Just when we thought Sony had settled into a naming pattern for its flagship smartphones it changes track again. The grandly named Xperia 1 goes for broke on the latest Sony smartphone philosophy: do what we do best, and unapologetically so.
This means the Xperia 1 is a tall, thin purple 4K smartphone with pretty great cameras. It’s an odd, expensive mix of a lot of good things, with some things missing. It’s not for everyone, but for once, Sony is comfortable that it isn’t – and the phone is all the better for it.
Price and availability
This puts the phone at £50 less than the Huawei P30 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus, but a whole £200 more than the impressive OnePlus 7 Pro.
On contract the Xperia 1 is about the same price as other high-end 2019 flagship phones, so it’s not outrageously priced – but the OnePlus 7 Pro is a better deal if you’re buying outright.
The screen is the place to start with the Xperia 1. 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 is thankfully excellent.
The resolution is a staggering 3840 x 1644 and has 643 pixels per inch. It’s every bit as good as on the industry-best Galaxy S10 but does not have as good daylight visibility. I struggled to see the Xperia 1’s display in the brightest conditions.
The move to an incredibly uncommon 21:9 display is so that the Xperia 1 can playback in the same ratio many movies are filmed in. Netflix already displays more than half its films in 21:9, meaning movies on the Xperia 1 are full screen with no letterboxing.
It’s also handy to split screen apps in portrait mode, allowing you to watch video in the top thirs and use maps in the bottom two thirds, for example – there’s enough screen to not make the bottom app too cramped.
There’s also 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 but otherwise this is an unapologetically angular, thin phone that feels more like a sequel to the Xperia XZ1 than the more recent Xperia XZ2 and XZ3.
The company’s first OLED on 2018’s XZ3 was already good but this one is well calibrated with good colour reproduction, and 4K video looks absolutely amazing on it.
Sony has added a ‘creator mode’ display setting to go along with the out the box mode which nicks its CineAlta branding from its high-end video cameras. It basically means faithful reproduction of a specific colour gamut and 10-bit colour HDR specifications.
Sony has also nailed its video image enhancement software, noticeably sharpening video quality via the inclusion of a clever new X1 image processing engine. Watching video on the Xperia 1 is a pleasure, and when the content is 21:9 and in HD, the best on a smartphone at the time of release in June 2019.
That comes at a price though. Unless you’re a film nut who wants a cinema-accurate aspect ratio screen on their phone, the tall design of the phone is weird. While it’s slim enough to mean one handed scrolling is OK, you can forget about reaching the top of the display with your thumb.
It’s not unmanageable but it’s very hard to balance in one hand without a permanent pinkie wedged under the bottom edge. Annoyingly, Sony has brought back the side mounted fingerprint sensor (woo!) but in addition to a separate power button (boo!). It was always great to have the sensor on the side under the button.
It’s very responsive though – so much so that I actually annoyingly unlocked the phone several times accidentally when holding it as it’s right where you want to grip it.
You can still get the 2-in-1 on the Samsung Galaxy S10e, but here with the volume rocker, fingerprint sensor, power button and camera button all on the right-hand side of the phone it’s a cluttered design that’s hard to get used to.
It doesn’t help that the Xperia 1 is one slippery customer – there are slippery glass phones, and then there is the Xperia 1. Put it on any hint of a non-flat surface – sofa arm, book, glass table – and the thing visibly slides towards doom.
Despite the dimensions, I found I grew to really like the Xperia 1’s odd form factor. Going back to the iPhone XR made Apple’s phone looks comically short and chubby, rather than the Sony too tall and thin.
The purple unit I reviewed is not to everyone’s taste but is a deliberate hark back to the original Xperia Z of a similar hue that Sony dropped after a while. It’s the boldest choice of Xperia 1 – otherwise you can go for black, white or grey.
Where Sony excels with its actual cameras, it has usually fallen short with the quality of its smartphone cameras. It supplies hardware to many other manufacturers but these days smartphone photography is also defined by the software processing that compliments great hardware.
The Xperia 1 is the first Sony phone with triple rear cameras: 12Mp f/1.6 main sensor, 12Mp f/2.4 telephoto and 12Mp f/2.4 ultrawide. This is welcome given the XZ3 only had one and lets you get better zoom, but the ultrawide lens’ fisheye warping of the edges of images is off-putting enough to never bother using it.
Until now, imaging on Sony’s flagship Xperia phones have lagged noticeably behind. The Xperia 1 rights this wrong – partly – by producing outstanding photos in many conditions. It just feels like you have to fight with the phone a bit in order to get the best results.
This is not a great point-and-shoot camera like the iPhone XS or Pixel 3. Those two phones consistently take great looking shots with minimal effort. The Xperia 1 is capable of some excellent imaging but it is a camera setup that rewards you if you know more about photography than the average person.
I found myself having to refocus many shots either by tapping on the display or using the dedicated two-step camera shutter, an addition Sony continues to include and one I love.
