Sony Xperia Pro-I review: Paying the price | #android | #security


Today’s smartphone market is nothing short of brutal. Over the past few years we’ve seen once-major players like HTC and LG shift focus to other products, and brands like Nokia have been bought and sold so many times that they’re basically empty husks at this point, shadows of their former selves. Those players that remain are fighting over the few niches where there’s still room to grow, and now more and more OEMs are pushing far past what we would previously consider a reasonable market ceiling. Samsung may be looking to woo shoppers with deep pockets by promising an innovative foldable experience, but for Sony this super-premium space is all about photography. Is it even possible to make a smartphone camera so good that it’s worth the Sony Xperia Pro-I’s $1800 sticker price? For as much as I really like this phone, I’m still not convinced.

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Sony’s long been a bit of an outsider in the international smartphone space, but I’ve respected its efforts to try doing things a little differently, whether that means taking an early stab at gaming phones, realizing that Compact devices can still be powerful, or being an advocate for super-dense 4K screens. But not every experiment is a success, and the original $2500 Xperia Pro has largely been seen as a swing and a miss. The follow-up Pro-I is not just a more affordable phone (as if that were a high bar to clear) but also one more accessible with a seemingly simple promise: marrying a high-quality standalone camera with the best smartphone tech you can find. And while I think that’s been successful to a degree, it’s still a really hard sell.

Specifications

  • Storage: 512GB
  • CPU: Snapdragon 888
  • Memory: 12GB
  • Operating System: Android 11
  • Battery: 4500mAh
  • Ports: USB Type-C
  • Camera (Front): 8MP (F2.0) 78°
  • Cameras (Rear): 12MP (F2.0/F4.0) 85°, 12MP (F2.4) 48°, 12MP (F2.2) 124°
  • Price: $1800
  • Connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n(2.4GHz)/n(5GHz)/ac/ax, Bluetooth 5.2, 5G
  • Dimensions: 166 x 72 x 8.9 mm
  • Colors: Black
  • Display: 6.5-inch 4K HDR OLED (3840 x 1644)
  • Weight: 211 g
Pros

  • Incredibly versatile camera hardware and software
  • Fantastic build quality
  • Beautiful screen and great-sounding speakers
Cons

  • Jaw-droppingly expensive
  • Not as premium-feeling as similarly priced foldables
Buy This Product

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

On paper, the Xperia Pro-I is easy enough to understand: basically take last year’s Xperia 1 III, and upgrade the phone’s camera hardware with a “1-inch” image sensor. And looking at the hardware, it’s clear here that imaging is a priority. Sony’s handsome camera stack dominates the phone’s back, and the company’s so enamored with these lenses’ Zeiss branding that it sticks the name on there twice.

sony-xperia-pro-i-back-vert

I love the phone’s body. Though big, the handset’s size is anything but intimidating, thanks in large part to the screen’s exceptionally tall aspect of 21:9. This gives us a phone that’s slightly taller than the Pixel 6 Pro (pictured with, below), but narrower, such that it fits far more comfortably in the hand. The rear panel matte-finish frosted glass has a texture that’s just so viscerally pleasing to touch.

sony-xperia-pro-i-compare-pixel-6-pro

That hand-feel is enhanced by the Pro-I’s incredibly satisfying frame. I’m sick of phones with rounded-off screen edges, and thankfully, Sony gives us a flat-edged approach with longitudinal ridges that is just eight kinds of satisfying to hold. That would be unique enough on its own, but Sony couldn’t seem to help itself from making this frame piece as cool and weird as possible.

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In classic Xperia fashion, Sony’s built a super-accessible SIM/expansion tray you can pry open with a thumbnail. SIM tool collections are well and good, but not needing one at all is just clutch.

