Sony Xperia XZ1 review

The Sony Xperia XZ1 is the latest flagship phone from the firm, but you’d be hard pressed to tell that at first glance.

That’s because Sony has once again indulged its seemingly irrepressible passion for its omnibalance design, which has changed only insubtle ways over the last four years.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the Xperia XZ1 is a couple of years old, such is its similarity to previous handsets such as the Xperia XZ from 2016, which is its immediate predecessor, as well as the Xperia Z5 (2015) and Xperia Z3 (2014).

At least the specs are more 2017 though, with a Snapdragon 835 chipset, 4GB of RAM, 19MP rear-facing camera, HDR support for the display and Android 8.0 Oreo on board.

That said, in a year when Samsung, LG and Apple have all gone almost bezel-less, and HTC and OnePlus overhauled their design propositions, it’s hard not to feel like Sony is slipping behind its rivals.

We did a live Q&A with the Xperia XZ1 and XZ1 Compact – you can watch it below

Sony Xperia XZ1 price and availability

  • Launch price: £599, $699.99
  • US release date: September 19
  • UK release date: September 22

The Sony Xperia XZ1 release date is September 19 in the US and September 22 in the UK, and while we don’t have availability dates for other regions we expect it to arrive in key markets around the same time.

As for the Sony Xperia XZ1 price, it’s set at £599 ($699.99, around AU$875) SIM-free at launch in the UK.

That makes the Xperia XZ1 a touch more expensive than the LG G6, HTC U11 and iPhone 7, but cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S8 and iPhone 8.

Design

  • Slick premium design, but it looks dated and bezel-heavy
  • Water and dust resistance, with easy-access microSD slot

The Xperia XZ1 is the successor to the Xperia XZ, and while Sony has refined its new flagship phone for a slicker, more impressive finish, the design hasn’t moved on in a significant way for several years now.

It means the Sony Xperia XZ1 looks a little dated, especially next to the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6 boasting impressively small bezels – and with the iPhone X adopting this futuristic look as well it feels like Sony is missing a trick.

It’s not the only manufacturer to keep the additional space around the screen though – the new iPhone 8, HTC U11 and OnePlus 5 all boast sizable bezel – but there’s no question that the bezeless brigade look better.

As we’ve mentioned though, Sony has subtly refined its design once again. First off, the Xperia XZ1 is a touch thinner than its predecessor at 7.4mm (down from 8.1mm), and it boasts a metal unibody carved from a single piece of aluminum, giving it a strong yet surprisingly lightweight feel in the hand – an improvement over the XZ.

There are three antenna breakout points on the handset, which appear as three slender bands on the sides of the device. Sony says these will improve network connection no matter how you’re holding the phone; in short, there’s less chance your hand will block all the antennas on the Xperia XZ1.

Sony Xperia XZ1 hands-on gallery

These are minor improvements, as are the even more rounded edges, which make the XZ1 feel more secure in hand and easier to hold – although without the gently curving edges like you get on the Samsung Galaxy S8 it’s still stretch to reach a finger across the screen.

Around the sides you’ll find the usual suspects – there's a SIM and microSD tray on the left, while on the right are the volume rocker, dedicated camera button and concave power button.

Two notes on the buttons: first, the volume rocker has been shrunk, reducing the margin of error when you’re adjusting the volume. It’s a minor point, but we’d have liked a slightly longer key for a more natural input.

Second – and yet again – Sony has omitted the fingerprint sensor from the XZ1 in the US, while in other regions, including the UK, it's built into the easy-to-reach side-mounted power key.

The power key hides the fingerprint scanner, but not in the uS

The SIM tray is also needlessly fiddly. First you have to remove the plastic cover, which slides out with a microSD tray attached to it. This makes swapping expandable storage in and out easy, but the SIM tray doesn’t come attached.

Instead you have to dig out a separate plastic tray with your fingernail. It’s not easy, nor intuitive, and there’s no reassuring click when you slide the tray in to tell you it’s properly inserted.

