Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

Introduction


Once again, Sony has unleashed a monster upon the world, this time around called the Xperia XA1 Ultra. It’s the bigger sibling to the XA1, packing most of the same hardware in a larger form factor, with a couple of improvements.

But besides its size, the XA1 Ultra has a few more things going for it: a couple of, as the company calls them, “high performance” cameras, a new yet classic Sony design encased within a metal frame, and an edge-to-edge full HD screen.

But while its size may suggest otherwise, the XA1 Ultra’s specs put it firmly into mid-range territory, which may be a bit of a problem for all the spec chasers out there. So let’s dive in and see whether Sony’s latest phablet holds up under deeper scrutiny:

Design

A classic Sony in a supersized form factor

Like it or not, Sony’s carved its own little niche in terms of smartphone design and is steadfastly sticking to it. This is very much the case with the XA1 Ultra, which carries that classic, ultra-tall Sony look, but with a couple of extra tweaks added on top.

But first, let’s address the elephant in the room – which is, coincidentally, the XA1 Ultra itself. This thing is absolutely gigantic, putting to shame most every other device that dares call itself a phablet. And while this isn’t a bad thing per se, the usability costs associated with such a huge device don’t entirely feel justified.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

However, one-handed use isn’t as bad as one would expect it to be – while it could never be called a comfortable experience, it’s still entirely within the realm of possible for more straightforward tasks, such as scrolling through your Twitter feed. The biggest reason for this are the XA1 Ultra’s non-slippery back and sides, a change from the smaller XA1 which makes adjusting your grip to reach the further parts of the screen a less risky experience than it would otherwise be with such a big device.

But while the _phone_ itself sits well in the hand and feels sturdy and solid, it sure doesn’t look so – there’s a ton of seams between the different panels, somewhat diminishing the otherwise good-looking design. As for the buttons, both the volume rocker and the power button did their job well enough. However, the dedicated camera key is just all-around bad – it’s mushy and way too easy to press, while also not providing enough feedback.

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Front view | Side view
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra
6.5 x 3.11 x 0.32 inches
165 x 79 x 8.1 mm
6.63 oz (188 g)

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra

Sony Xperia XA1
Sony Xperia XA1
5.71 x 2.64 x 0.31 inches
145 x 67 x 8 mm
5.04 oz (143 g)

Sony Xperia XA1

Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017)
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017)
6.17 x 3.06 x 0.31 inches
156.8 x 77.6 x 7.9 mm
6.56 oz (186 g)

Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017)

Motorola Moto M
Motorola Moto M
5.96 x 2.97 x 0.31 inches
151.35 x 75.35 x 7.85 mm
5.75 oz (163 g)

Motorola Moto M


Display

A surprisingly great panel that actually outclasses Sony’s own flagships in terms of color reproduction

At a whopping 6 inches, the XA1’s display is its centerpiece, debuting a newish visual design for a Sony phone, no side bezels present. Well, almost – turning the display on reveals a pair of sneaky black borders on its sides, which diminish this effect. The panel itself is a full HD one, with a pixel density of 367 ppi, which isn’t the best, but should be more than enough for everyday usage.

The sneaky black borders - Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
The sneaky black borders - Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
The sneaky black borders - Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

The sneaky black borders


But what’s pleasantly surprising here is the XA1 Ultra’s color reproduction, which is actually pretty good for a mid-ranger, thanks to its accurate blues and greens. However, yellows tend to be a bit greenish, while reds are overall a bit weak. Still, compared to, say, the XZ Premium, this panel is better in terms of accurate color reproduction, though it’s still a tad too blueish.

