The first in Sony's new line of Android phones nails the core experience, but struggles to justify its hefty price tag.
The quick take
Sony's first high-profile Android handset of 2016 is a perfectly good, if slightly boring phone. Most of the basics are well-executed, from the impressive display to the solid though understated build. It's a phone that performs well and comes with minimal distractions, and as such it lacks the wow-factor of other big-brand offerings. And in one crucial area — camera performance — the phone is let down by its less-powerful CPU.
- Quick performance — most of the time
- Good-looking display
- Comfortable, ergonomic chassis
- Decent photos from both front and rear cameras
- Frustratingly slow camera performance
- Overall design is somewhat dull
- U.S. buyers miss out on fingerprint security
- More bang for your buck available elsewhere
Sony Xperia X Full Review
In perhaps the most surprising announcement of this year's Mobile World Congress, Sony effectively drew a line under the past three years of Xperia smartphones. The Xperia Z brand is no more, and from its ashes is born Xperia X — a new series of phones focused on getting the fundamentals right, leaving the core Android experience alone, and layering on differentiating features where it makes sense.
It's a line we've heard from other manufacturers lately, most notably Motorola and HTC. And in general, this approach tends to produce pretty good Android phones.
Of course Sony needs more than just a good phone. For the Japanese firm, still on a downward trajectory, the bigger challenge is cracking the U.S. market — or at least getting a foot in the door. Time and again it's tried to play the U.S. carrier game, and time and again it's failed.
So with the growing trend away from subsidized phones, Sony's eyeing the unlocked market to get its latest devices into American hands. And this time it's doing so with a concurrent global launch, as opposed to making U.S. buyers wait six months longer.
That's a good start, but can the Xperia X — by all accounts a phone which lacks the bleeding-edge specs of many rivals — stand out? Read on.
About this review
We're publishing this review after a week and a half with an unlocked U.S.-spec Sony Xperia X (model F5121) in Seattle, and in Taipei, Taiwan. In the U.S., we used the phone on T-Mobile; on Taipei, we popped in a Chunghwa Telecom SIM. In both countries, the phone had full 4G LTE coverage. For most of our time with the Xperia X, our unit was running software version 34.0.A.1.267, based on Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, with the March 2016 Android security patch.
A few hours before this review was scheduled to be published, our review unit received an over-the-air update to version 34.0.A.1.277. The update arrived with no specific changelog, and haven't noticed any significant differences thus far.
Sony Xperia X Video Review
Sony Xperia X Hardware
For the past three years, Sony has fielded an array of mostly identical black rectangles. From 2013's Xperia Z through to 2015's Xperia Z5, the overall look and feel of the company's high-end phones has been, to everyone but Sony connoisseurs, largely indistinguishable.
The Xperia X represents the biggest design change in a Sony flagship in years. It is, however, still another black rectangle.
For many people, a 5-inch diagonal still represents the sweet spot for one-handed phone use.
In terms of physical size, the new phone fits somewhere between Sony's "Compact" line and its full-sized Z-series. The X has a 5-inch screen, which is smaller than a lot of high-end Android phones, but for many still represents the sweet spot for one-handed use. And although the X has an angular appearance, the corners have been softened considerably, making for a comfortable grip.
In a break from the glass-sandwiched design of years plast, Sony brings a brushed aluminum back panel into the mix with the Xperia X, with rounded edges that mirror the "2.5D" glass used on the front. The sides are coated with a traditional polycarbonate trim, not unlike the Xperia Z5 Compact. And while the plastic helps with grip to a degree, the fact that your fingers are in contact mainly with plastic, not metal, means you're less aware of the premium finish. There's something about a metal back and plastic sides that seems a little back to front.
Sony keeps its buttons and ports in all the usual places — on the left edge there's a power button, volume rocker and dedicated camera key, which you can long-press to quickly hop into the camera app. The bottom edge houses the Micro-USB port, while the headphone jack lives up top. And after years of infuriatingly fiddly SIM trays, the Xperia X gets this small but important detail right, with a combined SIM and SD tray that can be freed using a fingernail.
