Sony’s small but precise smartphone lineup seemingly slips under the radar, which is a shame as the Xperia 1 III is an incredible feat in many ways.
While many smartphone OEMs rush to follow trends set by the biggest players in the industry, Sony bucks those same trends, and the results can often provide a very “different” experience in a sea of similar smartphones.
Considering the tumbling smartphone market share figures in recent years, one would expect that Sony probably needs to start “following the crowd”. However, if that happened, then devices like the Sony Xperia 1 III simply wouldn’t exist.
At this late stage of 2021, we’ve seen just about every major smartphone maker show their hand – but if you are a true hardcore Android fan, then Sony has quietly laid down a royal flush with absolutely zero fanfare. Let’s explain why.
Video — Sony Xperia 1 III review: The true enthusiast Android
Hardware & design
By this point in the rebooted Xperia series, the most striking and standout design trait is undoubtedly the tall, thin, 21:9 aspect ratio. This is unlike anything else on the market and, in many ways, it’s all the better for it.
From afar the Xperia 1 III looks boxy, but up close and in the hand, the sharp corners are softened and the bevelled edges make a real difference to overall comfort. After all, this is a big, tall phone that is fairly heavy at around 190g. The frosted matte glass and these softened corners are great for grip, but it’s a stealthy look that (similar to almost all of Sony’s recent smartphone efforts) feels like it’s trying to be inconspicuous despite its size.
At 6.5-inches, the Sony Xperia 1 III towers above many other smartphones as the 21:9 aspect ratio means that device width is dropped in favor of height. This isn’t a new Sony trend, but it sure bucks the trend of girthy smartphones that litter the rest of the market. The result is a tall, svelte physique that instantly feels at odds with other phones — and in a good way. Despite the sideways profile being small, the Xperia 1 III is still fairly thick.
Along the right side of the flat bezel, you’ll find a plethora of physical input buttons, which include a volume rocker, power button, dedicated Google Assistant button, and camera shutter control. The camera shutter button is well placed, has a lovely tactile finish, and is a valuable inclusion. Conversely, the Google Assistant button didn’t feel worthwhile in my experience.
I felt myself accidentally activating it rather than purposefully using it 99.9% of the time. The inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone port and a dual SIM tray that support microSD card expansion is going to delight true hardware holdouts – there is no other flagship-tier smartphone on the market that offers such a selection in 2021.
I despise the mushy power button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner because it’s recessed and otherwise cheapens what is a very high-end finish. The saving grace is that the scanner is quick and accurate with a satisfactory buzz when unlocking into the Xperia 1 III homescreen.
This elongated screen is punchy and vibrant, and with a 120Hz refresh rate, every interaction is both slick and precise at the very same time. It’s also one of the only 4K UHD displays available on a smartphone at this point in time.
Despite having the most pixels on a smartphone, it’s hard to truly differentiate on a 6.5-inch screen. I’m not attempting to diminish the experience — which is exceptional — it’s just in no way exponentially better than a QHD+ screen at this kind of size. I personally feel that the 120Hz refresh rate and the 21:9 aspect ratio are more beneficial, but having such a well-tuned 4K display is the icing on the cake. There is a “but” here, though, as the resolution is dynamic. That means that, yes, this is a 4K panel, but it might dip in resolution at certain times.
Because the phone has an ultrawide aspect ratio, you do make some sacrifices in some areas in favor of gains elsewhere. Movies look stellar in their native aspect ratio and gaming is great in titles that support expansive layouts. It does mean that the one-handed mode and side panel features come in handy in “general” usage as the upper extremities of the panel become hard to reach to all but the biggest humans on the planet.
It’s also nice to see a smartphone that doesn’t opt to cut out a portion of the display, nor does it rely on curves to maintain a certain aesthetic. At the upper-right corner, you’ll even find the long-dead notification LED. This is a superb flat panel that even includes front-facing stereo speakers that enhance things even further still.
My biggest gripe is that while the Sony Xperia 1 III touts a Gorilla Glass Victus screen, I have managed to scratch the screen in a number of places, even with careful attention paid to placement in pockets and surfaces. I can only assume that I have caught the screen on a pocket zip, but it was a disappointment given how carefully I have treated and tested this review unit.
Software & performance
If you like lightweight Android, then you might fall in love with the Sony flavor. This is about as close to AOSP as you can get without opting for an Android One smartphone. The Xperia 1 III continues the tradition of small touches to enhance the form factor rather than massive UI tweaks and changes for the sake of differentiation.
At the time of this review, the device is still running Android 11, but it’s highly likely that we’ll see the Android 12 update in the coming months. This experience is very close to that of the Pixel series but with a few Sony apps and some minor third-party options pre-installed.
Sony has its own “App pairs” feature shoehorned into Android 11 and it’s actually very well implemented. The one-handed mode is similarly excellent and, in my opinion, better than the Reachability clone found in Android 12 on Pixel phones. The Side Sense feature is not quite as useful to me but it’s a simple shortcut bar that lets you configure apps or features to quickly launch without entering multiple menus or even the app drawer.
