In an effort to revitalise its position in the Android marketplace, Sony has waved farewell to its ailing Z range and is instead hoping that X marks the spot in its ongoing treasure hunt for smartphone gold.
Announced at Mobile World Congress 2016, the Xperia X range represents Sony's best chance to refresh its tired design language and re-engage an audience that has seemingly grown tired of the just-another-Sony-phone vibe that has circled its recent efforts.
While not a 'flagship' in the traditional sense, the Sony Xperia X is the series' mainstream offering, hitting the market at a not-quite-top-or-mid-range price of £459 in the UK. The Japanese manufacturer refers to the handset as the "'can't live without' intelligent smartphone," a statement which inadvertently manages to raise the already sky-high bar associated with crass, odious, unironic smartphone marketing guff in spectacular fashion.
It is also factually incorrect.
Sony Xperia X: Design and hardware
Sony's circa 2013 design is back in full effect with the Xperia X in all of its stunningly bland glory. At this point, all but the most dedicated of smartphone connoisseurs would struggle to differentiate between an Xperia Z, M, J and now the X by looking at them, even if the Xperia X does stand out a little in the wider market due to its smaller size.
The plastic frame does eliminate any jagged angles that could threaten your palm, but the harsh rectangular shape has never been overly comfortable and it is the same deal here. The brushed aluminium rear does appear to match the frame despite the difference in material, but it all feel very cheap in hand and quietly clicks when put under pressure. The fingernail-wide gaps between the panels on the rear are also fairly unforgivable.
The camera barely protrudes from the rear panel, which is nice to see, although the trade off could well be the lack of OIS functionality (more on that later). The button placement on the other hand is fraught with issues. Why exactly the volume rocker is located on the lower right-hand side of the device is anyone's guess, as it constantly sticks into the base of your thumb. The dedicated camera button does not fare any better and has a 'soft' quality that feels unsatisfying and prone to accidental clicks.
The power button above the physical buttons doubles up as a fingerprint scanner (in the UK at least, US buyers inexplicably miss out). It barely works. Perhaps it is the position that is at fault, but I had a 50-50 success rate when trying to unlock the phone.
Sound quality is solid on the headphone front and the Xperia X comes with Hi-Res audio support as a nice bonus. The front facing stereo speakers are better than your average fare due to their positioning, but are leagues behind the stunning audio quality of the HTC 10, or even Huawei's Nexus 6P.
While there is room inside the tacky, plastic flap/tray compartment for an SD card slot (up to 256GB), the absence of the now industry-standard USB-C port is baffling, as is the lack of water-resistance. Sony is not the only OEM to skip over this feature, but the handset is so under-spec'd elsewhere that its omission is highly questionable without even considering the fact that Xperia devices have historically included water-resistance – even in its mid-range mobiles such as the M4 Aqua.
Sony Xperia X: Display
The X's sales blurb talks of its "Triluminos Display for Mobile", "X-Reality for mobile" and "Dynamic Contrast Enhancement."
When plonked into a waffle filter, what we actually find is a fairly decent 5in Full HD display. It might only be 1080p, but Sony has managed to cram a generous quantity of pixels into the Xperia X's small-ish screen. The LCD panel fails to pop and wow like the top flagships of today, but it holds up well from most viewing angles.
This is one area at least where the handset does not skimp on quality for the sake of a negligible price cut.
Sony Xperia X: Camera
The Xperia X has been almost solely marketed on its "intelligent" camera, with lofty claims citing a zippy, 0.6 second focus and blur-free photos. I'm not sure what phone this is actually referring to, because it cannot possibly be the Xperia X.
Whether it is the almost total lack of options in the "superior" auto mode, the woeful low-light performance, narrow f/2.0 aperture, the lack of 4K video recording and optical image stabilisation (Sony's Steady Shot software does not compete here) or the overall tendency to over-sharpen shots, the Xperia X's camera is abominable for a device that dares to retail at over £250.
As standard, the 23 megapixel shooter is locked to just 8MP with a 16:9 aspect ratio. You can change this in the settings, but this cripples the "Predictive Hybrid Autofocus". You can either ask your friends and family to pose for an uncomfortable amount of time, or take a quick pic that doesn't quite look real after the aggressive post-production. Pick your poison.
After toying with (and getting bored by) the usual Xperia suite of use-once-and-never-again apps like 'Face in picture' and 'AR effect', there is at least some solace to be found in the decent front camera, which has a nifty wide-angle for group selfies, although it too suffers from the same over-processing effects.
Sony Xperia X: Software and performance
Rather than chuck in the current de facto standard - the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 - the Xperia X goes for a hexa-core chip set, the Snapdragon 650. In practice this makes relatively little difference with everyday usage. Start multi-tasking, running 3D games or doing anything that puts pressure on the processor and GPU however, and you will start to notice the 'budget' aspect of the Xperia X's innards. It doesn't rapidly overheat mercifully, but this is not the kind of performance you expect from a premium smartphone, even if it slightly undercuts its top-tier rivals on price.
Battery-life is the Xperia X's saving grace when it comes to the hardware though. I pushed the device fairly hard during testing, but it mustered around a day and a half's worth of juice more often than not. Real-life use will more than likely stretch to the two day mark. Fast-charging is also a plus, with a compatible charger packing into the box as standard.
On the software front, we are in the same territory as the physical design – more of the same. There are some slight alterations to Sony's UI that nestles on top of Android Marshmallow, but the same duplicate apps and Sony-branded bloatware stick out immediately. I switched to the Google Now Launcher within the first hour after I was greeted with a "suggested apps" panel after first booting up the device. Small apps have mercifully gone (no one used these right?), but the gauche way in which naff free-to-play games littered the screen was something I found to be a particularly sour note to start on.
Honestly, I'm not sure who the Xperia X is for. Too expensive to be classed as a mid-range bargain and leagues behind the existing Android elite to garner any kind of praise for nipping in under its premium opposition, the Xperia X represents an impossibly ill-advised exercise in brand revision; Out with the old, in with the old, but somehow worse than before.
I've mocked Sony's hyperbolic marketing spiel in this review, but I actually feel a little sorry for anyone who had to think up key selling points for a device that retails at such an unfathomably high figure. The camera is sub-standard, performance is mediocre, the design is forgettable and the UI should spend less time shoving the Play Store's detritus into the user's face and more effort in deleting its own swathes of chaff content.
The audio quality and display are both plus points, but bar the standout battery performance, last year's smartphone class effortlessly wipes the floor with the Xperia X at almost every turn and often for half the price. The recently-released OnePlus 3 meanwhile absolutely obliterates the handset despite costing £309. I hope Sony has a decent drawing board, because really needs to be used for its next stab at smartphone dominance.
- Screen: 6/10 - A solid but fairly humdrum Full HD screen
- Camera: 3/10 - An "intelligent" dunce which lacks key features
- Software: 5/10 - The suggested apps are infuriating, small steps have been made to reduce the bloatware with very little effect
- Design: 5/10 - A nice size for small hands but uninspiring to look at, 'just another Sony phone'
- Build quality: 5/10 - Seam between the plastic and metal is too wide, irritating button placement
- Overall: 4/10 - No X-factor, no fun, and at £459, no sale
- Great battery life
- Stereo speakers
- Wide angle selfie camera
- Far too expensive
- Rear camera is poor
- Suggested apps can go in the bin