Sony is in the middle of some major changes with its smartphones. The Japanese company announced an all new redesign debuting on its flagship Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact smartphones at Mobile World Congress. But the XZ2 and XZ2 Compact aren’t the first Sony phones in 2018 — at CES, Sony unveiled the Xperia XA2 Ultra, a mid-range device that’s a blend of Sony’s old and new design philosophies.
But just because the phone doesn’t feature Sony’s new design style, that doesn’t mean it has no merits. We’ve found it to offer solid performance, good battery life, and it has a capable camera. Still, those features alone may not be enough to make the device worth it at its $450 price tag. Let’s take a closer look.
Still an outdated design
Sony hasn’t changed its smartphone design for the past four years. It’s finally happening with the XZ2 and XZ2 Compact, but the XA2 Ultra largely conforms to its old standards. The phone is chunky, heavy, and has sharp corners that aren’t inviting. Its 6-inch screen makes it a monster when it comes to size, especially since it doesn’t follow the modern “bezel-less trend” we’ve seen on other phones.
On the back of the XA2 Ultra, you’ll find a single camera, along with a fingerprint sensor. That’s right, there’s a working fingerprint sensor on this phone. Why’s that surprising? Sony has been notorious for deactivating the fingerprint sensor on previous devices — only for the U.S. market. The company routinely said it was due to business decisions. We’re happy to see it present, but the sensor placement is a little too high for our liking, making it tough to reach.
Unlike most smartphones coming out these days, there’s no technology on board to unlock the phone with your face beyond Android’s Smart Lock, but hey, we’re just glad the fingerprint sensor works.
On the right edge of the phone is where you’ll find a power button and volume rocker, as well as a dedicated camera shutter button. You can hold down the camera button to launch the camera when you’re not in the camera app, and you can then use it to snap a photo.
We’re over Sony’s outdated design.
On the top there’s a headphone jack, which won’t be present on the company’s upcoming XZ2 and XZ2 Compact flagships, while the bottom is where you’ll find the USB Type-C port and a bottom-firing speaker.
Plenty of other phones have 6-inch displays these days – but generally those displays come out to the very edges of the phone’s frame. The benefit here is you get a large screen, and a smaller footprint. For example, the iPhone X has a 5.8-inch screen, but it’s physically smaller than the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus. Not Sony. You get the old-school large screen with thick bezels surrounding it. It just looks so outdated.
There’s still something interesting in the top bezel, however. Most modern smartphones launch with dual-camera systems (sometimes even three) on the rear. Sony’s differentiating itself with the XA2 Ultra by adding a dual-camera system on the front of the phone instead, and there’s even a flash. We’ll dive into what that means a little later.
Then there’s the LCD screen, its size makes it a joy to play games on, or watch shows on Netflix. The 1,920 x 1,080 pixel screen resolution isn’t as sharp as we’d like, but we didn’t find any problems with it. The colors are a little dull, but the phone gets bright enough for use in direct sunlight.
We’re over Sony’s outdated design. The XA2 Ultra is not a good-looking phone, and we’re not fans of its bulk and weight. The display is satisfactory, but nothing to write home about, and we’re largely just happy to have a working fingerprint sensor.
Under the hood
The Xperia XA2 Ultra is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor, coupled with 4GB of RAM and your choice of 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. There is a MicroSD card slot if you need more space.
In day-to-day use, the XA2 Ultra hums along without any problems. Even when we put it under stress with a lot of multi-tasking and mobile gaming, the phone hardly showed any signs of slowdown. Asphalt 8 only stuttered a little here and there, while Oceanhorn ran smoothly. Most people will be satisfied with the performance this phone offers.
Here are a few benchmark results:
- Geekbench 4: 868 single-core; 4,196 multi-core
- AnTuTu: 88,204
- 3DMark Slingshot Extreme: 825
Benchmarks aren’t the final word on performance, but the scores we achieved are in-line with other sub-$450 phones. But the problem with the Xperia XA2 Ultra is the competition. If you’re willing to shell out an extra $50, you can get a much more powerful device, such as the Essential Phone. The $500 phone from the creator of Android scored a massive 157,705 on AnTuTu, and the OnePlus 5T, which also costs $500, comes in even-better with a score of 180,588. Both phones use a significantly more powerful processor, the Snapdragon 835.
If you have $450 to spend and no more, then the XA2 Ultra may well be the phone to get. We think it’s worth shelling out just a little bit more for the upcoming OnePlus 6, which should cost the same $500 as its predecessor.
