Sturdy metal design
Thin side bezels
Long-lasting battery life
Large, vibrant display
Clean Android software
Dual front-facing cameras
Fingerprint sensor works in U.S.
Camera performs poorly in low light
Size may be too large for some
For more than five years, Sony’s smartphone lineup has more or less remained the same. Compared to other competing smartphones, the company’s offerings always trailed behind in design, overall hardware features, and other popular smartphone trends like near bezel-less displays, dual cameras, and QHD resolution screens. They were good phones, but they were unexciting and almost always priced too high for what they offered compared to the competition. Factors like the fingerprint sensor being unavailable in the U.S. and a lack of carrier support made them even more unappealing.
Now it looks like Sony is finally starting to make some significant changes. Is it too little too late? We won’t be able to fully answer that question until Sony’s flagship Xperia XZ2 hits the market, but its new mid-range smartphone might give us a glimpse into Sony’s future. This is the Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra review.
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Sony’s previous design grew stale rather fast but the XA2 Ultra is Sony’s first smartphone in a long time to make some drastic changes. Despite its decidedly mid-range specs, it looks and feels every bit like a high-end smartphone. The distinct boxy and rectangular Sony shape mostly remains intact; from a distance, you may not notice anything different. Once you take a closer look though, the changes Sony made to modernize the design become clear.
With a thick and heavy all-metal body, the XA2 Ultra is sturdy. It feels like an absolute tank. The build quality is top notch, with nice design flourishes like chamfered edges, a slightly curved back, and rounded sides for improved ergonomics. Despite all that, the XA2 Ultra isn’t the most comfortable phone to hold and use. The smooth metal finish provides very little grip.
The Ultra name means this phone is big, which may not appeal to everyone.
The Ultra name means this phone is big, which may not appeal to everyone. There are so many big Android phones out there nowadays that physical size is rarely a topic of conversation anymore, especially with manufacturers shrinking down bezels and switching to 18:9 displays to make big phones smaller. The XA2 Ultra follows some of these trends.
Its side bezels are practically non-existent and the top and bottom bezels are slightly smaller, though the phone is still incredibly wide, tall, and thick. It takes me back to the days of the Nexus 6. It’s an uncomfortable one-handed device and its sharp corners jab you in the palm, only adding to the discomfort.
It's not the most impressive-sounding display but it certainly won't disappoint.
The smaller bezels might make you think the XA2 Ultra has an 18:9 display, but that isn’t the case. Instead, the XA2 Ultra sticks with a more traditional 16:9 display, which is partly why the phone is still so wide despite its thinner side bezels. The screen is a 6-inch IPS LCD with a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, covered in 2.5D glass for a slight curve along the edges which blends in nicely with the rest of the phone’s subtly rounded aesthetic. It’s not the most impressive-sounding display but it certainly won’t disappoint. At six inches there’s plenty of screen real estate to comfortably browse the web and enjoy content such YouTube videos, movies, or games.
Read more: What is the 18:9 aspect ratio all about?
The 1080p resolution spread over a 6-inch display doesn’t result in the highest pixel density, but the screen is still plenty sharp and easy to read. The display has vibrant color, excellent contrast, great viewing angles, and gets bright enough to see in direct sunlight. Like many other Sony smartphones, the XA2 Ultra offers the ability to easily adjust the screen’s white balance, color gamut, and contrast within the software if the default out of the box settings don’t quite suit your taste.
The XA2 Ultra is powered by fairly run-of-the-mill midrange specs. It packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor and 4GB of RAM. In my week of use, the XA2 Ultra performed admirably. Swiping through home screens, launching applications, and playing games was a responsive and fluid experience and 4GB of RAM was plenty of memory for smooth multitasking. The XA2 Ultra will not produce mind-blowing benchmark numbers, but in real-world use, it should be more than enough to satisfy most users.
Where the Snapdragon 630 processor truly shines is its battery life because it’s one of Qualcomm’s more battery-efficient processors. Sony also bumped up the battery capacity in the XA2 Ultra to 3,580mAh, a significant increase over the previous generation. The XA2 Ultra consistently lasted me two days on a single charge, with screen-on time easily reaching the six-hour mark.
Fast charging is available via Quick Charge 3.0 and Sony’s stamina mode can help prolong battery life when you can’t get to a charger. The XA2 Ultra also comes with other useful battery features like Battery Care and Qnovo Adaptive Charging, which helps keep your battery healthier and extends its lifespan.
You'll probably also be happy to know the XA2 Ultra keeps its headphone jack.
The XA2 Ultra is available in two storage options with 32 or 64GB variants. If you want more space there’s a microSD card slot for up to 256GB of additional storage. Bluetooth 5 is onboard with support for higher-quality audio with AptX HD. You’ll probably also be happy to know the XA2 Ultra keeps its headphone jack — something which won’t be in Sony’s upcoming XZ2 flagship.
Flanking the USB Type-C port on the bottom is a single speaker, which, like most single-firing speakers, isn’t much to write home about. It gets fairly loud, with no noticeable signs of distortion, but the placement makes it easy to muffle and it fires audio sideways when holding the phone in landscape.
