Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Sony Xperia 10 Mk.III

Eyeballs have mostly been fixed on the Xperia 1 and 5 models over the last couple of years, leaving the little brother of the Xperia range without much attention. The first and second generation of the 10 could easily be glossed over as they are so different from the big brothers, but with the third incarnation I think the 10 should gain some attention. Sony have upped the game to some degree and kept the price down. Kind of!

The question will be about how I compare this model, with what - and from which generation! So here's what I'll do. It sits under the 5iii and is an upgrade to the 10ii - not that I've had either of them in my hands. As we're finding from Steve Litchfield in his review of the 5iii in The Phones Show 430, the 5iii's not hugely different from the 5ii, which I have had in-hand. The further question will be about what has been missed out, thus teasing potential buyers to the next model up. So let's see where we go!

As usual with Sony, the box is a modest affair, white, with no TPU case, a USB-A to USB-C cable and power-brick inside. First impressions of the phone are very favourable. It's slightly less tall than the 5 and slightly less wide. It's chunky in the hand and has those plastic 'rounded' design features all around the edges, rather than the 'boxy' square lines of the 5 and 1. I like this 'rounded' thing. It feels a bit 'retro' in a sense, nice in the hand - a bit like a pebble.

There's
Gorilla Glass 6 on front and back, which matches the premium look and feel of the 5 and 1 ranges and remains pretty light and dinky at only 168g. There's no need for a SIM Card Tray pokey-hole tool as usual with Sony - and thankfully they've stopped the reboot when the tray is pulled out by the use of a fingernail. The plastic tray, which holds either 2 SIM Cards or one and a microSD, is not the best quality compared to many others, much like the ones found on the 5 and 1, but I guess that most people won't be taking it out and in very often.

The phone does boast IP65/68 like the more expensive models, so is dust and water resistant up to 1.5m for half an hour. This, along with the glass back and front are little things which tally up when we look at price, which good features have been added and what's been taken away (or not included). The first of these is the physical shutter button. And that's a shame as it works so very well with the 5 and 1 in the range. Something which differentiates these from other phones and brings across a 'proper camera' feature. However, as we'll find out later, this really isn't much of a camera-centric phone, so maybe it was a fair decision.

The rest of the right side houses a
sturdy-feeling volume rocker above a slightly recessed power button/capacitive fingerprint scanner, above an even more recessed Google Assistant button. You've got to mean to hit that, which is good as you don't want to keep invoking it annoyingly by mistake. There doesn't seem to be any way to reassign this button or turn it off in software, which is also true of the 1 and 5 I seem to recall. But it's OK. It's fairly buried, as I say, and works well for those who want to use it and disable the annoying 'corners' to invoke the Assistant.

There's a microphone and 3.5mm audio-out socket at the top (hurrah!) and just a USB-C port and microphone at the bottom with the card tray high up on the left. There's an earpiece speaker slit at the top of the screen between the glass and the plastic edge and at the bottom, a wide/long single mono speaker for audio. It too is front-facing, similarly between glass and plastic, so forward-firing. On the back there's a pill-shaped camera island top-left in portrait (with LED flash above it) which appears to house three cameras. More on that later.

That's about it really for the
first look - it's small and dinky in the hand - small enough for me to reach even the furthest corners of the screen one-handed, which was a bit of a stretch on the 5 (and not possible on the 1). Perfect in the pocket and hand. You'd hardly know that you have it with you. Lovely little size, in a world gone mad with massive screens and huge units.

The screen has quite thick bezels top and bottom, less so on the edges, but I'm OK with this as there's no question of any ugly 'notch' or in-screen Selfie camera - and there's somewhere to execute Navigation Gestures from efficiently. It's a 6" Sony Triluminos OLED panel, same style as the 1 and 5, 1080p, 21:9 ratio returning 457ppi. You get the same rich, vibrant colours, deep blacks and excellent brightness. There's also the same colour gamut adjustments in settings with completely manual RGB along with some pre-sets.

What you don't get is enhanced screen refresh-rates. Here on the basic 60Hz. As I have said many times, my older eyes can't tell the difference so I'll leave that to younger ones to complain about! The screen is delightful in day-to-day use, great outdoors with the auto-brightness working as it should. No complaints. You also get a good old-fashioned Notification LED top-right which flashes on incoming and indicates charging state etc. When a device gets this small, the 21:9 also works for me personally, as I can enjoy consuming media as well as retaining one-handed use when needed. Incidentally, there's also a one-handed mode for those with tiny hands!

