Sony Xperia 1 Review

It’s certainly distinctive, but Sony’s reboot falls short in a few key ways

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3.9

Sony Xperia 1

Sony Xperia 1

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

What We Like

  • Distinctive extra-tall display

  • Movies look fantastic on it

  • Strong triple-camera setup

  • Loads of power onboard

What We Don't Like

  • Screen isn’t as bold or bright as we’d like

  • It’s very expensive

  • Inconsistent fingerprint sensor

  • No wireless charging

  • Lacks 3.5mm headphone port

The Xperia 1 is a gorgeous, luxurious smartphone, but its high price and some inconsistent elements give it just enough caveats to push us towards other top handsets.

3.9

Sony Xperia 1

Sony Xperia 1

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

It’s been some time since Sony really stood out in the smartphone market. For years the tech giant gradually fell behind the competition, only starting to catch up with last year’s Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z3 models. The new Xperia 1 ditches that recent naming convention, signaling a reinvention of sorts for Sony’s flagship line.

The difference is clear in the phone’s silhouette: this is one of the tallest phones we’ve seen, with an extra-wide 21:9 aspect ratio when held sideways, compared to the typical 18:9 or 19:9 seen on most top phones these days (16:9 is standard widescreen). That gives the Xperia 1 a fair bit more screen real estate, and the end result is a pretty distinctive-looking device.

This extra-tall phone comes with an extra-large price, however. Can the Xperia 1 really justify the investment? Here’s what we think.

Sony Xperia 1
Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Design: Standing tall

Nearly all of 2019’s high-end phones maximize screen space by having a little notch for the front-facing camera, or maybe a punch-hole cutout (like the Samsung Galaxy S10). The Sony Xperia 1 has neither: it just has a really, really tall screen. It’s the rare flagship phone of late that has a modest slab of bezel at the top for the selfie camera and receiver, and a smaller bezel “chin” at the bottom—but nothing obscuring the beautiful rectangular screen in between. While those chunks of empty space would stand out more on most other phones, their impact is minimized here by the vastness of the screen itself.

It’s impossible for most users to reach at least the top one-third of the screen one-handed, and you’ll need to shift your hand up to reach the upper region as needed.

Overall, the phone opts for simplicity in design. Although the corners are rounded, it still has a slightly boxy look like past Xperias, and opts for single-colored glass on the back with a vertical triple-camera stack at the upper middle. You can get the Xperia 1 with either black or purple backing glass in North America; we opted for the latter and it’s a bold look, shifting across the color spectrum to blue depending on how the light hits it.

The prospect of a 6.5-inch phone might make the Xperia 1 sound enormous, but thankfully, the taller aspect ratio means the handset doesn’t feel as hearty as some others. At 2.83 inches wide, it’s narrower than the iPhone XS Max, which has a 6.5-inch screen of its own—and it’s only a smidge wider than the Galaxy S10 (at 2.77 inches wide) with its 6.1-inch screen. That said, it’s impossible for most users to reach at least the top one-third of the screen one-handed, and you’ll need to shift your hand up to reach the upper region as needed.

The Xperia 1 puts all of its buttons on the right side of the phone, which definitely feels crowded. From top to bottom, you’ll find a volume rocker, power switch, side-mounted fingerprint sensor, and then a dedicated camera shutter button. The shutter button is an uncommon feature these days, but it’s handy, and the fingerprint sensor could’ve doubled as the power button as on the Samsung Galaxy S10e.

You might fumble around a bit with your thumb to find exactly what you’re reaching for over there. Also, frustratingly, the fingerprint sensor wasn’t as reliable as expected. It’s narrow, given its placement on the frame, but we’ve had better success with similar side sensors on the Galaxy S10e and Motorola Moto Z3. This one works much of the time, but had more misses than we expected.  

The prospect of a 6.5-inch phone might make the Xperia 1 sound enormous, but thankfully, the taller aspect ratio means the handset doesn’t feel as hearty as some others.

You’ll find 128GB internal storage on the Xperia 1, but thankfully, you can slot in a microSD card up to 512GB to greatly boost the total. And interestingly, unlike nearly every other phone we’ve used lately, the SIM card/microSD tray can be pulled out easily using your fingers, rather than having to poke in a pin or paperclip end to reveal a hidden tray. The Xperia 1 is also water and dust resistant, with an IP65/IP68 rating for splashes and dirt.

Sadly, the Xperia 1 doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone port onboard. It comes with earbuds that curiously have a 3.5mm plug at the end. You’ll also need to use the included USB-C dongle to plug them in. Yes, this all feels a bit convoluted.

