Sony Xperia 1 II review: Cinematic 4K screen, 5G and better battery life, but the price is high

The Sony Xperia 1 II is Sony’s 2020 flagship handset, and the first from Sony to support 5G (in Europe, but not in the US). As we’ve come to expect from Sony, it packs in the features, but it’s pricey even given the top-end specifications. Last year’s Xperia 1 costs £849 (inc. VAT) or $799.99 in the US, but the Xperia 1 II moves into four figures at £1,099 or $1,199.99. That’s a lot of a lot of money for a smartphone, and while there are some really superb features here, it’s going to have to be pretty much perfect to justify the price. Let’s see.

The Xperia 1 II looks very distinctive thanks to its tall, narrow design housing a screen that adopts an unusual ‘cinematic’ 21:9 aspect ratio. It’s the same aspect ratio we saw on last year’s Xperia 1 (in fact, the screen is the same size and has the same pixel count too — more on this below).

This makes for a phone that’s an awkward fit for many pockets. It’s not unduly wide though, and is very thin. The Xperia 1 II’s dimensions are 72mm wide by 166mm deep by 7.9mm thick, and it weighs just 181g.

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The 6.5-inch Xperia 1 II is Sony’s 2020 flagship phone, running on the Snapdragon 865 5G chipset with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. It has a triple rear camera setup, all with 12MP resolution.

Images: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

The design is very much in the Sony mould. A flat rather than curved screen, with rounded corners but flat edges. The Gorilla Glass 6 back is black and mirror-shiny. Unfortunately it loves fingerprints and is rather slippery.

That’s even more of an issue with an extra tall handset, especially when trying to work one-handed, which I often found exceptionally difficult. I found sweeping notifications away, tapping at links in web pages, and even working through my twitter feed all rather tricky to do one-handed. Often it felt as though I was unbalancing the phone when working one-handed, and in danger of dropping it on the floor, and that slippery back was no help at all. For a £1,000 handset, this could be a deal-breaker.

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Sony continues to use a side-mounted fingerprint scanner, which is located halfway down the right edge, built into the power button. I found it very efficient. The button is slightly recessed, in contrast to the volume rocker above it and camera shutter towards the bottom. Yes, camera shutter: the Xperia 1 II majors on its screen and camera setup, and that physical button has an important part to play. A press launches the camera app, a half-press focuses, and a long press takes an image.

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The SIM slot sits on the left edge, and unusually these days, only one SIM is accommodated. The slot will also accommodate a MicroSD card if you want to boost the internal storage. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom edge, while the top edge has a rare thing for a 2020 flagship phone — a 3.5mm headset jack. This is a durable handset, rated IP65/68 for dust and water resistance.

There are no visible speaker grilles on the edges of the phone because the stereo speakers are discreetly hidden in the bezels above and below the screen. That’s the ideal location: the speakers throw sound right at you, and avoid being covered by palms when the phone is held in landscape orientation. Sound quality is pretty decent, and Sony has included ‘dynamic vibration’ just as it did with last year’s Xperia 1. You can set the handset to vibrate to the beat of music, with varying levels of intensity. The controller is an on-screen slider that sits beside the volume control. I didn’t think much of it the first time round and I’m still not a fan, but you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.  

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As noted earlier the screen is the same 6.5-inch size, 3840-by-1644 pixel resolution and 21:9 aspect ratio as last year’s Xperia 1. It’s an OLED panel with HDR 10-bit support. Those speaker-housing bezels mean that the screen-to-body ratio is a relatively low 84%.

Sony does not offer a super-high refresh rate option, so you can’t dial up to 120Hz as you can with the OnePlus 8 Pro or Realme X3 SuperZoom, for example. And although the top and bottom bezels are relatively wide, at least there’s no need for an in-screen notch or punch-hole for the 8MP front camera.

The screen-related choices all pay off. I found watching video footage an extremely satisfying experience. Colours are rich but don’t have that over-saturated look that sometimes comes with OLED. The refresh rate was fine and I’m not sure what boosting it would really add to everyday use. Most of the video I watched wasn’t in the screen’s 21:9 aspect ratio, so there were black bars on either side of the content. A quick finger-spread stretch will zoom 16:9 or 18:9 video to fill the screen, and it’s generally perfectly watchable in this state.

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Having two apps open at the same time is a trick that many handsets offer, but it’s often not very practical. With the 21:9 aspect ratio creating a taller than usual screen in portrait mode, dual app use becomes viable. To encourage this, Sony provides a utility called ’21:9 Multi-window’. Pairs of pre-configured splits such as YouTube / Chrome sit alongside the option to pick specific apps from a list. It’s nicely thought-out, and would encourage me to make more use of the split screen mode.

Sony is really pushing the camera capabilities of the Xperia 1 II, which can shoot RAW images, make fast autofocus and exposure calculations at up to 60 times a second, and has eye tracking for humans and animals that helps with autofocus. The aforementioned shutter button is also much more usable than tapping on the screen. What you won’t find is fancy super-zoom functionality that inevitably breaks up as the software loses its grip — or, indeed, any other arguably gimmicky features.

With flagship smartphones sporting four or even five cameras at the back these days, a triple-camera setup may seem behind the times. But the Xperia 1 II bucks the trend, and does so very successfully. All three cameras have 12MP sensors, and there are 24mm f/1.7 (wide-angle), 70mm f/2.4 (telephoto, 3x optical zoom) and 16mm f/2.2 (ultra-wide-angle, 124°) lenses.

The software is nice too. Turn the handset into landscape orientation and pitch into ‘pro’ mode and you get a seriously smart split screen with image-framing on the left and various controls on the right, plus a nifty pop-out left side wheel for flicking through various shooting mode preferences and other settings. If you’re prepared to tweak, there’s an awful lot you can customise pretty easily, and Sony has done a great job of making pro mode very accessible.

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Equipped with Qualcomm’s top-end Snapdragon 865 5G chipset and 8GB of RAM, the Xperia 1 II performed well under the Geekbench 5 CPU benchmark, turning in average scores of 905 (single core) and 3362 (multi-core). With 12GB of RAM starting to crop up in flagship handsets like the OnePlus 8 Pro, the Xperia 1 II still delivers comparable Geekbench scores (the OnePlus managed 907 and 3375). 

There’s 256GB of internal storage, and Sony adds a lot of extra bits and pieces to Android 10, much of which can be declined at startup if you wish. Accepting everything on offer will take up 21.5GB, but that still leaves 234.5GB free for your own data. 

The 4,000mAh battery is on the small side these days, but it lasted for 10 hours 52 minutes under the PC Mark Work 2.0 battery rundown test. Watching video is one of the key use cases for this handset, so I fully charged the battery and left a YouTube video running for three hours, after which it had fallen to 80%. More anecdotally, I always finished a day’s average use with at least 30% remaining. This is a significant improvement on last year’s Xperia 1 with its 3,300mAh battery, which lasted for just under 8 hours when we tested it.

Fast charging (21W) and wireless charging (Qi, 11W) are available on the Xperia 1 II.

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Conclusions

Sony’s Xperia 1 II isn’t for everyone — and even those who are drawn to its features and can handle the form factor may be put off by the four-figure price tag. After all, there are plenty of well-specified smartphones that cost half as much as this one.
On the plus side, there’s a superb cinematic OLED screen and a well-implemented triple rear camera array. Sony also provides a top-end 5G chipset, plenty of RAM and storage, and sleek industrial design. It’s Sony’s best phone for some time, but price is likely to be the main issue.

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