Not to be outdone by Huawei, Nokia, Xiaomi, LG, and just about every other phone maker not named Apple or Samsung, Sony is using this week’s Mobile World Congress to introduce its latest smartphones for 2019.
Sales of the Japanese tech firm’s smartphones have been in free fall for the past few years, but the company is hoping to reverse its fortunes with a new top-end model (the Xperia 1) and two new mid-rangers (the Xperias 10 and 10 Plus). I was able to get some brief hands-on time with the three new devices at an event in Manhattan earlier this month.
Here’s a rundown of what to expect.
Sony Xperia 1
The first thing to note about the new Xperias is the name: Sony is dropping the “XZ” nomenclature from its higher-profile handsets in favor of a more straightforward numerical system. (Though the “1” phone being more powerful than the “10” phones may still cause some confusion.) The Xperia 1 here takes over the flagship mantle from last year’s Xperia XZ3.
Sony’s big focus with the Xperia 1 is entertainment and content creation. The handset comes with a 6.5-inch, 3840×1644 OLED display that supports HDR10. If that resolution looks strange, it’s because the Xperia 1’s display uses a 21:9 aspect ratio. Sony pitches this as a more “luxurious” format for watching movies, multitasking, and playing games.
It also makes the phone unusually tall—almost 8mm taller than Apple’s iPhone XS Max or Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 Plus. It’ll be tougher to slide into a pants pocket than most phones, and nigh-impossible for most people to use effectively with one hand.
Along with the typical contrast boost that comes with an OLED display, Sony is touting a number of color reproduction and accuracy enhancements such as 10-bit color (technically, 8-bit with dithering) and support for the more expansive Rec. 2020 color space. There’s a “Creator” mode that puts all of that to work to more faithfully reproduce content that takes advantage of it, as well as support for virtual surround sound through Dolby Atmos.
To be clear, these kind of A/V improvements are naturally more useful on a TV or monitor than a smartphone. Atmos support can be nice with a good pair of headphones, but true “surround sound” is impossible on such tiny speakers. Sony says it’s working with games like Fortnite to support the 21:9 ratio, and apps like Netflix and YouTube do support widescreen with select content, but most of the things people typically watch on their mobile devices do not. (In other words, expect some letterboxing.) The major US carriers don’t currently allow 4K streaming on their “unlimited” data plans. And the ultra-high resolution screen will likely cause a dip in battery life.
Still, the previous flagship XZ3’s display was very good, and the company’s Bravia OLED TVs are top-of-the-line, so there’s reason to think this panel could impress. The baseline for flagship phone displays is already pretty high these days, but Sony is hoping that there’s still room to appeal to display geeks.
Beyond that, the Xperia 1 comes with a trio of 12-megapixel cameras: a 26mm wide lens with an f/1.6 aperture, a 52mm telephoto lens, and a 16mm ultra-wide lens. The wide and telephoto lenses support optical image stabilization. Sony is touting improved autofocus, up to 10 fps burst shooting, a new RAW noise reduction algorithm, and a number of granular editing tools. A “Cinema Pro” mode lets it shoot 4K HDR video at a more movie-like 24 fps, while an ultra-slow motion mode lets it capture short clips at up to 960 fps at 1080p. It all sounds promising, but the Xperia line has a history of underwhelming cameras. It’s always been a bit puzzling, given how Sony supplies image sensors for iPhones and how its Alpha line of dedicated cameras are widely praised.
The rest of the specs are about what you’d expect from a flagship phone in 2019: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip, 6 GB of RAM, 128 GB of expandable storage, IP65/68 water resistance, Bluetooth 5, and Android 9 Pie out of the box. There’s support for Hi-Res audio, including Sony’s own LDAC Bluetooth codec and aptX HD, which brings sharper sound if you’re the type who pays for such quality. The battery measures at 3,300 mAh. Sony didn’t mention any major changes to its Android implementation; if the XZ3 is any indication, its customizations should be minimal and Sony should be relatively quick to issue updates. (“Relatively” being the extremely operative word there.)
