(Pocket-lint) - Sony's new Xperia naming strategy sees the addition of a version marker to the 2019 phone of the same name. This new Xperia 1 - it's oddly named "one two", as depicted by its Xperia 1 II name - looks to update the flagship model for 2020, piling in new hardware and tweaking the design. 

The Xperia 1 II is more conventional than the original, not because Sony has changed direction, but because more manufacturers are going for more extreme screen aspects; in 2019 the 21:9 display seemed almost outlandish, now it feels rather more normal.

But the big question: has Sony actually moved this phone forward?

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A retro design hint 

  • Dimensions: 166.0 x 72.0 x 7.9mm / Weight: 181g
  • IP65/68 water-resistance
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Gorilla Glass 6

Looking at the dimensions of the Xperia 1 II, it's a little thinner and a little shorter than the 2019 version, which looks like progress. There's progress in the overall design, sticking to a recognisable Xperia look, but picking up on cues from older phones, like the old Xperia Z.

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Yes, there's now flattened sides on the Xperia 1 II, less rounded than its predecessor - and we like that. There's also some delicate chamfering at the edges of the display so you're not trying to grip something with sharp edges. All this means there's a sense of refinement overall. 

The back of the phone is flat - apart from that raised camera bump in the top left-hand corner - and the display does a good job of filling the front of the phone. Sony has eschewed any sort of notch or punch-hole, however, instead retaining a small 'forehead and chin' bezel - the latter into which the front camera sits.

That bezel also houses dual front-firing speakers, sitting right against the edge of the frame. These offer great performance, while avoiding perforations in the top and bottom of the phone as many rivals offer. It's therefore harder to cover these speakers when, say, you're gaming - so they're good performers.

Sony also reintroduces the 3.5mm headphone jack, having removed it on the previous phone. That, says Sony, was due to customer feedback and with Sony being one of the world's largest headphones manufacturers, it makes sense to play to what you're good at. 

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The Xperia 1 II supports Dolby Atmos and Sony's DSEE audio upscaling technology - and we have to say that this phone sounds great whether you're using speakers, wired or Bluetooth headphones.

There's also waterproofing - long a hallmark of Sony's top devices - adding to the high-quality list.

Overall this Xperia is a great looking phone, one that's high in quality, but still manageable to grip because it's not too wide. Sure, it's big, but big phones are in

A top spec display

  • 6.5-inch OLED display, 21:9 aspect ratio
  • HDR compatible (high dynamic range)
  • 3840 x 1644 resolution (643ppi)
  • Motion blur option

Sony's big thing over the past few years has been to only supply phones with resolutions that matched mainstream content standards. It doggedly stuck to 1080p - better known as Full HD - and then moved to 4K on some devices, justifying that by saying those were the standards for video content.

Sony sort of missed the point, however, because it missed the buzz around 1440p - better known as Quad HD - and missed the fact that plenty of people could natively shoot in this resolution anyway. It might not have hit Hollywood or your TV, but is a widely-adopted mobile standard. 

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That pulls the 4K positioning into sharp focus, because the Xperia 1 II is 4K by definition. Well, sort of - but not by any useful standard. At 3840 x 1644, the panel is a 4K resolution in one dimension - literally - but that's nothing like a 4K TV, which has 3840 x 2160 pixels. The problem is this phone's aspect ratio doesn't allow for the full 4K standard, so it's only the same as you'd get on TV if you're watching 21:9 content. 

Not that you'd really know the Xperia 1 II is a 4K phone. Sure, those pixels are packed in and this display can technically produce sharper lines than many other devices - it's an impressive 643ppi density - but when you're looking at it you probably won't be able to tell the difference. Those with better eyes might be able to discern the difference, or those who like to hold their phone against their eyeballs, but most of the time you're looking at content that doesn't use that resolution anyway.

You can go onto YouTube and find 4K content, but most of the time it's a 16:9 aspect so you're viewing it letterboxed, again, not natively viewing all the resolution that the content offers. That's not to say this is a bad display, it's just to say that the 4K argument is a bit of a misnomer: it doesn't really matter.

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What's more important is the high dynamic range (HDR) support, as such bright whites and deep blacks expanded range content spread over this wide display does look great. Head over to a Netflix Original movie - which are mostly 21:9 and in HDR - and this is where this phone delivers its best performance. 

There's a Creator Mode which aims to make the display match the original calibration so you can watch content "as the creator intended". That often appears a little yellow to us and you can opt to have this turn on for video apps, but stay off the rest of the time, which seems to be a good balance. If you don't want it, you can just turn it all off. 

