- Smart, simple look
- High-end CPU
- Large for a 5.2in screen phone
- So-so battery life
- Much cheaper phones are as good
- 3D face scanning useless for most people
- Review Price: £599/$599
- 5.2-inch 1080p HDR display
- Snapdragon 835, 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage
- 19MP camera w/ 960fps slow-mo video
- 3D scanning
What is the Sony Xperia XZ1?
The Sony Xperia XZ1 is a high-end phone, but not in the same vein as the iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy Note 8. Although it has top specs, it actually seems a little ordinary next to some of the best from Samsung, LG and even Honor.
There isn’t much wrong with the Sony Xperia XZ1 beyond a few niggles. However, when phones such as the Honor 9 and OnePlus 5 offer similar quality for £200/$200 less, it’s hard to get excited about this handset – particularly when its newest feature is the fun but largely useless 3D face scanning.
Sony Xperia XZ1 – Design
The Sony Xperia XZ1 looks and feels pretty similar to the Xperia XZ. At arm’s length it would be impossible to tell the difference.
However, this is actually a higher-end phone, featuring elements of the even pricier Xperia XZ Premium. The Xperia XZ1’s back and sides are all-metal. The aluminium rear curves around to form the sides, with no seams or splits to be seen. While this might not appear something to boast about in a £600 phone, it’s a step up for the series.
The top and bottom ends of the handset are plastic. It took me a while to work out that they weren’t metal, because the material doesn’t feel like bog-standard plastic; it appears to be more like the glass-fibre reinforced plastic as seen on the Xperia XZ1 Compact.
While the XZ1 doesn’t quite have the wow factor of the shiny Honor 9 or curvy Samsung Galaxy S8, this is definitely a smart-looking phone. My issue with the design is that, like every other Xperia, it feels rather large for its screen size. Its overall dimensions are pretty similar to those of the OnePlus 5, which has a 5.5-inch screen. The Xperia XZ1 has a 5.2-inch display. It’s thinner than the Xperia XZ at 7.4mm thick, but it remains wide.
Parts to celebrate include Gorilla Glass 5 on top of the screen and IP58 water-resistance, which means it should survive an accidental dunk in the water. You also get 64GB storage and the option of a microSD card – there’s a slot under the pull-out flap on the Xperia XZ1’s side.
Sony Xperia XZ1 – Screen
As already mentioned, the Sony Xperia XZ1 has a 5.2-inch 1080p IPS LCD screen. It isn’t as sharp as the Samsung Galaxy S8, but the only image quality quibble I have is that close-up, there’s appear to be some ultra-fine ‘diagonal line’ patterns visible on blocks of white. This isn’t down to a lack of pixels, but another layer in the display. Perhaps the touch panel.
You also don’t quite get the perfect contrast of an OLED display. However, you’ll only notice if you’re using the XZ1 with the brightness ramped up in a dimly-lit room. Sony’s top LCDs do actually get pretty close to the perceptual benefits of OLED.
This is particularly true of colour saturation. If you like, it’s possible to make the Sony Xperia XZ1 look extremely saturated, with both turbo-charged colour and increased contrast.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 has three display modes: Super-vivid is too rich for my tastes; but both Standard and Professional look great. Professional is a strict sRGB mode. It will look a little undersaturated to most eyes, but is the best one to use to ensure photos look the same on the screen as they do on your laptop. Max brightness, too, is powerful. Outdoors visibility is fairly good.
The Auto Backlight mode is jittery, however. It flickers up and down rather than doing so smoothly. I’ve found it a little distracting when reading an article on the train. Go through a tunnel and the Xperia XZ1 looks like it’s having a breakdown. Let’s hope Sony fixes this with an update.
Like the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, the XZ1 also supports HDR content. This is video designed to make use of displays with very high contrast and a wide colour gamut. Using Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, you’ll see punchier colour in HDR video.
However, in ‘pitch black’ cinema conditions I’d still prefer to watch a non-HDR OLED than an HDR LCD. The unlikeliness of this is the reason I don’t put great stock in technology such as phone HDR as a top reason to buy.
When I watch a video on a phone for longer than a few minutes, it’s always in an image quality-compromised environment. Stuck on a train for four hours, I’d much rather watch a film on a good 6-inch screen than a great 5.2-inch one.
Sony Xperia XZ1 – Software
The Sony Xperia XZ1 is one of the first phones to launch with Android 8.0. There’s still a Sony interface layered on top, but there are a couple of new features that stand out.
