Tuesday

Meet The Latest Sony XPERIA X Smartphone

The cracks are starting to show in the smartphone world, I believe. Under incredible pressure from Chinese manufacturers like Huawei/Honor, Meizu and Xiaomi, the old guard are having to change tack and try something different just to survive. So we had LG and its ill-fated detachable bottom module, and now Sony has abandoned its ‘three sizes’ strategy in favor of the same size but having three levels of specification, with the Xperia X the first to be available. Hmm…. While I applaud the choice of specs, I do think this ‘one (physical) size fits all’ strategy is potentially more confusing in the long run.

Sony Xperia X - front view

Also, and this is becoming something of a theme in my reviews, but in the light of some of the incredible value handsets coming out of those Chinese brands, I just don’t think the old guard of smartphone manufacturers can charge the top dollar that they used to. At £450 here (in the UK, SIM-free) for the Sony Xperia X, and often more, it’s still at least £100 too expensive.

You see, the Xperia X, despite ostensibly replacing the Z5 flagship and priced similarly, is, on the face of it, quite a bit further down the specification ladder. And that makes no sense at all. What on earth are Sony smoking?
For example, the Xperia X here has a Snapdragon 650 chipset – the Z5 had a full Snapdragon 810. Yes, I know that chip families aren’t everything, but the X does struggle with really graphics-intensive games, whereas the Z5 was just fine.


Sony Xperia X - back view

Then there’s the waterproofing – or apparent lack of it. One of the Unique Selling Points of Sony’s Z series was that, whether through flaps or sealed ports, the phones could survive a dunking. Not so the ‘X’, at least officially. What I suspect has happened is that a number of people ruined their Z series by trying to use it underwater, as per the original promo ads, with less than perfect flap seals, and so Sony did a U-turn on their official advice. They’ve still put basic water seals inside the ‘X’, so it should survive a two second dunk in the basin or toilet, but they’re not going to make the same promotional mistake twice and there’s zero mention of it being officially ‘waterproof’. Which is odd but…. Fine.

Sony Xperia X - back view/Xperia logo

On the imaging side of things, the Xperia Z5 could shoot in full 4K, but… the X can only manage 1080p, despite its chipset officially supporting 4K – maybe another instance of Sony playing things very, very safe, given the number of users reporting overheating of their Z5s when shooting in 4K?
And so on. Playing it safe all the way down the line. The Xperia X is certainly not a shabby phone – far from it, it’s downright beautiful in a slightly boring sort of way, and the feel in the hand is lovely, with all that lovingly curved-where-needed metal and glass. The display is 2.5D, meaning that the toughened glass falls away on all four edges in a rather ergonomic way.  The sides are tough aluminium, the back also made of metal but much thinner. The X is an utterly generic Xperia, great if you love the brand and design, unremarkable if you’re looking at it in a wider context.

Sony Xperia X - oblique view, showing display and controls

It’s available in rose gold, lime gold (eh, what?), black and white – I guess the advantage of using aluminium is that it’s trivial to anodise in whatever colours you want. 
Calling the ‘X’ mid range is unfair – despite the chipset, which at least is quite new, most of the other specifications are very respectable indeed. But the ‘X’ demonstrably isn’t a flagship, as in competing with the usual suspects, for example the HTC 10Samsung Galaxy S7, and so it needs to be £350. Or less. We already have phones coming in from the likes of Huawei’s Honor brand which are going to eat Sony’s lunch, as it were, by producing phones with similar specifications and ambitions for half the price.
But lay the price aside and there’s still quite a bit worth mentioning and testing on the Xperia X. Aside from that headline chipset choice, the 650, there’s 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage plus microSD, the latter supported in the type of dual card tray first seen in Huawei’s phones. One less tray to worry about and one less flap, I guess.

Xperia X SIM and card tray

One consequence is that Sony forces a restart of the device whenever you pull the tray out – they figure that a change of SIM and/or a change of card should probably be accompanied by a reboot. And they’re probably right, though it’s something to be aware of since the restart comes without other warnings. Mind you, having had the restart when the tray comes out, the phone has probably booted up while you’ve been fiddling with cards and then, when you put the tray back in, it restarts again! Gah! Sony, just power down the first time and wait for the user to power up with the proper button, please – the current arrangement is just bonkers.
Top and bottom on the front are the usual Z series X series(!) stereo speakers – these do the job and are a million times better than having the speaker(s) on the back or even the bottom end of the phone, but are nowhere near as loud as those on the Nexus 6 and 6P, for example, and are somewhat tinny.

