Sony Xperia 1 review: Sony’s best smartphone is also the most expensive

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If there’s just one thing to take away from this year’s long list of phone launches, it’s that smartphone displays are always changing. With flexible-screened phones cresting the horizon and Samsung paying particular attention to HDR10+ supported panels, phone manufacturers are focusing more of their efforts on innovative display technologies to try and stand out from the crowd.

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Sony’s upcoming Xperia 1 flagship continues this trend. With jean pockets bulging as screens steadily increase in size, the Xperia 1 introduces a new aspect ratio to flagship smartphones. But is this really where the market is headed?

Sony Xperia 1 review: What you need to know

The Xperia 1 is Sony’s most fleshed-out flagship phone yet. Following a slew of disappointing handset launches, Sony is back at it again in full force, and the Xperia 1’s feature list is practically spilling over.

For starters, the Xperia 1 has a fully edge-to-edge 4K screen with a 21:9 aspect ratio. That’s significantly taller than most smartphones on the market nowadays, allowing you to display much more of your social media feed, and watch the latest blockbuster movies without intrusive black bars above and below the screen.

Everything else is entirely above board, too, with the latest and greatest Qualcomm chipset – the vastly improved Snapdragon 855 – powering the phone, along with a generous triple camera arrangement (which includes a number of firsts for smartphone photography, but more on that later). All of this comes packaged in a rather luxurious redesign.

Sony Xperia 1 review: Price and competition

With all these extra goodies, it’s hardly a great surprise to learn that the Xperia 1 is Sony’s most expensive smartphone to date – and by quite a margin, in fact. SIM-free, the Xperia 1 will set you back a penny under £850, which makes it one of the most costly Android phones currently sitting on shop shelves.

At that price, it joins the ranks of extravagant Samsung and Huawei-branded flagships such as the Galaxy S10 Plus and P30 Pro. Of course, the latter no longer earns a recommendation at this time, as Google was ordered to stop working with Huawei when the Chinese phone maker was added to a list of companies banned in the US.

If iOS is more your thing, then Apple’s iPhone Xs is also a worthy contender, so long as you’re willing to hand over an extra £100. Bear in mind, though, that despite the added cost, it lacks the expandable storage options and has a lower resolution screen.

Sony Xperia 1 review: Design and key features

The first thing you’ll notice is that the Xperia 1 is very, very tall. Peeping out from the top of your pockets, the Xperia 1’s 21:9 aspect ratio display has necessitated an increase in the phone’s overall dimensions, and it simply isn’t quite as pocketable as other flagship phones.

Be warned, its tallness can make it a bit awkward to use at first. Accessing the phone’s notification tray by dragging your thumb from the top of the screen is usually straightforward, but with the Xperia 1, it’s a sizable stretch. This is no longer a one-handed task, though Sony’s excellent ‘Side Sense’ feature returns to help reduce some of the issues, allowing you to access a special app tray when double tapping a specific spot on either the left- or right-hand edge of the screen.

This also adopts Sony’s ‘Xperia Intelligence Engine’, which essentially uses AI to improve app suggestions based on location and time of day, which is pretty neat. Plus, while Side Sense provides easy access to apps, it also allows you to access the phone’s WI-Fi, auto-rotate and aeroplane mode toggles, as well as enable the one-handed mode and multi-window features.

In other respects, the Xperia 1 matches other flagships. You won’t find any chunky screen-bordering bezels on the left, right and bottom edges of the phone, although there is a rather asymmetrical forehead bezel which sits above the display, incorporating the Xperia 1’s 8-megapixel selfie camera and earpiece speaker. It’s also IP68 dust and water resistant, with the body sandwiched between protective layers of Gorilla Glass 6.

This isn’t simply practical; it also helps make the Xperia 1 Sony’s best-looking phone to date. You can pick it up in a variety of different colours, including black, purple, white and grey, and each shimmer nicely whenever light bounces off the rear of the phone. Sony’s harsh-edged sides remain in smartphone purgatory, too, as the Xperia 1 is now equipped with nicely curved edges that ensure the phone sits comfortably in the hand, despite its large size.

