Sony Xperia L1

Sony's always served the budget end of the Android market well and this new model – a replacement for the Xperia E range – continues that trend with a reasonable price point.

For that you get a large 5.5-inch IPS LCD screen, NFC, Android Nougat, USB Type-C, expandable storage and even a trusty 3.5mm headphone socket.

However, behind those positives it's abundantly clear where Sony has had to cut back on things, which means that at times the Xperia L1 feels a little on the cheap side, despite the enviable stature of the Sony brand.

Sony Xperia L1 price and availability

The Sony Xperia L1 price is a reasonable one at around $180, £160, AU$240 SIM free. The low unit cost means it can also be snapped up on contract with zero upfront cost and low monthly outlays, if you're in the UK.

If you are in the UK, you'll find the Xperia L1 for sale at Carphone Warehouse and on Amazon. For those in the US, Amazon also offers the handset SIM-free.

Design and display

  • Plastic body
  • 5.5-inch 720p IPS screen
  • 3.5mm socket, USB Type-C and microSD support

While the rest of the smartphone world follows Apple's lead with gloriously rounded smartphone designs, you've got to applaud Sony for at least trying to offer an alternative.

It may have dabbled with pebble-like shapes in the days of the Xperia Play, but now it's all about straight edges and boxy fronts – and the Xperia L1 is no exception. Sure, the sides are rounded so it's easy to grip but the top and bottom of the handset feature – gasp – corners with actual right angles.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but we have to admit we've got a soft spot for Sony's design language – there simply aren't enough square, boxy phones on the market these days. Unfortunately, many other elements of its design feel budget-level and cheap.

It's strange to pick up an all-plastic handset these days when even obscure Chinese firms like Elephone and Maze are producing devices which elegantly combine metal and glass for around the same price. 

The Xperia L1 is grippy, which is a bonus, but it doesn't feel like a premium handset.

It's also rather plain when it comes to little details, on the back we have the camera, LED flash, Xperia logo and NFC touch-point indicator, but that's it.

The power button and volume rocker are found on the right-hand side, while on the left there's a plastic flap behind which reside the nanoSIM tray and microSD card slot. 

Despite the flap clicking into place quite snugly there's no waterproofing or dust resistance included here.

On the bottom of the Xperia L1 you'll find the mono speaker, USB Type-C port and mouthpiece mic. At the opposite end there's a secondary noise-cancelling mic and the 3.5mm headphone socket – at least you won't have to invest in a pair of expensive wireless cans if you pick this as your daily driver.

The Xperia L1's IPS LCD screen is 5.5-inches in size and has a resolution of 720 x 1280. The pixel density of 267ppi is pretty lackluster, and you can easily pick out individual pixels without having to gaze too closely at the screen.

The panel's not all that great when it comes to contrast and things tend to look a little on the yellow side, especially when compared to OLED screens.

We also noticed that when you apply a medium amount of pressure with your finger, ripples appear in the middle of the LCD panel, which suggests the plastic framework of the phone isn't providing quite enough rigidity. 

On the plus side, legibility is good when you're outside, even on a sunny day.

Sony has a somewhat strange relationship with fingerprint scanners, as many of the handsets it has sold in North America in recent years have had them disabled. The L1 lacks a scanner altogether, but this is more to do with cost than anything else.

Unfortunately for Sony, there are plenty of similarly-priced devices in this part of the market that do come with one – the Moto G5 and Xiaomi Mi A1 being two examples.

Battery life

  • 2,620mAh battery
  • Easily lasts a day

The 2,620mAh battery is hardly massive for a handset with a 5.5-inch display, but we were surprised at the stamina of the Sony Xperia L1.

It easily got us through a typical day of usage, which included web browsing, email, Twitter, photography, a little bit of streamed video and some 3D gaming.

During our in-house video test, where a HD clip is run for 90 minutes with the screen on full brightness and the volume turned up, the Xperia L1 lost around 15% of its battery total.

That's a solid result, topping for example the Moto G5 and Nokia 6, both of which lost 22%, 

Camera

  • 13MP rear-facing camera, 5MP front-facing camera
  • Can work well with good light but struggles in low light
  • Sluggish autofocus

Most budget phones come with quite poor photographic capabilities, and while the 13MP snapper on the Xperia L1 is certainly capable of capturing some lovely shots when conditions are right, it's not a top-tier experience by any means.

On the plus side, if you get the right amount of lighting and the auto-focus plays ball, you can get some excellent images with good color replication, excellent detail levels and great contrast.

On the negative side, the autofocus isn't as quick as we'd like and there's no optical image stabilization; we ended up with quite a few blurry photos as a result.

In low light, the Xperia L1 really struggles; images are grainy and lack detail, and the already sluggish focus takes even longer to lock onto your subject, even when combined with the LED flash.

HDR is supported, but unlike the iPhone 8 or OnePlus 5T, it's not deployed automatically – you have to switch to manual mode to enable it. Even when you've done that, there's another issue: processing time is greatly increased, so it's not really suitable for when you want fast snaps.

