THE mid-range smartphone segment is the fastest growing, going by the number of new devices being announced in 2015. It’s a price-sensitive market that requires a finely-tuned blend of features, hardware, and affordability.
Sony’s latest mid-range hero, the M4 Aqua Dual, tries to find that balance, maintaining the familiar design checklist of the Xperia range – namely waterproof, curved edges and a mirrored rear finish – while keeping it just shy of a thousand ringgit at RM969 (about US$255).
Externally, the device bears all the characteristic hallmarks of an Xperia device. The M4 Aqua Dual's corners are gently curved and reinforced with hardened plastic to help reduce the damage when dropped – although for practical reasons, we didn’t put our review unit through this test.
Our review unit comes in a white finish, though it is also available in black and pink (or Coral, as Sony calls it).
The single SIM M4 Aqua is typically sold in operator dominant markets like Singapore, while the dual SIM variant – called the M4 Aqua Dual – is available in markets like Malaysia, where phones are primarily bought from retail without a contract.
The phone looks well-designed and rather fetching, but up close we realised that Sony did make some concessions in terms of the build and materials, and we suspect this was to keep the price tag down.
For example, unlike the higher-end Xperia Z series, the M4 Aqua Dual's sides are made of plastic rather than aluminium, and the back is covered in a translucent plastic, even though it looks like the Corning Gorilla Glass used on the Z3.
The right side of the phone comes with a sealed rubber lined port that covers the dual nano SIM card slots, as well as the large, round, silver Xperia power button. Sidling along next to it is a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button that allows for immediate access when you hold it down.
The top edge of the phone is unadorned save for a water resistant 3.5mm audio jack. This, along with the phone's micro USB port, does not require a special seal to retain the M4 Aqua Dual's IP68 water resistance rating.
The nano SIM and micro SD card ports however, do need to be thoroughly battened down before immersing the phone in water.
The phone's IP68 rating ensures that it remains completely dustproof and able to survive in up to one metre of fresh water for up to half an hour.
The upper left side of the phone comes with an unusually placed micro USB port for charging and docking purposes and the sealed micro SD card slot.
Belying the M4 Aqua Dual's appearance, the phone lacks front-facing speakers – instead, the small silvery grilles flanking the display are for the audio and microphone for voice calls. The actual speaker for media playback is located at the base of the unit.
On front is a 5-megapixel camera for self-portrait shots and a 5-inch HD display.
The rear of the phone comes with Sony's logo emblazoned on the back along with an NFC (near-field communications) sensor and a 13-megapixel camera with an LED flash. The built-in 2,400mAh battery is non-removable.
Display and cameras
The M4 Aqua Dual is equipped with a 5-inch 1280 x 720 resolution screen with 320 PPI (pixels per inch). Where it differs from competitors is the inclusion of Sony's proprietary ‘Triluminos’ and ‘Bravia’ display technologies to render more vibrant colours onscreen.
By default, the display delivers good detail and great colours, veering on the vibrant side of the colour palette. While it's only a 720P display, it still offers a good showing with sharp text and relatively crisp images.
If you prefer something cooler or warmer, you can opt to manually tweak the settings by dialling up your own red, blue and green levels via the proffered sliders on the menu. It’s not particularly intuitive, but those looking for a finer degree of control over their display settings will appreciate it.
The rear 13-megapixel camera adds in several proprietary Sony technologies, chief among them the Exmor RS mobile image sensor, which Sony says provides a better camera performance.
The 5-megapixel front camera comes with a 22mm wide angle lens, ideal for framing yourself and a few friends in the picture without having to rely on a selfie stick.
In terms of video recording, the rear camera is capable of capturing Full HD video while the front is capable of taking HD quality video.
What gives the M4 Aqua Dual the edge over other mid-range offerings and even some flagships is the inclusion of the dedicated shutter release on the side of the phone. This lets you activate the camera app a lot faster, instead of wasting time fiddling about the menus.
The inclusion of this shutter release button encourages more liberal use of the camera and there's more motivation to use it, especially for more impromptu shots.
Sony’s user interface for their smartphone cameras is extensive, with the full panoply of settings and a useful ‘Superior Auto’ mode that handles all the hard work for novices.
We believe you will be doing most of your shooting with this mode and it renders good shots in daylight, and pretty decent night shots with limited light sources like street lights at dusk or with indoor shots.
