Steadily sliding down the charts as the years whizz by, Sony has struggled to keep pace with juggernauts from Apple and Samsung, despite earning faint praise with every new release. Sony wants to turn those fortunes around with the Xperia 1 II, a flagship smartphone it hopes will thrust its smartphone division back into the limelight and, ultimately, back into your pocket.
Yes, it’s a bit of a weird name, but Sony had kind of boxed itself into a corner by releasing two mid-rangers called the Xperia 10 and Xperia 5 last year, so needs must, I suppose. For the record, this one should be called “Xperia 1, mark 2” but you’re probably better off heading into your local phone store (now that they’re finally opening) and pointing at it because it’s a bit of a confusing mouthful.
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Sony Xperia 1 II review: What you need to know
Strange name aside, there’s plenty to like about Sony’s latest flagship phone. Not only is it one of the few smartphones with a 4K screen but it’s also the most powerful Sony flagship to date and the first Sony phone that can access 5G networks in the UK.
The Xperia 1 II’s head-turning camera credentials are its main selling point. For the budding videographer, the trio of 12-megapixel rear cameras offer a variety of camera treats, including super-fast eye autofocus, 20fps continuous shooting as well as a handful of different frame rate and resolution recording options with Sony’s pre-installed Cinema Pro and Photo Pro apps.
Sony Xperia 1 II review: Price and competition
As is so often the case, the cost is the key limiting factor in whether or not you’re going to buy the Xperia 1 II. The large 4K screen, 5G connectivity and luscious camera specs have dramatically pushed the price up. SIM-free, the Xperia 1 II will set you back a lofty £1,100, or around £47/mth if you’d rather go the contract route.
As a point of reference, the Xperia 1 sold for £849 when it was released last year, and you certainly don’t see many of those phones in people’s hands these days. Rather than learning its lessons about outpricing Samsung, it seems Sony has, instead, decided that the best course of action is to push the asking price further into the realms of the absurd.
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Sony isn’t the only culprit, of course, with an increasing number of four-figured handsets hitting shop shelves from Apple, Samsung, Huawei and others. In my view, however, the underdog should really be trying to undercut its rivals as best it can.
In fact, Samsung’s recent flagships actually cost less than what Sony is charging for the Xperia 1 II. The Galaxy S20 starts at £899, with the S20 Plus and S20 Ultra costing £999 and £1,199 respectively. Likewise, the iPhone 11 Pro starts at £1,049.
Sony Xperia 1 II review: Cameras
I’m going to break from our usual heading structure in this review, as I would be remiss not to talk about the Xperia 1 II’s star feature as early as possible. Sony wants the Xperia 1 II to be the next phone camera king and the new hardware on offer, as well as the new software features, are very impressive indeed.
Like last year, the Xperia 1 II’s rear camera array incorporates a trio of cameras, arranged in a vertical, traffic-light formation. One is a 12-megapixel (f/1.7) lens with a 24mm equivalent focal length, and sitting above that is the 12-megapixel (f/2.4) 3x optical zoom camera, which has a 70mm focal length, and finally there’s a 12-megapixel (f/2.2) wide-angle lens at the top, with a focal length of 16mm.
Sony, unsurprisingly, says the Xperia 1 II’s cameras are the perfect combination to cover most shooting scenarios for amateur photographers. The Xperia 1 II’s main sensor is larger this year, capturing 50% more light than last year’s Xperia 1, and it also has a whopping 247 focus points, covering up to 70% of the sensor.
The burst mode has also been improved, allowing you to shoot at a rapid 20fps with continuous focus and exposure tracking. Sony says the focusing is calculated at 60 times per second, and the speedy eye-tracking now detects animals, as well as humans, which sounds perfect for pet lovers.
So the Xperia 1 II’s cameras are stuffed with features, but how well did they perform in our tests? The short answer is: very well. Images were filled with fine details in bright environments, with excellent contrast and a pleasingly neutral colour palette, and there weren’t any noticeable differences in visual quality between the three lenses, either.
It’s also worth noting that the entire shooting experience is an absolute dream. Images are captured in the blink of an eye and it’s especially handy to use the dedicated shutter button on the right edge of the handset. The basic camera app is a tad limited but switch to the pre-installed Photo Pro app and you’ll find a wide range of features at your fingertips, bringing the customisation options from Sony’s mirrorless and full-frame Alpha cameras.
The real star of the show, however, is the Xperia 1 II’s recording options. The Cinema Pro app allows you to switch the recording resolution between 4K and 2K, and you can choose from a wide variety of frame rates, including 25fps, 30fps, 60fps and 120fps slow-mo. You can also fine-tune all sorts of settings including white balance, shutter speed and ISO.
The same focus-tracking tricks from the photo mode are also at your disposal here, which worked wonders when an inquisitive cat approached me while out for a walk in Greenwich. Both the main and zoom cameras are also optically stabilised, so not only is the quality of the footage absolutely spot-on, but the Xperia 1 II’s video is rock-steady, too.
Sony Xperia 1 II review: Design and key features
The Xperia 1 II is, like its predecessor, long and thin with an aspect ratio of 21:9. That’s taller and thinner than most smartphones, and it’ll doubtless take a little getting used to, even if the chief benefit – that most Netflix content is shot in this aspect ratio – is very real. Corner to corner, the screen measures 6.5in, so make no mistake: this is a rather large phone.
