Solid build, solid experience, less money
Like many smartphone manufacturers, Sony makes a number of different phones that are designed to cater to different markets and market segments. The Xperia XA2 Ultra is specifically designed for the premium mid-range tier; folks that are looking for a more premium design and experience, but aren’t willing to shell out nearly a grand to get it. Does Sony’s latest hold up on that promise? Let’s take a look.
When it comes to specs, you’ll find very little difference between most components here and the higher range Xperia products. Retailing for £379/€430/$449, or far less than the premium models, Sony ships the Xperia XA2 Ultra in Blue, Gold, Black, and Silver (our review unit color). On the front is a 6-inch 1080P IPS LCD display, and inside is a Snapdragon 630 SoC with Adreno 508 GPU and 4GB of RAM. 32GB of internal storage is included along with a microSD card port for expandable storage. The Xperia XA2 Ultra measures in at 163mm tall, 80mm wide and 9.5mm thin, with a hefty weight of 221 grams.
Above the screen sits a pair of dual cameras; a main 16-megapixel OIS 1/2.6" Exmor RS sensor with 88° wide-angle F2.0 lens, and a secondary 8-megapixel 1/4" Exmor RS with 120° super wide-angle F2.4 lens. A single LED flash supports both of these front-facing cameras, and another single-LED flash is found on the back. The only rear facing camera is a 23-megapixel 1/2.3” sensor with 84° wide-angle F2.0 lens. A fingerprint scanner can be found on the back under the camera lens, and a single bottom-firing speaker is next to the USB Type-C port on the bottom. A non-removable 3,580mAh battery sits inside, capable of Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 and Qnovo Adaptive Charging.
In The Box
Not much in the way of extras are included in the box, just a standard USB Type-C to USB Type-A cable, a wall charger, manuals and the phone itself. No SIM tray removal tool is needed because of Sony’s design, which utilizes a tray that can be lifted out of the side of the phone easily with just your fingers.
Sony’s LCD displays have become increasingly excellent over the years, and the Xperia XA2 Ultra sports one of the best displays they’ve ever put on a phone. While it’s not the highest display density available on a smartphone, it’s still plenty dense, and looks crisp and clean even up close. Given LCD’s typical struggles with black levels, it’s pleasantly surprising to see such deep black levels on an LCD panel, especially when viewing the phone straight on. Black levels and contrast drop as you tilt the display, but straight-on could easily be confused with a higher-end display in most regards. Pixel persistence is the only other area where the display can get negative points, as there’s obvious trailing or ghosting behind high contrast moving objects, although it’s not as bad as we’ve seen on other LCD panels on smartphones.
At 6-inches, this isn’t a small display by any means, and with a 16:9 aspect ratio it feels a little on the wide side, however the complete lack of bezels on the left and right sides makes the phone feel smaller than most Sony devices would at this size. The display gets extremely bright and is super easy to see outside, with good auto brightness management that scales well. Sony offers a wide range of adjustments for the screen calibration, including a white balance adjustment with granular settings for red, green and blue via sliders. You'll also find three presets for color saturation and overall display contrast that are separate from the white balance adjustments.
The digitizer is mostly good, although I had a number of incidents where I experienced ghost touches or other issues. These caused frustration while typing a number of times, as the word I was trying to type would instantly become something else, as a touch would register somewhere else on the screen instead of where my fingers were. It appears that most of these ghost touches were in fact registered touches from the palms of my hands while I held the phone; a direct result of bezels that are small, and software that doesn’t appear to do a good job of padding these touch errors.
Hardware and Build
Sony’s hardware has a very distinct design to it, and one that wouldn’t be mistaken easily for another OEMs phone. While the newly announced Xperia XZ2 changes up the entire design, the XA2 family made one massive change that was sorely needed; a fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone, separated from the power button. This finally gives Sony the ability to enable the fingerprint scanning feature in the US market; something that’s been missing for generations on Sony phones here in the US. Aside from this change, there’s little to separate the overall look of this phone from most other Sony phones on the market. Sony has reduced the size of the side bezels over previous generations considerably though, and has made these side bezels effectively non-existent.
The top and bottom of the phone are completely flat, while the sides are fully rounded off, giving the phone a distinct, balanced feel. The separated microSD card tray and SIM card trays are found under a flap on the left side, while the right side holds all the buttons. The new rounded, raised power button sits just above the mid-point of the phone, with the volume rocker above it, and the dedicated camera button situated almost completely toward the bottom. I don’t care for this camera button placement, as it’s too close to where I typically hold the phone, and I found myself launching the camera a number of times on accident. Sony still includes a 3.5mm audio jack up top for audio output, and support for USB audio via the USB Type-C port on the bottom.
