Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra review

Ultra by name, but is it ultra by nature?

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Interface and reliability

  • Lightly skinned Android
  • Stutter-free performance

As it has done for some years now, Sony has mostly given up the pretense of running a full Android 'skin', instead opting for enhancements to the core experience of using Android - specifically Android Nougat.

That is to say that the interface is mostly the same as that of any other device using Google's chief operating system, with a few tweaks here and there.

There's a powerful theming engine included, which offers an easy means by which to change the appearance of the phone, right down to the navigation keys, all for free (or a small cost). Included too on the start screen is a helpful guide to setting up the phone, a gallery app and a music app.

The latter two are particularly welcome as feature-filled alternatives to Google Photos and Google Play Music.

Albums shows existing photos taken on the phone, but also pulls in images from other services including Flickr and Google Drive, presenting a comprehensive view of images taken.

Music offers a view of locally stored music, but also allows access to several proprietary Sony audio algorithms, improving the fidelity of wired headphone audio considerably, a nice boost for those who can take advantage.

Less welcome are additions such as Xperia Longue, which is merely a Sony store filled with 'deals'. The PlayStation app is also a little redundant for those who do not own one – of course though your mileage will vary.

Generally, we found that the MediaTek chipset and generous 4GB of RAM kept everything powering along at a reasonable click.

Navigating through the interface never proved an issue, although the chipset did present a few compatibility issues with several apps, refusing to play nicely with the likes of Microsoft Launcher. This may change with time but at the moment proves to be something of a bugbear.

On more intensive apps, dropped frames could be seen here and there, but this is a phone that most will have zero issue with on an everyday basis.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Solo speaker lacks bass
  • An immersive display and decent gaming performance

With a huge screen, the Xperia XA1 Ultra was made with movie watching in mind, and luckily it mostly does not disappoint. With such an immersive display, it is easy to lose oneself in a good Netflix binge, and yet there is a caveat: the speaker.

With such large bezels, and given the price point, it might not have been too much to expect a pair of dual front-firing speakers on the Xperia XA1 Ultra, and yet all we receive is one solo downward-facing effort.

That isn't to say that it is objectively bad, this is far from the case, although it does ruin the experience a little. Overall, we found that the speaker had adequate volume, with only a little distortion at higher levels. Of course, there is no bass, though this is to be expected from a smartphone speaker not made by HTC.

Headphone performance on the other hand is really rather good. Sony’s experience in this area shines through, with the Ultra delivering crisp highs and well-defined bass, powering a pair of decent headphones with no real issue. 

This is audio aimed at pleasing consumers – and thus is great news for the consumer.

Gaming performance too is pretty good. Though the likes of Asphalt 8 will drop frames if you push the settings to max, for 90% of the titles that people play from the app store this is really quite enough.

Performance and benchmarks

  • Doesn't run hot
  • Handles most tasks well

MediaTek, though it has been kicking around for quite a few years at this point, has never quite shaken its reputation as being the sickly lesser cousin of the glorious Qualcomm. This hasn’t stopped it producing the odd gem of a chipset here and there of course.

The Helio P20 powering the XA1 Ultra is roughly equivalent to the Snapdragon 625 in both power and power efficiency, which is no bad thing given the reputation of the latter for both.

In everyday use we found that the chipset handled itself with aplomb, this performance extending to more difficult tasks too, with almost no heat production to boot.

Looking at benchmarks, we can see that with a single core score of 832 and a multi core score of 3,724 in Geekbench, the XA1 Ultra certainly isn't set to win any competitions. It must always be said though, benchmarks are for comparisons, not every day use.

If you are among the most demanding of power users and know it, the Oneplus 5T will be a better fit, for almost anyone else however this is absolutely enough for their needs.

Sean is a Scottish technology journalist who's written for the likes of T3, Trusted Reviews, TechAdvisor and Expert Reviews.