Sony Xperia 1 II Review: A Technical Triump

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The Sony Xperia 1 II may have a confusing name but it’s a clear statement from the company that doubles-down on what Sony fans like and serves as the brand’s first step into 5G.

Sony has cultivated a reputation of technical excellence and as experts in the realms of both media creation and consumption – thanks to the likes of its superb cameras, its TV and audio products, not to mention the PlayStation brand as a whole.

Its smartphones, however, don’t neatly slot into either of these camps; serving as one of the few devices that encompass the entirety of Sony’s consumer efforts in a single product category – the problem is, they haven’t grabbed consumers in the way that the company has hoped thus far.

So, does the Sony Xperia 1 II appease Sony fans whilst also appealing to newcomers as well? Let’s find out.

What’s in a name?

Before we dive into the hardware Sony has brought to the table, if you’re not aware, the company’s latest flagship comes with a name inspired by the wares out of its established camera division. As such, this is the “Xperia one mark two,” which sounds great out loud, but seems a little convoluted when you’re trying to make your newest phone stand out on store shelves.

That said, the influence of its Alpha cameras runs deeper than just this phone’s name and that’s where we expecting the Xperia 1 II to really shine.

Elegance in strength

A glimpse at the Xperia 1 II and you’ll see that it continues the company’s commitment to a 21:9 aspect ratio display. This gives the phone a tall, slender form that makes its sizeable 6.5in display much easier to hold than you might at first expect.

There’s some subtle rounding on the chamfers that run the phone’s edges but generally, it’s a more angular offering overall than anything we’ve seen from the likes of Apple’, Samsung’s or Oppo’s flagship handsets in the past year, which adds to the phone’s distinct aesthetic.

It makes for a strong, confident design style, more discreet in its composition than such rivals, granting it unique appeal. That design maturity also carriers across the colourways; with flat black, white or purple options to choose between; no super-sized text or spectral, reflective holographic rainbow patterns to be found on this phone’s back.

This Gorilla Glass 6 sandwich is only interrupted by a prominent triple camera setup on the back and a small forehead and chin on its flat front. Displays with curved edges may look like the future but they cause ergonomic and interactivity issues if executed poorly. Sony’s form-following-function approach doesn’t like quite as elegant but won’t let you down during day-to-day use.

Sony is one of the few manufacturers to implement tool-free SIM trays on its devices, with the 1 II’s sitting high on its left side and accessible with only a prying thumbnail. It’s a trait that’s rendered more impressive when you consider the phone is IP65/68 water and dust resistant.

The company has also managed to reintroduce a standard 3.5mm headphone jack along the phone’s top edge, engineered with music lovers in mind (more on that later), while a volume rocker, fingerprint sensor-cum-power key and dual-detent shutter button (a rare and appreciated inclusion) run down the phone’s right face.

The biggest criticism of the Xperia 1 II’s form? With polished glass and a glossy colour-matched metal frame, a firm grip isn’t always guaranteed, so consider investing in a case.

Sluggish but stunning visuals

While there was no doubt that Sony would ensure that its latest flagship would boast an outstanding screen, it skips out on one of the biggest smartphone display trends in 2019/2020 – high refresh rate viewing.

Thankfully, right now this is more of a ‘nice to have’ than an essential feature in order to remain competitive but its absence is still a little disappointing; if only because of the asking price that accompanies the Xperia 1 II (Sony does include a ‘motion blur reduction’ option in the phone’s settings but it’s a stop-gap measure at best, presumably until the Xperia 1 III).

What the phone’s 6.5in panel does bring to the table is (up to) 4K HDR visuals that are nothing short of astounding – especially, considering this is a smartphone we’re talking about.

Sony has all but eliminated the colour, brightness and contrast issues of its earlier 4K display-toting handsets and the result is one of the clearest and most arresting pictures you’ll find on a phone, particularly when viewing compatible content that truly matches the boundaries of the display’s capabilities.

When Sony committed to the unorthodox (in the mobile space, at least) 21:9 aspect ratio now found across its current smartphone range, finding worthwhile content seemed like quite the ask for users, whose mainstays of YouTube, Twitch and even Netflix favoured 16:9 content first and foremost.

In the short time between last year’s Xperias and the Xperia 1 II, it’s safe to say that the industry as a whole is now more readily embracing 21:9; validating Sony’s decision and proving it ahead of the curve in this regard.