Still, despite being a bit of a brute, I wouldn’t say it’s awkward to use. Sony’s “Side-Sense” feature helps to alleviate any potential pitfalls of one-handed use, allowing you to access selected apps with a simple double-tap or finger slide at certain points on the left or right edges of the screen. You can also access a variety of the phone’s settings in this way, as well as the notification drawer.
In other respects, the Xperia 1 II is a nicely made phone, even if it is rather dull by modern standards. The plain black review model I received isn’t as eye-catching as some of Samsung’s more dazzling handsets but it certainly feels premium, with clean-cut edges, a glass-topped back and rear cameras neatly arranged in a vertical line in the top-left corner. Notch-haters can rejoice, too, since the 8-megapixel selfie camera is found in a slim bezel at the top of the handset instead.
And (praise be!) a 3.5mm headphone jack! Despite this welcome little hole, the phone is still waterproof to IP68 standards. There’s also space for a nano-SIM and microSD card on the left edge, with the volume rocker, power button – which doubles up as a fingerprint scanner – and dedicated camera shutter button on the right.
Lastly, the Xperia 1 II has dual, Dolby Atmos-tuned front-firing speakers above and below the screen, and it can also pair with the company’s own DualShock 4 PS4 controller in games like Call of Duty Mobile.
Sony Xperia 1 II review: Display
The large screen is, once again, 4K in resolution. Sony is still the only company to include this feature on a smartphone and the truth is the reason no-one else does it is because it’s a fairly pointless feature. At this size of screen, your eyes can’t see the benefit and it can be a bit of a battery drain if you plan on watching Netflix or playing games for long sessions. You won’t be able to manually dip the resolution down to Full HD in an attempt to increase battery life, either.
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A further word of caution before we continue. Sony says its motion blur reduction tech gives a “90Hz-like” experience but this isn’t actually a 90Hz panel, despite what some of Sony’s marketing materials might have you believe. Swiping and scrolling feels fluid, to be sure, but it’s nowhere close to the same level of whizziness as the 120Hz screens offered on the Samsung Galaxy S20, OnePlus 8 Pro and the like.
Still, the 4K screen was very much the highlight on the Xperia 1 last year and it’s a similar story with this iteration. This is an OLED, HDR10 number that can be calibrated to a surprising degree in the phone’s settings. The main benefit is the “Creator mode” which, if enabled, calibrates the screen to the BT.2020 colour gamut, using Sony’s CineAlta screen-boosting tech from its high-end TVs.
In this mode, colour accuracy is among the very best we’ve tested. With an average Delta E (colour accuracy) of 0.93 compared with the BT.2020 colour space, the Xperia 1 II’s screen is practically impeccable, with accurate-looking colours across the entire palette. It really is a sight to behold, and the HDR 10-certified panel helps boost the vibrancy, with highlights glinting and gleaming in HDR-supported content.
Unfortunately, the HDR doesn’t have quite the same level of punchiness as the iPhone 11 Pro, but that’s mostly down to weaker peak brightness. At a measured brightness of 372cd/m2, the Xperia 1 II fails to match the retina-searing luminance of Apple’s flagship phone, and the differences between the two are quite noticeable in that regard.
Still, everything else about the Xperia 1 II’s screen is immaculate. Contrast is essentially perfect and it’s the only phone on the market with the ability to watch films and TV shows in 4K resolution, so that’s a big bonus if you happen to have bionic vision.
Sony Xperia 1 II review: Performance and battery life
The latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor powers things along, giving the phone a slight boost to CPU and GPU performance over its predecessor. It also means that it supports 5G – the first Sony phone to do so – which could prove handy if you’re in an area that’s getting the upgrade at some point in the near future. Although, considering we’re all stuck at home at the moment, I doubt you’ll have much need for faster mobile data speeds anyway. I know I certainly don’t.
The Snapdragon 865 is backed by 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage, so it’s pretty much a direct match with every other big-name phone already released in 2020. If you’re a fan of dull-looking graphs, then you’re in for a treat here, because in the Geekbench 4 CPU CPU benchmark test, there’s very little separating the Xperia 1 II and its counterparts:
Surprisingly, there’s even less to separate the phones when it comes to the graphics-processing benchmark, even though the Xperia 1 II has a higher resolution screen. As was the case with last year’s Xperia 1, it’s highly likely that 4K only kicks in when native content is played in a supported app, and I doubt GFXBench is one of those whitelisted applications. As far as my strained eyes could tell, games like Call of Duty Mobile and The Elder Scrolls: Blades ran without a hitch.
Finally, the Xperia 1 II has a beefy 4,000mAh battery, which supports both wireless charging and fast charging with a 21W USB charger supplied in the box that’ll fill the battery from zero to 50% in only half an hour.
The Xperia 1 II lasted 15hrs 6mins in our looped video battery test, which isn’t great by modern standards. It is a decent 20% boost in stamina compared to last year’s phone, but the Galaxy S20 Plus is miles better, managing over 20 hours under the same conditions.
Sony Xperia 1 II review: Verdict
It’s impossible not to discuss the merits or otherwise of the Xperia 1 II without mention of the price. In my view, considering the calibre of phones on offer at half the price these days, the Xperia 1 II is simply too expensive. There’s absolutely no need to spend this much on a smartphone, and I would urge you to save your money and pick up something far cheaper instead.
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There is, however, no getting around the fact that the Xperia 1 II is still an astonishing smartphone. In essence, it’s the complete package, bringing the culmination of Sony’s imaging credentials to smartphones, while simultaneously outdoing its predecessor, the Xperia 1, in practically every area. If you can afford one, and let’s face it not a lot of us can, then the Xperia 1 II will serve you well.
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