The phone's 3,330mAh battery lasted longer than I expected, but it often needed to be charged before the day was over. One might assume that Samsung's cameras are superior, but the numbers never tell the whole story. Also, it's $1,200—a very steep asking price even if we weren't in a climate where more than 40 million Americans are out of a job. The Xperia 1 II is the latest example of Sony's inability to give phone sensible names.
As of now, it’s a weird miss, and we’ll need to see how Sony’s promised implementation works at launch later in July. All told, the standard camera experience isn’t bad, but there are two more caveats you should keep in mind. The Xperia 1 II’s camera runs in the opposite direction. Just as you make different kinds of music depending on what instrument you choose, you make different kinds of photos depending on the camera.
It's a thoughtful addition, I suppose, but the effect is too subtle to notice. I don’t usually want to work for it when I’m using a smartphone. It also borrows the much-loved autofocus feature from its Alpha cameras, continuously focusing on a human or even an animal’s eye. (Sony calls this 4K.)
It's fantastic, and fares surprisingly well in low light even without a dedicated night mode. The star of the show is the 12MP wide camera. If I wanted the US Sun’s take on Kanye's presidential run, I’d just go thumb through the tabloids in a checkout line. My only complaint about the screen? There’s another set of cameras with great sensors that don’t make it dead-simple and automatic to get great photos: standalone DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. In theory, it might not handle certain memory-intensive tasks as well as devices like the OnePlus 8 Pro or the Galaxy S20 series, which are both available with 12GB of RAM. I hadn't had this much fun with a smartphone camera since I trekked out to a chilly beach to shoot the stars with a Pixel 4. Things don’t always work out, but the little adrenaline rush that comes with perfectly plucking a moment out of time is unlike anything else. Best of all, Sony's choice of main camera sensor means you can shoot as many as 20 photos per second. The difference is, that uneven focus actually works this time. I could easily see some people getting discouraged by the complexity and layout of these controls. Instead of just dumping everything into your camera roll willy-nilly, it lets you think of your videos as distinct film projects. The company is at its best when it stops trying to please everyone.
No 5G in the US model. It means the Pixel 4 is the more consistent performer of the two, as I usually had to retake a photo, tap on the screen, or fiddle around with something on the Xperia. There are a few interesting tidbits to note: For one, all these cameras are shielded by Zeiss's T* lens coating, which is designed to keep reflections and ghosting from fouling up your photos. It’s easy to hold in one hand and lets you see more content without scrolling, but give up on any plans to reach the top with that same hand, no matter your grip.
But—and there's always a but—it's not without flaws.
It's very narrow—because of the 6.5-inch screen's 21:9 aspect ratio, it feels like you're holding a TV remote. Once again, Sony drew from its expertise in pro-grade cameras, resulting in a phone that feels like a love letter to creative types and very few others. Put another way, they’re safe. In addition to having an f/1.7 aperture, the sensor itself is physically larger than most, meaning it just gobbles up light. The fingerprint sensor is elegantly integrated into the side-mounted power button, there’s microSD storage expansion, there are dual front-facing stereo speakers, there’s a dedicated physical camera button, and — holy of holies — there’s a real headphone jack. When you stick to it, you can get photos and videos that are really stunning — but you have to work for it. Let's be honest, though: The idea of buying an Xperia 1 ii only really makes sense if you care about an in-depth camera experience over just about everything else. In the US, however, the Xperia lacks 5G support entirely. Normally I wouldn't care, as 5G networks are nascent and don't offer much value yet, but the lack of its presence here makes the $1,200 price tag a bit of a head-scratcher. Once you've decided what resolution you want to shoot in, though, you're basically stuck with it.
After a week, I still can't reliably trigger it on my first try. Those photos simply wouldn't be possible without Sony's camera expertise, and the level of control the Camera Pro app provides. A few of the inconsistencies I found in the default camera app, like frequently over-exposed photos, can be avoided by switching to Sony's Photography Pro app, which comes preinstalled on the phone. I get into it more deeply in the video above, but the cold reality is that as much as we’d like to think that phones have replaced the need for standalone cameras, they are different things. Looking back at our original Xperia 1 review, I’m embarrassed to say I missed the mark. If you told me in January that I'd write the last part of that sentence, I'd have laughed. It works like a charm, focusing accurately on all 85 photos I snapped of my dog as he ran toward me. Every selfie I took was slightly blurry and unsatisfying, even after I turned off the “soft skin” feature. I'll admit, I'm impressed I haven't shattered the screen or glass back with how many times this phone has slid off surfaces (or out of my pocket while I'm sitting), but it has suffered some scuffs around the edges. The thing is, I generally never found the results all that exciting. The Xperia 1 ii (pronounced "One mark two," in a nod to its A-series cameras) is Sony's best phone in years because of its very specific obsessions. The ultra-wide and telephoto cameras are situational utility players, but they mostly do their jobs without fuss. But hey, 2020 has been filled with shock and surprise. And the rest of the phone? Here's the curveball: Sony wedged a 3D time-of-flight sensor in between its cameras. What about cycling through a palette of video filters?
Plus, the fingerprint sensor is on the right edge of the phone, and it's proven to be faster and more accurate than most in-display fingerprint sensors on other phones today. If you're not shooting your thesis student film, you'll do fine sticking to the standard Camera app.
Get a case. Its cameras are meant for film and photo nerds. It’s symmetry embodied. The Xperia 1 II's dedicated portrait mode can sometimes snap something magical like the example in the gallery of my dog, where you can see all the pores in my dog's very boopable nose. I don't begrudge Sony for focusing on its main cameras, but whiffing on a front-facing camera is just bad form for a device that costs as much as this does. But if you hope to use this phone intensively for either gaming or shooting photos and videos, plan on topping up in the late afternoon. It’s just that Sony’s world wasn’t about smartphones; it was about its Alpha line of cameras. By that point, I was reeling. Don't fret, though: When it comes to performance, the Xperia is every inch a flagship device. There’s a “Motion Blur Reduction” option that’s supposed to make it feel more like a 90Hz display, but it doesn’t hold up to true high refresh rate options like the Samsung Galaxy S20 or Pixel 4. More useful is the built-in One Hand mode — double-tapping the home button shrinks the screen and pushes it off to the side, making those far-off bits easier to reach with a thumb. That’s all thanks to their computational photography chops, which all but guarantee your photo looks great.
And the phone also retains the classic Sony trait of being way too slippery. It shoots in 4K with a widescreen 21:9 aspect ratio and at 24 frames per second, making all your clips look like they're from an indie film.