Sony has never been a major player in the North American smartphone market, but it still gives it a shot every now and then. Sony has famously found every way to fail at gaining traction with its Xperia Z line of smartphones. This year Sony traded the Z for an X (I guess it traded with Motorola) and has launched a US version of the Xperia X in relatively short order. This phone is a mix of old and new from Sony, but the combination is problematic—it might have kept the wrong things. Sony is looking to sell a phone with a mid-range SoC at a flagship price. So, how's that working out?

Specs

Processor Snapdragon 650
Memory 3GB RAM
Storage 32 GB internal, microSD card slot
Screen 5-inch LCD, 1080p
Camera 23MP rear, 13MP front
Battery 2620mAh
Speakers Dual front-facing
Software Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Measurements 143 x 69 x 7.7mm, 152g

The Good

Display The 1080p LCD is very bright and the colors look accurate, save for a touch of color casting off-axis.
Battery life The claim of two days per charge isn't far off. I can get a solid day and a half with moderate use.
Software The build of Marshmallow doesn't have too much junk pre-installed and there are some useful extras like the customizable stock-style quick settings.

The Not So Good

Design It's not water resistant, and the volume toggle is in a stupid place.
Fingerprint sensor There isn't one.
Software again This phone recommended I install Clean Master. Fail. I've also seen more buggy behavior than I'd expect on shipping software.
Camera Terrible in low-light and frequently loses detail in better light. HDR performance is poor, and the manual mode is substantially less powerful than other phones. No optical stabilization, either.
Price The $550 asking price for this phone is not reasonable.

Design Disappointments

Sony has had several hallmark design features through all the Z series iterations, but it abandons some of those with the X. This phone has a plastic frame with a soft texture on the sides and a metal back panel. The metal and plastic parts actually feel almost identical. It's not as bad as LG's primer-coated metal, but there's something odd going on here. I like that the metal doesn't show fingerprints at all, but it doesn't look or feel like a high-quality piece of electronic gear.

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On the left edge all we have is a slot for the SIM card and microSD card. On the opposite side is where all the action is. Right in the middle of the right edge is the power button. It looks exactly like the button on the Z5 devices, and there's good tactile feedback when you press it. Just like it did for the Z5 series, Sony dropped the fingerprint reader functionality from the US version of the Xperia X. So, that button is just a button. Frankly, I don't understand this decision. A fingerprint sensor is something people expect to see on a $500-600 phone. Hell, they're starting to expect them on $200 phones. Removing the fingerprint sensor is a serious miscalculation if Sony wants to win new fans and keep the ones it has.

Removing the fingerprint sensor is a serious miscalculation if Sony wants to win new fans and keep the ones it has.

I also have to take issue (again) with the volume toggle placement—it's the same as the Z5, toward the bottom below the power button. There's nothing comfortable about this location for a button. You have to shift the phone in your hand and contort your thumb to reach the volume control. I suspect the toggle is there so it's easier to use as a zoom control in the camera, but this is digital zoom. It's only as a last resort you should use that. Screwing up the ergonomics of your phone to make digital zoom more convenient is poor design. I refuse to believe Sony has done any usability testing to back up this button layout. It's just incomprehensibly bad. Below that is a two-stage camera shutter button. I get this one. It's in a comfortable location when you hold the phone in landscape, as a shutter button should be. It's a little light on tactile feedback, but the action is gentle enough that the phone doesn't shake when you press it. The NFC chip is on the front next to the earpiece, which I also don't understand. 

Down on the bottom you've just got a microUSB port. I think it's a bit weird to launch a phone at this point without Type-C, especially when Sony doesn't have to worry about an accessory ecosystem like Samsung does (i.e. the Gear VR). The port and body of the phone are also vulnerable to water damage. Most of Sony's phones have been water-resistant for years, but that ends with the X Series. Again, this is a bizarre decision. Water-resistant design could have been a good selling point for Sony, but instead it's another missed opportunity.

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On the front of the phone is the 5-inch 1080p LCD with a glass panel that slopes down slightly toward the edge. I like this design detail; it's a nice touch on an otherwise understated device. There are also two front-facing speakers, but they're pretty small even by smartphone standards. The sound they produce is better than what you get from phones that have just one bottom-firing speaker, but it's not up to the standards of the Nexus 6P or even the HTC 10. The X's sound is a bit tinny and gets distorted at moderate volume. I'd say it outputs above average audio via the headphone jack, though.

Display

Sony is one of the few OEMs that still makes powerful smartphones in smaller sizes. The X isn't as small as the Z Compact phones, but at 5-inches the display is still fine for one-handed use. This is an LCD, and it's only 1080p. I suppose a 1440p display would be better for the spec-sheet, but I think 1080p is acceptable at 5-inches. It's still 440 pixels per-inch, which is nothing to sneeze at.

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This is one of the better LCDs I've seen recently. It gets incredibly bright outdoors. I haven't actually measured the output, but it's about as readable as the Galaxy S7, which gets mega-bright. The lowest brightness setting is also reasonably impressive. It doesn't get as dim as Samsung's AMOLED panels, but it's fine for use in a dark room without searing your retinas. Brightness is adjusted quickly, and I'd say it's very accurate as well. Colors are good, though slightly warm. I'm not a fan of Sony's X-reality post-processing engine, which is on by default. It only works in Sony apps, but it make colors look a bit too muted and less real.

The LCD here has very good viewing angles, with only light dimming. Text on the screen is essentially readable even when you look at it from extreme angles. It's not all good news, though. While the off-axis brightness is solid, I do see some color casting. The colors shift noticeably warm, and as I said above the display is slightly warm to start. It's not what I would consider particularly bad, but it's not common on phones in this price range (except for the HTC 10).

Performance And Battery

This is the first phone I've used with a Snapdragon 650 inside, so I don't really have anything to compare it to directly. This is a hexa-core chip similar to the SD808, but clocked lower. It's running on ARM Cortex cores rather that Qualcomm's new custom CPUs. I look forward to seeing what this chip can do in mid-range phones, but it seems like a weird choice for a phone that costs almost $600. There are some benchmarks below if you desire concrete numbers.

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As for the real life performance, it's alright. If you're not too picky, the Xperia X will get the job done. Getting around the UI is fluid, and there's no problem with apps falling out of RAM. Multitasking is where you can tell the X struggles a bit. It tends to take just a touch too long to switch between apps at times. Opening apps can get sluggish every now and then as well. Simple games run well on the Xperia X, but anything with complex 3D graphics seems to tax the GPU, leading to sluggish performance. The games I've tried aren't unplayable, but the experience isn't as good as it is on other devices. I know there's been some concern regarding overheating of this phone, but thus far I haven't seen it get too hot. I ran a few benchmarks in a row, and the throttling wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

The device I'm testing is supposed to be running final software that will go out to consumers—it even got an update out of the box. I'll leave the details of the software for later, but I should point out this software does not feel final from a stability standpoint. There have been a lot of little hiccups while using the Xperia X. For example, the Google app just crashed continuously the first day I had the phone. I've also had a handful of spontaneous reboots and buggy notifications.

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While the device performance in general has a few issues, the battery performs wonderfully. It's only 2620mAh, which is far from the largest you can get, but the combination of 1080p screen, Doze Mode, and Sony's optimizations makes the most of it. With heavy use, I've been getting 5-6 hours of screen time over the course of 15-16 hours. In a more realistic scenario with occasional messaging, poking around on Reddit, browsing, and a few games, the Xperia X made it nearly two days with a bit over three hours of screen time. It has quick charge functionality, but only the v2.0 variant.

Camera

The Xperia X has another one of Sony's high-resolution sensors that default to 8MP with oversampling. In this case, it's a 23MP sensor. You can crank it up to full resolution, but capture times are a little long. With oversampling, you're supposed to see less noise and better colors. However, for a company that makes the camera sensors in so many excellent smartphones, Sony is having a tough time with its own cameras. The one in the Xperia X is mediocre at best.

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Some of the photos I've taken outside look nice—I might even say they're great. However, that's really the only setting in which I'd trust the Xperia X to take a consistently usable photo. HDR doesn't seem very effective, though, so very bright days can be tricky. In many of the photos below, you might notice loss of detail in bright areas. The phone often reported that HDR was on (Sony calls it backlight compensation), but the dynamic range is still narrow. Even in good indoor light there are issues. I've got a pair of comparison photos below that match the X up with the Nexus 6P (both on default auto settings) to illustrate some of the problems I'm seeing. Make sure you check out the full resolution.

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In the low light shot (left), the Xperia X has totally wrecked the white balance, and the vignette effect around the edges is really heavy. Noise is also off the chart. The Nexus 6P on the other hand, took a fairly true-to-life photo without too much noise. The bright indoor light shot (right) is not as disheartening, but it's still not good for Sony. The X's photo is a bit brighter than the 6P, which is good, but that comes at the expense of detail. For whatever reason, this phone smooths images to an obnoxious degree, I assume to lessen noise. It makes the photos look blurry and obliterates detail. Note how the knurl pattern on the watch is less visible in the Sony photo. The same goes for my manly arm hair. This isn't just a function of the lower resolution—photos shouldn't look like this ever. You'll see this in a few of the photos in the gallery below as well.

In general, the Xperia X also exhibits some tendency toward heavy white clipping, resulting in blown out highlights. It has an f/2.0 aperture lens, narrower than phones like the G5 or GS7. That makes it hard to get shots with a narrow depth of field look. Maybe that's not a huge deal, but I'm irked by the lack of optical stabilization at this price (it has digital stabilization).

Sony's camera app used to be one of the better on Android, but it's fallen far behind in the last few years. It annoys me to no end that there's no easy toggle for HDR capture. Auto mode is entirely auto. When you switch to manual, there's a serious lack of manual controls. All you can do is alter the white balance, change the ISO, turn on HDR, and pick from the various scene modes. There is one neat software feature here called Predictive Hybrid Autofocus. You can tap to focus on an object, and the phone will track it as it moves around the frame. This works surprisingly well, but it doesn't make up for the camera's other shortcomings.