The plus point here is that you don’t need a SIM tool to insert or remove the card, but we’d have liked the tray to be attached to the plastic cover like the microSD tray.

In true Sony Mobile tradition the Xperia XZ1 is also IP65/68 certified, meaning it’s fully dust- and water-resistant, while also being able to survive a dunk in the wet stuff without frying itself.

Around the XZ1’s top and bottom caps, the soft edges make way for the glossy, diamond-cut metal trim. The bottom plays host to the USB-C charging port, while you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone port on the top.

The SIM tray is needlessly fiddly

Sony has packed dual front-facing speakers into the Xperia XZ1, and these feature its new S-Force surround technology, which provides 50% more sound pressure than the speakers on the XZ.

This allows you to enjoy stereo surround sound while watching movies or playing games. We found the sound to be very good, and we much prefer the speaker placement over Samsung’s and Apple’s insistence on bottom-firing, single speakers which can be easily muffled by your hands.

The Sony Xperia XZ1 is available in four colors: Black, Warm Silver, Horizon Blue and Venus Pink, although it’s currently not clear if all those hues will come to every region the handset is sold in.

Finally on the design front, the back of the phone has received a tweak. The main camera sensor is located in the familiar place in the top-left corner, but the flash and laser have been relocated horizontally in the center of the handset.

Overall the Sony Xperia XZ1 has a smart, premium design which could well be suited to business professionals, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it looks dated compared to its rivals.

Display

  • 5.2-inch Full HD display isn’t as high-res as expected for the price
  • HDR supports provides an excellent viewing for video

The full HD, HDR display is great for supported movies

The display on the Sony Xperia XZ1 is another feature you wouldn’t expect to see on a flagship Android phone in 2017.

What you get is a Gorilla Glass 5-covered 5.2-inch 1080p display. At this size the screen is sharp, text is easy to read and images are rendered with a high level of detail.

However, for the same money – and in some cases less – you can nab a flagship smartphone with a QHD display from a rival, providing even more detail, color and punch direct to your eyeballs.

Considering that Sony has already slapped a 4K display on the Xperia XZ Premium, it makes the decision to drop all the way back to 1080p on the XZ1 all the more puzzling.

It’s not all bad news though, as Sony has added HDR support to the screen on the XZ1, which means you can enjoy bright, clearer and more impactful visuals from supported services including YouTube, Amazon Prime and Netflix.

Videos with HDR support look impressive on the XZ1’s display, and it makes for an enjoyable viewing experience. The chunky bezels above and below the display are useful here too, as it gives you somewhere to rest your thumbs without covering any of the display.

Battery life

  • A full day of use from a single charge is possible
  • But a nightly recharge is a must
  • And gaming/extended use will require a top-up before bed

There’s a USB-C port on the base to charge (the headphone jack is up top!)

The battery Sony Xperia XZ1 battery is reduced in size from the one in the Xperia XZ – you get a 2,700mAh power pack under the hood.

While we’re never fans of seeing battery size reduced, the Xperia XZ1 is running the Snapdragon 835 chipset, which is more power-efficient than its predecessor, and considering the phone only has a 1080p screen it doesn’t need as much juice as rivals with QHD displays.

Sony says users can still expect all-day battery life from the XZ1, and for the most part we’d agree. A nightly recharge is essential though – this isn’t a handset that’ll see out a day and a half or more from a single charge.

We tended to take the XZ1 off charge at 7am, with around three hours of Spotify and podcast streaming, a healthy dose of WhatsApp, emails and social media, and a handful of calls keeping us busy during a typical day.

This meant we usually left the office with around 30% in the tank, with the battery icon turning red mid-evening, and the XZ1 gasping for breath by around 11pm when we plugged it back in.

You should get a full day of usage from a single charge

Sadly, one full day of battery life is about all we’ve come to expect from modern smartphones, so in this respect the Xperia XZ1 doesn’t lag behind the competition. 

High-intensity tasks such as gaming and HDR video playback will drain the battery quicker, and if you’re partial to either of these activities you’ll want to carry a charger with you.

