Sony Xperia XZ1 review: Solid, opinionated, and lovably flawed

The quick take

Sony's Xperia XZ1 once again offers lustworthy design and hardware quality that focuses on style rather than ergonomics and screen-to-body ratios, and it absolutely works. With top-tier specs, the Android 8.0 software absolutely screams — and despite having a small battery, longevity is excellent. But for a $699 phone, the XZ1's 1080p screen is just average, and its camera still doesn't match the similarly priced competition.

The Good

  • Unique design
  • Great build quality
  • Strong battery life
  • Clean software and excellent performance
  • Dual speakers

The Bad

  • Average screen quality
  • Poor screen to body ratio
  • Camera quality doesn't match price
  • Expensive for what you get
  • No fingerprint sensor in the U.S.

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The internals

Sony Xperia XZ1 Tech Specs

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CategoryXperia XZ1
Operating SystemAndroid 8.0 Oreo
Display5.2-inch LCD, 1920x1080Gorilla Glass 5
ProcessorSnapdragon 835 64-bitAdreno 540
Rear Camera19MP Exmor RS, hybrid AF960 fps slow-mo, 4K video
Front Camera13MP f/2.0 22mm wide-angle
ConnectivityWi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, USB 3.1, GPS1Gbps (Cat16) LTE
ChargingUSB-CQuick Charge 3.0Qnovo Adaptive Charging
SecurityFingerprint sensor (except U.S.)
Dimensions148 x 73.4 x 7.4 mm
Weight155 g
ColorsBlack, Warm Silver, Moonlit Blue, Venus Pink

Sony Xperia XZ1

Standard Sony

Sony Xperia XZ1 Things you'll love

You can always pick a Sony phone out from a crowd. (Doubly so when you have a pink Sony phone, as I do here.) That opinionated, bold design is a big selling point of Sony phones, knowing that you have a phone that will get looks wherever you go — particularly in the U.S. where so few Sony phones are out there in the wild. Some may not like that, but I see it as a huge positive. I love how the Xperia XZ1 looks.

Good or bad, everyone has an opinion on Sony's design.

And the quality of its build matches the design. The metal body is sleek and just lightly textured, perfectly rounding up to the sides to meet the front glass. It's fantastic, and easy to manage even though it's perfectly flat across the back. This isn't the "Compact" model, but with a 5.2-inch display and at 155 grams it's much lighter and more comfortable to hold than the big slab that is the XZ Premium. Though of course the screen is much smaller than the competition, its overall size is roughly the same as the Galaxy S8 — that's "small" today.

The power button is perfectly situated for your thumb, and the volume rocker is easy to press. There's a dedicated camera button, if you like that sort of thing. There's a headphone jack(!), and even a pair of front-facing stereo speakers — which sound good, by the way, even if they aren't on the same level as the pseudo-stereo speakers of the HTC U11. The big bezels, while not necessarily in vogue at the moment, give you plenty of room to comfortably hold the phone in landscape for video.

Sony packs serious specs into what is a relatively small phone.

Sony backs up the XZ1's good looks with some great specs and performance. A Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage with an SD card slot is a great base to work on, particularly when you consider it's pushing just 1080p resolution on the screen. You get all of the latest radios, including NFC placed properly on the back of the phone, and it's all wrapped up in IP68 water- and dust-resistance.

The specs interface wonderfully with Android 8.0 Oreo, which puts the XZ1 in some very exclusive company at the time of launch. The software absolutely flies in every single way. No hiccups, no lag, no stutters, no dropped frames or complains. It's not that I wasn't expecting exactly this, but actually using it and having a great time is always worth reporting on.

Android 8.0 Oreo flies with these specs, and battery life is great as well.

Sony's interface itself hasn't really changed much from Nougat to Oreo, as you'd expect, but that's just fine with me. A few of its apps could use a face lift, and its launcher (somehow) doesn't properly integrate with notification dots, but Sony continues to offer one of the least intrusive manufacturer software suites. You get all of the benefits of having Oreo underneath, which will suit you well now and in the future, and Sony always seems willing to follow Google's playbook — case in point being the Google Now feed in the default launcher.