However, in more challenging low light conditions, the images will have quite a bit of noise. By and large though, it'll render very serviceable shots for social media and 4R prints.
If you aim for a more hands-on approach, the phone's ‘Manual’ mode is rather comprehensive with options for scene selection, metering, white balance, exposure value and ISO settings, but some settings are nested deep and scattered throughout the menus, which may make adjusting them on the fly more challenging.
Both front and rear cameras have a whimsical Augmented Reality (AR) effect which interposes semi-interactive images into whatever you snap. By default, the phone comes with underwater scenery and a dinosaur pack, and you can purchase additional augmented reality backdrops from the Google Play store.
On that same note, the camera also offers an AR fun mode that lets you add in a variety of virtual objects into a shot for a more whimsical effect like sprays of paint, bubbles, stars and the like.
There's also a ‘Sound Shot’ mode that combines a small snippet of ambient audio to a picture for a more immersive feel. Barring the ‘Manual’ and the ‘Panorama’ modes, the rest of the features are novelties or something meant for the young-at-heart.
Performance and battery life
The Xperia M4 Aqua Dual has a lot going for it in terms of performance. For the price of entry, the device offers 4G network connectivity, a large HD display, and relatively decent hardware in the form of a Snapdragon 615 processor with 2GB of RAM.
Where it falters badly is the size of the on-board storage. On paper, the M4 Aqua Dual offers 8GB of storage for apps and files. In reality, you only have about 4GB or so of usable storage space.
While you can rely on the micro SD card slot which supports up to 128GB of expandable storage, many Android apps can’t be installed on external cards, including some of Google’s own apps, leaving it to store your songs, photos and videos as well as downloaded files.
The much better news is the battery life, which extends to a good day or so with average use despite the modest size of the battery. The phone does get rather warm if you’re using processor-intensive apps or when gaming.
For the latter, the M4 Aqua Dual does an adequate job with the vibrant and responsive display, along with the rather loud mono speaker, though you'll have to adopt a rather unique grip with your right hand when playing in landscape mode to keep you from inadvertently muffling it.
And because that it's waterproof, it actually allows you to actually take it to locations that you would never have contemplated including the swimming pool and in the rain.
Software and user experience
The M4 Aqua Dual runs the latest Android Lollipop 5.0 and has Sony’s user interface overlaying it.
Unlike many competing devices, Sony's UI (user interface) doesn't completely re-invent the wheel and lightly skins stock Android, as opposed to changing it wholesale.
It’s relatively easy to get around but our biggest gripe is the inclusion of a very long list of Sony branded apps and other bloatware.
Depending on your perspective and how much you have invested into Sony's ecosystem, the phone comes with an array of Sony-specific apps that take up quite a bit of screen real estate and storage.
A PlayStation app helps to pair your phone with your PlayStation 4 game console, and also access and purchase content through the PlayStation Network account. If you don't have this account, it’s a bit of a white elephant.
A more practical app is its Xperia Lounge that encourages brand loyalty by doling out Sony-specific offers and competitions.
It’s worth a look once in a while to see if something interesting appears, although Samsung’s Galaxy Life app has a more robust offering.
Another Sony app on offer is Video Unlimited which lets you purchase video content, but this is unavailable locally in Malaysia or Singapore unless you’ve already purchased content elsewhere from another region.
Rounding off the additional apps bundled with the phone are some additional third-party utilities like a free version of Office 8 suite along with a free three-month subscription to security app AVG Pro.
Thankfully most of these apps (especially the third-party ones) can be uninstalled.
As a mid-range smartphone, the Xperia M4 Aqua Dual certainly has its merits.
The device doesn’t particularly excel or stand out in any one area, has an acceptable if somewhat ‘plasticky’ build quality, a reasonably fast processor, 4G connectivity, dual SIM card slots and a solid performing camera.
The bloatware is an easy problem to fix (just delete the apps!) but the lack of storage for system applications and updates is another matter altogether. You’d be surprised how much space Android demands for app updates these days.
This can be a deal-breaker if you tend to install lots of apps and games (especially those that go beyond 1GB). The only way to get around this is to pay more (S$498 in Singapore) to import the 16GB version of the phone, though after-sales support would be a challenge.
Still, owning a fairly nice-looking device with full weather-proof qualities is the real clincher here. Many customers with a relatively active lifestyle would be willing to pay more for this feature alone.
Bringing this to a lower price point is a great way to show off Sony’s technology prowess in this area.