If you look around and the smartphones people are using, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Sony-branded phone out in the wild, at least in the US. It’s a funny thing too because there’s a good chance that the smartphone you’re holding is using Sony-made camera sensors. Still, even if I mention a Sony smartphone to someone, I am likely to get a response like “Sony still makes phones?” or “I’ve never heard of that phone.” That’s not to say that Sony makes bad smartphones; on the contrary, Sony makes great phones. But it always seemed like the company’s own smartphone lineup suffered as a result of Sony working to provide great camera sensors for everyone else, leaving its own Xperia lineup as an afterthought. But that’s all in the past because this year we’ve got the Xperia 1 II.
Sony is positioning this phone as the go-to for media consumption and creation, and that’s something that shows in how it’s designed. Following its predecessor, the Xperia 1 II is a tall phone, mainly because of the display which has a 21:9 aspect ratio, which Sony calls CinemaWide. The idea is that the 6.5” 4K OLED panel the ideal smartphone for viewing movies just as they were intended. Diving into the settings, and Sony even has a Creator mode for the display, which changes the color gamut for more faithful reproduction of the content you’re viewing. Sony’s own X1 technology is also present, which is intended to enhance videos when not in creator mode. All in all, it’s a beautiful display, and there shouldn’t be many complaints here… except…
In a sea of smartphones with 90hz, 120hz, and even 144hz displays, Sony could only manage a 60hz refresh rate. That could be due to the sheer number of pixels packed into the 643ppi panel, and Sony does try to make up for it with motion blur reduction which replicates 90hz, theoretically. But honestly, I didn’t notice much of a difference. Sony did manage a 120hz display on the new Xperia 5 II, but that’s for another time, another review.
The bezels house some great-sounding stereo speakers
2020 is the year of the ever-dwindling bezel, yet flanking the top and bottom ends of the display is a sizeable forehead and chin. They don’t really ruin the look of the phone, and it definitely helps that those bezels house a decent selfie camera (more on that later) and some great sounding front-facing stereo speakers. Why more smartphones don’t have this is beyond me, but I’m glad they’re here. Also present is a headphone jack, which Sony brought back after temporarily retiring it on the Xperia 1. Audio sounds great no matter how you play it, and Sony even has a weird dynamic vibration feature that uses the motor to produce a faux bass feeling when you hold the phone. It… works. But it ends up feeling more awkward than anything and I just leave it off.
Three Very Capable Cameras
On the back of the phone, you’ll find the triple 12MP camera setup. That number may not sound too impressive when we have 48MP, 64MP, and 108MP cameras on competing smartphones, but what Sony has managed with these cameras has given me hope that Sony hasn’t forgotten about their own smartphone lineup after all. Despite the smaller resolution, the sensor is fairly large at 1.1/7”, which is always good for capturing more light. Sony also managed to include some impressive autofocus capabilities, with the help of the ToF sensor and Dual-Photo Diode sensor. This should make for fast and accurate autofocus and eye autofocus, even with 20fps continuous burst shooting.
Photos that come out of the cameras are quite impressive and seem well balanced and saturated. Even the ultra-wide angle and telephoto both seem to hold their own against the standard lens. Video from the standard camera app is also decent, and there’s an option to shoot 4K HDR. Sony partnered with Zeiss to include their T* coating, which should help improve contrast and reduce glare. Low-light and night-time shots are respectable, but there’s no dedicated night-mode to toggle on or off. In fact, Sony doesn’t seem to allow users much in the way of control over how photos are taken, and the camera settings are fairly scarce. You’re pretty much at the mercy of the built-in scene detection, which seems to work on its own with no clear way to turn it off.
The Xperia 1 II is a creator’s phone
The reason for this is because this is likely due to the fact that this a creator’s phone, and Sony is treating it as such. So if you want control over how you take photos, that what the Pro apps are for. Photo Pro and Cinema Pro are Sony’s apps geared towards people like me who are a big fan of manual camera controls on smartphones. Sony has essentially taken the camera experience from its popular A-series cameras and put it on a phone. So if you’re used to shooting with Sony cameras, this should feel right at home for you. Photo Pro where you can really take advantage of what the cameras can do, controlling things like white balance and ISO, but also shooting modes, focus area, metering and even capturing in RAW.
Cinema Pro gives users the same amount of control over how they capture videos. While the aspect ratio is set to cinematic 21:9, users can adjust resolution, frames per second (up to 4K 60), and even set up different “looks” which is really just a set of LUTS to choose from. There’s even a neat feature where users can set two points for the camera to automatically pull focus and set speeds. I’m more of a video guy myself so I took the Cinema Pro app for a spin on a hike:
Oh, and while the selfie camera is only 8MP, it also manages to take some decent shots. A problem I always have is phones not being able to properly expose my skin against a sunny background, so selfies always turn out over or underexposed. I didn’t notice that here, and I found the results to be generally Instagram worthy.
Flagship Specs for a Flagship Price
But let’s not forget, this is a phone too. And as a 2020 flagship phone, the Xperia 1 II hits checks almost all the right marks. Powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865, the phone runs a fairly vanilla version of android 10, save for a few Sony touches. Speaking of touches, the Side Sense feature is a handy shortcut to most-used apps, one-handed mode, and split-screen. I’ve never been a huge fan of split-screen, but on a phone with this aspect ratio, I found myself using it more than I normally would. And the included 8GB of RAM makes multitasking and switching between apps pretty effortless.
Games run just fine, even more processor-heavy ones, and Sony has an included gaming mode that lets users control performance. There’s also this Heat Suppression feature that lets users bypass the 4000mAh battery when the phone is plugged in, drawing power straight from the cord and minimizing heat, which should help with long-term battery health. Spec-wise, the phone is rounded off by a generous 256GB of expandable storage, 18W fast charging (not exactly fast by today’s standards), wireless charging, Gorilla Glass 6 on the front and back, IP68 water and dust resistance, and a very fast side-mounted fingerprint sensor for security. All in all, a great smartphone from Sony.
I can’t really recommend the Xperia 1 II at this price
I would be more than happy to recommend Xperia 1 II, if it weren’t for two things: the first of which is the price. Sony is asking for $1200 for this phone, a $200 premium over last year’s flagship. That’s a lot of money to shell out during a global economic crisis. And the price wouldn’t be much of a problem if it weren’t for the second reason why I can’t recommend this phone, and that’s the lack of 5G support. For some reason Sony decided to skip support for 5G bands in the United States, so if you’re in the US, you’re stuck with LTE. 5G may not be as robust stateside as we’d like, there’s no point in paying a premium for a smartphone that’s lacking what many mid-range smartphones now have, phones that cost less than half the price.
But hey, at least they included a notification light!