Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra review: A big, brilliant brute of a smartphone
The Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra was one of a handful of phones launched at CES 2018, with most manufacturers holding back their big new models until later in spring. That tells you something about where the phone and its smaller sibling, the regular Sony Xperia XA2, stand in Sony’s lineup, and it’s some way behind the Premium XZ Premium in the pecking order.
If things run to form, we’ll see a new version of that phone in a few weeks’ time. But what about right now? Do you jump the gun, save some cash and choose the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra today? It might just be a good idea.
Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra review: Price, design and key features
The key attraction with the Sony Xperia XA2 is the price. It costs £379, which is the same price the excellent Honor 9 launched at (it’s now around £300) and £70 less than the OnePlus 5T – and what you get for your money is pretty impressive.
Let’s start with the phone’s most obvious feature: its enormous 6in screen. Yes, 6in.
Sony hasn’t yet gone over to the trendy long-tall 18:9 aspect-ratio display we’ve seen other manufacturers slowly transition to over the past year. The XA2 Ultra has an old-fashioned 16:9 aspect ratio and, while the bezels to the left and right are suitably thin, its forehead and chin bezels are still chunky by modern standards. The resolution is a fairly low-looking 1,080 x 1,920, too, but hell, remember that it’s 6in in size.
If you’re the type who watches a lot of Netflix, BBC iPlayer or Amazon Video on your commute, it’s a brilliant phone and, let me reiterate, 1080p on a 6in screen isn’t a bad thing at all. Graphics still look crisp and sharp-edged with no visible pixellation, and the side benefit is that 1080p displays usually require less power to run than screens with more pixels.
The downside is that the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra is an absolute beast of a phone and, when I say beast, I mean it’s big, bulky and heavy – not hairy.
In fact, this is the largest handset I’ve attempted to slide into my pocket in recent memory. It’s 163mm tall, 9.5mm thick and tips the scales at a positively obese 221g. That’s nigh on a quarter of a kilo, which, in case you were wondering, is an awful lot for a smartphone. It’s also an awful lot more than the £270 Honor 7X, which has an 18:9 aspect ratio screen, the same 6in diagonal and manages to be much slimmer and lighter.
Still, you can just about hold the thing in one hand, and the phone looks good and feels well put together. There’s Gorilla Glass 4 on the front so it doesn’t pick up fingerprints too readily and is easy to clean. The rear is matte-finish plastic, so that’s greasy-digit-proof as well. It’s available in silver, gold, blue and black, and looks nice in all but the gold, which has an odd sheen of green when it catches the light.
The Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra is pretty well stocked when it comes to features, too. It has a fingerprint reader (in the centre of the rear panel, just below the camera) and NFC so you can use it for contactless credit-card payments. There’s a microSD slot next to the SIM slot under a flap on the left edge, which will take cards up to 256GB in capacity. You get a 3.5mm headphone jack, USB Type-C for data transfer and charging, and even a dedicated, two-stage shutter button for the camera on the right edge.
What the Xperia XA2 doesn’t offer is any kind of dust or water resistance, but hey, you can’t have everything. I only wish Sony would round off the corners a bit; unless you line your jeans pockets with Kevlar, it won’t take long before the XA2 wears a hole in your trousers.
Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra review: Display
You already know about the size of the screen and its resolution, but how about the quality? Sony was effusive about it when it first announced the phone, saying it was its most vibrant screen yet and, despite initial scepticism, I’m impressed.
There are three colour profiles available to choose from: Ultra Vivid, Standard and (enhancements) Off. First, I flipped to Ultra Vivid and fired up the opening sequence to Altered Carbon on Netflix. I was immediately struck by how deep and rich black and dark colours looked, and how vibrant and HDR-like other colours were. Yet the screen somehow manages to look balanced, with no overly ruddy skin tones, for example.
It’s the same story elsewhere in the user interface – which is Android Oreo, by the way, overlaid with Sony’s usual launcher software. Although graphics and wallpapers stand out an in almost neon colours, when you browse through your photo library, there’s no sense that the colours are unnatural.
In testing, the XA2 performed well, but with some weaknesses. The Ultra Vivid mode returns a coverage rate of 92.3% of the DCI-P3 colour. With “enhancements off”, you get 87.2% of sRGB, which explains why the screen looks a touch dull in this mode.
