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Sony Xperia XA review: Desirable design, but little else

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Sony's recent phones, such as the Xperia X, have been too blocky to be called truly stylish. Not so with the Xperia XA. This 5-inch phone has an edge-to-edge display with only the merest sliver of a bezel. It gives the XA a lusciously premium look that belies its affordable price tag.

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6.6

Sony Xperia XA

The Good

With a super-skinny bezel, the Sony Xperia XA is a great-looking phone that's comfortable to use in one hand.

The Bad

Its low screen resolution, short-lived battery and meagre amount of built-in storage are major setbacks. Sony has loaded the phone with a horrible mess of bloatware.

The Bottom Line

Unless slick style is your only concern, skip the Sony Xperia XA for a cheaper phone with better features.

The XA will set you back $280 in the US, £240 in the UK and AU$499 in Australia. Design this slick is not usually a high priority for phones of this price.

But that's where my positive feelings for this phone end. The price is still too steep for its low-resolution display and unimpressive specs, especially when you compare it to the cheaper and more powerful Motorola Moto G4 Plus.

Yes, the XA has a cool design, but it comes at a too high a price.

Edgeless screen

  • 143.6 by 66.8 by 7.9 mm
  • 137 grams (4.83 ounces)
  • Tiny bezel around the display

The almost total lack of edge around the sides of the screen strikes you immediately. It doesn't curve at the side like the Galaxy S7 Edge. It gives it a classy look. It makes the XA feel smaller than you might expect from a 5-inch phone. I could comfortably stretch my thumb across the display to type with just one hand and it slid easily into my pocket.

The screen itself is a letdown, though. It has only a 720p resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 293 pixels per inch, which is low for a phone of this size and price. The Moto G4 Plus costs significantly less, but it packs a full HD panel with a much more impressive 401 ppi. While apps such as Twitter and Facebook look fine, small text is fuzzy and high resolution images lack clarity.

Colours don't impress, either, and the display is not very bright. Though Sony was able to squash the screen into a small space, it picked the wrong screen to squash in.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The back panel is plastic, but my white model had a pearlescent finish that glints with a pinkish sheen when it catches the light. Hardly a killer feature, but it's a welcome touch and a key element of the XA's aesthetic appeal.

What you won't find on the phone is a fingerprint scanner, which is disappointing given that most of Sony's recent phones, like the Xperia X, have it. It's yet another point where the cheaper Moto G4 Plus wins out. If Motorola can add a fingerprint scanner without ramping up the price, why can't Sony? Without a scanner, you'll have to type in your PIN at the terminal when using Android Pay, for example. That's just not as fast and easy as using your finger.

Sony Xperia XA spec comparison chart

Sony Xperia XAMotorola Moto G4OnePlus 3Apple iPhone SE
Display size, resolution 5-inch; 1,280x720 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels4-inch; 1,136x640 pixels
Pixel density 294ppi401ppi401ppi326ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.7x2.6x0.31 in6x3x0.39 in6.01x2.94x0.29 in4.87x2.31x0.3in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 144x67x7.9 mm153x76.6x9.8 mm152.7x74.7x7.35 mm123x58x7.6mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 4.8 oz (137 g)5.47 oz (155 g)5.57 oz (158 g)3.99 oz (113 g)
Mobile software Android 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0.1 MarshmallowiOS 9.3
Camera 13-megapixel16-megapixel16-megapixel12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel5-megapixel8-megapixel1.2-megapixels
Video capture 1080p4K4K4K
Processor 2GHz octa-core MediaTek Helio P101.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 6172.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820Apple A9 chip (64-bit) with M9 motion co-processor
Storage 16GB32GB64GB16GB, 64GB
RAM 2GB2GB6GB2GB
Expandable storage 200GBUp to 128GBNoneNone
Battery 2,700mAh (nonremovable)3,000mAh (removable)3,000mAh (nonremovable)1,624mAh (nonremovable)
Fingerprint sensor NoneBelow screenHome buttonHome button
Connector Micro-USBMicro-USBUSB-CLightning
Special features NoneWater-resistantNotifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash ChargingNone
Price off-contract (USD) $280$249$399$399 (16GB); $499 (64GB)
Price (GBP) £24032GB: £229; 64GB: £264£329£359 (16GB) £439 (64GB)
Price (AUD) Converts to AU$39016GB: AU$399; 32GB: AU$449Converts to AU$540AU$679 (16GB); AU$829 (64GB)

