Sony Xperia 1 III Review


We have lost some of our favorite brands from the past: Nokia is not what it used to be, LG has recently stopped making phones, and out of all these iconic older brands, Sony is the only one that is still standing. The Sony Xperia 1 III is its latest flagship and it is a story about perseverance, and it is a story about Sony being Sony, so if you are that person who really digs Sony products you will probably love it. Because this phone looks unique and it’s made for the person who wants to be different and stand out. It’s the only one with a super tall and narrow 21:9 aspect ratio, the only one with a 4K screen, it’s the solitary flagship remaining with a microSD card slot, it’s one of very few to keep the headphone jack, heck, it even has a notification LED light, and on top of that it comes with this stylish understated design, and a clean and ultra-fast interface.

But make no mistake: this is not a phone for everyone and most likely — this is not a phone for you. Not only does it come with a tough-to-swallow $1,300 price, way more expensive than Galaxies and iPhones, but this phone is objectively not as good: we encountered all sorst of shortcoming from overheating issues, to fingerprint scanner firing randomly while in your pocket, to a largely disappointing camera system and middling battery life… this is not a flagship killer.

It’s a phone for the enthusiast and more precisely, the Sony enthusiast. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start with the…

Design and Display

A Sony phone is instantly recognizable partly because the design hasn’t changed much in the past few years and partly because of those extra tall and narrow dimensions. Yes, this phone looks much like a remote control rather than a phone, and that’s a double edged sword. On one side, yes, 21:9 movies on Netflix look great on it and you don’t get letterboxing, but it’s not so optimal for… well, everyday stuff. Instagram stories have big black bars on the top and bottom, and the narrower screen makes texting far less comfortable than other phones.

As for the build quality itself, though, it’s premium throughout: the frosted glass on the back is soft and nice to the touch, plus it doesn’t catch fingerprints. On the downside, the phone is as slippery as they get. The buttons are all on the right handside and there are lots of them: a volume rocker on the top that we wish was a bit larger, and then a recessed power key with the fingerprint scanner embedded in it, then you have a dedicated Google Assistant button that is not remappable, and finally towards the bottom right of the phone you have a dedicated 2-way camera shutter button, a signature for Sony phones. That’s a lot of buttons, and again, most people don’t need all of them, but Sony has not made this phone for most people.

IP68 water and dust protection is present, as you’d expect on a modern flagship, and as we’ve already said: it has a headphone jack (whoop whoop)! Hold your breath for this one: it even has a notification LED light!

One more thing that yours truly loves about it is that this phone feels so liberatingly light-weight: it tips the scales at just 187 grams, nothing compared to the nearly 230 grams on both the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Moving to the screen, it’s an OLED display with beautiful colors, nothing short of other flagships. In fact, Sony adds a cherry topping: it is stubbornly the only company that uses 4K resolution in a phone form factor. We can’t complain about this, but at the same time, we should be realistic about it: 4K is an overkill that really doesn’t make much sense on a tiny smartphone screen, it’s mostly good as a bragging point for tech nerds. Great for specific users, but probably not really something that would make a difference for the average person (unless you look at this screen with a magnifying glass).

Still, not only is the display plenty sharp, it also finally adds support for 120Hz fast refresh rate that makes scrolling and animations just so much smoother. Sony was late adding this feature, but we’re glad it’s finally here and it is a night and day difference, we love it. Of course, you can go into settings and switch to 60Hz to eke out a bit more battery, but you’d miss on the fun of using this phone.

Performance and Storage

And this brings us to the performance. The Xperia is indeed a very fast phone: powered by the Snapdragon 888 chip coupled with 12GB of RAM, you get top-level specs and tasks just fly, and everything moves super fast. The clean interface certainly helps for that, and we can see how it can feel liberating if you come from the slightly cluttered Samsung UI for example, which does stutter here and there.

One particular area of excellence is multitasking: it just makes a lot more sense on such a taller screen and Sony’s implementation is spot on. It’s super easy to have a floating window on top of your home screen, the gestures are well implemented, the Side Sense feature where you tap a button on the side to quickly get to multitasking pairs and commonly used apps is neatly implemented, and heavy multitaskers would love it.