Usually, that’s because the regular, non-vivid mode has been tweaked in the interests of colour accuracy, but that’s not the case here. In fact, the enhancements “Off” mode turns out to be the least colour-accurate of the three modes on offer, with Ultra Vivid the most colour-accurate. In neither case is this anything in particular to shout about, however: despite exhibiting good colour balance, the colour-accuracy score (average Delta E) was at 3.7 in Ultra Vivid and 4.3 in enhancements Off mode. For context, I’d hope for a score below 2 here.
There are still plenty of positives, though, not least the display’s high peak brightness of 616cd/m2 and its fantastic contrast ratio of 1,607:1. Both of these results go some way towards explaining why, in Super Vivid mode at least, the XA2 Ultra’s display looks so good to the eye.
Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra review: Performance
With such good build, design and screen performance, there has to be some give and, for the XA2, that comes in the phone’s performance. Its core specification comprises an octa-core Snapdragon 630 processor and an Adreno 508 GPU, 4GB of RAM and 32GB or 64GB of storage.
This is far from the quickest smartphone on the block. In fact, compared with the Honor 9, which has recently dropped in price to around £300, and the leading mid-range smartphone, the OnePlus 5T, it’s positively sluggish.
You can feel it in everyday use, too, and although the 1080p display keeps things reasonably smooth in casual games such as Threes and Candy Crush, you’ll have to play more demanding titles like Asphalt with the quality dialled right down or not at all. However, it is better for gaming than the Honor 7X.
The battery life is predictably pretty good, though, with the phone’s 3,850mAh battery comfortably lasting a day to a day and a half with moderate use and streching to 16hrs 54mins in our video rundown test.
Sony Xperia XA2 review: Cameras
If the price and size of the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra grabs all the headlines, it’s the camera tech that’s most interesting. On the rear is a 23-megapixel snapper with an f/2.0 aperture, a decent-sized 1/2.3in sensor, phase-detect autofocus and a single-tone LED flash.
So far, so good, but it’s the front camera arrangement that’s most interesting here, with two cameras on show. One has a resolution of 16 megapixels, an aperture of f/2.0, optical image stabilisation and a 1/2.6in sensor. The other is an 8-megapixel snapper with an f/2.4 aperture and a smaller 1/4in sensor. There’s also a single LED flash to help out in low light.
These allow you to capture regular selfies with the 16-megapixel camera and wide-angle shots with the 8-megapixel one, useful when you want to capture a small group of three or four friends. You’ll still have to squeeze pretty tightly together, and be prepared for a little fish-eye effect. I wasn’t hugely impressed with the quality of either camera, especially in low light – both cameras softened skin tones unflatteringly, and the results were so oversaturated that it looked like I’d been at the gin – but it’s nice to have the extra option nonetheless.
The rear camera, on the other hand, is seriously impressive. At sunset, pitched against the excellent OnePlus 5T, the Sony’s camera consistently outperformed the OnePlus, especially with HDR mode enabled. It reproduced the golden light cast by the winter sun pretty much perfectly, while exposing the foreground with just enough brightness to avoid looking unnatural.
It falls down a little in low light without the flash enabled, though, and my test shots were rife with compression artefacts and distracting chroma noise. Here, it’s the OnePlus 5T that does better, capturing much cleaner, less blotchy images.
As for video, 4K capture is possible, but not in the main part of the video recording app, which is annoying. There’s also no image stabilisation in the phone’s 1080p 60fps mode, but you do get HDR video at 1080p and very good stabilisation.
Overall, the Sony Xperia XA2 has an excellent camera for the money, adding to the phone’s all-round appeal.
Sony Xperia XA2 review: Verdict
In fact, there’s very little to complain about with the XA2 Ultra. It might be oversized but, depending on your outlook, the size could actually be seen as a positive thing, especially since the phone is so good in other areas.
The screen is great to look at; the phone itself looks good; the rear camera produces excellent-quality stills and video; and the battery life is good too. For me, this is the best phone Sony has produced in years – the only thing that might give you pause is the competition. The awkward fact is that Honor produces an 18:9, 6in smartphone for £100 less than the Sony XA2 Ultra and, though battery life and performance isn’t quite as good, it’s slimmer, lighter and generally a slightly better buy.