Sony Xperia XZ1 Review: Great just isn’t good enough

Sony’s latest flagship smartphone does everything right and then some, but that just isn’t enough anymore

The Pros

  • Great audio for a mobile device
  • Near-stock Android on a premium-tier flagship device
  • It's a Sony smartphone with a functioning fingerprint sensor

The Cons

  • Boring display that's nothing special
  • A design that's showing its age
  • 3D Creator feature that doesn't shine

Please understand that if you were to use Sony’s Xperia XZ1, you would most likely be completely satisfied by your experience.

It’s an attractive, sturdy, powerful machine, that is more than proficient at accomplishing almost any task you ask of it. Not to mention, the phone costs $1,000 CAD outright — which makes it one of the more affordable premium-tier Android flagships on the market.

It’s a phone that I’d be proud to wholeheartedly recommend, if it wasn’t for the fact that there are far better options on the market.

A screen that’s kinda boring, bezels you just can’t ignore and a design that’s attractive but dated

Let’s start with some quick numbers, right off the top.

The Xperia XZ1 features a 5.2-inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel Full HD IPS LCD display with an impressive pixel density of 424 pixels-per-inch. The screen is bright and HDR10 compliant, and it looks great. Sony boasts that it tried to transpose lessons learned from its Bravia televisions to build the XZ1’s display.

The phone features the company’s Triluminos display technology, and it’s safe to say that the screen is impressive. Colours pop and blacks are black, while television programs, movies and videos from Netflix and YouTube look great. The phone also allows users to customize the display’s colour gamut and contrast with three specific settings: ‘Professional mode,’ ‘Standard mode’ and ‘Super-vivid mode.’

When set to the Super-vivid mode, the phone’s display becomes — surprise, surprise — incredibly vivid. The differences between each mode aren’t incredibly noticeable at low brightness settings, but once you crank up the brightness, you really do start to notice how much deeper colours become in Super-vivid mode.

That being said — and this might sound strange to read — the XZ1 has a boring display. Again, the phone has a proficient screen that’s more than capable of rendering accurate colours across a wide range of use cases, but there’s ultimately nothing special about the XZ1 display that allows it to compete with devices like the Samsung Galaxy S8 or S8+, the Essential Phone, or even the Google Pixel 2 XL (issues and all).

All of those phones have more vibrant screens that reproduce colours more accurately — and more vividly — than the XZ1. To be clear, the XZ1 has a great screen, but great just doesn’t cut it anymore. Sadly, neither do the XZ1’s giant forehead and chin. Sony’s latest flagship has a design straight out of 2010, because modern Android smartphones don’t waste so much real estate on top and bottom bezels anymore.

Granted, those top and bottom bezels house dual front-facing speakers, so some might argue that the design choice is justified. At least, that’s what I would’ve said if Google didn’t also release an Android flagship smartphone with dual front-facing speakers this year. Sad for Sony, but there’s no excuse for bezels this large on a flagship smartphone anymore.Once you get over the fact that the phone looks like it was built with a different generation of smartphone design in mind, it’s hard to ignore just how attractive the phone really is. I’ve been using the black version of the XZ1 and even with my criticisms of the phone’s bezels, I still often find myself staring and taking in the sheer beauty of the device.

The XZ1’s curved sides mean that the phone rests comfortably in my hands. The aluminum finish gives the phone a distinguished heft and weight. The Corning Gorilla Glass 5 front panel melds almost seamlessly into the sides, tricking the user into believing that the glass curves as well. It doesn’t, but that’s not really the point. Good design in all matters is supposed to facilitate the use of a device without being overly intrusive or gaudy. And barring the obvious exception, there’s nothing intrusive about this device.

Sony has undeniably built a premium device and the quality of the XZ1 is noticeable as soon as you glance at it. Even the buttons — often an overlooked aspect of good phone design — feel tactile enough to be accessible but just mushy enough to be comfortable. Continuing a Sony tradition, the phone’s fingerprint sensor — and yes, scorned Canadian Sony fans, there is a fingerprint sensor — is built into the XZ1’s power button.

A quick tap wakes the screen so you can check notifications, while holding your thumb over the power button completely unlocks the device. Sadly, you do actually have to push the power button in order to unlock the device. Unlike certain other Android phones with rear- or front-facing fingerprint sensors, you can’t activate the XZ1’s sensor just by touching it. I’ll admit, I did find the fingerprint sensor a little annoying at first. I’m a bit of a notification nut and I also use my phone in place of a wristwatch, so the idea of needing to unlock my phone to check the time strained comprehension. Still, I figured out that a quick tap is all I need to wake the display without unlocking the phone in its entirety.

