is a significant improvement over last year’s Xperia XA and a strong rival to the likes of the Moto G5 and Lenovo P2. That gorgeous design has been further refined for an attractive and easy-to-handle device, while the upgraded performance and longer battery life make for a much more satisfying user experience. Only the lack of Full HD visuals and a fingerprint sensor are worth griping about.