The Best Camera On A Smartphone Money Can Buy
Sony Xperia Pro-i
The title’s designated “I” says it all. It stands for image, indicating what Sony emphasized while designing the Sony Xperia Pro-I. This is more akin to a point-and-shoot Alpha camera first and a smartphone second. But combining the two results in natural benefits over competition. Giving as The Best smart Phone Camera Money Can Buy – Sony Xperia Pro-i.
Sony doesn’t even hesitate to say it, claiming to have the greatest smartphone camera on the market, anchored by the bigger 1-inch image sensor within. It’s simply a matter of whether it’s worth the $1,800 Sony is presently asking for it. Unique products generally come at a price, and the imaging capabilities are the key reason for this in this case. The phone thing is just intended to be the cherry on top.
- Body: 166.0×72.0x8.9mm, 211g; Glass front (Gorilla Glass Victus), glass back (Gorilla Glass 6), aluminum frame; IP65/IP68 dust/water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins).
- Display: 6.50″ OLED, 1B colors, 120Hz, HDR BT.2020, 1644x3840px resolution, 21:9 aspect ratio, 643ppi; Runs at 1096 x 2560 pixels except for select use cases.
- Chipset: Qualcomm SM8350 Snapdragon 888 5G (5 nm): Octa-core (1×2.84 GHz Kryo 680 & 3×2.42 GHz Kryo 680 & 4×1.80 GHz Kryo 680); Adreno 660.
- Memory: 512GB 12GB RAM; UFS 3.X; microSDXC (uses shared SIM slot).
- OS/Software: Android 11.
- Rear camera: Wide (main): 12 MP, f/2.0-4.0, 24mm, 1.0″-type, 2.4µm, PDAF, OIS (315 PDAF points, 90% frame coverage); Telephoto: 12 MP, f/2.4, 50mm, 1/2.9″, PDAF, 2.1x optical zoom, OIS; Ultra wide angle: 12 MP, f/2.2, 124˚, 16mm, 1/2.55″, Dual Pixel PDAF; Depth: 0.3 MP, TOF 3D.
- Front camera: 8 MP, f/2.0, 24mm (wide), 1/4″, 1.12µm.
- Video capture: Rear camera: 4K@24/25/30/60/120fps HDR, 1080p@30/60/120/240fps; 5-axis gyro-EIS, OIS; Front camera: 1080p@30fps, 5-axis gyro-EIS.
- Battery: 4500mAh; Fast charging 30W, 50% in 30 min (advertised), USB Power Delivery.
- Misc: Fingerprint reader (side-mounted); NFC; 3.5mm jack; Native Sony Alpha camera support.
What’s Inside The Box
The Xperia Pro-I arrives in an inconspicuous white cardboard box, with little indication of the $1800 phone contained within. The Pro-I lettering on the lid is accented with a spray of gold, and that’s the extent of the flare. For what it’s worth, no plastic is utilized in the package.
The contents are also not extravagant. Aside from the phone, you’ll only get a 30W charger and a USB-C cord.
Extra Perks At Extra Cost
There are a few optional accessories that may be acquired at an additional cost to help the Pro-I in its pursuit of camera perfection. These include a handle, which was previously available and is compatible with the company’s current portfolio of standalone cameras, and a newly released vlog monitor, which can be used as a viewfinder to record oneself on the 1.0-inch primary camera. Here’s a sneak peek at them, but they’ll get their page later on.
Design and Build
The Xperia Pro-I appears to be no amateur. This imaging pro has an unassuming ‘I mean business’ demeanor with a single colorway – basic black, a frame that’s all about grip and controls, with an all-but-forgotten safety function, and then a matte back with plenty of camera gear along the center axis.
The rear is the business side, and it houses the 1.0-inch main camera. It’s easily identified by its enormous ring; Sony made care to provide enough space for a ‘Zeiss Tessar T*’ logo, but weirdly overlooked mentioning that it can alter the aperture. But that makes sense – pros don’t brag.
However, the Zeiss branding besides the camera, as well as the Tessar remark, may be deemed bragging, but we’ll let it.
Sony tried to push the envelope with the Xperia Pro-I by squeezing in the same 1-inch Type Exmor RS BSI CMOS sensor that is already used in its RX100 VII camera, except there’s a catch. It doesn’t make full use of the sensor’s actual size, which explains why output maxes out at 12-megapixels despite the 20.1-megapixel images the sensor would otherwise be capable of.
This is crucial for several reasons. For starters, that implies that the Xperia Pro-I only uses the central section of the sensor, maybe to the point of a 1/1.3-inch equivalent, but this is not verified. Second, Sony managed to keep bigger 2.4 Micron pixels within that useable space, more than tripling what most other top smartphones now provide.
Sony has included a two-stop variable aperture of f/2.0 and f/4.0 that you may change manually via the camera interface. Regardless of how or what you’re shooting, it’s up to you — not the camera — to choose which stop to utilize. The only other firm that attempted this was Samsung, which went back to the Galaxy S9, which also had two stops, but with some automation in picking either one based on the shooting mode.