Fingerprint scanner? Nope. ... At least not in the U.S.
In a baffling move for Sony, Xperia X buyers in the United States will miss out on a really important feature. Outside the U.S., the recessed power key doubles as a fingerprint scanner. That's not the case in the U.S. model — it's just a boring old button. Given how common this feature is becoming across the broader Android landscape — and how much Sony is charging for this thing — that's a big disappointment.
It's also disheartening to see Sony walking back from offering water resistance as standard, particularly as Samsung is starting to market this feature as a standout feature for its Galaxy phones. (You'll need to fork out $150 more to get this feature — it's available in the Xperia X Performance, the higher-specced, Snapdragon 820-powered variant.)
The Xperia X isn't all about compromises though. The display is among the best 1080p LCDs we've seen in a phone, with ample brightness and colors that look vivid without appearing overblown. We've used the Xperia X under a lot of bright sunlight in our week or so of testing, and it's never disappointed. We're also not missing the lack of a 2K panel here — the 441 pixels per inch on offer is more than enough for text and photos to appear pin sharp.
Sony's audio credentials are equally impressive, with dual front-facing speakers producing audio that's loud and clear enough to be head over a moderate amount of background noise. And on the software side, Sony's DSEE HX works to upsample compressed music to near Hi-Res Audio quality.
Don't turn your nose up at what might seem a mid-level CPU — the Snapdragon 650 is more than powerful enough for most stuff.
On the inside, Sony takes an equally measured approach, using Qualcomm's latest mid-level chip, the Snapdragon 650. The 650 — a six-core CPU combining two high-powered Cortex-A72 cores with four low-power A53s, along with an Adreno 510 GPU — is a significant step up from the Snapdragon 615 which dominated mid-level Android phones in 2015. Combined with 3GB of RAM, this processor is easily fast enough to push Android 6.0 on a 1080p display without any lag or performance hitches. And similarly, apps are quick to load, and multitasking speedy through the standard recent apps menu.
The only thing you're really missing out on is extra performance grunt for very high-powered games — and, as we'll discuss later, you'll miss the additional number-crunching power when taking 23-megapixel images with the rear camera.
Sony packs an updated version of the Xperia Z5's 23-megapixel Exmor RS sensor into the Xperia X, and the rear camera protrudes ever so slightly through the aluminum back panel. Around the front there's a 13-megapixel selfie camera lurking next to the Sony logo, a step up from the 8-megapixel sensor from of previous generations. As we'll discuss later in this review, both perform pretty well, though Sony's cameras continue to suffer in low light due to the lack of optical stabilization.
As much as Sony's overall branding has been refreshed this year, the changes to the product itself have been relatively subtle. The Xperia X is certainly a leaner Sony phone in hardware terms, but one that follows the broad strokes of the Z series in much of the way it looks and feels.
That said, if you're going from an Xperia Z3 or Z5, you'll likely miss the more premium feel of the Z series' glass and metal combo. There's something about the Xperia X's industrial design that seems like a step backwards from the Z line, even if other areas of the hardware are up to the task.
- 5.0-inch Full HD
- LCD Display
- 1920x1080 resolution (441ppi)
- 23MP, ƒ/2.0 lens
- 13MP front camera
- 2620mAh capacity
- Quick Charge 2.0
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 650 processor
- Hexa-core 1.4GHz
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB internal storage
- microSD slot
Material + Sony
Sony Xperia X Software
Sony's transition towards Material Design is largely complete with its latest Android 6.0 Marshmallow-based software. And the Xperia X ships with a UI combining Google's vision of Android with some modern Sony design flourishes.
Material Design, with Sony flourishes.
