(Pocket-lint) - Sony has made some substantial moves in recent years. Having been slow to evolve Xperia design, it has now hopped and skipped in a new direction over the last 18 months.
It first curved the back of its phone on the XZ2, pushed back the bezels on the Xperia XZ3 and then shifted to 21:9 for a new family of Xperia devices. The Xperia 1 is very much a flagship, while the Xperia 10 is there for those after a mid-range phone.
But the Xperia 1 isn't just a flagship, it's very much a replacement for the Premium devices - meaning it has a 4K HDR display along with that triple camera on the back. But can top-drawer specs keep Sony in the top flight of phones?
It's all about the design
- Measures: 167 x 72 x 8.2mm / Weight: 178g
- Finishes: Purple, black, grey, white
- IP65/68 waterproofing
It's the 21:9 display that dominates everything about this phone. Sony Mobile has taken the idea of an extended display - from 16:9, through 18:9, now landing at 21:9. There's some logic here that's a little difficult to substantiate - it's used in cinema and we know how much Sony loves movies.
More on the display itself later, but it's the shift in aspect ratio that results in a phone that looks really tall. But that's only really the look; it's only fractionally taller than the OnePlus 7 Pro while being narrower and slimmer, so this Sony is actually comfortable to grip and use.
Yes, using it one-handed presents some challenges when targeting the upper areas of that screen, but the Sony actually easier to use than a phone like the OnePlus 7 Pro because it's not as bulky and heavy. Sony Mobile also has a number of features to make it easy to use the phone, such as swiping down on the display to open the notifications. Essentially, while it might look big, this Xperia is actually not so different to other flagship phones.
There's a familiar and refreshing quality to the build, too, with curved metal edges, waterproofing, and a glass back in a range of colours, while all the buttons sit on the right-hand side. The fingerprint scanner sits in the centre, separate from the power button, while there's also support for tapping gestures around the display - another method of increasing usability with one hand.
What initially seemed like a radical design actually results in a phone that's comfortable and convenient. It's big, yes, but all phones are big these days.
A display of firsts
- 6.5-inch OLED panel, 21:9 aspect ratio
- 3840 x 1644 resolution (4K)
- HDR (high dynamic range)
It's with the display that Sony really wants to make an impact. Starting with the 4K resolution, this is 3840 x 1644 pixels, which is higher than, well, almost any other flagship. That's not the same as the 4K resolution you have on your TV which is a 16:9 aspect (thus 3840 x 2160 pixels - which, coincidentally, is how you'll find a lot of 4K-labelled content online).
In the idealised world of a Hollywood aficionado you'd have a stack of 21:9 movies to fit the phone, but the reality is very different. Most content is presented in the format that the producers thought it would be watched, older TV in 4:3, more recent in 16:9, some with higher cinematic aims in 21:9. There are movies you'll find on Netflix in 21:9 - like Guardians of the Galaxy - while 2:1 aspect content like Star Trek Discovery actually fits nicely.
Services like Netflix and YouTube support pinch-zooming to fill the display, so those nuances around wide formats don't matter hugely - but you miss a lot of the action if you zoom a 16:9 movie. Ultimately, that means you end up watching plenty of content with black sidebars. It's 2019 so it almost feels right that "normal" content doesn't really fit.
To give the Xperia its due: when watching a 21:9 movie on this phone it's probably the best movie watching experience you'll find on a mobile device, especially if you're streaming at a high bitrate. But while the 4K resolution and HDR support is great on paper - and when fed the right demo content - it doesn't really feel like a game-changer when it comes to actually consuming content.
Remove movies from the equation and you're facing app scaling. Most Android apps organise themselves neatly enough, but some still leave you with a blank space at the bottom, which is something you slowly adapt to and then never really consider again. From a content point of view, in a world where everything is designed differently, nothing fits perfectly to any display, but at the same time, some games are great fun to play like this.
But what of the technical skills of this display? This is something that Sony is really talking up, attaching tech specs like it's a high-end TV. Firstly it's an OLED panel - and you can see that in the deep blacks you get in those bars when the content doesn't fit - but rather than chase the saturated whizz-bang that Samsung is known for (and most others follow), Sony is playing the "as the director intended" card.