Unlike many of Sony’s other phones, the Xperia XA2 Ultra is not IP rated for water or dust resistance. The back of the phone is polycarbonate, while all four sides are aluminum. The phone has a pretty substantial weight to it, likely thanks in combination to the rigid metal frame, as well as the larger than average battery inside. The vibration motor inside is grossly soft feeling most of the time, with typing being the biggest offending use of the motor. No matter how much I adjusted the vibration strength or length, the motor simply didn’t feel good, and I ended up disabling vibration instead.
Performance and Benchmarks
While the Xperia XA2 UItra packs a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 SoC, you’d likely never know that it’s less than a high-end SoC in terms of daily performance. There are very few apps that would stutter at all, or give any hint that this is a mid-range SoC, and even multi-tasking was excellent, keeping apps in memory long after you’ve navigated away from them. Gaming performance is excellent, and you’ll likely not find a game where the Xperia XA2 Ultra struggles at all, as it’s well balanced power should meet the needs of any game.
Benchmark results put the Xperia XA2 Ultra somewhere in the range of performance from a flagship device at the end of 2016, which is right in line with what’s expected from a mid-range SoC. Check out the benchmark results run below, including AnTuTu V7, GeekBench 4, 3DMark Slingshot, and PCMark internal storage speed test.
Wireless Connectivity, Sound and Battery Life
As an unlocked phone, it’s expected that the Xperia XA2 Ultra should run on pretty much any preferred cellular network. The phone supports what is referred to as LTE+ on T-Mobile US, which is carrier aggregation, and combines multiple LTE channels in a supported area for ultra fast wireless data. There is no support for WiFi Calling, however, so those in need of this feature will unfortunately have to miss out.
Sony’s leadership in ultra-high quality wireless codecs proves itself to be a big strength here, and while just about every phone that ships with Android 8.0 Oreo supports up to LDAC Bluetooth quality, Sony’s integration makes things easier to find. Right in sound settings you’ll find a quick toggle between aptX HD and LDAC, for Bluetooth devices that support these higher quality codecs, while the phone will otherwise choose aptX or lower automatically otherwise. The single external bottom-firing speaker proves to be pretty good in most use cases, but it’s still facing away from the user at the end of the day. This placement makes it both easy to cover on accident, depending on how you hold the phone, and ultimately not as good as speakers that would point toward the user's face rather than away from it.
This is in stark contrast to Sony’s flagships, where stereo front-facing speakers have always been a priority in the design. Folks that need or prefer wired audio will be happy with the 3.5mm audio jack here, which outputs ultra-high quality 24-bit high-res audio, or 4x CD quality audio on sources that are compatible. Battery life is incredible to say the least, and it’s very easy to get 2 days out of a single charge on the Xperia XA2 Ultra, even for moderate users. Heavy users will still get over a full day, but squeaking out 2 full days with heavy screen usage likely isn’t probable. Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 is here though, charging the phone over 60% in just half an hour, meaning an entire day’s worth of use in just 30 minutes.
Sony was the first to launch a phone with Android 8.0 Oreo aboard, and the Xperia XA2 Ultra continues that legacy. Android 8.0 Oreo includes some important under-the-hood changes that aren’t always visible to users, but nonetheless are needed. This includes battery improvements, performance improvements, and even streamlining of the back-end system to better help OEMs update phones in the long run. Sony’s Android skin is highly feature-rich and full of customization, including some truly fantastic skins on the Google Play Store. Sony ships the phone with a theme browser, which makes finding themes easier than just browsing the Play Store.
Sony’s lack of categories or tags can make the list daunting though, and even though there’s a large list of themes, they aren’t easily sorted between, and there’s no real way to see which themes are free or paid just from the list. These are system-wide themes though, not just launcher themes, so navigation buttons, system menus and dialogs will all be themed as well. Sony also features some handy one-hand-use gestures which allow users to shrink the screen with a quick swipe across the bottom navigation bar, and a number of system apps will automatically move to the left or right side to facilitate one-hand use when this is enabled. Outside of this, Sony offers tons of tutorials and ways to easily switch from other phones to the Xperia XA2 Ultra, as well as dedicated support for 2 years.
For some strange reason, Sony seems to have included an older design of its camera software on the Xperia XA2 Ultra, versus the updated one we saw on Fall 2017's phones. While the interface is largely the same as that newer version, some oddities from previous app designs remain, including the separated 4K video mode, which operates as a completely separate app from the actual camera app. To further confuse things, Sony has included a new HDR video option to the standard recording app, meaning the Xperia XA2 Ultra can record HDR video in 1080p at 30FPS; something most phones simply don’t have an option to do, much less even the highest end flagships.
