Sony Xperia XA1 Review - Camera and software Review

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Sony Xperia XA1 – Camera

The Xperia XA1’s 23-megapixel, f/2.0 camera is its most notable feature. However, the software that’s built around it really compromises the experience.

Sony Xperia XA1

First, the good. Sony is the undisputed king of smartphone camera sensors, and the Exmor-branded chip included here is brilliant for the money. Images taken in daylight are packed with detail and display wonderfully vibrant colours.

Autofocus is super-fast, and there’s a manual mode that lets you dive into numerous settings. I preferred leaving Superior Auto switched on and, on the whole, it did a good job. Superior Auto’s only problem is that it won’t let you turn on HDR (high dynamic range) manually. This is annoying.

Shooting outside on a lovely May morning at Rochester Castle, I struggled to get a decent shot of the castle against the puffy white clouds and blue sky. With my trusty OnePlus 3, I could simply turn on HDR to get a nice castle and a clear sky. In the case of the XA1, I found myself constantly battling the automatic mode – and in the end just gave up, settling for a blown-out sky.

Related: Five tips to improve your smartphone photography skills

That’s a minor criticism, but there’s a more fundamental problem: its speed. The camera takes an age to launch if you haven’t opened it in a few minutes. Upwards of three seconds to see what the sensor can see, then another couple to actually get the shutter button to appear on-screen.

Being fair, I’m sure there’s a good reason for this: getting that excellent sensor and the image processing software fired up must be a challenge, but why pack such a great camera into a phone that then prevents you from using it at a crucial moment?

I was happy with low-light performance, however. A dimly-lit pub proved no great challenge for the sensor, with it producing relatively lively and blur-free photos.

Sony Xperia XA1 sample photoThere’s good coverage of light and dark spots in this photo (although our website’s image compression doesn’t show it off very well)
Sony Xperia XA1 sample photo
When you get things right, landscape shots look great…
Sony Xperia XA1 sample photo
But the camera can sometimes be inconsistent with how it handles the sky
Sony Xperia XA1 sample photo
Good detail, but the sky proves a problem again
Sony Xperia XA1 sample photo
The camera is quick to focus and can pull some delightful bokeh effects

The 8-megapixel selfie camera is a surprise, with a wide lens that lets you cram in numerous people, and decent processing tech that makes faces appear clear.

Video can be shot at up to Full HD at 30fps, and there’s a decent amount of image stabilisation at work to make for smooth and reliable videos. You can also shoot photos while you record video.

Sony Xperia XA1 – Software

The XA1 comes with Google’s latest Android 7.0. It’s a largely unfettered experience, with a few additions here and there (notification badges on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, like on iOS, and the ability to show and hide certain elements of the notification bar), but it’s all rather pleasing.

While keeping the actual design simple, Sony has crammed in a boat-load of its own software. Not all of it is bad, however. The ability to pick themes from Sony’s theme store is great, but there was lots of other stuff I could have done without. Xperia Lounge, What’s New and PlayStation, for example, seem to be variations on the theme of shoving pointless content, apps and ads into your face.

It’s a relief, then, that all of Sony’s pre-installed content apps can be uninstalled.

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