I was only able to use the Xperia 1 for a few minutes, and at my briefing Sony did not let journalists get past the device’s lock screen. Still, based on that time, I can say that the hardware here feels sufficiently light (180 g) and thin (8.2 mm), though it’s clearly thicker than the XS Max or Galaxy S10+. The rounded sides make it easy enough to hold; again, it’s just that height that could make it unwieldy. It has an all-glass finish, which means the usual caveats: it’s glossy, slippery, and a massive fingerprint magnet. In this case, there’s no wireless charging, either. There are bezels, but they’re slim, and there’s no notch to contend with. There’s also no headphone jack, which sucks. Sony hasn’t jumped on the in-display fingerprint reader train, either, instead opting for its usual side-mounted scanner, though I don’t consider that a huge loss given the technical issues that still hamper the former. The tiny power button’s placement underneath that scanner might take some getting used to, though.
The Xperia 1 will come in black or purple in the US. Sony hasn’t yet announced any specific carrier partners, but the phone will likely work on AT&T and T-Mobile. Sony is only saying it’ll launch in “late Spring” and hasn’t announced a price just yet. A prior leak suggested it could go for around $1,100. That’d be a lot.
Sony Xperia 10 and Xperia 10 Plus
Sony’s two new mid-range phones, the Xperia 10 and Xperia 10 Plus, will likely have broader appeal than the flagship Xperia 1.
These two are also equipped with 21:9 displays, though the Xperia 10 measures at a more manageable 156 mm tall; the Xperia 10 Plus, at 167 mm, is roughly the same size as the Xperia 1. The 4K OLED panels are swapped out for 1080p and LCD on both, with the Xperia 10 at six inches and Xperia 10 Plus at 6.5 inches. They also use Gorilla Glass 5, while the Xperia 1 uses the more drop-resistant Gorilla Glass 6.
The triple cameras are replaced by dual-lens units: 13- and 5-megapixel cameras on the Xperia 10, 12- and 8-megapixel cameras on the Xperia 10 Plus. Sony says both are capable of recording 4K video.
Both come with side-mounted fingerprint scanners and headphone jacks, as well as Android 9 Pie. The Hi-Res audio and LDAC support of the Xperia 1 makes its way down, too, which could make these fairly decent devices for audio enthusiasts on a budget. They only have single speakers, though, not the stereo pair of the Xperia 1. The Xperia 10 comes with a 2,870 mAh battery, while the Xperia 10 Plus has a 3,000 mAh pack.
One potential area for disappointment is processing power: while the Xperia 10 Plus uses a Snapdragon 636 chip, the Xperia 10 runs on a Snapdragon 630, which is well over a year old at this point. The Xperia 10 has 3 GB of RAM and 64 GB of expandable storage; the Xperia 10 Plus comes with 4GB of RAM.
Both mid-rangers lose the glass back of the Xperia 1, but they feel lighter—particularly the Xperia 10, at 162 g—and less slippery for it. There’s no notch on either, but the bezels are uneven: the bottom is thin, while the “forehead” is a more standard size on both.
Both devices will hit the US on March 18. The Xperia 10 will cost $350, while the Xperia 10 Plus will cost $430. They’ll face stiff competition from Motorola’s new Moto G phones and our current budget phone of choice, the Nokia 6.1—which also carries a Snapdragon 630 for $100 less—but there are things to like here. Sony says these two phones will work on Verizon in addition to the usual GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile.
A long road ahead
One thing that wasn’t announced: a new Xperia Compact phone. Sony hasn’t explicitly killed one of the last remaining “small phone” lines, but its execs have suggested it may be on ice for the time being.
It’s safe to say Sony’s mobile business is in a bad way. The company’s phone sales have been plummeting for years, with lower and lower forecasts arriving on a near-quarterly basis. It shipped just 1.8 million phones over the course of its most recent quarter. It’s never had the carrier relationships to gain a foothold in the US, and rising Chinese OEMs like Xiaomi and Oppo have eaten its market elsewhere. The company as a whole is alive and well, bolstered primarily by its PlayStation and other entertainment businesses, but its mobile situation has been locked in a spiral: as sales sink, so do component orders, which raises manufacturing costs, which raises retail prices, which sinks sales, and so on.
Are the Xperia 1 and Xperia 10 the kind of phones to turn this around? At least to me, it doesn’t seem so right now. They aren’t likely to beat anyone on price, and in the Xperia 1’s case, existing phones from Samsung, Apple, and Huawei don’t seem to have engendered major complaints regarding display and camera quality. None of this means any of the phones here will be bad—they could be a treat for watching movies on the go, and we’d need more time to make any judgments regardless.
Either way, we know they’ll be tall.
Listing image by Jeff Dunn