Hands-On Review: Sony Xperia 1 Smartphone

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Though there are more than 100 devices that bear the Xperia name, it’s fair to say we’ve never seen anything quite like the Xperia 1. From its cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio and first-ever 4K HDR OLED screen to its professional-grade camera features, the Xperia 1 is, by all accounts, a truly unique device. But does that innovation equal excellence? To find out, I brought it with me for a test run during Adventure Week. Here’s how it went.

Revolutionary Design

Since the series launch in 2008, Sony has repeatedly reworked the Xperia line. However, with the new Xperia 1, the changes feel more like revolution than revamp. This phone is dramatically different than previous generations, starting with its conspicuous design.

Sony Xperia 1
The Xperia 1 features the world's first 4K HDR OLED display.

As soon as you take the Xperia 1 out of the box, you notice how tall it is. At 6.5 inches, the Xperia 1 stands above phones like the Galaxy S10+ and the iPhone XS Max. But it’s the narrow 2.8-inch width that gives the Xperia 1 that long, stretched-out look. However, despite its Slender Man build, the Xperia 1 is remarkably easy to use with one hand—thanks, in part, to handy features like Side sense and the ability to open two windows at once. Because it’s so thin, it also travels very easily. I was even able to carry it comfortably in my front pocket, which was a relief considering all the gear we were lugging around Colorado.

One of the driving forces behind the Xperia 1’s innovative design is its unique screen: a 6.5-inch 4K HDR OLED panel that offers a 21:9 “CinemaWide” aspect ratio. On paper and in practice, this is one of the most advanced smartphone displays ever built. As of this writing, there is no other phone with a 4K HDR OLED display and, despite having reviewed some of the best phones on the market, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a screen this sharp. Sony went all in on trying to design the world’s greatest smartphone display, and it looks like this company might have done it.

As for the rest of the design: The Xperia1isn’t flashy, but it is an objectively gorgeous handset. The front and rear are covered in Gorilla Glass 6, which, in addition to being super strong, helps keep the Xperia 1 looking premium and polished.

The front is largely occupied by the screen, with thin bezels at the top and bottom, as well as an inconspicuous 8MP shooter camouflaged at the top. The back is where the triple-rear camera setup lives. The lenses are vertically stacked, with an LED flash and IR sensor positioned above them. On the right side of the phone are all your important controls, including power, volume rocker, camera/shutter button, and fingerprint scanner. Lastly, on the top is a microSD slot for expanding the base 128GB storage.

Sony Xperia 1
Front and back of the Sony Xperia 1.

Again, apart from the display and unique dimensions, the Xperia 1 doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of its physical build. But what it does is take a classic design and make it look absolutely stunning. The conundrum is that for all of its glossiness, the Xperia 1 does feel a bit slippery. I didn’t drop it—which, considering the arduous trip it accompanied me on, is a minor miracle—but I often felt as though I might. The obvious remedy is a protective case, but man, personally, I would hate to cover all that gleam.

Professional Grade Camera

While the Xperia 1’s display will most likely turn the most heads, its rear camera system is arguably just as groundbreaking. For starters, the Xperia 1 marks the first time Sony has equipped a camera with three rear cameras: a 12MP 16mm super-wide, a 12MP 26mm, and a 12MP 52mm telephoto lens with 2x optical zoom. Building this system, Sony borrowed from its lauded Alpha series to imbue the Xperia 1 with some of the features seen in its own professional-grade cameras. Some of those features, including Eye AF (Autofocus) and 10 fps AF/AE (Auto Focus and Auto Exposure), have never before been offered in a smartphone. On top of that, users get a ton of high-level photo and video features, including optimized low-light shooting, the ability to record 4K video, full control over ISO and shutter speed—just to name a few.

Sony Xperia 1 Camera
Sony borrowed from its Alpha series to beef up the Xperia 1's camera features.

As far as the actual shooting went: The camera app was easy to use, straightforward, and fast. I thought the images turned out pretty well, too. I snapped a couple of shots at each of the adventure sites and was pleased with the the color and sharpness. You can check out some samples below.

Shot with the Sony Xperia 1.

Software, User Interface, and Performance

The Xperia 1 ships with Sony’s version of Android Pie. The user experience is familiar enough, with a couple of tweaks here and there to serve the Xperia 1’s unique size better (one-handed mode, for example). Even with helpful features. the extra screen real estate does take a while to get used to, but once you get the hang of it, it’s quite nice. Having all that screen to see more and scroll less is super nice. And shortcuts like the ability to launch two of your favorite apps instantly, at once, along with the split-screen mode in general, makes multi-tasking a lot easier.

Split-screen mode made it easy to simultaneously plan our route and answer one of life's great mysteries.

Powering the user experience are Qualcomm’s most advanced chipset and GPU, the Snapdragon 855 and Adreno 640. These are both apex processors that likely will outscore every other Android phone on the market in terms of benchmarks testing. Also powering the Xperia 1 is a 3,300mAh good battery. Battery life for the Xperia 1 was solid, not exceptional. Every day I used the Xperia 1 continuously for various tasks (directions, surfing, etc.), and every night the battery would be drained down to about a third. That’s reasonable performance, but nothing to write home about. If you need better battery performance, the Xperia 1 does come with a number of battery-enhancing features that are designed to improve longevity.

The Verdict

I’ll be the first person to admit I’ve never gone crazy over an Xperia phone. That’s not a knock. Most of them have been solid devices that just got overshadowed by bigger names. But the Xperia 1 feels like a legitimate game changer. When Sony showed us the Xperia 1, my first reaction was genuine wow. Aesthetically, it just looked so good. When I finally got my hands on it, I was equally impressed. Thanks to its groundbreaking 4K HDR OLED screen, content on the Xperia 1 looked fantastic. Even 16:9 videos that didn’t fit perfectly into the Xperia 1’s 21:9 aspect ratio looked really good. I liked the camera, as well, though as a casual smartphone photographer, it’s not the biggest draw for me personally. However, users who do put a premium on camera performance will not be disappointed. The Xperia 1’s camera setup rivals any smartphone on the market, and it offers modes and features in the photo and video department that you won’t find anywhere else. Bottom line: The Xperia 1 is the most advanced smartphone Sony has ever produced and it stands toe-to-toe with the other flagships on the market. What makes it special is its unique design, best-in-class display, and a camera setup that lives up to Sony’s reputation.

Be sure to check back on B&H Explora for more of Adventure Week—and don't forget to follow B&H on Twitter @BHPhotoVideo for up-to-the-minute #adventureweek news.

Click on the link to read more about our exploits during Summer Adventure Week here at B&H Explora!

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