Sony phones are changing. For years the best of them have ended up in a ring with the flagships from Apple, Samsung, HTC and LG, duking it out to see which is going to make the best ridiculously expensive phone of the year.
The Xperia X shows Sony is opting out out of that slugfest. For this year, at least.
This phone costs R1,700 less than something like the Samsung Galaxy S7, but still has high-end-enough hardware to feel, look and act like one of the usual bank balance drainers. Don’t get us wrong, at R12,000 it’s no bargain basement flagship. But if the X sells more phones than its premium ‘Performance’ big brother, how Sony rolls in the future could change.
So is the Xperia X a renegade that’s worth recommending? We wrapped our sweaty mitts around it to find out.
For years, Sony used simpering phrases such as “omnibalance design” to describe its phones as though they were works of art. Actually they were a bit big, a bit boxy and laden with seams and flaps for waterproofing. The Xperia X is still a rectangular design and is quite bulky for a 5-inch phone, but the flaps have largely been phased out, the hard bits softened. You might never need to fiddle with it once your SIM and microSD card are in place.
The softening of the Xperia X’s edges actually owes something to the budget cuts Sony has had to deal with on this phone. To break it down: last year’s Sony Xperia Z5 Premium had metal sides and glass plates on its front and back. It was all-premium, all the time. And a bit hard-edged in parts as a result.
The Sony Xperia chills out, using aluminium on the back and plastic on the sides. The plastic has a much softer feel. Next to the Samsung Galaxy S7 it’s still a bit of a brick, but we find this phone much easier to get along with than the Xperias of old.
Otherwise, there’s not a lot to say about it. You get a fingerprint scanner on the side that doubles as a power button and we’re pleased to report that it’s fast and accurate. We prefer finger scanners on the front or back, but maybe you won’t. It seems to be a personal thing.
There’s also a pair of front-facing speakers, one to each side of the screen. This is a great setup for games, because the sound is aimed right at you. Other pricey phones have overtaken the Xperias for sound quality, though, with the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S7 both offering a bit more weight and detail in the lower and mid-range frequencies. Side-by-side with them the Xperia X sounds a little bit thin, but they’re far from the worst out there.
More disappointingly, this phone is not certified waterproof, which is one obvious consequence of the price cut. We imagine it could take the odd splash and survive heavy rainstorms, but you’re not going to be able to take it to your local phone shop, sobbing, and expect a refund after you drop it down the toilet.
Z + COMPACT = X
One element we don’t mind being cut down from the last Xperia we reviewed is the screen. This is no 4K monster, like the ludicrous Xperia Z5 Premium, but a much more sensible 1080p display that’s five inches across. You already get 441ppi, enough for near-perfect sharpness.
Like the other top Xperias, general screen quality is great too. This is an extremely punchy display, which copes with bright sunlight like a pro. At one point we were out on a sunny day with the Xperia X, and it handled the conditions about as well as the Samsung Galaxy S7 we also had with us. Sure, you lose a bit of brightness at an angle, but that’s true of most LCD phones.
Just like the Xperia Z5, the Xperia X’s colours care more about impact than appearing totally natural. The reds of the Gmail app are a bit garish, but unless you’re a real screen purist it’s nothing to worry about. The only area where we find it a bit annoying is when we’re reviewing the camera pics we’ve taken. It makes colour tones look far less natural than they actually are, as we discovered when we started transferring photos over to a MacBook, which cares about screen accuracy more than the Xperia X.
Yes, you can fiddle with colour optimisation in the Settings menu, but none of them get you natural colour. Not everyone needs to worry about this stuff, but the iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S7 are much better on this front.
Sony has also taken the reduction in screen size as an opportunity to shrink the battery a bit – the Xperia X’s is a non-replaceable 2620mAh affair. Stamina is fair, but this is not a two-day-use phone. In testing, it lasted for 12 hours of looped MP4 video playback, where Xperia Zs of a couple of years ago lasted 14-16 hours. It should comfortably survive through the day in, though.