The 10iii comes with a
4,500mAh battery which is great, up from the 3,600mAh in the 10ii and matching the 5iii and 1iii with much less demand on it because of the 60Hz display and lower chipset, which I'll come to. The phone is supplied with a 7.5W charger which will charge it in something over 2 hours but it's capable of being charged at 30W which, given a more powerful charger, will significantly lop a load of time off that. Slow charging is good for batteries as we know, but sometimes you just need to get going. Maybe at this price-point Sony should've included a 30W charger.

The battery performs really well getting me two days of use between charges (if I don't cane it with bluetooth and headphones)! There are various battery-saving modes on offer to elongate this more, but I do find that turning on Battery Care (an AI-based system which learns your behaviour and tries to charge the phone when it thinks that you might not need it fully charged and so forth) rather relies on someone behaving the same way every day - or at best, a very long 'learning period'. My experience is that it interferes with notifications, is never at 100% when I want it to be and in any case, I look after my batteries by slow-charging anyway. Still - some may do better with it than I have. The 10% Reading test that I conduct with all phones I review returned a total of around 2 hours on a few tests over the couple of weeks that I've been reviewing. That's pretty good and up there with many phones with around this size of battery - the Motorola Edge+ scored pretty much the same with the 5,000mAh battery, though that is driving flagship components.

The only current Xperia which has
Qi wireless Charging is the 1iii and it's a real shame that this feature is not even trickled down to the 5iii, let alone the 10iii. It has a glass back. Why would they leave it out, I wonder, except to differentiate it from the models up the range. We can of course add a bodge-solution by means of a Qi Receiver for a fiver from Amazon, but it ain't pretty - and if they're really that cheap, why not just add it in the first place Sony!

As I write in September 2021, I am discovering that some devices are rolling out with the Google Assistant Ambient Mode which provides an Always on Display when the phone is charging. Guess what? Sony didn't include the AoD present in the 5 and 1 devices - presumably for the same reason as above, to differentiate. I'm trying to work out which devices have this Google Ambient Mode and which don't. Some overlay it on top of whatever solution the OEM provides in terms of AoD (like the Nokia XR20), for some the 'Pixel Ambient Services' app to make it work is just not available (like the Motorola Edge+ here) and others can install it but it doesn't work. It doesn't seem to be related to AndroidOne devices, so I'm a bit foxed really and am trying to find out more. In the meantime, it does work on this 10iii so when the phone is charging, you can at least get a Google Assistant based AoD giving clock, Notification shortcuts and other stuff. Check it out for your phone. In the meantime, there's the excellent Always on AMOLED (AoA) app to fall back on which works really well and has more options than anyone could hope to use!

The side-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner works flawlessly, first time, every time, is quick and easy to register and a much better option than various under-glass offerings from elsewhere. What's missing from the line-up in terms of accessing the phone however is the Lift-to-Wake, Double-Tap-to-Wake (DTTW) and Face Unlock. To be fair, some of this is also missing from the 1 and 5, but I don't see why they can't include all this. After discussion with Freepoc's Malcolm Bryant it seems that Google removed access for third-party developers to add DTTW when Oreo arrived and it's something that only OEMs can do - to include or not include at point of manufacture. So there's no way round that one, we think.
 I have found a workaround for Lift-to-Wake in the 'guise of (the ironically-named) Double Tap (presumably it used to do that too!) which works well (for those not wishing to install AoA). Net result is that regardless of the power and flexibility of Android, Sony could have saved a lot of flying about if they just flipped the switch on these features. Maybe they can for some of them in a software update. I won't hold my breath!

The Sony Xperia 10iii arrived with Android 11 onboard and August 2021 Google Security with a promise to give it two more OS updates and three years of monthly security ones. Which is great, as more and more OEMs get onboard with the programme being driven by Apple and Samsung.

What we like about Sony's software layer over Android is that it's pretty clean and doesn't add too much. Unlike the 1 and 5 it doesn't come bundled with two huge games with 5-6GB of downloads lurking to catch out the unprepared or ill-advised! All you get here is pre-installed (and uninstallable) FaceBook and LinkedIn apart from the always-useful Sony Music app, which is half-decent still and affords the user access to the built-in equaliser. More on that later.