Xperia X in the hand

The standard 5” display for the X series is 1080p here, IPS LCD and quite bright, with great viewing angles. I have no issues with 1080p at 5″, plus there’s a full RGB stripe of pixels and, heck, even pentile 1080p looks OK at 5″. True, the bezels on the X are a little large, but then those front stereo speakers have to live somewhere, so I’ll cut the phone some slack here.
Also under the hood is NFC, which will tie in nicely with the side-power-button-mounted fingerprint sensor to enable Android Pay, a service rolling out in many countries now. So you can pay for things in shops with your Xperia X, which is pretty cool. Unusually, the NFC antenna is on the front of the phone, at the top left (and with a little sticker added out of the box to let users know!!) – the jury’s out on whether this will work out more or less convenient for end users, but it’s highly odd at the very least.

The Xperia X power button and fingerprint sensor

Unlike on the Huawei and LG phones, there’s no one-touch unlock and power on – you have to physically press the side power button, at which point the fingerprint recognition kicks in quickly. I’m OK with the requirement for physical action here – a one-touch system on a side button would lead to too many accidental screen on events!
The 2620mAh battery is sealed but is Quick Charge 2.0-compatible and Sony’s track record at keeping phones going longer than most is excellent. Stamina mode plus that lower spec chipset plus Android 6’s Doze characteristics, it all adds up to stellar standby time, many days of light use on a single charge, even if heavy use will still see the phone drained in a day.
Charging (and cabled data) is handled by microUSB – it’s disappointing to see that Sony hasn’t moved with the times to USB Type C – the upshot here will be people still using the Xperia X in 2018 on their two year contract while almost every mid range or top end phone around will be using Type C and microUSB jacks will probably be in the minority. In geek households anyway!

The Xperia X camera module - minimalist with no 'G lens' branding this time around
The Xperia X camera module – minimalist with only single LED flash and no ‘G lens’ branding this time around

Imaging

Sony touts its phone cameras as being ‘superior’ but they’re really not. True, there are lots of things to play with, there’s a large 1/2.3” sensor, f/2.0 aperture, basic oversampling and lossless zoom, Nokia-style, but by every quality metric I could throw at them, images from the Xperia X were noticeably inferior to those from other 2016 contenders, the Lumia 950HTC 10 and Samsung Galaxy S7. Rather ‘mushy’ rendering of greenery, blurry detail in low light (due to lack of OIS), dodgy focussing on close-up subjects, weak LED flash, I could go on. Just disappointing at every turn. 
Here are some photo samples, along with 1:1 crops with comments:

Flower macro in the sun, overview
Flower macro in the sun
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing the detail captured - not much to complain about here...
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing the detail captured – not much to complain about here…
Cloudy day in the suburbs
Cloudy day in the suburbs, made technicolour by over-zealous HDR processing by the Xperia X….
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing poor handling of natural detail (greenery) - it's all a bit 'mushy' down at the pixel level!
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing relatively poor handling of natural detail (greenery) – it’s all a bit ‘mushy’ down at the pixel level!
Zoomed photo, using partly lossless zoom
Zoomed photo, around 4x, using partly lossless zoom into the 23MP sensor…
... It's a very cool trick. You lose some oversampling in the process, but it keeps genuine digital artefacts to a minimum.
… It’s a very cool trick. You lose some oversampling in the process, but it keeps genuine digital artefacts to a minimum. Note that the discolouration around the sign if dirt and peeling paint on the ‘TESCO’ sign – maybe someone needs to go up there with some sandpaper and a tin of paint!?
At dusk, in very low light conditions
At dusk, in very low light conditions
I'm afraid it all starts to fall apart when light levels are low. With no OIS to stabilise hand shake, the Xperia X camera is caught between a rock and a hard place. So we get noise and motion blur. Sadly.
I’m afraid it all starts to fall apart when light levels are low. With no OIS to stabilise hand shake, the Xperia X camera is caught between a rock and a hard place. So we get the need for heavy noise reduction and the beginnings of motion blur. Shots taken on other phones with OIS at the same time came out much more crisply.

