Sony Xperia 1 II Review: Sony finally nails the camera on its flagship smartphone

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Sony’s Xperia 1 II has been out for a while, but it’s still the flagship in the family. Can this be the start of a new wave of phones that helps Sony turn the tide?

In the last five years, LG, HTC and Sony have all suffered a huge fall from where they once were. Sony is now showing signs of recovery financially, and hopefully this phone is going to help get Sony back on tract.

What attracted me to the phone was the talk in early reviews that the camera was a vast improvement over just about everything Sony has made for the last five years, and you’ll have hopefully seen some examples of how it performed in my camera test in the summer.

In other words, Sony has finally got to grips with how to get the most from the image sensors it has been producing for rivals to put to far better use.

I thought the photo test alone wasn’t quite enough, so here are my thoughts on the rest of the phone.

Screen and Audio

The Xperia 1 II still continues to follow the same design of having a 21:9 ratio Cinemawide AMOLED display, and the flagship also retains the 4K resolution display that many will say is overkill. Frankly it is, but it’s also soooo nice.

The screen has no higher refresh rate, but it does have a selection of video enhancement options, including motion blur reduction that inserts frames to smooth out video. As with normal televisions, the jury is out on whether this improves or degrades the overall quality.

The taller ratio not only makes the phone better for movie watching, but also encourages you to run two applications split-screen at once.

That extra screen real estate is also used by the professional camera applications, which now includes one for video and still photography.

The phone also has a bunch of picture enhancement settings, including a creator mode that can either be set as default, or activated automatically when you use specific apps where colour accuracy is key. With this enabled, the phone confirms to BT.2020 colour gamut with 10-bit colour HDR.

Auto mode is recommended as a lot of normal content, including the phone UI, will look a little washed out in creator mode.

To accompany the screen are some very decent stereo speakers, with plenty of dynamic range to give you a great visual and aural experience when used without any other accessories. There’s loads of bass too, making this one of the loudest and clearest phones I’ve used in some time. Perhaps the closest competitor is the Oppo Find X2 Pro.

Up top, above the screen, is an 8-megapixel f/2.0 selfie camera. Unlike a lot of other phones on the market, the Sony still has small bezels top and bottom, but nice and equal in size so the display is properly centred in landscape mode.

Xperia 1 II

Design and Build

While the photos make the phone look comically tall, it really isn’t any taller than any other flagship phone. It’s simply narrower which gives that illusion. In the hand it feels fine, and possibly nicer without that extra width to try and stretch your thumb over.

Of course, stretching is something you’ll have do to reach the top, but there is a one-hand mode to reduce the screen size to make things more manageable.

The phone is fully water resistant, with the removable SIM tray not requiring a SIM eject tool and protected by a simple old-school flap. There are two volume keys and the all-important two-stage camera button that photographers must always wish was a thing on all phones.

There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, but there is wireless charging. Security comes in the form of a fingerprint sensing power button.

On the back of the phone is a rather simple, by today’s standards, triple camera setup, along with a Time-of-Flight (ToF) sensor for depth measuring.

My review unit did not come with a protective case or screen protector in the box, which for a phone retailing still at £1100 seems a little miserly.

Nice and easy to swap memory cards or SIMs on the go

Performance

Announced in February, the Xperia 1 II comes with Qualcomm’s flagship 865 chipset and has 5G, so it’s every bit as capable now as it was then.

There’s Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, Bluetooth 5.1 and a 4,000mAh battery with Sony’s excellent Stamina power management software.

Even the USB-C port is 3.1, plus there’s support for a range of high resolution audio codecs that Sony users will now come to expect.

Great as the internal speakers are, if you want to listen more privately there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack up top too.

On the RAM side there’s 8GB and 256GB of storage, plus a memory card slot (shared with an optional second SIM).

When it comes to charging, the wired charging tops out at 21W and 11W wirelessly.

Camera

The Xperia 1 II has three 12-megapixel sensors, with different apertures and focussing systems. It’s nice to see Zeiss T* branding to show that Sony has invested in quality lenses.

  1. 12-megapixel primary camera: f/1.7, Dual Pixel PDAF with OIS
  2. 12-megapixel telephoto: f/2.4, PDAF with OIS
  3. 12-megapixel ultra wide (124 degree FoV): f/2.2, Dual Pixel PDAF
  4. (for depth measuring) a 0.3-megapixel 3D Time-of-Flight sensor

The phone can also capture 4K video resolution, with HDR, at 24, 25, 30 or 60 frames per second. There’s a 5-axis stabilisation feature with EIS and OIS.