Clean software, with too much bloatware

  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • Lots of preloaded bloatware
  • 64-bit, octa-core processor

The XA runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow, largely untampered with -- thank you, Sony, for not adding a special skin. That makes it easy to use for Android experts and novices alike.

What Sony has done, though, is load the phone up with a whole mess of software right out of the box. Beyond its own PlayStation app, there's an Xperia Lounge app and something called What's New (confusingly, all have different curated lists of games, music, movies and so on). There's a handful of third-party apps too, including AVG antivirus, the Kobo ebooks app and Amazon's shopping app.

The few widgets preinstalled on the home screen also make the phone feel somewhat cluttered from the first time you switch it on. Thankfully, you can uninstall some of them, but it's a tedious process that you should be spared.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's particularly annoying that the XA comes with a very limited 16GB of internal storage, of which fully 6GB is taken up by the Android system files and preinstalled nonsense. You'll absolutely want to use the microSD card slot to save your images, videos and music as you'll eat up the on-board space very quickly.

The XA runs on a 64-bit octa-core processor, which delivers enough power to make swiping around the Android interface a smooth experience. Apps open quickly and photo editing in Snapseed, for example, is smooth. It copes with gaming reasonably well -- both Asphalt 8 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were playable, although frame rates noticeably dipped in more intense moments. Less demanding games such as Candy Crush will play fine.

Disappointing battery life

Sony has stuffed a 2,300 mAh battery into the XA's slim frame. It claims to be able to achieve "up to two days" of use, which I think is beyond ambitious. In our rundown tests, the phone lasted 8 hours, 45 minutes from a full charge, which isn't great. By comparison, the Moto G4 achieved over 13 hours while the OnePlus 3 managed over 14. The Xperia XA really isn't competing here.

If you want to get through the day with power left then you'll want to keep the screen brightness down and avoid demanding tasks like gaming or video streaming until you're near a power outlet. Turning off Wi-Fi and GPS will help too. You'll definitely want to charge this phone every night.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Camera

  • 13-megapixel rear camera
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera

A 13-megapixel camera sits on the back of the phone, which on paper is a step below the 16-megapixel shooter on the Moto G4 Plus. Still, megapixels aren't everything and the XA is capable of taking some decent shots.

Colours are accurate and vibrant, with decent overall exposure. The resolution is sufficient to make your shots look crisp when they're posted to Facebook or Instagram, but fine details look pretty fuzzy when you start to zoom in.

In lower indoor light, photos remain mostly free of image noise, but the camera opts for a slower shutter speed to capture enough light. You'll need to keep a very steady hand to stop your snaps coming out blurry.

There's an 8-megapixel camera around front, which takes well-exposed shots, but again in lower indoor light, you'll need a firm grip on the phone.

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Sony Xperia XA camera test (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Sony Xperia XA camera test (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Sony Xperia XA camera test (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Sony Xperia XA indoor camera test (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Sony Xperia XA front-facing camera test (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Buy it or not?

I like how the Xperia XA looks. I really do. That skinny bezel makes it look like a much more expensive phone and means you can easily use it one hand.

But the disappointing display, lack of fingerprint sensor, poor battery life and meagre internal storage -- not to mention Sony's insistence on bundling bloatware -- means this phone still falls short of the mark. For less money you can pick up the Motorola Moto G4 Plus, which has none of the XA's shortcomings and throws in water resistance too.

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6.6

Sony Xperia XA

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 5Performance 6Camera 7Battery 6