It’s been a tough year for flagships in 2017. With smartphone trends getting upended by the end of the year, delays in the production of flagship chips and Samsung’s utter dominance of the premium Android market, there’s little room left for smartphone makers, especially at the top.
Sony, a once fabled smartphone maker, has been struggling for years to reestablish itself as a premium brand worthy of being uttered in the same breath as Samsung or Google. The Xperia XZ1, the last Sony flagship we saw this year, actually entered the market in September 2017. Even at that time, it was already too late to compete with Samsung’s stellar Galaxy S8 devices and it had the misfortune to arrive just as the stunning Galaxy Note 8 made its debut.
At its price point, the XZ1 manages to slot itself between 2017's flagships and the wannabe flagships in the Rs 30,000 range. It's an odd spot indeed, and one that nobody has truly owned. The real question, then, is of whether the XZ1 has managed to establish a niche for itself.
Build and design: 7/10
To look at, the phone epitomises the rectangular slab. The front view of the phone is a precise, angular rectangle where the corners are pointy. The top and bottom surfaces are also flat. Thankfully, the left and right edges of the phone are rounded.
The plain rectangular aesthetic is certainly different, but I don’t think it’s an improvement over existing smartphone designs. I received the black version for testing, and honestly, black might be the worst colour to buy it in.
In black, the phone is literally featureless, and not in that good, premium, slab-of-marble way that you’d notice with an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy device. This effect is made worse by the fact that the phone has a featureless, matte finish.
In fact, I had a hard time photographing the phone simply because my camera could find nothing to focus on.
To be fair to Sony, I can appreciate the aesthetic they were going for, but the simplicity has been forced in with the severity of a depressed monk furnishing his lodgings.
Design aside, the phone is built very well. It’s made of metal (aluminium) and feels solid and that Gorilla Glass 5 protection on the front also means that the screen is well protected.
The phone’s dual speaker setup is sensibly placed on the front face of the phone. A USB-C port is at the bottom, the headphone jack on the top. The right side is where you’ll find the power-cum-fingerprint reader button, volume controls and dedicated camera button. On the right is where you’ll find my favourite feature of the phone, the tool-less dual-SIM plus microSD card slot. It’s a nifty design feature that I wish more smartphone makers would adopt.
The front of the phone is all glass, but that’s only the Gorilla Glass sheath. The LCD has a regular 16:9 aspect ratio, which means that it’s not tall like the one on the S8, OnePlus 5T or just about every smartphone in the market today. Bezels are massive.
The rear houses a single camera unit and a sensor area that houses the NFC sensor, focus laser and LED flash. The antenna rises from this area. A barely perceptible Xperia logo is also etched into that matte-finished back.
The metal also makes the phone slippery to hold, which in my case, resulted in a cut lip from the phone falling corner first on my face. I kid you not.
Even on paper, I’m not sure if the Xperia XZ1 is offering enough. You get a flagship Snapdragon 835 processor, which is good, but then you get only 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. If you’re Samsung, you can get away with that. If you’re Sony, you’re immediately compared to OnePlus and found lacking.
On the camera front, an area where you’d expect Sony to excel, you get a 19 MP f/2.0 rear camera and a 13 MP f/2.0 front camera. No phone in 2017 that considers itself a flagship offers f/2.0. Even the OnePlus 5T offers an f/1.7 unit. For the uninitiated, the f/xx number indicates the size of the lens aperture. The smaller the number, the larger the amount of light that can enter the camera and the better the image quality, especially in low light and indoors.
Given the size of the phone, the display is tiny. It’s a 5.2-inch IPS display with a 16:9 aspect ratio and FHD resolution. That might not seem so bad, but bear in mind that the S8 offers a 5.8-inch screen at 2K resolution and that the 5T offers a 6.01-inch screen at FHD+. More on that later.
The most expensive OnePlus 5T variant offers double the storage and 50 percent more RAM as well as a dual camera with the primary camera having a much larger aperture and a larger screen.
At 2,700 mAh, the battery is also really small, smaller even than the measly battery that Apple stuffs into the Plus model iPhones.
