If Sony Mobile, the smartphone division of the Japanese conglomerate, were a person, he would be the quirky uncle in the family, the non-conformist with weird but interesting stories to share.
Case in point – Sony’s latest Xperia 1 smartphone, which goes against the grain with a 21:9 display that is unusually wide or tall, depending on how you hold it. Most smartphone displays typically have an aspect ratio of 18:9 or 19:9.
In portrait mode, the taller screen lets you view slightly more content when browsing a Web page or reading a document.
In landscape mode, a wider display is ideal for movies. In fact, Sony mentioned that many movies are shot in the 21:9 aspect ratio, including 67 per cent of Netflix original movies.
Viewing Netflix videos is indeed one of the high points of the Xperia, with titles such as Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Roma (2018) filling up the entire screen without any black bars at the sides, while those shot in high dynamic range (HDR) look bright and vibrant.
The phone’s loud stereo speakers also add to the viewing experience. But I am not a fan of Sony’s dynamic vibration system, which makes the phone rumble during dramatic scenes.
The other benefit of the 21:9 screen is the extra screen real estate for a second app window via Android’s split-screen view. Activating this mode usually takes a few clicks in Android 9, but Sony has added a handy feature that can, in theory, simplify this process.
Dubbed Side sense and introduced last year, it consists of three gestures that make use of sensors at the left and right edges of the Xperia’s display.
For instance, slide your finger up either edge of the Xperia to bring up a list of apps – pick two to open in split-screen mode. Double-tapping the edge shows a list of frequently used apps as well as key settings such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi controls, while sliding down the edge returns to the previous window.
I found Side sense, especially its split-screen function, to be useful. But the gestures are not the easiest to pull off. Even after using the Xperia for a week, I still fail to activate the gestures now and then. The initial learning curve is frustrating enough that some users will probably give up at the start.
• Ultra-wide screen perfect for watching movies shot in the 21:9 format
• Side sense feature makes it easier to enable split-screen mode
• Side sense feature can also be frustrating
• Average camera performance
• Relatively small battery
PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 (single-core 2.8GHz, triple-core 2.4GHz and quad-core 1.8GHz)
DISPLAY: 6.5-inch, Oled, 3,840 x 1,644 pixels, 643 ppi pixel density
OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 9.0
MEMORY: 128GB (microSD expandable up to 512GB), 6GB RAM
REAR CAMERAS: 12MP wide-angle (f/1.6), 16MP ultra-wide-angle (f/2.4), 12MP telephoto (f/2.4)
FRONT CAMERA: 8MP (f/2.0)
BATTERY: Non-removable 3,300mAh battery
VALUE FOR MONEY: 3.5/5
BATTERY LIFE: 3.5/5
The 6.5-inch display is an Oled screen with vibrant colours and deep blacks. It looks very good with colours comparable with the Samsung Galaxy S10’s display.
It also has a 4K resolution, though its extra pixels are not evident to me, compared with a standard 1080p smartphone screen. Those who prefer more neutral and accurate colours can choose the Creator Mode in the display settings instead of the standard vivid mode.
Despite supplying most of the camera sensors used in the smartphones of other manufacturers, Sony lags behind its rivals in camera performance.
The Xperia’s triple-camera system follows the usual configuration of a main camera, an ultra-wide camera and a telephoto camera and comes with an eye autofocus feature (from its digital cameras) that tries to track the eyes of subjects.
But its problem lies with the software. For some reason, the camera app lacks a toggle for the HDR function in Auto mode – the function will be enabled automatically by the software.
Now, HDR creates a better composite photo by shooting multiple photos at different exposures, so I feel it should always be enabled. But the software seems to apply HDR in a haphazard fashion, resulting in images that are overexposed or lacking in details.
To its credit, the app enables night mode consistently in dark environments. Like with other phones, this night mode uses long exposure to capture more light. The results are decent, albeit not as amazing as the photos taken with phones by Google and Huawei.
Videographers may find the Xperia more to their taste. For one thing, the phone comes with a Cinema Pro video app made by Sony’s professional video camera division that lets users shoot in the native 21:9 aspect ratio and adjust settings such as white balance, ISO and manual focus.
Although it is taller than usual, the Xperia is as narrow as most phones and fits comfortably in my hand. Its metal sides are rounded and smooth which, together with the sleek glass back, make the phone rather slippery.
Sony has gone with a side-mounted fingerprint sensor instead of a trendy in-display version. Like older Xperia phones, it has a physical shutter release button for the camera at the lower-right edge. It lacks a headphone jack, though a USB-C dongle is included.
Its design and features may be a tad unconventional, but the Xperia 1 does boast flagship-tier hardware such as a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip and 6GB of memory. As a result, games and apps run smoothly. I also like that it uses a stock version of the Android 9 platform that is clean and free of bloatware.
Battery life is middling at around 10 hours, which is unsurprising because of its modest 3,300mAh battery and large screen.