The chipset in the phone is a
SnapDragon 690 5G (8nm) which is not blazingly fast like I found with the higher-end 1 and 5 Xperias, but it's fast enough for the target market. I've done some car-racing gaming on the phone and don't see any slowdown anywhere or judders and so forth. In terms of day-to-day use, it performs perfectly well. In Geekbench 5 testing, it seems to perform in around the same place as the SnapDragon 765G equipped Pixel 5, so not a bad performance at all.

The RAM has been increased to 6GB from 4GB since the last generation and that flows nicely with task-switching. Again, I notice no holdups waiting for apps to switch/open and there is plenty of scope keeping apps rolling. 4GB or 6, I think it all works fine for the undemanding user. Even when driving media to a TV or monitor via HDMI, which is where I shall land next.

Kudos to Sony for keeping this alive when many are ditching the capability. HDMI-Out is a great feature, when fiddling about with OTA stuff is just a pain. Plug in a cable and watch. End of! I did think that this might be one of the features of the 1 and 5 that Sony may have shaved off for the lower-end model, but no. Great!

This is supported by the
128GB of storage for all that lovely media (which is not streaming) though you can in some markets grab a 256GB version. This in turn is supported by the microSD Card capability which, via my tests here with a 512GB Card, work well with read/writes speeds. Maybe not as fast as with the 1 and 5, but it's really not far behind. Also tested my Extreme 2TB SSD in the USB-C slot and again, works like a charm. This is the stuff that Sony doesn't seem to have removed and consequently ended up with a more rounded product line.

I mentioned earlier that the phone also has a 3.5mm Audio-Out socket. This is capable of 24-bit audio in the same way as the others in the range. Armed with my reference AKG K702  headphones the default sound is very good quality, though volume not ear-blowing. I was happily sitting listening on 100% volume. Some may want more. Inside the Sony Music app you can get to an Equaliser which enables adjustment between a bunch of pre-sets or five customised 'sliders' for frequency adjustments and an overriding Bass and Surround slider. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be available anywhere on the phone except for via the Sony Music app. There is a DSEE Ultimate switch if you'd rather not equalise which will "upscale your compressed music accurately using AI technology". I didn't notice it doing anything whatever differently-encoded tracks I threw at it.

Turning to Bluetooth I fired up my Sony WH-1000XM4 pair which, as you might expect, work perfectly with another Sony product and blew my ears away! I gave up and settled on about 60% volume. The default quality of sound is stunningly good. Play with the equaliser if you like but really, there's no need. No complaints with bluetooth these days, as usual. An added bonus of using Sony headphones is the dedicated 'side sense' control panel giving direct access to Sony's Headphones App with on-the-fly equaliser controls (other ones, inside the app) amongst other stuff. A really good use of the side-sense function, which I'll come to.

Sadly, we now come to the not-so-good news about the audio and clearly an area where Sony have whittled away at their parts bill. They supply the 10iii with a
single mono speaker, so not even the stereo of the 1 and 5, but it's also pretty underwhelming. Placed in front of me on a desk, it's perfectly good for system sounds and spoken word, but for music it's really not anywhere near the quality of the 1 or 5 - even taking into account the lack of stereo. It favours the high frequencies making it quite 'tinny' when the volume is wound up and there's little or no bass response.

Try to engage the equaliser (again, remember, only inside the Sony Music app) and you get the usual volume payoff. Yes, you can improve the 'tone' but the more pleasant you get it sounding, the significantly less volume can be enjoyed. I would suggest turning off the equalisation and dropping the volume to about 70% for best use for music. So for sure, this is a phone with which you want to engage headphones or earphones to enjoy - and preferably with bluetooth engaged. Having said all this, the target market is not going to be audiophiles! As we will discover shortly, nor will they be photographers. This is shaping up to be jack of all-trades, master of none.

Speaking of which, the three cameras on the back which I referred to earlier are pretty basic. There's a 12MP f1.8 main shooter supported by an 8MP f2.4 2x telephoto and another 8MP wide-angle unit. There's an 8MP f2 Selfie round the front, too. There's nothing like the depth of photography pedigree here that is present in the 1iii and 5iii - or even the 5ii. That whole Photographer Pro & Cinema Pro is not present so you get a pretty basic camera app and cameras, the most useful of which is the 2x optical zoom. The Selfie has a couple of tricks like Hand Shutter to fire it and portrait snaps look very clear with nice enough colours.

The
layout of the app is simple with a big shutter button, photo/video selector and 1x/2x button. There's a bunch of Sony AI-based Modes to choose from or you can let the camera work out what you're doing for itself. There is a night mode with the usual payoff of digital noise for squeezing what light it can from darkness, Google Lens is built-in, there is a Manual option where you can play around with various settings, but it doesn't take itself very seriously coming from the much better tools of the 1 and 5.