Display measurements and quality

Maximum brightness (nits)Higher is better Minimum brightness (nits)Lower is better Contrast Higher is better Color temperature (Kelvins) Gamma Delta E rgbcmy Lower is better Delta E grayscale Lower is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 619
(Excellent)
13
(Poor)
1:1444
(Excellent)
7493
(Good)
2
3.82
(Good)
5.69
(Average)
Sony Xperia XA1 578
(Excellent)
27
(Poor)
1:962
(Average)
6494
(Excellent)
2
3.13
(Good)
3.95
(Good)
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 569
(Excellent)
1.8
(Excellent)
unmeasurable
(Excellent)
6899
(Excellent)
2.19
2.58
(Good)
7.44
(Average)
Motorola Moto M 445
(Good)
7
(Good)
1:1398
(Excellent)
8452
(Poor)
2.24
4.21
(Average)
8.42
(Poor)
View all

The CIE 1931 xy color gamut chart represents the set (area) of colors that a display can reproduce, with the sRGB colorspace (the highlighted triangle) serving as reference. The chart also provides a visual representation of a display's color accuracy. The small squares across the boundaries of the triangle are the reference points for the various colors, while the small dots are the actual measurements. Ideally, each dot should be positioned on top of its respective square. The 'x: CIE31' and 'y: CIE31' values in the table below the chart indicate the position of each measurement on the chart. 'Y' shows the luminance (in nits) of each measured color, while 'Target Y' is the desired luminance level for that color. Finally, 'ΔE 2000' is the Delta E value of the measured color. Delta E values of below 2 are ideal.

These measurements are made using SpectraCal's CalMAN calibration software.

The Color accuracy chart gives an idea of how close a display's measured colors are to their referential values. The first line holds the measured (actual) colors, while the second line holds the reference (target) colors. The closer the actual colors are to the target ones, the better.

These measurements are made using SpectraCal's CalMAN calibration software.

The Grayscale accuracy chart shows whether a display has a correct white balance (balance between red, green and blue) across different levels of grey (from dark to bright). The closer the Actual colors are to the Target ones, the better.

These measurements are made using SpectraCal's CalMAN calibration software.

View all

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

Introduction


Once again, Sony has unleashed a monster upon the world, this time around called the Xperia XA1 Ultra. It’s the bigger sibling to the XA1, packing most of the same hardware in a larger form factor, with a couple of improvements.

But besides its size, the XA1 Ultra has a few more things going for it: a couple of, as the company calls them, “high performance” cameras, a new yet classic Sony design encased within a metal frame, and an edge-to-edge full HD screen.

But while its size may suggest otherwise, the XA1 Ultra’s specs put it firmly into mid-range territory, which may be a bit of a problem for all the spec chasers out there. So let’s dive in and see whether Sony’s latest phablet holds up under deeper scrutiny:

Design

A classic Sony in a supersized form factor

Like it or not, Sony’s carved its own little niche in terms of smartphone design and is steadfastly sticking to it. This is very much the case with the XA1 Ultra, which carries that classic, ultra-tall Sony look, but with a couple of extra tweaks added on top.

But first, let’s address the elephant in the room – which is, coincidentally, the XA1 Ultra itself. This thing is absolutely gigantic, putting to shame most every other device that dares call itself a phablet. And while this isn’t a bad thing per se, the usability costs associated with such a huge device don’t entirely feel justified.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

However, one-handed use isn’t as bad as one would expect it to be – while it could never be called a comfortable experience, it’s still entirely within the realm of possible for more straightforward tasks, such as scrolling through your Twitter feed. The biggest reason for this are the XA1 Ultra’s non-slippery back and sides, a change from the smaller XA1 which makes adjusting your grip to reach the further parts of the screen a less risky experience than it would otherwise be with such a big device.

But while the _phone_ itself sits well in the hand and feels sturdy and solid, it sure doesn’t look so – there’s a ton of seams between the different panels, somewhat diminishing the otherwise good-looking design. As for the buttons, both the volume rocker and the power button did their job well enough. However, the dedicated camera key is just all-around bad – it’s mushy and way too easy to press, while also not providing enough feedback.

