Sony’s finally made mid-range smartphones that are worth your consideration

Silver: XA2, Gold: XA2 Ultra 

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of Sony’s mid-range handsets. It didn’t matter if it was the budget mid-range option or their premium mid-range handset, they were never attractive from a price-to-performance perspective. But to be fair, this problem wasn’t unique to Sony’s mid-range devices because their flagships were grossly overpriced too.

That is, until they launched the Xperia XZ1. Sony’s newest 2017 flagship finally showed us that hey, maybe they’re listening after all because with that handset, the company went from making god-awful value smartphones to just making debatably bad value smartphones.

And, if their new mid-range Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra are any indication, it seems like they’re still on the right track.

If you just look at the price tag, you’d probably be perplexed by what I said. Priced at RM1,299 for the XA2 and RM1,999 for the XA2 Ultra, both of these successor handsets launched with RRPs that are RM100 over their predecessors.

But value isn’t measured by how much something costs, it’s measured by how much you’re getting for your money and I’d say that you’re getting a lot more for your money this time around.

We’ll start with specs and right off the bat you’ll see that the handsets have new processors under the hood. Gone is the MediaTek Helio P-whatever. In its place, the smartphones now pack Snapdragon 630 processors with either 3GB of RAM/32GB storage (XA2) or 4GB of RAM/64GB of storage (XA2 Ultra) — which isn’t bad for the mid-range.

From my first impressions, performance was solid. Everything felt smooth and responsive which was great, but then again the phone didn’t have many apps on it so take from that what you will. I really like that Sony’s launching these phones with Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box, something that’s still unfortunately rare among Android devices now.

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Besides that, Sony has also rid the XA smartphones of their 720p displays entirely. Now, the smaller XA2 joins its Ultra variant with a Full HD screen but in a smaller 5.2″ size instead of the Ultra’s massive 6″ panel. And I have to say, it looks pretty darn good, especially with those slim side bezels.

Sony also updated the smartphone’s design so it feels a little more premium now. The top and bottom sport a similar design to the XZ Premium with a flashy chamfered metal look. Add that to what feels like a more refined build and you’ve got a pretty nice smartphone here.

I also like the fact that Sony rounded out the back of the smartphone so it fits slightly better in the hand. It does rock if you put the device on the table and poke hard at its edges so that might annoy people who type with their phone on the table. I personally suck at typing on screens with anything but my thumbs so this doesn’t bother me at all. That’s not the only difference at the back though. Sony’s also added a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner.

Despite slim side bezels, in true Sony fashion you’ve still got a massive chin and forehead. I don’t think that makes the device look ugly, but I’m disappointed that despite all that space, they couldn’t put front-facing stereo speakers in. What a bummer. One thing that does still irk me now is that on the XA2 Ultra, the forehead is noticeably fatter than the chin.

Sony’s new handsets have not jumped on the 18:9 aspect ratio train, however. This means that the 6″ XA2 Ultra is massive in the hand. Almost comically massive compared to so many of the mid-range handsets on sale right now.

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Still, this size means that the smartphone has a big 3,580 mAh battery which, when paired with the Snapdragon 630, should mean some stellar battery life. Its smaller sibling doesn’t lose that much in capacity either as it packs a 3,300 mAh cell. Unfortunately, Sony Malaysia informs me that the smartphone will not be bundled with a quick-charge power brick out of the box.

Now, we get to the duo’s cameras. While the back 23MP Exmor RS camera are identical — and feel very “Sony” when you pull the satisfying trigger on the dedicated shutter button — these smartphones differ when it comes to selfie shooters. Yep, we’ve got another “selfie expert” on our hands because that’s apparently what everyone wants in a phone at this price range.

On the XA2, you’ve got a fairly standard 8MP f/2.4 selfie shooter but with a slight twist: Its lens has an ultra-wide 120-degree lens giving it a GoPro-esque look.

Flipping things over to the XA2 Ultra, and you’ll be greeted with a pair of selfie cameras. Besides the wide 8MP f/2.4 shooter, you’ve also got a 16MP f/2.0 camera with optical image stabilisation (the 8MP shooter has SteadyShot) that’s less wide. This means that you can switch between the two depending on your needs so both cameras work independently from each other. You can also switch between a wide selfie and narrow selfie on the smaller XA2 but I suspect that’s done through software cropping.

Do they take amazing selfies? Well, I don’t really know right now. I know I like the ultra-wide angle lens because it makes things look pretty cool, but I’m not a big selfie guy so maybe I’ll get some proper opinions from more experienced selfie-ers for the full review.

I did notice that since there were two different cameras on the XA2 Ultra, both of these snappers exposed and tweaked colours differently. Messing around with it at the launch event, the 8MP one seemed to get more accurate results. I’ll be sure to give it a more thorough test in the full review.

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So, what do we have here?

Compared to the other smartphones in this price range, they’re actually not that overpriced. The small XA2 (RM1,299), for example, holds its own against the likes of Huawei’s Nova 2i (RM1,299), vivo’s V7 Plus (RM1,499) and the OPPO F5 (RM1,298). Sure, those phones have larger 18:9 aspect ratio displays, but the XA2’s got a big edge when it comes to software. It loses out in value to the honor 7X (RM1,099), though, that phone is some awesome bang-for-buck.

On the other hand, the larger XA2 Ultra is a little worse for ware here. At just under RM2,000, you’re probably better off with a discounted 2017 flagship, or something like the honor View10 (RM2,099). It really only beats out big-brand phones like Samsung’s new A8 and A8+.

For the first time, we finally have the first genuinely interesting pair of mid-range handsets from Sony. And by interesting I mean that they’re finally competitive. Sony’s still Sony and they haven’t up and become Xiaomi. What’s more, their smartphones still lack the “modern” tall aspect ratio look that so many of us prefer. Plus they’re not super flashy.

But, there is a beauty in keeping things simple and that dedicated physical camera shutter button plus relatively clean Android Oreo its always a treat to have. I’d say that it’s a good time to be a Sony fan on a budget because that XA2 is looking pretty good right now.

Size comparison with iPhone 8