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(Pocket-lint) - In the world of Android phones we've seen shifting tides recently. Old companies, like LG, have fallen by the wayside, while Samsung strides forward, and a number of Chinese brands step up the competition.

Sony Mobile has been battling it out in Android phones for a long time. Its success has been middling, from some early radical designs, it has in more recent years stripped away some of the 'Sony-ness' to focus more on Android proper.

But at the top level, Sony still wants to push its phone as a prosumer device, looking to the company's Alpha cameras for guidance in a market that's now dominated by artificial intelligence (AI) rather than manual controls.

So does the Sony Xperia 1 III get the right balance?

Design and build

  • Dimensions: 165 x 71 x 8.2mm / Weight: 186g
  • Gorilla Glass Victus front and back
  • IP65/68 water/dustproofing
  • Stereo speakers, 3.5mm

At first glance, the Sony Xperia 1 III doesn't look hugely different to the Xperia 1 II. There's a slight difference in the dimensions, but the big difference you'll notice is the finish.

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The Xperia 1 III has a matte finish and that removes the glossy look to the rear of the phone, saving you from fingerprints and smears, while the whole package looks more sophisticated than the phone before it. There's Gorilla Glass Victus - Corning's toughest grade of glass at the time of writing - front and back.

The matte black looks really good; it's tighter, more precise. It holds onto waterproofing, too, while retaining stereo speakers and a 3.5mm headphone socket.

It also holds onto a side-mounted fingerprint scanner, which now sits within a Google Assistant button, recessed into the frame so that if you don't want to use it, you'll likely never press it and forget that it's there.

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There's a dedicated camera button too, allowing you to launch the camera and use it to take photos - a hallmark of Sony's top devices for many years.

The camera array on the rear is pretty large, but that's the thing these days - and we actually think it looks great, especially with that gaping periscope lens looking out at you from the depths.

It's a big phone, yes, and as with Sony's other recent devices it has a 21:9 aspect ratio display to try and keep those diagonal inches without getting too wide. It'll be a little long for some pockets, which is why Sony also offers the Sony Xperia 5 model, which offers much the same experience but in a smaller package.

The fingerprint scanner works pretty well, but it can struggle in the wet, and we've often found ourselves being told that there's been too many failed unlocks and having to wait 30 seconds before trying again. This seems to be from handling the phone and accidental touches.

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We've also seen this state of confusion continue where the phone doesn't want to unlock or give you a lock screen either, leaving you to think it's dead. With a bit of fiddling it then gives you a lockscreen, but it's not as seamless as it should be.

Display

  • 6.5-inch OLED panel, 21:9 aspect ratio
  • 4K (3840 x 1644 pixels; 643ppi)
  • 120Hz refresh rate

The Xperia 1 III stands out because it's something of a rarity when it comes to that display. Not only does it have that 21:9 aspect ratio, but it's 4K resolution too, capable of pushing plenty of pixels with a higher density than rival devices.

That display has 120Hz refresh rate, although you have the option to turn it off and revert to 60Hz - which will save power. It appears that 60Hz is the default, so you'll have to root out the settings menu to make that tweak to 120Hz, if you're concerned.

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It also supports HDR (high dynamic range), so fire up Netflix and you'll find those HDR labels in place, ensuring you're getting the best experience you can.

Across these specs, Sony hits all the headlines, although it does raise questions beyond the technical capabilities. Does the 4K resolution really bring a big difference? No it doesn't. It's not hugely different to other flagship devices in terms of visual performance, plus many apps simply don't use the resolution on offer and many video services and games don't either.

There's no notch or punch hole here to distract as the front camera instead sits in the bezel at the top of the display. And really we don't mind that: it's only a small sliver of bezel to the top and bottom and that's actually an advantage when you're playing games with the phone in landscape orientation.

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All those spec high points do make for a great display though. We love the size and the aspect - and the flat finish has some advantages over the curve for trends - and the colour tone is good too. There's an option to revert to Sony's "Creator mode", which is designed to look more natural. Many will find this too muted for daily use, but there's an auto mode, so that natural effect can be used in certain apps so you don't have wildly vibrant video content.

 However, it's definitely a display that's better indoors than out - it just doesn't have the brightness to cut through reflections.

