Sony Xperia 1 review: Ahead of the curve

Sony carved an interesting niche for itself earlier this year when it introduced the Xperia 1 flagship and Xperia 10 and 10 Plus mid-range phones. These three devices are among the first to adopt the 21:9 aspect ratio for the display, which puts them at odds with most other devices in the market. Sony says this new screen shape is optimized for video content. That may be true, but little else is ready for the Xperia 1’s screen — including, potentially, consumers.

Here is Android Authority‘s Sony Xperia 1 review.

About our Sony Xperia 1 review: We used the Sony Xperia 1 for a week on AT&T’s network. The Xperia 1 review unit was furnished to Android Authority by Sony. It was running Android 9 Pie with the June 1 security update.
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Sony Xperia 1 review: The big picture

Sony has some serious competition to worry about. Samsung, Huawei, and LG have already beat it to the triple-camera race, and Sony is behind where 5G is concerned, too. The company needed to find some way to get a leg up on its foes, so it opted to … make taller displays.

Sony’s entire line this year, including the Xperia 1, Xperia 10, and Xperia 10 Plus, has moved to the 21:9 aspect ratio for the screens. This gives all three phones a unique look and experience that some people may simply not be ready to adopt. Though we’ve seen a couple more 21:9 phones announced (most notably the Motorola One Vision), Sony’s Xperia phones are way ahead of the curve here.

Will people put up with the odd shape of the Xperia 1 to live on the bleeding edge? We aim to find out.

What’s in the box

  • 18W USB-C charger
  • USB-C to USB-C cable
  • USB-C to 3.5mm adapter
  • USB-C headphones

Sony Xperia 1 review rear profile

Sony loaded up the box with USB-C goodies. In addition to the Xperia 1 itself, the box includes an 18W charger, cable, USB-to-3.5mm adapter, and even a set of decent USB headphones. There’s nothing fancy, such as a TCP case or polishing cloth.

Design

  • 167 x 72 x 8.2mm, 178g
  • IP65/68
  • Gorilla Glass 6
  • USB-C audio

“Interesting.” “Not for me.” “Why is it so skinny?” — These are the responses I received when I asked my friends and family what they thought about the Sony Xperia 1.

There’s no question the phone stands out. With a super tall and uncommonly thin profile, the Xperia 1 is monolithic in its own way. The phone’s 21:9 aspect ratio screen demands that it take on a new shape, one that is narrower than most comparable flagships on the market. Though it has been four months since I first saw the phone, I’m still not accustomed to its gangly appearance. People I queried in the real world agreed.

“Interesting.” “Not for me.” “Why is it so skinny?”

Your hand will love the narrow waist. The phone is easy to clutch in your hand as you walk about. Reaching the top of the screen with your thumb is an entirely different story. It’s simply impossible for most people. My hand has never performed such gymnastics trying to interact with a phone as it has with the Xperia 1. Sony has software to combat this issue, but still.

These first impressions should not take away from the quality of the product assembled by Sony, which is top notch through and through. The Xperia 1 features stunning Gorilla Glass 6 on both sides, a robust aluminum frame, and (nearly) all the specs and tech you could ask for in a modern phone.

The Xperia 1 is one of the most seamless devices I’ve tested this year. The frame is curved perfectly to match the rounded glass front and back. The seams are aligned flawlessly, creating a tight seal where glass and metal meet. The polished sheen is downright luscious. You can get the phone in black or (love it) purple. I warn you, the phone will slip off your desk or table. Be careful where you place it.

Sony provides a bevy of hardware controls to help you interact with the Xperia 1, all of which are on the right side.

The bottom-most key is the dedicated camera button — something fairly unique these days. Not too many phones opt for the hardware camera button and I’m glad Sony has kept it around. The two-stage key has great action, though it is a bit small. I noticed, however, that I accidentally gripped the button and launched the camera nearly every time I stuffed the phone into my pocket. This got real old real fast. Ugh.

Next is the screen lock/power button. It’s a little further up the side and in a fairly good (discoverable) spot. Perfect action.

Sony was smart to put the fingerprint reader in the right side of the frame. It’s a cinch for your thumb to reach and sidesteps the problematic under-the-screen placement. It’s also surely simpler to find than an rear-mounted reader would be. The last thing you’ll find on the right edge is the volume rocker. It works well.

One thing I truly appreciate about Sony phones: the thumbnail-accessible SIM and memory card slot. You’ll find it tucked into the top edge.

Other than the USB-C port, the only functional elements built into the bottom edge are two microphones. There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack. Bad, Sony, bad.