SONY VS ANDROID
One thing we always like about Sony phones is the way it handles Android. You generally get a nice, stripped-back experience without too much bloat and the Xperia X is no exception, running a close-to-vanilla version of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow OS.
It’s not without changes, though. Whereas Marshmallow uses a nippy vertical scroll of apps these days, the Sony Xperia X keeps it old-school with a set of app pages. Elsewhere, it’s much better looking than LG’s, less weird than Huawei’s and cleaner than HTC’s.
Samsung TouchWiz is a pretty good rival for it, but without sitting down for a drink with you, we couldn’t tell you which you’d prefer. And let’s face it, that’d be a pretty boring topic of conversation.
The one bit we could really do without is the page of ‘suggested’ and ‘recommended’ apps you might want to run or download that sits in the apps bit. Utterly pointless: thanks for that, Sony.
Like a lot of the top manufacturer UIs, the Sony one has themes that give the Xperia X an insta-makeover. The in-built ones are unusually tasteful, but dig into the Themes section and you’ll see most of the extra ones cost cash. It’s a bit like the Themes section on PS4: another way to suck a few bucks out of your pocket.
Although Sony doesn’t excessively fiddle with too many parts of the look of the software, it does add a load of its own apps. Almost every kind of media is covered. There’s a photo app, a video player, the PlayStation app and a music app. Sony also makes its own activity tracker, and deals with AVG and Kobo have your anti-virus and ebook needs covered.
You can delete almost all of this stuff, though. Everything but the Music app and photo album can be eradicated, so making your Sony Xperia X bloat-free only takes two minutes.
The Sony Xperia X feels dead fast too. This phone may be less powerful than the Xperia X Performance, but you wouldn’t know it.
So what’s the difference? In pure tech terms, this phone has a six-core CPU rather than the octa-core one you’ll often find in the top phones. The six-core CPU in question is the Snapdragon 650, which is still a pretty high-end brain, and, if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, it’s made up of two 1.8GHz Cortex-A72 performance cores and four 1.4GHz Cortex-A53 everyday ones.
In Geekbench 3 it scores 3845 points. That’s a good score, but the hardcore crowd may notice that a 6-series chipset such as the one in the Oppo F1 gets you pretty close to that score, while costing less than half the price. There’s more to the Xperia X’s performance than its processor, though, because inside there’s also a fairly high-end GPU in the form of the Adreno 510.
The result? Where a mid-range phone can’t use ‘High’ graphics settings in games such as Asphalt 8 and Dead Trigger 2, the Xperia X can. Both these games run perfectly on this phone. You can also whack up the field of view and draw distance in Minecraft without worrying about laggy bits.
There are reasons to have more power, like if you want to start emulating N64 games on your phone. But that’s fairly niche; for native Android fare, the Xperia X is a hard-hitter.
In a classic Sony move, the Xperia X has a camera that promises the world. With a 23-megapixel sensor it’s higher-res than almost everything else out there, and the big new claim is that this is Sony’s “fastest phone yet”. Sony says it focuses in 0.6 seconds thanks to all the phase detection tech built into this sensor and given that Sony makes the thing, you’d hope it’d know.
Well, our watch isn’t quite able to verify that 0.6-second claim, but we’ll happily declare that the Xperia X’s camera is fast. Very fast, in fact, particularly when compared to the Sony Xperia Z5. That phone suffered from shutter lag which made it downright slow at times, but that’s largely been fixed here.
It now feels like the Xperia X is snapping more-or-less right as you tap the shutter button, as it should. Well, that’s the case in plentiful lighting at least; at night you could still make a cup of tea while waiting for it to take a photo.
You’ll also get plenty of detail from your shots in sunny conditions. Like previous top Xperias, the X shoots 8MP photos rather than 23MP ones as standard, but it’s now very easy to switch up to the big leagues no matter which mode you’re using.
