Sony Xperia XA1 Plus review

Sony is really good at releasing armfuls of confusingly-named phones and essentially leaving us to work out the differences. The Sony Xperia XA1 Plus is one of those, slotting in between the Xperia XA1 and the Xperia XA1 Ultra.

Since the XA1 range is Sony's mid-tier offering, that places the Plus in the middle of… the middle. If you're thinking that makes for a pretty unremarkable phone, you'd be right.

However, unremarkable isn't a bad thing in this case. The XA1 Plus won't set your world on fire, nor – at around £330/$380 (roughly AU$485) – will it thrill your bank manager – but it also won't have you howling in laggy frustration or missing the megabucks you spent on it.

It's the phone equivalent of a takeout meal: it's not cheap, it's not gourmet, but it's good and it works.

Key features

  • Generous full HD screen
  • Impressive battery pack
  • Fingerprint scanner

It’s pretty clear what Sony is hoping will sell this phone: screen and battery. Full stop. As we noted in our initial hands-on, the 5.5-inch full HD display is perfectly suited to movies and gaming, and the 3,430mAh battery ensures you won't run out of juice mid-session.

The bezels above and below that display will bug some people, and others will be disappointed by the solo speaker instead of something that matches the sound to the image quality, but neither of those are deal-breakers at this price point – especially when the latter can be fixed with good headphones, as there's a proper 3.5mm jack.

The Xperia XA1 Plus has been pitched as 'super mid-tier', and we think that's about right. It offers middling processing, storage and memory, but amps up the battery and screen size to offer something like the phone equivalent of 'Premium Economy.' A little more this, a little more that, but still a (reasonably) little price tag.

The only question is who's going to buy it when it's lacking in standout features or any kind of marketing concept, and judging by the PR materials that came with its low-key launch, Sony doesn't appear to have an answer.

Sadly, this probably means it'll sell less well than it deserves to, based on our experiences in this review.

One of the family

  • Chunky but robust
  • Proper headphone jack
  • Hardware camera key

Looks-wise, the XA1 Plus carries the Xperia DNA at every facet. That means a chunkier feel than you get from many manufacturers: the Xperia line has never been concerned about thinness.

However, if you haven't had one for a while, the newer models are less blocky than their predecessors, with gently curved sides giving an oval shape to the top and bottom edges.

This makes them much more comfortable to hold while still being satisfyingly robust, and the thicker profile means there's room for a proper 3.5mm headphone jack on the top.

When you don’t care about thinness, you can fit in a 3.5mm headphone jack

That's not to say you don’t get USB-C: the charging port is indeed the reversible standard, offering the best of both worlds. It sits in the center of the bottom panel beside a single, grille-covered downward-firing speaker.

The left edge holds the door to the dual-SIM tray (on our model: some are single SIM) and a microSD slot, and refreshingly opens with a fingernail rather than those little tools you lose within the first ten seconds of owning the phone.

The right edge of the phone is similarly well thought-out: below the volume rocker is the power key with fingerprint sensor built in (unless you're in the US), and there's a hardware key for photography.

Youngsters probably won't appreciate that holding the phone in landscape means this key is where the shutter button would be on an actual camera, but we know.

Satisfyingly, it also does the half-press-to-focus thing. More Androids should offer this: it's a really enjoyable way to take photos. Especially for us oldies.

The plastic back panel is pretty minimal, with just the Xperia logo and a tiny NFC symbol to let you know where to hold your phone over the contactless reader. The sizeable lens for the 23MP camera sensor sits almost flush, with just a thin silver ring raised above the surface.

Below that is the LED flash – and that's it. No fingerprint pad because that's in the power key, no second sensor on the camera: this is a back panel you won't be sad to cover with a case.

The front of the phone sports the large top and bottom bezels we've come to know from Xperia phones, alongside the subtle-ish Sony branding beside the 8MP selfie camera.

There's nothing at all on the bottom bezel, which is disappointing: when you've got half an inch of chin on the front of your phone, you kind of want there to be a purpose to it.

