Sony Xperia 1 review: A tall order to beat
Don’t be blinded by the 21:9 screen: you’ll find a sprinkling of interesting features if you dig a little deeper
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 on innovative display technologies to stand out from the crowd.
Sony's Xperia 1 continues this trend but its USP is a 21:9 aspect ratio display. That results in an exceptionally tall phone that will peep out from the top of most pockets, and it can make the phone awkward to use at first.
For example, accessing the phone's notification tray by dragging your thumb from the top of the screen is usually straightforward, but it's a sizable stretch with the Xperia 1. This is no longer a one-handed task unless you call in Sony's excellent Side Sense feature: this allows you to access a special app tray when double-tapping a specific spot on either the left- or right-hand edge of the screen.
Side Sense also adopts Sony's "Xperia Intelligence Engine", which uses AI to improve app suggestions based on location and time of day. It works well too. Plus, it allows you to access the phone's Wi-Fi, auto-rotate and toggle Airplane mode on and off.
Sony Xperia 1 review: Display
So why include such a bizarre aspect ratio? 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, making the Xperia 1 a solid choice for the morning commute. Some games also support 21:9, and it can be useful to have a wider view of the action.
As for the screen's technical specifications, the 6.5in OLED display is a 4K (3,840 x 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 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 Standard display setting. Colours looked pleasingly accurate across the entire palette, with only a few exceptions of 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. In reality, we found it just dialled up the saturation; fine if you prefer a more vivid image, but not great if you're after realism.
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 helps boost readability in all sorts of lighting conditions, and the polarised coating helps reduce sun glare, too.
Finally, 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 we'd hoped, with some scenes in the Netflix TV show Marco Polo looking unintentionally dark. It's a decent first effort at introducing the BT.2020 colour profile to smartphone displays, but improvements need to be made before it becomes mainstream.
Sony Xperia 1 review: Design
Away from the 21:9 screen, the Xperia 1 matches other flagships. The screen stretches to the edge on the left, right and bottom edges of the phone, although there is an asymmetrical forehead bezel that sits above the display; this incorporates the Xperia 1's 8MP 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 colours, including black, purple, white and grey, and each shimmers 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 curved edges that ensure the phone sits comfortably in the hand, despite its large size.
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. we 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 the phone can't be unlocked using facial recognition.
The microSD and nano-SIM tray can be accessed from the top edge, and you'll spot the Xperia 1's USB-C port and solitary speaker grille if you cast your eyes 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 pair of Bluetooth headphones.
Sony Xperia 1 review: Performance
Sony, in tandem with almost every other phone maker, powers its flagship with Qualcomm's most up-to-date mobile chipset, the Snapdragon 855. It doesn't go overboard with RAM, supplying 6GB, but that's ample for multitasking. 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.
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 3,330mAh capacity battery, which only managed 12hrs 29mins in our video rundown test. That's not an abysmal score, but you'll be topping up the Xperia 1 more frequently than rival 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 12MP 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 brings some welcome upgrades. The first is more advanced RAW noise reduction filtering tech, along with 10fps burst shooting. The Xperia 1 is also the first smartphone to introduce eye auto-focus tracking.
The interface is nice and simple to use, allowing you to switch between the cameras and tweak shooting settings with a couple of taps. The scene recognition also does a good job, successfully identifying whether you're 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. For example, 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 an excellent job at lifting up shadowy areas of the image, while automatic exposure levels were perfect. The 2x telephoto zoom and wide-angle sensors enhance the experience, too, effectively allowing you to zoom right into the scene and squeeze more into 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. This means that editing and recording footage is 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 suffers from an annoying juddering effect when panning across a scene, which we suspect has something to do with the phone's image stabilisation. We hope this is an issue that can be fixed in future software updates.
Sony Xperia 1 review: Verdict
Despite a few problems, 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.
The question is whether it does enough to justify that high price. Here, it's jostling with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S10+ and Huawei P30 Pro. Like both of those rivals, the Xperia 1 is a high-end smartphone that's filled to the brim with positives. The 21:9 OLED screen is a joy to stare at, the camera brings some unique advantages, and performance is up there with the best. Weak battery life and video stabilisation wobbles hold it back, but the Xperia 1 remains a superb option that's more than worthy of a recommendation.
Despite a few niggles, including a slightly sub-par battery life, Sony’s latest flagship is a top-drawer affair that more than earns its place amongst the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S10+ and the Huawei P30 Pro
Octa-core 2.84GHz/2.42GHz/1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Adreno 640 graphics
6.5in OLED screen, 1,644 x 3,840 resolution
Triple 12MP/12MP/12MP rear camera
8MP front camera
72 x 8.2 x 167mm (WDH)
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