I did find that allowing the camera to do what it wants got the best results overall and it is quite smart, knowing when to, for example, engage Macro Mode with resulting close-focus not being too bad. Using the 2x optical works well too as it's always nice to have a clean optical result rather than zoomed digital. Similarly the wide-angle capability is just fine. With all these cameras, the colours look bright and fine enough to me for social media purposes and the occasional family snap to share on screens. Start pixel-peeping and you'll find that there are better options out there. As always, and as for the speaker principle, above, it depends very much on what people are expecting and how far they want to push their converged pocket-computer - or whether they're after a capable all-round phone for half the price of a better-equipped flagship.

Drilling down into the
settings to see what's there and what may also be missing from the 1 and 5 of the range, firstly the homepages. The Google Feed page is off to the left by default though can be turned off if desired. I must admit that I don't use it much these days, but it just feels 'wrong' if it ain't there! Notification dots are available and the Google Search box ever-present in Pixel is removable here - so more choice about if and where to have it - along with At a Glance (Live Space) by adding Widgets. One over on Pixels!

The drop-down Notification and shortcut shade (which can be pulled down from anywhere) is pretty standard for Android 11 with the usual bunch of buttons, editable, shortcut to main settings and brightness slider. The App Drawer (which can likewise be pulled up from anywhere) is pretty much standard, vertically scrolling, except that Sony have added a 'sort' function which the user can change between A-Z and any order they like by dragging and dropping. Nice addition.

The Recents area is pretty much standard too with long-presses on the header getting the user to split-screen or pop-up window. Pop it up and it overlays the app you chose onto the main screen, maximise, drag to resize, minimise or close. Then there's the aforementioned 'side sense' which is pretty much like Samsung's Edge Panel - they're all doing it now! In this case, double-tap on the bar on the edge of the screen (which you can long-press and drag to wherever you like on either edge) and you can assign shortcuts to apps, editing to place what you like there. You can adjust the height, transparency, sensitivity and position of the bar as well as what gesture you use to open it up. It's a nice addition which I have not used but with the inclusion of the headphones control panel and armed with a Sony pair, I certainly would.

The rest of the
UI is really very clean, not confusing even for people coming here from simple systems - nothing like the huge learning curve required for many phones these days. I like this. It's simple and much like Moto and Nokia do, only add a few bits to Android as Google intended. The benefit to the user is clear. Straight-forward and easy to get to know quickly, no manual or three-week course to attend!

I can't seem to fault connectivity with good strong signals as tested, all round here. GPS locking quickly and moving around as expected, Bluetooth range decent enough before dropouts, NFC working well with connection to other devices, WiFi connecting quickly and maintaining a strong hold, as is cellular (tested here with 4G Vodafone) for voice and data. All good, clearly Sony were not skimping on components for their mid-range.

This certainly is the best Xperia 10 in the series so far with specs brought up further than previous generations. To be fair, Sony have also increased the price somewhat to reflect this (in the UK, RRP is £399) so more than the 10ii was on release. It gets some great features too, like HDMI-Out, retains useful stuff like the capacitive FPS, LED Notification Light, microSD Card and 3.5mm audio-out socket with very good enhanced output. It increases the battery to present a very strong performance, retains a lovely OLED screen, nice build with a formal IP-rating and applies an incremental update to the chipset and RAM keeping things very smooth in use. It's a lovely size in the hand and so very pocket-friendly. Long may Sony continue to make smaller devices when few others seem to want to play ball.

Yes, there's always a
nit-pick list and how lovely it would be to see Qi Charging, Always on Display, DTTW, Lift to Wake and Face Unlock (without having to negotiate workarounds). How great to have the stereo speaker setup and quality of the 5 and 1. Some would like to see a better camera with the physical shutter button of the rest of the range, but actually the camera on offer here is half-decent, again for target price and market. Yes, we could all come up with a list of things which would make it better but certainly some of them would, if applied, no doubt inch the price closer to the Xperia 5iii and we'd all be complaining about that.

I'd like to have seen this at £349. I think that for fifty quid less it would feel like the right price and appeal to many more in a sea of cheaper devices flooding in from China. Sony does have a track record of allowing prices to edge down, though not as fast as many. It's a tough sell pitched where it is. Having said that, it has an interesting array of features which many will find to be the right balance and will be happy. Nice phone. Recommended.

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