All three Zeiss lenses on the Pro-back I’s shoot at 12-megapixels and have recognizable focal ranges. The primary lens, which employs the Exmor sensor, has a 24mm equivalent and is the only one capable of variable aperture. The Sony 1/2.55-inch IMX363 sensor and fixed f/2.2 aperture are used in the 16mm ultra-wide lens. The 1/2.9-inch IMX486 sensor and fixed f/2.4 aperture are used in the 50mm telephoto lens. The rear array is completed with an IMX316 ToF camera. I could only get to the telephoto lens on either of those cameras by zooming from the primary lens. Since there was no shortcut to it in the camera UI.
Xperia Pro- I: Display, Battery Life, Charging
Second 4K 120Hz display on a phone
The Xperia Pro-I doesn’t get to call itself the first phone with a 4K 120Hz display. That title went to the 1 III, but being the second one isn’t too shabby either. The Pro-I gets that same OLED panel with 3840x1644px resolution – that’s 4K in a 21:9 aspect. For a pixel density of 643ppi.
The 4K resolution isn’t available for most of the use cases, however, and the phone typically renders in 1096x2560px. When it gets a 4K video, however, it does switch to 4K ‘mode’. Regardless of whether the 120Hz refresh rate is enabled or not.
The Xperia Pro-I behaves similarly to previous Sonys we’ve encountered and will allow a slightly higher brightness in Creator mode for select apps than it will in Standard mode. With that in mind, we got 644nits in Google Photos (Chrome too), and a slightly lower 578nits otherwise. With Adaptive brightness off, and outside of the whitelisted apps, the maximum brightness is 406nits. Both results are higher than the Xperia 1 III, a nice nod to the Pro-I’s higher market position. But ultimately not quite up to the standard of mainstream flagship phones.
Sony Xperia Pro-I Battery Life:
The Pro-I maintains the battery capacity of the Xperia 1 III at 4,500mAh, and with essentially the same bits inside, we expected similar battery life. That’s mostly true, though Sony does appear to have been able to squeeze out a few extra minutes across the board.
The Pro-I’s 24-hour result in the voice call test is an hour more than what we clocked on the 1 III (and easy enough for a year of phone calls if you ask this one reviewer). There’s a 40-minute improvement in web browsing (at the maximum 120Hz refresh rate) over the non-Pro-I, as well as an additional hour of video playback (at 60Hz). While the results aren’t groundbreaking, there’s evidence of an overall optimization in power consumption.
With all the numbers dialed into our formula, the overall Endurance rating works out to 87h.
We obtained a full charge from flat in 1:49h, and the first 30 minutes took us to 53 percent – around the same as on the Xperia 1 III. Big-name high-end phones are broadly in the same ballpark, however, the Galaxy S21 Ultra gets to 100% far faster, and the Mi 11 Ultra is overall faster. Unlike the Xperia 1 III, the Pro-I does not support wireless charging.
Performance, Benchmark and User interface:
The Pro-I may not be strictly in the mainstream Xperia lineup, but it’s just like any other when it comes to UI. And like any other, it’s got a very stock Android feel (still on Android 11), though there are in-house bits if you look deep enough.
Starting with some of the basics, there’s an always-on display feature (AOD) that goes by Google’s Ambient display name and has a fairly limited set of customization options. The lock screen is business as usual with a clock (that you can customize), a shortcut to the camera, and another one for Google Assistant.
This takes us to one of the Sony exclusives, which deserves to be mentioned despite the fact that it isn’t new. The multi-window switch. You can access it through the task switcher or the dedicated shortcut icon on the home screen. And you get two stacked task switcher Rolodexes with your currently active applications to choose from. One for the top half of the screen and one for the bottom half of the screen. The rightmost window in each half allows you to launch a new app. Rather than merely selecting one from the ones that are already running.
There’s a fairly standard set of gestures for call handling, as well as a one-handed mode and smart backlight control. It’s in this menu that you’ll find the navigation options with the two basic types available – gestures or a navbar.
Pros can enjoy the occasional game too. So the Xperia Pro-I has Sony’s Game Enhancer as part of its software package. It’s a comprehensive utility with two main interfaces – a game hub/launcher. And an overlay you pull out from the side while in a game.
for synthetic bench mark score click here
What the Xperia Pro-I can’t brag about is sustained performance. That 3DMark result is only in the first run, and by the 6th one. The score drops to 3,900 with a further dip at the 12th loop to around 3,400 points for a stability rating of 60%. The CPU stability is a little bit better, with a 68% result in the CPU Throttling test.
Getting Ready to Shoot
You will be disappointed if you were looking for an HDMI port like the Xperia Pro before it. Sony did not design the Xperia Pro-I to function as a monitor, but it did design it to accept commands that rival devices do not. Given the size of RAW files, it’s not surprising that the firm touts its 5G connection as a tool to more easily upload and share photographs.
To emphasize this point, Sony eliminated the need for two picture programs and unified everything into one. The new Basic mode replaces the previous standard camera app, providing a simpler point-and-shoot setup. Whilst Auto mode takes a step further by assessing a scene and setting up the composition using Sony’s dynamic range optimizer.
