Sony releases two flagship smartphones every year, and though that might seem like an oddity, it’s not very different from what several other Android OEMs do. Samsung releases Galaxy S and Galaxy Note flagships roughly six months apart, and LG’s been doing something similar with the G series and the V series.
Both Samsung and LG, however, try and cater to different audiences with their two flagship ranges. Samsung’s Galaxy S series is clearly meant for a mainstream users, while the Note range with its S-Pen stylus and bigger screens targets professionals focussed on productivity. Similarly, while LG’s G series is the flag-bearer of its smartphone range, the V series has recently been used as an opportunity to experiment with different designs and form factors.
Sony doesn’t seem to have any such philosophy, and its second-half offerings can at best be considered incremental upgrades to each year’s ‘main’ flagship, with minimal changes. It’s no surprise then that the Xperia XZ1 looks virtually identical to the Xperia XZs from the front. This time, however, Sony has done enough to ensure that the Xperia XZ1 feels like a bit of a refresh over its predecessor, even though it lacks the narrow bezels and 18:9 display that became a popular trend in 2017.
First up is an all-new metal body that gives the Xperia XZ1 a definite leg up over the other members of its family. We especially liked the matte finish on our black unit - the only colour option available in India - which gives the phone a classy, understated look and feel. However, it still feels very ‘boxy’, and maybe rounded corners could ha addressed this.
Long-time Sony users will also note that the button layout on the right has been changed and the volume rocker is now above the power button. What’s unchanged is that the power button still houses the fingerprint sensor, which works quite well. You also still get a dedicated camera button towards the bottom of the right edge.
Sony has made some changes at the back. While the camera module is still in the top-left corner, the dual-LED flash is now to its right instead of just below as it was on the Xperia XZs. The Xperia XZ1 retains the USB Type-C port, and to the relief of many, the 3.5mm headphone jack as well.
Overall, despite these minor changes, it’s clear that the Xperia design language has been showing its age for a while now, and is badly in need of a major revamp. Sony executives have indicated we could get it soon, but as of today this phone looks dated compared to what other manufacturers are putting out there.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 has the same 5.2-inch display seen on the Xperia XZs but the new panel borrows a feature from the bigger, more expensive Xperia XZ Premium. The screen resolution is still full-HD so you don’t get 4K - which would be overkill for a screen of this size in any case - but the Xperia XZ1 does support HDR. If you watch a lot of videos on your smartphone and can find the right content - services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, in addition to YouTube, have a small but growing collection of HDR videos - this can improve the experience.
The difference is especially noticeable when you watch an HDR video on a panel that doesn’t support HDR side by side with a smartphone like the Xperia XZ1. While HDR by itself is not reason enough to change your smartphone - unlike a high-end TV, where you’d likely want HDR support - it’s definitely a nice bonus.
Like other Sony smartphones, the Xperia XZ1 lets you pick from three modes that impact the colour gamut and contrast ratio used to display on-screen content. The Standard mode that is selected by default offers fairly neutral colours. You can opt for the Professional mode to use the sRGB colour gamut for a more accurate, though muted colour appearance, or the Super-vivid mode, which makes the colours appear brighter, but to us this looked really over-the-top and unnatural.
The panel on the Xperia XZ1 has excellent viewing angles and gets sufficiently bright without being overly reflective - we didn’t have any issues when using the phone outdoors in direct sunlight. Gorilla Glass 5 is included as well.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 is powered by the Snapdragon 835 SoC - the standard for nearly all Android flagships of this generation, and the only major change in specifications compared to the Xperia XZs. There’s 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, of which around 54.5GB is available for your use out of the box. You can add up to 256GB of storage using a microSD card, though that means you will have to give up on the second SIM. 4G and VoLTE are supported, though LTE can be active on only one SIM at any given time.
As you’d expect from a phone of this class, we did not experience any issues in terms of day-to-day performance, and benchmark numbers for the Xperia XZ1 were similar to what we’ve seen with other Snapdragon 835-powered phones. Thankfully, the phone does not suffer from the heating issues that plagued the Xperia XZs and the Xperia XZ while recording 4K video or running other processor-intensive tasks. The phone is rated to be IP65/ 68 water- and dust-resistant.
The Xperia XZ1 features stereo speakers that sound good, but had us wishing they were a little bit louder. Like many other Sony phones, this model also supports a bunch of features for audiophiles, such as High-Resolution audio, LDAC-enhanced Bluetooth, aptX, and more.