You'll find a creator mode for the display which aims to give you BT.2020 standard, so the display matches the colour spec that would have been used on the original content. In an HDR world that might sound appealing, but we do wonder whether any app developers work like that, or if Sony has leaned in a little too hard on the cinema side of things.
Like other phones that want to have a "natural" look - the Google Pixel 2 XL being a good example - this can result in a colour spectrum that looks a little muted compared to other phones. That's true with this Xperia too: whites are a little less bright, there's less vibrancy overall in colours, but you can return to 'standard' and get a little boost.
Personal preference of course comes into the colour tuning, and while some will argue that accuracy is more important, others will be turned off by a slightly muted experience - especially compared to 90 per cent of other flagship displays.
There's a fair amount of brightness, too, but Sony doesn't ramp it up like Samsung (especially) does for increased visibility in bright conditions - than can mean that reflections are more noticeable on sunny days.
We've said a lot about the display, but the display is the Xperia 1 experience. It has its downsides, yes, but we've really grown to like the aspect ratio. If nothing else, it's different - and while there are a dozen phones with notches and other things, there aren't many that look like the Xperia 1.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
- 6GB RAM, 128GB storage, microSD
- 3330mAh battery
Sitting on flagship hardware, the Xperia 1 doesn't offer 5G, but that probably isn't a concern for many at this stage of 5G roll-out. What you do get is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, which has proven to be plenty powerful. That makes the Xperia 1 an interesting choice as a gaming phone. Sure, we've found the display to be interesting when playing PUBG Mobile, which hasn't been a downside, but elsewhere some graphics don't always scale well given the screen aspect.
While this phone has all the speed and snap that most competitors at this level do, it doesn't quite have the same battery capacity. That's noticeable in daily use, where it might need a bit of a top-up to get you through to the evening if you're a heavy user. We've been using this phone through the launch of Wizards Unite, so we've been pushing it hard, but with its 3330mAh capacity, it has a smaller battery than something like the Huawei P30 Pro. Plus that 4K screen resolution won't help it either.
There's fast charging available, but nothing super speedy. Sony still avoids wireless charging, although that's not a deal-breaker to us.
On the audio front Sony has ditched the 3.5mm headphone socket and gives you two speakers offering a Dolby Atmos arrangement. They make a good go of things, but the bottom speaker is used to deliver most of the bass and it's fairly easy to cover with a hand when in landscape orientation - so it's not as neat an arrangement as some rivals.
The fingerprint scanner on the side provides convenient access, falling just about where you'd grip the phone (if you use your right hand). It takes some getting used to - like we said of the Honor 20 - and we also find we're trying to unlock the phone and it will report "too many failed attempts" and prompt for a password instead. In that sense, it's not as slick as many rear-mounted fingerprint scanners, or indeed the best under display scanners.
A triple camera play
- Main: 12MP, 1/2.6in, 1.4µm, f/1.6
- Wide: 12MP, 1/3.4in, 1.0µm, f/2.4
- Zoom: 12MP, 1/3.4in, 1.0µm, f/2.4
Sony is the biggest name in smartphone camera sensors, as it makes the majority that you find in most flagships, but its own application of those cameras hasn't always been so good in its Xperia devices.
As artificial intelligence (AI) moves to the fore, it's becoming more about who has the best algorithm than who has the best physical hardware. Still, there are core elements that still apply, and having the option for ultra-wide and optical zoom adds flagship appeal to keep Sony competitive.
As fate would have it, one of the biggest barriers to the Xperia 1's camera is the app that powers it. It's slow to launch, fairly slow to take shots and awkwardly laid out. The option to switch from rear to front camera, for example, is at the far end of the app - away from the shutter button - a barrier to single-handed use in a phone this elongated. There's a shortcut swipe to switch camera which is its saving grace, but as far as one-handed use goes, it hasn't really been thought about.
The app also has another significant failing: to get to the wide-angle camera you have to cycle through from 1x to 2x to finally get to wide (a common conundrum, really, the same can be said of the Honor 20). It's laborious and unnecessary and doesn't lend itself to fast casual capture, but it's not exactly a unique issue.
