Hands-on review: Updated: Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

Hands-on review: Updated: Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

Introduction and design

Editor’s note: At the time of writing the Xperia M4 Aqua we received had a non-retail version of the software installed, so rather than a full review this is currently an extended hands on. We’ll update this review and give the M4 Aqua a score when Sony updates the handset with the final software.

The Xperia Z4 is still on its way, but while we wait the Japanese brand has taken all the sophisticated design language and shoved it into the mid-range Sony Xperia M4 Aqua.

Although this release won’t sate those of us clamouring for a top of the range Sony handset with killer specifications, if you like the look of Sony’s Xperia Z range but don’t want to drop kind of cash its asking price requires, then the Xperia M4 Aqua is one for you.

The Xperia M4 Aqua will go on sale for €299 (about £220, $340, AU$435), which is a fair bit cheaper than the nearly year-old Sony Xperia Z3, and this lower price tag means the Xperia M4 Aqua sits in the middle range of handsets, going up against the likes of the LG Magna and the Samsung Galaxy A5.

Although it’s a resolutely mid-range phone with a price tag and specifications to match, the Xperia M4 Aqua shares a lot of design language (and waterproof smarts) with the flagship Xperia Z range, giving a premium look and feel to an affordable handset.

Can this phone prove you can be midrange without being mediocre?

Design

If you’re familiar with Sony’s previous Xperia handsets then there’ll be no mistaking the Xperia M4 Aqua’s origins, with a sleek and square design that’s very similar to the Xperia Z3.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

The "OmniBalance" design – as it’s called by Sony – is designed to allow the Xperia M4 Aqua to look and feel good no matter how you hold it, and it’s just as successful as with the Xperia Z3 and Xperia Z3 Compact.

From a distance you’d be hard pushed to identify the M4 from its more expensive brethren, though on closure inspection you’ll notice that the M4’s body is made from polycarbonate material, rather than the metal of the Z3.

That doesn’t mean the M4 Aqua looks or feels cheap – far from it, as the premium design makes this one of the best looking mid-range phones.

Only the Samsung Galaxy A5 (which pulls a similar trick of utilising the metal design of the more expensive Samsung Galaxy Alpha) gives the M4 Aqua a run for its money in the looks department – at this price range, at least.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

The 145.5 x 72.6 x 7.3mm dimensions result in a large phone that accommodates a 5in screen, but it’s far from unwieldy. Combined with the 136g weight of the polycarbonate body and you have a handset that sits comfortably in the hand.

While the bezels on either side of the screen are relatively thin, the top bezel, which contains a front facing camera, speaker (for phone calls) and Sony logo, and the bottom bezel, that features a microphone, are both rather large, which gives the feeling that the handset is slightly longer than necessary.

Xperia M4 Aqua

As well as the front facing camera, the top bezel also features a small LED light that flashes when you receive a notification.

These lights change colour depending on the type of notification and some apps such as Facebook support this feature, letting you know what notification is waiting for you without having to turn the screen on.

Xperia M4 Aqua

It’s not quite as flexible as the curved side screen of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, but once you get to know the colours, it’s not a bad little additional feature.

The power button sits in the middle of the right-hand side of the body, which means that even people with smaller hands will be able to easily reach it, with the volume rocker just below.

A dedicated camera button is also present and correct, and as with the more expensive Xperia models, this is a welcome addition.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

In case the "Aqua" part of the name wasn’t enough of a giveaway, this handset is also waterproof, which means much like the Xperia Z3 the microSD and SIM ports are covered to prevent water entering.

The covers are easy enough to remove (and remain connected to the handset when open, so you won’t lose them), and keep the body looking rather stylish and smooth, though they can be a bit fiddly to work with when in the dark.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

Admittedly the instances when you’ll need to swap out a SIM or SD card in the dark could be few and far between, but finding the USB power port in the dark is a more common occurrence.

In previous water-proof Xperias this charging port was also covered which did cause frustrations. Happily Sony has managed to make this (along with the headphone port) water resistant without the need of a cover on the M4 Aqua, so finding it in poor lighting conditions is much easier.