The Xperia XZ1 does its best to warn you about your power consumption though, via Sony’s Smart Stamina mode.

This will notify you if a particular application is using a lot of power in the background, and it learns your normal usage to predict your day’s consumption, and will suggest when you should activate Stamina mode to help you eke out as much battery life as possible.

It’s nice to have, and it does genuinely work – it allowed us to make the most of our last 15% of battery life, although it reduces performance and background activity to in order to achieve this.

When it comes to topping the XZ1 up, the good news is that it supports Quick Charge 3.0, which gives you almost 50% charge after 30 minutes, making it easy to fill up before heading out the door for the night.

Camera

  • 19MP rear-facing camera is same as on Xperia XZ Premium
  • Good in daylight and up close, struggles in low light
  • Can record impressive 960fps slow-mo footage and 4K video

The Xperia XZ1 comes with a 19MP rear-facing camera

The 19MP Exmor RS rear-facing camera on the Sony Xperia XZ1 is the same one you’ll find on the Xperia XZ Premium. That means you get five-axis image stabilization, an aperture of f/2.0 and 960fps (frames per second) super-slow-motion video recording.

Sony has, however, added a couple of new tricks since the XZ Premium’s arrival (that phone will also get them once the Android Oreo update lands for it).

The first new camera feature on the Xperia XZ1 enables you to capture a burst of shots while staying focused on a moving subject, thanks to Sony’s predictive phase detection autofocus.

Phase detection was already available for video recording, but now the Japanese firm has implemented it for its static burst photo mode, which allows you to take up to 100 snaps in just 10 seconds.

It means that every shot in your burst should be in focus, whether you’re capturing a dog running in the park or a person walking towards you. In our time with the Xperia XZ1 it seemed to work well, although the occasional image was blurred.

For the best results you need to make sure you have a firm, steady grip of the phone, giving it the best chance to focus on the moving object.

Sony’s intelligent auto mode provides decent snaps in good light

The second camera improvement sees Predictive Capture get a boost, with a smile-detection mode snapping three shots before you hit the shutter key, so that even if your finger misses the subject’s smile, there’s a good chance the XZ1 will have captured it.

For the most part this worked, although the fast autofocus on the XZ1 means you’re unlikely to really miss a smile, and people generally hold their smile for a few seconds allowing you to get a good snap, so this feature isn’t overly useful.

In general, the Sony Xperia XZ1 has a very capable camera, with plenty of features and modes for those who like to tweak their setup in manual mode, while Sony’s Intelligent Auto mode provides a simple enough point-and-shoot option for people who just want to take a quick snap.

Where the camera really falls down is in low light. We tried it out at a music concert, and the person next to us was using the new LG V30 – and it was the LG which shone. The Xperia XZ1 struggled to focus with the flashing lights and moving artists on stage, leading to several muddy, out-of-focus snaps.

We dived into manual mode to try and improve the quality of our snaps, but even tweaking brightness and white balance offered little to rival the phone next to us. The odd snap did come out okay, but it felt like luck rather than the camera performing consistently well.

Manual mode provides several settings you can tweak

It’s not only the LG that’s superior in low light either, with Samsung’s Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Note 8 all performing well in these conditions too.

Back in the daylight though, the Xperia XZ1 has an excellent macro mode, allowing you to get up close with your subjects for detailed snaps.

In general, in good light the Xperia XZ1 produces high-quality pictures with a good level of detail, although the auto HDR (high dynamic range) mode, which should brighten up areas of shadow (and improve low-light shots…) doesn’t do a great job.

While the Sony Xperia XZ1’s camera is far from poor, it’s up against some excellent cameras at the top end of the smartphone market, and sadly it doesn’t quite make the grade against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG V30.

Round the front there’s a 13MP, 22mm wide-angle camera for all your selfie, Snapchat and video-calling needs, providing good-quality snaps that will suit your social channels just fine. There’s also the option to use the screen as a flash to help brighten low-light selfies.