Stalwart processing power and acceptable battery life

To be perfectly honest, with a Snapdragon 835 processor powering the XZ1, as well as a premium-tier average of 4GB of RAM, I would have been shocked and disappointed if the XZ1 wasn’t able to deliver on performance. Thankfully, I was happy to find that the XZ1 breezed through resource-intensive apps and games — Deus Ex Go, Modern Combat, N.O.V.A. Legacy, and the like. I’m also happy to report that the phone maintained a reasonable temperature throughout all taxing processes. The phone never became hot or uncomfortable-to-hold, even during the most intense gaming sessions.

As for the subject of battery life, the XZ1’s 2,700mAh battery is capable of spitting out roughly one-and-one-quarter days worth of life with low to moderate use. This means checking emails and reading the news during my morning commute, sending text messages and making phone calls during work, and then playing some games on my way back from work.

However, moderate to heavy use — which in my case meant binging all of Stranger Things 2 using Wi-Fi in a single sitting — drained the battery in about four-and-a-half-or-so hours. Your mileage will certainly vary, but rest assured that should you decide to drain your battery, you won’t have to wait too long for the phone to charge, as the XZ1 features Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 tech.

Sound quality that actually sounds like quality

If there’s any one reason to truly consider purchasing the Sony Xperia XZ1, it’s the device’s two front-facing stereo speakers. Sony calls the XZ1’s speakers ‘S-Force Front Surround Sound’ speakers, which is really just a fancy way of saying that the device can project some serious sound power.

And make no mistake, the phone has some powerful sound. Whether you’re listening to music on Spotify or Google Play Music, watching videos on YouTube, or watching movies and television programs on Netflix or CraveTV, the XZ1’s speakers deliver some seriously great audio. Treble notes sound clear and pristine, midtones get the emphasis they deserve, while bass notes resonate and reverberate without sounding overbearing.

Sony’s marketing also emphasizes the fact that the phone features DSEE HX Hi-Res Audio, as well as LDAC technology, and digital noise cancelling that (when paired with noise cancelling headphones) delivers “up to 98 percent exterior noise reduction.” The phone also has ClearAudio+ that delivers on “enriched sound.” Furthermore, the XZ1 carries Qualcomm’s aptX HD audio standard, which means that Bluetooth headphones equipped to transmit and receive aptX HD information — like the Libratone Q Adapt headphones — offer even better sound quality.However, it’s important to cut through all of the marketing babble to deal with the simple facts. Most people will notice that the phone gets loud and that the phone’s audio quality is better than some of the other phones on the market. Additionally, most users will enjoy being able to set up custom audio profiles for use with wired and wireless headphones.

However, if you’re an audiophile, you probably already have a custom portable rig that’s more than capable of providing you with the sound quality you desire.

If you just so happen to be an audiophile looking for a phone capable of boosting and amplifying your music to desirable, then yes, the Xperia XZ1 will most likely meet your standards. Since audio is often a subject issue, however, maybe try the phone with your music first before making a purchase.

A camera that gets the job done, and that’s about it

Before you look at the XZ1 and criticize it for its lack of dual camera setup, it’s important to recognize that the phones with one of the best cameras ever released on a mobile device — the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL — are both devices with a single rear shooter.

That being said, to suggest that the XZ1’s camera is comparable to that of the 2017 Pixel twins — or the 2016 Pixel twins for that matter — is a fallacy.

Don’t get me wrong, the XZ1’s 19-megapixel camera is good, but much like the device’s screen, the images that this phone produces are — for lack of a better word — a little boring. Colours don’t pop, blacks aren’t deep or vivid, the device struggles in especially bright and especially dark environments and it’s difficult to not notice quite a bit of processing once you zoom in on a photo.

Granted, users can fix some of these problems using the phone’s manual controls — which puts shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance control in humans hands.

The XZ1 can also shoot slow-motion video at 960-frames-per-second. This effect works quite well, but I’m not fully convinced that being able to shoot slow-motion video is enough of a reason to choose the XZ1 over other smartphones with better cameras.

Here’s the thing. The XZ1 takes good photos, but that’s something that can be said about every single premium-tier flagship phone on the market (except, if you listen to MobileSyrup’s Igor Bonifacic’s thoughts on the Essential Phone). The simple fact of the matter is that the XZ1’s camera doesn’t hold a candle to cameras on devices like the Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+ or the Galaxy Note 8, of the LG V30, and certainly not to the iPhone 8/8Plus, or the iPhone X.