Xperia M4 Aqua

The M4 Aqua can be picked up in three different colours; coral, black and white. The device I had was in the coral hue, which is a dark pink shade and looks rather fancy.

Overall the design of the Xperia M4 Aqua is excellent, and Sony has done a good job of keeping most of the premium design language from the more expensive Xperia Z3 on this cheaper device.

Key features

Water and dust proof

Although the Xperia M4 Aqua is almost half the price of the flagship Xperia Z3, Sony has kept the water-proof design with an IP65/IP68 rating that will let you safely get splashed or have fun on the beach without worrying about damaging the handset.

It’s dust proof as well, so even when you’re out of the water and on the sand, the M4 Aqua shouldn’t kick up a fuss.

As I mentioned earlier, various ports are protected with flaps that need to be on when submerged – though the USB and headphone sockets don’t need to be covered, which makes using the M4 Aqua both convenient and water proof. Thanks Sony!

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

The IP65/IP68 rating means that it can be submerged in water up to 1.5 metres for 30 minutes, so if you’re caught in a rainstorm or pushed into a swimming pool "for a laugh", you should be fine.

Two day battery life

Sony’s marketing material for the Xperia M4 Aqua focuses heavily on the two day battery life of the handset, which is certainly a hot topic at the moment.

Although two days doesn’t seem like much to crow about, in a world where we’re often scrambling for a charger before even a full day is done the extra day and a bit of juice could prove very useful – especially if you find it difficult to get to a power supply.

The 2,400mAh battery isn’t that big, but the M4 Aqua manages to prolong battery life with a lower resolution screen, an energy efficient Snapdragon 615 processor and a range of battery saving features such as extended standby mode, which turns off apps and functions when the screen is turned off, and Sony’s STAMINA mode that cuts back features when not needed.

I’ll go into whether or not the M4 Aqua’s battery life lives up to Sony’s promises later, but there’s no denying that if you’re sick of your smartphone struggling to last a single day, the promised two day battery life on offer here is very tempting.

Large and vibrant display

The Xperia M4 Aqua’s 5-inch screen is another big selling point, and as with other Xperia devices, Sony has put in some tricks and hardware that it picked up creating displays for its Bravia range of high definition TVs.

Although the screen’s 720p resolution doesn’t reach the heights that more expensive flagship phones usually ship with, Sony has done an excellent job of ensuring that it still looks bright and vibrant, and unless you compare it side by side with a handset that packs more pixels per inch, you’d really be hard pushed to complain about the screen.

The IPS panel also provides excellent viewing angles, so you don’t have to stare at the screen dead on to see what’s being displayed.

If you want to huddle around the phone to catch up on your latest Netflix obsession with some close – and I mean really close – friends, then their viewing experience won’t be badly impacted by viewing the screen at an odd angle either.

The large 5-inch screen and 720p resolution leads to a pixel density of 294ppi (pixels per inch). The Xperia Z3 by contrast has a 5.2-inch screen with a 1080p resolution for 424ppi.

The more pixels per inch the screen crams in, the sharper the image quality, but that doesn’t mean the M4 Aqua’s screen is fuzzy – in fact I was very pleasantly surprised by the image quality of the screen (thanks to Sony’s display tech); pixel density be damned.

Not only does the screen look good, but it’s fast and responsive to touch gestures and the scratch-resistant glass proved very resilient. Combined with the waterproof design, the M4 Aqua feels like a robust smartphone you’d happily take out and about with you.

Performance

Although on the outside the Xperia M4 Aqua does a good job of looking more expensive than it actually is, when you look at the hardware that’s inside the body it’s clear that this is definitely a mid-range smartphone.

That means we don’t get the latest and greatest Snapdragon 810 chipset from Qualcomm, and instead have the more modest Snapdragon 610.

It’s still an octa-core 64-bit affair, but one that doesn’t quite keep pace with the modern expectations of a smartphone, with a CPU speed of 1.46Ghz and just under 2GB of RAM (1.76GB to be precise).