The triple-camera module is significant. It’s a vertical strip and it stands out from the rest of the rear glass thanks to its raised profile. The phone will rock side to side a bit when placed on a hard surface, such as a table or desk. That might be bothersome to some people.

Sony’s Xperia 1 is a high-quality piece of kit, despite the lanky shape.

Let’s not forget the IP68 rating, which means the phone can sit in up to 1.5 meters (~5 feet) of water for up to 30 minutes before you have to start worrying. I let the Xperia 1 take a nap at the bottom of a water-filled bucket and the phone is still running like clockwork.

Sony’s Xperia 1 is a high-quality piece of kit, despite the lanky shape.

Display

  • 6.5-inch 4K HDR OLED
  • 3,840 by 1,644 pixel, 643ppi
  • 21:9 CinemaWide aspect ratio
  • X1 for Mobile

Let’s ignore the goofy 21:9 aspect ratio for a second and drool over the fact that the Xperia 1 has a 4K screen. Sony has flirted with 4K displays in the past, but this time around it truly delivered.

Let's drool over the fact that the Xperia 1 has a 4K screen.

The Xperia 1’s display does absolutely everything you might ask of a phone. There’s no notch, no punch hole, just screen from top to bottom, edge to edge. The pixel count is absurd, the color range insane, and the brightness very good.

With support for HDR, you’d better believe I set to streaming some movies from Netflix. HDR content that natively supports the 21:9 aspect ratio will knock your socks off. The contrast range is simply astounding. We’re talking the best movie-watching experience I’ve had on a phone.

That is, until you encounter content that’s not 21:9. Then you get black bars at either end of the screen, and I’m not a fan of those. While most non-21:9 content is centered on the screen, some apps simply won’t stretch down to fill the extra space at the bottom. This is annoying at best.

As per the norm for a flagship, you have total control over the color profile, the blue light filter or night mode, the resolution settings, and so on. The Sony Xperia 1 has one of the best displays I’ve encountered this year, though content has to catch up quickly for the aspect ratio to be of any real use.

Performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 S0C
    • 2.8GHz octa-core, 7nm process
  • 6GB of RAM
  • 128GB of storage

Sony’s use of the Qualcomm-made SoC is efficient and quick. I never encountered any performance issues whatsoever with the Xperia 1. It purred along like a well-oiled machine, with nary a hiccup to complain about. Truly, the phone was a joy to use. It devoured intense games, including Asphalt 9 and Fortnite, both of which are pre-installed, with gusto. Sony has a Game Enhancer mode that blocks notifications during gameplay. Similar features are found on the OnePlus 7 Pro and Asus ROG Phone.

As for benchmarks, the phone scored well across the board. It trounced nearly all competing devices in 3DMark and GeekBench. It bested a respectable 87 percent of phones on AnTuTu. It looks like memory speed held the phone back in AnTuTu.

No matter. You don’t have to worry about running into any roadblocks with the Xperia 1. It’ll easily surmount them.

See also: Snapdragon 855 phones — What are your best options?

Battery

  • 3,330mAh Lithium-ion
  • Xperia Adaptive Charging
  • Stamina Mode
  • USB power delivery

I’m a bit surprised by Sony’s decision making with respect to the battery. To start, a 3,330mAh power cell is a bit small for a flagship. Many competing devices have batteries in the 3,500 t0 4,000mAh range. Moreover, Sony dropped wireless charging — a major no-no for a flagship in 2019.

Then there’s the 4K screen to consider. The Ultra HD display has millions more pixels that need to be lit up than a Quad HD display. Sure, you can ratchet the resolution down to improve battery life, but where’s the fun in that?

This is partially why the Xperia 1 didn’t perform particularly well in our battery tests. While I pushed the phone from morning to night on most days I used it, it survived little more than 12 hours in our web and video tests. Competing devices reach 14 or more hours in these same tests.

If there’s one thing the Xperia 1 has going for it, it’s Sony’s Stamina Mode and rapid charging. Using the included charger powers up the phone quickly, and you can endlessly tweak power consumption to manage battery life. You’ll find you might need to.

See also: Fastest charging cables, see which one is right for you. 

Camera

  • Rear:
    • 12MP wide-angle, f/1.6, OIS
    • 12MP telephoto, f/2.4, OIS
    • 12MP super-wide lens, f/2.4
  • Front:
    • 8MP, f/2.0
  • Video:
    • 4K HDR

The Xperia 1 has four cameras: three on the back and one on the front, like many modern flagships. The different lenses let your snap standard, wide-angle, and zoomed images. The camera app opens quickly with a firm press to the dedicated camera button. You can also open it via the lock screen shortcut.

