Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra review: Mid-range phones with a couple of very clever tricks

Generally, there are limits to how excited you can get over a mid-range handset, and especially ones as confusingly named as Sony’s latest. The names “XA1” and “XA1 Ultra” may make sense on internal spreadsheets, but good luck getting anyone to remember them in the outside world.

But what on the surface of things appear to be a couple of unremarkable mid-range handsets actually have a couple of tricks up their sleeves which could both make them a canny purchase for photography fans and (more likely) will see their ideas stolen by better-placed rivals in the future.

But more on that innovation later – let’s get the basics out of the way. The price for one of these handsets is £229, available for pre-order via Amazon UK (or via Amazon US for $300).

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Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra: Design and specifications

A touch underwhelming, I’m afraid. It’s hard to get too excited about a 2.3GHz MediaTek octa-core processor, 3/4GB RAM and a 2,300/2,700mAh battery. The smaller XA1 has a 1,280 x 720 display, while the larger Ultra model packs a 1,920 x 1,080 display – presumably the reason it also comes with a gigabyte more RAM and a larger battery.

Still, fans of Sony’s angular design won’t be disappointed. The new range of phones sticks with the solid feeling rectangle approach, though this is improved immensely by the lack of bezel in what Sony is calling a “borderless edge-to-edge screen”. In other words, they look like premium phones, even if the internals give the game away somewhat, but there’s nothing here so far to leave competitors feeling too worried.

That is except for Sony’s big innovation – something borrowed from its more expensive show highlights and admirably makes the leap to the mid-range market…sony_xperia_xa1_and_xa1_ultra_review_-_2

Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra: A clever, clever camera

This, potentially, is the reason to give the Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra a second look: the camera. The 23-megapixel camera seems pretty good, from our brief hands-on time in Barcelona. Images appear sharp and vibrant, and only really lose their edge when you pinch your fingers to the maximum zoom.

But trade shows aren’t the ideal environment for putting a camera through its paces, so we’ll be back for more in-depth analysis when we get our review models. What we can talk about now are the two aces up the Sony Xperia XA1’s sleeve: super slow motion video and predictive photography.

The first is exactly what it sounds like. The Xperia XA1 lets you take slow motion video at 920fps. To put that into context, the iPhone 7 records at 420fps, so Sony are definitely pushing the boat out. This rate does come with a drawback, however: you can only capture it in bursts of 0.182 seconds, which translates into six second of normal playback.

It’s also a touch fiddly to get right: to capture super slow motion footage, you need to start recording and then press the appropriate button. Still, when you do pull it off, the results really are excellent.sony_xperia_xa1_and_xa1_ultra_review_-_4

Next up is “predictive photography”, and as someone who regularly takes photos of a fidgety cat (don’t judge me), this sounds like a game-changer. Like predictive texting, the camera will guess at what you’re trying to capture and do it for you in the background. In short, the camera has a dedicated memory chip built into the camera, that looks out for movement in a shot. When it spots this, it’ll take a snap or two in the background, letting you save a better shot than the one you actually managed to catch, if you were a couple of milliseconds out. You can then save or delete its alternatively timed snaps at your will.

Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra: Early verdict

Whether or not this feature will prove invaluable or irritating in the long run remains to be seen, but it’s nice to see innovation come to a mid-range handset, and not left as the sole preserve of flagships.

Another open question is whether or not these features will be good enough to turn an otherwise middling sounding handset into a recommendation, when there are other better specced (on paper) phones heading to this price point ($300 for the XA1, and an unspecified amount more for the Ultra).

We’ll have better answers to these questions when we get our hands on both handsets for review in the next couple of months.

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