At the same time, we have to go back to what we said in the beginning and bring up the issue of overheating. This is the hottest phone to handle among all flagships and unfortunately, we mean this in a quite literal sense. Watch a video? Phone gets hot. Check your email? Phone still gettings warm. Even sometimes just resting in a pocket, the Xperia would push notifications and still get warmed up! We don’t know if that’s due to the thinner design of the phone or something else, but it’s seriously annoying. We haven’t noticed it actually affecting the speed, but having your phone overheat with just basic tasks is not acceptable, especially when that phone costs way more than all the competition.

As for storage, you get 256 gigs on board and the most easily accessible microSD slot: you can just chop it off with your fingernails, you don’t need one of those needle-like SIM tools to get to your microSD card. Hugely convenient, and that SIM tray is still insulated so it doesn’t leak water, so great job on that front.

Fingerprint scanner and haptics

To securely unlock the Sony, you have a side mounted fingerprint scanner that is fast and accurate, and this would have been just a great one-sentence explanation if not for the fact that it kept on misfiring while in a pocket. It was a common occurrence to take the phone out of a pocket, only to see that it has made a few unsuccessful and totally unintentional unlock attempts. That is a big and constant annoyance and we wish there was a fix.

As for the haptics, or that vibration feedback, it’s fine, meaning that it doesn’t feel like you have a can of bees in your pocket, but we have to admit that it’s also not quite as refined as the Taptic Engine on iPhones or the precise vibration feedback you get on say recent OnePlus phones. It’s just okay here.

Camera

But the real star of the show, Sony says, is the camera: you get the usual with a main snapper and an ultra-wide lens, but then you get Sony’s special treat, a brand new variable zoom camera. Whoa! “Variable” zoom? We haven’t seen that in a phone before! So what is that fancy “variable zoom” anyway? Well, truth is we don’t know for sure, but judging from Sony’s marketing materials we’ve got a periscope style, folded lens where magnets move the glass elements inside between two positions: a 2.9X zoom level and 4.4X zoom level, so instead of having a separate 2.9X and 4.4X lenses, it’s just one lens that does this job.

But just before we jump into the images, let us clarify something important: we used this camera mostly in the “Basic” mode (no, that’s not an insult, and yes, that’s really what it’s called). You can do a lot more with it: you can shoot RAW photos, you can play with shutter speed, ISO, metering, white balance, and you literally have control over every little toggle you can imagine. And then you can take your photos and videos in post and edit them to your liking. You won’t find this below, but we are planning a separate article to explore those differences.

So with all that in mind, let’s see what Sony’s innovative tech actually means for image quality for “basic” folks that don’t use manual controls for every single shot, and let’s see if this phone brings a camera revolution to shake up your iPhones, Pixels and Samsungs from their comfortable positions.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is a quite obvious “no”, this phone can capture decent shots, but you don’t get anything remotely close to revolutionary. Photos look soft, often a bit overexposed, and lack the dynamic range you get on mainstream flagships. We definitely expected a bit more after all that marketing hubbub and especially out of a $1,300 phone.

The difference in color rendition is quite striking and you can see how much bleaker colors on this phone often turn out.

And here are a few pictures captured at night to see how good the Xperia handles low light:

This is definitely one of the weakest points of this phone: it just cannot capture enough light at night and everything looks way too dark.

On this next shot we see the same thing, even though this building was lit by neon signs, it appears too dark on the Xperia.

This is a constant trend with low light photos, as you can see in the image above.

Sony advertizes a few features that it brings from its Alpha camera series and the biggest one has got to be the “Eye AF”, which guarantees that focus will be right on the eye of a person or even a pet. We found that this works well in real life and you can capture rapid-fire burst shots with a person moving and have most of the photos in focus. There is a disclaimer to all of this though and that is that Eye AF is great when you have a real camera with an f/1.8 lens or similar that gives you a nice bokeh, and a very narrow focus plane. In that case, it’s critical that focus stays on the eyes. The Xperia 1 III, however, is not a real camera and most of the time, you shoot with a wide lens that has almost no bokeh, so the real-world benefits of Eye AF on such a format are way less pronounced.

As for that zoom lens, you get nice looking photos at exactly 2.9X and 4.4X zoom levels, but everything in between and further looks very soft and lacks in sharpness. This camera is a nice addition and it has some futuristic tech that makes the magic happen, but it’s not on par with the zoom lens on a Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Even at its native 2.9X zoom level, we can see the softer detail compared to the Galaxy and the iPhone, and not only that the bleaker colors really don’t do this colorful landscape justice.

