The short answer is that its X series are all good, well-made smartphones which anyone will be proud to own but fail to add that “je ne sais quoi” or “Watashi wanai nani o shitte imasu” – in a very crowded smartphone market that is polarised at one end by Apple and the other by the rising Chinese companies that are offering so much more for so much less.
Background – Z is dead
Sony’s now superseded, 5.2”, Z5 received a ho-hum review from iTWire shortly after its launch in October 2015. To be very fair the review stated, “It is a flagship model with a few flaws – certainly any identified are software/firmware based and should be fixable. The hardware is almost perfect.”
In fact, when the, 5.7”, 4K, Z5 Premium, was offered to iTWire for review it declined as it had already been superseded by the announcement of the X series at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona in February 2016. We declined because Sony’s Mobile Communications president and chief executive said the Z was dead, and you should all wait for the X.
"The Xperia Z line has reached its culmination [after four months] – Xperia X series represents a new chapter and evolution of our product strategy. While the Xperia Z series was all about bringing the best of Sony's advanced technologies to smartphones, Xperia X series is based on bringing smart, adaptive Sony user experiences across camera, battery performance and hardware/software design," the company said in an official statement.
The Z series were quite good but in iTWire’s opinion, they were not good enough to say “It’s a Sony”, and all that should mean.
The X series
Sony has released three models – a good, better, best, scenario. In fact, it has released more overseas including a 6” XA Ultra.
- The XA is a budget model at $549 with 5”, 720p display; MediaTek Helio P10 processor; 2GB RAM, 16GB storage and microSD to 200GB; Android 6.x; 13MP rear and 8MP front cameras; 2300mAH battery 40hr endurance; Wi-Fi N; NFC; LTE Cat 4; no fingerprint reader. International reviews say it’s a competent phone, good camera, Sony quality, but overpriced in an overcrowded segment.
- The X is the mid-range model at $799 with a 5” 1080p Triluminous display, Qualcomm 650 processor; 3GB RAM, 32GB storage and microSD to 200GB; Android 6.x; 23MP rear and 13MP front cameras; 2620mAh battery 67hr endurance; Wi-Fi AC dual band; NFC; LTE Cat 6; fingerprint reader. International reviews say it’s a good phone, Sony quality, excellent camera, and a tad underpowered with a Qualcomm 650. But a little overpriced in a crowded mid-range market.
- The X Performance — the subject of this review — is a high-range flagship model at $999, It is essentially the same as the X but has a beefed-up Qualcomm 820, LTE Cat 9; and slightly larger 2700mAh battery with 61hr endurance; and IP65/68 water resistance. International reviews say it’s the best Sony has to offer but in that price category others have higher resolution and AMOLED screens; more RAM and storage; 4K recording; and again it commands a perhaps unjustifiable Sony price premium. But Apple gets away with it so why not Sony?
So on with iTWire’s objective review – Sony Xperia X performance
I am going to give you a brief summary before the review – that way you don’t necessarily have to read the detail.
- High-quality build – it is a Sony.
- The display is as good as I have seen in that class of IPS screen.
- Heaps of power from the Qualcomm 820 processor.
- One of the fastest autofocus rear cameras I have seen but not always the best image quality.
- Great selfies in good light, but not so in low light.
- Average battery life.
- Sony User Interface (UI is clean and minimal changes to Android).
- A little bland in design but “It’s a Sony.”
- Anyone who buys it will not be disappointed.
Out of the box
My review unit was missing “everything” from the box except the phone, so I can’t be sure of the charger (I think it is a micro-USB 5V/1.5A), or the ear bud quality.
The demo unit was graphite black, has a brushed metal, non-removable back, and a fairly average screen to body ratio of 68.1% that makes this feel like a big phone. It is 143.7 x 70.4 x 8.7 mm and weighs 164.4g.
The fingerprint reader is on the side power key. Once set up it is accurate but I recommend using your right thumb – when you hold it in your right hand, that’s the only digit you can use naturally. Make sure you train it to accept your thumb tip! Other phones use fingerprint readers either on the home key (front, bottom, centre), or the back, offering a little more flexibility. No big issue.
There is a volume rocker and a dedicated camera shutter key (great) on the right edge and a covered slot for the dual SIM (one doubles as microSD expansion) on the left side.
My take — It is a typical glass slab — well-built but not as stylish as some.
The 5”, 1080p, 441ppi, IPS, LCD screen is bright, colourful and easy to read in all conditions. The brightness of 600 nits and contrast of 1500:1 makes this one of the best I have seen for a 5” non-OLED screen. It has a nice colour too – natural rather than oversaturated. Side by side, the screen is noticeably ahead of the Apple iPhone 6S.