The 5MP front-facing camera is workmanlike at best, but performs well enough in apps such as Snapchat and Skype. Video-wise, the rear camera can record 1080p video at 30fps, but the quality isn't amazing and the lack of stabilization means footage looks shaky.

Sound is also disappointing, making this a phone for occasionally grabbing video clips to send to friends but not one for recording your family holiday with.

Camera samples

Interface and software

  • Runs Android Nougat
  • Includes superfluous Sony apps

The Xperia L1 is running Android Nougat with Sony's custom skin placed on top. For the most part, Sony's UI retains many Android hallmarks such as the app drawer, pull-down notification shade and even Google Now, which sits to the left of your main home screen.

Many other handset makers customize these elements or strip them out entirely, so it's refreshing to see Sony retain them. However, on the other hand, the company has supplanted some pretty key Google applications with its own variants, and unless you're a lifelong Sony supporter, this duplication won't be welcome.

Sure, you've got Google Play Music, Google Photos and Play Movies & TV apps installed by default, but they sit alongside Sony's bespoke Music, Album and Video applications.

It's easy enough to make sure Google's options are the default ones, but company's like Sony really need to get their heads around the fact that there's little reason to compete with Google in these areas, especially when its apps are normally so superior anyway.

The Xperia L1 also comes with Swiftkey installed by default instead of Google's own keyboard, but you can swap this out for your own preferred input method too.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Decent sound quality through the single speaker
  • Adequate but not great screen for video
  • Weak gaming performance

That 5.5-inch screen is large enough for portable movie watching, but the low resolution means you're not getting a full HD image. Poor contrast is also an issue, and during dark scenes things something look more grey than black.

Colors are generally good though and if you're not too demanding the Xperia L1 is more than adequate for your mobile cinematic needs.

The Xperia L1 may only possess a single speaker, but when you enable the special 'xLOUD' setting it really sings; music sounds impressive when played this way, with minimal distortion and excellent tone and bass.

Those around you may not appreciate your song choices however, so you can always use the 3.5mm headphone socket – yes, Sony has decided that wired connections are still hip and happening in 2018.

The Xperia L1 comes with its own music application which allows you to pull tracks from your Google Drive account – handy – but we ignored it in favor of Google Play Music, which gives you the chance to store your own music tracks in the cloud for free.

While the 720p screen gives the MediaTek-made CPU and Mali GPU less pixels to push around, games run rather inconsistently on the Xperia L1. Real Racing 3 – a visually intense 3D racer – is playable but quite jerky in places, especially when there are a lot of cars on-screen at once.

This is to be expected – some top-tier Android phones struggle to run it smoothly, after all – but what's puzzling is that the Xperia L1 is equally skittish when it comes to less demanding 2D games, which should suggest that cheap-and-cheerful chipset is to blame.

Specs and benchmark performance

  • Quad-core MediaTek chipset and 2GB of RAM
  • Below average benchmark results

With a MediaTek MT6737T quad-core 1.45GHz chipset under the hood, the Xperia L1 can hardly be described as a mobile heavyweight. This is a low-cost CPU twinned with a Mali-T720MP2 GPU and 2GB of RAM – bargain-basement stuff, in summary.

The AnTuTu benchmark gives the Xperia L1 a ranking of 36,210, while Geekbench awards it a single-core score of 662 and a multi-core score of 1,813.

Those aren't groundbreaking figures by any means, coming in well-below the 2,377 multi-core score achieved by the Moto G5 for example. This gives you a clear indication of just how weak the internal tech of the Xperia L1 is.

However, Sony's phone is far from the only low-cost Android handset to use MediaTek's silicon, and it's important to remember we're not in the realm of £800/$900 smartphones here.

When you're shopping on a tight budget you can't afford to be choosy when it comes to smartphones, and the Sony Xperia L1 certainly cuts plenty of corners to hit its modest price point.

A 720p screen, weak CPU and plastic body all count against it, and the lack of a fingerprint scanner is hard to swallow when so many other budget phones have them.

For all of its faults there are some positives though, as the design isn't terrible and Sony's tweaks to Android are generally favorable.

Who's this for?

Despite lacking some key features when compared to the competition, the Xperia L1 does have the cachet of the Sony brand in its favor, as while the Japanese giant isn't quite as successful in the smartphone arena as it perhaps should be, it still carries some weight with tech fans.

So if you want a handset which has premium aspirations (despite a less than premium build and spec sheet) it might be a good bet, at least in the budget end of the market.

Should you buy it?

A Sony phone for around £160/$180/AU$240 is nothing to be sniffed at, and the Xperia L1 does have a lot on offer for such a modest price – a roomy 5.5-inch screen being perhaps the most appealing aspect.

In this price bracket it has some stiff competition, but most of its closest rivals are similarly lacking in other key areas, leaving little to choose between them.

If you still can't decide – and you don't mind doing a little extra legwork when it comes to ordering and getting things working properly – then you might be better off looking to one of Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi's handsets, like the Redmi 5 and Redmi 5 Plus.

They're not officially available in the UK at present and have to be imported, but they trump the Xperia L1 in terms of pure power, design and screen quality.

First reviewed: January 2018

Damien McFerran
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