On the plus side, you get a USB 3.1 rated USB-C port, which means faster file transfers, support for high-quality wireless streaming formats for improved Bluetooth audio and a superfast, 960 fps slow-mo mode for the camera. The dedicated camera button and the headphone jack are also nice.
Another nice feature is the IP68 water and dust resistance certification, so you can take the phone out in the rain or to the beach and not worry about damaging it.
For a smartphone in 2017, Sony’s choice of display is rather odd. Where everyone’s going with taller displays, Sony’s gone with a standard one. Where everyone’s desperate for an AMOLED unit, Sony’s gone for an IPS LCD. Apple did the same thing with its iPhone 8 and 8 Plus and got away with it, but this is Apple we’re talking about and it’s not like Apple fans have a choice. I’d also like to point out that so far, only the Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X have managed to showcase a colour-accurate OLED display.
Thankfully, I’m very much in favour of Sony’s choice of display. This HDR-10 compliant Sony display is rather nice and as someone who uses an iPhone for its colour-accurate display, I liked the colour rendering capabilities of the XZ1.
The black levels of the display were also very good and the brightness was adequate. The iPhone 8 does pip the XZ1 in the brightness department though, and there were instances in very bright sunlight where it was very difficult to make out the display.
A feature that does get the phone into a select club of devices is HDR-10. In this case, HDR or high dynamic range refers to the display’s ability to showcase more colours than a regular display. Unfortunately, while the feature is nice to have, there’s little content out there that can make full use of the technology.
Given the screen size, the FHD resolution of 1920x1080 is more than enough for regular use. However, my colleagues and I noticed what appear to be closely-spaced diagonal lines across the display.
They aren’t visible except at close range, and that too when viewing large swatches of solid colour, but they’re mildly irritating nonetheless.
On the plus side, the XZ1 is running Android Oreo, on the downside, it’s UI still feels a little barebones. Android customisation is a sore point for me. I’d rather have stock Android than some heavily customised skin that either doesn’t look good or is clunky. The skin on Samsung’s phones, for example, is too heavy. The skin used by Xiaomi is too light and strips out important functionality.
For whatever reason, the XZ1 skin feels like a stripped-down stock Android experience, if that’s even possible. Just about everything is stark and plain and boring. It’s almost as if Sony had no intention of taking advantage of that excellent display. Why else would the default wallpaper be a boring black and the UI feature grey gradients. Thankfully, some amount of customisation is possible.
Another issue I have with the UI is with the rotation sensitivity. It’s way too sensitive. If I’m holding the phone with one hand and reaching up to swipe down the notification centre, the phone tilts slightly. With the XZ1, the entire UI flips to landscape the moment I do that. No other phone that I’ve used does this. I know some phones are slow to respond to a rotated phone, the iPhone is one of them, but I’d rather have a phone that’s slow to flip than one that flips almost pre-emptively in its eagerness to respond.
Yet another issue I faced was with Netflix playback. The phone simply refused to play any HD Netflix clip for more than a few minutes before crashing. Why? I don’t know. I tried everything from reinstalling the app to formatting the phone to no avail. Hopefully, it’s a software issue that’s since been resolved by an update.
These irritants aside, the software of the XZ1 is fine and responds fast to input.
Given the hardware package, I expected the phone to do well on the performance front, and it did. Heavier games like Real Racing 3 and Asphalt Extreme ran smoothly without causing any undue heating issues. Network and call quality were also great. I ran the phone only in single SIM mode and within the limitations of my cell network, the phone performed admirably.
I had high expectations from the Sony’s dual front-firing speakers, and for the most part, the phone came close to meeting those expectations. The speakers are widely spaced, allowing for a noticeable stereo effect, but they’re also not as loud as those on the tiny little iPhone 8.
Everything else on the phone was great. Web browsing, Google Now, multitasking, etc. performed just as well as I’d expect any flagship Android device to perform.