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Another Sony standard is the presence of a dedicated camera shutter button. Its placement here is a little extreme, all the way down in the bottom-right corner, and while that might make sense from a typical camera-layout standpoint, it makes one-handed use feel a bit off-balance, and I often found myself inadvertently rotating the phone while depressing the shutter.

sony-xperia-pro-i-lanyard

Sony’s final bit of edge weirdness is a hole for a lanyard strap. A lanyard strap. On your phone. I realize this Xperia is intentionally trying to ape camera design, but this inclusion just feels silly.

sony-xperia-pro-i-notification-led

I honestly can’t remember the last phone I used that offered a notification LED — it might have actually been another Sony. It’s one of those throwbacks that initially sounds kind of neat to have again, but after using it for several weeks, you realize why we’ve all sort of moved past the idea. Here, the LED isn’t customizable to the point that it’s any more useful than as an alert that you need to check something on your phone, but without narrowing that down any — which just quickly became annoying. I’d love the ability to assign colors to specific apps or contacts or something — third party apps to do this exist, but compatibility varies, and many are showing their age.


When Sony first introduced fingerprint scanners integrated with power buttons, only for the feature to be disabled in the US, I was so jealous about what we were missing out on. We finally got that a few years ago, and trying it out on the Xperia Pro-I, I’ve got to say… I think I liked it better when it was just an idea. I don’t know if it’s because the sensor itself is so small, but performance is just too unpredictable to rely on. I’m able to successfully authenticate maybe half the time, and the phone’s far too quick to lock the sensor after multiple failed attempts. Considering how far in-display scanners have come, it seems a little silly for Sony to still reject them.

sony-xperia-pro-i-screen-speakers-alt

The display here is just beautiful. With a crisp 3840 x 1644 “4K” resolution, it had sure better be, and the OLED panel here avoids some of the annoying stripey artifacts that plagued Xperia screens in years past. As I mentioned earlier, the extreme aspect of the screen makes for a phone body that’s not uncomfortably wide, and I think the shape is pretty successful with apps — there can be a little reaching at times, but nothing that really impeded my usage. I love how Sony could not care less about people whining about bezels, and sticks its selfie cam up top where it belongs, leaving the screen itself unmolested by cut-outs.


That screen is flanked by a pair of front-facing stereo speakers — that this still isn’t standard across all phones in this day and age is nothing short of tragic. As I’d expect from an Xperia, they sound great, even without the phone’s Dolby Atmos engaged. And as an increasingly rare bonus, Sony even throws in an analog headphone jack. I could do without the “AI enhanced” audio it promises, and even just straight, unprocessed output sounds really nice.

sony-xperia-pro-i-headphone

Sony bundles the Xperia Pro-I with a 30W USB-C charger, and that’s pretty much it. I realize that including earbuds as well has gone a little out of style, but considering what we’re paying here (and that the phone supports them) I might have appreciated a little more effort. At least it’s more than you get from Samsung, with no charger at all.

Software, performance, and battery life

Sony’s Android skin is… fine. It’s relatively lightweight and unobtrusive, and reminds me a lot of Moto software in that respect. I think I like it the most when it’s doing the least. It’s when Sony tries to get cute that I think it fails, like with the “side sense” bar for quickly launching apps or engaging multi-window mode. While quite configurable, the interface is just not super intuitive, and I ultimately found myself turning it off. The phone supports windowed apps, which I think is just ludicrous on a screen this size, and while I held out hope that top-bottom split-screen would at least be somewhat useful with the high aspect here, it still feels really cramped, and any attempt to resize is a flicker party.

To its credit, Sony shows you what your money’s buying, and it doesn’t skimp much when it comes to silicon. The SoC, to be fair, is slightly behind the curve, with the phone running the sort of Snapdragon 888 that makes this clear the Pro-I is a 2021 launch — no 8 Gen 1 here. But we do get a solid 12GB of RAM (even as some manufacturers start dialing back) and an incredibly generous 512GB of storage, perfect for shooting hours of high-res video (that you can easily swap in a microSD card without needing special tools is just the icing on the cake).