You also get Sony’s excellent eye tracking autofocus, ensuring a sharp image of people even when they’re moving.

In my time with the phone, I’ve found that it performs exceptionally well in just about every condition, but even with a 4K screen resolution, it isn’t so obvious on screen just how the photo will come out. When you enter the gallery and view images back, you can see just how good they are.

Perhaps the fact the phone doesn’t overly saturate images will have some thinking the phone is producing washed out images, at least at first. Most phones will boost the colour and contrast, and a lot of people prefer vivid images, but if you prefer a more natural look and feel then you’ll warm to this phone very quickly.

Sony and Zeiss working together on a professional setup

Camera Group Test: OnePlus Nord, OnePlus 8, Oppo Find X2 Neo, Realme X50 5G and Sony Xperia 1 II (plus Huawei P40)

Check out this huge group test, comparing the cameras on the OnePlus Nord, OnePlus 8, Oppo Find X2 Neo, Realme X50 5G, Sony Xperia 1 ii and Huawei P40.

Sony is trying to be more like a professional camera, and that’s why you get both a professional stills and video application that really sets this phone apart from everything else.

With the professional camera app, you now control the camera just like a proper camera, and now you can really go to town with getting things exactly as you want them.

Likewise, for recording and editing video, you’ll find it hard to get the same level of control as you do on this phone.

That extra wide display really comes into its own with the pro apps, allowing all of the controls to remain fixed on-screen without covering up the viewfinder.

Photo Pro

For most of the time, the traditional camera app and auto mode will suffice. Scene detection was quick and accurate, and you can access other camera functions all within this single app. Gone are the days of firing up a second app for 4K video recording, for example.

When you pixel peep and zoom in on your photos, it’s refreshing to see a high level of detail and none of the previous over-zealous filtering and compressing that took away detail and often left you with a photo resembling an oil painting.

The Xperia 1 II gives you sharp, clear, photos with slightly muted (but natural) colours that you can always tweak in post production if you wish.

Sadly, what hasn’t gone away is the warning for heat when using the camera. I cannot understand how this is still a thing.

At the time of writing this review, I should point out that it happened just the one time.

Maybe the phone was doing something in the background I wasn’t aware of, or maybe it was a poor signal in the Devonshire countryside making the phone work harder, but whatever it was – it let the team down a little.

Now the weather has turned, it’s unlikely I’ll see the issue again. Hopefully it was just a bit of bad luck, and possibly a software update will have already addressed the issue.

Casting aside this issue, the rest of the camera experience is excellent. With a decent image sensor and large native pixels, you don’t always need 48, 64 or 108-megapixels to get good quality photos. This phone proves it to any doubters.

Overall

The price of the Sony Xperia 1 II is sure to make it a hard sell, but if you shop around now you can expect to find it for between £750 and £850, which is quite a reduction on its original suggested retail price of £1099.

It’s worth noting that Sony has done various bundles with the phone since its launch, so be sure to shop around carefully and see what might be available.

The phone is excellent for amateur and professional photographers, content creators and content consumers alike. The screen isn’t just great for video, but games too, with stacks of performance on-tap and a wider screen that many games can use to further enhance the experience and provide a more immersive experience.

There’s plenty of future proofing in this phone features wise, and so far I’ve had regular software updates which is reassuring too. The battery is decent too, and no longer far too small for the job. Yes, it could have been a bit larger in capacity, but compared to the woeful 3,330mAh battery in the original Xperia 1, this is a major leap.

Now the Xperia 5 II is on sale, there’s a cheaper option to consider (it starts at £799 and will likely be discounted in the same way). With the same camera setup, the only real compromise is a smaller screen and lower resolution, plus no wireless charging or ToF camera. It gets a 120Hz refresh rate though.

You can think of the Xperia 5 II as a Xperia 1 II Compact.

However, if you’re looking for the best-of-the-best then the improvements to the camera makes this a top choice for people who don’t want to compromise, plus want something a bit different to the other phones on sale today.

Sony Xperia 1 ii

£1099
8.4

Features

9.0/10

Performance

8.5/10

Camera

9.0/10

Value

7.0/10

Pros

  • Excellent camera quality and level of control over features
  • 4K HDR screen is a visual treat and the 21:9 works well for suitable content
  • Plenty of power, 5G and a decent battery at last
  • Can be found for good discounts if you shop around

Cons

  • Camera overheating issue was a little worrying
  • Extremely high price for a company trying to win customers back

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