From the new Moto G 5G Plus to gaming monitors from the biggest manufacturers, the popularity of 21:9 aspect ratios in the home and in your pocket continues to grow and as such, increases the likelihood of more and better-quality content, which right now, is probably best enjoyed on the Xperia 1 II’s screen – as far as smartphones are concerned).

All we need now is the addition of a high refresh rate panel (and perhaps a higher maximum brightness when in strongly-lit surroundings) and Sony’s phone screens will be unrivalled.

Serious about sound

The Xperia 1 II has been engineered to offer a stellar audiovisual experience and as such, promises great sonic capabilities to back up those top-notch visuals.

For starters, it sports dual front-facing stereo speakers. They’re arguably the weakest part of the phone’s audio setup but still stand out above plenty of other flagships, just by featuring at all. The 1 II drives impressive overall loudness and clarity but a thin 7.6mm frame means there’s no space for a decently-sized acoustic chamber and as such, bass is wholly lacking.

Having a 3.5mm jack is a blessing for those who want to use high-quality cans. Sony says it reintegrated the port as it delivers greatly reduced crosstalk; just 20dB or more than 90% less than equivalent USB-C headphones would be subject to.

What’s more, the Xperia 1 II piles on a wealth of additional audio technologies to elevate the listening experience further; including Hi-Res Audio support and DSEE Ultimate upscaling – which improves compressed audio files.

Related: Best wireless headphones

LDAC and Hi-Res Audio Wireless support also feature if you want to cut cords and retain quality (although perhaps not consistently the CD-quality promised, but still), while Dolby Atmos and Sony’s own 360 Reality Audio standard feature on supported content (the latter can be used with compatible media from services like Deezer and Tidal).

There’s also the matter of Dynamic Vibration: appearing alongside the volume slider, you can vary the amount of vibration that the phone puts out when playing videos or music. The vibrations sync up to loud beats and you have the option to vary the sensitivity of the feature too.

There’s no denying that it’s another unique inclusion but perhaps one that will likely only appeal to certain users and only when enjoying certain types of content (more Michael Bay’s Transformers, rather than Holst’s Planets suite). Also, the fact that it isn’t available when gaming is wholly counter-intuitive.

The Alpha phone?

There’s no denying that Sony is an expert when it comes to cameras. Its mirrorless Alpha series has risen to excellence, rivalling long-standing DSLR giants like Canon and Nikon, and the fact that the naming convention that the series is known for has also been applied to the Xperia 1 II is a big promise to those who recognise the relationship.

Like 2019’s Xperia 1, you’ll find three 12Mp sensors along the phone’s back and an 8Mp front-facer. While both the main and telephoto sensors boast OIS (optical image stabilisation), Sony has tweaked the focal lengths, so that they’re wider (24mm instead of 26mm) and offer 3x optical zoom (up from 2x), respectively.

The camera system has also been tweaked for speed, meaning blur-free and sharp focus-shooting is more readily available, irrespective of your inherent photography skills; with automatic people and animal-centric eye-tracking autofocus being a particular highlight.

Click through on the image above for the full camera sample gallery

One of the most apparent things is the consistency in colour and contrast across the Xperia 1 II’s three rear sensors – whether you’re shooting stills or videos, working with the imagery, whether it’s a telephoto or an ultrawide shot, is undoubtedly easier than it would on other multi-sensored smartphones, thanks to this trait.

In contrast, there’s a degree of awkwardness that comes from that Alpha influence. The Xperia 1 II is capable of capturing arresting low light photos and gorgeous (up to) 4K video, but if you want the best that this phone can deliver, you’re going to want to use the Photo Pro and Cinema Pro apps.

These two additional camera apps borrow from Sony’s professional photo (Alpha) and video (CineAlta) cameras, with regards to their interfaces. This essentially means you have an unprecedented level of camera control from the phone’s native software but if you’re not technically-minded, it’s an incredibly intimidating toolset that likely won’t see use.

That said, the phone’s automatic shooting chops should satiate the average user’s photographic needs and if you want to push yourself, the Xperia 1 II’s camera software is robust enough to allow for an impressive amount of further creativity and flexibility.

By comparison, considering the price, the phone’s lowly 8Mp front-facing snapper is serviceable but we were hoping for something with a little more oomph; even with all beauty features disabled, faces still look oddly smooth, although hand-activated shutter control is handy.

Clean Android, meaningful adaptations

The Xperia 1 II’s Android 10 user experience is characteristically Sony, which is to say similar to the likes of Motorola and Nokia. The company has reined in any duplicate apps, as well as some of its more niche experiences in favour of Google’s own, which would feature regardless. As such, aside from the elongated aspect ratio, those moving to the Xperia 1 II from other Android devices shouldn’t feel at all lost.