There is some bloat here – Booking.com, Amazon, Amazon Prime Video, Call of Duty Mobile, Facebook, Linkedin, and Netflix came pre-loaded on my device along with a Tidal three-month free trial. All of these can be removed as necessary, so while it’s annoying, you are not saddled with Sony versions of common Google apps.
At no point did the Xperia 1 III feel bogged down or slow given everything I attempted. This is a flagship phone that with the help of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor and 12GB of RAM is everything you could expect and more. I did notice that the back of the phone would get a little warm to the touch after long video or gaming sessions, but not uncomfortably so. In fact, it was impressive how cool to touch the phone often was 95% of the time.
Through a software update, you’re now able to use the Sony Xperia 1 III as an external monitor for dedicated Sony mirrorless cameras such as the A7S III. Unfortunately, I use Panasonic camera hardware, so I have been unable to test this out for myself, but it seems like a great way to turn your smartphone into another daily tool without sacrificing core functions. This does require an extra cable to achieve.
My biggest gripe with the Sony Xperia series camera setups in recent years has been that just pointing and shooting doesn’t quite do justice to images. Sure, you’ll get crisp, clean and color-accurate images all at 12-megapixels, but what struck me most was how little noise you’ll spot in images across all focal lengths.
Open up the suite of “Pro” settings, and you’re getting access to the Alpha camera series toolset all from your smartphone. If you care about tweaking and tuning with your phone and don’t want to lug around a dedicated mirrorless or DLSR camera, the fine controls here best just about every smartphone on the market.
Personally, I found this a bit too much as I did with the previous generations. I say that only as I have a dedicated camera that I would prefer to use but having such options alongside fairly solid auto settings is quite exciting. The Photography Pro app is going to be daunting for novices, but in the right hands, I’m unsure if there is a better manual control mode on a smartphone today.
Combo the fine pro-level controls with the tactile feedback of a dedicated shutter button, and it’s a recipe for true smartphone experimentation. However, I still just want decent auto results, which the Xperia 1 III delivers with very little disappointment.
The dual periscope zoom lens that offers 70mm and 105mm focal lengths is very fun to play around with. This also cuts down the number of rear lenses to just three, whereas many other smartphones would need four.
Disappointingly, this equates to a maximum zoom of just 12.5x, which pales in comparison to the likes of the Galaxy S21 series 100x digital zoom capabilities. That said, even at the maximum zoom length, images do not deteriorate or break down as they would at the maximum 100x zoom on similar smartphones.
I found the selfie camera to be about the only letdown here. Front-facing photos are not terrible, there’s just no “wow” factor — and the same can be said of most Android phones out right now. Using the subject detection for Portrait mode with the selfie camera can also be average at best.
The video modes on offer here are also fairly impressive, but it’s worth noting that there is no 4K 60fps recording option at all. I was happy with how video looks using the triple camera setup on offer with solid dynamic range, rich colors, and fairly sharp moving images throughout the frame. However, start zooming and things can get a bit grainy. This is only exacerbated as noise is almost non-existent when using the main wide camera here.
If you want even more controls and precise fine-tuning for video, then delve into the “Cinema Pro” app. You’re able to record with basic LUTs applied and fully control aperture settings on each lens. I’m still in two minds about the inclusion of this – it’s great to see more options, but good auto mode options are probably better for most people out there. It’s still pretty awesome if you like to play around and want to try and understand the basic principles of cinematography from your smartphone.
At no point did I feel let down by the 4,500mAh battery inside the Xperia 1 III, but I just wanted a little more — which is more or less testament to how good this phone is in every other department. I could push it to the brink of its maximum lifespan within a day but that would usually be ending the day with 5-10% battery life remaining.
That wasn’t too often as I could easily make the end of a “normal” day and hit the charger at the end of the day with 25-40% left in the tank. I am personally confident that I could push the Xperia 1 III to two days using the various battery saving modes and not miss certain features.
I found that the 30W charger recouped the battery fast enough for one or two short blasts per day, and I prefer to charge my phone this way rather than one long spell overnight. With a 30W rated OnePlus Warp wireless charger, it topped up at what I can only assume was the maximum wireless speed available. However, I’m not actually sure what this would correspond to in terms of Watts.
Sony’s reluctance to follow some other trends in the mobile space has led to what is actually one of the best “alternative” flagship smartphones in recent years. The Xperia 1 III may be terribly named and might cause confusion from unsavvy buyers but it’s a fantastic — if overpriced — smartphone.
The design stands apart from many of the slabs you can pick up – it has a solid camera with enhanced Pro controls that are almost unrivaled, plus an excellent screen and decent battery life. That is enough to tick a lot of boxes of buyers out there, and with good reason.
When many other OEMs are abandoning ports, expandable storage and simply following one another, Sony is happy to take a different route and in turn quietly craft some of the best smartphones you can pick up. Without a marketing blitz and very little glitz and glamour that you often associate with the best flagships on the market, the Xperia 1 III stays under the radar and silently usurps some of the biggest players at their own game.
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