Due to the recent death of my Nexus 5 while on holiday, I leapt at the opportunity to have a play with the brand new Sony M4 Aqua for a few weeks until I decided what to replace my primary phone with. I’ve always been a fan of Sony phones, so I was keen to see how this new mid-range handset stacked up. The M4 is being sold exclusively by Spark in New Zealand, with a RRP of $499
On paper the M4 Aqua packs some pretty good specs for a mid--range Android handset. Its 145mm x 72.6mm x 7.3mm body features a 5” 720x1280 720p screen, 2400 mAh battery, and weighs in at 136g. The phone ships with Android 5.0 Lollipop which is something that surprised me slightly – many manufacturers only deployed Lollipop at 5.01 or 5.02 due to the many bug fixes they included, and with 5.1 and 5.1.1 now readily available on many handsets, including many from Sony, it seems strange that Sony would launch a new handset based on 5.0 – here’s hoping that an upgrade is in the pipeline.
The phone is IP68 rated meaning it’s fully waterproof. All buttons on the phone (power, volume and dedicated camera button) are located on the right hand side of the handset. Slots for the nano SIM and micro SD card are behind waterproof flaps, while the USB port and 3.5mm headset connector are internally waterproofed. The phone is capable of being submerged in water, but isn’t designed to actually be used under water. A few days after getting the phone Spark did send out a press release for a stick on shower mount for the phone so you could check your Facebook status or listen to music while in the shower. I’m gutted they didn’t send me one to test!
The M4 Aqua features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 chipset, 13MP rear facing and 5MP front facing camera. Picture quality outdoors was good, but low light images are pretty typical of most phones – good, but not great. It features 2GB RAM and 8GB of on-board storage. The good news is the phone features a micro SD slot, and buying a memory card is one of the first things you’ll want to do as it didn’t take me long after I’d installed all my usual apps and taken a few photos before I was seeing warnings about storage space. The installation of a memory card solved that issue, but a few days later (with photos being saved on the memory card) I once again started receiving low memory warnings. With only 8GB of storage and the Android OS taking up 4GB this leaves only 4GB for apps – and my apps were using 3.7GB of storage.
The camera defaults to taking 16:9 images compared to the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio of a normal photo. The 16:9 ratio means the camera image is effectively 8.6MP, whereas 4:3 aspect ratio delivers a 12.8MP image. I personally prefer photos in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and with phone manufacturers offering a mix of settings as default it’s going to come down to personal preference as to which aspect ratio you prefer to use.
The styling of current Sony phones is something people seem to love or hate. I love the feel of the Z3 and Z3 compact with their full glass back, and Sony have tried to replicate this but instead of glass this mid-range phone features a polycarbonate back. In an era where a phone case is a mandatory add-on for any device I’m not sure whether anybody would really notice the difference.
One area where Sony certainly exceed in is mobile battery life. A number of phones I’ve used in recent time (including My Nexus 5) had absolutely terrible battery life, and for a heavy user like myself this meant charging my phone mid-afternoon to avoid it being flat by 6pm most days. Friends who have Z3 and Z3 compact phones rave about the battery life, and it’s great to see the M4 Aqua continues the trend. Over the course of the last week I’ve found my phone to be anywhere from 25% to 50% battery life by 9pm at night depending on my usage throughout the day. Sony claim you’ll get up to 2 days battery life from the phone, and while that would certainly be achievable if you’re a light user, for a heavy user you should easily get a full day’s usage from the phone without a charge, something many phones at present simply can’t deliver for a heavy users.
Some of the battery saving does come from power management settings in the phone (disable a feature called “queue background data” and you’ll notice battery life starts to take a hit), but overall these power saving features aren’t noticeable – with one possible exception. I did notice that the phone at times could be sluggish, and can’t help but wonder if power management features of the CPU were limiting the performance. I did find the default Sony Keyboard to be a little sluggish at times, but found no such issues with the Google Keyboard (which I prefer anyway) that I installed from the Play Store
Sony have their own customisation on top of Android which consists of their own launcher and a number of their own apps for camera, music and video. The phone also featured a number of apps which I’d consider to be “bloatware”, most of which could easily be uninstalled. Overall the phone was a pleasure to use and was relatively snappy most of the time. For those who aren’t a fan of the customisation and prefer a more vanilla Android experience, you can easily install the Google Now Launcher, along with the various Google apps such as Play Music from the Google Play store. Compared to the customisation on some other brands of phones however, Sony have certainly kept the changes minimal.
The only downside of the review phone was the external speaker for music and notifications on the bottom of the phone (not to be confused with the headset speaker at the top of the phone). After a week or so of use I missed a few calls because the phone didn’t ring, and some quick testing showed the speaker was failing and would either randomly play distorted sounds, or nothing at all. Hopefully it’s just an isolated issue, and not a sign of a poor quality component that could affect other handsets.
Overall the phone was a pleasure to use. Having owned and used predominantly high end handsets in recent years it’s good to use a mid-range handset for a few weeks to see the differences. My personal view is that the screen size is a little too big for a 720p panel – typically devices of this screen size ship with a 1920x1080 panel, and the difference in resolution and screen quality is noticeable. Sony have clearly opted for the lower spec screen to meet a price point, so it’s hard to say this is a fault. On a couple of occasions I found the device become very sluggish, however this was resolved with a reboot. I put this down to bugs in Android 5.0 – and the reason most manufacturers didn’t actually offer this version on handsets. It’s certainly a device I could happily use as my primary phone if I was after a mid-range option.