There's no home key and not even capacitive keys. The Android navigation buttons on the XA1 Plus are software, so you can expect those to take up a little of your 5.5-inch screen real estate instead of that useless bezel.

It’s also sad to see that the screen doesn’t curve into those rounded handset edges – it feels like a missed opportunity, but perhaps that’s an unfair expectation at this price point.

Thin metallic bands finish the top and bottom of the XA1 Plus, which currently comes in a choice of black, blue, gold or pink, depending on the territory.

Displays for days

  • 5.5 inches of full HD refinement
  • Gorilla Glass 4
  • Quite fingerprinty

Providing you don't mind the top and bottom bezels, the display is a high point on this mid-tier phone. Measuring a generous 5.5 inches (what we used to call a 'phablet' and now just call… a phone), it's coated with Gorilla Glass 4 and offers full HD in the traditional 16:9 aspect ratio (1080 x 1920, about 401 pixels per inch).

While it would have been nice to see the display wrap around into the curved sides (and indeed it seems Sony is planning curved displays), it's perhaps a little too much to ask for at this price.

We definitely would have preferred it a little less fingerprinty, however: on white backgrounds you can really see the dirty smudges. You'll want to clean it before loading up a video.

By default, the phone displays text and icons a little large for our liking, but that's easily fixed in the Display settings. 

You can also change the image color profile there, from the default which is realistic if a little dull, to 'image enhancement' mode or even 'super-vivid'. There isn't a huge difference between them, but it's nice to have the option.

The brightness levels on the XA1 Plus' screen, however, leave a little to be desired. Adaptive brightness is on by default, and we found it generally left the screen a little dim for our liking.

Interestingly, with adaptive brightness on, you can turn the light slider on the settings panel all the way up to the top, and yet your screen still isn't at its maximum possible brightness.

Turn adaptive brightness off and the slider moved back to the middle, and turning it up to max revealed a much brighter top end than we'd otherwise have had. Worth knowing, especially if you like your screens to require sunglasses.

A return to old-school Xperia stamina

  • Excellent all-day battery life
  • Adaptive fast charging
  • No wireless charging

The battery life on this phone is impressive and reminds us of the glory days of immortal Xperia handsets like the Z3 Compact. Considering it has a 5.5-inch 1080p screen to power, 3,430mAh is very generous – particularly given the price.

It seems Sony has concentrated the budget for this phone in those two areas (screen and battery), which makes it an ideal model for movies and YouTube sessions.

You don't get wireless charging, unsurprisingly, but the phone does support Qnovo adaptive charging and MediaTek's Pump Express 2.0 fast charging.

We found the phone capably carried us through a full day of standard use (social media, gaming, a few calls and some reading) and often into the next. Even if you're a heavy user, this handset should easily last you the day.

When we ran our standard 90-minute HD video test on the Xperia XA1 Plus –
screen brightness set to full, accounts syncing in the background – the phone lost 16% of its full charge.

Comparison to similarly-priced phones shows this to be a good result: the iPhone 6 lost 26% in the same test, the Huawei P10 lost 20%, and the Sony's lower-end sibling – the Xperia XA1 – depleted by 27%.

However, it's not the best available: the Samsung Galaxy A5 lost 12%, the BlackBerry KeyOne 11% and the Motorola Z2 Play just 10%. This means the battery performs well for its price point in the market, but if battery stamina is your top concern, there might be better choices.

Say c-h-e-e-s-e

  • Slow to capture
  • Often misses shots
  • Light bleed issues

The XA1 Plus comes equipped with an impressive-sounding 23MP snapper on the back and an 8MP on the front. However, in practice, the phone is slow to capture, and likes to be absolutely happy with the shot before committing it to memory.

This means we've taken countless shots with this phone where we pressed the shutter button and the phone responded as if taking the photo, but then didn't actually take it.

It seems to wait until it has a better focus, which means if it's something fast-moving like a cat's facial expression (don't judge), you're likely going to miss it. This was the case for both the main and selfie cameras.

