(Pocket-lint) - The Sony L4 sits at the affordable end of the company's phones - it's the Xperia device for those who can't stretch to the asking price of the Xperia 1, 5 or 10. The L4 finds itself in a competitive part of the market, with some big names like Nokia and Motorola looking to dominate this end of the spectrum. 

However, the L4 brings with it a lot of desirable features, so you're not left wondering what it might be like to have access to some of that goodness that you get further up the scale. But does this affordable Sony Mobile phone deliver? 

Design

  • Dimensions: 159 x 71 x 8.7mm / Weight: 174g
  • Side-mounted fingerprint scanner
  • 3.5mm headphone socket
  • Plastic body construction

The Sony Xperia L4 adopts some of the design language you'll find in 2020's top Xperia devices - the Xperia 1 II for example - with that 21:9 display pushing back the bezels and bringing with it a small notch at the top for the front camera.

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Flip the phone over and there's a three-camera array sitting in one corner, with the same overall layout as Sony's more advanced devices. It's neat and tidy, if not hugely inspiring on the L4, lacking some of the design flair the more advanced devices offer.

That's partly because the L4 has a plastic body that's is a little on the thick side - but that's not unusual in more affordable devices. It offers good grip, certainly, and the matte finish says clean compared the the glass that's often favoured in premium devices.

There's a 3.5mm headphone socket which is convenient, supporting the single speaker on the base of the phone. The lack of stereo means you're better with headphones on this device, especially when it comes to gaming or watching videos. 

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There's a fingerprint scanner on the side of the Xperia L4, which is a classic Sony move. It works well enough, but on numerous occasions we've attempted to unlock it only to be told that we've made "too many attempts" and have to resort to a PIN. Sure, it keeps the back of the phone tidier, but it's not as reliable as many of the rear-mounted scanners.

Display

  • 6.2-inch LCD display, 21:9 aspect ratio
  • 1680 x 720 resolution (295ppi)

There's a 6.2-inch display on the front of this phone, but the 21:9 aspect means that it's not excessively wide, rather it's tall. That's good for hand-holdability - but bear in mind that some rival 6.2-inch devices are wider and therefore have more screen space.

It's a 720p display, so just HD, which although on the low side these days is actually pretty decent in terms of detail in this format. Certainly, watching Netflix, flicking through social media, or crushing Gmail on this phone doesn't throw up any problems. But there are limitations: the screen isn't excessively bright, so it doesn't have the punch that better displays do.

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It also dims fairly rapidly from some angles and doesn't have quite the agility to deal with things like darker shades present in moody movies - although that's not uncommon at this price.

The polarising layer also runs landscape on this phone, so if you're wearing polarising glasses when you go to use the camera, you'll find the screen is entirely black. That's something Sony has done on many phones, easily solved by removing your glasses, or tilting your head, but it's still slightly irritating.

Hardware specs and performance 

  • MediaTek MT6762 processor, 3GB RAM
  • 64GB storage, microSD card expansion
  • 3,580mAh battery, USB-C charging

The Sony Xperia L4 runs on mid-range hardware from MediaTek, complete with 3GB RAM. That fits the price point, generally aligning with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 series hardware that you'll find elsewhere - although some might find that the Snapdragon options are better performers.

The day-to-day experience of the L4 is good enough, but you'll see telling signs of the lower power in places. The keyboard haptics can't keep up with keyboard taps, for example, while the camera shutter noise arrives about a second after you've pressed the button and moved on with your life. But both these things can (and should) be turned off to avoid those constant reminders. 

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If you're a gamer then you'll be wanting a little more power and graphics capability, because textures have to be stripped out to make things run smoothly on this phone. With that said, the good news is that those games will still run and we were still able to play Call of Duty: Mobile on the L4 - it's just not the best experience out there.

We also found that the Wi-Fi tended to be a little on the slow side, not always connecting well in places where we've had no problems before, leaving us to resort to using 4G when normally we wouldn't have to.

The 3,580mAh battery capacity is a reasonable size for the power and will get you through the day. There's been a recent boom in devices in this class getting huge batteries - the Moto G8 Power, the Samsung Galaxy A21s, the Realme 5 - and the Sony Xperia L4 doesn't quite mix it with those devices, failing to extending through a second day. 