It does mean that the M4 Aqua can be sold at a compellingly low price, though it also results in compromises to the overall performance and user experience. What I mean by this is that Android 5.0, which comes installed on the M4 Aqua with Sony’s custom overlay, does’t work quite as smoothly as on more powerful handsets.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

During my time with the M4 Aqua I noticed frequent pauses as I opened apps and scrolled through menus. Most of the time these slight delays were perfectly acceptable – especially considering the price of the M4 Aqua – however they did sometimes prove to be rather frustrating as well.

For example when browsing the internet Chrome would occasionally pause, and if you attempted to reselect the webpage you were on, perhaps thinking that the touchscreen hadn’t registered your command, you’d more often than not be thrown to a completely different webpage as Chrome suddenly springs back into life, causing you to tap on the wrong link.

Granted it’s a relatively small problem – and certainly not enough on its own to make you reconsider purchasing the M4 Aqua – but it does serve as a regular reminder that you’re using a pared back midrange handset.

At the time of writing we were using the M4 Aqua with an early version of Sony’s software which could be the reason for the bugs we encountered.

We’ll update this review when the final version of the software has been released. Let’s hope that Sony pays heed to the (many) bug reports our review M4 Aqua sent off, and the final result is a lot more polished.

As with previous Xperia devices, Sony’s custom interface for Android doesn’t change the fundamentals too much, but gives the device a rather (unsurprisingly) Sony feel to it. There’s the default wave theme and sounds that will be familiar to PlayStation owners, along with a number of apps for Sony’s services.

The Walkman app does a good job of gathering your music either on the handset or over your network, and where once it was integrated with Sony’s Music Unlimited service, since its demise Spotify has been included instead. As Spotify is a much more widely used service I feel that this benefits the Walkman app greatly.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

The Movies app on the other hand not only plays local videos but connects to Sony’s store, which might not be everyone’s first port of call when buying or renting movies.

The PlayStation app is also present and correct, and lets you view friends and sent messages to other PlayStation gamers. You can connect the M4 Aqua to a PlayStation 4 to use the handset as a helpful remote and keyboard but the Remote Play option, which lets you stream PS4 games to Xperia handsets, is sadly not included due to the limitations of the M4 Aqua’s hardware.

This is a shame as it was a fantastic feature on other more powerful Xperia devices – providing you had a PS4 that is.

As usual the usefulness of the apps Sony includes depends on how invested you are in Sony’s ecosystem, however the ditching of Sony’s Music Unlimited service in favour of Spotify means you don’t have to be a hardcore Sony fan to get the most out of this handset.

Apps are rather prone to crashing as well, and although this isn’t a problem when they crash and restart in the background, the M4 Aqua has a bug tracker which displays a notification every time something goes wrong.

It’s also quite hard to remove these notifications without uploading them to Google, which isn’t always viable – especially when you’re on cellular data, as the crash report files can be pretty large.

This means you end up with a number of ugly notifications that sit at the top of your screen, reminding you that your phone isn’t working properly – not brilliant. Certain apps, such as Twitter, crashed often leading to a backlog of crash reports clogging up my notifications.

The Geekbench 3 benchmark tests, which put the M4 Aqua through its paces, gave the handset a single-core score of 656 and a multi-core score of 2545. In comparison the older midrange Samsung Galaxy Alpha, which features Samsung’s own Exynos 5 Octa SoC racked up a more impressive 933 single-core and 3082 multi-core score.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini didn’t fare quite as well, however, with just 1105. The M4 Aqua’s predecessor, the Xperia M2 Aqua, scored just 1133 on the benchmark, so while the M4 Aqua is far from the fastest handset on the market, it still provides a hefty upgrade.

Battery life

Sony has made a big deal of the Xperia M4 Aqua’s two day life, employing a number of energy saving features – as well as pared back hardware – to accomplish this goal, and Sony claims that it is enough for 7 hours of high definition movie playback and 64 hours of listening to music.

During my time with the handset I found that generally the battery life was good – though uneven. Some days when moderately using the M4 Aqua for phone calls, texts and checking emails regularly, I’d end the day with the M4 Aqua still retaining an impressive 60% of its battery life – which means it would be easily capable of two day battery life.

