Sony smartphones have been niche products catering to an alternative group for years, but last year’s Xperia 1 III (pronounced mark three) became a cult hit thanks to it further venturing into pure enthusiast territory. Sony essentially decided to go in the opposite direction of what other phone brands do. Everyone is getting rid of the headphone jack or external memory card support? Sony’s phone keeps both features. Brands are sacrificing screen uniformity in order to trim bezels? Sony would rather just stick with some bezel instead of using a notch. Every brand is chasing the computational photography pioneered by Google and Huawei? Sony says forget ceding camera controls to AI, it wants the user to have more control. Throw in a 4K OLED screen that packs more than twice the pixels in a similar sized iPhone screen, and you have a device that caters to the hardcore power user, the dedicated enthusiasts.
Sony’s new 2021 upgrade, the Xperia 1 IV (pronounced mark four) brings back the whole package with a few improvements, such as a larger battery, brighter display, and a better zoom lens. These are probably not big enough changes to justify an upgrade for those who already own last year’s phone, but it could further convince people who are tired of every Android phone feeling similar to try something different.
Design and hardware
The Sony Xperia 1 IV looks virtually identical to last years mark three, so it’s still a very familiar Sony look: a boxy skinny rectangle that stands a bit taller and narrower than typical smartphone slabs. This is due to Sony’s usage of a slimmer 21:9 aspect ratio for its 6.5-inch screen. I like this narrower form factor, as the phone is narrower from left to right, and thus, easier to grip.
While the back of the phone is a bit nondescript, the Xperia 1 IV has an understated minimalist look that some people may like. The front of the phone is mostly screen, and it’s a gorgeous 4k, 120Hz OLED panel. There are some bezels sandwiching the display—bigger bezels than typical modern smartphones—but they’re put to good use, as Sony houses not just a selfie camera, but also a pair of symmetrical front-facing speakers. This means the Xperia 1 IV is the rare phone with front-facing stereo speakers. As mentioned, the phone also keeps the headphone jack, which should satisfy audiophiles. On the right side of the device is also an extra textured, clicky button usually not seen in smartphones—this is a dedicated shutter button for the cameras. More on this later.
The 4K screen obviously packs a lot of bezels, but perhaps too much. I’m still of the belief that a relatively small mobile device screen can do just fine with 2k resolution, and anything beyond is overkill, a flex on the spec sheet, so to speak. The Xperia 1 IV doesn’t convince me otherwise. Sure, the display looks razor sharp and brilliant, but so are the six other Android flagship phones I tested recently without a 4k screen.
Having a 4k panel also means the phone burns more battery than usual, but luckily Sony has increased battery size to 5,000 mAh this year, from last year’s 4,500 mAh.
There’s the usual Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, with 12GB of RAM and wireless charging, IP68 water resistance, the usual. Ultimately, the hardware that most fans care about is the camera system.
Sony’s last three Xperia flagship phones have catered itself towards “real photographers,” particularly those who own Sony’s Alpha cameras. Sony’s idea is that, while the iPhones and Google Pixels of the world tell consumers their AI is so smart they can snap photos for users, Sony is giving the user back their camera control, this means a camera mode full of granular controls that allows tweaking everything from shutter speed to ISO to white balance. If you shoot in a dark room with an iPhone, Apple will turn on a computational photography trick named Night Mode for you, so you don’t really have to think, just point and shoot. With Sony’s phones, Sony wants you to do what real photographers would do in the same situation—slow shutter speed to pull in more light, or raise ISO to increase light sensitivity.
To further make shooting with the Xperia 1 IV feel like shooting with a real camera, the phone features the aforementioned physical shutter button. Just like Sony Alpha cameras, you can half-press the button to lock focus, and then a full press to snap the photo.
Other camera features Sony Alpha camera owners are used to, like “Eye Autofocus” (the phone will lock focus on a subject’s eye to keep focus on the face) is here, and much to my delight, it also works on dogs and cats.
The cameras can also shoot 4/120fps videos, or snap photos at rapid fire burst mode (20 shots in a second).
The software is top notch and really makes the phone camera app feel like a Sony Alpha camera, but what about the hardware? Sony brings back a triple lens system, consisting of all 12MP cameras, covering the ultra-wide (16mm), wide (24mm) and portrait (85mm to 125mm) focal length. Notice the last focal length has range, that’s because the zoom lens here is an innovative variable optical zoom lens, with an actual moving lens inside the phone.
As I said, Sony goes very light on software image processing (unlike Apple or Google phones, which will basically do photoshop work for you after the shot), so photos are more natural, more raw, but sometimes, more flawed. Shooting against backlight, for example, will result in blown out skies and dark shadows (which is the case with real cameras, too). iPhones and Pixels will fix this with computer algorithms—Sony won’t. Instead, Sony gives you the controls to make the tweaks.
It’s a system that I’ve compared to driving manual transmission (stick shift) in cars: it’s fun and rewarding if you have an interest in the process of controlling gears of an automobile, but most people would rather just drive automatic and not bother with the hassle. That’s the same thing here with the Xpera 1 IV cameras—you have to think and adjust more than you would with an iPhone when you snap a photo.
This alone makes the Xperia 1 IV unique and stand out from the pack. Whether this will win over the average consumer remains to be seen (I wouldn’t bet on it). But if you are indeed an enthusiast, someone who fancies themselves a photographer you will enjoy having more control over your shots.
General performance with the phone is fine, other than the fact the battery life is below par because of that 4k display. During light usage days (workdays if you’re tied to a desk for 8 hours a day), the phone will be fine. But if you’re using it out all day (usually a weekend), expect to need to charge the phone by or before dinner time. Battery life isn’t terrible, just not great.
The phone runs Android 12 with Sony’s very light software overlay on top, and there’s not much to report here. Sony offers a side-menu that can be triggered via swipes and taps, but otherwise, the experience is very typical Android — which is a good thing.
The Sony Xperia 1 IV is quite pricey at well over $1,300. But for enthusiasts, and for people who buy Sony cameras, this price likely won’t be a shocker (my Sony A7C with a 20mm lens cost me well over $3,500).
For casual buyers, this price is almost a non-starter, which makes the Xperia 1 IV yet another very niche phone. But at least Sony is trying different things rather than just following the pack.