First, there are notification dots. These are little coloured circles that pop-up over app icons when, for example, you receive an email. It makes your homescreen more of a ‘desktop’, providing a quick way to see what’s going on without pulling down the notifications dropdown.
The notifications bar also feels different here. Once there are more than a few notifications, you’ll see small icons at the bottom, indicating that there are others that don’t quite fit on the screen. These pop up properly as you flick up. Android 8.0’s notifications have more fun feel than before.
New Android features aside, the Sony Xperia XZ1’s software looks much like that of other recent Xperia phones. The apps menu is arranged as horizontally scrolling pages rather than a vertical feed, and Sony’s apps sit alongside the Google suite. There are apps for music, watching video and to hook up with PlayStation network. Sony has also preinstalled ebook store Kobo and the AVG virus scanner. You can’t delete them, but you can ‘disable’ them.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 also has a ‘recommendations’ section, accessed by swiping left-to-right from the apps menu. This is really just a list of app links to Google Play. Unless you’re a brand-new phone user, it’s unlikely to be of much use.
This part can be switched off, however.
Sony Xperia XZ1 – Performance
The Sony Xperia XZ1 is home to Qualcomm’s top-end Snapdragon 835 processor. It’s one of the main upgrades over the Xperia XZ, which has a Snapdragon 820.
The Snapdragon 835 is a super-powerful processor, particularly for a 1080p phone. It has the juice to effortlessly drive a much more pixel-packed device.
In Geekbench 4 it scores 6446 points, or 1802 per core. That’s just slightly lower than what we saw from the Samsung Galaxy S8, but not by a significant amount (roughly 200 points, multi-core).
More important, the Sony Xperia XZ1 feels great in general use. The interface flies along, with no obvious lag, and apps load quickly too.
The phone has 4GB of RAM – where some other handsets have 6GB or even 8GB – but then so does the Samsung Galaxy S8. Less RAM means the Sony Xperia XZ1 will have to offload app data more regularly. Once app cache has been flushed, the phone will have to properly reload the app rather than simply jumping back in. However, I haven’t noticed any shortfall here. Apps used recently still remain ‘open’.
Sony Xperia XZ1 – Camera
The Sony Xperia XZ1 has a large, very high-resolution camera sensor. At 19 megapixels and 1/2.3in, it’s larger than the Galaxy S8’s main sensor. This has been a Sony tactic for quite some time now – big sensor, lots of megapixels – but its Xperia cameras haven’t really challenged the best in recent years.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 makes some progress in improving the processing and image noise of older Xperias. However, aside from the core sensor numbers there isn’t all that much for photographers to become excited about.
There’s still no optical image stabilisation, for example; no secondary lens for “lossless” zooming or even shallow depth-of-field effects. I don’t find the increased resolution compared to rivals that compelling either, since close-up inspection of images shows that they aren’t as clean as those of other top-end phones.
As mentioned, Sony does appear to have improved its processing slightly – or the look has improved, thanks to the new sensor – but as in previous Xperias, the edge of the frame can look quite tatty and the fine details of far-away trees over-processed. I find the colour temperature is towards the cool side, too, making images look less immediately pleasing than those of an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S8.
However, the Sony Xperia XZ1 is still capable of taking some stunning pics, particularly after making tweaks after shooting to fix colour temperature skews and bring out some more shadow detail. While the software does a reasonable job of handling all sorts of lighting, other phones have better dynamics range enhancement.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 also plays it loose with colour saturation. It’s so keen to look saturated that a red flower will often ‘clip’ the red channel, making it appear almost a flat pane of colour – which isn’t ideal. However, it can be great for sunsets, which often look a bit weak even with the best phone cameras.
The other biggie is low-light performance. While the Sony Xperia XZ1 has amongst the best night photo quality I’ve seen from a non-OIS phone (the Pixel phones being the obvious higher performers), it still isn’t great. There’s still a significant drop in detail, resulting in blurry night shots. This is despite the use of EIS (electronic image stabilisation), which uses the gyroscope to time the exposure for best results.