Coming to the refresh rate, this is a 60Hz display, but Sony has a "motion blur" reduction option that you can toggle on an off. This is supposed to deliver the benefits of a faster refresh rate, but we can't see much difference whether it's on or off. That said, we don't put much stock in the recent trend for faster refresh rates on smartphones anyway - a device like the Oppo Find X2 Pro, wonderful as it is, didn't really affect our view on 120Hz displays - so it doesn't feel like you're missing out.

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Sony's brightness isn't the best and the autobrightness here does tend to drop to the dull side - which doesn't do the display any credit, so we're forever notching it back up to make things look better. 

There are brightness issues in other areas too. In the camera app things are nice and bright, but switch to Pro Camera app and it's so dull that on a bright day you can barely see anything. This seems independent of the actual brightness control - it's just a dull app. 

Flagship hardware experience 

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor
  • 8GB RAM, 256GB storage
  • 4000mAh battery
  • 5G connectivity

The Xperia 1 II sits on Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 hardware with 8GB of RAM, so this is a typical flagship loadout for a 2020 release. There's a fairly generous 256GB of storage too, with support for microSD as well. 

This phone also supports 5G if you're ready to move onto next-gen networks, although this will vary from region to region, so check before you buy into a 5G contract.

Talking of wireless connectivity, one of the issues that we've found with the Xperia 1 II is that the Wi-Fi performance doesn't seem to be very good. We've found this phone dropping Wi-Fi more than any other device that we've reviewed in 2020, often meaning disconnects when gaming or stuttering in video streaming, resorting to us using mobile data instead. It's not clear if this is a hardware, software, or an individual problem limited to our test device. 

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Aside from the wireless connectivity issues, the Sony Xperia 1 II is every bit the speedy flagship phone. It's a great size, has a great display and sound experience for gaming, and the Snapdragon 865 helps deliver that premium experience. In most cases, this is a fast phone, with apps and games fast to open and respond.

At the same time, the 4,000mAh battery is pushing a lot of hardware and a lot of pixels - and the endurance of this phone isn't great as a result, because in modern terms that's not a huge battery. The Samsung Galaxy S20+, for example, is 25 per cent more capacious with fewer pixels to handle. The result is that while the Xperia's battery will last most average days, we've found it gets closer to empty compared to many of its rivals. 

However, there is support for Qi wireless charging to help keep you topped up, and fast wired charging to get you back into the game.

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Sony sticks to using a side-mounted fingerprint scanner on this phone, which also doubles as the power button. In the past we've struggled with this solution, but on the Xperia 1 II it all comes good and we've found it to be a reliable unlocking solution. 

A sensible camera system? 

  • 24mm, 12MP, 1/3.5in, f/1.7 OIS main
  • 17mm, 12MP, 1/2.6in, f/2.2 OIS ultra-wide
  • 70mm, 12MP, 1/1.7in, f/2.4 OIS telephoto
  • Time-of-flight sensor
  • 8MP front camera

Sony's approach to cameras in the Xperia 1 II is rather more restrained that some of the other flagship devices on the market. There's no 108-megapixel sensor or proclamations about 50x zoom here, it all seems rather… sensible.

There's a trio of 12-megapixel sensors packed into the camera unit on the rear of the phone covering the main, ultra-wide and telephoto cameras. The fourth sensor is a time-of-flight sensor designed to speed up focusing. In general shooting terms that seems to do pretty well - as this phone will focus quickly and it's also fast to find faces or eyes to focus on, helping you get the important stuff sharp.

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The three cameras on the phone, unusually, work independently of one other. From the viewfinder you have to tap to move from one lens to the next and there's no interplay between them, so you can't pinch from one to the other like you can on just about every other phone in modern day existence. This means it doesn't feel like a cohesive system that gives you the best option for your needs - it feels like three separate cameras.

What's confusing is that each camera offers 3x pinch zoom. It's digital zoom, but it stays in the lens you've selected - so you're effectively getting 3x zoom on an ultra-wide angle lens if that's the camera you're using, which is a really bad way of using such a lens.

This ultra-wide angle camera does have a slight advantage over some cheaper iterations of this tech, in that it's better at keeping things sharp. Sure, any movement in those stretched outer areas can quickly become blurs, but there's better consistency across the scene than some other ultra-wide cameras we've seen recently. 

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The zoom will get you a little closer to the action - but it's not even playing the same game as the 5x optical zooms on some rival cameras. There's also the danger that users will just pinch zoom from the main camera and never tap through to the zoom camera itself - because of the disjointed approach that Sony has taken. With all that said, once you apply the 3x zoom option on top of the zoom camera (which is notionally a 70mm equivalent) you get perfectly usable results.

