If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? That age-old question now has a 2017 equivalent: if there’s no 4K HDR content for your phone, does having a 4K HDR screen even matter?
Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium was first past the post with these two desirable bits of display tech, but Amazon and Netflix weren’t exactly in a hurry to stream content to it.
Full HD HDR seems to be the way to go - which is where the XZ1 comes in.
It takes most of what made the XZ Premium such a killer phone, at least on paper, and swaps the 4K screen for a more sensible 1080p panel. HDR sticks around, though, so your boxset binge sessions will still look their best.
In practice, though, Sony seems to have focused more on gimmicks like 3d scanning, than areas that need attention like the rapidly ageing design.
DESIGN & BUILD: Spot the difference
Oh, would you look at that: another Xperia smartphone that barely looks different from the old one. Sony’s styling hasn’t had a significant shake-up since the original Xperia Z arrived, and that doesn’t change here.
That means you get the same angular shape, same massive top and bottom bezels surrounding the 5.2in screen, and same minimal back that looks more like Space 2001’s monolith than a smartphone. The rear camera sits flush to the phone, too, which only adds to the similarity.
Sit the XZ1 alongside bezel-busting flagships like Samsung’s Galaxy S8, the LG V30, or Apple’s iPhone X, and you’ll wonder why Sony didn’t try something similar: the Xperia design is starting to feel noticeably dated.
Sony has stuck with an all-aluminium build this time, though, instead of copying the XZ1 Premium’s mirror-like glass finish - which was an absolute fingerprint magnet. Here, you don’t have to constantly polish the phone just to keep it looking clean. OCD phone owners: your prayers have been answered.
It is a little on the chunky side, though: you’ll definitely notice one sat in your pocket.
There are some positive points, though. The fingerprint reader on the side is as excellent as ever, perfectly placed where your thumb naturally sits (if you’re right-handed, anyway) and quick to unlock the phone. IP65/IP68 water and dust proofing should keep it safe when you head to the beach, too, or accidentally dunk it in the toilet. Don’t lie, we’ve all done it.
SCREEN & SOUND: HDR Hero
Bezels aside, the XZ1’s 5.2in screen is still very good. Sony has stuck to 1080p here, rather than chase increasingly high resolutions - if you want 4K, you’ll have to step up to the XZ1 Premium.
You do get HDR, though, making the XZ1 the first Full HD phone to get high dynamic range. That means brighter whites, more vibrant colours, and more gradation between hues that should really make HDR videos leap off the screen. And yes, HDR clips really do look a lot better than the SDR originals.
HDR from Amazon Prime was already available on the XZ1 Premium, but Netflix arrived alongside the XZ1 at launch. That means a lot more content than Samsung or LG’s HDR-ready phones, which are still waiting for apps to roll out HDR support.
For everything else, the 5.2in LCD has bright colours and exceptional brightness - although contrast isn’t quite as good as we’ve seen from phones with OLED panels. Brightness isn’t a problem, though: it gets hard though enough to see clearly in bright sunshine.
The dual front-facing stereo speakers are a great match to the screen, too. They’re 50% louder, and push out 50% more sound pressure than last year’s phone, easily making it loud enough for playing podcasts while you’re cooking, or catching up with Netflix shows without plugging in headphones.
CAMERA: FOCUS OF ATTENTION
Sony's phones use camera tech diluted down from the company's point-and-shoot compacts, so it’s only fair to expect good things.
On paper, the XZ1 delivers, thanks to a 19MP sensor with predictive capture, smile detection and autofocus burst. Basically, it’ll make it much easier to capture the shots you want, without having to jump into the manual mode.
Predictive capture isn’t new to Xperia phones, but it is turned on by default here, so you won’t forget to enable it. Press the shutter and you’ll get a series of shots to choose from, rather than just one. So no more missed snaps - and it works, too, even if it's a little fiddly having to jump into a menu and scroll through every shot to pick your favourite.
Picture quality is up for debate, though. Colours were aggressively vibrant and oversaturated, making a vase of flowers look very unnatural. Details look good on the surface, but zoom in and it was easy enough to spot the limitations of the processing.
As with previous Sony phones, the XZ1 tends towards oversharpening, which looks good on from a distance but loses more subtle details when you look closely. It’s something the higher-than-usual pixel count just can’t compensate for. Google's Pixel, Samsung's Galaxy S8 and Apple's IPhone 7 Plus all do a better job, and with fewer pixels.
Low-light photos aren’t amazing, with lots of noise unless you rely on the harsh LED flash.
Burst mode with tracking autofocus is the real star, here, shooting 10fps for up to 10 seconds but keeping your targets clearly in focus - even when they’re moving around the frame, or in and out of it. The system worked well on slow-moving targets like pets and children, and is a nice addition to the XZ1’s feature-set, even if it's not exactly something you'd buy a phone just to have. Don’t rely on it for a formula one race, though.
Sony’s super slow motion video mode also makes a reappearance, shooting 960fps videos that make hyper-active pets and children look about as energetic as a sloth. Resolution is still limited in this mode, but the results are still impressive when you feed it enough light.