Hardware and performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G, 12GB RAM
  • 256GB storage + microSD up to 1TB
  • 4500mAh battery, 30W charger
  • Qi wireless charging

Sony is right up to date with the hardware on offer, with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 and 12GB of RAM putting this phone in the top tier. That's noticeable in performance too: it feels slick and fast, seamlessly flipping from task to task and delivering without a stutter.

There's 256GB storage, but it still offers microSD for storage expansion - and that's now something of a rarity in flagship devices. It shares that slot in the tray with the second SIM card, however, so it's either/or.

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The Xperia 1 III likes to claim that it has all that power to support the camera - which seems to be Sony's key selling point - but it helps the phone perform in so many areas. It's a great media phone, thanks to that big and capable display, and watching TV or movies on this phone is great, really boosted by the 21:9 aspect for those blockbusters.

Games run smoothly too, with the option to select those top settings and still get a result. Sony pushes its game enhancer to boost the experience, but it isn't the best such system out there. The key thing it misses is the ability to lock gesture navigation, so you'll be playing a game and you'll swipe out of it my mistake - to make things worse, you'll then find that the auto-brightness then immediately changes, meaning you return to your game and the screen will be really dim. You can lock gesture navigation by using the competition set, but you then have to turn that off to be able to exit a game.

For games like PUBG and Call of Duty Mobile, it's pretty easy to swipe out of the game, so this is a little frustrating, and having to dig through the settings to get to these things needs a rethink.

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The battery at 4,500mAh isn't the largest in the market, and indeed might sound rather modest, but it seems to be well enough managed. In light use you'll get over 24 hours from it, so you can spend a night away from a changer and likely be fine.

The 30W charging (wired) isn't the fastest either, but you do get that 30W charger in the box for a fairly quick top-up, while wireless charging is also supported.

In most cases, you'll reach the end of the day needing some sort of charge and there's battery management software on board so that you can plug it in when you go to bed and have the phone manage that charge so it's complete around the time you typically unplug it, so it's not charging at full speed all the time - which is better for device health.

Cameras

  • Triple rear cameras:
    • Main: 12-megapixel, 1/1.7in sensor size, f/1.7 aperture
    • Telephoto (dual 2.9x & 4.4x zoom): 12MP, 1/2.9in
    • Ultrawide: 12MP, 1/2.5in, f/2.2
  • Selfie: 8MP, 1/4in, f/2.0

Sony continues in its attempt to align the cameras on its smartphones with its Alpha cameras, wanting to append a "pro" experience to proceedings, pushing the argument that there's crossover from camera to phone.

We've criticised this positioning before because we can't see that adding complexity to a smartphone camera gives the user any great benefit, especially with some of the best experiences coming from computational photography rather than attempting to do something that a "proper" camera does. Indeed, it refers to its cameras as 16mm, 24mm, 70/105mm, as though they are actual camera lenses.

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Sony's makeup is smart and there are some things we fundamentally like about it, because there's no junk lenses thrown in, each is pretty good in its own right.

It's the telephoto that's interesting, because not only is it a periscope telephoto, but it has two focal lengths: 70mm and 105mm (2.9x and 4.4x). This has been achieved by moving the lens elements within the periscope lens assembly, so rather than needing two zoom cameras on the back of the phone (which some flagship models have), Sony can do it with one.

That means there are multiple zoom positions to tap when you're in the camera app, with both 2.9x and 4.4x being optical, plus the ability to digitally zoom from either of those positions, out to a maximum of 12.5x - which isn't really hugely competitive when you look at the 50x or 100x offered elsewhere, but is still pretty usable.

The downside of the arrangement is that there's no pinch-zooming across these optical steps, so if you zoom in the main camera, you hit 2.9x and then stop, you then have to tap the 2.9x icon to switch lenses, and the process repeats. On the 2.9x lens you can only zoom to 4.4x. From the 4.4x you can zoom to 12.5x - and we wish you could just pinch-zoom across the entire range offered to make it more usable.

Sony's camera also defaults on tap to object tracking. This is clever because it will aim to keep a particular subject in focus even if it's moving, so it's great for kids playing sport, or your animals moving around, and you can also use that if using the high-speed 20 frames per second capture. Just remember to turn off that 20fps mode if you don't need it or you'll end up with hundreds of photos you don't want, but this is a rather more unique feature of this phone.

