We’ve seen good phones out of Sony in the past couple of years, but generally in the flagship field, so what sort of handset does Sony produce when it makes it to a budget?
A slightly different style of device from Sony, the “E” series of products are a little more budget focused than the usual mid-range to top-tier products we normally see.
This phone, the E4, tries to evade the whole entry-level look and feel by throwing the sum of its parts (and indeed the parts themselves) under a 5 inch In-Plane Switching (IPS) display, complete with a degree of scratch-resistant glass.
Despite being 5 inches, you’ll find only a quarter-HD (qHD) resolution of 960×540 here, providing a pixel clarity of roughly 220 pixels per inch, approximately 100 lower than what the iPhone 5 and 6 offer in their respective “Retina” grade panels.
Under this 5 inch display, you’ll find a combination of parts, including a not-so-common-in-these-parts Mediatek MT6582 quad-core 1.3GHz processor, 1GB RAM, with 8GB storage and a microSD card slot to expand this.
Google’s Android 4.4 “KitKat” runs on this phone natively, and you’ll find the connections on this handset are fairly low-end, with 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1 with A2DP and aptX, GPS, and 3G connectivity.
Wired connectivity is pretty standard, too, with a microUSB charge and data transfer port found on the very left of the unit, as well as a 3.5mm headset jack up top on the right.
Two cameras can be found on this phone, a change for the typical one camera solution most budget phones receive, with the Sony Xperia E4 receiving a 5 megapixel camera with flash on the back, as well as a 2 megapixel camera on the front.
Few buttons can be found on this phone, however, with merely a physical circular power button on the right edge, just above a volume rocker. The rest of the buttons can be found built into the screen with the software, as is typical with Sony’s previous implementations of Android, providing the soft buttons for back, home, and multitasking through the screen itself.
The case on this phone is plastic and removable, revealing slots for the microSD slot, as well as for the microSIM slot.
The battery is built into the body of this phone and is rated at 2300mAh.
Sony’s take on mobile phones has been getting stronger lately, and last year we even saw one of its phones take out our favourite device of the year in the Xperia Z3.
Flagship phones aren’t all the company wants to be known for, though, and with the E series, we’re seeing Sony try for the “entry-level” part of the market, telling us what the “E” stands for.
If you can believe it, we’re actually up to a fourth-generation product in the E4, even though it has only been a few years since Sony has been dabbling with this product line-up.
Granted, we haven’t reviewed one of these models before, but if you look at the design, the features, and that look and feel of the Android overlay, it’s clear that Sony is gradually trickling down its take on what a mobile should be from its current Xperia range, resulting in this budget model.
Pick up that budget model and you’ll find a phone that feels more like one of the early Nokia Lumia models than something with the Sony name we’re used to. There are no slick edges, no feeling of this being a monolithic rectangular brick, with that design traded in for a curvy rectangular pillow made to nestle with your fingers and palm.
It’s clear this is plastic, though it’s a little strange this design, as the soft plastic edges curve from the back to the front, ending with slightly sharp segmented angles on the glass. You get used to it, sure, but it’s a design that doesn’t quite work and feels a little odd in the hands.
Switch the phone on and you’ll find the 5 inch display light up, the colourful IPS screen providing a surprising amount of brightness for a low-end phone.
It won’t blow your eyelids off in much the same way as Samsung’s Galaxy S6 or LG’s G4 — different classes of phone, after all — but it offers an automatic brightness mode, and will provide a decent viewing from several angles, though the brightness does appear a bit dim at these angles.
Viewing in sunlight could do with some work, so we’d seek out some shade before sending a message to a friend, but indoors, you should be fine.
Using the phone is pretty much just like any other Sony phone, with a look blending that of Google’s Android and that of the Sony PlayStation, with the wave effect appearing on the background, relatively flat icons, and the typical Android staples of several widgetised home screens, a dropdown notification bar divided into notifications and settings, and an app menu where you can reorder or uninstall apps fairly easily.
Android’s soft buttons are built into the screen, and if you’re expecting these built into the body like they still are on Samsung phones, that’s not the case here, with digital representations that change depending on the app you’re using, which is pretty much the style of the operating system Google tends to prefer in devices.
Two cameras are here, which you’ll have noticed from our spec round up in the features section, and while they’re not the best cameras in the world, and certainly won’t replace a compact you might still take with you, they are surprisingly better than the cameras we see in most phones under $150.
You need to remember that Sony’s Xperia E4 is a $129 phone in Australia, and for that sort of cash, you’ll find a 5 megapixel camera with flash on the back.