Like the camera on most budget phones, the XA2 Ultra needs very good lighting to produce decent photos. The 23-megapixel rear-facing camera struggles to capture a good amount of detail, photos look very flat — with not much depth to them — and colors look a little dull. Photos in general do not look sharp, and the camera constantly struggles with HDR: If the sky is too bright, the foreground is too dark, and vice versa. We’re honestly far more impressed with the camera from the $200 Honor 7X.
In lower light, results are a less than ideal. Shots taken at dusk were dark and underexposed, and in general we stayed away from bothering to take more photos in these kinds of environments. A Pro mode is available if you want to take greater control of the camera to make it work in varying lighting conditions.
Unlike some older Sony devices, there’s no 960 frames-per-second (FPS) super slow motion feature on the XA2 Ultra. If you do want slow motion capture, the phone is capable of handling it at 120fps, which looks great. Video can be shot at up to 4K resolution, though if you turn that option on you’ll get a warning saying the phone’s temperature may go up and the app may shut down.
The most interesting feature on this phone is the front-facing camera, which is a dual-sensor camera with one 16-megapixel and one 8-megapixel wide-angle sensor. You might think that the two sensors work together to create effects like a selfie Portrait Mode — they don’t. Instead, the phone uses the main camera for standard selfies, but you can switch to the other camera for a 120-degree wide-angle lens to capture group selfies. We wish this dual front-facing setup did something a little more interesting, but the group selfie mode is certainly handy when you need it.
With the lights off and blinds closed in my office, the phone did a stellar job at illuminating both my background and my face.
The front-facing flash is quite unique as well. It uses a feature called Slow Sync Flash, which doesn’t just illuminate your face, but the background environment too. Most selfie flashes light up your face and hides the background in darkness, but the XA2 Ultra doesn’t. The feature works well, even in zero-light situations. With the lights off and blinds closed in my office, the phone did a stellar job at illuminating both my background and my face.
Overall, the camera is not worth the $450 price tag. We’re not fans of most camera phones under this price range, except perhaps the $200 Honor 7X, but your best bet is the OnePlus 5T or the upcoming OnePlus 6 for a far superior camera experience at a similar price range.
The Xperia XA2 Ultra runs Android 8.0 Oreo, but it’s plastered over with a Sony Android skin. It doesn’t look as clean or minimal as stock Android, but there’s certainly nothing terribly wrong about it.
What we strongly dislike, however, is the amount of bloatware pre-installed on this phone. Not only does it add to the clutter, but it also takes up a fair amount of storage space. In the 32GB available on our phone, we can only use around 19GB thanks to all the bloatware.
Not all of the included software is bad, however. For example, there’s an included FM Radio app to listen to the radio, and if you’re an avid PlayStation gamer, then the PlayStation app may be of use to you.
A full day of battery life
Perhaps the best thing about this phone is the battery life it offers. The battery comes in at 3,580mAh, and even with relatively heavy usage, we ended a full day with at least 20 percent charge remaining.
The phone easily lasts through a normal weekday.
We took the phone off of its charger at 9 a.m., and by 7 p.m. the phone still had around 41 percent charge left. That’s with heavy use during the day, including browsing the web, listening to music, watching videos, and playing games. That’s better than some flagship phones, and you should have no problems going through an average work day.
The battery charges pretty quickly too, largely thanks to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 technology. In our testing, we were able to get 50 percent charge in a little more than 35 minutes of charging.
Price, availability, and warranty
You get a one-year limited warranty that covers manufacturer defects and failure under normal use. Safe to say, if you’re someone that tends to drop your phone a lot, you’ll still want to get a good case for it.Our Take
The Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra is a solid mid-range phone that’s pushed lower down the ladder because of the competition. You get good performance for the price, and day-long battery life. It also has an outdated and boring design, a mediocre camera, and the software isn’t pleasing to use.
Is there a better alternative?
If your budget is a strict $450, then the XA2 Ultra may be your best choice. You may want to take a look at the HTC U11 Life, which has only slightly worse performance, but offers a much nicer design and has features like Bluetooth 5 and IP67 water resistance.
We strongly recommend you think about the $500 Essential Phone (which is currently on discount for $400). It has a beautiful design, excellent build quality, and clean and speedy software. The camera isn’t as strong as other flagships, but it has improved over software updates. Your best option is to wait for the OnePlus 6, which will debut in May. It will likely carry a $500 price tag, but it will be superior to the XA2 Ultra in almost every single way.
How long will it last?
The Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra should last a standard two-year smartphone cycle at least, though if you’re careful with it you could get even more use out of it. Sony does a solid job delivering software updates, and we assume the XA2 Ultra should receive them for the next two years.
Should you buy it?
No. We recommend waiting for the OnePlus 6. If you’d rather not wait or you have a strict budget, the Essential Phone is our second favorite pick.