Meanwhile, the phone’s other physical attributes are precisely where you expect them to be. The right edge includes the phone’s volume rocker, power button and dedicated camera shutter key, along with the fingerprint sensor for secure unlocking. I much prefer this side-mounted approach over awkwardly-placed – and often unreliable – in-display sensors. Bad news if you like the fingers-free approach, however. As far as I can tell, the phone can’t be unlocked using facial recognition.

A microSD and nano-SIM tray can be accessed from the top edge, and you’ll spot the Xperia 1’s USB Type-C port and solitary speaker grille if you cast your eyes downward towards the bottom of the phone. There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, so you’ll either have to make do with the supplied audio dongle or invest in a good pair of Bluetooth headphones.

Sony Xperia 1 review: Display

Why include such a bizarre aspect ratio then? Well, movies are generally recorded natively in 21:9 format, so Sony says this new aspect ratio allows you to stream films exactly as the creators intended. In fact, 69% of Netflix content is already available in 21:9 format, so the Xperia 1 is a solid choice for binge viewing on the morning commute.

As for the screen’s technical specifications, the 6.5in OLED display is a 4K (3,840×1,644) HDR unit and benefits from Sony’s Bravia X1 enhancement technology, which is capable of upconverting SDR (standard dynamic range) movies to “near HDR.” This works with all types of footage, from your home movies to YouTube videos.

Investigating further with our screen calibrator, we found that the Xperia 1’s display delivered a practically perfect 96.2% of the DCI-P3 gamut, with a total recorded volume of 97.7% in the phone’s default ‘Standard’ display setting. Colours looked pleasingly accurate across the entire palette, with only a few exceptions of very slight oversaturation in some dark grey tones.

On a similar note, you can enable ‘video image enhancement’ in the phone’s display settings, which supposedly improves video quality with sharper and clearer-looking footage. I’m not entirely sure what this means, and I found it just dialled up the saturation quite considerably, which I guess is okay if you prefer a more vivid and vibrant-looking viewing experience.

This is a high-quality screen in just about every area. The screen resolution translates to a dot pitch of 643ppi, and everything including text, images and video looks pin-sharp as a result. A perfect contrast ratio of Infinity:1 helps boost readability in all sorts of lighting conditions, and the polarised coating helps reduce sun glare, too.

Before we continue, it’s worth discussing another of the Xperia 1’s unique selling points. Hidden in the phone’s settings menus – it isn’t enabled by default – is a toggle to switch on the screen’s ‘Creator mode’ colour profile. This setting targets the widely used BT.2020 colour gamut, commonly referred to as Rec. 2020, which defines the colour space in many forms of 4K, HDR content.

Weirdly, despite the impressive CineAlta certification, HDR didn’t look quite as impressive as I’d originally hoped it would, with some scenes in the Netflix TV show Marco Polo looking unintentionally dark. It’s still a decent first effort at introducing the BT.2020 colour profile to smartphone displays, but I think some improvements could be made.

Sony Xperia 1 review: Performance and battery life

You’re going to need some swift internals to back all of this up, so it’s no surprise that the Xperia 1 is powered by Qualcomm’s most up-to-date mobile chipset, the Snapdragon 855. This is an octa-core 8nm architecture CPU clocked at 2.84GHz and includes an embedded Adreno 640 GPU for graphics. It’s partnered with 6GB of RAM, which should aid multitasking, and the phone also packs 128GB of in-built storage, which can be expanded up to a further 512GB via microSD.

Performance is every bit as rapid as you’d expect from a smartphone in this class. In the Geekbench 4 CPU benchmark, the Xperia 1 achieved a single-core score of 3,538 and a multi-core score of 11,325. In real-world terms, this means the Xperia 1 is ludicrously quick and able to launch, run and switch between even the most processor-heavy applications without breaking a sweat.