Front view | Side view
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra
6.5 x 3.11 x 0.32 inches
165 x 79 x 8.1 mm
6.63 oz (188 g)

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra

Sony Xperia XA1
Sony Xperia XA1
5.71 x 2.64 x 0.31 inches
145 x 67 x 8 mm
5.04 oz (143 g)

Sony Xperia XA1

Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017)
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017)
6.17 x 3.06 x 0.31 inches
156.8 x 77.6 x 7.9 mm
6.56 oz (186 g)

Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017)

Motorola Moto M
Motorola Moto M
5.96 x 2.97 x 0.31 inches
151.35 x 75.35 x 7.85 mm
5.75 oz (163 g)

Motorola Moto M


Display

A surprisingly great panel that actually outclasses Sony’s own flagships in terms of color reproduction

At a whopping 6 inches, the XA1’s display is its centerpiece, debuting a newish visual design for a Sony phone, no side bezels present. Well, almost – turning the display on reveals a pair of sneaky black borders on its sides, which diminish this effect. The panel itself is a full HD one, with a pixel density of 367 ppi, which isn’t the best, but should be more than enough for everyday usage.

The sneaky black borders - Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
The sneaky black borders - Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
The sneaky black borders - Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

The sneaky black borders


But what’s pleasantly surprising here is the XA1 Ultra’s color reproduction, which is actually pretty good for a mid-ranger, thanks to its accurate blues and greens. However, yellows tend to be a bit greenish, while reds are overall a bit weak. Still, compared to, say, the XZ Premium, this panel is better in terms of accurate color reproduction, though it’s still a tad too blueish.

Display measurements and quality

Maximum brightness (nits)Higher is better Minimum brightness (nits)Lower is better Contrast Higher is better Color temperature (Kelvins) Gamma Delta E rgbcmy Lower is better Delta E grayscale Lower is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 619
(Excellent)
13
(Poor)
1:1444
(Excellent)
7493
(Good)
2
3.82
(Good)
5.69
(Average)
Sony Xperia XA1 578
(Excellent)
27
(Poor)
1:962
(Average)
6494
(Excellent)
2
3.13
(Good)
3.95
(Good)
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 569
(Excellent)
1.8
(Excellent)
unmeasurable
(Excellent)
6899
(Excellent)
2.19
2.58
(Good)
7.44
(Average)
Motorola Moto M 445
(Good)
7
(Good)
1:1398
(Excellent)
8452
(Poor)
2.24
4.21
(Average)
8.42
(Poor)
View all

The CIE 1931 xy color gamut chart represents the set (area) of colors that a display can reproduce, with the sRGB colorspace (the highlighted triangle) serving as reference. The chart also provides a visual representation of a display's color accuracy. The small squares across the boundaries of the triangle are the reference points for the various colors, while the small dots are the actual measurements. Ideally, each dot should be positioned on top of its respective square. The 'x: CIE31' and 'y: CIE31' values in the table below the chart indicate the position of each measurement on the chart. 'Y' shows the luminance (in nits) of each measured color, while 'Target Y' is the desired luminance level for that color. Finally, 'ΔE 2000' is the Delta E value of the measured color. Delta E values of below 2 are ideal.

These measurements are made using SpectraCal's CalMAN calibration software.

The Color accuracy chart gives an idea of how close a display's measured colors are to their referential values. The first line holds the measured (actual) colors, while the second line holds the reference (target) colors. The closer the actual colors are to the target ones, the better.

These measurements are made using SpectraCal's CalMAN calibration software.

The Grayscale accuracy chart shows whether a display has a correct white balance (balance between red, green and blue) across different levels of grey (from dark to bright). The closer the Actual colors are to the Target ones, the better.

These measurements are made using SpectraCal's CalMAN calibration software.

View all

Interface and functionality

Near-stock Nougat with a couple of welcome additional features

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

Out of the box, the XA1 Ultra comes with Android 7.0 Nougat, and Sony once again brings a near-stock experience, though its 2009-era iconography is still in a desperate need of an overhaul. There’s a few great built-in apps that replace the stock Android ones, such as Album and Music, which look basic on the surface, but actually offer a surprising number of features packaged in a snappy and responsive user interface.

There’s also a couple of nice tweaks designed for the XA1 Ultra’s large form factor: the one-handed mode, which shrinks the whole screen into a smaller, easier-to-reach window, and the “display size” setting, which resizes all on-screen elements, making them bigger or smaller, depending on how you prefer to make use of the screen real estate.