The camera itself can be rather average too. In lower light or on dull days the images look rather flat, on bright days things get a little washed out. HDR doesn't really swing in to save things in high contrast conditions and portrait or bokeh mode - which blurs the background, using the zoom camera for capture, meaning you have a wider aperture - again losing the quality that the main camera offers and losing contrast and colour in the process.
Where the Sony really fails is in offering a gratifying point and shoot performance, where a phone half the price in the Pixel 3a, gives a better experience in most areas.
It's not all bad though: the Xperia 1's main camera will give you some great shots in good light and there's a lot of fun to be had with the wide-angle.
The other strength is video. Sony seems to have poured a lot of effort into this, offering a second app called Cinema Pro to give you more direct control. It will let you apply colour settings from CineAlta - Sony's professional branding for video cameras - as well as giving you 21:9 aspect capture. It also gives you easy access to controls like turning off stabilisation, selecting any of the rear cameras, manual focus, frame rate and so on. It's a great app and a lot of fun to play with.
But it does highlight another downside of Sony's camera app: in the normal app you have to dig around to find things. Super slow motion - and 960fps, for example - sits off in a "mode" section with a few other odds and sods. These are a throwback to when Sony offered "lenses" and each has a slightly different user interface, meaning the whole experience is a disparate mess.
What it really fails to do is be user-friendly and simplified. There's a lot of good features offered, but Sony's poor camera app fails to deliver it effectively at this level. It's fine, it's just not going to cause the competition any major concerns.
A cleaner software experience
- Android 9 Pie
- A range of pre-installed software
Sony has lagged behind the likes of Samsung when it comes to the software experience. Walking a sort of middle path, Sony Mobile can add a lot of apps from the off - and you can opt out of many of those apps or remove what you don't want - but has slowly been stepping back from the heavy skinning of its past. You'll still have to keep Sony's Album and a couple of others, but you can live in the Google world and never encounter these bundled apps if you don't wish.
The actual day-to-day experience is pretty good, though, as it all feels like Google's Android operating system and behaves much like it too. There are a few additions, like the game mode that some might find useful - it also offers screen recording for those epic moments - all in 21:9.
There are some other options to support gestures, like detecting a lifting motion to automatically launch the camera or tapping on the very edge of the display to launch Side Sense (a compact interface to launch your favourite apps). We found both were prone to launching when we didn't want them to, so switched both off. In reality, tapping home then opening a folder is easier to access apps.
Overall, there's little to complain about. We much prefer the software experience here than we do on some Chinese brands that are a lot more aggressive with app stuffing (Xiaomi, Oppo, Huawei, there's a familiar theme there). So while the Xperia 1 isn't the cleanest phone around, it's still a pretty good experience overall.
The Sony Xperia 1 is dominated by that 21:9 display. It's the most interesting feature of the phone and the most rewarding if you watch a lot of movies and want the utmost detail. It's this feature that's different and stands apart from other handsets, even if the visual experience doesn't really seem to benefit from the 4K resolution and the leaning to a more natural colour balance makes it look a little bland in normal use. But none of that matters when you're engrossed in the latest blockbuster.
For all the cameras dotted across the back, it's here that Sony needs more work: the app just doesn't lend itself to a great experience and it's easy to point to better rivals that are often cheaper. The same can be said for the battery life: although we wouldn't want to make this phone any thicker given its size, that high resolution paired with so-so battery capacity doesn't see it outlast the now flagship norm.
Ultimately, the Xperia 1 is a very liveable handset. It has a lot of charm and there's real benefit to not following the normal trends. Being unique and distinctive gives it a little extra something. It's packed with power, it offers flagship qualities like waterproofing, but it just doesn't excel in every single department when it's so close to fulfilling its potential.
Alternatives to consider
Huawei P30 Pro
With a camera experience that will knock the Sony out of the park, the Huawei P30 Pro is one of the best smartphones you'll find. Yes, Huawei has had some disagreement with the US and that might cast a shadow over its future, but the company assures us there's nothing to worry about.
Samsung Galaxy S10+
If you're spending big money on big phones, then Samsung has a flagship experience to relish. It doesn't quite match the Huawei for camera performance, but it has a mature Android skin, it's packed full of power and the display - while making no claims towards realism - continues to be one of the best on the market.