All this adds up to some reasonably solid performance. Apps run smoothly on the 120Hz display — for the most part. Occasionally I’d spot some hiccups in multi-window operation, though that’s pretty much the exception that proves the rule.

sony-xperia-pro-i-holding

The Pro-I ships running Android 11, which is not great for a super-premium handset launching at the tail end of 2021. Other Xperias are already getting their Android 12 updates, but considering the unit I checked out is still on the October security patch, maybe don’t hold your breath. For what it’s worth, Sony confirmed that the Xperia 1 III will receive two years of OS updates (following initial reports of just one year), so we’re probably looking at the same treatment here.

Sony gives the Pro-I a 4,500mAh battery — not obscenely large, but appropriate enough for a handset this size. And though it’s easy to burn that fast if you’re shooting a ton of high-res video, battery life is excellent with more casual usage. I regularly found myself getting a couple days on a charge. While there’s USB-PD fast-charging support with the 30W adapter, you miss out on wireless charging, but I really didn’t find it to be a big deal.

Cameras

sony-xperia-pro-i-camera-wood

The Xperia Pro-I has some of the most impressive camera hardware you will find on a smartphone. The main sensor is that big “1 inch” one, with the asterisk there being that the phone does not actually use all of that surface area to capture its 12MP images. In addition to that we’ve got an f/2.2 124-degree ultrawide angle camera, and an f/2.4 telephoto — both also 12MP.

The primary there has the particularly neat ability to toggle between two apertures: f/2.0 and f/4.0. That added flexibility is super rare in the smartphone space (Samsung offered it with Galaxy S9 and S10 models, but abandoned it in more recent offering), and you’ll quickly get used to hearing the familiar “buzz” of the dual aperture apparatus powering up every time you jump into the camera.


Sony’s imaging software — the main camera app, as well separate video and “cinema” titles — is a bit intimidating if you’re a photography novice (though then again, this phone really isn’t built for you), and even the “basic” mode is a little hard to just pick up and use, with its unfamiliar iconography — at least to me, though existing Sony camera users should feel right at home. But these are all apps that reward confident users looking for more control, and once you swap over to Sony’s DSLR-like interface you’ll find a range of options from largely auto, to shutter priority, to full-blown manual.

While I can’t deny that I did get some very nice looking shots out of my time using the Pro-I, none of them feel the sort of order of magnitude improvement over other smartphone cameras that I’d want to see to justify what Sony’s charging — there was never that “wow” moment, like when seeing a Pixel do Night Sight for the first time. I suspect that it is possible to get jaw-dropping quality out of this hardware (Sony’s samples sure are purty) but you’re going to have to possess the actual photography chops to make the most of this package.


Should you buy it?

No. Are you serious? It’s $1800.

You could buy a top-of-the-line regular smartphone plus a decently nice used DSLR (and maybe even a lens or two) for that kind of scratch. And I’m almost positive you’d have a better experience going in that direction.

So who is the Xperia Pro-I actually for? That is a very good question, and it seems to be some intersection between users with lots of disposable income, those heavily interested in content creation, and people who place an extreme priority on convenience. If that lines up for you — well, congratulations on your successful YouTube/TikTok channel, I guess?

I just can’t see the Pro-I as much more than a collection of trade-offs — and that the phone’s single-biggest selling point is largely a misrepresentation (the less-than-fully-used “1-inch” sensor) only serves to drive that home. Lest that sound too negative, I really, really like this smartphone, and it’s going to be sad when I move on to something else — such is the blogger life. The build is great, the software’s fine, and if this were a $900 smartphone, it would be easy to recommend. I feel like the Xperia 1 III is going to be the more sensible option for 95% of users, but even that’s overpriced at $1200.


Sony’s clearly comfortable with the market placement it’s decided on for its phones, including the Xperia Pro-I, but I just worry it’s rendered them inaccessible in the process. And that’s a shame.

sony-xperia-pro-i-back-horiz

Buy it if…

  • You’re already a big fan of Sony’s digital cameras, and crave more manual control from your smartphone imaging experience.
  • You’re a content creator who’s constantly on the go, and need an easily pocketable camera solution.

Don’t buy it if…

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