Putting aside Sony's struggles with flagship phones in the U.S., the company has quietly picked up solid sales of its mid-range devices, with notable standouts like the Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra in 2017. It stands to reason that a refresh would be in the works, and so we have the appropriately named Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra at CES 2018.
Alongside having the distinguished position of marking the return of fingerprint sensors in U.S. Sony phones, the XA2 and XA2 Ultra also show that Sony's willing to change its long-held positions on other parts of its phone designs as well. This is a good thing.
At a glance, the XA2 and XA2 Ultra are unmistakably Sony phones. The symmetrical design, large bezels, lightly textured metal and bright colors are hallmarks of its phones, even at sub-$400 price points. Pick either phone up, and it feels fantastic, befitting a much higher price. The smaller XA2 in particular, with its 5.2-inch screen, sits in the hand really well and doesn't have the overwhelming weight of the 6-inch XA2 Ultra. Both of the displays, despite being standard 1920x1080 resolution LCDs look wonderful with good colors and viewing angles.
But there are subtle changes all around that show you they're definitely new. The fingerprint sensor, of course, is a giveaway. But the backs also now have a subtle curve to them rather than being perfectly flat, which you immediately notice in your hand. The side bezels have shrunken down to the same size you find on any modern Android phone. Yes the top and bottom bezels are still quite large, but trust me even they're a tad smaller than before — and with 16:9 displays, the phones aren't very tall. The NFC is in a reasonable place, right under the camera on the back. The XA2, with its relatively small size, has a very big 3300mAh battery.
With all of those design changes, Sony is continuing to get the basics right as well. Big batteries (3300 and 3580mAh) pair up with 1080p screens and a solid Snapdragon 630, which is a recipe for fantastic battery life. The phones have Android 8.0 Oreo and the January 1 security patch out of the box, alongside a simple and unoffensive set of visual customizations. They charge over USB-C in a normal place (centered on the bottom) and have 3.5 mm headphone jacks on the top.
These are all little fixes and improvements that add up to relieving longstanding pain points with Sony phones. And at the same time, it feels like they've lost a little bit of their charm and quirkiness that made Sony phones somehow desirable even though they weren't practical. But looking at the Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra, that's just fine. Because they're just ... good phones, without any caveats.
And remember that these are just Sony's first mid-range phones of 2018. They're expected to debut under $400, and will be sold unlocked in the U.S. Provided Sony takes these same fresh philosophies and steps up another level with its flagships, we could be looking at a year where Sony phones are at least back in the conversation in the U.S., rather than just an opportunity to crack a joke about its numerous missteps. Bring it on, I say.