The app itself is also a little disjointed. Camera modes still work on a photo apps kind of basis - where you open up a completely separate app, asking for its own permissions and with a different interface. Want a bokeh effect on your selfie? You'll have to use a separate app and, sadly, it's not very good. It's also a little odd that to switch to the front camera, you have to tap the icon that's the opposite end of the phone to the shutter button. Try that when you're riding a bike. Actually, don't.

There's a portrait mode/background blur for the rear camera, although this isn't a separate app like those other modes, it's just an icon on the left of the viewfinder, so you'll likely never notice it. If you do, then you can adjust the level of blur, and the results are pretty good.

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The big problem here is that Sony pitches the camera towards pros with a Photo Pro app, and seems to overlook the mass market appeal of easy-to-use features that work so well for the likes of Apple or Huawei. The Photo Pro app is actually pretty great, it uses Alpha-style visuals - taking inspiration from Sony's top-end camera business - so you can tweak and change the settings. But in these days of computational photography, you'd already have that photo taken on any number of rival phones.

The main camera itself is pretty good performance wise. Show it a good scene with decent light and you'll get some great pictures from it. Sony's emphasis is on realism and the colour reproduction is more accurate than many rivals. There's isn't the same sense of AI boosting and while that has downsides - the HDR performance is a little weak - you can get a shot where the sky is the correct shade of blue out of this phone. 

But then the camera is also prone to lens flare. Shoot anywhere near the sun and you'll get what looks like reflections off the inside of the housing across the bottom of your images. We're not sure exactly what role Zeiss had in putting this camera together, but we're surprised how easy it is to get extreme lens flare. Again, it means the camera is just less useful than rivals. 

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Reduce the light a little and you'll get longer exposures which is the closest you'll get to a night mode, but eventually you'll hit the point where it complains about not being able to focus - but will still take the photo. It's ok, but like so many other parts of this phone, Sony doesn't sell this feature.

The long and short of it is that Sony is not delivering the software experience for great point-and-shoot photos, and missing the point of smartphone photography. Yes, the images that you get out of the Sony Xperia 1 II might look a little more natural than some rivals because they're not being boosted by AI and not going though pixel combining processes, but at the same time there's little here that stands out as a consumer friendly solution.

Sony's software 

  • Android 10 

Sony has for a long time walked a path somewhere between a customised version of Android and something that's rather unsullied. In recent years the company has slowly moved towards a slightly more native Android experience and it's easy to avoid some of the bloat that Sony might want to put on your phone during setup.

Sony does provide some software features to take advantage of that larger screen, as well as offering aids to help you if you find it a little big. There's the Side Sense feature that allows you to tap on the side of the screen to open up a menu to get access to frequently-used apps, or a multi-window option to split the screen.

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The former option you really don't need because you can easily just add shortcuts to the home screen for your favourite apps, but if you're after splitscreen then that option works well enough. You can also designate apps you want to use in a pair to open them at the same time - maps and messages, for example. 

At its heart, however, this is a nice clean software experience - once you've tried, tested and decided what you do and don't want. You can remove the bloat, there's no second app store wanting to update apps you never use like you get on Xiaomi and LG phones, and that's refreshing. 

We did detect some bugs, however. Netflix's picture-in-picture mode wouldn't work properly, and Amazon Prime Video wouldn't play any video at all, so we think there's still some issues to be worked out.

Verdict

Sony's biggest problem with the Xperia 1 II is that it tries to pitch this phone to a discerning pro photographer market - a market that we're not convinced really exists. The camera system doesn't embrace mass market appeal, the app doesn't make great sense - and that's a shame because it detracts from the overall experience.

This is a phone that has a great display visually, a great build, great sound, and plenty of power for the latest apps and games. If you're the sort of person who watches a lot of movies on your phone, then that 21:9 display - free from notches and other nonsense - really shines.

The Xperia 1 II isn't a bad phone, but it feels like Sony's camera efforts are pushing in the wrong direction. The importance of that position is what you really have to consider if you're looking at buying it.

Alternatives to consider

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OnePlus 8 Pro

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The OnePlus 8 Pro offers power, decent battery life and a great phone design with a camera that is pretty good. It matches the Xperia 1 II in many areas, with a great display and a great flagship experience. 

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Google Pixel 4 XL 

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It's an older phone, but the Pixel remains a great example of what you can do with a simple camera system. It's the polar opposite of the Xperia 1 II in that sense, but it has a great camera system showing what computational photography can do.

Writing by Chris Hall.