Sony's newest smartphone is the Xperia X Performance, and it's the flagship in a new line-up of smartphones that take the best of the previous Z5 and Z3 and condense it into three very similar handsets. If you want top-of-the-line performance, then the X Performance -- thus the name -- is your go-to choice.
What Is It?
The Sony Xperia X Performance is a smartphone running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, built around a 5-inch IPS LCD display and competing at the top end of the market with Samsung's Galaxy S7, the HTC 10 and other high-end phones like the LG G5. It's slightly smaller than most of its competitors, though, measuring in at 144x70x8.7mm and 165g -- quite heavy, but small enough to navigate around the entire touchscreen display with the reach from a single hand. The X Performance is the top model in a new three-phone line-up that also includes the mid-range Xperia X and the more entry-level Xperia XA.
- 5" 1920 x 1080 IPS LCD
- Dimensions: 144x70x8.7mm, 165g
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 octa-core
- 32GB Storage, 3GB RAM
- 12MP rear, 5MP front cameras
- Android 6.0 Marshmallow
The $999 X Performance inherits a lot of the design features of the Xperia Z5, Z3 and other Z-series smartphones from Sony Mobile in years past. It has the same obelisk-esque, 'monolithic' design that sees smooth rounded corners and edges on an otherwise flat rectangular body; available in grey, rose gold, gold and silver it's one of the more refined and professional Android phones on the market -- looking more like an iPhone than Samsung's comparatively glitzy Galaxy S7. As well as the side-mounted power button -- also a fingerprint sensor -- there's a lower volume control rocker and a dedicated two-step camera button, all on the phone's right side.
The phone also includes a microSD card slot alongside its single nanoSIM, both on the same card tray, complementing the phone's 32GB of internal storage capacity and making it possible to capture thousands of photos and videos if you do want to invest the extra cash in a microSD card. It also -- sigh -- uses microUSB for charging and data transfer, with a Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0-compliant maximum charging capacity of 18 Watts. This at a time when we're starting to see more and more USB-C phones, tablets and laptops is a bit disappointing, but nonetheless makes sense and might even be an advantage if you've already got existing high quality microUSB charging cables and adapters.
The Xperia X Performance has a 2700mAh non-removable rechargeable lithium-ion battery inside, and Sony is newly using Qnovo battery software that optimises charge time over the usual overnight charging cycle to make sure that the phone doesn't fully recharge until you need it, which maintains the chemistry of the battery and ensures it will hold an acceptable charge level for longer than competitor phones that blast their way to 100 per cent as fast as possible and then hold that charge state even while plugged in. It's an interesting idea that should contribute to the X Performance being a phone that lasts with good battery performance for a longer life-span than we've become used to with our phones.
What's It Good At?
The Xperia X Performance is one of the best looking Android phones of 2016. It's definitely the most attractive and best-built smartphone that Sony has ever made, and it's a genuine improvement on the continuous evolution of the entire Z-series line-up. Switching to a metal back now means that the spontaneous glass shattering of the Z3 and Z5 phones due to battery swelling is a thing of the past, and the overall design just feels a lot smoother and easier to hold. The 2.5D curve on the edges of the front glass, too, means that the X Performance just looks expensive in the same way that the iPhone 6s does. The four different colour options that you can buy online -- charcoal grey, rose gold, gold and silver -- cover almost all bases and all look appropriately luxurious.
Sony's skin on top of stock Android is basic, and for the most part only adds on top of what is already a high quality experience. There isn't the same level of colour-changing and thematic alteration as Samsung's various Galaxy models and their TouchWiz skins, for example, but it's a little more extensive than Motorola's essentially-stock-Android approach. It's a good compromise, and it means that the phone's performance is for the most part quick and judder-free; there's no five-second pause to bring up the list of currently running apps, and navigating around the phone's home screen and notifications/quick settings areas feels responsive. Sony also has a reasonable track record of keeping its phones up to date.
It's also good to see a flagship smartphone -- in most ways, if not all -- with a screen no larger than 5 inches in size. In the same way that we praised Apple's iPhone SE, the 5-inch Xperia X Performance shows that phones don't need to be big to run quickly and have decent battery life and have high quality design and construction. Sony's phone performs very well in the mobile Geekbench benchmark, equalling or besting all the other Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 phones we've tested and only coming in slightly behind Samsung's Exynos-equipped local variant of the Galaxy S7. If you want a smaller Android phone that can trade punches with the best of the best, it's either this phone or the more expensive Galaxy S7.
There's a lot to like about the Xperia X Performance. The side fingerprint scanner is an excellent implementation. The phone supports Hi-Res Audio and has inbuilt active noise cancellation when you're using a compatible Sony headset. It's IP68 waterproof-rated, the only new Sony phone to hit this mark. Sony's Triluminos tech behind the 5-inch IPS LCD display means it's able to push quite high levels of maximum brightness and with reasonable colour reproduction, as well as fully adjustable white balance -- a feature more phones need out of the box. The two-step camera button is a godsend for casual photographers and will always be more convenient than a home button double tap or a swipe on a competitor phone's lock screen. Sony has built a repertoire of small finishing touches over the years that work to good effect in the X Performance and the entire X-series family.