However throw in some web browsing – both over WiFi and 4G – and the battery depletes much quicker, with a drop of around 20% after 15 minutes of browsing. So the M4 Aqua does do a fair job of holding onto battery life when used in certain circumstances, but not so well in others.

If you’re worried about battery life then Sony has included a number of features to help preserve it. Extended standby mode acknowledges when the screen of the M4 Aqua is turned off and effectively pauses background apps that it assumes you won’t be using. You can still receive calls, texts and alarms, and you’re also able to exempt any apps you like.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

You can also enable Ultra Stamina Mode, which cuts down the M4 Aqua’s functionality to just the core features such as making calls and messages, which should give you enough time to reach a charger.

I found that these features worked well in helping prolong the battery life, and with careful use you’ll be able to take the M4 Aqua away with you without having to worry about charging it for at least a couple of days.

When the battery life does expire, I was pleased to see that the M4 Aqua charges relatively quickly as well.

In our standard battery benchmark, where we play a high definition video for 90 minutes with the screen turned to full brightness, the battery drops by 25%, which isn’t a bad result at all. Last year’s Moto G lost 26% in comparison, however the more expensive Xperia Z3 Compact lost 33% of its battery in the same test, mainly down to its more power-hungry innards.

This means if you don’t mind a slightly underpowered handset in favour of more battery life, the M4 Aqua is a really viable option.

The essentials

The Sony Xperia M4 Aqua handles the essentials pretty well, with phone calls connecting quickly, and with good audio quality. The default call app looks great and is easy to use, letting you choose between recent calls, your contact list or bringing up a dial pad easily.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

Text messaging with the default app is also fine, though despite having a large 5-inch display, the lower 720p resolution of the screen means the onscreen keyboard feels a little cramped. This leads to less accuracy when typing – especially when tapping away quickly.

Web browsing is handled by Chrome by default, and the large screen makes reading websites nice and comfortable. The M4 Aqua comes with 4G LTE connectivity, so browsing is fast when on cellular, and dual band Wi-Fi lets you connect to faster, less congested wireless networks.

The only fly in the web browsing ointment here is that the M4 Aqua sometimes struggles loading pages, leading to annoying pauses when browsing. The handset can also quickly warm up when flicking through websites.

Xperia M4 Aqua

Media playback is increasingly seen as an essential tenet of any modern smartphone, and the M4 Aqua again does well here, but with some niggles.

Despite not being full HD, the 720p screen of the M4 Aqua is large, bright and vibrant and does an excellent job of displaying videos and photos, with the preinstalled Movies app doing a good job of playback, and can even find video files stored on DLNA capable devices on your network.

Although the M4 Aqua does not have the high resolution audio capabilities of the more expensive Xperia Z3, music playback is still good, and the integration of Spotify in the Walkman app is a nice addition – provided you’re subscribed to the service.

Xperia M4 Aqua

While media playback is generally pretty good, the lack of internal storage does prove to be a problem. The M4 Aqua ships with just 8GB, and what’s worse is that with Android 5.0 and the default apps installed, you end up with only around 4GB of storage straight out of the box.

It didn’t take me long at all to see a warning message pop up saying I had no more storage left, and that was only after installing a small number of apps. For storing music and videos, you’re going to need to invest in a microSD card, which thankfully the M4 Aqua supports.

However it only supports capacities up to 32GB, which should be enough for most people, but those of us with larger music and movie collections, or like taking photos, could quickly see that additional space get used up as well.

Camera

Sony has a decent track record of putting very good cameras in its smartphones, so it’s little surprise that the M4 Aqua packs a pretty nice snapper in the form of a 13MP Exmor RS sensor main camera and a 5MP front-facing one.

Xperia M4 Aqua

The camera app can be launched either through the dedicated camera button on the side of the M4 Aqua’s body, from the lock screen or through your home screen. The app is similar to the one found on other Xperia devices, which means there’s a host of features to help you compose and take shots.

Xperia M4 Aqua

Superior auto mode does a good job of figuring out what sort of photo you’re trying to take and in what sort of conditions, and then selecting the appropriate settings.