In fact, the XZ1’s camera also isn’t a ‘serious contender’ like Huawei’s P10 or P10 Plus, which have repeatedly proven to be exceptional cameras on devices that are significantly cheaper than Sony’s latest.

There’s also an issue that the camera app is sometimes slow to open and sometimes crashes. These weren’t issues that occurred often enough to be a problem, but it’s still something to consider.

Ultimately, what should be an exceptional camera — since Sony’s standalone cameras are some of the finest products on the market — is simply adequate. For a device that costs as much as the XZ1 does, that’s disappointing.

Near-stock Android and very few gimmicks that are fit to print

In the world of modern Android, there exist two kinds of operating system philosophies. On one hand, there are manufacturers that load their phones with Google’s stock operating system; on the other hand, there are manufacturers that choose to lay a custom skin overtop of an already wonderful mobile OS. The interesting news is that Sony’s moved forward with its own third way: a blend of both stock Android and a custom skin.

Sony ships the phone with a custom Xperia launcher, as well as duplicates of most of the major Android apps, but not a custom skin. In the age of modern Android, however, you can not only install the Google Now launcher and Google Assistant on your phone, you can also disable quite a few of Sony’s stock apps and transform your phone into what is effectively a stock Android device. 

Yes, you still have to deal with the fact that your phone’s onboard storage is clogged with a series of irremovable Sony apps, but with 64GB of internal storage — as well as the ability to add an additional 256GB of storage thanks to a microSD card — you really don’t need to worry about running out of room on your phone.

In fact, all things considered, Sony’s latest flagship device is actually quite free of any additional apps or features that really distinguish it from its premium-tier flagship siblings. There’s a 3D scanner app that lets you scan faces, bodies, food and freeform objects, but that’s about it. The 3D scanner works adequately. In my tests, I’ve found that it takes quite a bit of practice to fully utilize this feature. As for its utility, I’m actually not sure who this 3D scanner is for.

You can import your scans into games or even 3D print them, but if you’re in the 3D printing business or you’re looking for a 3D scanner for medical purposes, you’re most likely not going to purchase this $1,000 phone.

A brief note for my fellow Freedom fighters

As a Freedom Mobile subscriber myself, I was very excited to pop in a Freedom SIM and use the XZ1’s band 66-capable LTE. As it turns out, and this might have been a direct result of the fact that I reviewed an XZ1 provided by Sony and not Freedom, the phone didn’t cling to Freedom’s ‘traffic-free’ LTE network.

The phone dipped down to 3G quite often. When it did connect to LTE, however, data speeds were incredible.

Justified equivocation

If it at seems like I’m at all equivocating on the Xperia XZ1’s virtues, understand that that is a result of a desire to be objective. Under any conceivable circumstance -- according to most measures and metrics of worth -- this is a device worth owning.

However, all modern premium-tier Android flagships are worth owning in some way. They’ve all got good or great or incredible screens. They’ve all got the same Snapdragon 835 processor and 4GB or 6GB or 8GB of RAM. They’ve all got great cameras. They’ve all got USB-C fast charging. They might not all have headphone jacks, but no matter what I say, please don’t decide to buy one $1,000 phone over another just because of a headphone jack.

The issue to address, then, is what makes these premium devices different -- what truly makes one expensive piece of technology worth owning over another? Design is one factor. Ecosystem -- the smartwatches, the wireless headphones, the inter-device compatibility, the accessories -- is another. Camera quality -- and I’m talking about the ludicrously high quality shooters attached to phones like the 2017 Pixel twins -- is yet another.

Therein lies the problem. Compared to its premium-tier siblings, there’s very little that helps the XZ1 stand out from the pack.

All of which is to say, dear reader, please understand that if you were to use Sony’s Xperia XZ1, you would most likely be completely satisfied by your experience. However, if you actually are in the market for a premium, flagship Android smartphone, the Xperia XZ1 almost definitely isn’t for you.

"The XZ1 is a great phone that just doesn't stand out in a world full of great phones."

7.5

Comments

  • James Arsenault

    Sony will be for everyone if they change new hardware design .

