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Sony’s Xperia 1 III is pricey, performant, and perplexing

The Sony Xperia 1 III is a great phone that I won’t recommend to many people. Once again, Sony has created a beautiful device with some unique, marquee features like a 4K-ish OLED 120Hz screen, great photo-taking amenities like a physical shutter button and a high-quality manual camera app, and top-notch hardware for entertainment consumption, like dual front-facing speakers and an honest-to-god headphone jack. You won’t find that combination among the other big-name flagships on the market.

But reader, it is $1,300. That’s a $100 increase over last year’s model, and more than an iPhone 12 Pro Max ($1,199) or a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra ($1,249, but often on sale for less) with an equivalent 256GB of storage. That is simply a lot to ask someone to pay for a phone.

For that $1,300, you get a top-notch experience on basically every level (except for its relatively short security-support timeline), but I struggle to see any one way in which it sets itself apart from the established competition. There are serious photo and video recording capabilities within the native camera apps, but nothing that could be considered unique to Xperia or a must-have.

It all amounts to a very expensive device that does a lot of things well, but without a strong value proposition for any one kind of person.

Sony Xperia 1 III screen, battery, and ergonomics

The Xperia 1 III’s screen stands out among its fellow flagships both in terms of its slimmer 21:9 aspect ratio and its higher 1644 x 3840 resolution, which Sony calls 4K (it’s close). It’s also an OLED panel, and this year’s version offers a 120Hz maximum refresh rate.

There’s no variability, unfortunately, so you’ll need to choose between locking it in at a standard 60Hz (the default) or that higher 120Hz rate for the smoothest of smooth scrolling experiences. Opting for 120Hz comes with a warning that the battery will drain faster, and it does, but not unreasonably so. I kept it enabled throughout my time using the phone. Overall, it’s a lovely screen, with a couple of notes: Auto brightness is sometimes a little squirrely indoors, and the panel itself doesn’t get terribly bright outdoors. It’s still usable outside in bright light, but it can feel like a strain to see what’s on the screen.

Dieter was a fan of the Xperia 1 II’s look when he reviewed it, and I’m in agreement about the III: it’s a sophisticated, understated design and I dig it. I like the slight matte treatment for the back panel glass, and all-around build quality (including its IP65/68 durability rating) measures up to the flagship class with a metal frame and Gorilla Glass Victus on the front. The Sony branding is so unobtrusive it practically disappears into the back panel, until the light catches it, and the whole thing looks at home next to an RX100 series camera.

The Xperia 1 III gets an upgraded 4,500mAh battery compared to the previous-gen’s 4,000mAh, likely a necessary move given the 120Hz display. Battery life is adequate, not stellar. I averaged two hours of screen time on a day of lighter use, which drained the cell to only about 50 percent by the end of the day. I was concerned about how it would hold up on a day of heavier use recording some 4K video clips, but even in that case, the battery lasted through the end of the day. I’d pack a charger or a backup if I planned on shooting video extensively, or on a long travel day where I anticipated more than four hours of screen-on time, but for day-in-day-out use, the Xperia 1 III does fine. There’s also support for 30W wireless charging.

I both like and dislike the phone’s unique tall-and-slim profile. It fits my hand more easily, and it is possible to reach your thumb across the screen in one-handed use (forget about reaching the far upper corner, though). But it’s also more prone to slipping out of pockets. I do like the fingerprint sensor embedded in the on / off button on the side; it’s quick and it doesn’t care if I’m wearing a mask.

Sony Xperia 1 III performance and software

Spec-wise, the Xperia 1 III is a flagship through and through. It uses a Snapdragon 888 processor with 12GB RAM and 256GB of built-in storage. There’s 5G connectivity here, and unlike last year’s model, those in the US will be able to take advantage of it — as long as you’re on Verizon or T-Mobile. The Xperia 1 III doesn’t support AT&T’s 5G, and there’s no mmWave support, just sub-6GHz on T-Mobile and Verizon.

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Sony doesn’t have a firm security-support timeline for the Xperia 1 III but tells us that owners can expect two years of support. The phone ships with Android 11, and the company doesn’t have plans for future OS version upgrades. That puts it well behind Samsung’s and Apple’s support policies, both of which offer at least four years of security updates and multiple OS version upgrades. Considering its high price tag, this is a significant shortcoming against its peers.