The Xperia XZ1 also features a dedicated camera key on the right side of the handset, giving you a two-step shutter for easier shooting, as well as a way to quick launch the camera app no matter where you are on the phone.

It does make snapping photos easier, especially selfies, as you’re not having to stretch your finger across the screen as you extend your arm and perfect your pout.

The XZ1 camera’s party piece is its 960fps slow-motion video

The camera party piece on the Xperia XZ1 is its ability to shoot 4K video, and also record super-slow-motion video at a staggering 960fps.

It’s exactly the same setup as on the Xperia XZ Premium, so head over to our full review of Sony’s 4K display-toting handset to find out how the system fares in more detail.

In short though, if you’re patient and time your shutter press correctly, the slow-motion footage the Xperia XZ1 is able to produce is seriously impressive. 

The ability to record in 4K (at standard speed) is also a bonus – although because the XZ1 only has a Full HD display you’ll have to transfer footage to a different device to see it in all its glory.

Camera samples gallery

Under the hood the Sony Xperia XZ1 has what it takes to compete with the best that Android has to offer.

First up there's the operating system: it's the first smartphones to debut with Android Oreo out of the box, powered from a Snapdragon 835 and 4GB RAM.

In this department, the Xperia XZ1 is bang up to date. Day-to-day, it works with the same bravado that many of today's phones do, with slick navigation and quick app load times; even once we’d loaded our apps and taken a lot of photos, performance remained stable.

As with the XZ Premium, the Xperia XZ1 brings support for Hi-Res audio, and is even capable of upscaling MP3 tracks to sound better through a decent set of headphones.

Audio fans will also be pleased to learn that the phone features a 3.5mm headphone jack on its top edge, allowing you to plug in a set of cans without the need for an adapter.

The Xperia XZ1 runs Android 8.0 Oreo

The result is excellent audio via a decent set of headphones, with the Xperia XZ1 capable of upscaling non-Hi-Res tracks, as well as fully supporting those already at the higher fidelity. 

As we've mentioned, the dual front-facing speakers have also been given a boost, providing room-filling sound and improved bass – although we'd argue that the HTC U11 still offers the best built-in speaker experience.

Inside you get 64GB of storage, plus there's a microSD slot on the side of the XZ1 allowing you build on this by up to 256GB with a memory card.

Entering the third dimension

One of the big talking points for Sony on the Xperia XZ1 (and the smaller XZ1 Compact) is its new 3D Scan feature, which is an impressively fun offering – although realistically not something that you’ll use all that often, or which will likely sway your decision to buy the handset.

The 3D Creator app comes pre-installed on the handset, and uses the rear-facing camera to build a detailed three-dimensional model of a face, head, food or pretty much any other object you may fancy capturing in three dimensions.

It’s pretty quick too, as in under 60 seconds the camera can scan basically any object for sharing on social media, setting as your wallpaper or printing as a physical model from a 3D printer. 

If you don’t own a 3D printer – and let’s face it, not many of us do – the app also provides an option to send the scan file to a third-party 3D printing service which can then mail you your model (for a cost, of course).

3D scans are saved in the standard .OBJ file format, which means they’ll be compatible with almost all 3D printers.

We were impressed with the speed of scanning and processing of the 3D face and head renders on the Xperia XZ1, showing that the power packed in under the hood really does mean business.

However, it did struggle a little more with the free-scan mode, with random objects not rendering as nicely as the faces.

You can also modify scans after capturing them. Simple edits such as cropping, and brightness and contrast adjustments, are joined by tools that allow you to morph your 3D creations, for example to give face scans a big chin or an alien-shaped head.

The scanning app does grumble about poor light, so you’ll need to make sure your subject is as well lit as possible, but even in sub-optimal lighting the XZ1 manages to complete a scan.

Sony is keen to stress that 3D Creator is still in its formative years, and that there’s more to come from this tech in the future – although it won’t be drawn on what we can expect down the line.

