Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra review: Geared up
23MP in 4:3, or 20MP in 16:9 - multi-aspect IMX300 on board
The Xperia XA1 Ultra, just like its smaller stablemate XA1, is equipped with a 23MP camera on its back, and not just any 23MP camera. The in-house IMX300 sensor sits behind a 24mm-equiv. f/2.0 aperture lens, a setup we're quite familiar with.
Sony flagships have relied on the same sensor and lens combo since its debut on the Xperia Z5 series, all the way up to the Xperia XZ. Now the IMX300 has been retired in favor of a new 19MP imager. Or, should we say, the IMX300 is now relegated to Sony's mid-tier devices, represented here by the XA1 Ultra.
Depending on whether you shoot in 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio, different portions of the sensor are used; you get either 22.8MP or 20.1MP images, respectively, and never the full 24.8MP. Hence the official 23MP designation. Among the benefits of having such a multi-aspect sensor are the similar field of view in both modes (measured diagonally), and higher-res 16:9 shots than what you'd get by cropping from a regular 23MP sensor which has a 4:3 aspect ratio.
You can read more about the IMX300 it in our dedicated article, which we published back when the Z5 came out (when the sensor's designation wasn't official, strictly speaking).
The Xperia XA1 Ultra doesn't get the laser autofocusing and the RGBC-IR sensor that came with the same 23MP image sensor on the Xperia XZ and X Compact - there's only so many niceties allowed on this mid-range phone. Then again, they weren't game changers on those models, so their absence here is no big deal.
Sony's camera UI has been polished over the years, and the Xperia XA1 Ultra comes with the latest iteration. You change modes by swiping up and down (or left and right, if you're holding it in portrait). A swipe will also let you switch to the selfie camera single-handedly.
Speaking of modes, Superior Auto will probably be the main mode you use, and the 23MP resolution is available here as well, unlike the Xperias of old that limited it to 8MP.
Superior Auto will try to adjust image parameters to better match the scene by recognizing among some two dozen different scenarios. It can also engage HDR for you (Backlit scene it's called), which isn't available as a toggle in this mode - it's only found in Manual mode.
Other than HDR override, in Manual mode you get access to full range shutter speed selection (1/4000s - 1s), exposure compensation, white balance, and a manual focus slider. The ISO setting (50-3200) is still tucked away in an extra settings menu, though, and you can select sensitivity OR shutter speed, but not both at the same time.
The 23MP IMX300 Sony sensor was behind the flagship cameras of the Xperia Z5 and X series, but the samples we got from those devices failed to impress us. Sure, they were good, getting better with each new smartphone, but the corner softness was the most notable disappointment, and sometimes the over-sharpening was getting in the way. Our experience with the XA1 non-Ultra showed us that much more likable results were possible from the same sensor, so we were keen to examine the Ultra's output.
Only, we were in for an unpleasant surprise. The XA1 Ultra produced images with a strong green cast across multiple shooting scenarios, reliably missing the white balance by a huge margin. Before we go any further, though, let's just say we're attributing this to a faulty unit - we can't imagine Sony's used a different setup between the XA1 and the XA1 Ultra, and it only makes sense that we received a bad review unit. Surprisingly, color saturation is noticeably higher than what we're used to seeing by other Sony phones so this may be related in some way but we can't be sure.
Colors aside, the Xperia XA1 Ultra resolves a ton of detail (as does the XA1, duh!), and noise isn't an issue in daylight. The images are sharp, sometimes sharpened beyond what we like, but we found very few over-sharpening artifacts on the samples if any. The dynamic range is wide and even if the Super Auto fails to recognize the scene as Backlit, you would still get a great sample.
Sony has indeed put some work on improving its post-processing algorithms, but we also suspect the XA1 Ultra uses improved lens setup as well. The annoying corner softness of the past is down to some very tolerable levels with this implementation.
We also noticed some barrel distortion that weren't straightened out by the algorithm. Such distortion is quite expected with a lens that wide (24mm), but it should be easily correctable in-camera and yet Sony has failed to fix this here.
While Superior Auto would occasionally activate the HDR mode (Backlit scene), if you really want to force it, you'd have to go to Manual mode and select HDR from Settings. The HDR mode brought back more detail in the shadows, while it prevented the highlights from clipping. There is less resolved detail in the HDR images, though, especially in the foliage, while the colors turned were often over-saturated. Note these happen only in the manual HDR mode, the Superior Auto is much better in getting the right settings for a Backlit scene.
Sony has seriously increased the panorama resolution since the Xperia XZs smartphones - up to 4000px vertically, while the previous phones were only capable of panoramic images that are up to 1000px in height. Also, you can stop the panorama at any time you like, while older phones used to get confused if you don't do the full 360° (which was a minor thing, but annoying all the same). While the quality isn't on par with the still images, there is enough detail, wide dynamic range, and very good stitching. It's certainly an improvement over the panoramas last year's Sony phones were taking.
The XA1 Ultra has one major difference in hardware, when compared to the 5-inch XA1 - a 16MP selfie shooter with an LED flash replaces the 8MP unit we saw on the XA1. The setup is a direct reuse of the one found in last year's XA Ultra, and that's no bad thing.
Expect highly detailed selfies with excellent detail, good dynamic range and true-to-life colors. Plus the 16:9 native aspect promises to fit more of your friends in the frame, though the lens isn't too wide itself.
The front-facing flash lends the XA1 Ultra some exclusivity, but it's not strictly a gamechanger. It will help you in absolute darkness, there's no denying that, it's just that it won't produce miracles. Check the images below - first one's with the fluorescent lights on, for the next one, we killed them, and the third shot is with the flash.
A quick word of warning - the skin-softening effects are always on in Superior Auto mode so if you don't like your skin processed, you'd better switch to Manual mode for your selfies (you don't need to tinker with any of the other settings despite what the name of the mode would suggest).
Picture Compare Tool
Feel free to check how the Xperia XA1 Ultra stacks against the Xperia XA Ultra (the old one) and the Galaxy A7 (2017) in our Photo Compare Tool. You can, of course, pick another set of competitors among the wide selection of devices we've tested over the years.
The Xperia XA1 Ultra tops out at 1080p/30fps when recording video, but we've seen Sony consistently keep 4K to its higher-end phones so that's not a surprise. Truth be told, in this particular case, the Mediatek chipset is not capable of 4K video recording anyway (unlike the similarly midrange Snapdragon 625 chipset).
You also have the option for capturing the 1080p clips in HDR, but that won't get you a quality improvement.
The standard 1080p/30fps mode is encoded at about 17Mbps, which is the defacto standard. Audio is recorded in stereo at 128Kbps.
The video samples are soft and lacking in detail ioon contrast to the main camera. Contrast is high and the framerate is smooth, but otherwise the recorded videos are far from good.
You can also download a 1080p@30fps (10s, 22MB) video sample taken straight off the XA1 Ultra.
As usual, the final step would be to examine the phone's video output in our video comparison tool. We've pre-selected the XA Ultra from last year and the Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017), but you can go ahead and pick your own set for comparisons.