For the past 5 or so years, Sony has found itself in a bit of a mess when you look at its mobile division. Apple and Samsung continue to dominate the top spots of the best sellers list, and Microsoft, Blackberry and HTC have nigh on disappeared out of the industry altogether (being replaced with upstart Chinese brands like Xiaomi, Huawei, OnePlus and Oppo). It would have made the perfect time, tactically, for Sony to really innovate and push themselves to make it in the big leagues.
Instead, year after year, Sony pushed out mediocre, frankly boring Xperia handsets, trying to compete with headline features that no-one really cared about. Did you know the Xperia XZ Premium had the world’s first 4K screen on a smartphone? Likely not, as it was released in June 2017, a few months after Samsung just launched it’s lovely Galaxy S8, which slimmed down the bezels to impressively small levels.
When placed next to each other, the XZ Premium — with its enormous top and bottom bezels — looked like it was years behind Samsung in the design game, with Sony sticking with a design essentially unchanged since the release of the Xperia Z back in 2013!
So this year, Sony has gone for a bit of a bold move. Instead of doing what everyone else is doing and stuffing fingerprint scanners and notches all over the place, Sony have taken a unique direction and put a 21:9 screen on their latest phones. They have gone for this design policy with their new flagship, the Xperia 1, but also with the cheaper alternatives: the Xperia 10 and 10 Plus.
For this review, and in keeping with the ethos of hitting the £200-400 range, I’m reviewing the Xperia 10 Plus. This foregoes some of the more premium aspects of the Xperia 1 to allow it to hit that more affordable price range, with the 10 Plus coming in at £349.
Let’s go straight in and talk about the flagship feature: the screen. At first glance, it makes the phone look almost comical. The Xperia 10 Plus is using a 6.5″ display, but since it’s in a longer 21:9 aspect ratio (most other phones use 16:9 or 18:9 ratio, so more square), physically the phone is only 5mm wider than a Galaxy S10, which only has a 6.1″ screen. The result of that is a crazy tall handset, coming in at 167mm tall. For comparison, a Galaxy Note 10+ is only 162mm tall (and that has an even bigger screen than the Xperia).
The screen itself isn’t a marvel. It’s quite a bog-standard 1080p LCD apart from the unusual aspect ratio, however perfectly fine for the price point. Colours are fairly nice and detail isn’t bad. However I found the screen a bit dull, and brightness dips a bit when looking at it off-centre.
If you are looking for OLED quality, then you’ll need to cough up an extra £550 (!) for the Xperia 1 (which also bumps up the resolution). Additionally, Sony is not playing the bezel-less game this year, with the bezel above the screen still very much present, housing the earpiece and the front-facing camera. Still, the other three sides have been slimmed down pretty well.
However the real beauty of that long screen gives it two major advantages. Firstly, you can fit in so much more vertical content. Browsing articles on the web allows for more text on the screen, thus less scrolling. Reading a Kindle book means less flipping pages (or comfortably more words on the screen than on a standard ratio phone). More emails will be visible within your email app. You get the idea.
Secondly, it means that cinematic content is full screen. In other words, when watching a movie on Netflix that’s filmed in 21:9 ratio (as most films are) you no longer have black bars above and below the content. I didn’t think this would be a big deal for me, but it really immerses you in the content when the movie is edge to edge on the screen.
Sadly this tall screen does bring with it some issues. Firstly, not all apps scale to fit the screen perfectly. Some apps have bars at the top and the bottom to force the app into a 16:9 or 18:9 ratio which it is designed to run at, or stretch content to make it fit, making the UI look a bit weird. When 18:9 phones were introduced a few years ago, they had the same issue when up to that point all apps were designed to run at 16:9 ratio, however this has slowly stopped becoming a problem as most Android manufacturers moved to having this ratio as the most common within their lineups (especially at the flagship end of their offerings).
However, I don’t see any many other manufacturers making moves to producing 21:9 phones (bar the recently released Motorola One Vision), so Sony may be out pretty much on their own here, trying to encourage developers to make their apps look better on their phones. Sony simply does not have the market impact to push this progress where Samsung or Huawei might, so I think this may be a problem that I don’t see going away until more manufacturers hop on the tall screen bandwagon.
Secondly, the tall screen means that reaching the top of it with your thumb is basically impossible. As a 6’2” guy, I think I’ve probably got larger than average hands, and I can only reach two-thirds of the way up the screen with a stretch.