  • Nundo

    With all honesty, this phone is great!
    Is it worth $1000? I’m sorry, no phone is worth $1000
    Camera is great
    Battery life is amazing
    Display is the right size, 18:9 screen ratios aren’t for everyone
    Black metal frame is strong
    Water resistance is on board
    64G of memory built in with an option for expandable SD card
    Speakers are pretty loud when you compare them to other Sony flagships
    It ships with Oreo
    It’s Sony UI is near stock
    You guys need to stop trashing Sony just because it doesn’t look like a Samsung or iPhone.
    I’ve used this device for weeks now and I chose it over the Pixel 2XL that’s flawed with problems.. a phone you guys thought it was “amazing” lol

    • Julie Thigen

      I definitely agree with you on that one , i`d rather go on a site like GSM arena than reading these horrible review.

    • Nundo

      Agreed.
      With all honesty, my favorite website to for mobile reviews is CNET. CNET’s articles are garbage, but their reviews are something mobilesyrup can learn from.

    • Stuntman06

      Phones have become mainstream to the point where they review the fashion statement you make by which phone you use. Bezels have behind passe that a functional bezel is considered a bad thing.

    • Elky64

      I’ll take a phone w/bezels over an overpriced bezel-less one any day especially if they both can achieve what I ask of them. Basically, function over beauty.

    • h2oflyer

      Surprisingly this phone that WORKS didn’t make on the MS list of alternatives to the Pixel 2XL

    • Nundo

      Because MS is a reliable source?

    • h2oflyer

      Exactly…they give this phone a 7.5 and the Essential a 7.0. I also use an ad blocker as otherwise MS would be unbearable.

  • Billy Joseph

    It was the Sony Xperia arc that lured me away from the iPhone 4. I’ve been with android ever since. Flash forward 6 years and the design of this xperia is actually (IMO) worse. Sony needs to clean up their act.

    • That’s pretty much how I feel. I used to be a big fan of Sony’s devices. That’s not the case anymore though.

    • h2oflyer

      Must of been before my time…. I don’t recall any great and gushing Sony articles.

  • h2oflyer

    7.5 for a phone that WORKS ! That alone makes it stand out from the pack.

    These guys don’t know what they are talking about. They shouldn’t be allowed to review a pencil, with or without optional eraser. This crap is starting to get stupid.

    They don’t include it in the article about 6 alternatives to the Pixel 2 XL. MS has done a couple of articles that don’t allow comments.

    • Nundo

      “with or without optional eraser” … LOL

      Comment of the day goes out to you sir, well played

    • Now, are we talking a No. 2 Pencil, or a No. 3 or No. 4? Also, I’ve never seen a pencil with an optional eraser. Clearly you’re not qualified to discuss pencils 🙂

      Sameer’s review is more than fair and per our scoring explanation, a 7.5 is far from a bad rating. The XZ1 if a fine phone, but for slightly more, you can get a phone that doesn’t look like last year’s flagship.

    • h2oflyer

      This is a tech site and it’s clear you’ve never seen a mechanical pencil, they do come with optional erasers 🙂 on a more serious note, why does MS have articles that don’t allow comments , such as the the alternates to the Pixel 2XL

    • Timel

      Clearly not everyone goes for looks but for functionality. 8gb ram that is not optimized to be used is not worth anymore than 4gb or 6gb. Sony battery life is very good in real life consumption. The album app is the best catalog manager for photos. Stamina mode is a great compromise between regular and drastic battery saving modes. It’s very fast, without lags which is a huge selling point. I can also tell you the negatives which a thorough user knows, not a 5 min reviewer and copy paster.

    • bigshynepo

      This phone was docked far too many points for being more-than-adequate for more shoppers and the excuse about ‘differentiating between the premium brands’ holds very little water. People with ‘brand loyalty’ may not be swayed regardless of available accessories or attractive corporate partnerships. I won’t own an Apple phone,regardless of how many of their devices or accounts will sync to my hardware, and I’m sure there are many people that this Xperia appeals to just for being a great Sony flagship phone.

      Also, The very first sentence of this review betrays the actual score. It would’ve been more accurate is it had said “If you bought the Sony Xperia ZX1, you would be more than satisfied but because it’s not a Samsung or an Apple product, we’ll be giving it a largely mediocre recommendation.”

    • Nundo

      With all do respect Patrick, Mobilesyrup’s reviews and the way you conduct reviews are awfully bias. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. You guys need to reassess how you review phones.

    • danakin

      This will likely annoy the authors on this site but MobileSyrup, like The Verge, are merely OK when it comes to reviewing phones. When I compare the review’s contents to what I get from GSMArena it’s laughably minor-league. I made this same observation back when Daniel Bader was still on the site and what I got in return was a weak introspective assessment of his abilities as a reviewer. I hope MobileSyrup’s owners/senior managers can raise the bar for what is a cornerstone aspect of tech blogging.