Sony is pushing the 3D scanning capabilities of this smartphone as one of its headline features. Using only the primary camera - no dual camera setup here - the preloaded 3D Creator app lets you scan various types of objects: Face, Head, Freeform, and Food; each with a different preset mode of its own within the app. The idea is to let you grab 3D models of different kinds of objects, and then print them from your smartphone if you have access to a 3D printer, which obviously isn’t the case for most people.
You can also use them as 3D avatars on social media, or as AR effects within the Camera app. In practice though, the first step itself is extremely hard, and despite the hand-holding by the app in the form of tutorials - we found 3D scanning to be a big chore. Results were unreliable if we strayed even a little bit from what we were expected to do, which we did all the time thanks to the complexity involved. We asked a couple of other colleagues to test the feature out, and they came back reporting similar experiences.
The Xperia XZ1 insists on restarting every time you fiddle with your SIMs, a problem that’s existed with Sony phones for quite a while now. We realise this bothers people like us who swap SIMs constantly a whole lot more than regular folks, but, just like the design, this is an area where Sony seems to be stuck in the past.
The Xperia XZ1 has a 2700 mAh battery and we had no trouble going through an entire day with a bit of juice still left at the end. In our HD video loop battery test, the phone lasted 10 hours and 40 minutes before shutting down, which is in line with what you’d expect from a battery of this size. The Xperia XZ1 comes with the Sony UCH12 charger that supports the Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 as well as MediaTek Pump Express 2.0 standards for fast-charging compatible devices. In our testing, the charger topped up the Xperia XZ1’s battery from 0 to 42 percent in 30 minutes, and to 72 percent in another 30 minutes.
The Sony Xperia XZ1 was the first smartphone to ship with Android 8.0 out of the box, even before Google’s Pixel 2 duo. Under the hood, the Android Oreo update brings some major changes such as better controls over what apps can do in the background, but there are some new user-facing features as well. You get Google Play Protect, which is designed to scan your device in the background and help keep it safe. While Android Nougat added support for multi-window view - which brought split-screen and ‘floating apps’ to your smartphone - Android Oreo brings native support for the picture-in-picture (PIP) mode, which is designed to be seamless.
If an app supports PIP mode - and not a whole lot of them seem to do that right now - you just need to press the home button, and the app will then pop out and remain visible on your home screen, or floating above other apps at all times. For example, if you are navigating to some place using Google Maps and just press the home button, it will remain visible in a small window that stays on top no matter what app you launch; even full-screen apps like games.
This is super convenient for the most part - though we found the overlay on games a step too far - and a welcome change from manually triggering multi-window support to run apps side by side, which is rarely useful on phones with regular-sized screens. Most apps, however, don’t support this mode yet - you can go to Settings -> Apps & Notifications -> Advanced -> Special access -> Picture-in-picture on your phone to see which installed apps have PIP support.
Only a handful of apps that ship with the Sony Xperia XZ1 support PIP, and the only one that we found useful in a meaningful way is the one we mentioned before - Google Maps. Google Duo supports PIP, but YouTube treats PIP as background playback, which means only YouTube Red subscribers can use it right now. Bundled apps like Google Photos and Sony’s Video don’t support this at all, so if you want the ability to watch videos in a little pop-up window while you do other things, you will need to download a third-party app like VLC, which has has the option to enable PIP buried in the settings.
There are a few notifications-related improvements as well, including support for badges. When an app has new notifications, a tiny dot appears on top of the app’s icon; developers can customise which notifications show up as badges. Users can long-press an app icon to glance at the notifications associated with a badge in supported launchers. Notifications snoozing lets you dismiss individual notifications for a preset duration - they will show up again once the time is up.
The other new feature you might find useful is the addition of the System-wide Autofill framework. This lets your apps use data from your Google account, for example, to autofill personal details, usernames, and passwords you have saved in the browser. Apps can also save passwords to your Google account, so the next time you visit the corresponding website, you won't need to enter your credentials manually. The Sony Xperia XZ1 comes with SwiftKey as the pre-installed keyboard, though you can of course switch to another if you prefer.
The phone utilises Project Treble, Google's initiative to make it easier and faster for OEMs to roll out software updates, and in the couple of months that we spent with the Xperia XZ1, we noticed that Sony was pretty prompt in terms of pushing out monthly security updates. Apps like AVG Protection (an antivirus app that runs in the background by default) and games like Midnight Pool and Modern Combat 5 are pre-installed on the smartphone and cannot be uninstalled (but can be disabled).
