For 2023, Sony has also upgraded its flagship Xperia’s main camera sensor, and integrated some of its excellent Sony Alpha mirrorless camera features into its mobile line.
In fact, Sony is innovating harder with camera tech than the top dogs in the smartphone world – Apple and Samsung. The Xperia 1 series is still the only line to feature a moving optical zoom lens or a 4K HDR OLED screen, and the way Sony’s smartphones integrate with cameras is a creator’s dream.
So why isn’t Sony topping the smartphone charts and toppling the best phones competition, as we’ve seen the iconic Japanese firm do in recent years across gaming, cameras, audio and TVs?
To answer that question, we'll talk about some of the things Sony’s Xperia phones are getting very right. And why some of the best Xperia highlights are actually working against the line...
Sony’s 21:9 screens on Xperia phones are things of beauty, and their ultimate evolution comes in the form of the Xperia 1 V’s 4K 120Hz HDR OLED panel. That's quite a mouthful isn't it? That's super-high in resolution and refresh rate, extra bright for high dynamic range, and all presented on a delightful panel technology.
Let’s start with its aspect ratio – this is the perfect phone to watch super-wide-screen content like The Mandalorian or modern-day blockbuster movies on. There are no black borders, visuals are tuned by Sony’s X1 for Mobile engine, and the pro-grade colour space helps content look exactly like its creators intended it to.
The Xperia 1 V has the sharpest screen around (along with its predecessor), cramming a mind-boggling 643 pixels in every square inch (PPI). The iPhone 14 Pro Max’s pixel density is 460 PPI for context – which also looks great.
The fact a screen of this resolution also keeps up with the 120Hz refresh rate of its main competition means that, on paper, it doesn’t appear to drop the ball in any regard. But, actually, is 4K on such a small screen just overkill to battery life's detriment?
PRO-GRADE CAMERA TOOLS
More impressive than the Xperia 1 V’s screen specification is its Pandora’s box of photo and video tricks.
Firstly, there’s the camera on the phone itself. The Xperia line is the only phone of its kind to feature a physically moving optical zoom lens in a slimline body. Introduced on the Xperia 1 III, and refined for the Mark IV and now V, the latest module can travel between 85-125mm, which equates to ranges ideal for portraits and far-away objects.
The Xperia 1 V’s main camera sensor has also been upgraded, and is 1.7 times the size of that of last year’s Xperia 1 IV, at 1/1.35-inch. The sensor structure has also been overhauled to improve lowlight capture, and Sony’s added a dose of AI magic to level up subject and depth detection for better focus, exposure and colour accuracy.
Enthusiast photo and video fans with a passion for Sony have been spiritedly backing their favourite brand online for years, and that has a lot to do with the Photography and Video Pro apps.
While the iPhone doesn’t offer manual controls out of the box, Sony overloads you with options, packing its flagship with no less than three camera apps for granular control over every aspect of capture. Which, for some users and critics, is as much a problem as it is a benefit to fans.
If you have a Sony Alpha camera, you can even use the Xperia 1 V as an upgraded monitor for a super-premium preview of your shot, and record the camera footage onto the phone’s internal storage. To say Sony phones are built for creators is an understatement.
These are just a handful of things that Sony is doing that Apple and Samsung aren’t:
Speaking of understatements, Sony’s understated, classical styling is also something it's committed to deliver. For the fourth year in a row, Sony customers get a familiar flat back, front and sides, while retaining that 3.5mm headphone jack – even though all the top-end competition's dropped it – and including a physical camera button on its Xperia 1 series.
That isn’t to say the 1 V misses out on upgraded elements. Its front and back are protected by Gorilla Glass Victus 2, its back panel is textured – a first for the line – giving it a little extra grip, and colour options have been refreshed, with the phone available in a classic black, demure green, or sporty white.
WHAT'S HOLDING SONY BACK?
Despite serious highlights, though, Sony’s phones haven’t been able to keep up with the best from Apple and Samsung when it comes to reviews and sales. So... why?
Personally, I think some of the best features of Sony phones are just too geeky and niche for most people to care about.
Take the ultra-wide cinematic screen: it works great as a movie player, but for standard smartphone use – typing, swiping and scrolling – the tall screen is a serious stretch to use. When you don’t turn it sideways, it also squishes content horizontally given how narrow it is. So while it’s a wide-screen dream, it doesn’t find the middle ground between scenarios that the Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro offer.
Next, the camera: I think Sony has too much faith in a typical smartphone user. Without a doubt, its 'pro camera' tools are industry-leading across photos and videos. But historically its automatic mode has trailed behind do-it-all computational photography champs like the Google Pixel 7 Pro.
Sony phone cameras have also overheated for a few years now, possibly owing to how much Sony does to eke out the best from them. This has single-handedly resulted in some middling reviews, which will also, no doubt hurt the line’s appeal.
Finally, there’s the price. The Xperia 1 V is launching at £1,299 in the UK. If you’re a creator who wants to integrate the phone into your workflow, that isn't bad value.
But most people looking to pick up a premium phone right now aren’t doing so because of its neat-yet-niche pro-grade tools. They are only really happy to pay big bucks for an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy because they’re the ubiquitous Apple and Android phones everyone knows about, or they want to save a bit of cash, and look to alternatives like a OnePlus or Honor phone. While Sony’s overall brand is fire – that brand-cred hasn’t carried over to the smartphone market enough to warrant such punchy positioning.
So, yes, the Sony Xperia 1 V looks like an absolute belter with its fantastically specced camera ecosystem for creators, an industry-leading screen resolution and a suite of carefully considered components that show up the competition. But it might actually be Sony's focus on these very features, matched with a high price, that is actually holding Sony back in today's smartphone showdown.