Sony Xperia M4 Aqua Review

Here’s an understatement: the last half decade has not been kind to Sony.

With its well-documented financial troubles and lack of successful product launches, particularly on the mobile front, the past several of years have seen the once mighty Japanese electronics giant become a shadow of its former self.

It’s been a disappointing turn of events, especially for those of us that appreciate well-made products, but the company looks like it’s finally turn things around. With help from its gaming division and camera sensor business, Sony is poised to return to profitability, and there may even be hope for Sony on the mobile front.

In Canada, the recently released the Xperia M4 Aqua, mid-range Android smartphone that burrows some a couple of features from its more expensive siblings.

It’s a capable smartphone that showcases some of that old-school Sony charm at a affordable price.

Let’s find out more.

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Specs

  • Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • 5-inch 1280 x 720 pixel display
  • Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor
  • 2GB RAM / 16GB internal storage (expandable)
  • 13MP rear camera
  • 5MP front-facing camera
  • 1080p video capture
  • 136 grams
  • 145.5 x 72.6 x 7.3 mm
  • LTE support
  • IP65 / IP68 water resistant and dust-proof
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Hardware and Design

One of the main selling points of the M4 Aqua is an outer shell that is borrowed from Sony’s more expensive Xperia Z line. The case is both water-resistant and dust-proof—IP65 and IP68, respectively.

An advantage the M4 has over its more expensive siblings is that it features an improved case design; Sony has found a way to seal the power port and headphone jack without using a plastic cap. The main advantage I found with this setup is that it’s easier to find both ports by simply running your fingers along the sides of the phone.

That said, the outer shell is not perfect. First of all, for reasons I can’t quite discern, Sony decided to go with a glass back on this phone. If there’s an anti-smudge coating applied to the front and back of the M4 Aqua, it wasn’t very effective during my time with the device. Second, I found the phone a bit uncomfortable to hold during an extended conversation or while reading a lengthy article. Mostly, this has to do with fact that the edges of the phone are rounded at an angle that’s a bit too sharp for my taste.

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Aside from this fact, the M4 feels like a high-end phone. It’s sturdy and, blissfully, at 5.0-inches not overly large. It’s also neither too heavy nor too light. In terms of physical buttons, you have a power button, a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button, and like the rest of the phone these feel well-made.

Inside of that shell you have a collection of capable components, including a Snapdragon 615 processor clocked at 1.5GHz, an Adreno 405 GPU, 2GB of RAM and a 2,400mAh battery. Overall, none of these help make the M4 exceptional compared to its more expensive peers, but Sony has definitely chosen its battles wisely by focusing on components that help alleviate many of the major pain points people have with modern smartphones.

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You can see that in the water-resistant case, a feature that would have saved a couple of my previous phones, and it’s also apparent with the choice of power cell. Battery life on the M4 Aqua is excellent; I was almost able to get two days of regular use on a single charge, and standby time was even better.

Where the experience starts to fall apart a bit is with the phone’s display.

In a world of 1080p mobile displays, the M4’s 720p display actually holds its own. Despite only sporting a pixel density of about 294 pixels per inch, text on the M4’s display never looked blurry. This, combined with the size of the display, made tasks like watching movies on Netflix and reading articles on Instapaper really enjoyable.

Where the display could be better is in the area of colour reproduction. The panel Sony has decided to use with the M4 is definitely biased towards blues. This was mostly apparent when viewing images I had taken with the phone’s camera. Judging solely from what I saw on the M4’s display, it was difficult to say whether a photo I had taken was actually any good. Once I uploaded an image to my computer, though, I was actually happy with a lot of the snaps I had taken, which brings us to the M4’s camera.

M4 Aqua on the left, iPhone 5S on the right

The most discerning eyes will likely find fault with the M4’s rear and front-facing, but overall both of its cameras are capable. Like with most smartphone cameras at this price range, images could be sharper and low light performance leaves a bit to be desired.

Here, compared to the iPhone 5s, the M4 Aqua actually holds its ground, exposing more accurately in good lighting. The 13MP sensor doesn’t do so well in low light, but is less noisy overall than the iPhone’s camera.