Maybe I’m being a little too ‘down’ on the Xperia X camera. After all, you do get pretty fast phase detection auto-focus and a two-stage shutter key to help launch the camera rapidly and take shots in conventional fashion, plus volume key positioning optimised more to act as camera zoom controls, as shown below, but none of these are enough in themselves to save the X’s camera and certainly not enough to justify the purchase price.

Side button cluster

Video capture on the Xperia X is excellent at 1080p, with an impressive digital stabilisation that rivals OIS in its effectiveness for a smooth video shot. There’s a genuine 3x lossless zoom at that resolution, though the Camera interface unfortunately gives no visual indication of when you hit the ‘lossless’/’lossy’ limit, letting you zoom right up to an ugly 8x when shooting video, though at that magnification the footage is almost unusably noisy, plus the digital software stabilisation has long since given up. Why can’t we have a ‘soft’ stop when the sensor resolution/limit is reached, Sony? (Though I’ll grant that other manufacturers are just as bad here in terms of not making it clear when the phone starts ‘making detail up’. There’s scope here for a future article, in fact – watch this space!) 
In a similar manner to ‘Lenses’ under Windows Phone, there’s a camera ‘extras’ mini-Store within the Camera application, with Sony’s gimmicky Augmented Reality effect, Sound Photo, Face in Picture, Sweep Panorama, and much more, some from third parties.

'Camera apps'
‘Camera apps’, tapping the ‘+’ takes you through to an online camera apps mini-store, as shown below:
'Camera apps'

Speaking of which, there’s quite a bit of software added to Sony’s Android smartphones still. Admittedly most of it can be uninstalled if you want, so it’s hard to complain too much. But I will anyway. In addition to all the usual Google and Android fare, there’s Sony’s Music, Album and Video applications, Playstation, Lifelog, Movie Creator, Sketch, TrackID, Xperia Lounge, Sony Support, Sony Diagnostics, plus partner installs of Spotify, Facebook, Amazon, Kobo eBooks, AVG anti-virus – quite a list.

Xperia X applications drawer and suggestions
The first page of the Xperia X applications drawer and the (swipe left) suggestions pane – with your most used applications and some suggestions from the Play Store.
Page two of the applications drawer, together with the built-in user-friendly help guide for new users - nicely done, Sony!
Page two of the applications drawer, together with the built-in user-friendly help guide for new users – nicely done, Sony!
Themes are very 2016 and here in force - getting your phone's look and feel to suit your mood is always a fun thing to try!
Themes are very 2016 and here in force – getting your phone’s look and feel to suit your mood is always a fun thing to try! You get a handful out of the box and then you can tap through to a mix of free and commercial themes online…
A couple of themes which caught my eye - one commercial and one free!
A couple of themes which caught my eye – one commercial and one free!
Fingerprint registration on XPERIA X
Fingerprint registration is quick and easy, as you’d expect – 30 seconds per finger or thumb. And hopefully 100% secure!
sony album on xperia x
Sony’s Album, doing a fine job, though Google Photos is also included, confusingly….

Aside from the applications and notes above, the interface itself is remarkably close to stock Android in terms of launcher, dock, notifications and settings shades, so with five minutes effort removing bloatware you can get fairly close to a Nexus experience.

Verdict

At the end of each review period it’s telling to examine my own emotions in terms of returning a handset to the relevant press office. With the HTC 10 I had to have the device prised from my enthusiastic hands, while I couldn’t wait to throw the sharp-edged, poorly-finished LG G5 back in the box and get it out of the house. The Sony Xperia X elicits… no emotion at all. If it stayed here then it would be in a drawer – it’s a premium-priced Android mid-ranger with no unique selling point whatsoever other than the Sony brand.
And I’m sorry, Sony, I really am. I want to love your smartphones, the design, the build quality, the camera, the display, the speakers, all have the potential to be jaw-dropping and they just aren’t. The Xperia X is a very good smartphone – but it’s not better than the competition and it’s more expensive than most of it.
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