One would be forgiven for expecting Sony to set the standard for camera quality in the smartphone space. Sony, after all, sells its camera sensors to everyone — including Google and its epic Pixel 2. Sony also sells its sensors to photography giants like Nikon while simultaneously making the very best mirrorless cameras in the market today.
On the XZ1, the camera is a profound disappointment.
On paper, the XZ1’s front camera is more powerful than the Pixel 2’s rear camera and all three of the iPhone X’s cameras. You’re getting a 19 MP rear sensor and a 13 MP front sensor. The cameras can record 4K video, shoot slow-motion video at a staggering 960 fps and comes with a slew of manual control options. It even has a dedicated camera button.
In practice, however, none of this adds up to a great camera experience. The 19 MP and 13 MP sensors are paired with f/2.0 lenses — low-light and indoor photography take a hit, video stabilisation only works properly at 1080p @30 fps, rendering its 4K capabilities redundant and 960 fps slow-motion footage can only be captured for one second at 720p.
If anything, still image performance is worse. Even in broad daylight, Sony’s image processing algorithms smear over details leaving everything looking like a painting. In low light, this effect gets worse.
The XZ1 only manages to hold its own when you’re taking images at short range and in good lighting. Colour balance is fine, but then it’s hampered by poor dynamic range wherein details in shadowy regions are simply lost. I even saw lens flares, something that I’ve not seen on any flagship smartphone that I’ve tested this year.
Reading all this, it might sound like Sony’s put the worst possible camera on the XZ1, and they haven’t. In some cases, the image quality is unquestionably better than what you’d get on a device selling for a third of the price. And yes, I'm being sarcastic.
For Sony's sake, I sincerely hope that they accidentally sent us a phone with a defective camera.
If nothing else, at least that 13 MP selfie camera is good.
I don’t doubt that Sony’s put an incredible sensor into the phone, it’s just that they don’t seem to have figured out how to take advantage of it. The image quality we saw this year is worse than it was last year.
When you see the incredible work that Huawei and Google are putting into their cameras, one has to question Sony's motivations.
3D scanner and AR
The phone features a 3D scanner of sorts, where you can use the rear camera in conjunction with the other sensors to create a 3D map of any object, including someone’s face or food. The scanned object can then be 3D printed. Sadly, this feature is more party trick than useful. It’s not like 3D printers abound, and the scanning could certainly do with more detail. The scanning process is painstakingly and slow, but the results aren't worth the effort.
The results were also hit and miss, with some scans bordering on passable and others resulting in objects that looked like they’ve been mauled by some sort of wild animal.
The AR effects are as hit and miss as the 3D scanner app. The single camera at the back just isn't very good at accurately detecting surfaces and objects. It comes close, but not close enough. We've seen much better implementations from both Google and Apple.
With things already looking down for the XZ1, the decision to stuff in a tiny little 2,700 mAh battery isn’t doing it many favours. The battery is small and the battery life correspondingly suffers. Our standardised battery life benchmark indicated a battery life of just under eight hours, which is abysmal in an age when we’re seeing 10 hours as as the norm.
Battery life wasn’t so bad in real world usage and it was just enough to get me through a full working day without dying. This usually involves a couple of hours of video, a couple of hours of music/podcasts, a dozen or so calls and about a hundred messages.
On the plus side, the phone charges very quickly when using the bundled fast charger.
Verdict and price in India
With the Sony Xperia XZ1, Sony has done the impossible: They’ve gone backwards in time. What you get is a phone with massive bezels, a great screen, a disappointing camera, sub-par battery life, great build quality, boring design and a premium price tag.
If you’re looking for a great phone in 2017 and don’t want to splurge on a Pixel 2, Note 8 or iPhone X, simply pick up the OnePlus 5T. The 5T is around Rs 12,000 cheaper, offers a modern design, better battery life, better camera, similar performance and a near-stock version of Android. How does one compete with that?
I’m sorry Sony, but you’ve dropped the ball on this one.
Note: We were initially sent a damaged Sony Xperia XZ1 unit for testing purpose. This was later replaced with a working unit and all testing was conducted with the replacement device.