As with other Sony handsets that use this app, Superior auto mode worked rather well, but if you’d like to select your own settings the app also comes with a manual mode and a wealth of other tools.

Panoramas, multi camera and augmented reality are all included, though the M4 Aqua does struggle a fair bit with the demands of augmented reality.

Xperia M4 Aqua

The weaker specs of the M4 Aqua also mean that taking photos is a bit laborious, with the Snapdragon 610 that powers this phone unable to take photos at full speed, so you can end up waiting a few seconds for the snaps to take.

The photos themselves from the main camera are of decent quality, with both indoor and outdoor shots showing natural colour reproduction. Detail is good, though not spectacular, but most of the time photos come out clear and sharp.

However the slight delay in taking photos does mean you can sometimes miss out on the perfect shot, so if the camera is a particularly important aspect of your smartphone, then you’ll want to go for something that has enough power to take snaps quickly.

Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

Sony’s bid to please the selfie generation with a 5MP front facing snapper seems to have paid off though, as the photos I took using that camera were some of the better ones I’ve seen coming from the oft neglected front camera.

If you’re a keen taker of photos of yourself and friends – or perhaps use it to make Skype video calls – then you’ll be very pleased with the M4 Aqua’s performance in this regard.

Xperia M4 Aqua

On the subject of video, the M4 Aqua doesn’t attempt 4K footage – which is just as well as I found even the more powerful and expensive Xperia Z3 Compact struggled with that resolution – but the 1080p footage it does take (at 30 frames per second), is again pretty decent.

Overall if you take the odd shot using your smartphone, the M4 Aqua will be fine, but if you’re after something that can rival a compact camera, you’re much better off going for something like the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom or Nokia Lumia 1020 at around this price range.

Competition

Samsung Galaxy A5

Samsung Galaxy A5

Samsung’s approach to the Galaxy A5 is very similar to Sony’s with the Xperia M4 Aqua. Like the M4 Aqua, the Galaxy A5 is a smartphone that eschews the more expensive bells and whistles of high-end handsets in favour of concentrating on being a solid mid-range device.

The specifications of both handsets are decent, though unspectacular, with the M4 Aqua having the edge mainly thanks to it being a more recent handset.

This results in a beefed up Snapdragon 615 SoC, compared to the A5’s Snapdragon 410, so games and more intensive apps run smoother on Sony’s device.

However if you like storing plenty of photos, apps, movies and more, then the A5 has the edge as it comes with 16GB of inbuilt storage, compared to the M4’s 8GB.

Both devices have microSD card slots to boost storage, though again the Galaxy A5 trumps the M4 Aqua thanks to it supporting capacities up to 64GB, compared to only 32GB for the M4 Aqua.

Despite the Galaxy A5 being mid-range, Samsung has decked it out in an all-metal unibody that takes its design cues from the more expensive Galaxy Alpha – again very similar to what Sony has done with the M4 Aqua.

Both handsets look fantastic, so it really boils down to personal taste. For me, I’d say I prefer the look of the M4 Aqua, however the Galaxy A5’s all-metal unibody means it feels more like a quality device compared to the M4 Aqua.

The two smartphones offer 5.0-inch screens at 720p, and both use their own technology to improve image quality. As lovely as the Xperia M4 Aqua’s IPS screen is, the AMOLED tech behind the Galaxy A5 gives Samsung’s handset the edge there. The body to screen ratio is more in favour of the screen with the A5 as well, so you’ll get the same size screen but with a smaller body if you go with Samsung.

One thing that the M4 Aqua does offer over the Galaxy A5 is a water and dust proof body – so you’ll be getting a more robust handset with Sony’s offering.

LG Magna

LG Magna

The LG Magna doesn’t borrow as much design language from its more expensive sibling as the Xperia M4 Aqua and the Galaxy A5 do, though it features a curved display similar to the one found on the LG G Flex 2.

This leaves us with another midrange phone that stands out from the crowd, though the Xperia M4 Aqua still beats the LG Magna in the looks department.