Thankfully Sony have included a couple of handy tools to help with this issue. A double tap of the home button shrinks the screen down into a smaller portion, allowing you to comfortably reach all points on the screen with one thumb. I’ve seen this in various guises through the years; my first interaction with such a system was on the Xiaomi Mi Note back in 2015.
Additionally there is what Sony is calling Side Sense: a small bar that sits right at the edge of the screen within easy reach (usually right under where your thumb would hover). Swiping up or down on this bar performs a “back” action to save you from trying to stretch away to the top of the screen, or right to the bottom navigation bar. A double tap of this bar also brings up a list of apps you would likely want to open, and some quick toggles for the torch/flight mode/etc. It’s actually quite a nice, thought out tool, and I found myself using it fairly often to make navigation easier.
Elsewhere in the software, Sony has it’s fairly lightly skinned Android with Xperia touches here and there. There are the classic manufacturer specific apps that are always sub-par compared to the stock Android apps, such as the always-barebones Email app. Then there’s the News app which looks quite cheap and tacky compared to Google News or Flipboard, plus it looks like every four news stories is a clickbait article. The phone is running Android 9 Pie underneath all the Xperia gubbins and seems to be getting fairly regular Android updates which is encouraging to see.
Sony has adorned the Xperia 10 Plus with a dual camera sensor on the back of the device: a 12MP main camera with an 8MP telephoto sensor. The telephoto lens is a 2x lens for zoomed in shots. The 10 Plus here has foregone the triple lens setup, missing out on the ultrawide lens that some phones are getting these days. To be fair, most phones with an ultrawide sensor are premium offerings (such as the S10, iPhone 11 Pro, or Sony’s own Xperia 1), but there are examples of mid-rangers with it, such as the Xiaomi Mi 9T.
Sadly, I don’t feel the quality of the shots that it produces are great, especially in comparison to other offerings on the market. Take a look at these comparison photos below between the 10 Plus, Xiaomi Mi 9T and the Huawei P30 Lite. The Sony’s photo is much darker, especially around the edges of the photo, and lacks the detail of the others (to be fair the 9T is very bright, perhaps too bright and unnatural).
On the selfie front (pardon the pun), we have an 8MP snapper handling this. Sony have included fashionable software-applied bokeh effects for selfie photos when the phone detects a face.
Video wise, the phone is capable of shooting 4K video (in 16:9 and 21:9), but only in standard 24fps, no 4K slow motion video here. There is 60fps video at 1080p. There’s also an additional slo-mo video mode, which records at 720p at 120fps and allows one to decide what sections of the video to be slowed down in an edit mode after shooting, which is pretty cool feature.
The phone itself is pretty well designed despite it’s unusually tall stature! The back and sides are sadly all-plastic, though not completely unexpected for a mid-range device. Sony has used a fairly premium looking plastic, it almost reminds me of the plastic used for DVD players and the likes: very slightly speckled depending on the light, unmistakably grey in most scenarios. The button placement has at least had some thought put into it (more than a lot of manufacturers out there!), with all the buttons reachable without much effort.
On the bottom of the phone we find a USB C port — thankfully the micro USB port is almost dead, one less cable to require to have to hand — flanked by the microphone and speaker grilles. On the top we have… a 3.5mm jack! Initially when I unboxed the phone and checked the bottom and didn’t see a headphone jack, I presumed Sony had followed in the paths of many others and ditched the jack, but there it was on the top end, like an old-school
Also just a note on the side-mounted fingerprint sensor. This was the first experience with one, only using front or rear mounted sensors before now, and I fully expected it to be a comparatively terrible experience. I was totally proven wrong. The sensor was as good as any I’ve used, I’d even argue it reads faster and more accurately than the ultrasonic sensor on my S10. It’s in the perfect position for the right thumb: I never had to check my finger positioning before attempting to unlock.
To sum up, I admire the new direction Sony has taken here, against the grain of most other manufacturers’ design directions, though not executed completely without fault (ahem, that camera). The bezels are still there (at least one of them is!) but at least Sony have done something. After years of tiny iterative updates to the flagship Xperia Z range, an overhaul was needed, and now Sony have a unique offering in the market with their screen choices. Sure, it won’t be for everyone, but it might be for someone.