A large stylized clock dominates the Xperia X's lock screen, and Sony includes a selection of bright modern wallpapers and widgets that complement the look and feel of the OS. The firm's built-in apps — including the dialer, messaging, and clock apps — are now fully Materialized, while others like the old Sony Calendar app have been retired in favor of Google's versions. The result is a minimalist UI that's still very close to vanilla Android, but with some unique design traits.
Sony's theming system is alive and well, and quickly accessible from a long-press on the home screen. There are four skins pre-installed to match the various colors of Xperia X, with many more available through the manufacturer's themes portal — including everything from sponsored game and movie tie-ins you probably don't want, to whimsical cartoony additions from Sony's designers.
The default Xperia home screen launcher has been updated to include app predictions and searching in the app drawer. It's a useful addition on the surface, but some of the predictions seem a little spammy, with dubious options like free-to-play movie tie-in games appearing alongside more established titles and essential apps like instant messengers.
Sony's built-in apps continue to promote the company's own ecosystem. The PlayStation app for Android is preloaded, and Sony's still pushing its PlayMemories service — which offers decidedly low-res "Full HD" photo storage — through the built-in Album app. At the ecosystem level however, it's mostly Google (and others) taking center stage. Play Music and Play Movies & TV come preloaded, and Spotify is supported from within the Sony Music app, since Sony no longer has its own streaming service.
Other Sony bits include a built-in social and news app, NewsSuite (in case you needed a new place to find news), and a Movie Creator app for conjuring up highlight reels based on your photos and videos. Meanwhile "What's New" serves as a portal for showcasing popular apps, games and movie trailers — though you'll want to turn off its spammy notifications.
Finally, some extra software notes:
- The built-in Sony keyboard app has been replaced with SwiftKey, which is a moot point for us since we'd likely install the third-party keyboard anyway. The only problem is the latest version of SwiftKey seems to be extremely sensitive to touch on the Xperia X, leading to more misfires and typos than we'd like.
- The only preloaded app we'd really classify as bloatware is the AVG Protection app — loaded whether users like it or not, and packed with spurious features that claim to let users see "who's trying to break into" their phones.
- It's actually possible to double-tap the power key to launch directly into the camera, if pressing a slightly smaller key right next to the power button is just too much effort for you.
- It's unclear how well Sony will be able to keep up with Android's monthly security patches. Its track record so far is patchy, and the Xperia X we're using is already almost three months behind the current patch level.
Sony Xperia X Cameras
Sony's smartphone cameras have a pretty good track record, with one or two caveats. And for the most part, the Xperia X is a repeat performance of recent Z-series phones in terms of its relative strengths and weaknesses. The high-res sensor, which takes downsampled 8-megapixel shots by default, is fantastic in moderate-to-good lighting, and the oversampling means it's easy to zoom in a little and still get a crisp, clear shot without too much noise or blurring.
Sony still insists that, because of its image processing chops, it doesn't need OIS. And it's still wrong.
Sony still insists that, because of its BIONZ image processing capabilities, it doesn't need OIS (optical image stabilization). And it's still wrong. Post-processing just can't simulate the longer exposures that optical stabilization allows, and the results are clear when you compare the Xperia X to leading cameras with OIS, like the Galaxy S7, HTC 10 and LG G5. The Sony camera makes the most of challenging lighting conditions, but the result is often blurry and grainy compared to stabilized phone cameras.
And even in brighter conditions, Sony's 23-megapixel shooter is more susceptible to hand motion than competitors with hardware stabilization.
To be clear, this isn't a bad camera. It's just frustrating to see Sony making the same mistake release after release. It's been established over the past couple of years that if you're using a sensor with a high megapixel count (and thus smaller pixels capable of soaking up less light), you need OIS.
Similar weaknesses affect the Xperia X's selfie camera, which despite its high resolution of 13 megapixels can't match up to the Galaxy S7's brighter 5-megapixel shooter, nor the HTC 10's optically-stabilized selfie camera in very dark conditions. That said, in reasonably lit indoor scenes, Sony's front camera quickly zeroes in on your mug, and generally produces decent results.
