If the current lineup of flagship phone models -- the iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S9, or the Pixel 2 -- fail to float your boat, then heading into a world of less-hyped handsets could be just the ticket.
But it is a very crowded part of the market, and we are looking at just two models: The AU$660 Oppo R11s and the AU$550 Sony Xperia XA2. The former falls into the category of not-quite-flagship out of China, while the latter is a genuine mid-market play by a Japanese behemoth that is trying to end its love of massive bezels and blocky styling.
Looking at the raw numbers, there is not much to separate the pair of phones, although the Oppo will tend to edge it.
The R11s has a 6-inch 2,160x1,080 display powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 with 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage, expandable to 256GB.
The Xperia XA2 has a 5.2-inch 1,920x1,080 display with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor, 3GB of memory, and 32GB of inbuilt storage with support for up to 256GB cards.
Both phones have support for dual SIMs.
Despite appearing to be the smaller device, the Xperia XA2 is volumetrically bigger, and tips the scales at 171 grams, compared to the much taller and thinner R11s that weighs 153 grams. With its focus on thinness, the Oppo's 3,205mAh battery is pipped by the 3,300mAh-packing Xperia.
In the case of Oppo, there appears to be only one design choice made, and that is to follow whatever Cupertino does as much as possible. The R11s is the iPhone you buy when you cannot afford an iPhone, or want an Android to masquerade as something else.
From the home screen to the use of colour on its exterior, and the complete ripping off of iOS for the camera app, this device wants very much to be an iPhone -- even the included headphones are designed to copy Apple.
It's disappointing that when you have a platform like Android -- which for better or worse can go in any direction -- that it is constrained to mimicry, but this is often par for the course with Chinese offerings.
In its defence, Oppo does do some interesting things. One is its "App Encryption" feature that requires the user to enter a PIN or read a fingerprint each time an encrypted app is opened or switched to. Not surprisingly, this can quickly get quite tiresome, and this is where the Oppo's facial recognition steps in.
After weeks of testing this, the best way to describe the facial recognition engine is "mostly correct". As I wrote previously, being a bearded person causes issues, and the camera does not work in the dark -- unlike the iPhone X's infrared camera. When it works, you can see where Oppo was trying to take this, but when it fails, you realise you are dealing with an inferior iPhone chaser.
The problem with wanting to copy someone else, especially Apple, is that it highlights exactly where the deficiencies in the Oppo are.
For Sony, the XA2 is a mix of the styling of the XZ Premium with a dash of the new XZ2 thrown in: It has the XZ Premium's round edges, a fingerprint reader on the rear of the device like the XZ2, and the power button from its XA predecessor.
Previously, I have said that Sony made a bad call when it shifted its fingerprint reader away from the power button, and, after using the XA2 and its tiny bubble power button, I see no reason to change my mind.
The Sony take on Android is reliably consistent, which means there is an amount of crapware that needs to be disabled or removed and a bunch of Sony apps of questionable value, but it also does mean a reliable stream of Android updates, as well as using the latest Android OS, Oreo.
By contrast. Oppo uses its ColorOS fork of Android, and for version 3.2 on the R11s, this means it is based on Android Nougat 7.1.
For the Oppo, Android updates are nowhere near as reliable, but they do happen. Using Snoopsnitch on the R11s revealed a sea of green, which is more that can be said for the sea of red when running the app on the ZTE-owned Nubia Z11. For completeness in Chinese vendors, Snoopsnitch was also tested on a Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and it too came up all green.
Oppo is pitching its R11s as a device that has its strength in picture taking, and it brings a pair of sensors to the rear, coming in at 20 megapixels and 16 megapixels, and another 20-megapixel sensor for the front camera. The housing for the rear cameras deserves a mention for taking a camera bump to the level of a camera plateau and making sure you can never have the phone fully flat on its back.
With the Xperia, a 23-megapixel rear camera is used, along with an 8-megapixel front sensor that has a group shot setting thanks to its 120-degree camera. The camera is not terrible, not outstanding, but it all comes without a ridiculous bump.
In this category, the Oppo is the consistently better, and provides the starkest contrast between the devices. For a selection of images from the R11s, check out the review on ZDNet's sister site CNET.
After trailing the R11s at every turn so far, the XA2 has an ace up its sleeve -- its cost. As mentioned earlier, the Oppo R11s is AU$660 and the Xperia XA2 is slated to cost AU$550, which puts the Chinese phone at a price point 20 percent higher than the Japanese device.
After switching between these devices over a couple of weeks, I do not feel the Oppo is 20 percent better, and the XA2 represents better value for money.
For photo junkies and 6-inch phone fans, the choice is Oppo. Otherwise, in this head-to-head contest, I feel the XA2 does just enough to justify a victory based on its price point. However, I am one of the few not blisteringly critical of Sony's design aesthetic, and I prefer my Android regularly updated.
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