Review: Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra
Mar 22, 2018, 3:30 PM by Eric M. Zeman
The Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra is a massive Android phablet for those who like big phones. With a 6-inch screen, dual selfie cameras, and plenty of battery life, the XA2 Ultra is a solid performer. But there are a few things holding this monster back. Here is Phone Scoop's in-depth review.
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Is It Your Type?
The Xperia XA2 Ultra from Sony is a mid-range phone for those that love large screens and selfies. This monstrously large smartphone boasts a solid spec sheet, including two user-facing cameras, and enough screen real estate to put your local multiplex on notice. If you're seeking an affordable, semi-premium handset, there's plenty to like about the latest from Sony.
The XA2 Ultra has to be one of the biggest handsets in the market right now. It's larger than the Galaxy Note8 from Samsung, even though it has a smaller screen. It's also among the heaviest I've ever reviewed. This is a serious piece of hardware, not for the faint of heart.
The XA2 Ultra carries forward the same stale design language we've seen from Sony for years. While nearly all the competition has moved to 2:1 ratio, all-screen designs, Sony stuck with the old-style 16:9 screen and framed it in massive bezels. This immediately (though perhaps fairly) gives the phone a dated look.
The XA2 Ultra is a blocky phone with sharp corners, flat top and bottom edges. The frame is assembled from separate aluminum pieces. I would have preferred to see a unibody frame that runs seamlessly around the edges. Instead, the top and bottom pieces are flat and sort of act like bookends, holding everything else together. I do like the chamfered edge that circles the top and bottom. The sides are formed by curved metal rails that run up and down the edges. An aluminum panel covers the rear and glass serves as the front. The rear panel is curved in shape ever so slightly. The phone comes in black, gold, or silver.
I can't get over just how huge this phone is. It measures 6.42 inches tall and 3.15 inches wide. I don't mind the height so much as I do the width. It's also relatively thick (by today's standards) at 9.1mm thick and weighs in at a whopping 7.8 ounces. That's significantly more than similarly-sized phones such as the iPhone 8 Plus (7.1oz) and Galaxy Note8 (6.88oz). The dimensions and weight together make for an unwieldy smartphone, and the box-like shape doesn't help at all. It's annoying to hold and use for more than a few moments at a time, and requires two hands. Putting it in your pocket can be a challenge, and is certainly uncomfortable. The XA2 Ultra is not necessarily the most person-friendly phone.
I can't complain about the quality of the materials, but I will dock the phone a few points for its assembly. As mentioned, the top, bottom, sides, and rear are made of metal. They all feel strong and solid. If you look closely at the corners, you'll spot plastic plugs between the side rails and the top/bottom panels. These not only look bad, but make for some uneven seams. The rear panel is not uniformly fitted into the side edges and it just doesn't look as polished as it should. The glass is tucked into the metal frame well enough.
The XA2 Ultra doesn't come across as cheap; instead, the strength of the components and weight give it gravitas that few other phones offer right now.
The phone is not waterproof.
Sony's aging genetics are plainly and painfully obvious when you gaze at the XA2 Ultra's face. It's the Herman Munster of smartphones. The XA2 Ultra has a huge forehead and huge chin that make the 6-inch screen look smaller than it truly is. The bezels aren't as visible on the black model, but they really stand out on the gold and silver models. Only Herman has a bigger forehead and chin than this phone. There are no buttons below the screen.
The combo SIM/memory card tray is located on the left edge of the phone. A thin notch leaves enough space for your fingernail to catch the tray to pull it out. The SIM card fits firmly into a small metal plate attached to the tray itself. Unusually, the tray merely covers the opening to the microSD memory card slot. You have to push the memory card into the slot directly. I appreciate that Sony phones make it possible to pull the tray out without a SIM tool or paperclip.
All the buttons are on the right edge of the phone. The round lock button is near the middle of the side edge. It has a distinct profile and is easy to find. The volume toggle is positioned above the screen lock key and works well. It has a slim profile and I like the travel and feedback. The dedicated camera button is where you expect to find such a key, at the bottom of the right edge. It's a two-stage control and functions perfectly, though it's a bit small.
People who like regular wired headphones will be happy to know there's a standard headphone jack on the top of the phone. There's a USB-C port on the bottom for charging the phone. A large slit cut into the bottom edge holds a speaker. It is covered by a fine, metal grille.
Thank goodness there's a fingerprint reader. (Sony has not included a working fingerprint reader on any of its U.S. phones for several years.) The XA2 Ultra puts things right and has a circular fingerprint reader right where your forefinger expects to find it on the back. The round camera module, which sticks out just a bit, is above the fingerprint reader. The rest of the rear panel is an expansive piece of aluminum. I like the matte finish and texture.
This gigantophone is something else. The XA2 Ultra from Sony is a humongous handset. It's impressive, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
The XA2 Ultra has a 6-inch full-HD display with the older 16:9 aspect ratio. That said, the XA2 Ultra has a fine screen. Full HD still works well enough at this size and the pixel density is good for watching video, playing games, and browsing media-rich web sites.
