Sony's new Xperia M4 Aqua is a watered-down version of one of my favourite phones of last year, the stunningly sleek and very expensive Xperia Z3. The Aqua remains waterproof and is only slightly less beautiful, but Sony (understandably) made significant compromises to reach a more wallet-friendly price. It has a 720p, which lacks the eye-melting brightness of the Z3's full HD display, as well as a less powerful processor, and its 13- rather than 20-megapixel camera doesn't impress at all.
If style and durability are your goals, then it's worth your consideration. But if you want your phone to do anything more besides look pretty, then it's best to move on.
Sony hasn't given an exact SIM-free price of the phone, but you can pick it up on Amazon in the UK for £228. There's no word either on whether it'll see a launch outside of Europe, but that UK price converts to around $350.
Design and display
The M4 Aqua has taken all its design cues from Sony's glorious Xperia Z3. It has a glass front and back, with an identical rounded edging along the sides. From a distance, it's not easy to tell the phones apart. Up close, it does feel a touch less luxurious -- that band is plastic, not metal, for one -- and it's slightly fatter than the Z3, too, at 7.3mm thick.
The plain black design (or white, or a pinkish-orangeish colour), minimalist Sony branding and raised silvered power button are the other elements the M4 borrows from the Z3. It really won't be difficult to trick people into thinking you shelled out for its more expensive brother.
It's fully waterproof, too, allowing it to survive not only a spilled drink but also a full dip in the tub. The physical camera button lets you take photos underwater, making it ideal for trips to the sea or the pool when you're on holidays.
Sony also performed some wizardry on the Micro-USB charging port by removing the rubberised cover while still keeping water out. On the Z3 I was frequently frustrated at having to open a fiddly little flap every time I put the phone on charge, so this is a welcome change. The microSD port and SIM card tray keep their rubberised covers, but you won't have to remove those nearly as often.
The 5-inch display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution, which results in a density of 293 pixels per inch. That's not as high as the full-HD Z3 (424ppi) or the monstrously high-resolution LG G4 (538ppi), but it's perfectly adequate to make your everyday apps look sharp and small text in Web pages is perfectly readable.
The colours are reasonably accurate, and there's an option in settings to change the colour balance of the screen if you'd prefer it a little warmer. It's not a bright screen, however, as it struggled to counter the overhead lights in my house, resulting in my own face reflecting back at me. It performed even worse outside under bright sunlight.
Storage and bundled bloatware
The phone comes with 8GB of built-in storage. The Android software takes up half of that space, with most of the rest going to the preloaded bloatware that clogs this phone. In the end, there's only 2.8GB of storage available for your own apps, music and videos, which means you'll run out of space pretty quickly. Forget about popular games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas -- it's way too big.
You'll therefore absolutely need to slot in a microSD card, but you can also help yourself by deleting as much of the bundled software nonsense as possible. Sony has a habit of loading extra software on board its phones, and it's outdone itself on the M4 Aqua. As well as preloading a bunch of annoying widgets on the home screen, you'll find apps like AVG, OfficeSuite and a whole load of Sony services.
It all adds up to the phone feeling cluttered and bloated before you've even downloaded your first app. You can at least delete a few of the bundled apps and remove the home-screen widgets, but you can't remove everything. As a compromise, try hiding the unwanted apps in a folder where they're easier to ignore.
Android software and processor performance
The phone arrives running Android 5.0 Lollipop, which is the most recent major release of Android -- at least until the newly announced Android M hits the streets. Sony has applied the same user interface over the top of Android that you'll find on most of its recent phones, including the flagship Z3.
Other than the needless amount of preinstalled junk -- which I won't annoy myself with again -- I don't mind Sony's Android skin. It's particularly easy to reorder your app icons in the app tray using the side menu, and it doesn't change too much in the way you actually navigate the phone, making it fairly easy to get to grips with.
Powering the phone is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor -- that's an octa-core chip, backed up by 2GB of RAM, which is a fair amount of power for a midrange phone. It racked up 21,126 on the Quadrant benchmark test, which is a healthy score; everyday use of the phone seemed mostly fine. Apps opened reasonably quickly, and although there was the odd bit of stuttering when swiping around the interface, it wasn't annoying.
Netflix played video perfectly well, I could edit images in Adobe Photoshop Express without any trouble and games like Asphalt 8 played smoothly. Of course, that was only once I deleted enough stuff to install the apps in the first place. For everyday tasks like social networking, the phone will do fine even if it doesn't have the nippy, immediate feel of its pricier, more powerful sibling.
The back of the phone is home to a 13-megapixel camera, which is a step down from the impressive 20.7-megapixel shooter found on the Z3. Megapixels certainly don't equal better photos, however, so I took it for a spin to see what it's capable of.
From the first shot I wasn't impressed. Taken in "intelligent auto" mode, this log lacks clarity at full zoom and the detail is much worse in the edges -- particularly in the bottom left corner. There's a total lack of contrast in the scene and an unpleasant purple colour cast, too. All in all, it's not a good start.
Things didn't get any better later on. The camera struggled to balance the bright sky and darker foreground, and the colours are just plain unpleasant.
Switching to manual mode to utilise the HDR mode (annoyingly, it's not available in auto mode), the camera has lifted the shadows slightly, but it's resulted in a flat, hazy scene with no contrast, and that purple cast is still very much a problem.
There's better exposure, contrast and colour on this shot of a fungus. The central part of the image has plenty of detail but again, the quality drops significantly at the edges.
This flower is much better all round. There's a decent exposure, sharp focus on the petals, and that purple cast, while not gone, is much less noticeable.
The camera has focused well on this bee. Pity the image has such poor contrast.
This scene has an acceptable exposure overall, and when viewing the image at full screen there's sufficient detail to pick out the church spire in the distance. Contrast is again an issue, though, and that purple colour cast is back.
HDR mode here has only succeeded in lowering the contrast even further. Bravo.
My final shot was much better all round, with good exposure, pleasing contrast and much more attractive colours, without the purple tinge. Still, the short story is the Z4 Aqua is not a good camera phone. While you'll be able to take snaps of yourself and your friends suitable for Facebook, you shouldn't opt for it if photography from your phone is critically important.
Sony reckons the 2,400mAh battery will last for two days of regular use, which I feel is a rather ambitious promise. In my own use, I was able to run the battery down from full to empty in 5 hours, with video streaming at max screen brightness. That's quite a demanding test, however -- the screen on any phone is always the most battery-hungry aspect -- so your mileage will vary greatly based on how you use the phone.
It holds its charge well in standby (Sony quotes 779 hours of standby time), so if you tend to use your phone only occasionally through the day to send a few texts or calls, you can probably get closer to that two-day mark. Keeping the screen brightness low will help the most, and try to avoid anything too demanding like gaming or video streaming if you're trying to eke out the power.
The Sony Xperia M4 Aqua has plenty going for it with its sleek design, waterproof body and sufficient serving of power, all topped off with an affordable price. If you've been eyeing up the minimalist aesthetic of the top-end Xperia Z3 but can't stomach the cost, the M4 Aqua is a cheaper way of putting that style in your pocket.
You do have to make some significant compromises, though. The camera is the most disappointing aspect of the phone, delivering images with poor colour, abysmal contrast and unimpressive detail. Sony doesn't help the M4 Aqua's case either by filling it up with pointless bloatware and leaving such a minuscule amount of usable storage that you're forced to pop in an SD card from the word go.
This phone's clear dedication to style over substance means it's fine for everyday essential tasks, and even a spot of light gaming, but if photography is at all important, or you want a simpler, less cluttered interface, you should look elsewhere.