Friday 28 August 2020

Sony Xperia 1 II

Guest reviewer Sethu Pillai is here to share his thoughts about the latest Sony Xperia on the block, an upgrade to the Xperia 1, imaginatively called the Mk.II by Sony. He tackles the less than trivial task of describing who might actually want to consider buying and using the phone.

Sony’s latest flagship is a stunningly well-crafted piece of technology, promising many unique selling points and ticking many, or maybe even all, boxes on the spec sheet. On the official Sony product page, there are some clear attributes the phone is being sold on...
  • Built for speed
  • Burst mode with 20 frames per second, including AF and AE between the shots (!)
  • Eye Auto focus
  • Colour management pre-sets for videos from their CineAlta cameras
  • 21:9 (Cinema aspect ratio) 6.5" 4K HDR OLED display with a calibrated mode
  • 360 Reality Audio support with hardware decoding
  • Some gaming and other features that get progressively gets less interesting for me
...but digging into the mainstream reviews, this quickly falls apart.

Built for speed
This is just marketing fluff. Various devices can claim to be performing faster overall, especially with updated chipsets now in the wild. No doubt Sony would say that their camera is still the fastest on any phone, and they would be correct, but most reviewers focus on image quality and the camera output to most eyes falls short of the computational magic conjured up by the likes of Pixels and iPhones. The CinemaPro app does offer some interesting profiles, but overall it remains a clunky and difficult experience. The convenience offered by more mainstream apps trumps any quality improvements for video - or maybe it's because I have never used a CineAlta camera before.

4K Screen
A feature likely to remain unique to Sony’s flagship is the 4K screen. But here again, they’ve sacrificed higher refresh rates because the chipset simply cannot handle anything over 60Hz at 4K resolution. It also isn’t the brightest OLED screen you can get. Additionally, it appears Netflix don’t yet provide a 4K stream to mobile phones. Interestingly, even if you play a wide format movie on Netflix, the content by default sits in a rectangle window that does not extend to all corners of the actual screen. You will need to zoom in to go corner to corner.
In fact, I was also not getting a 4K stream from Disney+ or Amazon Prime, although I could not find any official confirmation for this. YouTube provides the option to choose 2160p but the 'stats for nerds' still reveals the viewport only goes up to 2560 instead of the 3840 you expect on this screen. I wonder whether the fact that the height of the screen (in landscape) being only 1644 pixels, instead of 2160 for standard 4K, is creating some unintended scaling from these apps. If so, Sony needs to either sort this with the major content providers or stop trying to sell the benefits of 4K. 
Coming out of the nerdy stats, I sought an unbiased second opinion on the quality of the display. While comparing the same HDR video on YouTube at the highest resolution supported, my wife clearly and consistently preferred the display on her Samsung Galaxy S10, even if the Sony was sharper.

So who would appreciate this phone?

In a sea of flagships with lower or similar price tags (I don’t know many slabs that are more expensive), the Sony Xperia 1 II does not seem to hit the usual 'high notes' that the others are designed to hit. The competition has been very well tuned over many years to appeal to what most flagship buyers are looking for. And for this reason, these devices are compromised.
Now, I'm not saying there are devices without compromises. Every consumer product represents a set of compromises to ensure the product fits a budget, size, design and functionality expected of it. In today’s world, the product management decisions around these compromises are made using data collected from various sources and customer interviews. It is no longer made by an eccentric genius founder with a brilliant idea - or a set of creative individuals trying to serve a niche and getting the backing they need to create their vision. And because the data is telling similar things to all the manufacturers, the choices they make are also similar. Unfortunately, this means that if you fall into a 'wrong niche', some of these compromises will work against you.

Those Compromises
In the smartphone world, this means if you want the latest and greatest chipsets or cameras, you are forced to accept devices which cannot be used with one hand. You have a big, bright and beautiful screen but part of it will be cut out for a camera, regardless of whether you want it or not. You will need an adapter to use your favourite pair of headphones. You will need to handle the device with kid-gloves as there is extraordinarily little bezel to give you a good grip. Depending on the manufacturer, you may also need to live with a curved screen, inconvenient biometrics and other aspects you may have appreciated in a phone from a few years ago, now implemented differently. Surely I cannot be the only one who much prefers the 'unprocessed' look in images (grain, warts and all) that we used to get (and could improve ourselves later) in the 'good old days' before all pictures were touched up and brightened by algorithms. How much these compromises bother you is purely personal and subjective of course, but if you have ever felt disappointed by these trends, there's more...

