Here’s a scenario for you: Your Nokia 3310 has finally given up the ghost after it took several bullets to the chest for you, and it’s time to finally upgrade. In today’s society, we have the technology and the power to deliver 4K visuals directly to your eyeballs from a phone that’s thinner than a Parisian model. You just don’t want to spend that much on your upgrade.
That’s where the Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra comes in. An upgraded XA, it’s massive and it looks like something that usually retails for triple its current price tag. So what’s it like then?
Let’s kick off with the elephant in the room: Dat screen. There’s no getting around the fact that the XA1 Ultra is massive. It skirts the line between phone and tablet, boasting a high definition real estate that’s the equivalent of holding an aircraft carrier in your hand. There’s good and bad that comes with having such a hefty screen that clocks in at six inches in size. Good, in that watching a movie or doing some online browsing is a satisfyingly natural experience, bad, in that navigating it with one hand is going to be the sole domain of people like Huge Hands Hans.
That being said, the XA1 Ultra’s gigantic screen does have the added benefit of making the device feel sturdy enough to stop a bullet, while the full 1080p screen is crisp and sharp. Not the brightest screen around mind you, but bright enough. A running theme throughout the entire device. Colours along the entire RGB spectrum feel warm, albeit at the cost of an accurate contrast to the trained eye.
A good full HD display then, that provides just enough bang for your buck if you feel like stretching a single thumb to its limit.
As big as it is, I kind of like the XA1 Ultra. That combination of gigantic screen real estate was typical of the Sony design ethos. Tastes may vary, but I like a phone that feels hefty and has some weight to it. It’s definitely a slim Jim of a phone, with rear and side panels that sported a matte finish that tied in nicely with a non-slip feeling. It’s also a fingerprint magnet of note, but that was something that I could overlook.
There wasn’t much else to really write home about in terms of design. A power button, volume controls and a shutter button sealed the deal, although I do wish that Sony could have made the various seams a little more innocuous.
I’ll say this about the XA1 Ultra: Its battery life is amazing – and that’s a surprise given the small battery. It’s an easy two-day machine, packing in a 2700 mAh battery that can hours and hours before its charge finally whittles down and reminds you to plug it in. Heavy usage took me through an entire day and a half before it went flat, while more moderate usage was easily double that. You can thank the mid-budget design on this, as the cheaper Helio P20 chipset doesn’t draw much power from the battery. A perfect match really.
Nougat what you pay for
Like any other Android phone of its ilk, the XA1 Ultra is rocking the latest Android operating system with a few tweaks. Using the Nougat software of Android 7.0 specifically, there’s nothing here that you haven’t really seen since the 2010s. Apps can still be shuffled into folders, the standard programs are present and the interface is generally snappy enough most of the time, with nary any sign of slowdown.
In terms of tweaks, the XA1 Ultra does have a few display size settings rolling around to make navigation easier for anyone with thumbs that aren’t the length of an anaconda snake. Certain screen elements can be resized to your particular preference of how you want to fill up the display. While it isn’t an ideal solution that will give you full one-handed control across all apps, it’s still a step in the right direction at least.
Over the last two weeks, the XA1 Ultra has managed to showcase its most impressive feature: Consistency. Always ready to roll in the morning, the punchy UI didn’t skip a beat, even with a dozen applications running in the background. Outside of standard use though? That’s where the experience got a little bit dodgy. While 4GB of RAM is more than enough for most applications, the Helio P20 chipset did at times struggle to run games like the free-to-play FPS Suicide Squad smoothly.
The XA1 Ultra can handle a moderate load of apps without any noticeable slowing of its processing power, but don’t expect this mid-budget device to deliver much on higher-budget apps if you’re into your mobile gaming. Storage caps out with an internal 32GB, although after UI and virtual memory tax, that leaves the user with just over 24GB to fill up. Essentially, the XA1 Ultra will do what it needs to do in this day and age of connectivity.
Oh snap, it’s the camera bit of this review
On the surface, the XA1 Ultra sounds like it has a fantastic camera attached to it. Sony’s usual approach to photography is quite often underrated amongst giants such as Huawei and Samsung, hamstrung usually by poor software that doesn’t take full advantage of a superb lens attached to the body. With 23 Megapixels of power on the rear, the XA1 Ultra is capable of taking a decent photo, albeit with a few caveats attached.
First up, it seems to have trouble in providing a snappy autofocus, a problem that last year’s XA didn’t really struggle with. While still-lifes are easy, beautiful and detailed, the camera suffers from a lagging delay between snap and preview that makes matters worse. Focusing is a big problem with this camera and while I wasn’t expecting something of the standard set by the Huawei P9 or the Samsung S7, I was hoping to at least avoid having to retake photos several times.
Tapping the screen to focus on a subject didn’t seem to help much other, with the slow chipset seemingly having difficulty keeping up. That being said, if you can grab a decent photo without blurred lines, the results are rather pleasing. I still think Sony tends to rely on oversaturation a tad too much with their cameras, but the detail popped and the contrast felt just right. There is some barrel distortion rearing its ugly head now and again because of the wide-angle lens, but it’s not a problem that appears too often.
Moving to the front of the XA1 Ultra, is a decent 16 megapixel camera. Like its cousin to the rear, autofocus issues also tended to crop up more often than I’d like, derailing an otherwise solid idea. Ideas aren’t enough though, especially with a device that struggled in low-light conditions. That being said, this is what the price-range of the device gets you in terms of photography.
While it is odd that the 2016 model could deliver a snappier picture with sharper lines, the colour reproduction in optimal conditions is pretty much par for the course at this price-point. The XA1 Ultra is capable of some stunning shots, but you’re going to need to work the device to achieve them.
Honestly, video feels like the result of “enh, good enough” mindset. You’re getting full high definition at 30 frames per second, albeit with colours that can be washed out and a sharpness that struggles to focus on a dynamic subject matter. It’s not the worst video ever recorded, but it’s again an example of getting what you pay for.
You’re young, you’re hip and I hate you. Especially when you decide that the world needs to hear your music as you bounce around town listening to whatever it is that kids listen to today. The XA1 Ultra’s theme of mid-budget okayish hardware continues on here with a single mono speaker found in the booty. It’s loud enough to annoy people who fantasise about strangling you with your own earphones, and perfectly serviceable for watching videos on that massive screen.
Amping up the volume does result in some distortion, which a headset doesn’t do much to rectify exactly. Acceptable stuff for most day to day viewing and listening.
Sharp screen, solid build and a camera which you have to jump through hoops for to get the best out of it. The XA1 Ultra is a weird device. At the same time, you have to balance expectations with reality. Flagship devices cost an arm and a leg because of the hardware inside, with mid-budget phones mirroring certain design aspects of those mighty titan devices to bring at least some of that glamour to the masses.
I’ve been saying it throughout the review, but you really do get what you pay for. Depending on your usage, there’s a lot to like and dislike about the XA1 Ultra, but at the very least it is at least capable of delivering the appearance of a flagship smartphone in the form of a gigantic screen that a below-average camera is attached to it. Temper your expectations, and you’ll find that the XA1 Ultra is a budget-friendly phone that won’t let you down when you need to communicate.
Last Updated: August 3, 2017