Despite 5 megapixels sounding decent — it wasn’t too long ago that the iPhone featured one of these — it’s really the software that makes this one shine, with much the same support for intelligent scene shooting, augmented reality, and downloadable camera modes as the other Xperia phones found here, including the Z3 and Z3 Compact.
Granted, the camera quality doesn’t appear to be anywhere near close to what you’d get on Sony’s flagship models — hardly a surprise given the price differences — but at least when you fire a shot in a backlit environment, Sony’s software will fill in the gaps and fire off two shots combined to make an HDR image instead of giving you a poorly exposed photo like on other cameras.
That flash is also going to be useful for some, because while we tend to avoid flashes — they’re not great for every situation — the mark of a budget phone is usually a missing flash, so it’s nice to see Sony hasn’t skipped this feature.
The front-facing camera is also not a fantastic 2 megapixel module, either — did you know humans glow orange? — but we’ve seen much lower on budget cameras, and technically even the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus use lower megapixels.
Don’t confuse megapixel numbers for quality, though, as we’d take the front FaceTime cameras on either of the new iPhones over the E4’s mediocre front-facing camera any time, but again, it’s a decent inclusion, especially when budget phones either have 640×480 VGA front-cameras or none at all.
Over to the battery, because that is one area that wins marks without problems, delivering two days of performance without trying.
Our regular test has us making phone calls, sending messages, doing the whole social networking schtick, emailing, web surfing, listening to music, and taking photos, and we had no problem with general use on this phone taking it to two days of life.
That’s two very, very comfortable days without one of Sony’s “stamina” modes switched on, giving us a hint that the Xperia E4 might well even survive longer if the phone was switched onto one of these battery saving modes.
This is an impressive battery run time, not just for Sony, but for any phone, as few phones these days pull past a day or even a day and a half, and the Xperia E4 has no problems hitting those targets.
But that extended battery life tends to come at the expense of a low-end processor, a mediocre supply of memory (RAM), with these two factors coming together for a performance that can really grind at you.
Slowdowns were there for pretty much anything. Open an app and it’ll take an extra half to full second or two to go in. Try to log in to Instagram and the keyboard takes its time appearing on the screen. Load up Google Play Music for some tunes or the web browser Chrome and they both just take their time getting into action, making themselves available for use.
Make no mistake, this can be a very slow phone — a… very…. slow… phone… — and while it offers a good looking 5 inch display, it also comes with the caveat that the screen will look good when the phone is taking its sweet time to do what you ask of it.
For some, that won’t pose much of a problem, especially if you’re after a phone with a big screen for a cheap price, and $129 even locked to a network certainly delivers that. We haven’t seen too many 5 inch phones go for under $200, and the Xperia E4 definitely provides that.
But it does so at the cost of system performance, and provided you don’t mind doing little bits at a time, and you’re fine with the phone taking a little bit of time to do those little bits, you’ll be right.
Coming from the flagship and top tier phones that we’re used to seeing, and even the middle range devices, the Xperia E4 is positively slow, reminding us less of a modern smartphone found in 2015 but more of something from a few years ago, with a performance that just doesn’t hit the marks.
Kids won’t like it and will get frustrated, but people who know how to wait, and don’t mind their devices not being top of the class will be fine.
That lack of performance also extends to the fact that this is only a 3G phone, meaning don’t expect super high speed downloads.
From a technical point of view, we’re not talking super-fast 3G, though, because while 3G can yield decent speeds, you won’t see them on this phone.
Our tests pushed out speeds ranging from 2 to 7Mbps, which is about average for 3G, but below the maximum 15Mbps a 3G phone with support for a 3.5G or NextG network can achieve.
We’re probably running out the clock for the 3G technology, and now that we’re beginning to see 4G creep into phones around the $99 to $199 mark, we’d say that Sony should definitely jump on the LTE bandwagon next year.
Again, if you’re not bothered by this and can wait for a YouTube stream to come down or your web page to load, it won’t be a huge problem, and the wait isn’t all that long, but this isn’t the fastest device to take with you, with the mobile and system performance being the weakest part of the E4 experience.
While the system performance leaves something to be desired, and sometimes might even have you sighing quite heavily, the battery life is the reason to check out this $129 phone, rounding two days without any real problems.
Hey, if you manage to use your phone less than us and switch on Sony’s stamina modes, you might even be able to score three days of life.
We’re happy at two days, even if the performance is a bit of a drag, because if you don’t need a super fast mobile and are quite happy to be patient, Sony’s 5 inch Xperia E4 is excellent value.