Hardware weaknesses aside, Sony's camera app is one of the better ones we've used on an Android phone, with the default Intelligent Auto+ mode doing a great job of detecting the correct preset type for just about every scene we tested. More advanced options like resolution, ISO and metering live under the Settings menu in Manual mode. Speaking of which, should you choose to take full control of the camera, you'll also get access to the lengthy scenes menu, letting you experiment with different shooting modes for the moments when you're able to take your time with a shot.
The Xperia X's object tracking tech is the real deal.
Intelligent, predictive object-tracking is a big new feature for the Xperia X series, allowing the phone to smartly anticipate where a moving object might be going based on its past behaviour. And the same technology helps the phone keep track of stationary objects when the viewport is moving. The feature works pretty well, though we've noticed one or two misfires in our time with the Xperia X, where the phone confused a stationary object way off in the distance as a moving subject.
Besides that, only real frustration we've run into has to do with the sliding control to switch between the four camera modes — manual, Intelligent Auto+, Video and Effects. Jumping from mode to mode requires a lengthy swipe gesture, and you can't immediately hop from one end to the other.
Sony's camera app makes it easy to roll your sleeves up and experiment with different presets and shooting modes.
Sony's camera app is a bit more involved than rivals like Samsung and HTC, and that's not necessarily a disadvantage. More control is often a good thing, assuming you know what you're doing.
That said, we can't help wondering what would happen if this impressive package of camera software was paired with a really great optically stabilized module.
Charge it every night
Sony Xperia X Battery Life
With a fixed 2,620mAh battery, you might not expect the Xperia X to match up to the quoted "up to two days" of battery life. And you'd be right — for the most part. Two days use from a single charge is optimistic, and you'll need to be a relatively light user to get a full second day per charge.
That said, it would be unfair to call the Xperia X's battery life bad. We've been able to get a solid working day out of the phone each day of our week-and-a-half of testing — and that includes travel days, flights, tech events and other situations that tend to drain the battery more than usual.
Don't expect miracles, but the Xperia X should get you comfortably through a full day.
Unlike phones based on Qualcomm's previous generation of mid-range chips, the Xperia X sips power relatively sparingly during most day-to-day tasks, such as music streaming, web browsing and light app usage. The only real battery sink we found was the camera, something which is neither surprising nor unique to the Xperia X.
While our U.S. spec Xperia X didn't come with a QuickCharge-equipped charger out of the box, Qualcomm lists the Xperia X (and its big brother the X Performance) was QuickCharge 2.0-compatible, and the phone appeared to charge more rapidly when used with a Samsung-branded quick charger.
The Bottom Line
Should you buy the Sony Xperia X? Wait for a price drop
Overall, it's tough to nail down exactly where the Xperia X sits in the increasingly blurry space between mid-range and high-end phones. It's pricier than the average mid-ranger, but under-delivers compared to the high-end competition. And it's not really the best at anything it does. But being priced a tier below Sony's top-end Xperia X Performance, it's not clear if it's really trying to be the best.
The Xperia X isn't the very best. But is it really trying to be?
Ultimately, we have to take into account what you'll pay when buying the X unlocked — since that's the only way you can hold of one in the U.S. — and what you get in return. And in that case, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Sony asks too much and offers too little. We'd be more comfortable recommending this phone at $450-500, as opposed to the $550 standard retail price.
For Sony, the broader problem is that the Xperia X is sandwiched between trailblazers like the Galaxy S7 at the high end, and more nimble, price-conscious manufacturers like Motorola and OnePlus — and even Google's Nexus phones — in the middle of the market.
Whether the Sony brand is worth that extra money is between you and your wallet. But we'd definitely recommend taking a good, hard look at the competition before settling — and maybe holding out for a price cut if you do take the plunge.