The primary camera on the Xperia XZ1 uses Sony’s 19-megapixel Exmor RS for Mobile memory-stacked sensor with a a f/2.0 25mm wide-angle G Lens. You get the same Super Slow Motion mode that we first saw on the Xperia XZ Premium where the camera captures video at 960fps for 0.184 seconds, which becomes 5.9 seconds of footage. The camera also packs Predictive Capture, which promises to detect and “capture motion and smiles before you even click”; 5-axis image stabilisation; and 4K video recording.
All this combines to give images that look quite good on the phone’s display, especially when there’s plenty of light. Zoom in to full size and you’ll notice that the images have some amount of noise and lack the details that other flagship phones can capture, though most users will be fairly happy with the Xperia XZ1’s results. Unsurprisingly, noise proved to be a bigger problem in low-light conditions, and image quality fell well short of the performance we have seen from the leading smartphone cameras.
However, given the Sony Xperia XZ1’s pricing, it’d be unfair to expect it to compete favourably with the likes of the iPhone 8 and Google Pixel 2, which cost a whole lot more (the latter when it’s not being discounted). Overall, the camera you get on the Xperia XZ1 is fairly in line with the price you pay, with performance better than that of OnePlus 5T and Mi Mix 2 which cost a fair bit less, but lesser than what you get from the more expensive flagships.
Super Slow Motion mode is a nice feature for the Sony Xperia XZ1 to boast about on paper, but the resulting 720p video looks extremely grainy - even on the phone’s screen - and we wouldn’t really want to use it anywhere. On the other hand, we quite liked the results from Predictive Capture, a feature that automatically saves the moments just before you press the shutter key, taking some pressure off you when trying to capture the ‘perfect’ shot. You can later go and see all the shots associated with a particular photo, and keep only the one(s) you like. We imagine this will be particularly useful when you are taking pictures of pets or kids, or at sporting events with fast-moving action.
As you can see from the sample shot below, if it wasn’t for Predictive Capture - which is a setting in the Camera app that’s turned on by default - we would’ve ended up with an unusable image. However, unlike Apple’s Live Photos there doesn’t seem to be a way to force Predictive Capture off or on, and it seemed to kick in on occasions when we didn’t expect it - like when capturing frames with no moving objects - and didn’t when we were trying to shoot moving traffic, for example, which might limit its utility.
The rear flash on the Xperia XZ1 isn’t very powerful but the display-powered front ‘fill flash’ does a satisfactory job when you are taking selfies. Speaking of the front camera, the resultant images are good enough for use on Facebook even though the colours appear a bit washed out. You do get the option to wave your hand while looking at the front camera in order to trigger the shutter, which can be useful in certain situations.
4K video recording and 5-axis image stabilisation on the rear camera work satisfactorily. The Camera app is the same that we’ve seen on other Sony phones, with the option of diving into a full Manual mode if needed.
There’s a lot to like about the Sony Xperia XZ1 - it has a good display with HDR support, excellent performance, decent battery life, a camera that’s good enough for many people, and Android Oreo backed by what has so far been a decent record of regular updates. What this phone really lacks is a standout feature - like the cameras on the Pixel 2 series or the design/ display of Samsung’s flagships - that could help it grab attention in an extremely crowded market. As we’ve said several times now, the Xperia design language is crying out for a refresh, and one hopes for Sony’s sake that it arrives at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.
If you aren’t put off by the design - and to be fair to the Xperia XZ1, the metal finish is definitely an improvement over its predecessors - you could buy this Rs. 44,990 phone and be fairly happy with it. Alternatively, you could consider the Nokia 8, which costs a fair bit less than the Xperia XZ1 but offers similar performance and stock Android as well as better battery life. Though it lacks HDR support, the Nokia 8’s display offers deeper blacks and is one of the best LCD panels out there. You would, however, miss out on IP65/ 68 water- and dust-resistance and have to settle for a camera that’s a tiny bit inferior.
More importantly, with February nearly here, a new wave of flagships is just around the corner - possibly a successor to the Xperia XZ1 as well - and you might want to wait and see what’s in store. If patience is not your thing, some of the best phones of 2017 are available at significant discounts compared to their launch prices, and one of them might fit your requirements.