Sony somehow continues to get ridiculous battery life out of phones with below-average battery capacities. The 2700mAh on tap in the XZ1 seems small, even by this screen size, yet I never had to worry about battery life. I ended my average 17-hour day off the charger with 30-40% left on the phone, even with 2-3 hours of "screen on" time. A heavier day with over 4 hours of screen on time still got me to bed before hitting Stamina Mode at 15% battery. It's long and consistent — that's awesome.

Sony Xperia XZ1

Not much to dislike

Sony Xperia XZ1 Things you'll hate

Some people just won't be able to deal with buying an expensive phone that doesn't give them a high amount of screen real estate per dollar. At $699 with a 5.2-inch screen, the Xperia XZ1 doesn't offer the same sort of value as a Galaxy S8+ at roughly the same price. Sony isn't even trying to play the "small bezel" game, and if that's what you want, you just need to look elsewhere.

The 'right' screen size is subjective, but the quality here is objectively not good enough.

But there are bigger concerns with the screen when it comes to its overall quality. The fact that it's 1920x1080 isn't a huge issue at this size, though you will notice the resolution from time to time when you get your face closer to the screen than usual. The bigger issue is that this is just an average LCD. It's both accurate and colorful when it needs to be, and viewing angles are fantastic, but it doesn't get particularly bright, which limits its usefulness in sunlight. It also doesn't get particularly dim, so it can be tough on your eyes late at night.

Once again making a comparison to Samsung's latest phones at the same price level ... the screen isn't in the same league. Or comparing directly to an LCD, like the HTC U11's, the XZ1 doesn't match it.

I have so many extra feelings on the XZ1's camera I actually wrote a whole separate article about what's improved. But here's the short(er) version: Sony has dramatically improved its image processing with the XZ1, to the point where you wonder what the heck it was thinking on previous phones. Rather than crush fine lines and details into a muddy mess, the XZ1 now lets far more of the detail come through so you get crisp, realistic photos.

More: The Sony Xperia XZ1's camera has pleasantly surprised me

It's Sony's best camera in years ... and it's still not matching the competition.

The camera is still begging to add OIS to improve its low light photos, and there are some areas where the XZ1 still doesn't meter properly and has to over-process dark areas. But those are more of fringe issues now, as Sony has upped its game to the point where walking out of the house with the XZ1 didn't feel like a massive downgrade from the other great cameras I have available to me. But alas, this is a $699 phone. Its camera altogether doesn't meet its price, notably still beaten overall by phones like the Galaxy S8, HTC U11, etc. — but this is Sony's best camera in several generations.

And of course, the anchor for this section is a few sentences addressing the fingerprint sensor. Mainly, you don't get one if you buy this phone in the U.S. Not because the hardware isn't there, but because of a legal situation keeping Sony from enabling it in the firmware. It's a ridiculous limitation, and we're tired of prattling on about it, but this issue alone will keep many people from buying the XZ1. Yes you can import a phone from the UK, or even flash UK firmware to a U.S. phone to get the sensor — but should you have to? No, Sony should just remedy whatever it got itself into that keeps the fingerprint sensor disabled on U.S. phones. It's insane that we're still talking about this today.

Sony Xperia XZ1

Listen to your heart

Sony Xperia XZ1 Should you buy it?

Once again, Sony has made a phone that appeals to your heart rather than your brain. Looking at it, holding it in your hands and using it every day, you'll love so many aspects of the Xperia XZ1. But then you realize what it costs and what you can get elsewhere ... and you may think better of that decision to spend $699 on this phone.

Sometimes you buy the phone that's objectively the best. Other times, you buy a Sony.

Sony's hardware is beautiful and unique, despite its unabashedly large screen bezels. The XZ1's build quality is top-notch, as are its internal specs. You get Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box, and it runs perfectly — and runs all day on a charge despite not having a large capacity battery to draw from.

But again, it's $699. And for that money, you're getting a 5.2-inch 1080p LCD that's just average. And a camera, while much improved from its predecessors, that doesn't match the competition in the same price range. And in the U.S., you're not even getting a fingerprint sensor. When you take in those downsides, it's a tough sell for the rational consumer. But then again, how often do we act completely rationally? Sometimes you have to listen to your heart. Sometimes, you buy a Sony phone.

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Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.