Sony has equipped the Xperia 1 III with dual front-firing speakers and says they’re louder than those in the 1 II. Paired with the high-res OLED screen, it makes watching videos a high-quality experience. I was delighted when I heard a car offscreen and the audio tracked as it passed through the scene from the left to right speakers. Maybe I’m easily impressed by these things, but I can see myself genuinely enjoying watching a movie or a show on the Xperia 1 III, rather than as a last resort to stave off boredom.

Sony Xperia 1 III camera

Sony is a highly regarded maker of mobile imaging sensors, and in the past few years has gotten more serious about the camera hardware in its own Xperia phones. This year’s iteration includes a total of three 12-megapixel rear-facing cameras, including a telephoto lens with a folded-optic design that includes two focal lengths: 70mm and 105mm equivalents. All three cameras, including that telephoto unit, use a sensor with dual phase-detection autofocus, a technology that helps Sony Alpha cameras achieve class-leading autofocus speeds. If you’re a numbers kind of person, here’s the quick rundown on the rear-facing camera hardware in the Xperia 1 III:

Sony Xperia 1 III rear cameras

Camera Resolution Focal length (equiv.) Aperture Sensor Size Optical stabilization
Camera Resolution Focal length (equiv.) Aperture Sensor Size Optical stabilization
Standard wide 12-megapixels 24mm f/1.7 1/1.7″ Yes
Telephoto 12-megapixels 70mm / 105mm f/2.3 / f/2.8 1/2.9″ Yes
Ultrawide 12-megapixels 16mm f/2.2 1/2.5″ No

There are three rear-facing cameras on the Xperia 1 III, including a telephoto lens with two focal-length settings.

The Xperia’s Photography Pro camera app now includes a “basic,” auto-everything shooting mode as the default. Switching over to one of the semi-auto or manual modes brings up an interface resembling an Alpha camera’s quick menu. The basic mode is refreshingly minimal — there are quick shortcuts to different focal lengths, to turn bokeh mode on or off, enable continuous shooting, and access flash settings, but not much more than that.

Manual modes introduce a lot more control and more display options like a big, beautiful (to me, at least) horizon level. It will all feel very familiar to anyone who’s used a conventional camera, especially if that camera is a Sony. I like both the basic and advanced shooting mode experiences, and a two-stage shutter button is a very welcome addition, but my one complaint is that there’s no real on-screen indication when a photo is taken. I live with all of my phone’s notifications and audio signals on mute, so without the audio cue, I missed it when I only half-pressed the shutter on a few occasions, thinking I’d fully pressed it.

I’ll admit that it took a minute for me to warm up to the Xperia’s telephoto camera. I tend to like a wider lens, and I’ve used too many bad or mediocre smartphone telephoto cameras to get too excited about them. But once I started trusting it — especially at the 70mm focal length — I started to really enjoy using it to layer foreground and background elements, or bring more attention to a subject I can’t get closer to. You know, stuff you use a telephoto lens for. The image quality won’t put your dedicated zoom lens out of work, but it’s good enough.

There’s a tendency for smartphone telephoto lenses to just amplify the shortcomings of the small-sensor-small-lens combo working to create them, which manifests as ugly purple fringing or obviously smeary details. The images I took at 70mm are blessedly free from these artifacts, especially if you’re looking at them at social media sizes. The 105mm focal length starts to look a little artifact-y, and details are noticeably soft, but as long as there’s plenty of light, images don’t look distractingly bad.

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That’s the good stuff. I’m a little less excited about one of the other marquee camera features on the Xperia: autofocus. Namely, Sony’s dual phase-detect and tracking AF technologies, which it has imported to the Xperia series from its Alpha range. Don’t get me wrong, Sony autofocus is amazing. It’s why I own a Sony camera. You can see it at work in the Xperia 1 III when it effortlessly identifies a human or animal subject and tracks it around a scene, keeping up even when the subject turns away or becomes obscured behind something else. I’m just not convinced that it does much good here.

First, it seems to contribute to some distracting autofocus fluttering between near and distant subjects in some situations with the telephoto lens. Combined with the inherently less stable ergonomics of taking pictures with a phone versus a dedicated camera, it can make for a real challenge trying to get a photo of something in the distance.