What's It Not Good At?
Sony has such a good track record with the batteries in its smartphones, and the software control over those batteries, that it set itself an extremely high bar with the Xperia X Performance. Disappointingly, the X Performance's battery is merely OK, despite its reasonable 2700mAh size and support for fast charging. It falls short of previous Z-series phones' two days of usable use, instead getting me through a full day of work in testing but always requiring that overnight charge that Sony's competitors also need, where I was expecting a day and a half or more. Sony's Qnovo battery tech, which learns your overnight charging routines and only tops off the battery just before you need it, is a great idea but hard to evaluate over a comparatively short time testing.
The camera on the Xperia X Performance is also mediocre. It's able to take some impressively contrasty, well-saturated, well-exposed photographs, but more often than not in my experience these took a fair bit of fiddling and exposure adjustment in the phone's manual settings mode to achieve the best possible result. Sony's Superior Auto mode, which confoundingly defaults to 8-megapixel 16:9 snaps when the phone's 23-megapixel sensor is capable of so much more, tends to underexpose photos and leave them feeling lifeless. Sony's predictive autofocus, which follows subjects as they transition between back-, mid- and foreground in the camera frame, is a nice idea in theory but there are too few instances where it's a must-have feature.
And, in an age where Sony's competitors -- HTC, LG, even Microsoft -- are adopting the reversible, versatile, high-speed, faster-charging USB Type-C connector on their flagship devices, I admit to being disappointed -- in the same way that I was with the Galaxy S7 -- that a microUSB connector finds a home on the centre base of the Xperia X Performance. The difference here is that Samsung's flagship launched in February, and it's now July. In the same way that I'd probably not recommend someone buy a Full HD TV in 2016 when 4K is near-ubiquitous, I'm starting to really struggle to recommend a microUSB-charging phone when the world is increasingly quickly moving towards USB Type-C.
All of these flaws add up to my conclusion that the X Performance is expensive for what you get. Don't get me wrong, it's not expensive for a flagship smartphone, when you consider that it's $100 or $200 cheaper than its Samsung, HTC, Apple and LG competition, but $999 still feels like a lot of money for the Xperia X Performance. Maybe it's the small size that we've fallen out of love with since the miniscule Z3 Compact, or the fact that the X Performance is thicker than the phones it succeeds without adding a tangible battery life benefit. It's a good phone, so all these criticisms have to be taken in that context, but because it's a flagship smartphone it invites more serious criticism than Sony's cheaper variants like the mid-range Xperia X and XA.
Should You Buy It?
If you want a small, powerful phone, your choice is necessarily more limited than it is if you're happy to swipe around on a 5.5-inch, comparatively monstrous smartphone like the LG G5 or Samsung's Galaxy S7 Edge. The HTC 10 is beautifully built but a little bulky around the back, and the Galaxy S7 is somewhat more expensive than even its other top-tier competitors, but these two are the natural competition for the Xperia X Performance -- and they're strong competitors. That means the Xperia X Performance has to set itself apart in one or more serious ways from the crowd, or to do the same things as these rivals but better.
- Refined, professional design
- Power in a small package
- Many small, useful features
- Mediocre battery life
- Camera requires effort for best results
- No USB Type-C
And while it's a good phone, it's not a great phone in a great deal of ways. There are plenty of reasons for me to recommend the $999 Xperia X Performance to you -- if you want a phone that has a small screen that you can navigate with one hand. If you want a phone that has a basic, only-a-few-frills-on-top implementation of Android and the performance to match. If you like phones that look professional without being blingy, if you like phones that look modern without being avant garde. But if you want a great camera or a great battery, the spectre of the iPhone or Galaxy S7 will remain overhead as you're considering your purchase.
The dark horse in this race is Sony's Qnovo battery tech, which has the potential to stretch out the usability of your new Xperia X Performance for longer than Sony's competitors. If you're looking for a phone that (should) stand the test of time, that (should) maintain the same level of battery life and performance over a couple of years rather than a single 12-month upgrade cycle stint, that (should) be maintained with necessary software and security updates over the course of that life, then you should give extra consideration to the Xperia X Performance. These are compelling reasons, but they're harder to sell against the glitz and glamour of competitors that just don't talk about them.
Considered in abstract, the Sony Xperia X Performance is a high quality smartphone, with a high price tag to match. With the caveat that if you spend more, you can get a more impressive camera or screen or battery life depending on where you spend your money, you'll still enjoy the entire Xperia line-up for the price that you pay. If you're prepared to make that investment, though, and if you're the kind of buyer that wants to buy one phone and enjoy it for a longer time than the fast-paced update cycle that we've become used to in 2016, then you won't be disappointed by its overall performance.