Some shots came out perfectly while others looked over exposed or too dark. This is probably down to my lack of pro-photography expertise, but this is my point – I can take some ridiculously good photos on the Pixel 3 (if I do say so myself), but the Xperia 1 makes me work much harder.
That said, when I got it right the Xperia 1 took some astonishing photos. Detail is pin-sharp and colours aren’t too saturated, though macro shots suffer from a little blur. There is no sign of a dedicated night mode like we’ve come to expect on phones of this price, which is a shame, but low light shots (as opposed to pitch black) come out well and manage light better than any Sony phone before.
The software-enhanced portrait mode is best left alone, as I got some great results from the natural bokeh of the lenses in auto mode.
You might need to click on the below gallery to view it:
Sony is confident enough about the video prowess of the Xperia 1 that it includes a movie-style Cinema Pro app on the phone to record fully manual video. You will only get good results here if you understand how to use a fully manual video camera. It’s fun to play with if you’re an amateur though, and a good way into learning how to get good results without a £10,000+ cinema camera.
But, as with video captured in the main camera app, results suffer from lack of decent stabilisation. Despite Sony building in a hybrid of OIS and EIS, I found videos shakier than acceptable in the regular camera app (Cinema Pro disables stabilisation so you can use a tripod, slider or alternative).
An unfortunate side note is the appalling front facing camera. An 8Mp f/2.0 sensor sounds OK, but Sony has built in infuriated beauty modes into it that are not obviously disabled, and results are always washed out and blurry. Selfies in any sort of low light looked absolutely awful. It’s a pretty big oversight and detracts from the phone’s appeal considering the beef of the rear triple cameras.
But then again Sony is really leaning into a niche market here. If you love Sony, cameras and cinema then this is the phone of your dreams. And where other companies might panic that they haven’t sold any phones, Sony seems content to buoy its smartphone business with the massive success of its TV, camera and PlayStation businesses and produce quirky products like the Xperia 1.
Drag race specs
The Xperia 1 is like a short distance race winner. It screams through every task with ease thanks to the Snapdragon 855. But the battery life is disappointing enough that it doesn’t quite cut it over long distances compared to other phones.
Considering it has the first 4K HDR OLED screen in a phone, the 3,300mAh battery is not large enough. I was battery percentage watching more often than I’d like, but having said that I never ran out over the course of a day.
Aside from this, I have zero complaints about performance. It’s a ridiculously fast phone, and the OnePlus 7 Pro is only faster because of its rapid animations and slightly better RAM management. The raw processing power score from the Geekbench app is neck and neck with the iPhone XS:
All in the details
Sony’s added some excellent touches on the Xperia 1 but frustratingly left out others. It has exceptional call quality, something the modern smartphone sometimes neglects. Calls to all networks in the UK were crystal clear and never dropped out, and I noticed the improvement in quality compared to my usual iPhone XR.
There’s also IP68 water resistance, perfect for a podcast in the shower. If only the stereo speakers weren’t so trebly. Many high-end phones can easily fill a small room with podcasts or radio, but with the Xperia 1 I was reaching for my headphones.
Luckily there are some in the box, though quite cheap feeling and sounding in-ears. This is a phone without a headphone jack, but there’s a dongle in there to connect the 3.5mm headphones – no USB-C headphones to be seen (though I tested a couple of pairs and they worked fine).
Despite the glass construction that would allow wireless charging, the Xperia doesn’t have it. Sony told me it preferred a slim design, whereas a charging coil would make the phone fatter. I don’t personally miss wireless charging, but it’s a shame not to see it on an £850 phone.
You also don’t get any form of face unlock, which is odd, but in keeping with the practically stock version of Android 9 Pie. Sony has kept it very minimal with hardly any changes from what you’ll find on an Android One phone. Fingers crossed Sony can keep up with security updates, something the company has been very good with in recent years.
Finally, the side sense gimmick from the XZ3 is on this phone too, and it’s still awful. Tap twice on the edge of the screen where it meets the bezel and you are given a software menu of recently used apps, menu options and toggles for one handed mode among other things.
It’s difficult enough to get the menu to pop up as your taps have to be very precise, and I found it was always quicker to just go and do the thing you wanted to do normally rather than try and use side sense. Yuck.
The Sony Xperia 1 is a fitting flagship for 2019. It has one of the best displays ever on smartphone, much improved rear cameras, slick performance and attractively clean software. If you value the unique display above features like face unlock or wireless charging, then it’s a good fit for you.
The tall design isn’t for everyone, but we like the fact Sony has admitted mainstream defeat. In crafting a phone that appeals to video and cinema lovers it certainly has backed itself into a corner, but if the Xperia 1 is loved by a few people rather than ignored by all people then Sony has probably achieved its aim.
I found the Xperia 1 a daring, charming smartphone let down only by its temperamental cameras and slightly disappointing battery life.