There are a lot of these on our camera roll

If you buy this phone, be aware that the blue progress circle in the bottom right corner of the native camera app doesn’t mean the photo's been taken. It means it's still thinking about it. The photo isn't locked in until you see the preview image on the bottom right – and this can be seconds after you pressed capture.

We experienced this delay in Manual as well as Auto mode, and also in other camera apps. It results in photos including motion to come out like a long-exposure, sometimes with odd processing artifacts (see the cars photo below).

When speed isn't such a concern, the XA1 cameras do a decent to good job depending on the lighting situation. With stronger or particularly concentrated light (like streetlights, for instance) we experienced light bleed fairly often, as you can see in the samples.

The HDR effect also came out too strongly on quite a few photos, leading a dark night to take on a surreal aspect that didn’t match the reality.

Video-wise, budding cinematographers should be aware that the camera only offers 1080p at 30fps – despite Sony's focus on 4K elsewhere, it’s not on this model.

Camera samples

You'll never forget who made your phone

  • Lots of Sony additions to Android
  • Not the latest Android version
  • Oreo update confirmed

When Sony sells a phone, it's really selling Sony. All the Xperia phones come with a bunch of Sony stuff, intended to cross-promote whatever is at the top of its list right now.

However, while this can be annoying, it could be a lot worse – Sony's other products include successful films (for better or worse, we have them to thank for the Emoji Movie), PlayStation games and music by some of the biggest artists on the planet.

Still, it would be unrealistic to portray the Xperia interface as close to stock Android. It’s very much Sony-flavored, with Sony-made pre-installed apps including News Suite, What's New, PlayStation, Xperia Lounge, AR Effect (Sony's version of Snapchat filters, although it dates back ages), Sketch, and some third-party content including Rakuten's Kobo ereader and AVG antivirus.

Hope you like the word ‘Xperia’ because you’re going to be seeing it a lot

Most of these apps can only be disabled, not uninstalled, and some can't even do that. It's annoying, especially when you've just got the phone, but bear in mind the handset would likely cost you more without these additions.

The other thing to be aware of is that you're not getting the latest version of Android, Oreo – as of the time of writing, the Xperia XA1 Plus is still on Nougat. That's not too terrible at this point in the year, but we'd expect to see that update fairly soon to make this phone worth buying over others.

Sony has confirmed the handset will get the update, but when will depend on carriers, countries, and the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. Or something similarly arcane.

Aside from these points, the XA1 Plus offers a good Android experience with only minor tweaks to things like the menu layout and quick settings panel. Most people likely won't notice any difference, especially if they’re coming from another Sony.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Big full HD screen ideal for movies
  • Battery can handle lots of screen time
  • One mediocre speaker

The Xperia XA1 Plus is very much built for entertainment. The large, lovely screen, the big battery and… the single downward-firing speaker? Yeah, that one's a bit baffling on Sony's part.

You'd think with all the company's audio prestige, they could rustle up a couple of decent quality stereo speakers to sit in those enormous bezels, but no. Nor do you get a set of high-res earphones (though Sony will sell them to you separately).

But there is at least that 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can plug in a good pair if you already have some.

The speaker is okay: it goes reasonably loud but predictably gets distorted at higher levels. It sounds fine, if a little noisy, and of course very dependent on which way the speaker’s facing relative to you. It's not one for parties, put it that way.

Sound aside, the rest of the entertainment experience on this phone is superb, especially given the price. Movies and shows look gorgeous on that bright widescreen display, and the battery is very much up to the challenge of powering all your screen-on time.

Judging by our 90-minute 720p battery test, you could comfortably get through more than 7.5 hours of HD video on a single full charge, and that’s enough for anyone’s commute. Even in LA.

As you'd expect from the home of PlayStation, gaming is also an enjoyable experience on the XA1 Plus. The 5.5-inch screen is about ideal for handheld gaming in our opinion, and the graphics, frame rate and performance all left us satisfied on a range of titles, including some more demanding ones (read: racing).