Apart from the curve the screens are very similar, measuring 5.0-inches with a 720p resolution and pixel densities of 294ppi. LG’s use of in-cell technology is designed to make the LG Magna’s screen more vibrant and responsive, but the M4 Aqua’s display pips it in the looks department – unless you’re really after a curved screen.

Though the Xperia M4 Aqua’s 2400 mAh battery did well at holding on to its charge, the LG Magna comes with a slightly larger 2540mAh battery – so with careful use you might see the LG Magna lasting longer between charges.

The two handsets come with Android 5.0 Lollipop, each with custom overlays, and both suffer from just 8GB of internal memory. The LG Magna is certainly an interesting midrange smartphone, but overall the M4 Aqua proves to be a more desirable handset.

  • Read our hands-on thoughts on the LG Magna

Sony Xperia Z3

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

At first glance it might seem a little unfair to pit the Zperia M4 Aqua against its more expensive and powerful older sibling, but with a design that so closely apes the appearance of the Z3, it is inviting comparisons somewhat.

On more than a few occasions when I was using the M4 Aqua it was mistaken by people for the Z3, which means if you want a midrange phone but care about appearances, you’ll be very pleased with the M4 Aqua.

When compared directly, the Z3 has an edge with the metal surrounds and overall build quality, but unless you’re standing next to an overbearing Z3 owner, you’re probably not going to notice.

What I did like about the M4 Aqua is that the USB charging port is no longer covered by a flap, which makes it easier to use in the dark. Both handsets are still waterproof, again proving that you don’t necessarily have to pay top dollar to get some of the Z3’s best features.

However the Z3 is a clear winner when it comes to power and features, though these come with a bigger price tag. The 5.2-inch screen is not only slightly larger, but also full 1080p resolution, which leads to a stunning screen that handily beats the M4 Aqua.

The Xperia Z3 is certainly the better phone, however the M4 Aqua more than holds its ground in some aspects, and considering the price difference between the two it can make the M4 Aqua the more shrewd purchase for some people.

Sony Xperia Z3 Compact

Xperia Z3 Compact

We love the Xperia Z3 Compact as it crams pretty much everything that’s good about the Xperia Z3 into a smaller and cheaper handset.

This means that the choice between the Z3 Compact and the M4 Aqua isn’t quite as simple, as the price difference isn’t quite as large – though it is still there.

What you get with the Z3 Compact is a more powerful and smaller handset that’s again water and dust-proof, though a bit more expensive.

If your budget can stretch to the Xperia Z3 Compact, then I would heartily suggest going for that handset over the M4 Aqua, though if it’s still too expensive, then you’ll be happy enough the with M4 Aqua.

Early verdict

Editor’s note: Our full verdict will appear here once we’ve received a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua with final software and we’ve had a chance to give it a good test.

The M4 Aqua is a decently priced smartphone that does a lot of things well, and a lot of things not so well. This can sometimes mean it’s hard to decide whether or not a phone would be particularly suitable for certain people, but in this case the stars have aligned and it actually makes the decision a bit easier.

Do you want a phone that covers the basics well, throws in some nice features like 4G and NFC and also looks nice? Do you only use your phone occasionally but when you do, you need to know that it will have kept its battery?

Then the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua is definitely worth considering, and if you bought it for those reasons you wouldn’t be disappointed at all.

Xperia M4 Aqua

However if you’re constantly on the phone, playing games, browsing the internet and downloading the latest and greatest apps, then the Xperia M4 Aqua really won’t be for you.

The pitiful storage space will limit your app aspirations, and the constant use – especially when browsing the internet – eliminates and battery benefit the handset brings.

On top of that you’ll be bothered by the crashes and speed of the handset, and if you like taking photos you might be initially pleased with the results, but you’ll soon be hankering for a snappier snapper.

If you still lust after Sony’s aesthetics then I would strongly recommend the Xperia Z3 Compact which does pretty much everything better and comes with a host of additional features such as PS4 Remote Play as well.

It’s a bit more expensive, but once the Xperia Z4 comes out we should hopefully see some decent price cuts there as well.

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