Sony Xperia XA1 review: a whole lotta pixels for not a lotta money

You’ll struggle to find a better camera for this low, low price

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T3 Verdict

A good budget buy with a superb camera sensor. It’s a shame the camera software is a little too enthusiastic.

Reasons to buy

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    Impressive camera

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    Sleek, compact design

Reasons to avoid

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    Relatively low-res screen

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    OTT image processing

Sony famously makes the camera sensors for stacks of other people’s smartphones, so it tends to be ahead of the pack with its own devices. That’s definitely the case here: you’ll struggle to find a better camera setup without spending a lot more money. But there’s more to the XA1 than its optics. It’s a good smartphone in its own right if you don’t mind a few sacrifices.

Sony Xperia XA1 review: design

The Xperia XA1 is pretty in a “monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey” kinda way. The plastic back is a an obvious cost-saving exercise but it’s a smart, pocket friendly design with metal along the sides to help you feel that you bought something more expensive. It looks more grown up than, say, the previous Moto G5, and its thin bezels and thin design make it well suited to smaller pockets or bags. It’s long and slender, not short and stubby. There’s no fingerprint scanner but there is a hardware camera button, which we’d rather have.

Sony Xperia XA1 review: features and benefits

Sony Xperia XA1 review

We’re used to firms going for lower screen resolutions to save money, but Sony may have gone too far here: it’s teamed a great camera with a screen that’s just 720p. That means jaggy text and in-game graphics, and while it’s reasonably sharp the difference between it and a 1080p devices such as a Moto G series is immediately obvious. It’s a shame because Sony’s famous for its displays, and resolution aside this is an unusually bright and vivid panel for a budget phone with a warmer tone than the usually rather blue Sony screens. 

Beware the image enhancement modes too: they make your photos look more punchy on your own phone but they lie, so you’ll be disappointed after uploading them to Instagram or elsewhere. The speakers lie too: there appear to be two, but there’s only one.

The software is Android 7.0 with Sony’s interface over the top. That means you’ve got an up to date OS with an increasingly dated interface: Sony’s look and feel hasn’t really matured since the days before Android 5.0. Sony’s also very keen that you use its own video and music apps rather than the stock Google ones. 

One USP is the PlayStation app, which you can control your PS4 with. That’s handy for entering text if you don’t have the keyboard add-on for your DualShock.

The other is the camera, which has a whopping 23MP and a sensor of 1/2.3 inches. That’s the same as some compact cameras, and should result in seriously good photos. We say should, because the camera software gets carried away: it overly brightens night shots, sharpens too much and gets mushy around the edges. It’s not that obvious from a distance but close-up the overly processed approach may disappoint. And the megapixels mean a trade-off in video, which tops out at 30fps in 1080p and no 4K option.

Sony Xperia XA1 review: performance

That screen isn’t all bad news: 720p is much less demanding in terms of hardware grunt and battery power, so the performance of the XA1 is perfectly smooth despite a fairly lacklustre specification (MediaTeK Helio P20 teamed with a Mali-T880MP2 GPU and 3GB of DDR3, not DDR4, RAM). We’re sure it’d chug along if the screen was 1080p, but it isn’t so it doesn’t. It benchmarks slightly slower than the Moto G5 and G5 Plus but there’s very little real-world difference. 

Battery life is good but not great: you can expect a day of moderate use between charges, but it’s likely to run flat on more demanding days. You can enable Ultra Power Saver, but that effectively turns it into something from about 1993.

Sony Xperia XA1 review: verdict

Sony Xperia XA1 review

The Xperia XA1 is a strong budget buy with a really good camera sensor, albeit one that’s spoilt a little by the software’s tendency to over-process everything: that means it’s one for the WhatsAppers rather than the photo pros. It’s a solid, compact and stylish everyday phone, but it does have a relatively small battery and a low-res screen. However, it’s an interesting alternative to the Moto G5 family. It’s cheaper than Samsung’s A series too.