What isn’t good, however, is the What’s New app, which essentially acts like an unnecessary second Play Store of sorts, and by default plasters you with unsolicited notifications (read: ads) about apps. They can be disabled, thankfully, but the app itself cannot.

Processor and memory

Mid-ranger isn’t an insult any more

It’s 2017, and we’ve finally reached the point at which even a mid-range MediaTek chipset like the Helio P20 can perform sufficiently well for most, if not all of your daily tasks. Sony’s Xperia UX is fast and responsive, with smooth animations and pretty much no hiccups to speak of – something a few manufacturers could stand to learn from.

This is no doubt helped by the XA1 Ultra’s 4 GB RAM (a slight increase from its smaller sibling’s 3 GB), but, this being a mid-ranger and all, you still shouldn’t expect that much in the graphics department – even a simplistic-looking game such as The Trail, for example, has troubles running smoothly. Also, launching or switching apps can sometimes take a second or two, but this problem only rears its head when the device is under heavier load, which is pretty much par for the course.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

The phone comes with 32 GB of internal storage, of which about 24 GB are available to the user, though that storage can be expanded via а microSD card.

Performance benchmarks

AnTuTu
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 63406.33
Sony Xperia XA1 62167
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 59664
JetStream
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 27.651
Sony Xperia XA1 27.973
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 31.804
Motorola Moto M 25.826
GFXBench T-Rex HD on-screen
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 21.33
Sony Xperia XA1 32
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 33
Motorola Moto M 18
GFXBench Manhattan on-screen
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 6.6
Sony Xperia XA1 15
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 9
Motorola Moto M 5.2
Basemark OS II
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 1264.33
Sony Xperia XA1 1302
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 435
Geekbench 4 single-core
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 854.5
Sony Xperia XA1 857.66
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 764
Motorola Moto M 741
Geekbench 4 multi-core
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 3732
Sony Xperia XA1 3714
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 3808
Motorola Moto M 2487
View all

Connectivity


Being a GSM-only device, the XA1 Ultra won’t work on Sprint and Verizon’s CDMA networks, even though it covers all of the Big Four’s LTE bands. Just like its predecessor, it supports NFC, making mobile payments an entirely real possibility. However, the USB connector on the bottom is now, thankfully, of the USB-C type, finally bringing the new, reversible standard to Sony's mid range.

Camera

Lots of pixels, decent photos, but finicky autofocusing

Sony just loves boasting about its cameras, and the XA1 Ultra is no exception: it’s equipped with an impressive-sounding 23 MP rear shooter and a 16 MP front one. But in true Sony fashion, the high pixel count doesn’t necessarily imply high quality.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

The camera app is okay but somewhat confusing, as a number of different shooting modes, like panorama or burst for example, are delegated to separate, independent “apps” within the camera app. Another annoyance is the two-second delay between taking a picture and being able to preview it, as the gallery initially only shows a low-quality preview before loading the real thing. On the other hand, the dedicated camera button can be used to quickly launch the camera from stand-by, which is nice.

And speaking of delays: when using the dedicated shutter button, the camera would randomly decide not to immediately take a picture, but instead keep on focusing for as long as several seconds, ruining not just one or two shots. Also, focusing is problematic even when it supposedly works: more often than not, particularly in close-up shots, the XA1 Ultra’s camera would focus on a background object, even when you’ve manually tapped on one in the foreground.

Camera speed

Taking a pic (sec)Lower is better Taking an HDR pic (sec)Lower is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 2.7
5.9
Sony Xperia XA1 1.4
4
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 1.9
2.7
Motorola Moto M 2.5
3.85
View all

Image quality


For a mid-ranger, the Xperia XA1 Ultra is perfectly adequate in terms of camera quality, though it isn’t nearly as good as Sony would like you to believe. Small sensors just don’t mix that well with high megapixel counts, and the XA1 Ultra proves it under more difficult conditions, such as low-light photography.