The app’s controls are what you expect from a modern flagship. That means lots of features and modes accessible via buttons, toggles, and drop-down menus. Sony’s intelligent auto mode is the default. This uses AI to assess what the phone is pointed at and adjust the camera settings accordingly. Point it at text and you’ll see the word “document” appear in the upper left corner. Same applies to landscape, daylight, low-light, and other scenes. You can turn intelligent auto off if you wish.

The three lenses let you capture standard, telephoto, and super wide-angle shots.

Beyond this, the basic included modes include portrait selfie, Google Lens, slow motion, AR effect, manual, creative effect, and panorama. These are all fairly standard. I’d like to see a time-lapse mode, but unfortunately there isn’t one included.

The three lenses let you capture standard shots, telephoto shots, and 137-degree super wide-angle shots. The wide angle is so wide that it introduces obvious optical distortion, as evidenced in the samples below. I like the flexibility afforded by these three lenses, though competing phones keep the wide-angle in a more usable (and less distorted) range.

Photos I captured with the Sony Xperia 1 are good, but short of great. Focus was generally sharp throughout. I didn’t notice too many soft shots, even those taken in low light. Exposure, however, is all over the place. You can see over- and under-exposed shots in the samples below. I’m not quite sure what’s up with the HDR tool, which doesn’t appear to be doing its job.

Colors look a bit muted to my eyes. Many of the murals I shot in New York City were bright and radiant, but the real-life vibrance doesn’t necessarily come through in the photos. This is in direct opposition to the photos we see from phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S10, which pushes colors a bit.

Noise and compression artifacts are evident in low-light shots. Speaking of which, the Xperia 1 doesn’t include a dedicated low-light mode — another stunning omission on a 2019 flagship.

The selfie camera does an acceptable job. It’s certainly not bad. The selfie portrait software simplifies the process of capturing selfies. I think the bokeh’d shots have decent edges, but the blur is a bit too intense. 

It’s hard for me to understand how a company such as Sony, one that has a rich heritage in imaging, can turn out such a mediocre camera on one of its most important devices of the year. The Galaxy S10, Pixel 3, and Huawei P30 Pro have the Xperia 1 soundly beat when it comes to imaging.

Sony’s flagships have been able to capture 4K video for some time. Not only does the Xperia 1 record the high-quality video I’ve seen in some time, the multiple mics mean you get excellent sound quality, too. 

You can view full-resolution photos here

Audio

  • Bluetooth 5 with aptX HD
  • Dolby Atmos
  • Stereo speakers
  • LDAC

If you are an audiophile, phones from Sony and LG are your best bet. The Xperia 1 may lack a 3.5mm headphone jack (boo!), but it delivers on nearly every other front.

Stereo sound is reproduced when the earpiece and bottom-firing speakers work together. The sound is quite good when you tilt the phone sideways to watch movies. You can opt to turn on Sony’s dynamic vibration, which will rumble the phone similar to a game controller to give you a multidimensional experience.

The aptX HD Bluetooth profile means Android fans get outstanding audio quality from their compatible Bluetooth headphones. Cinema-quality sounds comes roaring through with fine details preserved. This is aided by Dolby Atmos and DSEE HX, both of which include their own controls for tweaking audio,

This phone sounds great.

See also: The coat hanger experience: Are premium audio cables worth it?

Software

  • Android 9 Pie

The Xperia 1 ships with Android 9, the latest operating system from Google. Sony’s software skin is fairly light. The most significant changes you’ll see are different background colors and some alternate fonts, when compared to stock. Otherwise, it provides the typical home screen, app drawer, Quick Settings shade, and pill-based home screen navigation.

The Xperia 1 has some unique features. For example, reaching the top of the display is a bit of a challenge. Thankfully there’s a one-handed mode to save the day. Double tap the home button and the entire desktop shrinks. In this smaller form, it’s somewhat easier to reach the notification shade. Double-tap a second time to return the screen to normal.

Side Sense is similar to Samsung’s Edge Screen. Double tapping either side of the frame opens up a small window with shortcuts to several key apps and actions. It could be a bit more reliable when you want to open it. I found it a bit tricky.

Split-screen multitasking works really well on the tall screen. Sony introduced a new app for the Xperia 1 that allows you to easily access and configure which apps appear on the screen. I particularly like that you can create app pairs, which let you instantly open Gmail and Google Calendar, or Chrome and YouTube together. The Galaxy Note series has a similar feature.