Dynamic range is good too. In daylight you can snap away without much care and get very good results. Colour is much better than it appears on the Xperia X’s screen, which makes the greens of trees and grass look significantly oversaturated.
Some classic Xperia problems remain, though. Eager processing makes some fine detail look stressed, the algorithm mistaking patterns for something they’re not. Right down at pixel level, images don’t look as clean or clear as they do from the LG G5 or Samsung Galaxy S7.
Low-light photo quality disappoints too. The Sony Xperia X doesn’t have optical stabilisation, and you can really tell. While intense processing can make very dark scenes appear clear and bright, all fine detail is usually obliterated. No matter the conditions, the sharpness goes down the toilet at the edge of the frame, and geometric lens distortion is quite obvious in a lot of shots.
Even with a large 1/2.3-inch sensor and loads of megapixels, the Xperia X’s images can look ugly if you peer at them in the wrong places. The phone is also not quite as good at judging metering as the Galaxy S7, tending to overexpose images at times in favour of brighter results. The reasoning behind this sums up the camera pretty well: it’s all about making a big impact, and there are problems to find if you look a bit closer.
As with the punchy screen, many people won’t need to worry about this. It’s a style meant for Instagram, not DSLR snobs. What we think will bother more people is how awkward the Xperia X’s software and shooting performance can be at times.
For instance, taking a peek at your photos isn’t instant; try to zoom into a shot you’ve just taken and you’ll have to wait while the Xperia X does all of the necessary processing. This doesn’t happen when using the LG G5 or Galaxy S7. Plus, when you use the full 23MP option, you can only take about three shots in quick succession before everything slows down.
Sony has also chopped 4K video out of the Xperia X. Given the camera and CPU should be able to support such a resolution, the only obvious explanation is that Sony is tired of everyone complaining about their phone overheating when they record 4K video for more than a minute or two.
Despite these issues, the Xperia X’s camera is still a good one, possibly even a great one. But as with so much about this phone, it’s not quite the best.
Some of these personality quirks also shine through in the front camera, which is pretty unusual. Most phones have fixed-focus selfie snappers of perhaps 5MP resolution, but the Xperia X has a 13MP front camera with autofocus.
As you’d expect from those specs, in the right conditions it can take a great selfie, far outdoing the sort of detail the Galaxy S7 will get you. However, it doesn’t seem to be able to focus that close in some scenarios. We had to hold the phone at full arm’s length to get what look like fully sharp results with lesser indoors lighting. All of which means that it’s far better suited to group selfies than it is to the kind of solo shots you might litter Snapchat and Instagram with. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you have lots of friends – in which case, go Sony!
More optimisation would help, too. The Xperia X AF skips back and forth through its whole range every time you take a shot, and it takes way too long to alter the white balance to suit the scene in challenging conditions. All of which means that the selfie camera ends up being a lot like the rear camera: it should be amazing, but in a lot of conditions it’s merely good.
Want the latest and greatest that phones have to offer? Or a startling smartphone bargain? You won’t get either of those with the Sony Xperia X. It’s a sign the company has lost some of its confidence and realised that fighting with Samsung and Apple at their own game isn’t working any more. We can’t really blame it.
None of which means that the Xperia X is a remotely bad phone, because it’s not. Like a merging of the old Xperia Z and Compact lines, it has an all-new accessible frame with a price that’s significantly lower than some of the competition.
Alright so its camera and screen are bettered elsewhere, but only at the very time and not by an extent that everyone needs to worry about. It’s fast in use and, thanks to the bloat-free Sony skin, easy to live with.
So overall there’s really nothing much to hate about it, but nor is there quite enough to love about it. If it were priced at R10,000 then Sony might have a winner, but at R12,000 it falls a little short.
Still, it’ll be well worth checking out if the price drops a few months down the line.