The app is somewhat clunky though, and can be extremely slow oftentimes. Launching on cold boot takes several seconds, especially if the phone is locked, however once the camera is loaded into memory it only takes a fraction of a second to load up again. Switching between the three main modes is done with a swipe between pages. These modes are Manual, Photo, and Video. The fourth page contains all additional modes, and takes far too long to pull up, especially if you’re just trying to record in 4K. All of these additional modes are treated as separate apps, and will require the phone relaunching said app just to get to the new mode; even worse, you’ll have to unlock the phone if you’ve launched the camera app while the phone is still locked, resulting in extra time just to record 4K video.
This results in very long lengths of time just to do anything, and on top of that the phone often takes several seconds just to take the shot. In good lighting conditions this doesn't happen; there’s a microsecond delay while taking the shot and then it’s ready to go again. During low lighting conditions the pause can be several seconds between shots, and you’ll need to make sure you hold the phone steady during this time, as I had several moments where I thought I took the shot, only to later look and see a big blurry image because I moved the phone before it actually took the shot. Part of the issue is likely down to the fairly new scene ID mode, which attempts to identify objects and scene types, altering the processing to match these scenes. While this is a great idea for more powerful phones, or phones with dedicated DSP processors, it’s a little too much for the Snapdragon 630 to handle.
Photo quality in general is mostly good, but there are some notable weak points. First with the positive, you’ll find generally crisp and clean shots from the camera in any kind of good light, as well as some truly fantastic white balance and color accuracy. The 84-degree lens is nice and wide too, resulting in more scene taken in without the distortion of a wider angle lens. Dynamic range is generally lacking quite a bit though, and you’ll often find either overexposed bright areas in shots, or underexposed dark areas due to overly bright skies or other light sources. Low light shots are pretty hit or miss too, although it feels like more on the miss side than anything. Low light shots end up with significantly less detail than better lit ones due to processing out noise, or just end up overly dark in general. On top of this, low light shots are taken very slowly, as stated above, and result in several seconds between shots in low light scenarios.
The front-facing camera experience is truly fantastic though, and really seems to be what Sony focused on when it comes to cameras on this phone. Instead of having two cameras on the back, Sony placed them on the front, and didn't skimp on the sensor sizes like some OEMs. The result are pictures that look fantastic no matter what lighting conditions, and a front-facing flash that'll help in even the darkest of environments. A main 16-megapixel OIS 1/2.6" Exmor RS sensor with 88° wide-angle F2.0 lens, and a secondary 8-megapixel 1/4" Exmor RS with 120° super wide-angle F2.4 lens power the experience here. The super wide-angle lens in particular is a ton of fun to use, and can capture an entire group of people, or just yourself and everything around you. It's a truly excellent experience that really can make up for what the rear camera lacks, if selfies are important to you of course.
Video mode is a bit of a mixed bag, but it's more down to the experience rather than the quality. Standard video can be recorded up to 1080p quality at 60 frames per second, and Sony has launched a new HDR video mode with the Xperia XA2 that can really shine in overly bright environments with tons of highlight and shadow detail that could get lost otherwise, however it's restricted to 1080p maximum quality. This HDR video can look a bit fake at times though, making colors a bit unrealistic and cartoony, and sometimes overexposing the whole scene, but when it looks good, it looks very, very good. 4K video is reserved for the annoyingly slow 4K mode we discussed above, and while the quality is there, it's such a pain to get to that most users likely won't use it. Slow motion video only records 720p at 120FPS; a stark contrast to the 1080p 960FPS Sony's flagships can do, but it still features the same excellent interface as Sony's more expensive phone models. Check out the gallery below to see all the shots and videos from the review.
Tiny side bezels
Good quality screen
2-day battery life
Amazing front-facing cameras
HDR video recording
3.5mm audio jack
Fingerprint scanner for all (even the US)
Good overall performance
Worldwide LTE support
Big and heavy
Display touch issues
No IP rating for water or dust resistance
Hit or miss camera quality
Camera can be very slow in low light
Sony's Xperia XA2 Ultra is the best deal in the UK, being well under £400 and packing in some incredible specs and experience for the price. That price is nearly £100 less than its nearest competitor, and although it packs lesser specs than those phones, that £100 can make all the difference in the world. Here in the US it's only $50 less than its nearest competitor, and at that price, it might be better to just save a little extra and splurge on something higher end, but elsewhere in Europe the price reflects the situation with pricing in the UK. Overall, Sony has made a well-rounded phone that feels great, performs well and offers lots of goodies, but doesn't go out of its way to impress. Finally having fingerprint support in the US certainly helps Sony's overall standing though, and for a mid-range phone, the Xperia XA2 Ultra is certainly one competitive smartphone.