Sony Xperia 1 review

At the start, we were not impressed with this flagship phone, but the more we used it, the more we loved it. After about a week, it has become our favorite smartphone.

Setup was a breeze. All apps function as they should. We did not need to fiddle with any setting to make things work. A lot of things are taken care of in the background by Sony, so the settings menu seems to lack some of the advanced features of other smartphones, but actually, that is a good thing. It all works very well out of the box.

The screen is amazing. The longer you use the phone, and the more you compare it to other phones, the more you see just how good it is. That said:  in daily usage, other flagship phones offer a comparable good experience. HDR modes and “Creator mode” are only used sometimes after all, and the screen indeed looks mighty good then. So if you intend to watch a lot of pictures or movies on the Xperia 1, this display will be breathtaking good to look at. We prefer this display over the Samsung displays actually.

The 21:9 format is nice. Very nice to hold, easy to scroll through content. Very handy for reading emails or websites. Typing is very easy to do, despite the less widescreen. In landscape orientation, everything can feel a bit cramped, however. This phone is meant to be used in portrait mode most of the time. Only turn it landscape to watch movies or pictures. We think this form factor will become very popular in the future.

By default, the display is clearly set dimmer than other phones. You need to crank it up a bit, and it will remember that and you will be fine. At 75% brightness, you get about the same level of brightness that some other flagship phones show when set at around 50%. We tried the phone outdoors in sunlight, and everything is very readable and usable. There seems to be an outdoor mode (when automatic brightness is on) that kicks in, in very bright situations. The screen can indeed get very bright outside. Taking pictures is no problem in sunlight, but other phones often show a brighter viewfinder here. Shadow areas are a bit difficult to see (but that is closer to how the picture will look), and the gridlines are also very difficult to see in bright situations. That said: display brightness is no problem at all with this phone, it is just set a bit dimmer out-of-the-box, but that is easily corrected.

Sound quality of the speakers is very good for music and movies. Better than most other phones. Very nice when watching movies or listening to music. Maximum volume is just OK, nothing special here, and more than loud enough. Speakerphone quality when on a call is also OK but also not better than others. We are happy to report that our Bluetooth headphones play very loud with the Xperia 1. There is no annoying volume warning, and at 100% volume, it is really way too loud with many songs. Usually, we can keep the volume at 50% and it still sounds very loud.

Wifi, Bluetooth, NFC, and call quality are all on par with, or better than, other flagship phones. No complaints here. Wifi connection is strong. Bluetooth connections are very fast and stable. Starting a Chromecast is incredibly fast. Pairing new devices is almost instantly. Call quality through the earpiece is very loud and clear. We are often surprised about how loud people sound when we call them with the Xperia 1.

That said: there is an issue with Bluetooth headsets and handsfree car kits: the phone connects fine, music can be played, but voice calls do not always work.  There is no sound, and the phone will play the sound using the earpiece. Switching manually on the phone to the headset does nothing. This can be very annoying. The problem is solved by restarting the phone, and then it works fine for a while again.

The phone feels very fast and fluid. Also no complaints here. The fingerprint reader works very fast when it works. But you need to clean it often, because as soon as it gets a bit greasy from touching it, it will start to fail. Just wipe it, and it is fine again for a while. Be prepared for a lot of fails, however. Keep in mind that you will need to pay attention to how you hold the phone while walking around because the fingerprint sensor is very sensitive and even the lightest touch triggers it.

Update after 2 months: the fingerprint sensor has become a real problem. More and more fails, more and more difficult to use. Re-registering the fingerprints does not help. We are seriously considering disabling fingerprint security altogether. 

At first use, the phone displayed overheating errors while using the camera. Some functions were shut off automatically because of that. That might have to do with the fact that the phone was also still downloading a lot of data, so we will see how this evolves once that is done. Update: after downloads were finished the phone functioned fine without overheating errors. It seems that downloading over wifi takes a lot of resources on the phone.