Speaking of that tall display, split-screen multitasking is particularly strong on the 1 II, thanks to a robust 21:9 Multi-Window app switcher that makes it easy to pair two apps and move between them to maximise productivity.

Sony has kept some unique features and importantly there’s little here that doesn’t add value. Side Sense offers quick access to your favourite apps and certain features, alongside Game Enhancer, which as well as silencing notifications and freeing up memory (if you want it to) can also be used to record gameplay and bypass the battery (dubbed ‘HeaT Suppression Power Control’) so you can play with the phone plugged in for longer, without unnecessarily shortening the cell’s lifespan.

Plenty of power

While there’s no denying that the Xperia 1 II brings flagship performance to the table, it’s certainly a more modest arrangement than some of 2020’s best and brightest. At its heart lies Qualcomm’s excellent 865, along with a 5G modem and 8GB of RAM.

So long as Sony keeps on top of software updates and optimisations, there’s little reason for concern about the fact that the memory doesn’t push into double digits (or that the 865 has been out-ranked by the tweaked Snapdragon 865+ since the phone’s launch).

The phone benchmarks incredibly well and as a result, should serve you well over multiple years of use, from a performance standpoint. The ability to free up memory and the like when gaming, only lessens any concerns about long-term competitiveness even further.

Battery

As for the battery, Sony has upped the 3330mAh cell inside the original Xperia 1 to a 4000mAh effort in the Mark II, as well as adding support for both faster 21W PD charging and wireless charging – one of the big omissions from the previous generation.

While 4000mAh still lags behind most of the Xperia’s competitors in terms of capacity, it’ll see you through around six hours of screen-on time, which is wholly respectable and should equate to a day’s normal use with charge to spare.

In a decidedly Apple-like move, the Xperia 1 II doesn’t come with a 21W fast-charger in-box, and Sony instead supplies the phone with a slower 18W adapter. This is frustrating from a cost standpoint, especially considering it’s only a 3W difference we’re talking about here.

The difference may sound small but it’s an important distinction to make as it renders Sony’s Xperia 1 II messaging somewhat misleading. One of the listed highlights of the Xperia 1 II is that it can achieve a 50% charge in just 30 minutes – something that’s only actually possible if you fork out for a faster power adapter. In truth, the in-box 18W adapter gets the phone to around 46% in the same time frame.

While there’s little practical difference, such transparency is important when you’re dropping a considerable amount of money on the table.

Price & Availability

The Sony Xperia 1 II is available to buy SIM-free, direct Sony’s Xperia official partner store, as well as the likes of Currys, Carphone Warehouse and Amazon, in the UK.

With an RRP of £1099, it sits just above the iPhone 11 Pro and is notably more expensive than similarly-specced Android rivals, such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 and OnePlus 8 Pro. The saving grace is that it is dropping in price, albeit slowly, so keep your eyes peeled.

Verdict

While there’s no faulting the Sony Xperia 1 II on a technical level, it makes for a very particular blend of Sony technologies that lacks the degree of mass appeal that phones like the Galaxy S20 bring to the table.

Apple effectively sets the acceptable price ceiling for flagship smartphones each year and any phone that dares to pass this threshold demands considerable thought before purchase.

Serious camera capabilities that can only be unlocked by a demanding professional user interface and audio technologies implemented with audiophiles in mind; Sony isn’t chasing after the same audience as Apple or Samsung – that was true of 2018’s Xperia 1, too – but if you’re not already invested in Sony’s world, the Xperia 1 II isn’t the easiest jumping-on point.

That said, if you’re simply after the smartphone with the best audiovisual abilities in the world right now, there’s little else that can match the Xperia 1 II.

Read next: Best Sony phones

Specs
Sony Xperia 1 II: Specs

6.5in 4K HDR 21:9 ‘CinemaWide’ OLED display

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor

8GB RAM

256GB storage

microSD expandable up to 1TB

12Mp f/1.7 24mm wide camera w/ OIS

12Mp f/2.4 70mm telephoto camera w/ 3x optical zoom + OIS

12Mp f/2.2 16mm ultrawide camera

8Mp f/2.0 front-facing camera

Android 10

Stereo speakers

3.5mm headphone jack

Gorilla Glass 6

IP65/68 certified

4000mAh battery

Up to 21W PD charging

11W wireless charging

5G

Bluetooth 5.1

181 grams

166×72×7.9mm



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