It's unfortunate Sony took this long to make it happen but as the saying goes — better late than never.
The biggest hardware change Sony made this year is the relocation of the fingerprint sensor. What used to be embedded in the side mounted power key has been moved to the back, right below the camera. It’s spacious, easy to reach with an index finger, and reasonably fast at unlocking. It also finally works for U.S. users. It’s unfortunate Sony took this long to make it happen but as the saying goes, “better late than never.”
One of the biggest highlights of the XA2 Ultra is its cameras — at least according to Sony. The XA2 Ultra comes with two front-facing cameras, which we haven’t seen since the LG V10. The main sensor is a 16MP camera with optical image stabilization for improved low light shooting and less chance of a blurry selfie should you have a shaky hand. The secondary sensor is a wide-angle 8MP shooter with a 120-degree field of view to make group selfies easier or simply fit more of the background into the frame.
Next to the primary front-facing shooter is a flash Sony calls a slow-sync flash. Normally when you take a selfie in a dark environment and use a flash, your face will be properly illuminated but the background remains dark. The slow-sync flash is designed to alleviate this problem by evenly lighting the subject and the background so you can see more detail. In everyday practice, it works but it isn’t as impressive as it seems. Photos appear more natural and more of the background is easily visible but it introduces more noise into the shot.
Image quality in general from the front-facing camera is not as good as I would have expected from a 16MP camera with OIS. Sony’s image processing will give your selfies a very soft look, which is great for hiding blemishes and fine detail but it feels a little aggressive. A skin softening feature is enabled by default, but turning this off doesn’t seem to make a noticeable difference.
The rear camera is a 23MP Exmor RS sensor with f/2.0 aperture and max ISO performance of 12,800. This is impressively high for a smartphone camera (although a far cry from the Huawei P20) and will create brighter images in low light, though unfortunately ISO levels beyond 3,200 can’t be dialed in manually. Regardless, you’ll likely never want to shoot at higher ISO levels due to the heavy increase in noise, which already visibly creeps in when the camera approaches even 1,000 ISO. Image quality deteriorates quickly in dark or night time situations with soft details, overblown highlights, and washed-out colors, giving the images a very muddy appearance.
Unsurprisingly, the camera fares better in bright or well-lit environments. Color reproduction is natural and properly saturated, and images are sharp. The camera’s biggest downfall is its poor dynamic range. Shadows are heavily crushed in almost every situation, resulting in less detail. HDR helps tremendously with that, but I’m still not a fan of how Sony buries HDR in the manual mode camera settings. It’s cumbersome to access and unintuitive, meaning many users will never enjoy its benefits.
The software experience on the XA2 Ultra is very standard Sony. It’s based on Android 8.0 Oreo with Xperia customizations. If you’ve used any recent Sony smartphone, you’ll instantly feel right at home. Sony’s customizations are unobtrusive and they keep the experience very close to stock, which I’ve always enjoyed.
Sony's customizations are unobtrusive and they keep the experience very close to stock.
The XA2 Ultra comes with typical Sony features be found in many of the company’s other devices, like Playstation integration and the Xperia theme engine for customizing the wallpaper, icons, and general UI. A list of recommended apps can be accessed by swiping down on the home screen or through the app drawer, though I’ve never found this to be particularly useful.
Specific to the XA2 Ultra is the addition of one-handed features, which can make operating the phone with one hand easier. Using these features you can shrink the UI into a smaller resizable window and shift other elements such as the dialer and pattern lock to either the left or right side of the display.
|Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra|
|Display||6" Full HD 1080p|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 630|
Expandable up to 256 GB via microSD
|Camera||Rear: 23 MP Exmor RS with f/2.3 aperture, hybrid AP, and 5x zoom|
Front: 16 MP sensor with OIS and 8 MP with 120 wide-angle lens
|Battery||3,580 mAh battery, Quick Charge 3.0, Battery Care, Qnovo Adaptive Charging|
|Software||Android 8.0 Oreo|
|Miscellaneous||Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, USB Type-C, 3.5 mm headphone jack|
Pricing & Final Thoughts
The Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra is available as an unlocked device for GSM networks and is priced at $450 in the U.S.. For a mid-range phone, the XA2 Ultra has a lot to offer, with its long overdue design refresh, dual front-facing cameras, fantastic battery life, and finally, a fingerprint sensor that now works. But it’s not priced as competitively as it should be — typical of most Sony phones.
The XA2 Ultra would be more attractive — possibly even a no-brainer purchase — if it were priced at under $400. $450 puts this very close to “budget flagship” devices like the OnePlus 5T and Honor View10. Both are only $50 more and arguably offer better bang for your buck, especially on the performance side. Still, the XA2 Ultra is another solid offering from Sony and a great step forward in the right direction. Unfortunately, like many Sony devices, its price may hold it back from success.
All about Sony:
- Sony in 2018: time for a change
- A quick look at Android P beta on the Sony Xperia XZ2
- Sony adds the Xperia XA2 and Xperia XA2 Ultra to its Open Devices program