Camera

Camera start-up is a tiny bit slower than most other phones, but taking pictures is fast enough. The shutter fires immediately, but it can take a second to process the result.  Our first shots did not impress us at all. Pictures looked just average, and at 100% the results did not look so good. But that is the case for many smartphones. However: the good thing is that there is also not much sharpening going on. The pictures look very realistic. They just do not always pop as much as the images from other phones. But you can do a lot using some filters afterwards. The 2x zoom camera seems to deliver pictures that are better when viewed at 100%, but they are a bit washed out. The 2x zoom is not always achieved using the zoom camera. When you come too close to the subject, or in more challenging light conditions, the camera uses the normal camera and uses 2x digital zoom instead of the zoom camera.

 

 

 

The wide-angle camera is fixed focus. That is a bit disappointing but most other phone manufacturers also do this. Huawei has autofocus that allows for some nice wide-angle close-ups.  You can choose to correct the lens distortion automatically, which is nice.

Exposure and white-balance seem to be a bit hit or miss. Shots taken a few seconds apart can have very different exposure and white-balance. Always best to take more than one shot.

In very dark environments the phone seems to switch to a different kind of processing to create good pictures. This is similar to how Huawei phones work. You need to keep the phone still for a couple of seconds. This is only triggered in really bad lighting conditions. The results are actually quite good.

Our first indoor pictures came out too dark and not sharp. Later on, we got much better results. So, also hit or miss here.

That said, the camera is capable of taking extremely high-quality shots in all lighting conditions, but just fails to do this now and then. The majority of the shots are very good to excellent, however, and in good lighting the Xperia 1 delivers pictures that compete with the best flagship cameras. Just remember to always check the result, and take another shot if needed.

Below are 2 pictures taken seconds apart at dusk (almost 10PM). One with the normal camera, the other one with the zoom camera. Notice the difference in exposure and dynamic range.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below 3 pictures taken in a department store with fluorescent lighting. One with the zoom camera the two others with the normal camera. The result surprised us in a good way.

 

 

 

 

The camera app behaves like a normal point and shoot camera. Hooray!

The camera app works differently than on most other smartphones. The default automatic mode really does everything automatically. That means by default you cannot tap to focus on a specific area for example. You can change exposure and tint using sliders, but not by touching a dark or light area of the scene. The automatic mode works in the same way as normal cameras do. That means it has some clever tricks like eye focus, tracking, smile-shutter, and other features that you usually find on compact cameras or DSLR’s. You press the dedicated shutter button to lock focus, compose the scene, and press the shutter completely to take the picture just as you would do on a normal camera. It took us some time to figure out why touching the screen did nothing. The automatic mode truly functions like a normal camera set to fully automatic. We consider this a big plus most of the times, but it has it drawbacks also. If you switch on object tracking, however, you can touch the screen to focus, and it will keep focus locked on the object, even if it moves, or you move the camera but it seems it does not change exposure and focus is not always spot on.

If you want to touch parts of the viewfinder on the display to change focus and exposure on the Xperia 1 camera, like most other smartphones allow you to do by default, you can switch to manual mode. Just leave all settings here on “Auto”, and the camera will function in the same way as other smartphones do. It does not use AI anymore however to improve the image. So, you need some extra steps, but actually: if you leave it on automatic and use it like a point-and-shoot camera, the results are most of the time what you want and focus is usually spot on. Alternatively, you can switch on object tracking to have the best of both worlds.

However: there is indeed some kind of focus problem that will leave you frustrated sometimes: In automatic mode, the autofocus prefers large objects, and ignores objects close-by, if it doesn’t detect eyes. That means if you try to take a snap from a flower, for example, correct focus will be a challenge. In automatic mode, the camera will most often focus on the background instead of the flower. Even if the flower almost fills most of the viewfinder. You will need to switch to manual mode, and even then you will need to carefully look as is illustrated with the 2 dandelions below that we shot in manual mode, after automatic mode refused to focus on the flower. When we left focus on automatic (in manual camera mode), the camera focused on the center of the dandelion, leaving the outside a bit blurry. We had to switch to manual focus, and move the camera to try to get the outside of the dandelion in focus, as is illustrated in the second image.

 

 

 

Something we noticed is that the wide-angle camera and the zoom camera seem to have better dynamic range than the normal camera. Maybe they use some kind of auto HDR mode by default. Another thing we noticed is that the zoom camera often has problems to focus on objects close by. So taking macro shots if often more easy to do with the normal camera.

Below two pictures that show the difference in dynamic range between the normal and the wide-angle camera.