You can switch to tap for focusing instead, which some might prefer - it's more conventional for daily shooting - and although the focusing is pretty sophisticated on the Xperia 1 III, often it will just find something random to focus on, so it needs to be pulled back into control with another tap. But it is great at finding a face and keeping that in focus.

We said that all the lenses are good and they are: the ultrawide is great and avoids the sort of blurring you find on cheaper phones, but you will find colour differences across all the lenses. The ultrawide can be slightly muted compared to the main camera, and the zoom less rich than either of the other two.

The advantage of offering a closer zoom option that's optical is you get better images than you would from a comparable digital lens, but although Sony has a clever technical solution in the Xperia 1 III, it doesn't actually offer anything over existing solutions: the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has both a 3x and a 10x optical zoom lens which is a big difference - and much more versatile than Sony's solution.

Generally speaking you'll get good results from the Xperia 1 III. Photos can be a little on the dark side in overcast conditions; noise will creep in indoors; and low-light shooting isn't the best - perhaps because Sony would still rather you use the app to move into manual shooting mode than give you a night mode. Again, it feels like Sony is pursuing photography in a game that's now about artificial intelligence (AI).

Nowhere is this more apparent than the front camera. It's reasonable rather than spectacular, with "portrait selfie" sitting as another camera mode. You'll still find face-warping beauty features on by default and edge detection that appears to draw a line an inch from your face and decide that's good enough. Well, it isn't good enough, it's barely worth using, in fact (see below).

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The same "pro" treatment is taking place on video too, with a completely separate app - Cinema Pro - designed to make you feel like a filmmaker, choosing your frame-rate from 24p up to 120p, manually adjusting the focus. We can't really imagine how small the market of people is that use their phone to shoot video in this way, most we suspect will just flip to the video mode in the main camera app for point-and-shoot action.

Over the month of testing we've taken a lot of photos with the Xperia 1 III and many are great: by and large it hasn't let us down, but in a world where wow factor becomes important, it does feel as though Sony is overlooking the advantages of computational photography, the clever stuff, to pursue its dream of replicating the Alpha experience in a phone instead.

Software

  • Android 11

Sony's phones have got a lot better with software in recent years. A move away from duplicated services and an acceptance of some of the best bits of Android on offer is the approach instead. Being able to swipe to Google Discover and use stock Google apps as standard is great.

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There's some preinstalls you can't remove though - like Facebook, LinkedIn, Asphalt 9 - as well as Sony's own Music app and a trial of Tidal. Sony wants to push music, because it's also supporting 360 Reality Audio - if you have compatible headphones and use a compatible music service, of which Tidal is one.

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Some elements persist that we still just don't get on with - like the dynamic vibration you can have on music, movies and games, which we really think is a distraction rather than adding anything to the experience.

Both otherwise, we've found the Xperia 1 III to run smoothly. We've been using the phone for a month and it's really thrown up no problems for us. That's the takeaway: much of what it does, it does well, which is far better than we can say for many of the Chinese competitors (Xiaomi, in particular, with inconsistent MIUI not a patch on Sony's new ways with Android).

Verdict

The Sony Xperia 1 III will be all the phone that many people want. That big display, the premium look and feel, and the smooth running that comes with its top-tier hardware.

The spec sheet looks generous, with often dropped features, such as 3.5mm headphone socket and expandable storage, adding appeal that other flagships have dispensed with; couple that with a battery performance that's good and the lack of a notch and you have a neat phone.

But with phone use increasingly being defined by experiences, Sony has gone down the pro photographer and videographer route, wanting to add sophistication to the cameras, enabling it to do a lot of things that nobody wants, while struggling to do the things everyone wants.

That's been the story for some time with Sony's phones. So while there's a lot on offer in the Xperia 1 III, there's competition that excels in some of the areas where it lacks. From a phone that's priced at the top of the pile, too, it's hard to justify when compared to what you'll find elsewhere.

Also consider

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

One of the most complete smartphones for 2021. The camera is great, with plenty of options, while the overall experience is slick, and nicely packaged behind a great display.

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Oppo Find X3 Pro

Oppo has made huge bounds in its recent smartphones and this top-end handset is a great flagship, with power, speed, and great battery life.

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Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 9 August 2021.