Sony’s new Xperia 1 III smartphone is a love letter to photography nerds

Meanwhile, the Xperia 5 III offers many of the same camera tricks for less.

Sony Xperia 1 III (Sony)

Last year’s Xperia 1 II might have been a mobile photographer’s dream come true, but it was far from perfect — it didn’t have 5G in the US, its design could feel awkward, and it focused on the camera experience over just about everything else. But in designing the new Xperia 1 III, Sony seems to have addressed, well, just about everything we didn’t like about the last one.

That’s great news for a company that has long struggled to carve out a viable smartphone niche for itself, but right now there’s just one problem: Sony won’t tell us how much it costs. (Our guess: That means it’s going to be expensive.)

Sony’s silence on the matter means it’s difficult to gauge how good a value the Xperia 1 III is, but this thing may be worth the splurge if a pro-grade camera matters more to you than anything else. The 12-megapixel, 24mm equivalent Exmor RS sensor will probably see the most use, and just like last year it can snap stills as fast as 20 times per second, all while performing lightning-fast focus calculations. Burst modes are nothing new for smartphone cameras, but Sony’s approach produced some absolutely stunning photos when we tested the Xperia 1 II, and we’re expecting similar feats from the 1 III.

Sony Xperia 1 III official images

That main sensor is flanked by a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera and a time-of-flight sensor that gathers depth data, but the 12-megapixel telephoto camera might be the most impressive thing Sony pulled off this year. The company claims the 1 III is the first phone in the world with “true” optical zoom — that is, it actually moves the telephoto lens elements inside the phone rather than just relying on digital zoom trickery the way rival smartphones do. We haven’t had the chance to try this out for ourselves, but in theory, this mix of a clever camera configuration and phase-detection autofocus should mean serious clarity at the camera’s 75mm and 105mm focal lengths.

Of course, those sensors wouldn’t count for much without the right software. New to the Xperia 1 line this year is full-blown real-time object detection, which relies on that time-of-flight camera and some handy algorithms to better track subjects in motion. You’ll be able to control tools like that (plus quite a few more) in the phone’s Photography Pro app, which now includes a helpful Basic mode for off-the-cuff shots. (Last year’s Xperia 1 II included two separate camera apps, which was confusing to say the least.) Sony’s camera obsession extends to video, too: the 1 III can capture footage at resolutions as high as 4K120, all while the company’s algorithmically enhanced SteadyShot image stabilization keeps judder in check. And when it’s time to work with that footage, Sony’s Cinema Pro app returns for project-based shooting and on-device editing.

If Sony’s approach to cameras this year sounded like overkill, well — the Xperia’s screen offers more of the same. The Mk. III uses a 6.5-inch OLED display that Sony claims is the world’s first mobile 4K screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. To be clear, no one needs a 4K smartphone screen, but Sony makes a pretty strong argument for including one here. For one, its 21:9 aspect ratio offers more cinema-friendly visuals, and lets gamers see more of the action around them. Photographers, meanwhile, may appreciate the ability to use that 4K display as an external monitor for certain Sony cameras — as long as they have a USB-C-to-HDMI adapter, that is.

The rest of the package is about what you’d expect from a premium smartphone in 2021. True to flagship form, the Xperia 1 III packs one of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chipsets with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage, along with a larger 4,500mAh battery that finally supports wireless charging. From what we can tell, the 1 III’s long, lean body hasn’t changed much since last year — which means it might still be ludicrously slippery — but a side-mounted fingerprint sensor and 3.5mm headphone jack are welcome all the same.

With all that said, the Xperia 1 III packs two more tricks worth noting. First, it’s the first phone we’ve heard of that supports immersive 3D Reality audio playback through its front-facing stereo speakers. (As you read this, Google appears to be building 3D Reality audio support directly into Android.) And unlike the last Xperia I, this one should finally play nice with sub-6 5G networks in the US. Bear in mind: 2020’s Xperia 1 II was the company’s first 5G phone, but for whatever reason, it never bothered enabling that next-gen network support in US models.

We’re fairly sure the Xperia 1 III will cost quite a bit, a fact that all but ensures the phone will remain a niche option for photography nerds. For everyone else, though, Sony built a cheaper companion: the Xperia 5 III. It’s a little smaller thanks to its 6.1-inch Full HD OLED screen, and it lacks some of the more ambitious camera tricks found in its big brother, like real-time object tracking, the time-of-flight sensor, and wireless charging. It also comes with just 8GB of RAM, paired with either 128GB or 256GB of internal storage.

Apart from that, though, the Xperia 5 III packs the same chipset, pro-grade camera setup, 3D Reality audio support and battery as Sony’s more expensive model. That’s no small feat for a smaller phone, and if we had to pick right now, the Xperia 5 III comes off as a much safer bet for most people. Unfortunately, Sony’s hesitance to talk price applies here too, so we have no idea how much better a deal this model is. That said, last year set a pretty lousy precedent — the Xperia 5 II sold for just under $1,000, and if Sony tries the same thing this year, it’s not hard to imagine people flocking to more familiar devices like Samsung's Galaxy S21 Plus instead.