Lots of colour makes this shot pop, but it took three attempts to get it this sharp, and there’s still some handshake blur and a general loss in detail
The Xperia XZ1’s colour rendering is at times unrealistic
The Xperia XZ1 hasn’t blown out the image here, maintaining highlights – but the foreground looks even bleaker than it did in person
The Sony Xperia approach to colour can make clouds look dramatic (with digital zoom)
While low-light performance isn’t amazing, the Xperia XZ1 is great at brightening up very dark scenes. This was taken in Chislehurst caves, with barely any light
The high megapixel count is offset by so-so image quality down at pixel levelThere’s one brand-new camera feature, if somewhat weird. 3D Creator lets you use the camera to scan someone’s face, a piece of food or any object you like. You can then either just look at it or send it to a 3D printer – of course, you have a 3D printer… don’t you? This is a seriously niche feature.
Sony also misses out on some obvious ‘mainstream’ uses. You can’t make short video or GIF of someone’s face to share over WhatsApp. Try to do so and they’ll receive a ZIP file of the model: useless, unless they also own an Xperia XZ1.
You can set the model as a live wallpaper, but having a replicant version of your other half swivelling around as you flick through homescreens is about as creepy as wallpapers get.
Thankfully, the Sony Xperia XZ1 does have the great video camera extras introduced in the Xperia XZ Premium. You can shoot short clips at 960fps as well as the more standard 120fps. 960fps clips are limited to a quick snap, but when the result expands to 40x real-time, it’s a sensible limitation anyway.Predictably, the Sony Xperia XZ1 has to ramp up ISO sensitivity to cope with the ultra-fast exposures required for this mode, so quality isn’t fantastic. And the 1080p final file certainly isn’t 1080p quality. However, it’s fun to play around.
For everyday video capture it’s possible to shoot at up to 4K resolution at 30fps, and you have a choice of both 30fps and 60fps at 1080p. YouTubers and amateur videographers will prefer the iPhone X, whose higher-quality 240fps and 60fps at 4K are actually more useful. However, the Sony Xperia XZ1 is far cheaper than the iPhone too.
Around the front of the Sony Xperia XZ1 is a 13-megapixel 1/3-inch sensor with wide lens that’s great for selfies. In darker conditions it will fire-up the screen with a bright yellow/orange shade to help illuminate your face. In my opinion, this works better than many of the dedicated front LED flashes I’ve used, making it possible to snap a good selfie indoors or at night. Thanks to the high-res sensor, you’ll also achieve plenty of detail fora selfie.
Sony Xperia XZ1 – Battery Life
Most people list better battery life near the top of their smartphone wish list. It’s a little galling, then, that Sony has actually reduced battery capacity from the Xperia XZ to the Xperia XZ1, from 2900mAh to 2700mAh.
This may be a result of the Snapdragon 835 , which is reportedly slightly more power-efficient than the Snapdragon 820; plus, Android 8.0 adds power improvements too.
However, coming to the XZ1 after reviewing the Motorola Moto G5S Plus recently, this is a clear step down in stamina. While the Sony Xperia XZ1 doesn’t fare too badly in simple one-task tests, it’s only passable in real life.
Light use will see it last a full day, but on a day when I played a few hours of podcasts in the morning, it was close to power-out by 7pm. Thirty minutes of Real Racing 3 consumes 15% of the battery, which is significantly worse than the 10% drain on the Moto G5S Plus
The Sony Xperia XZ1 does, however, feature fast-charging. This is Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0, which will power up most of the battery in under an hour.
One other feature of the handset that could do with an upgrade is the speaker. The Sony Xperia XZ1 has two drivers, above and below the display. Getting a stereo effect when playing a game is nice, but, compared to rival handsets, the sound just isn’t as powerful or full as the best-sounding single-driver speakers. Overall, though, it will be fine for gaming, or listening to the odd podcast or music stream.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 does have a few other neat audio features, too. DSXEE improves low-quality audio streams – but it won’t make a poor one sound good. And a ClearSound+ mode tweaks the soundstage and EQ for more overt clarity.
Should I buy the Sony Xperia XZ1?
The Sony Xperia XZ1 is a phone for Sony fans. You have to love Sony’s style – because, otherwise, there are just too many compelling alternatives to make it a front-runner.
It doesn’t have as many interesting features as the £100/$100-cheaper LG G6, and doesn’t impress like the Samsung Galaxy S8.
Those keen on getting the most phone for their money would be better off opting for the OnePlus 5 or Honor 9. They are £150-230 cheaper, and aren’t lacking anything major features-wise either.
For £600/$600, it’s definitely possible to get better for your money.
A good phone, but not a particularly competitive one at this price.