Likewise, you shouldn’t encounter any problems when it comes to gaming. Despite the demanding 4K screen, the Xperia 1 still managed to reach a practically perfect average frame rate of 60fps in the GFXBench Manhattan 3.0 on-screen test, and even managed a respectable 33fps in the GPU-straining Car Chase benchmark.

Sadly, things begin to fall apart when it comes to the Xperia 1’s stamina. That fancy 4K resolution display, as nice as it is, drains the Xperia 1’s 3,300mAh capacity battery, which only managed 12hrs 29mins in our video rundown test. Of course, that’s not an abysmal score, but you’ll be topping up the Xperia 1 more frequently than most flagship phones.

Sony Xperia 1 review: Camera

On the back of the Xperia 1, you’ll find a vertically aligned triple camera arrangement, which incorporates a collection of three 12-megapixel camera units. One is your standard RGB lens with a wide aperture of f/1.6, while the other two are wide-angle and 2x telephoto zoom sensors.

These camera specifications might not sound particularly noteworthy, but the Xperia 1’s co-development with Sony’s Alpha camera team has introduced some welcome upgrades. Sony’s next-generation flagship benefits from more advanced RAW noise reduction filtering tech, as well as 10fps burst shooting. The Xperia 1 is also the first smartphone to introduce eye auto-focus tracking.

That’s a promising set of goodies, all adding up to an impeccable shooting experience. The interface is nice and simple to use, allowing you to switch between the cameras and tweak shooting settings with just a couple of taps. The scene recognition also does a good job, successfully identifying whether I’m taking pictures of, say, scenery or food, then adjusting the camera settings accordingly.

In our test shots, the Xperia 1 was capable of capturing more and finer details from the same scene than Apple’s iPhone Xs. Neighbouring brickwork was captured beautifully, even when the image was zoomed in to 200%. Likewise, tree foliage looked superb, and the Xperia 1 didn’t suffer from the same yellow-tinting colour effect that plagued the iPhone Xs.

The phone’s default auto HDR shooting mode also did a very good job at successfully lifting up shadowy areas of the image, and automatic exposure levels were perfect. The 2x telephoto zoom and wide-angle sensors also enhance the experience, too, effectively allowing you to zoom right into the scene and squeeze more stuff in the frame.

The Xperia 1 also did a much better job in our low-light studio scene. While the iPhone Xs was more effective at cutting through the darkness, the Xperia 1’s low-light image managed to keep visual noise to a minimum, with crisp, well-defined details and a pleasingly neutral colour palette.

As for the phone’s video capabilities, Sony has incorporated some of its CineAlta post-processing techniques into a pre-installed Cinema Pro camera app. Essentially, this means that editing and recording footage should be more straightforward than ever, allowing you to apply different themes depending on the footage you’ve captured, as well as different cinema-grade colour profiles – the same profiles used by Sony’s professional-grade Venice full-frame movie cameras.

The resolution and frame rate options are limited, though. 4K resolution recording is restricted to 30fps, and you can’t enable HDR at 4K or 1080p 60fps. And, while the image quality is superb, footage appears to suffer from an annoying juddering effect when panning across a scene, which I suspect has something to do with the phone’s image stabilisation. I hope this is an issue that can be fixed, at least to some extent, in future software updates.

Sony Xperia 1 review: Verdict

Despite a few problems, I still think the Xperia 1 does a fine job of bolstering Sony’s recent smartphone successes. After a troubling couple of years, there’s enough innovative tech on offer here for the Xperia 1 to stand out from the (ever-increasing) flagship crowd.

In the end, the Xperia 1 is a high-end smartphone that’s filled to the brim with positives. The 21:9 OLED screen is simply a joy to stare at, the camera outperforms the competition in most scenarios, and performance is right up there with the very best in the business. It’s a crying shame that the weak battery life and video stabilisation niggles hold it back, but the Xperia 1 remains a superb option that’s more than worthy of a recommendation.

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