You can control brightness and color. Sony added a "smart backlight control" that keeps the screen on if you are merely looking at it. The brightness is excellent for viewing indoors and out. I appreciate that you can choose from several different color and contrast options, such as Super-Vivid Mode, which makes viewing movies that much better by improving contrast. You can also make fine-tuned adjustments to white balance. Viewing angles are very good.
The result is a generally pleasing experience no matter what you're doing with the XA2 Ultra. The screen offers more customization than most.
Sony sells the XA2 Ultra unlocked with decent support for AT&T and T-Mobile. It includes LTE Bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 25, 28, 29, and 66. It's great to see 29 and 66 in there, which are newer bands being used by AT&T and T-Mobile, respectively. Band 29 should unlock faster speeds with AT&T where available. Band 66 should improve T-Mobile service in some network conditions. These bands are unusual in an unlocked-only phone like this.
I tested it on both networks in the NYC region and found it performed on par with other unlocked devices I've tested in recent months. The majority of phone calls connected on the first dial and remained connected across miles of highway. The phone didn't miss any calls while I tested it.
Data speeds were fine, though not the quickest I've seen. Most importantly, I was able to stream video via YouTube and music via Spotify at average quality over the network with minimal buffering and other nonsense. Media embedded in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter played back with little interruption.
The XA2 Ultra is a decent voice phone. I was mostly pleased with call quality and didn't notice any real difference between calls made on AT&T versus T-Mobile. The earpiece produces plenty of volume, enough so calls are easily audible in busy coffee shops, city streets, and other noisy spaces. Clarity is good at medium volumes, but started to distort when set up all the way. People I spoke to through the XA2 Ultra said I sounded very good.
The speakerphone is insanely loud. The bottom-firing speaker delivers a massive sonic punch. You can hear calls just about anywhere via speakerphone, including the car. What's more, the speakerphone doesn't distort even when set all the way up.
With such a loud speaker, you won't be surprised to learn that the ringtones and alerts are loud enough to wake your neighbors. The vibrate alert is also quite good.
Sony gave the XA2 Ultra a 3,580mAh battery. I actually expected the phone's battery to be bigger, given the size of the phone. Still, there's no question that it delivers the goods. Battery life easily surpassed a single day. The phone kept going from breakfast to bedtime with plenty to spare by the time I plugged it back in for the night. Even with heavy use, the phone managed to push through, day in and day out, over a week of testing.
The XA2 Ultra also includes Sony's advanced battery tools, including Stamina Mode. Activating the base Sony power-saver tool automatically delivers hours of extra battery life by dimming the screen, adjusting radios, quieting notifications, etc. If you activate extreme mode, you'll easily score a half-day more from the battery because it shuts down all the but core apps.
The phone employs Qnovo adaptive charging for smarter recharging. This technology means the phone only ingests the power it needs, even when left plugged in for multiple hours. The idea is to prolong the lifespan of the battery over time.
The XA2 Ultra doesn't support rapid nor wireless charging.
Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi
If there's one place the XA2 Ultra excels, it's Bluetooth. The phone supports Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD. Phone calls pushed to mono headsets and my car's hands-free system sounded very good. Music, however, is the real treat. With support for the most advanced codec available to Android handsets, music sent to compatible headphones and speakers sounded outstanding. Well done, Sony.
The GPS radio did its job. The phone worked hand-in-hand with Google Maps to pinpoint me within a few seconds, and accuracy was as good as 10 feet. The XA2 Ultra kept up with real-time, voice-guided navigation on the highway and city streets alike.
I appreciate that Sony phones label the NFC radio on the exterior so you know where to tap. The phone supports Google Pay for mobile payments and NFC-enabled Bluetooth pairing.
The WiFi radio delivered quick app updates and high-quality media streaming.
The XA2 Ultra has a pretty standard lock screen experience. A quick press of the screen lock button wakes the display and reveals the clock, notifications, and two shortcuts: phone and camera. I really appreciate that Sony allows you to select from a standard digital clock, an analog clock, or a stylized Sony clock for the lock screen. All three are readable. As always, you can choose how visible notifications are on the lock screen. You cannot customize the shortcuts.
The biggest improvement here is the addition of a fingerprint reader. Touching it wakes and unlocks the phone fully. The fingerprint reader is easy to train and worked consistently and quickly every time I used it.
The Xperia XA2 Ultra runs Android 8 Oreo with Sony's tweaks. Sony has dialed back how intrusive its UX is; in fact, it's almost stock Android.
There are three home screen panels active when you first boot the phone. Two of them are preloaded with a number of apps and shortcuts, and the third is reserved for the Google Assistant. As per the norm, you can manage these pages however you wish. You can adjust the grid size, the icon size, add widgets, and so on.