Color reproduction is reasonably good but finicky, sometimes veering a bit too much into oversaturated territory. In scenes with high contrast the XA1 Ultra’s camera often overcompensates, making otherwise good photos appear washed out. And lastly, Sony’s use of a wider-angle lens results in the corners of the photo becoming stretched around the edges, an effect most easily noticeable when taking a picture of a distant object.

The front camera offers a number of features you won’t find on most other phones: a front-facing flash, optical stabilization, and even autofocusing. However, its color reproduction is all over the place, with one photo being way too green, and another going hard on the purple instead.

For what it’s worth, though, both cameras still takes perfectly good photos – while there are a couple of kinks to be worked out here and there, no one can reasonably expect top-of-the-line photos from a mid-class device. So provided you take your photos under adequate lighting conditions, the XA1 Ultra delivers performance that is par for the course for its price range.

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Video


The XA1 Ultra records grainy videos and also has some troubles focusing. The rear camera doesn’t feature OIS like the front one does, and Sony’s SteadyShot does little to fix that problem. And lastly, the best available shooting option is full HD @ 30 FPS.

Multimedia


Being nearly the size of a small TV, the XA1 Ultra is a great way to enjoy a movie or TV show on the go, thanks to the surprisingly good-looking full HD screen. Being a mid-ranger, of course, it isn’t HDR-certified, but we’ll take what we can get.

Looking at the front of the device, one might mistake the top and bottom grilles as a placement point for front-facing stereo speakers. This, however, isn’t the case – the XA1 Ultra’s speaker is a single mono one, and can be found on its bottom. It’s sufficiently loud, but sound quality is, unsurprisingly poor, and sometimes prone to slight distortion. In headphone mode, the XA1 Ultra can easily reach painfully loud levels, and sound quality is sufficiently good.

Audio output

Headphones output power (Volts)
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 1.16
Sony Xperia XA1 1.16
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 0.53
Motorola Moto M 0.34
Loudspeaker loudness (dB)
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 78
Sony Xperia XA1 74
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 71
Motorola Moto M 80
View all

Call quality


Just like on the XA1, the XA1 Ultra’s earpiece sounds a bit hollow, which is both due to the subpar quality of the audio itself and the overall lower volume. The microphone, however, does a pretty good job at capturing one’s voice, and the built-in noise cancellation works great.

Battery

A surprisingly decent performer, considering the huge screen

On first look, the XA1 Ultra’s huge size doesn’t exactly fit its 2,700 mAh battery, but, as it turns out, the device is an absolute champ in the battery life department, as it scored an impressive 10 hours and 32 minutes in our benchmark. But it also does well in real life as well, lasting a whole day with moderately heavy usage. This can in large part be attributed to the relatively low-power helio P20 chipset found inside, as well as the lower screen resolution.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Review

Battery Benchmarks

Battery life (hours)
Higher is better
Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra 10h 32 min (Excellent)
Sony Xperia XA1 8h 28 min (Excellent)
Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017) 12h 58 min (Excellent)
Motorola Moto M 7h 8 min (Good)
View all

Conclusion


When compared side by side with its smaller sibling – the Xperia XA1 – the XA1 Ultra almost looks a bit tacky. It’s like if Sony wondered how to make a more premium-looking mid-ranger, but the only ideas they had were “make it bigger” and “put some metal on it”. And neither of these decisions do it much favor, immediately drawing attention to design problems the smaller model’s body did a much better job of hiding.

Despite that, this is a classic Sony design, and one that very much stands out from the crowd of boring gray rectangles, for better or worse. And while your mileage may vary, in our experience its monstrous size just made the XA1 Ultra unwieldy, though that should be a given to anyone in the market for a phone with such a large display.

And as for the positives, while the helio P20 chipset is far from the fastest, it will still give you a pretty good experience with minimal to no slowdowns, while also ensuring pretty good battery performance as well. The cameras, too, are okay, though they most surely don’t offer the best-in-class performance Sony claims they do.

So if you’re, for whatever reason, looking for a humongous smartphone that won’t break the bank, the XA1 Ultra is, despite its shortcomings, one of the best choices out there for you right now.