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Software and Performance

Given the limitations of its hardware, the M4 feels responsive—for the most part, anyway. There’s a barely there hitch when switching between home screens and webpages could load faster. However, these all things that, if you’re not looking for them, are easy to overlook.

That said, I definitely recommend downloading either the stock Google keyboard or one of the better third-party ones. In terms of functionality, Sony’s keyboard does its job just fine, but it feels unresponsive—so much so that my experience with the M4 improved significantly once I installed Google’s keyboard. Likewise, for those that are comfortable installing a custom launcher on their phone, I would also recommend downloading Nova Launcher or one of its peers. Sony’s launcher is serviceable and responsive—and I think most people will find it fits their needs just fine—but using Nova Launcher I was able to get a slightly smoother experience.

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Excepting the keyboard, the software experience on the M4 is mostly excellent. Sony has shied away from making significant alterations to the look and feel of the operating system, and what’s here mostly resembles stock Android 5.0 Lollipop. The only notable addition is the company’s “Small Apps” drawer. This part of the operating system is accessible through the “Recent Apps” menu and features that, like the name suggests, several small applications that can be added to one of the phone’s homescreens. Most of these apps are of questionable utility, but thankfully they can be ignored; indeed, that’s something that can be said about of a lot of the apps Sony has decided to include with the phone.

With Google’s own media apps already installed on the phone, most people won’t bother with Sony’s suite of media apps—as a PS4 owner, though, I will say that I did appreciate being saved the trouble of having to download the PlayStation app. Likewise, other inclusions like File Commander and AVG Protection are fine, but better offerings can be found with a simple visit to the Play Store. All these apps, whether you find them useful or not, are easy enough to ignore and none of them feel like bloatware.

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That said, one app that shouldn’t be ignored is the M4’s camera app. This app is a marked improvement over the admittedly sparse offering Google has available on the Play store. One its neat features is that it’s possible to download additional modules to augment the app’s functionality.

Switching between these modules is easy, and there are several to choose from, including one that lets you have a bit of fun with augmented reality and another that makes creating panoramas relatively easy. My personal favourite is the “Manual” one. Adjusting factors like shutter speed, ISO and white balance I was able to get a lot more out of the M4’s camera.

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The only major issue with the M4’s software is the version of Android it is running. The review unit we were sent came with Android 5.0. Sony has promised that, pending carrier certification, most M4 Aquas will receive Android 5.1 at some point in August. With its well-documented performance issues, I’m going to assume that most of the performance issues I ran into with the M4 likely had something to do with the fact that it was running Android 5.0.

With any non-Nexus device there’s the reasonable fear that a manufacturer will cease to issue OS updates after a year or so. With mid-range devices like the M4 Aqua, that fear is even more well founded. I will say that over the past year Sony has had one of the better track records of updating its Android devices, but I can understand the decision to skip a phone like this out of fear of it not being updated.

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Connectivity and Network Performance

The M4 Aqua is a fully capable LTE device that will work with almost any network in Canada.

Using a Rogers SIM card, I had a particularly excellent experience using the phone. Streaming music with Rdio, for instance, I was able to listen to songs at 192 Kbps without any sign of interruption. Downloading apps over the LTE antenna also worked flawlessly.

Likewise, call quality was also great. I made several calls without issue, and each and every time the person on the other side was easy to hear and understand.

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Conclusion

With the exception of the M4’s screen, Sony has created a phone that is, by all accounts, an excellent entry into the mid-range market. As with any device in this price range, there are compromises. But, for the most part, the company has packed in features that many different types of consumers can appreciate. Overall, the Xperia M4 Aqua is an easy phone to recommend, especially if you don’t want to break the bank with your next smartphone purchase.

The Sony Xperia M4 Aqua is available from Bell, Virgin Mobile, Videotron, Fido, SaskTel and Wind starting at $0 on a 2-year term and $300 to $350 outright.

Pros

  • Well-built case that is also stylish
  • Water-resistant and dust proof
  • Mostly excellent screen
  • Decent performance

Cons

  • Doesn’t ship with the latest version of Android Lollipop
  • Camera could be better
  • Poor stock keyboard

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