Sony Xperia 1
Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Setup Process: No stress

There’s really no fuss here. The Xperia 1 runs on Android 9 Pie, and the setup process is essentially identical to other modern Android phones. Once you hold the power button to turn the phone on, it should only take you a few minutes to navigate through the software prompts to log into your Google account, select a few options, and choose whether or not to restore from a backup or move data from another phone.

Performance: Plenty of power

Sony went top-of-the-line with the Xperia 1, with a Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chip—the same processor seen in other top Android flagships for 2019, such as the Galaxy S10 and OnePlus 7 Pro. Android felt swift throughout our testing with no noticeable hang-ups during daily usage, and the 6GB RAM is more than enough to ensure that you can multitask with ease.

PCMark’s Work 2.0 benchmark turned out a score of 8,685—a bit less than the 9,276 we measured on the Galaxy S10, although the Xperia 1’s higher-resolution screen could have a hand in that. In terms of gaming, GFXBench’s Car Chase demo ran at 31 frames per second (fps), an improvement over the 21fps we saw on the Galaxy S10, while both phones hit 60fps on the less-intensive T-Rex demo. The Xperia 1’s graphical prowess held up during our actual gaming time too, with arcade racer Asphalt 9: Legends running as smoothly as we’ve seen, and Fortnite having no problems going full-speed at max settings.

Connectivity: No surprises here

The Xperia 1 delivered similar network performance as we’ve seen on other handsets, averaging about 35-37Mbps download and 7-10Mbps upload on Verizon’s 4G LTE network in our testing area just north of Chicago. The phone is compatible with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, as well, and had no challenges connecting to either.

Sony Xperia 1
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Display Quality: Crisp, but not the best

Sony’s latest phone not only has the tallest screen around, but also the sharpest. While many top phones have a Quad HD resolution, the Xperia 1 goes a step further with a proper 4K resolution OLED panel—yes, like a 4K TV on your wall, albeit shrunk down to fit into your pocket. At 3840 x 1644 resolution, it packs a blistering 643 pixels into every inch. The Xperia 1 also utilizes Sony’s high-end TV tech to delivering a sterling picture.

Sony’s latest phone not only has the tallest screen around, but also the sharpest. While many top phones have a Quad HD resolution, the Xperia 1 goes a step further with a proper 4K resolution OLED panel.

On paper, that should make the Xperia 1 the clear winner amongst the pack. But it doesn’t quite stack up in actual usage. The 4K panel is remarkably crisp, no doubt, and watching films—especially those shot at the same 21:9 aspect ratio—is a real treat thanks to Sony’s CineAlta creator mode that promises a more authentic reproduction of the wide color spectrum. Both Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu looked fantastic.

That specific use case is great, but elsewhere, we found the display a bit dim. It didn’t get quite as bright as we wanted. Also, there’s no real perceptible difference in clarity between 4K and Quad HD panels at this size. The Galaxy S10’s Quad HD screen is brighter and punchier, while the OnePlus 7 Pro’s faster 90Hz refresh rate makes it a sight to behold. In both cases, we prefer those screens to the Xperia 1’s.

Ultimately, the super-tall screen proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Games like Asphalt 9 and Fortnite nimbly stretch the full length held sideways, and Fortnite especially benefits from the wider view—just like playing with an ultra-wide monitor on PC. Likewise, you can see quite a bit more of a website when browsing in portrait orientation, making it an ideal screen for splitting the view between two simultaneous apps.

The Xperia 1 goes a step further with a proper 4K resolution OLED panel—yes, like a 4K TV on your wall, albeit shrunk down to fit into your pocket.

But with 16:9 or 4:3 videos, you’ll get even larger black bars than on other phone screens, and apps that aren’t optimized to adapt to wider aspect ratios just leave empty space around the content.

Sound Quality: Feel the noise

The Xperia 1 splits its stereo output duties between the small speaker at the base of the phone and the receiver above the screen, delivering crisp and clear playback for music, movies, and just about anything else. The audio stays well defined even at higher levels, and the optional Dolby Atmos setting adds a bit of richness and fullness to the audio. The Xperia 1 also supports hi-res audio if you have the files and impressive headphones to bring it to life.

Sony also built in something called Dynamic Vibration, which gives you an adjustable force feedback sensation matched to music, games, and movies. It works as advertised, but it just wasn’t something that we found particularly beneficial.

Sony Xperia 1
Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Camera and Video Quality: A strong triple-shot

Cameras haven’t typically been a strong suit of Sony’s smartphones, but the Xperia 1 thankfully halts that trend. The triple-camera setup packs in a trio of 12-megapixel sensors: the main wide-angle (f/1.6), telephoto (f/2.4) for 2x zoom, and ultra-wide (f/2.4) for zoomed-out shots. Given the wider aperture, the main sensor is your best bet for most snaps. We were routinely impressed by the results, which were colorful, clear, and well-judged. 

