Sony’s smartphone division has fallen behind the likes of Apple, Samsung and OnePlus in recent years, forcing it to adapt.
The release of the Xperia 1 in 2019 marked a shift in strategy for the Japanese company, introducing a 21:9 aspect ratio for the first time.
Now, it’s bringing this tall, thin chassis to budget phones, starting with the Xperia L4.
Can this standout feature make the phone a true budget contender, or are there too many compromises in other areas? Read our full review to find out.
The first thing I noticed about the L4’s design is the shift to a 21:9 aspect ratio. It’s the most obvious difference over last year’s L3, and the first time Sony has brought this tall, narrow form factor to its budget line.
Its effect on the user experience remains largely the same as 2019’s Xperia 1 and Xperia 5. Despite only sporting a 720p display, many films look stunning displayed in their native format, free from any letterboxing.
However, it’s punctured by a rather unsightly teardrop notch, something that isn’t present on the more expensive Sony phones. That houses a single 8Mp front-facing camera, without support for face unlock.
With a sizeable chin, the phone lacks symmetry to the point that it becomes annoying at times. The 79.5% screen-to-body ratio is by no means a dealbreaker, but even budget phones regularly exceed 85% in this regard.
The unusual aspect ratio also makes the 6.2in phone almost impossible to use one-handed. That’s typical of many handsets over 6in, but its effects are magnified on such a tall display.
With so many budget phones looking similar these days, the 21:9 display is a surefire way for the L4 to stand out from the crowd, but its implementation does cause a few complications.
The other key design choice is a side-mounted fingerprint scanner. Like with the Xperia 5, a patent issue means it couldn’t be integrated into the power button, and the latter is therefore placed awkwardly low on the side of the device.
The sensor itself is easy to enrol and had an extremely high success rate in my testing, even when my finger was wet.
Another notable inclusion is a 3.5mm headphone jack. Although Sony has brought this back to its flagship Xperia 1 II for 2020, it’s been an ever-present on the company’s budget line.
Combined with a very decent pair of downward-firing speakers, the Xperia L4 offers some excellent audio options.
Flipping the phone over reveals triple rear cameras, with the main 13Mp lens joined by 5Mp ultrawide and 2Mp depth sensors. The latter means the L4 is capable of portrait mode shots, although we’ll have more on that later.
The back of the phone is where the plastic build is most apparent, although it definitely doesn’t have the same cheap feeling as its predecessor. That’s particularly apparent on the black model I tested, although it’s also available in a more eye-catching blue variant.
I felt comfortable enough testing the phone case-free, and the Corning Gorilla Glass screen means I’d be confident of it surviving the drops you might expect in everyday usage.
The Xperia L4 sounds pretty unspectacular on paper. Powered by a MT6762 Helio P22 processor, the only configuration offers 3GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The latter is expandable via the microSD card slot, although it would have been nice to have more flexibility here.
Indeed, the below benchmarks would appear to tell a similarly mediocre story. The L4 performs only marginally better than 2019’s Xperia L3, and lags well behind the best budget phones on the market.
However, this is a classic case of benchmarks not necessarily being representative of real-world usage. I really enjoyed using the Xperia L4 as my everyday phone, to the extent that I was reluctant to take my SIM out of the phone once I’d finished testing.
Moving through the UI was smooth and seamless, with Sony’s stripped-back interpretation of Android undoubtedly contributing to that.
It’s definitely not suited to power users, and graphic-intensive gaming didn’t quite hit the mark, but for everything else it was a joy to use.
The Xperia L4 comes running Android 9 Pie out of the box, and unfortunately there’s no indication whether it’ll get the update to Android 10.
That means you won’t get the improved notification and permission controls or new fonts, although that wasn’t a big issue for me.
Interestingly, Sony has released a patch that means you will get the option for a system-wide dark mode, so that’s something. The company’s phones had also already embraced gesture-based navigation, so you don’t have to worry about missing out on that.
Subtle differences in Sony’s gestures mean there’s a slight learning curve, but once I became accustomed to them I definitely wouldn’t go back to the traditional on-screen buttons.
