(Pocket-lint) - Sony did some outside-the-box thinking with its latest Xperia phones. Instead of going with the fashionable notched screens, the Japanese maker went with a movie-focused 21:9 aspect ratio screen. It's an unusual choice, but one that makes the phone's silhouette recognisable and distinguishable from the rest.
It's designed to be a high-end mid-ranger, with a focus on design and a clean user experience. But with only mid-range specs, will it make its relatively high price point acceptable?
Design: Bauhaus looks
- Measures: 167 x 73 x 8.3mm / Weighs: 180g
- Colours: Black, Silver, Navy, Gold
- Side-mounted fingerprint sensor
- No IP65/68 rating
For years, Sony has had a reputation for building products with classy, modern and minimalist looks. You could virtually describe it as Bauhaus - and the same can be said of the latest series' of smartphones. There's something quite rebellious about the Xperia 10 Plus and its smaller sibling.
Sony has avoided creating a phone with an eye-catching multi-colour or multi-layer glass back, instead opting for a phone with a plastic body. It doesn't look plastic though. It's been finished with a colour and texture that looks identical to the anodised aluminium cap that sits in the bottom edge and houses the Type-C port and speaker grille.
It's this styling and the shape that gives it this minimal modernist appeal. Look at the back, and you'll see a perfectly symmetrical layout of cameras, the LED flash and Sony branding, with very little added embellishment. What's more, it's completely flat nearly all the way up the edges, where it rounds to give this pleasing subtle contrast of curved edges, but with almost square corners and the flat front and back.
Of course, this minimalist approach to shaping is only enhanced by the dimensions and overall thought process behind the Xperia 10 Plus. It is, without question, a long phone. It has a 21:9 aspect ratio display, but rather than fill the entire front, Sony opted to put a fairly thick bezel at the top - because there's no notch. That means, despite being much narrower, it's noticeably taller than an iPhone XS Max.
We love the way this screen goes pretty much all the way down to the bottom edge, though, and the fact that Sony has opted against rounded corners on the display. There's no jarring difference between the curves on the screen corners, and the corners of the phone. It fits, and it looks great. And even though the top bezel is a pinky's width thick, we didn't find that we noticed it all that much.
Despite some enjoyable aesthetics, there are a few things about the design we aren't too keen on. For instance, that aforementioned panel featuring the port and speaker being a different material from the casing ruins the otherwise seamless look of it, as does the fairly large plastic pull-out tray that plays home to the microSD and SIM tray.
We can't help but feel that the buttons - while being all present - are in the wrong position too. Sony has clustered the fingerprint sensor alongside power and volume buttons rather closely together on the right edge. The power button is at the top, and the volume button at the bottom, with the sensor sandwiched between. This order does pose some problems.
Often we'd go to wake up the screen by pressing the lock/power button and, instead, unlock the phone. That's because the button is so close to the sensor that it has to be a deliberate act of avoidance to completely miss it. We found there was a similar issue when trying to turn up the volume: the rocker switch is quite small and close to the fingerprint sensor. Similarly, when going to put the phone back in a trouser pocket, we often brushed our thumb against the fingerprint sensor, accidentally unlocking the phone.
- 6.5-inch IPS LCD display
- FHD+ resolution (1080 x 2520)
- 21:9 aspect ratio
- Android 9 Pie operating system
- One-handed mode
As with the design, there are both good and bad elements to having a 21:9 ratio display. As a panel, it's actually rather good. It's bright, and with the vivid mode switched on, colours look vibrant, without ever leaning too far into the over-saturated bracket. At Full HD+ resolution, it's plenty sharp enough too. At arm's length, you'll struggle to see individual pixels, but hold it close enough and you may just about notice a subtle lack of smoothness in really fine details like text.
Being a long screen can mean reaching the top of it with your thumb is difficult, even with large hands. Thankfully, there is a one-handed mode, which reminds us a little of older iPhones, in that you double-tap the home button on the screen to launch it. Rather than just bring the high-up elements down though, it shrinks the entire screen into either bottom-right or bottom-left corners. For quickly reaching elements, it's useful, but it's too small to realistically use for anything proper, like typing a message or browsing Instagram.
Similarly, that 21:9 length is inconvenient for most media. Apps and games that automatically expand to fill the screen often end up with quite a lot cut off at the sides (or top and bottom if you're viewing landscape). In the same way, many videos on Netflix or YouTube are shot and produced in either 16:9 or 18:9 ratio. That means some hefty black bars on the sides by default. With that said, if you do find a 21:9 movie (which aren't entirely uncommon - it's a popular cinema ratio), the screen comes into its own. Movies fill the entire screen and look fantastic.