    • Nundo

      Mobilesyrup’s reviews are garbage. There 🙂

    • danakin

      I think that’s way too harsh.
      There’s room for improvement in both the writing and the technical competency of the authors but, in my opinion, far from garbage.

      If it was “garbage” why would you waste your time reading and/or commenting? What’s the benefit in spending your, I assume, valuable time on garbage?

    • Nundo

      The last Mobilesyrup review I read was the HTC 10 review, over a year and a half ago. I decided to tell you exactly which review it was, so you could go through their vault and read it yourself and maybe realize that it was a garbage review they wrote then, and a garbage review they wrote today. There, I gave them time to improve. I said then, and I am saying it again … MS reviews are garbage. You would think in a year and a half they would improve, but they don’t. I would write another paragraph indicating why in detail, but scroll through the other comments to see. To answer your question, I took 10 mins of my day and wasted them to read garbage a garbage reviews on a phone I’ve been using for almost a month (because that’s enough time to really make know if it’s a good phone or not) to see if maybe Mobilesyrup changed their approach only to find out they didnt

    • danakin

      I suppose we’ll end up disagreeing on the level of MobileSyrup’s review quality vs. much more intelligently written sites.

  • JD

    $1000? Affordable? For a phone that just works(Questionable as it does run Android)?

  • Timel

    Appalling state of tech reviewers. If somehow Sony starts selling a ton of phones, all reviewers will sing praises. It irritates me how every tech site sounds similar to any other review you will find. No one even dives into details. I like Sony phones and Motorola ones, two big underdogs.

    • Verdic

      I agree – the bandwagoning is atrocious.

      Slow motion pictures. Junk. Top tier speakers. Who uses that? Headphone jack. For luddites only. Expandable memory. Why when you can pay for more in the phone? Face security detection. Wow! Revolutionary even though it is glitchy and works less well than existing methods. Curved screen. Amazing, my workflow is so improved now because no bezels make using a phone so much easier.

      If the brands were swapped, face detection would be slammed and so would some of Samsung’s screen “innovations.” The phones ARE different, but the reviewer echo chamber will only sing praises for the big two regardless of how useful said differences are. I can’t tell the difference between the last couple generations of Apple/Samsung phones but that’s ok because that look is “classic.” For other brands doing the same is “aged.”

      Even discounting the bias, this review is sub-par. Not a single graph or multi-phone comparison? Show us why the camera is worse taking the same shot from the phones. How does the battery compare in actual performance other than guesstimate?

      I love MS and I visit every day to try to support Canadian sites, but your reviews are getting worse and worse. Keep up the good work with the articles I guess, even if you half-a*s the reviews.

    • Timel

      Agreed. I can actually tell real world cons about the phone. Xperia phones (I have the XA1 right now and the Z2 before) have horrible earpiece sound level.
      The design, even though now rounded, cuts into the ear if you somehow have a more than 5 mins call (no one reviews phones for basic features, everyone reviews them as media consumption devices).
      I get a lot of false touches while using the phone single handed (the XA1).
      The rear camera position is a bit too much in the upper left corner that when you naturally hold it for landscape, your left hand finger will obscure the camera (that is when you hold it as you would naturally).
      The speaker on the XA1 is positioned pretty poorly. If you play anything on speaker and hold it in your right hand, your hand blocks the downward facing speaker.
      I can go on and on but I never found any of the above things in any review. Verge starts a review and then everyone just copies their sentiment and comments (which are pretty lame on their own anyway).

  • Since when is a 7.5 bad? I’d love to see what a 2.0 or a 0 phone would be.

  • silverfox007

    This review is full of contradictions.

  • Jurippe

    After many years with Sony phones, I jumped ship from my Z3 to the S7 Edge because I had a lot of expiring Fido dollars last February. My first thought after making the switch was, “why is the back button on the right side?” But small gripes aside, I was really happy with the amazing camera, smooth performance, and a very elegant design. However, over the year, I found myself not understanding what exactly made this so much better than my Z3. The windowing effect really kicked in when I didn’t want it to, and the edge made one handed use really annoying. I turned on the one handed option, but it required a lot of adjustment. Are all these spotty gimmicks really better? After I accidentally dropped by Edge a day ago, I’m migrating back to Sony. I think something that “works” is a lot better than beautiful devices that don’t always “work.” Going back to the XZ1, I’m pretty sure I’m going to miss that camera.

  • Morphlin

    This reviewer is clearly biased or bought off by Samsung.

    • southerndinner

      Or this is just a mediocre phone?