Software

Sony ships the Xperia X with Android 6.0.1 and the March security patch level. You should know by now what Marshmallow adds to the experience, so I'm going to focus on Sony's modifications to Marshmallow. The interface is a bit closer to stock Android than it used to be, but there are a few nice extras. I like that you can swipe down once to get all the way to quick settings by simply dragging farther down the screen. Once you're there, it looks very Nexus-y. There's an edit button that lets you choose the toggles shown and rearrange their order. That's sort of feasible in stock Android 6.0, but it's part of the janky UI tuner. Sony actually has the UI tuner too—the settings are very close to stock.

The Xperia X actually recommended I install Clean Master via the app drawer.

The first time you open the app drawer on the Xperia X, you get a screen asking if you are interested in having top apps presented to you based on your location. Hey, that sounds interesting, let's give it a shot. The absolutely unfathomable thing is that in addition to suggesting your own apps, there's a section in the app drawer of recommended downloads from the Play Store. I don't know if Sony is being paid to recommend these apps, but it feels very shady to me. It's mostly recommending free apps with ads, those connected to paid services (like Uber), and in-app purchases. I mean, the Xperia X actually recommended I install Clean Master via the app drawer. That's insane. You can disable this feature, and you really should.

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Almost equally insane in my book is the inclusion of an automatic cache cleaner. It's on by default and will delete the cache of apps you haven't used recently. Things are cached for a reason, and deleting cache isn't great for device performance. And all to reclaim a tiny bit of storage space? Again, you can shut this feature off... but why is it even here? The included apps are mostly for Sony services. There isn't too much junk as this is an unlocked device. Still, I don't need the Sony Lounge app. Sorry, Sony.

Sony's Stamina Mode is present on the Xperia X, but it's much different than it was before Marshmallow. Since OEMs can't interfere with Doze, Sony had to drop all the process management features that used to be included in Stamina Mode. What you're left with is more in-line with what other manufacturers do. It shuts off GPS, background data, and image enhancement. The SoC is also downshifted to save power. Ultra Stamina Mode gives you a very basic feature set with a simplified home screen. Again, this is like what you get from the likes of Samsung and HTC. It's great if you need to stretch the last few percent of the battery in order to receive calls or SMS.

Sony still has a basic theme engine built-into its version of Android. It's not as extensive as what you get from Samsung or HTC, but it's nice to have, I suppose. I do quite like the way the lock screen, which is controlled by the theme, feels like a cover over top of your wallpaper. You can see the background image peeking through the clock. It's playful and unique.

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This device marks the first time Sony has ditched Small Apps since its 2012 phone lineup. These were floating apps that offered quick access to things like a calculator, calendar, or email. I never really used these apps, especially on phones with screens this small. I'm sure some people will miss them, though.

I do have one last admittedly minor complaint. Sony still insists on the home button in the navigation bar looking like a house. Pairing that over-sized house shape with the triangle and square just looks odd.

I would explain Sony's version of Android on the X thusly: competent with several very stupid ideas that are luckily optional.

Sony, Why?

I don't think this phone is terrible, but it's fundamentally misguided. The Xperia X seems designed for a world that does not exist; one in which people still buy a product simply because it's made by Sony. The brand doesn't mean what it used to, certainly not when it comes to smartphones. Sony's tendency to release mediocre phones has seen to that.

The Xperia X seems designed for a world that does not exist; one in which people still buy a product simply because it's made by Sony.

The Xperia X has some good points. The screen is overall fantastic and the front-facing speakers are good. It's also compact and easy to use in one hand, without being too small for mainstream smartphone users (sorry Z Compact fans). After disabling some boneheaded software features, the version of Marshmallow on this phone is clean. The battery life is above average, which is impressive for something on the small side.

When you consider the price of $550 (plus tax and shipping), you should rightly expect a lot from a phone. And yet, the Xperia X has some glaring issues. The camera is seriously lacking. Sure, it can take a nice photo on occasion, but the HDR is poor, low-light performance is garbage, and the post-processing makes images taken even in good light look muddy. I just don't know what Sony is doing here.

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The water-resistant design of past phones was ditched in the X. Sony has designed phones to be water-resistant for years. Why stop now? Perhaps even more galling is the removal of the fingerprint sensor for the US market. That's not just a "nice to have" feature anymore. People expect it, and phones that cost much less than the Xperia X have them. It's almost like Sony doesn't want people to buy this phone.

The Xperia X will be available on June 26th for $550. It's up for pre-order on Amazon right now, but I don't think you should buy it. Even if it were $100 cheaper, I would caution against getting this phone. Do you want to know what phone is better than the Xperia X in almost every way? The Nexus 5X, which costs $200 less for the 32GB version right now. That's how divorced from reality Sony's pricing has become.