Sony's version of Android Pie makes good use of that clean, accurate LCD panel too. It's very close to being a very vanilla software experience. No longer are you subject to Sony's heavy design influence. You even have the option to switch on the same home button-based gesture mode that the Google Pixel smartphones have, where you can quickly swipe up on the on-screen button to launch the recent apps view, or swipe up more forcefully to get to the app drawer.
The settings menu is clean and simple, with easy to understand coloured icons, and you even get the Google Assistant-powered screen on the left of the home screen showing you news, sports, weather and anything else you might be interested in.
However, there are some differences. As we've already said, there's the one-handed mode. There's also the Side Sense feature, which you launch by double-tapping the slim bar on the side of the screen, bringing up a small collection of predicted apps that it thinks you might want to use. As for multi-tasking, that long display is prime for running two apps side-by-side, and you can do using Multi-Window UI dual app launcher by a long-press on an app icon to access the small icon in the top corner.
The one thing we'd love to see is the option for either an always-on display, to show a constant clock, or for the screen to light up when notifications come through. Of course, you get an audible alert, but you don't see who or what the notification came from when the phone's in standby. As this is an LCD screen, not OLED, the always-on display absence is understandable though.
Surprisingly good battery life, mid-range speed
- Snapdragon 636 processor, 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage, microSD expansion
- 3,000mAh battery
Looking at the spec sheet and seeing this large-screened phone has just a 3,000mAh battery, you could be forgiven for thinking the battery isn't all that. But you'd be wrong. Very wrong.
Using what we can only assume is genuine witchcraft, Sony has managed to make sure this battery goes and goes. It's insanely good for its capacity. With what we would consider relatively light use, we managed to push it to the end of a second day having taken it off charge one morning. On more moderate/typical use days with some social networking, video watching and music listening, we still struggled to get it below 40 per cent on the first night.
Similarly, it's fast and responsive enough not to give you any serious problems. That's not to say it's blazingly speedy like a more powerful smartphone is, but the Snapdragon 636 is more than capable enough to keep things running smoothly.
Loading up games, we noticed a little lag, plus slightly slower download speeds when installing apps or streaming video, compared to flagship phones. Still, for the occasional game here and there - although it's not powerful enough to play Fortnite, just so you know - or switching between a handful of your most used apps, it's good enough. We had no serious moments of cursing at its slowness, nor impatient finger tapping.
- Dual 12MP/8MP rear camera
- Single 8MP front camera
Sony's latest mid-rangers feature a dual-camera setup, which means you can take photos with some software-based background blurring in Portrait mode, although results might not be quite as amazing as you'd like. Sadly, the camera on this phone is its weak point. That's surprising given Sony's history and tradition in optics, and the fact that so many other smartphones - including the Google Pixel lineup - use Sony's sensor hardware.
Its biggest issue is the lack of HDR. Take a picture in any light and unless you have nice even lighting with no highlights or contrast from shadows, it's hard to get well balanced shot. Focus and set the auto-exposure on a bright point, and the rest of the photo is too dark. Do the same on the dark areas, and the highlights are over-exposed and bleached. Shoot indoors in the daytime and the image ends up looking quite soft, with colours looking a bit over saturated.
The Sony Xperia 10 Plus is a bit of a rebel. A nice-looking, mid-range rebel that certainly has its unique selling point: that 21:9 aspect ratio screen. Pair it with the right movie content things look great, but the big 'forehead' bezel and the simple fact that most other content types don't benefit from the long form factor are obvious drawbacks.
Still, there are a fair number of pro points to the 10 Plus. Everything it does, it does with minimal fuss. It will casually stroll through a full day without the battery dying, its software is clean and easy to use, while the physical design is attractively minimal.
But is that enough to divert your attention away from similar mid-range phone pitches? Well, unless a 21:9 screen is a must for you then the Honor Play and Moto G7 Plus both offer better value and performance.
So it's a tough sell. But there's something about its rebellious nature that makes us partially love the Xperia 10 - and it's certainly a more compelling option than the regular model.
The Honor Play was ridiculously good value for money when it launched in autumn 2018, and it's still a good buy now. Although you don't get the same clean Android experience as the Xperia 10 Plus, you do get a lot of performance and decent cameras in a phone that costs under £300.
Moto G7 Plus
If you're not sold on Sony's unusual 21:9 ratio, you can go with a more regular screen with the G7 Plus. It has the same processor, a clean software experience and costs £80 less than the Sony.
BlackBerry Key2 LE
If you're looking at the Sony because you want something a little different to the norm, then the Key2 LE might also be a worthy consideration, especially if you still long for the return of physical keys. It's a similar price to the Sony, has very similar specs, and similarly fantastic battery life.