The Xperia XA1 is another of those Sony products that get a 1 suffix for the second generation, making it difficult to count the iterations as the years go by. But hey, who cares about last year?
The Xperia XA1 builds on the strengths of its predecessor and improves exactly where needed - in performance, battery life and the camera department. Despite the fact that there are a few things we would have probably done differently given the chance, it's a pretty good midrange handset.
The updated design does come with a caveat - the phone is only marginally wider than its display, but boy is the thing tall. And no, it's not like the Galaxy S8, where that the added height is used by the screen, either - it's still a regular 5-incher. And there aren't even stereo speakers to account for all that vertical space. Then again, the taller body aspect ratio certainly feels nice when you are holding the phone to your ear.
Performance is very good within its class, due to the improvements that the new Mediatek Helio P20 brings (the low display resolution has certainly helped). The display itself has lost some of its contrast this year, but isn't half bad overall. Battery life is also an incredible improvement over the predecessor considering that the chipset is more powerful and the battery capacity is the same.
And to top it off, there's the 23MP camera Sony used to fit in a number of flagship devices (the entire Z5 family and then a few of the new upper-end X-series), yet never quite managed to extract flagship-grade image quality out of it. Well, we'd say this is the closest it's gotten to that mark - we'd pick the XA1's images over the XZ's in a heartbeat, despite the fact that they come from the same sensor.
You're not strapped for alternatives, and a lot of them come from Sony's own lineup. Last year's Xperia XA will net you about 40% savings compared to the XA1, but you'd be getting an inferior chipset, battery life and camera, and less storage and RAM. Probably a design that's easier on the eyes though, but that's just us.
The Xperia X is another Sony 5-incher, this one positioned higher up the ladder, and costing some 20% more than the XA1. The extra money secures a higher-res 1080p display, and a 13MP front-facing camera where the XA1 only has 8MP. Oh, and a fingerprint scanner on the side. Still no waterproofing or 4K video recording, though.
Alternatively, you can go for the Xperia X Compact - if you're eyeing up the XA1, pocketability is probably a priority, and the X Compact delivers. Though, obviously, its 4.6-inch display is smaller, duh. And the X Compact is a bit pricier, about as much as the X proper.
For the Xperia XA1's price you can grab a Xiaomi Mi 5, or a Mi 5s (for a few extra bucks), and those two are proper flagships with top-class silicon inside. You'd get a (marginally) larger, higher-res display, Snapdragon 820 (821 in Mi 5s' case) with all the performance benefits that bring, not to mention the better future proofing. These Xiaomis can also record 4K video, which is out of bounds for the XA1. What you won't be getting is pure Android - Xiaomi's MIUI is anything but stock.
The Samsung Galaxy A5 (2017) would require stretching your budget a little further, but comes with better battery life and a 5.2-inch FullHD display against the XA1's 5-inch 720p LCD. There's also a fingerprint reader on the A5 (complete with Samsung Pay, if you have that where you are), and the phone is IP68-rated. Again, however, it is more expensive.
The Moto G5 and G5 Plus are viable options too, the former catering to a tighter budget, while the Plus matches the XA1's price. Both Motos have 1080p displays, and the non-Plus has a removable battery (which you may or may not appreciate). The Moto G5 Plus can record 4K video (though this seems to be region-dependent). Also, both G5s have fingerprint readers, unlike the XA1. Bezels and all, we'd still lean towards the XA1 for looks.
If you can spare a little extra cash, you can pick the Huawei nova, too. Whether the 4K video and 1080p display are worth the premium is up to you.
To be honest, we were skeptical at first of the Xperia XA1 - a boxy device, trying to ride the compact train, and its major upgrade is the power-efficient chipset and a camera we've been less than thrilled with on previous occasions. In reality, it turned out that the XA1 dials up the specs in all departments that matter, it scores points for its understated looks and premium build quality, and gets a good punch out of a sensor that was until now barely given a chance to shine. Is this another surprise Xperia favorite? Looks like Sony has got things right in the midrange, again.