The Sony Xperia XZ1 is just as solid, and just as frustrating, as its recent predecessors. Sony has made another flagship smartphone that gets the core elements right – display, camera, battery, power – but none really excel.

Sure, the camera has impressive slow-mo capture and 4K video recording, while the screen boasts HDR support – but it’s not enough to draw you away from the eye-catching Samsung Galaxy S8, easy to use iPhone 7 Plus, or big-screen, big-power LG V30.

Sony’s insistence on sticking with the same basic make-up for its phones it starting to look tired and outdated. In a world where fringe brands such as Huawei, Honor and OnePlus are churning out affordable yet attractive flagships, its range is in need of a shake-up.

The 3D Creator app is cool, but it’s more gimmick than reason to buy, while the refreshed design will likely please a wider demographic, and Hi-Res audio, and HDR support on screen, are both great additions.

At its heart though, the Xperia XZ1 is just another incarnation of a Sony formula which needs to be reworked if it’s to challenge the leading lights again.

Who’s it for?

Sony is selling the Xperia XZ1 on its HDR display, upgraded camera and Hi-Res audio support, and while none of these are bad, at the price Sony is asking they’re not exactly home runs.

If you watch a lot of video and/or do a lot of gaming on your smartphone then the Xperia XZ1 will suit you nicely, with loads of power, a bright, crisp display and front-facing speakers; even the bezels are a positive here, as they give you somewhere to rest your thumbs.

However, if you’re looking for an all-round flagship smartphone, there are rivals that do most of what the Xperia XZ1 does, but better – and for a similar cost.

Should I buy it?

If Hi-Res audio or slow-motion video capture are key features for your next smartphone, no one really does them better than the Sony Xperia XZ1. However, if you’re looking for a full-on flagship and aren’t worried about the cost, there are better handsets for your money.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 looks fantastic and has a better camera, as does the LG G6 (and the soon-to-arrive V30), while the dual camera on the back of iPhone 7 Plus is not only easy to use, it’s also highly accomplished.

The Sony Xperia XZ1 has a good camera, display, power and software, with a battery that’s comparable to the competition, but apart from the odd flash here and there it doesn’t do anything to really stand out in an increasingly tough crowd.

If you’re not due a new phone for a few months though, it may be worth keeping an eye on, as Sony phones have historically dropped in price pretty quickly, so there’s always a chance it’ll be more attractive price-wise come Christmas.

Not sold on the Xperia XZ1, or fancy a more rounded flagship smartphone? Then consider the options below.

Samsung Galaxy S8

It’s currently our best phone in the world for a reason. The Galaxy S8 gives you a futuristic design, stunning screen, plenty of power and a top-notch camera.

It’s not cheap, but it’s also not that much more than the Xperia XZ1, and you’ll end up with a phone that’s more capable.

The built-in speakers are better on the Xperia XZ1, and the Galaxy S8 can’t record video at 960fps or capture 3D scans of people’s heads – but it’s unlikely either of those will be deal-breakers.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Want the best Sony smartphone? Then you’ll want the XZ Premium. It’s the only phone in the world to boast a 4K HDR display, and it comes with the same design and rear camera as the XZ1.

The Xperia XZ1 may have a couple of new camera tricks up its sleeve, but when Android Oreo lands on the XZ Premium it’ll also gain those new features, closing the gap even more between the two handsets.

And, if you shop around, the XZ Premium can be had SIM-free for just over the asking price of the XZ1 – there’s really not much in it at all.

LG V30

Like Sony’s Xperia XZ1, the LG V30 is the South Korean firm’s second flagship of the year (after the G6), and it offers a bezel-less 6-inch Full Vision QHD+ display, the same power under the hood and a better dual camera setup on the back.

While the screen is considerably bigger than the 5.2-inch offering on the XZ1, the fact that the V30 has almost no bezels means it’s only a touch taller and wider than the Sony – this isn’t a monster handset by any means.

The V30 also has a range of features packed inside to rival the Sony, and it all comes together in a tighter, more appealing package.

John McCann
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