There are plenty of ways to customize the software (ambient display, lock screen clocks, themes) to your liking and it all runs fluidly on the phone.

Specs

  Sony Xperia 1 Sony Xperia 10 Sony Xperia 10 Plus
Display 6.5-inch 4K HDR OLED
21:9 aspect ratio
X1 for mobile Creator mode
6-inch LCD FHD+
21:9 aspect ratio
6.5-inch LCD FHD+
21:9 aspect ratio
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 Mobile Platform Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 Mobile Platform
GPU Adreno 640 Adreno 508 Adreno 509
RAM 6GB 3GB 4GB
Storage 128GB
MicroSD expansion up to 512GB
64GB
MicroSD expansion up to 512GB
64GB
MicroSD expansion up to 512GB
Cameras Rear cameras:
12MP wide-angle lens, 25mm OIS, Dual PD
12MP Telephoto lens, 52mm OIS
12MP Super-wide lens, 16mm

Front camera
8MP FF

BIONX for mobile HDR recording
Cinema Pro
Rear cameras:
13MP 1/3.0"
5MP 1/4'
Bokeh
ISO 12800 (photo)
ISO 3200 (video)
4K movie recording

Front camera
8MP 1/4.0"
ISO 3200 (photo)
ISO 1600 (video)
Rear cameras:
12MP 1/2.8"
8MP 1/4' Optical Zoom + Bokeh
ISO 12800 (photo)
ISO 3200 (video)
4K movie recording

Front camera
8MP 1/4.0"
ISO 3200 (photo)
ISO 1600 (video)
Audio Dolby Atmos Hi-res Audio
DSEE HX
LDAC
Stereo speaker
Stereo sound recording
Smart amplifier
Sony's Dynamic Vibration system
High-resolution audio
DSEE HX
LDAC
Smart amplifier
Monaural speaker
Stereo recording
High-resolution audio
DSEE HX
LDAC
Smart amplifier
Monaural speaker
Stereo recording
Durability Corning Gorilla Glass 6
IP68
Corning Gorilla Glass 5 Corning Gorilla Glass 5
Biometrics Fingerprint sensor (side) Fingerprint sensor (side)
Side sense
Fingerprint sensor (side)
Side sense
Network SCA LTE
CAT 19
4x4 MIMO
11a/ac/b/g/n
3CA LTE
CAT12/13
3CA LTE
CAT12/13
Connectivity NFC
Bluetooth 5.0
USB-C/USB.3.1
NFC
Bluetooth 5.0
USB-C/USB.2.0
NFC
Bluetooth 5.0
USB-C/USB.2.0
Battery 3,330mAh 2,870mAh 3,000mAh
Software Android 9 Pie
Android 9 Pie Android 9 Pie
Dimensions and weight 167x72x8.2mm 156x68x8.4mm
162
167x73x8.3mm
180g
Colors Black, White, Gray, Purple Black, Silver, Navy, Pink Black, Silver, Navy, Gold

Value for the money

  • Sony Xperia 1 with 6GB of RAM, 128GB storage: $949

Let’s not kid ourselves: $949 is a lot of scratch for any phone. Apple, Huawei, LG, and Samsung are all toeing the thousand-dollar line with their top-shelf devices and Sony is here to say, “Me too!”

If you’re a total Sony fan and want the Xperia 1 no matter the cost, be sure to order during the initial two-week pre-order window (through July 12.) Only during this time can you score a free set of $350 WH1000XM3 Bluetooth active noise canceling headphones from Sony. This combo package is a great deal. A great deal.

Sony is here to say, 'Me too!'

Otherwise, without a carrier-supported payment plan, you’re on your own to fund the pricey device. Does the Xperia 1 deliver a vastly better experience than the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus or Pixel 3 XL? Not really, but at least it’s unique.

Sony Xperia 1 review: The verdict

Sony’s path through the smartphone market over the last decade has been full of peaks and valleys. I hoped the Xperia 1 would represent one of those peaks. Sadly, it’s somewhere halfway up (or down) the hill. 

The phone’s hardware is outstanding where quality is concerned. You’ve got nearly everything you could want: Gorilla Glass 6, metal frame, waterproof housing, 4K screen, triple cameras, and more. 

The Xperia 1 falls short in a few places, including battery life, camera performance, and general usability thanks to the odd shape. Further, there’s not enough 21:9 content (both videos and apps) to make sense of the stretched aspect ratio. 

Would I recommend this phone? Only to people specifically looking for something unique, or those who place an emphasis on media consumption. 

This concludes Android Authority’s Sony Xperia 1 review. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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