As always, you can bring the traditional nav buttons back by heading into settings.
As I alluded to in the previous section, this is a thoughtful interpretation of Google’s software that focuses on the basics.
The main point in its favour is that there’s very little bloatware. In fact, a basic music player was the only app I could see that you might not find on Pixel phones. Snaps from the camera even go straight into Google Photos, instead of the Gallery app we so often see from third-party manufacturers.
This makes it excellent if you’re heavily invested in the Google ecosystem, although the flexibility of Android means it’s easy to install third-party alternatives and transform the look and feel of your device.
Potential lack of updates aside, the software on the Xperia L4 is a joy to use.
The Xperia L4 comes with an impressive-looking triple rear camera setup, although that’s par for the course when it comes to modern budget phones. The main 13Mp sensor is joined by 5Mp ultra-wide and 2Mp depth sensors.
Unfortunately, despite sounding good on paper, the L4’s cameras are a bit hit-and-miss.
As you’ll see from the samples below, it regularly has issues with exposure. In many of the shots I took, either the background was overexposed, or darker elements in the foreground underexposed.
As you can see above, you can get some nice shots in optimal lighting conditions, but it feels very hit-and-miss.
It’s easy to say that you’re not buying a £169 for its photographic prowess, but Sony has specifically drawn attention to the Xperia L4’s triple cameras and so their performance is slightly underwhelming.
On the video side, the phone is capable of 1080p video at 30fps, while there’s also the option to take advantage of the 21:9 aspect ratio for recordings.
Footage is fine if you plan on keeping movement to a minimum, but will quickly become juddery with anything more due to a lack of optical image stabilisation.
The Xperia L4 comes with a 3580mAh, up from 3300mAh on the L3. Despite having a similar resolution screen, its performance on Geekbench 4’s battery test was significantly down on its predecessor.
8 hours and 48 minutes is around average when you compare all our smartphones, but I was expecting it to be closer to the 11 hours and 6 minutes from the L3.
It’ll get you through a full day without a problem, but it’s far from being a contender for our best battery life phone.
One area it did perform well was standby time; I was able to leave the phone with less than 5% battery for a number of hours without it running out of juice. This is an area that some Android phones struggle with, so it’s even more impressive here.
The phone does support 18W fast charging, although it’s a separate accessory which is ‘available soon’ at the time of writing.
I was able to get 22% of battery in 30 minutes from off via the adapter in the box, so you’re looking at around two hours for a full charge.
Price and value for money
The Sony Xperia L4 costs £169 via the Xperia Official Partner in the UK, where it’s also available for the same price at Amazon.
There are no configuration options beyond colour, so in exchange you’ll get 3GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The latter is expandable via the microSD card slot, although that’s pretty mediocre when you consider what else is available on the market.
At this it’s going head-to-head with many of the entries in our best budget phone chart. Similarly priced options such as the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S and Oppo A5 2020 show what is possible at this end of the market, thus drawing even more attention to the L4’s shortcomings.
I wouldn’t say it’s poor value for money per se, but the wealth of extremely capable sub-£200 handsets makes the L4 less attractive for the average consumer.
The Xperia L4 is one of only a handful of budget phones to have a unique selling point. The 21:9 aspect ratio might not have mainstream appeal, but bringing the tall, thin chassis to Sony’s budget lineup was a major statement of intent.
Despite only being 720p, the display is a pleasant surprise, and being able to watch films in their native format is very impressive.
Other highlights include a premium design and excellent software, even if it is Android 9 and not 10.
However, the biggest disappointment on the Xperia L4 is the cameras. You can get some decent shots in good lighting, but it regularly struggles with exposure and video is often unusable. Considering the focus Sony placed on the L4’s photographic abilities, this is a big let down.
Throw in some average internals and a very unnecessary notch, and there are just one too many compromises for most people to pick this phone over the competition.
Sony Xperia L4: Specs
6.2in 720×1680 LCD display
Mediatek Helio P22
PowerVR GE8320 GPU
Triple rear camera (13Mp regular, 5Mp wide, 2Mp depth)
8Mp front-facing camera
Android 9 Pie
3.5mm headphone jack