Sony Xperia 1 review: Hands-on

Just when we thought Sony had settled into a naming pattern for its flagship smartphones it changes track again. Before MWC we got a sneak peek at the Xperia 1, the company’s latest stab at smartphone relevancy.

It’s a shame that Sony doesn’t get a proper look in when it comes to mainstream Android sales because it produces good phones. The Xperia 1 changes design language yet again by opting for an elongated aspect ratio, a world-first display and more cameras than ever before.

We like the look of it and it’s packing a hell of a lot of tech, both hardware and software-wise. But it won’t change the wider smartphone conversation.

Price and availability

At our briefing before Mobile World Congress (where the phone was announced on 25 February) Sony couldn’t confirm pricing but suggested the UK price would be ‘around £799’, putting it a full £100 more than the Xperia XZ3 released in October 2018. The Xperia XZ2 Premium is £799.

That’s a big step up but is still less than the iPhone XS and Huawei Mate 20 Pro and the same as the Samsung Galaxy S10. But on contract it’ll all be much of a muchness when the phone is released in ‘late Spring’.

All pretty vague from Sony on this front, despite us having held the phone.

At our briefing 11 days before the launch, the Xperia 1 sample we got hands on with was pre-production and Sony wouldn’t let us unlock the thing. This brief review might be frustratingly inconclusive but we can only work with what we get, unfortunately.

A full review is to follow.

Wide boy

That screen though. After 2017’s Xperia XZ Premium boasted the world’s first smartphone with a 4K HD LCD display, the Xperia 1 brings you the first ever 4K HDR OLED. Sony loves to be first at smartphone achievements and the display should be a knock out given the XZ3s was so good.

We couldn’t watch any video on the locked device so, to be honest, we have no idea if it’s any good.

The move to an incredibly uncommon 21:9 display is so that the Xperia 1 can playback in the same ratio movies are filmed in. Netflix already displays more than half its films in 21:9, meaning movies on the Xperia 1 will be full screen with no letterboxing and no notch interfering.

That’s because there’s no notch on the 6.5in display and leaves Sony as practically the last manufacturer not to introduce one on any of its phones. There’s a hint of a forehead here but otherwise this is an unapologetically angular, thin phone that feels more like a sequel to the Xperia XZ1 than the more recent XZ2 and XZ3.

The feeling is added to with the return of the side mounted fingerprint sensor last seen on the XZ1 but this time it’s not a physical button. The volume rocker is above it and the power button below. This is a step backwards; the sensor is much better as an actual button.

Three’s a crowd?

Sony’s famous shutter button is still on that button-heavy right edge to trigger the first triple camera array on a Sony phone. It’s going head to head with the Galaxy S10 on this front.

Three 12Mp sensors allow you to shoot wide, super wide and telephoto zoom images. An f/1.6 aperture is promising for potential low light prowess but again – we couldn’t experiment with the bloody locked phone.

It’s the first time for a long while that the flagship Xperia hasn’t had at least a 19Mp main camera, and Sony said it has improved its noise reduction by applying it to a raw image first before the image is compressed to JPEG and applied again. We’ll have to see.

We hope the close connection with Sony’s own camera range and Alpha brand finally pays off as Sony has always been behind the curve, almost inexplicably so given it provides other Android OEMs with camera sensors. It’s all about the software, and Sony has yet to catch up with the Google Pixel and Huawei’s high-end devices.

The Xperia 1 can shoot in high-def 4K and we were shown a brief demo of its ‘cinema pro’ app to encourage you to make videos, not just watch them. We’d like to see a phone as good at video (or at least as versatile) as the LG V series phones, so it’s promising. But it’s still very niche.

Slim shady

The black model we took a look at is one of four colours with silver and white accompanying the purple version that harks back to older Xperia favourites like the Z2. The glossy finish is nice to hold and the narrow aspect ratio means one-handed use is oddly OK even if you can’t stretch your thumb to the top of the screen.

Sony achieved the thinness here by ditching the humped design of the XZ2 and XZ3 after just one year. The Xperia 1 also loses wireless charging, which is disappointing considering the equally thin Pixel 3 XL packs it in.

You do get IP68 water resistance though as well as everything else you’d expect from a 2019 flagship with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, NFC, Bluetooth 5.0, Gorilla Glass 6 and Android 9 Pie.

Sony made much of the ability to better split screen apps with the tall display in portrait orientation, watching a video in the top third while in a messaging app in the lower two thirds. A niche use case for most maybe, but the amount of stuff you can fit on the screen is undeniably better than any other phone at the moment.

Whether or not a relatively poky 3,300mAh battery will be enough to keep the energy sapping display going all day remains to be seen.

The phone also still has Sony’s turn-it-off-immediately Dynamic Vibration System that inexplicably buzzes along in time to music and films. The more useful side sense returns that brings up overlay menus and shortcuts anywhere in the UI.

Early verdict

This could – as we always seem to write – be Sony’s best phone yet. It most likely is. But we are still curious as to who this phone will appeal to.

Sony doesn’t have the brand clout or marketing budget of Samsung so we do respect it for trying something different to appeal to niche buyers. But it seems like it’s fully slipped into the rut that LG is in, redesigning its phones twice a year to try and hang on to dwindling sales.

It’s frustrating to us, then, that Sony had an event where loads of tech journalists could only look at a specs sheet and not even unlock the phone.

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