 

 

 

Our conclusion about the camera:

This is a very good camera setup indeed. It has some flaws and quirks, but nothing too serious. Many reviewers will claim that phones like a Samsung S10+ have far better cameras. As a photographer, we have to disagree. From a technical viewpoint, yes: the Samsung and Huawei phones have better dynamic range, and can take technical better pictures in almost dark environments. But these reviewers forget to actually look at the whole picture. The Sony Xperia 1 will most often produce a picture that is far more realistic and true to life. The pictures that come out of phones from, for example, Samsung or Huawei often look unnatural because of the extreme dynamic range and oversharpening. And how often you want a picture you took in the dark, to look like a daylight image? So, just like we preferred the pictures from our Asus ROG phone, we also prefer the pictures from this Sony compared to the results of the technical better camera systems in other phones. Exception might be the Google Pixel line of phones which produce excellent true to life pictures. We think Sony should not modify the still camera processing. We like it the way it is. We do not want the oversharpened pictures with unnatural looking HDR processing that other phones offer by default. We did not test video recording.

Update after 2 months: the latest updates improved the focus problems a bit. However, the camera app has become very unstable. It crashes often when taking pictures in low light, or it just keeps processing pictures forever, so you have to kill it and sometimes you even have to restart the phone to get the camera working again. 

 

Battery life

We also have our first results concerning battery life, and these are better than expected. Getting 6 hours screen-on time while doing email, internet browsing and youtube is most of the time no problem.  The worst result we got was four and a half hours screen-on time. That is a good result indeed when you consider the screen specs compared to the battery capacity. There are far better phones out there when it comes to battery life, but Sony does a good job here.  They restrict a lot of background activity without causing problems with apps like Huawei phones often do. For most people it will be no problem to get through a full day of usage without recharging.

 

Some nice touches:

When you connect the phone to a Windows Computer, it will offer you to install software on the PC that allows you to transfer data, install updates, etc. Very nice touch. You do not need to download anything because the installer is on the phone and mounts as a CD-Rom on your PC.

The Touch cover is a must-have. It uses a transparent cover that let you use the phone while the cover is closed. Touch response is almost as good as the display itself, and it turns the phone into a smartphone with a matte screen. Very nice indeed.

You can switch the display to grayscale only. This makes it easy on tired eyes.

The Xperia 1 has a dedicated camera button to launch the camera and take pictures!

We actually like that the power button and the fingerprint scanner are separate. Sometimes we just want to wake up the screen to check notifications without unlocking the screen, and sometimes we want to unlock immediately, skipping the lock-screen. Both are possible with this setup.

There are some nice software tweaks here and there that makes using this phone a joy.

 

Conclusion for now:

So. Our first impression is that on paper this phone will have a hard time to compete with flagships from, for example, Samsung and Huawei. However: all of the people who saw the phone in person were very impressed by it, and considered it to be better than the phones from Samsung and Apple they had themselves. We ourselves also like it very much now. The most important thing it has going for it is the 21:9 format which is really nice to use indeed and stunning to look at. But there are already cheaper options for that. Movie lovers will like it very much. If you want the very best camera and battery life: there are some better options out there, but not many. The camera will be more than good enough for most people and photography lovers can do amazing things with it and will probably like the results better than the ones from Samsung and Huawei for example. If you buy this phone you will not be disappointed. It is a joy to use. It has some small flaws, just like any other phone, but you will fall in love with it after getting used to it.

System update June 5:
Today we got a system update. We will let you know if anything has changed.
Focus in low light seems to have improved a little.

Below a picture taken in extreme low light, in automatic mode. The watch was in stand-by showing a dim always-on display.

2019-06-05 23.41.14
Low light shot, handheld, fully automatic.

 

Another low light test: picture of a church taken through the window of my car. It was about 10:30PM, so quite dark.

2019-06-09 22.17.58

 

Below is a nighttime shot, just before midnight. This time the Xperia 1 truly captured the darkness of the sky. The result is better than expected. No special nighttime mode, just a handheld shot that took about 2 seconds to process.

2019-06-10 23.24.54

 

Some more pictures:

 

 

 

 

 

 

System update July 2019: again no noticable changes.

The Sony Xperia 1 is:

Highly Recommended

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