Sony Xperia 1 III review: Nearly brilliant

Sony’s inability to come up with a proper naming structure for its latest phones might still feel a bit out of place but there’s no denying that its triple-threat Xperia lineup made an impact last year. The Xperia 1 II flagship was a particular highlight, albeit a rather expensive one, and it’s about to be replaced by the Xperia 1 III.

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In truth, there isn’t a huge amount that separates the two. The new phone is even more expensive than the original and Sony hasn’t exactly ripped it up when it comes to upgrades, either. However, Sony’s strategy of refinement over revolution isn’t necessarily to the Xperia 1 III’s detriment.

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Sony Xperia 1 III review: What you need to know

So what are those differences? At first glance, it’s hard to tell. Sony’s newest four-figured flagship incorporates the same long-tall design, as the Xperia 1 II with a lavish 6.5in 4K OLED screen and a similar Zeiss-branded 12MP triple-camera.

As you might have guessed, the biggest changes are to be found on the inside. Qualcomm’s most up-to-date flagship mobile chipset, the Snapdragon 888, powers the Xperia 1 III, and it promises higher levels of sustained performance and power efficiency over last year’s version.

This new processor works in tandem with an extra 4GB of RAM (now totalling 12GB) and the Xperia 1 III has a slightly larger, 4,500mAh-capacity battery as well. Other changes include a maximum screen refresh of 120Hz (up from 60Hz) and reverse wireless charging support. The phone comes with Android 11, too.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Price and competition

Sadly, you’re going to have to pay a lot of money for all this. Launching in August 2021, the Xperia 1 III costs £1,200, which is £100 more expensive than last year’s model. There’s no word yet on how much a monthly contract will set you back but you can expect it to be just as painfully pricey.

It’s a shame Sony is continuing to flog its flagship phones at such laughably absurd prices. As an alarming point of comparison, the Xperia 1 III costs £200 more than the ever-popular iPhone 12 Pro and it’s £100 more expensive than the base iPhone 12 Pro Max as well. Bonkers.

As far as Android phones go, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is our choice at the premium end of the market but, like the iPhone, it’s also a heck of a lot cheaper than this Sony. In fact, it can now be found for around £900.

And it’s also worth mentioning that there are a couple of cheaper Xperia handsets that have either just arrived or are about to. Sony’s mid-ranger, the Xperia 10 III is a respectable alternative at just £399 and sitting between the two (but closer in price to the Xperia 1 III) is the Xperia 5 III, which you’ll soon find in shops for £900.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Cameras

With the Xperia 1 III’s exorbitant launch price swiftly pushed out of the way, I’m going to deviate from our usual phone reviews structure and discuss what makes the Xperia 1 III so great from the get-go.

After spending a couple of weeks with Sony’s newest flagship, there’s absolutely no denying the Xperia 1 III offers one of the most comprehensive and well-thought-out camera offerings I’ve ever experienced on a smartphone.

The rear camera array is arranged in a vertical traffic light formation, which incorporates a trio of 12MP lenses, all at different focal lengths. Sitting at the top is an ultra-wide unit, which has an equivalent focal length of 16mm. The main sensor, placed in the centre, is optically stabilised and has a focal length of 24mm and an f/1.7 aperture.

The most exciting thing about this phone, however, is the third camera: a 12MP telephoto lens that’s capable of switching between 70mm and 105mm focal lengths at the push of a button. Offering an equivalent optical zoom range of 2.9x and 4.4x, this “Variable Optical Zoom” system, as Sony calls it, is achieved through the use of a moveable lens element that’s placed on top of the camera’s 1/2.9in sensor.

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What this means is that Sony is able to offer two optical zoom ranges in a single camera module, functioning sort of like a teleconverter on a traditional camera lens. It’s a bit of a technical achievement and there’s no denying the boffins at Sony have cooked up something unique here.

How did I get on with this intriguing camera setup in testing, then? During a misty walk in Ditchling Beacon in the South Downs, I captured some truly exceptional landscape shots overflowing with intricate details, including wispy cloud layers and leaf-packed tree foliage.

However, I was most impressed by the Xperia 1 III’s ability to render colours almost exactly as you see them, capturing subdued and delicately neutral colours every time you press the shutter button.

As with its predecessor, the Sony Xperia 1 III also has real-time eye autofocus for both humans and animals and up to 20fps burst-mode focus tracking as well. Using this method, I snapped some truly impressive pictures of Daisy, our Senior Editor, Ed Munn’s, unstoppably energetic Jack Russell, as well as a couple of inquisitive geese cooling off in Poplar Dock Marina on a sunny evening. Take a look at the quality of the reflections in this goose’s eye:

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Nearly brilliant

The Xperia 1 III’s portrait pictures looked equally terrific. There’s no dedicated portrait mode for the rear cameras (only the 8MP selfie camera gets one of those) but you are able to apply and adjust the bokeh before you capture an image. Outlines around the subject are nice and crisp, and facial details look absolutely spot on as well.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Nearly brilliant

What’s even more impressive is that capturing pictures of this calibre is pretty much effortless. Most of the image samples dotted around this review were taken using the phone’s “basic” shooting mode in the Photography Pro camera app. Outside the portraits I didn’t need to tinker with any of the various settings beforehand.

Should you need it, however, the Sony Xperia 1 III’s camera app is filled with a wide range of features and settings, with a similar UI and settings to Sony’s mirrorless and full-frame Alpha cameras.