Sony are wont to use marketing terms like Triluminous, X-Reality, and Dynamic Contrast Enhancer - I have had a polite dig at it before – but hey it’s the Japanese way. Whatever it is called – it works.
Sony has a reputation for its lenses and sensors – they supply camera components to many smartphone makers.
The camera is often the reason to select one flagship over another. In my summary, I said that it is “One of the fastest autofocus rear cameras I have seen but not always the best image quality.” In general, I got good to great shots, but I felt sharpness was a little soft and in closer analysis there was more low light noise that I have come to expect.
Lack of sharpness turned out to be due to me needing to adjust my style to allow for the hybrid autofocus. But Sony has a dirty secret. The rear camera defaults to 8MP, 16:9 – probably to save storage space. You can change it to superior auto – 20MP in 16:9 and 23MP in 4:3 and the shots take on a whole different perspective.
The good news is that the hardware is top drawer. As the review unit had “Demo only – not for sale” on it, I am going to blame any foibles on early software and firmware (there has been no update since release).
The rear camera is a 23MP (one of the highest of any flagship), 24mm wide angle (one of the widest of any), f/2.0 (lens aperture is outclassed by other flagships), with a large 1/2.3” sensor. It has hybrid autofocus that tracks movement (tap on the subject like an energetic dog and the camera follows), Electronic Image Stabilisation (EIS – no OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation) but that seems not to matter). In all, it is very fast to lock and load. Sony claim .6 seconds to the first shot, and I believe them.
I use a series of reference shots tested with flagship cameras including the Lumia 950 XL, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, iPhone 6S Plus, LG G5 and an ever-growing range of review camera shots on file.
I test using default settings — auto — but in this case, HDR was only available in manual mode. I cannot understand this and am sure it is fixable. Some reviews suggest that HDR may be used in the superior auto mode when it needs to, but I did not find that to be the case. Most will use auto mode and not realise that HDR makes such a difference.
- Daylight, no flash, with HDR – Manual mode
If you shoot in the default 8MP mode, you will be disappointed.
Engage 20/23MP mode – it takes in so much detail. Bright, accurate colours, crisp detail, and no noise. Autofocus was blazingly quick. As good as any current flagship. But it is odd that HDR can only be used in manual mode – it needs to be part of the auto mode.
- Daylight, no flash, without HDR – Auto
The best way to describe this is what you lose without HDR — highlights, shadows and details — are slightly less. The trade-off of convenience between auto and manual means most will use auto mode, and that is a shame!
- Indoors, no flash, with HDR (manual)
The f/2.0 lens did a good job. Lots of detail and bright colours. Autofocus is slightly slower due to HDR as it "soaks" up the scene and adjusts accordingly. Shots tend to blur so hold the phone very still. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 has larger 1.4 μm pixels that give it the edge here.
- Indoors, no flash, without HDR
Don’t do it – pure whites become off-white, colours become muddier, detail is lost. Samsung’s larger 1.4 μm pixels severely show it up here.
- Indoors, low light, flash, with and without HDR
You cannot have HDR and flash on at the same time. HDR does compensate for details, but it takes longer to autofocus and produces better results than flash alone. I think it would have benefitted from at least a dual flash here. Again the 23MP captures so much more. Hate to be repetitive but Samsung’s larger 1.4 μm pixels give it the edge here.
- Speciality shots like panorama, time-shifts, video, etc.
Panorama was barely adequate, 1080 pixels tall and a very awkward interface. Not good at stitching and loss of detail around stitches. LG’s G5 is the standout here followed closely by the Samsung S7.
I was disappointed that it did not do 4K, 2160p x 30fps video. It does good quality 1080p at 30 or 60fps, but I have seen better from the Samsung, Lumia and LG. It uses digital image stabilisation.
Again superior specifications – 13MP, 1/3” Exmor RS sensor, and f/2.0 lens. In daylight and indoors with normal fluorescent light there was a lot of detail. It lacks fill light for low light close up shots. There are a few lighting modes, and it allows you to select light conditions. There is a smile shutter which is nice. HDR can be switched on an off – use it.
- Camera summary
My take on the cameras: Samsung’s 1.4 μm pixels gives it the edge and in low light or flash. HDR in auto mode should be standard.
The Sony has 23MP (if you remember to use it) to Samsung’s 12MP so the Sony captures more detail and probably a better image to edit. It was way, way, way, ahead of the iPhone 6S Plus and just ahead of the previous class-leading 21MP Lumia 950XL.