Taking closer-range photos of moving kids and pets in dim conditions is probably a more common use case for many people, and it’s one that no phone manufacturer has been able to crack just yet — including Sony. In these situations, dual phase-detect will keep up with your subject, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get a sharp shot. Just like every other phone camera system, it’s bound by the laws of small-sensor-small-lens physics. Situations where there’s just not enough available light to keep shutter speed high enough will still result in some blur, no matter how well the subject tracking is keeping up.

In very low light, the camera will assemble data from multiple frames to create a brighter, less noisy image. This actually happens automatically in darker conditions, and doesn’t require a trip to a separate night mode, which I appreciate. But it does require you to hold the camera steady for a second or two, and isn’t well suited for moving subjects.

Sony has included a darn good camera system on the Xperia 1 III, and it’s one I enjoyed using. I got to flex some creativity that I’d normally avoid with a smartphone and reserve for when I have a dedicated camera on hand. But it hasn’t found a way yet to bend the laws of optics and physics.

We noted in our Xperia 1 II review that rather than leaning into computational photography the way Apple and Google have, Sony seems to be leaning into its traditional camera chops, applying the technology that has pushed the company’s mirrorless cameras to the top of the game. That approach has paid off in some ways — a great native camera app, a surprisingly good telephoto lens — but it doesn’t always translate, and I’m not sure how much further Sony can take that approach.

Sony Xperia 1 III video recording

The Xperia 1 III is also well equipped for the serious mobile video shooter, with up to 4K / 60p recording and a native video app that includes plenty of manual control over video settings. You can set shutter angle, manually set points for pull focus, and apply one of Sony’s pro-video-esque color profiles. I have no problem telling you that this was all way over my head, but I played with it anyway.

Your video files are associated with projects, and certain parameters like frame rate are preserved from clip to clip within a project. You also have the choice of recording to internal storage or directly to a microSD card if you don’t want to burn up your storage space with 4K video files. I’m happy to report that the SIM tray where the microSD card slot lives simply pops out of the side of the device, so you won’t have to hunt down a safety pin every time you want to grab your card to transfer files. That’s a nice touch, especially if you’re going to be taking that card out often to transfer footage to a computer.

There’s not much you can do in the way of editing files — you can trim them or grab a still frame — so they’ll need to be exported for anything more than that. It’s also possible to use the Xperia 1 III as an external monitor for video recording with a dedicated camera (doesn’t need to be a Sony), or to use it for live-streaming.

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This is all much more robust than any native video-recording options you’ll find on a Samsung, Google, or Apple flagship. For someone who’s entrenched in the Alpha camera ecosystem, it could make sense as a compact, lightweight option for recording clips, or as part of a live-streaming setup. But there are also strong third-party apps and accessory options for mobile video shooters, especially those using iOS, that have benefited from years of development and use in the field. While the Xperia packs more of this into its native app experience, it’s not exactly a unique proposition.

In the Xperia 1 III, Sony has created a sophisticated device that both looks good and delivers flagship-level performance. It offers sophisticated camera hardware and software and a lovely high-resolution OLED that’s not quite like anything else in its class. And yet I’m struggling to think of anyone who should buy this phone over an iPhone 12 Pro Max or a Galaxy S21 Ultra.

There’s the basics: for $1,300, you’d be getting a device that’s likely to only see a couple of years of security updates. And if you’re on AT&T, you’re paying top dollar for a 5G device that can’t access the carrier’s 5G network. It’s hard to make a case for the Xperia just based on those facts.

But suppose you plan on trading in your phone in a couple of years anyway, and you’re not on AT&T or don’t care about 5G (still a reasonable response to have toward 5G right now). The Xperia 1 III will deliver a very good picture-taking experience with camera hardware as good as anything else out there right now. You’ll get a great entertainment consumption device, with good audio and a lovely screen. And if you’re interested in shooting video, you’ll have a powerful tool in your hands right out of the box.

But none of these features go far enough above and beyond what you can get with an iPhone or Galaxy flagship to make the Xperia stand out. Factor in the shorter time frame for device support and uncertainty of any OS platform updates, and things just don’t add up in the Xperia 1 III’s favor.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge