Overall Score: ★★★★
Sony has pinned its mid-level hopes on the Xperia XA Ultra for a second time, bringing it back to the South African market to do battle with the Samsung Galaxy A7, LG G4 and others.
Straight out of the box, the Xperia XA Ultra looks like a winner. Sony has taken a minimalist approach to the relatively large device, with the very rectangular face dominated by an impressive 6-inch display.
The mid-range smartphone lacks the curvy flair of modern Samsungs, but makes up for it with a sense of solidity that’s become a trademark of Sony phones.
A glass-meets-metal finish cements its heavy feel – and trust me, it’s heavy. Its 202-grams may well scare off prospective buyers more accustomed to superlight modern devices.
Thankfully, this Sony has its bits and bobs in all the right places, with the power button and volume rocker both easily located by your thumb.
Maintaining a Sony tradition instigated back in the days of the Cybershot, the XA Ultra features a shutter button that takes you directly to the camera app.
One notable eyesore on its face is the crater-like selfie cam – you’ll see why it’s there a bit later.
The back of the device is clean, speckled only by the dominant camera and a tiny flash. Be warned, though: peeling off the SIM instruction sticker on the back leaves behind an unsightly block of discolouration. The rear plate also smudges quite easily.
The back of the device with a standard business card for scale. It's big - probably too big for many.
Tech + Software
Android enthusiasts will be happy to know that the Ultra is Android Nougat compatible, meaning that you’ll be up-to-date at least until your next upgrade.
Being an Android device, it’s open to the world of apps available in the Google Play Store, augmented by Sony’s own Xperia Lounge.
The phone is no supercomputer, but it’s powered by a more-than-capable octa-core processor and 3GB of RAM.
Storage wise, it’s on the low-end, with a base capacity of 16GB - half of which is taken up by the system from the start. Thankfully, its microSD card can handle up to 256GB.
It’s also PS4 compatible, which means that you can use your phone as an auxiliary device to your console. Some games can even be fully played on your phone’s screen via the Remote Play feature. Syncing with the PS4 system is effortless, requiring a stable Wi-Fi connection and just a minute of your time.
Otherwise, it’s got all the standard features you’d expect from a mid-level smartphone in 2017.
The Ultra’s downfall here is its lack of a fingerprint scanner and waterproof body – two modern Sony staples.
The 1080p screen resolution is good enough, but not excellent. Understandably, it keeps battery life up, but detracts from the stunning imagery the phone’s 21,5-megapixel camera can produce. Speaking of which…
The name Sony is unanimous with excellent photography. For around a decade, Sony has arguably been the benchmark for mobile imaging, and the XA Ultra is no exception.
The rear sensor, as mentioned, packs a 21,5-megapixel punch, and takes some really superb snaps.
1080p video at 30fps won’t replace your GoPro, but it’s enough to capture crisp, detailed memories in motion.
The real hero of this phone, though, is its selfie cam. The 16-megapixel (yes, you read that correctly) sensor takes arguably better photos punch-for-punch than the rear camera, and steals the show with its own 1080p recording.
The front camera may be powerful, but damn - it's ugly!
This is without a doubt the device’s showpiece, making it the obvious choice for avid Snapchatters and chronic narcissists alike.
Sony has committed a fully-functioning flash to the selfie cam, as opposed to the screen-flash adopted by some innovative brands.
The phone’s photography, however, is not without fault. It struggles a bit in low light, and the processor does it no favours – when in the camera app, the viewfinder may seem a bit laggy, far from the smoothness of any modern iPhone.
Sony does somewhat make up for these imperfections with the camera’s versatility, with Manual mode offering ISO settings and an exposure slider. If you’re good enough, these might end your low-light and overexposure woes.
In 2017, it seems that most digital devices need a supplementary power source, be it a power bank or car charger.
With this in mind, the XA Ultra fares pretty well juice-wise. Power-saving measures like the non-2K display and Doze mode keep it running for well over a day.
Sadly, this is a story of what could have been. The bigger chassis could have meant a bigger battery than the Ultra’s Compact counterpart, but alas, Sony has not obliged.
Nevertheless, it’s got an impressive standby time, dropping just 6% in the space of 12 hours when left idle.
The Xperia Ultra XA is arguably the best mid-level phone on the market at the moment. It faces stiff competition from the likes of the newer Samsung Galaxy A7, which trumps it in battery performance, but falls short in camera quality.
If you want a phone half the price of a Samsung, Sony, or LG flagship that can take superb photos, this is the ‘Droid you’re looking for. Fingerprint scanners are nice, but build quality is what helps most people sleep at night.
As previously stated, however, the Ultra’s downfall is its lack of waterproofing. Consumers may look elsewhere – perhaps at another Sony - for a phone that can brave a plunge.
The Ultra will likely retail for between R6 000 to R9 000 on prepaid deals.
Personally, I’d dodge this price bracket altogether. If you’re not going for the best, something like the Huawei P9 Lite has all you need for less.
Looks: 8/10 (The nasty front camera lets it down here)
Performance: 7/10 (Laggy at times, multitasking may take its toll)
Battery: 8/10 (Sufficient, but could have been better)
Camera: 9/10 (Better than its rivals, selfie cam is a winner)
Wow factor: 5/10 (Aside from the selfie cam, nothing special all. Waterproofing?)
Overall Score: ★★★★