I am going to rate it 8 out of 10 – while there are slightly better cameras in some circumstances, you will not be disappointed with the camera.
It uses a 2700mAh Qnovo battery-charging technology. It is fast, helps prolong battery life (normal fast charging can shorten it) and uses analytics to monitor charging. Regrettably, I could not test these claims.
In real life use, I could not get two days as I did from the Z series. It is an overnight charge phone. It does not come with USB-C – c'est la vie.
It seemed to be very battery hungry during the main photoshoot where I took a couple of hundred photos, and it drained from full to 52% over a few hours.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 is a blazingly fast system on a chip. It is on par in most ways with Samsung’s Exynos. No issues here.
As a Cat 9 LTE, it is capable of 300/50Mbps. Around Sydney, it equalled other Cat 9 devices. Phone signal strength was as good as any other flagship. Call quality was good. The dual microphones were excellent.
Stereo front-facing speakers are effective and can be quite loud. They account in part for the low screen to body ratio by adding to the size of the top and bottom bezel. There is an equaliser that allows for ClearAudio+ and other effects.
Sony’s dedicated apps are not removable. In every case they are adequate, but my take is that Android users will want to download the Android Gmail, messaging, contacts, etc.
The UI is light and colourful, and you can download a range of themes from Sony’s app store.
While you can escape Google, it often had annoying popups asking me to reconsider.
- Qualcomm 820, four core, 2 x 2.15GHz and 2 x 1.6GHz
- 3GB, 32GB storage (20GB usable), microSD 200GB (occupies one of the two SIM slots)
- 5” 1080p “Triluminos” IPS LCD, 441ppi, Scratch resistant, 68.1% screen to body and home, back, recent keys are “soft” taking up, even more, screen space
- 23MP camera 1/2.3” Exmor RS and predictive Hybrid Autofocus, 24mm, F/2.0, 1080p @ 30 and 60fps, manual HDR, 8X digital zoom
- 13MP front 1/3” RES, 22mm, F2.0, manual HDR, 1080p @ 30fps
- 2700 mAh, non-removable, Qnovo, micro USB, Fast, quick charge 2.0, endurance 61h. No wireless charge. Stamina mode to increase life.
- IP65/68 – dust tight and water immersion over 1 metre
- LTE Cat 9. It uses the Qualcomm Gobi world modem that usually means 20 bands - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 19, 20, 26, 28, 29, 38, 39, 40, 41. These were not listed on Sony’s website
- Wi-Fi AC dual band, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, GPS, Fingerprint sensor (power button)
- Android 6.x
- 143.7 x 70.4 x 8.7 mm 164.4g
It is a good flagship that could be even better given the basic hardware ingredients are there. Software and firmware updates will make a difference – as it did with the Z series.
IP65/68 waterproofing is nice, but some other phones also have accidental dunk protection.
Battery life is shorter than expected, and there is no wireless charging that I have come to rely on. Having said that the Qnovo could be a game changer – if I could have tested it.
The camera — when you get the hang of it and use 20 or 23MP instead of the 8MP default — is among the best. But it does not record 4K video (no biggie), and it is not the best low-light camera. On the whole, it is pretty good but not the class leader.
I give it an 8 out of 10 – fit for purpose, and if you want a Sony, then this is it.
After completing the review, I read a few international and local reviews to see if my experiences mirrored those. I was a little shocked to see the “average” reviews until I realised that without exception these reviewers wanted to be amazed by 4K screens, 4K video, the UI, and otherwise stoked. The Xperia X – performance is so similar to the Z it replaced.
As I often say there is only so much you can do with a glass slab – but in 2016 that has not been the case. Times have changed — especially in the Android world — and Sony, unfortunately, has delivered more of the same.
In my opinion, the Samsung S7 Edge is a better phone all round – but it costs more so you have to expect that. Its curved edge design is unmistakable, its premium AMOLED screen, wireless and fast charge, performance, water resistance, great all-round camera, and a flawless user interface make it the leader.
I also really like the LG G5 with its removable battery and a dual-lens rear camera that have turned out to be killer features – one 16MP and one 8MP wide angle for tourist shots. It is a great travelling companion.
I have yet to complete the Huawei P9 dual lens camera review – it promises to be a spectacular performer too for $799. I even think the OPPO R9 Plus at $699 beats the Xperia in many ways. The Chinese makers like OPPO, Xiaomi, Vivo and OnePlus are delivering some amazing kit at amazing prices.
The message is clear — it is time for innovation especially in the flagship segment — wow the socks off us.