Sony Xperia 1 III review: It could have been magnificent
$1,300 is a wild price for a phone with this many wrinkles.
Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Multiple custom Sony apps are buggy or poorly organized
In the expanse of smartphones, the Sony Xperia 1 III (read as "one mark three") positions itself as a tool for photographers, filmmakers, audiophiles and gamers. This is Sony's third take on a phone targeted at creative types, and like a band on its third album, its ambitions only succeed some of the time.
With a state-of-the-art telephoto lens made up of tiny moving lenses that can switch between two focal lengths, 5G support for the US, and a first-of-its-kind 4K high refresh-rate display, you have to wonder if Sony's trying to do too much and inadvertently mucking up what would otherwise be a magnificent phone? The fact that the Xperia 1 III costs $1,300 (which converts roughly to £940, AU$1,735) makes its shortcomings impossible to ignore.
Sony lent me a preproduction version to test for about a week. I found it equally impressive and full of wrinkles. Photos and videos are great. Every parent should consider this phone because the autofocus can lock onto the eyes of their kids. The Xperia is packed with features that check all of the Android flagship phone boxes.
But a nose-bleeding high price tag, buggy software and a confusing way of organizing standard photo and video features make it hard to recommend the Xperia 1 III. If you preorder one before Sept. 26, you can get an Xperia 1 III, Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless noise-canceling earbuds and 43,200 Call of Duty: Mobile CP Points for $1,300, which lessens the sting just a bit.
A 4K display that's perfect indoors
Greeting you on the front of the Xperia 1 III is a 6.5-inch 4K display. It's pretty fantastic indoors and the colors look amazing. It can be set to 60HZ or to 120Hz which make animations and gaming look smooth. The refresh rates are fixed so if it's set to 120Hz, it is always at that rate which has a significant impact on battery life.
Sony Xperia 1 III hides its artsy side under a black facade
As impressive as the 4K resolution is, it's hard to appreciate the screen. It's not dramatically better than a lower resolution screen with a high refresh-rate like the one on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. However, using the phone outdoors is where the display's weakness is revealed. It's not that bright. If it's sunny, it's nearly impossible to make out what's on the screen.
Like the Sony Xperia Pro, you can use the Xperia 1 III as an external monitor for a dedicated camera. It doesn't offer everything the Pro does, but it's nice to have. When I tested it, the External Display app on the Xperia 1 III was buggy. When it did work, it was lovely.
The Xperia 1 III's rear cameras are wonderful, the selfie camera less so
On the back are three cameras: a main 12-megapixel wide angle camera with a larger sensor for better low-light performance, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle camera and a 12-megapixel telephoto camera with a variable lens. The variable telephoto lens is a remarkable achievement, but in terms of benefits you actually notice, the dual-telephoto lens remains a question mark. For example, despite taking up less room it doesn't make the phone any cheaper. In fact the Xperia 1 III costs $100 more than last year's Xperia 1 II.
If you're looking for versatility, it's nice to have a lens with the option of two telephoto cameras, but other phones like the Galaxy S21 Ultra achieve something similar with two separate telephoto cameras. Fortunately, the Xperia 1 III's zoom lens captures excellent photos, especially in terms of image quality and detail. In fact, across the board, the rear cameras on the Xperia 1 III are closely matched in terms of image quality and color. Take a look at the gallery below to see the photos I took with the Sony Xperia 1 III.
But the standout feature isn't the variable telephoto lens. It's EyeAF (eye autofocus). This isn't new to the Xperia line and actually comes from Sony's popular line of Alpha mirrorless cameras. Essentially when you open the Photo Pro app to take a photo, the phone can identify people or animals in the viewfinder and lock focus on their eyes. Even if they move or look away, EyeAF follows them. You don't even need to tap on the screen. For parents trying to grab that "nice in-focus photo" of their kid or pet parents wanting a nonblurry snap of their fur-baby, EyeAF is the answer you've been looking for.
Then there's the selfie camera which compared to the rear cameras is just OK. It has an 8-megapixel camera and photos are average. I expect more from any phone aimed at photographers, especially one with a $1,300 price tag. I wished the selfie camera was closer in image quality to the rear cameras. Also, it would be nice to use the selfie camera to film yourself in the Cinema Pro app.
Sony removed a camera app but made a conundrum
The Xperia 1 III retains the hardware shutter button which is nice. Also, instead of having a default Android camera app and two separate pro camera apps, the Xperia 1 III has a Photo Pro app and a Cinema Pro app. I appreciate Sony simplifying things, but it is odd how it's done. Essentially, Sony took what was the default Android camera app and put it inside the Photo Pro app under a mode called Basic. Yes, that's actually what it's called.
It's strange opening the Photo Pro app in order to record videos and access a slow motion mode. There has to be a better way. When you record a video in Basic mode, there is a long delay between hitting the stop record button and the recording actually stopping. I end up thinking my tap didn't register so I tap a second time which results in the first video stopping and a new recording starting. Also, when you record a video, you can't switch between cameras. You're limited to just the digital zoom on the camera you started recording with.
Sony's Cinema Pro app brings out the filmmaker in me
If you are into manual controls or taking a more cinematic approach to capturing videos with your phone the Cinema Pro app is for you. Like the Xperia 5 II, the Cinema Pro app now has the ability to record 4K 120fps video with the main camera and save it as a 30fps video file. Slow motion footage from the Cinema Pro app looks incredible. In fact, as with previous Xperia phones, the Cinema Pro app yields gorgeous looking videos. Take a look at the video below to see some of the Cinema Pro videos I shot. The video is edited and colored by CNET video producer Oliver Padilla.
The Cinema Pro app does have some limitations. Low light videos are bad and that's because the app is designed to shoot at a maximum ISO of 800. Also, when shooting outdoors on a sunny day, it's easy to bottom-out the ISO which means using a ridiculously low shutter angle to compensate. If you're planning on using the Xperia 1 III and shooting with the Cinema Pro app outside, I definitely recommend finding a ND filter solution.
The Xperia 1 III performs well but has a poor battery life
The Xperia 1 III is the first "regular" Sony phone to get 5G in the US. The $2,500 Xperia Pro had 5G support in the US for sub-6 and MMWave 5G. The Xperia 1 III supports mid- and low-band 5G. I tested it on T-Mobile's 5G network in Greenville, South Carolina. The indicator displays a 5G icon but most of the time it's actually just LTE -- this happens on other 5G phones I tested on T-Mobile 5G, too. Data speeds were all over the place but calls sounded clear.
The Xperia has a Snapdragon 888 processor and 12GB of RAM which translates to solid performance especially for recording videos, and playing games. The only time I had an issue was taking photos and filming videos outside on a 92-degree F day. Within half an hour, a temperature warning popped up.
In benchmark tests, the Xperia 1 III scored on the high side of Android 888 phones but less than gaming phones like the Asus ROG Phone 5. Take a look at benchmark test results below.
And then there's the battery, which is more disappointing than the Friends reunion. In light use, I was able to mostly get through a day. But on days where I played games or did a lot of photography, I needed to top it off by dinner time.
In our CNET battery tests with continuous video playback in airplane mode, it lasted 16 hours, 12 minutes with the screen set to 60Hz, which is an OK time. When I ran the same test with the screen at 120Hz, it lasted 10 hours and 45 minutes. Not even remotely good.