You also get portrait mode that also works with the zoom lens, so you can capture a portrait at 2.9X and 4.4X which allows some nice looking face shots. At the same time, for some reason turning on portrait mode resulted in photos getting consistently overexposed, with clipped highlights.

When it comes to video, this is where using the camera app gets very frustrating. Once you start recording with the main camera, you cannot zoom out to the ultra-wide or switch to that fancy periscope lens, an inexplicable omission that even budget phones these days don’t suffer from. Video quality is well stabilized, but looks far from great with muted colors and issues with dynamic range like clipped highlights in the skies. It’s nothing to write home about.

Where the Xperia 1 III really falls apart though is video recording in low light. We will leave just this one screenshot from the same footage captured on the Xperia and an iPhone 12 Pro Max, the difference is glaring. Low-light footage from the Xperia is frustratingly dark and practically unusable to say the least.

Audio Quality

One of the cool little things you get on the Xperia 1 III that you don’t get on mainstream flagships is a dual front speaker arrangement. Having two dedicated speakers and those substantial bezels at the top and bottom is an opportunity for Sony to stand out with a unique loudspeaker system. Does it? While these speakers sound clean and we enjoy the sound from them, they are definitely on the quiet side and we really wish they could pump a slightly more boomy and voluminous sound. Yes, they sound nice, but if you want the very best, we’d still take the extra volume from an iPhone or if you want the very best, there is another phone with dual speakers that get much louder and that is the Asus ROG Phone 5. That one we cound as a missed opportunity for Sony!

Battery Life

Equipped with a 4,500mAh battery, the Xperia 1 III stands in the middle of the pack when it comes to Android phones and battery capacity. The battery is not as big as the 5,000mAh one on the S21 Ultra, but it matches the OnePlus 9 Pro for example.

So how’s battery life?

We use three different battery tests to check that: first and lightest is our web browsing test that we run separately at 60Hz and 120Hz, and here, you can see that the Xperia is actually quite a bit behind the pack lasting barely 10 hours while others of its rank and price clock in 12 hours or even 14+ hours on the same test.

Our next test just plays YouTube videos from the same playlist and at the same quality, and here again, we see the battery melting incredibly quickly so the phone only lasts just a bit over 6 hours on this test, way behind rivals. Our third test is gaming where the phone once again lasts around 7 hours which is just fine, but again considerably behind rivals.

In real life, though, you get one advantage that is not reflected in these scores: excellent stand-by time. Sony is known for optimizing background apps quite well, so the phone drains slower when just laying idle, and in our real life experience it lasts through your average day when you don’t push it too much with gaming or video recording.

Otherwise, you’d definitely need to top it up before the end of the day. And for that, you have a faster, 30W charger included in the box. Yes, that’s a bit faster than what Samsung and Apple provide.

Here is how long charging takes: 

in 15 minutes – 24% charge
in 30 mins – 55%
in 45 mins – 68%
in 1 hour – 79%
FULL charge takes 1 hour and 49 minutes (with Battery Care turned off)

Conclusion

So, at the end of the day, the Sony Xperia 1 III is yet another unmistakably “Sony phone”. It goes out of its way to prove that it is unique and different and unlike the others, yet at the same time, it falls short in some fundamental areas that those others excel in like the camera experience, battery life and it suffers from a very annoying overheating issue.

Should you get it? Probably not. It’s let down not only by technical issues, but also by a crazy high $1,300 price.

We want to end this on a bit of a philosophical note. Sony has been making the same thing over and over again now for years: 4K screen, 21 by 9 aspect ratio, unique and different, and all of that. And it has been consistent and stubborn with all of that, and we as phone lovers have a big appreciation for its perseverance. However, we also have to point out what has been bothering us and what Sony has not addressed here in hopes that the company hears our words. Yes, there is a small group of people that will defend Sony’s unique and quirky phone to death, and try to argue that it is the right one and even defend the price. That having a crazy manual camera app is somehow enough, and a recipe for success.

The reality, however, remains that this is a niche product that instead of appealing to a larger audience, digs further into that niche of tech nerds and overlooks some fundamental experiences. Sony makes the best camera sensors that all the industry uses, it has the know-how to make a great smartphone for everyone. It just needs to take that task a bit more seriously and consider making a phone not just for “Sony nerds”. A phone that will still have the Sony DNA, but with less of the quirks and a price that for once doesn’t raise eye-brows.

But what do you think? Would you defend the direction Sony maintains with the Xperia 1 III, or do you think it’s time for change? Let us know in the comments! 

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