The app drawer is arranged in side-by-side pages that you swipe left and right. Users can elect to view apps in custom order, most used, alphabetically, or by date. A search tool is always available in the app drawer, which is nice. The app drawer also supports folders.
The settings menu behaves as the stock Android tool does, but has been skinned with a splash of color.
As always, Sony includes themes. These bundle together similar color palettes for the home screen, app drawer, and other aspects of the user interface. Sony offers a few themes of its own, but Xperia XA2 Ultra owners can design their own. That's cool.
The Xperia XA2 Ultra does well in the speed department. It relies on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 processor with 4 GB of RAM. This is a fine pairing. The phone performed well while I evaluated it. The XA2 Ultra never felt bogged down or slow, screen transitions were smooth, and apps opened in a snap.
The quickest way to launch the camera is to press the dedicated camera button. You can also double-press the screen lock button. The camera app opens quickly whether the phone is on or locked.
The app is powerful and easy to figure out. By default, the Xperia XA2 Ultra uses Sony's Superior Auto shooting mode. The other basic modes include manual and video. You can access some secondary shooting modes, which include Sony standards: AR effect (put dinosaurs in your pix), Creative Effect (live filters), Sound Photo (takes photos with background sounds), panorama, 4K video, and burst.
According to Sony, HDR is always in "auto" mode when shooting Superior Auto. That means the phone will automatically use HDR if it needs too, but you can't turn it on or off yourself. If you switch to manual mode, you'll discover you can turn HDR on or off at will.
Manual Mode allows you to set white balance, ISO, brightness, shutter speed (but only up to 1 second), and focus. It's relatively easy to use.
The XA2 Ultra doesn't offer bokeh / portrait (blurred background) mode. This is a rarity for a smartphone in 2018 and rather surprising, if I say so.
All the main shooting modes are available to the user-facing selfie camera, which is nice. Moreover, the XA2 Ultra includes a second, wide-angle selfie camera for super wide shots. Good stuff.
Everything about the camera is fast, and that's good.
Sony gave the XA2 Ultra a 23-megapixel camera. The default setting is 20 megapixels at 16:9. If you want the full pixel count you need to switch to 4:3.
The XA2 Ultra takes very good photos in most settings. I was impressed with the majority of shots I took, which were sharp, colorful, and clean. Focus is almost always perfect. White balance and color representation was typically spot on, with only minor deviances. Daytime shots were mostly free of grain or noise, but low-light shots ramped up the grain to near-annoying levels. Exposure was the only real variable. You'll see the best overall results if you switch to manual mode with HDR set to auto, but even Sony's normal shooting mode did a respectable job. The camera definitely has trouble in low-light. It often underexposed shots that competing phones were able to handle.
The main 16-megapixel user-facing camera takes sharp, clean selfies. Images are colorful and properly exposed. The majority of selfies are free of grain, too, which puts it ahead of many selfie cams. The dedicated selfie flash does a good job in low-light situations.
If you want to take some extra-wide selfies, the secondary 8-megapixel camera helps a lot. It's a great option to have, particularly when you're taking a selfie in close quarters or want to include a large group of people.
The phone shoots video up to 4K Ultra HD resolution. The video I captured with the XA2 Ultra was generally good in terms of focus, exposure, and color. It's solid when it comes to video.
Truly, you can use the XA2 Ultra as an everyday camera and video camera without fear of missing or mangling those vital, spur-of-the-moment shots.
The Sony Xperia XA2 Ultra is a big phone that misses the mark. It is the last effort from Sony's design deam before the company changed gears, and it shows. The hefty hardware is simply too much for me, and I suspect it will be too much for many others. The reward for putting up with such a large phone should be obvious and worth it, yet it's not.
The 6-inch screen looks good enough, but the huge bezels give the phone an outdated look that doesn't wear well. I appreciate the solid wireless performance, excellent call quality, and respectable battery life. I wish the phone had stereo speakers to go with its cinema-sized display.
The software works very well. It's not the cleanest build of Android, but it provides just the right mix of options and tools to keep things interesting without getting in the way. The camera app has a limited number of shooting modes and amazingly leaves out portrait/bokeh effects. I wish any of the three cameras did better in low light.
Sony is selling the Xperia XA2 Ultra online for $450. That puts it on the same shelf as the OnePlus 5T and Honor View10 (both closer to $500). If I had to decide between these three, I'd go with either the 5T or the View10, as they are thinner, have modern displays, better cameras, and are easier to use over time.
The XA2 Ultra may powerful, but it is ultra-big, ultra-dated, and ultra-unappealing.
Sony debuted several new smartphones at CES this week in Las Vegas, including the Xperia XA2, XA2 Ultra, and L2. The XA2 and XA2 Ultra share nearly every feature other than screen size and battery capacity.
CES is the world's big consumer tech show. Every year we head out to Vegas to check out everything in person.
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Not Ready For Primetime
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