Low-light performance isn’t fantastic, and the Xperia 1 can’t match the incredible nighttime results of the Google Pixel 3, but that’s true of most phones. The telephoto lens delivers very good results while getting in closer to subjects, while the ultra-wide lens brings in just a little bit of fisheye distortion in exchange for grabbing a much wider view. We wouldn’t say it’s the best of the best, as the Pixel 3 models grab more detail and the Galaxy S10’s shots looked a bit bolder (with fisheye correction on the ultra-wide), but it’s very good overall.

Low-light performance isn’t fantastic, and the Xperia 1 can’t match the incredible nighttime results of the Google Pixel 3, but that’s true of most phones.

You can definitely expect impressive 4K video shooting from the Xperia 1, as well, as it captures vibrant footage with ease and the video stabilization is also quite good. It has Sony’s excellent Cinema Pro app onboard, which lets you expertly tweak the settings and take full control to capture the look and style you’re shooting for.

Battery: Solid power, but lacking perks

The 3,330mAh battery cell seems small on paper, given the 6.5-inch screen that’s at a higher resolution than nearly all competing phones. In our everyday usage, however, it proved to be a solid amount of juice. We typically finished the night with at least 30 percent of battery life intact, giving a bit of buffer to push harder with streaming video or 3D games. It’s not going to give you a day and a half like some phones (such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 9), but it’s built for a solid day’s usage.

Curiously, however, the Xperia 1 doesn’t offer wireless charging—something that is increasingly standard for near-$1000 smartphones. As such, it also doesn’t have the kind of reverse wireless charging seen on recent Samsung handsets, which lets you put another smartphone or compatible accessory on its back to share some power. The USB-C fast charger can give your phone a 50 percent charge in about 30 minutes, which is handy.

Software: Pie with extra sides

Sony put its own flourishes on Android 9 Pie, but its skin isn’t overbearing. You should find it very easy to get around and find what you’re looking for. As mentioned, the OS runs very smoothly on the Xperia 1. Sony’s added a Side Sense feature that lets you double-tap along the right or left edge to bring up a quick-access panel of most-used apps, which helps with one-handed usage, although the phone’s recognition of our double-taps was hit-or-miss.

It also comes with the aforementioned Cinema Pro video recording app, a Game Enhancer app that helps boost performance while playing glossier games, and a 3D Creator that lets you scan objects to make 3D models. That’s a fun one to mess around with.

Price: It’s very expensive

The Xperia 1 sits near the top of the smartphone pack at $950, which makes sense on the surface given the high-end specs and super-tall 4K display. However, with the incredible competition at the top of the handset heap right now, a near-$1000 phone needs to be both feature-rich and lacking major flaws. That’s not the case for the Xperia 1. 

There’s a lot to like about the phone, but there are better all-around screens—even on much cheaper phones (the OnePlus 7 Pro), plus the fingerprint sensor isn’t as reliable as expected. On top of that, omitted features like wireless charging and the 3.5mm headphone port are sorely missed here. All told, we think it’s a tough sell at the price. Amazon sells a version for Prime members at $850, which is preloaded with the Alexa voice assistant and other Amazon apps, but we still remain unconvinced given the strong competition.

Sony Xperia 1
Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Sony Xperia 1 vs. Samsung Galaxy S10 

The Galaxy S10 offers comparable processing power, given the same Snapdragon 855 chip within, but elsewhere we see more advantages with Samsung’s current core flagship. The curvy design is more appealing, the screen is a stunner (and plenty bright and vibrant), and the camera’s shots are just a bit bolder. It also has wireless and reverse wireless charging, as well as the 3.5mm headphone port intact.

The Galaxy S10 is also $50 cheaper, which just feels like the icing on top of what’s already a much stronger overall device.

Final Verdict

We’d look elsewhere for a top-tier flagship phone.

Sony’s Xperia 1 is a one-of-a-kind offering in the crowded smartphone scene, and it’s arguably the best phone to watch a film on. However, it feels overpriced and isn’t as feature-rich as some competitors, plus the big standout element—that huge 4K screen—is bested by others we’ve seen on cheaper and better all-around handsets. Sony is onto something here as it continues its return to smartphone relevancy, but the Xperia 1 is a tough sell for the price.

Specs

  • Product Name Xperia 1
  • Product Brand Sony
  • UPC 095673866985
  • Price $949.99
  • Release Date June 2019
  • Product Dimensions 6.6 x 2.8 x 0.32 in.
  • Warranty 1 year
  • Platform Android 9 Pie
  • Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
  • RAM 6GB
  • Storage 128GB
  • Camera 12MP/12MP/12MP
  • Battery Capacity 3,330mAh
  • Ports USB-C
  • Waterproof IP65/IP68
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