The Sony Xperia 1 II is a concept phone

For me, buying this device, is buying into an idea. It's a result of loving the idea of a different set of compromises; ones that don’t take away a headphone jack, storage expansion, stereo front facing speakers, a comfortable grip or the LED notification light. To retain these features, you don’t have to compromise on flagship level performance, build quality, Qi charging, Always On Display or waterproofing. But as I said, you are buying into the idea of having all this in one device. You are not buying a device that performs the best in any of these features. In addition to the shortcomings already discussed, the headphone jack output is better than Bluetooth on my Sony XM3 headphones, though to be fair, but not by much. The speakers provide good spatial effects but are not the greatest in loudness or bass. While the 24mm camera is decent, the 16mm and 70mm options are sub-par. The Always On Display is a battery drain. The capacitive fingerprint scanner is not as fast or reliable as the one on my old Nokia 8 Sirocco. I think Sony also missed a trick in not allowing the user to pull down the notification shade with a swipe-down on the fingerprint scanner.

I really like this phone!
I place a lot of value on not having a cut-out or 'notch' in my screen. It is something that I could not get used to, even after using devices that had them for over two years. To me, it represents too much compromise for features that have zero-value to me. I would love to buy a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra or Samsung Galaxy Fold if this Sony did not exist, but because it does, I could not turn my back on it. And now I have grown to appreciate a different set of virtues than I first expected.

The Good Stuff
I have always preferred to have a device I can use comfortably with one hand. This previously limited me to smaller devices. Because of the unique aspect ratio, I now have a screen almost as tall as the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (watching a movie would be roughly the same size) but still handle the device with confidence in my hand. Sony’s 'side sense' shortcuts have proved very useful once I got used to how to use them reliably. It is not as powerful as what can be achieved with Samsung’s 'Edge' shortcuts and One Hand Operation+ tool, but I still use it daily to pull down the notification shade with a swipe down gesture, go to one hand mode with a swipe up gesture and quickly jump to another app from the menu launched using double tap.

Hard to Describe
Despite not being very bright, there is a certain 'quality' to the screen that is hard to describe. It is a similar feeling I get when looking at a properly calibrated monitor against a typical bright and saturated display. I was able to adjust the white balance such that prints I made on my printer closely matched how the photo would appear on the phone's display. Images appear natural and more detailed compared to the Samsung Galaxy S10. I love watching wide-screen content on the phone. The tall display also means you have a decent view of your documents/emails while typing. It was a similar feel to using the BlackBerry KeyOne. There is also an advantage, with this screen ratio, splitting it and running two apps, top and bottom windows resized to the desired split.

Intuitive and Natural
Finally, the camera. I use a couple of Sony cameras with a similar interfaces to what's on offer here and for me, the way you shoot pictures with the CameraPro app is an intuitive and natural experience - if I want to tweak settings myself. Yes, you can do the same thing with many other phones, including the use of RAW options, but this is the first time I have enjoyed staying in a 'Pro' mode all the time. I wish there was more to play around with, though. Aperture is fixed so users should try to keep ISO as low as possible for best results. Thankfully, the OIS seems to do a good job and I have got decently stable pictures up to 1/10 second, handheld. The shutter button feels very nice and I also love being able to capture my kids at 20fps as they run and jump around. Some really good potential with this.

Who can I recommend this to?

No one I know! How much money are you willing to spend on a product that is such a tease, luring you in with so many promises but ultimately ending up being a 'jack of all trades, master of none'? This is a purely personal choice, not too dissimilar to buying a BlackBerry or Huawei device today. To be honest, most people are probably better served elsewhere. I will likely jump to another device with more interesting aspects in the hardware department when it comes along. It could be a folding device that has an under-screen camera or even the promised new BlackBerry if it happens, but until then, I will enjoy driving this 'classic car' with a modern engine. I may not be zipping down the road but everything is laid out the way I like it.

If you'd like to buy one of these phones, please use this link Sony Xperia 1 II for AmazonUK as it will cost you no more and they bung me a few quid. Thanks. Ted.

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