My only real complaint is that there is a slight amount of micro-blurring when taking pictures using the phone’s zoom lens, although this is only really noticeable in extremely sunny environments if you crop into the image afterwards.

As for video capture, the Xperia 1 III can record at up to 4K resolution at a variety of frame rates, including 24, 30 and 60fps, with the option for 120fps slow-mo shooting at 4K with EIS engaged as well. Video is mostly crisp and judder-free, even during rapid camera panning.

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Sony Xperia 1 III review: Design and key features

That’s an awful lot to take in but it’s about time we move on to the rest of the Xperia 1 III’s characteristics. This is yet another of Sony’s long and thin flagships. Its screen has an aspect ratio of 21:9 and this means that, while its total height is about the same as the plus-sized Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (165mm), it’s nowhere near as wide, measuring just 71mm across.

If you wear jeans with small pockets, you might find that the Xperia 1 III pops awkwardly out of the top. Otherwise, it fits nicely in the hand and I didn’t have any issues reaching across the screen with my thumb when using the phone one-handed, either.

Sony’s floating “Side Sense” dock further assists one-handed use. Simply double-tap the highlighted area of the screen and you can access a list of your most-used apps, as well as enable the phone’s one-handed and multi-window modes.

Design-wise, the Xperia 1 III is pretty much a carbon copy of last year’s version but that’s no bad thing. The “Frosted Black” model I received for review befittingly fits its premium price: it looks good, feels good, and the new matte finish isn’t a fingerprint magnet, either.

A thumbprint sensor is helpfully embedded in the phone’s power button on the right edge of the phone and the dedicated camera shutter button, which can be half-pressed to focus, is also a nice addition. It’s a bit of a throwback to use a phone that doesn’t have a pesky holepunch notch eating its way into the screen, too – the selfie camera is instead located within a slim bezel at the top of the display.

Another rarity is that the Xperia 1 III includes a 3.5mm audio jack. According to Sony, the Dolby Atmos-tuned “full stage” stereo speakers are also 40% louder than last year’s, and they support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format, too.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Display

Sony remains the only smartphone maker to include a 4K resolution display on its flagship phones. Potential power drain aside, the Xperia 1 III’s 6.5in OLED screen is as good as it gets, with 10-bit colours, support for HDR 10 content, and a maximum resolution of 1,644 x 3,840 with a super-high pixel density of 643ppi.

I use the word “maximum” here because, depending on the settings you choose, the phone won’t always display a native 4K image. In fact, if you want to deploy the Xperia 1 III’s new 120Hz refresh mode, it automatically drops to FHD+ resolution. I expect this is some sort of battery-saving measure but the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t need to do this to run the display at 120Hz and it doesn’t cause too many issues, either.

I have very few complaints about the quality of the screen. Colour reproduction is absolutely spot on, with a measured average Delta E colour variance of 1.15 in the phone’s “Creator” display mode, which targets the BT.2020 colour gamut. Even the most exacting of eyeballs won’t be able to spot any inaccuracies.

The only small negative is that the Xperia 1 III’s display isn’t particularly bright. With a measured peak luminance of 450cd/m2 in HDR video, the Xperia 1 III isn’t the best for watching HDR movies or TV. As a point of reference, the iPhone 12 Pro, which also has an AMOLED display, is capable of reaching HDR brightness levels of well over 1,000cd/m2.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Performance and battery life

Take a peek inside, and you’ll find Qualcomm’s latest flagship mobile processor, the Snapdragon 888. This 5G-enabled chipset is clocked at a speedy 2.84GHz and it works side-by-side with a frankly ludicrous 12GB of RAM. This much memory is mostly overkill for any smartphone user, however, despite what Sony might say.

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There’s not much that differentiates the Xperia 1 III from the rest of the competition, either. As the Geekbench 5 graph below shows, it’s clearly as rapid as it gets but, as usual, it’s much of a muchness compared with other top-end phones. It is, however, a solid advance over last year’s Xperia 1 II.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Nearly brilliant

As for games, the Xperia 1 III edges slightly ahead of the competition. With the 120Hz refresh setting enabled (and, therefore, with FHD+ resolution enabled), the Xperia 1 III reached an average frame rate of 116fps in the on-screen GFXBench Manhattan 3 test, outperforming the Galaxy S21 Ultra by some distance. The caveat here, of course, is that the Samsung was tested at its native QHD+ resolution and not FHD+ like the Sony.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Nearly brilliant

Unfortunately, the Xperia 1 III’s larger 4,500mAh battery hasn’t done much to improve the Xperia 1 II’s woeful battery life. Surviving for a total of 14hrs 43mins in our battery rundown test, the Xperia 1 III’s stamina is weak compared with its main rivals, with both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Pixel 5 outlasting Sony’s battery-hungry flagship by more than eight hours.

Sony Xperia 1 III review: Nearly brilliant

Sony Xperia 1 III review Verdict

The Sony Xperia 1 III’s poor stamina is hugely disappointing because it’s otherwise a truly exceptional handset. Mostly unblemished in every other area, and truly exceptional in others, the Xperia 1 III is a solid indication that Sony absolutely knows what it’s doing in the mobile space.

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All Sony needs to do now is swallow its pride, ask for less than what Samsung and Apple are currently charging and ditch the pointless 4K display in favour of better battery life. If they can do those things, there’s nothing standing in the way of their phones standing side-by-side with the best phones around.

For the time being, however, the Sony Xperia 1 III is simply too expensive, and too short-lived to recommend.