And if you do have a PS4, you can get a handy mount that'll turn your XA1 Plus into a screen for your DualShock controller.

A solid mid-tier performer

  • Middling specs for a middling price
  • Supports microSDXC cards 
  • Solid performance on games and apps

The exact specs of the Xperia XA1 Plus will depend on where you buy it: it comes in both 3GB and 4GB versions, though both have 32GB of storage. Our review device reports 3.7GB of RAM.

The microSD card slot can accept the faster SDXC format and takes up to a 256GB card if you feel the need to expand on the onboard storage.

Chipset-wise, you've got a MediaTek Helio P20 octa-core 64-bit CPU (with 4 x 2.3GHz and 4 x 1.6GHz cores) and a Mali T880 MP2 GPU. That GPU can theoretically handle UHD content, but there's not much use for that with a 1080p screen.

Nonetheless, the phone does output very good graphics and performance on all our favorite apps and games, and we didn't experience any of the problems you might expect on a lower-end phone (lagging, stuttering, crashes).

It handled multi-tasking and intensive processing competently, and with the exception of the camera, we never found ourselves annoyed with how long anything took on the Plus.

It's mid-tier hardware for a mid-tier phone, and that'll suit a lot of people just fine. Benchmark performance is appropriately mid-table, with a single-core Geekbench 4 score of 836 and a multi-core of 3715.

You can compare those scores to the competition here, but suffice to say the top numbers at the time of writing are near enough double, placing the phone in the high centre of the table. And that's all we could ask, really.

Verdict

On paper, the Xperia XA1 Plus is yet another mid-range handset to flesh out Sony's expansive smartphone offering. It doesn't have much of an identity, even in Sony's own PR comms. But after a few weeks with it, we've actually found a lot to love about the XA1 Plus.

It's a step up from the super-cheap but slightly-lacking Sony Xperia XA1, and doesn't sacrifice the fingerprint scanner like the XA1 Ultra (well… depending on where you live). It has a large, lovely 1080p screen, a huge battery, and enough under the hood to power most people’s smartphone needs.

The cameras leave a lot to be desired and the software will drive purists to distraction, but given the price tag, we’re not complaining too much. This is a solid, dependable, well-designed phone with a lot going for it, and for £330/$380 (roughly AU$485), we can't say fairer than that.

Who's this for?

We're not sure even Sony could answer that one. The XA1 is the budget choice in the range, while the XA1 Ultra is definitely for the youngsters. The Plus? Well, it's for anyone who doesn’t want to spend too much but doesn’t want a rubbish phone either. Which could be anyone, really.

Should you buy it?

If you're in the market for an Android with generous screen and battery proportions, in a solid and robust shell with performance to match, and a price that won’t have you eating noodles for months – meet the Xperia XA1 Plus.

It won't change your life, but it might well change your opinion on the middle of the pack.

There are plenty of alternatives to the Sony Xperia XA1 Plus depending on your priorities. You might want to consider the phones below instead.

Huawei P10

It’s getting kind of old now, but Huawei’s flagship still offers the dual-sensor Leica-branded camera experience with an easy-to-use portrait mode to rival Apple’s.

But its biggest selling point right now is that it’s fairly likely to have a precipitous price drop soon, as we're probably about to meet its successor.

Sony Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra

Chances are if you’re considering the Plus, you’re also looking at its siblings. Well, the youth-oriented Ultra offers an enormous 6-inch screen, while the budget-conscious XA1 is down at a finger-friendly 5.

All three have the same CPU, but if you want better selfies then plump for the Ultra with its 16MP front-facing sensor. If a fingerprint scanner is a must, though, stick with the Plus – neither of its stablemates offer that.

Moto Z2 Play

The Z2 Play has a lot in common with the XA1 Plus, including a beautiful 5.5-inch screen and a slightly disappointing camera. But it also offers the Moto Mods modular upgrade system and better battery life, and that might just swing it for a lot of people.

First reviewed: February 2018

Holly Brockwell
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