There is, however, USB-C for charging, so it feels as though you're at least getting the latest connector, which some devices at this price point haven't got yet. 

Camera

  • Triple rear camera:
    • Main: 13-megapixel, f/2.0 aperture
    • Wide-angle: 5MP, f/2.2
    • Depth: 2MP, f/2.4
  • Front camera: 8MP, f/2.0

There are three cameras on the back of the Sony Xperia L4, but don't be fooled into thinking this is true triple camera system. There's really only two lenses that matter: the main camera and the wide camera. The latter of these gives a 117 degree angle of view, which we like on these affordable phones as it gives you some creative options.

The third camera is a depth sensor that's used with the software-derived bokeh system for blurred backgrounds in shots. Depth sensing doesn't work without this third lens, as it plays its role in depth detection. You won't know that though unless you poke around on the rear of the phone and cover it up while trying to use that particular mode though.

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The camera on the Sony Xperia L4 is fairly average in its performance. What really feels like it's missing is the HDR (high dynamic range) reaction that most phones give you. There's an HDR mode, which should swing in when the mode is set to auto, but the L4 struggles with high contrasting scenes. It also doesn't really deal with scenes at either end of the spectrum well either, struggling with bright or dark shots. 

The bokeh mode we mentioned isn't very good either - it's rather a brutal system, with clear edges or excessively soft images overall - and it's easily confused, sometimes failing to focus at all. It's best reserved for shooting people - where it can work with a larger subject - although we'd be tempted just to stick to the main camera instead. 

We also take issue with the app to some extent - it's far from clear where everything is - as it feels like it's lacking the intelligence that many smartphone cameras now offer.

The front camera is a little basic, too, struggling in anything other than perfect conditions.

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The wide-angle camera on the rear really is the best part, because it gives you that expansive view - and you can get to it with a tap in the viewfinder, so it's really easy to use. It's a little darker than the main camera, so pictures can look quite different. If you want zoom rather than wide-angle then there's a 4x digital option, but this doesn't give great results.

Software experience

  • Google Android 9 operating system
  • Some Sony customisation

What's perhaps surprising about the Sony Xperia L4 is that it launches with Google's Android 9 operating system. This sort of sends the message that Sony Mobile doesn't really care about this phone, when it can't even launch with software that's been widely available for three quarters of a year and which is found on basically all new phones. Amusingly there's a link on the software update page to a Sony Mobile website - which doesn't work. That just about says it all really.

It means you don't get the most recent gesture controls from Android, you don't have the system-defined dark mode, or other tweaks that have arrived with Android 10. Fortunately the individual apps you'll use update independently of the core software so everything works as it should, but it's not a good look overall.

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Where Sony Mobile has got a lot better in recent years is reducing the amount of pre-loaded bloat - so there's very little here to deal with and that which remains isn't too offensive or can be easily removed.

Sony still changes a lot of the Android experience, with a makeover to the launcher and other areas, but on the whole we like the Sony take on Android. It's a lot less severe than the likes of Samsung, less bloaty than Xiaomi's Redmi or Oppo's Realme - and it runs smoothly enough. 

For those wanting a cleaner take on Android both Motorola and Nokia offer that - and both have devices that closely rival this Sony phone.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia L4 carries many of the hallmarks of entry-to-mid-range phones. It's not hugely powerful and that's noticeable around some functions of this phone - it's not well suited to gaming and a little slow with feedback, for example.

We're happy with the design and build - although there are some devices out there that offer a lot more design for your money (even at this price point). But what the Sony Xperia L4 seems to miss out on is anything unique: there's very little here that you won't find elsewhere, meaning that you're more likely to notice those things that don't quite add up - like the out of date software.

Sony finds itself struggling against rival devices that offer Android 10, bigger batteries, fancier designs, even Qualcomm hardware (a name which goes a long way in many markets). That's going to see the Xperia L4 struggle.

Also consider

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Moto G8

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The Moto G series is synonymous with affordable phones, rivalling the Sony on price, but with a mite more power and a bigger battery. We also like the cleaner software and it looks and feels like it’s slightly higher quality.

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Redmi Note 9

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Redmi is the budget arm of Xiaomi and leverages massive buying power to bring technology at prices most can't rival. As such you have a higher grade of processor, a higher resolution display, as well as a 48-megapixel camera on the back. 

Writing by Chris Hall.