When you choose either of these settings, you give up control over crucial elements like shutter speed, ISO, exposure correction, white balance, and metering. At the very least, you can shoot in RAW, switch lenses, and toggle between the two possible f-stops in Auto mode.
Manual, Shutter Priority, and Program settings are where the action is. There’s also a Memory Recall mode for saving settings so you can capture photographs without having to wrestle with controls when you know exactly how you want things to be set up ahead of time.
It is hard to argue with the results, but there is a learning curve that comes with this camera. This is not so much with the settings and options, but more with how to get the most out of the available features. For example, the Xperia Pro-I is easy enough to shoot in outdoor situations, and you can either try Sony’s D-Range Optimizer (with RAW) or HDR (with JPEG) to balance out shadows and highlights. Finding the right combination does take time, though you do get the hang of it after a while.
Granted, you could always tweak the various other settings to try getting the composition you want, but you do reach certain optical limits. The variable aperture proves its worth, except you can’t always rely on it to make a huge difference with how much light actually passes through to the sensor. In other words, if you have a preset you like to use on your Alpha camera with anything other than the two stops you get here, you will have to make adjustments to deal with the limited optics involved.
Even so, the phone can take excellent shots in all conditions. Switching apertures also lets you take advantage of the phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) to shoot in macro with more bokeh, or determine how sharp you want the background to be.
I prioritized night and low-light shots because I feel that’s where we see the biggest discrepancies between different phones. Sony wades deeper into manual controls than others do, and the larger Micron pixels do help bring out more detail, particularly when shooting in RAW to work in post. Naturally, the results won’t match what an RX100 can do, but they’re still very impressive for a phone.
The Basic and Auto modes work a lot like night modes do on other phones, using HDR stacking to come up with the best possible image in low-light conditions. Go manual and you can better control how the output looks, including if you don’t want Sony’s D-Range Optimizer to help out.
Camera Video Quality
The Xperia Pro-I is more of a video recording pro with stills an advanced hobby. At least, that’s what we’re being led to believe by the fact that it has three in-house apps that can capture moving pictures. We talked about the differences between their capabilities in an earlier dedicated article and also re-iterated some of that just a couple of pages earlier.
Here, we’ll try to focus on the quality of the clips coming out of the Pro-I. We recorded in the Basic mode of the Photo Pro app and then switched to Video Pro for comparison. And where the two can record in the same resolution and frame rate (basically 4K30 on all three cameras), the end results are identical.
For our standard terrace scene, shot on the main camera, the results are good but not outstanding, and outstanding is what we were expecting from a Pro-I. 4K30 footage gets a 55Mbps bit rate when encoding with the h.264 codec, and that’s an above-average bitrate as smartphones go, yet the detail isn’t there to justify it, and textures appear soft and smoothed out. The good news is that this is the only beef we have with the Pro-I’s videos – exposure is on point, dynamic range is excellent, color rendition is likable. We do like our detail, though, and the Pro-I isn’t delivering.
Video Pro is the one capable of capturing 4K at 60fps and 4K at 120fps. And we’re happy to report that 4K60 (bitrate is a generous 120Mbps) is no worse than 4K30, as is too often the case. Then again, it’s no better either, and we already said we’re not ecstatic about that.
Xperia Pro-I for vlogging
Along with the Xperia Pro-I, Sony launched the Vlog Monitor. An add-on package that adds a live viewfinder to the back of the phone. Allowing you to film yourself using the rear cameras. We got to try out the monitor as well as another device. A previously available Bluetooth grip, and here is how it looks in action.
The Vlog Monitor package contains the monitor. A short cable to connect it to the phone, and a clip-style phone holder. The phone is placed in the clip, and the monitor magnetically attaches to the rear of the holder.
The clip is constructed of metal and has a very high-quality feel. It is spring-loaded, rather than having a screw to tighten it. Which may make you nervous if you are used to clamping the other way. Having said that, we never felt it was insufficient.
ALTERNATIVES, PROS AND CONS, CONCLUSION
What competition is there for a smartphone that costs €1800/$1800, has a purposely designed (but optional, at an extra cost) add-on monitor. And a set of three separate applications that can shoot video with varying levels of functionality? There is no such thing as a market sector. Which is not unexpected given that this smartphone comes from Sony’s ‘we’re doing our own thing’ division. Nonetheless, we attempted to think of feasible alternatives that made at least some sense in our brains.
For example, if you’re dead set on the brand and serious about vlogging, you can acquire an Xperia 1 III and a Sony ZV-1 vlogging camera in a package with the same grip accessory for €2000/$2000. OR around the price of the Xperia Pro-I + the vlog monitor (but without the grip). Or maybe change out the 1 III for a 5 III to save money and reduce bulk? On the other hand, the savings may be used to purchase a more competent camera, such as the RX100 VII.
It would be difficult to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of either way. But if you’re interested in the Pro-I for its vlogging potential, we’d suggest you look into the two-device option as well.
Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Okay, perhaps you don’t want to do that and would rather keep things simple with an all-in-one solution. So, how about the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra? Just add a selfie stick and you’re ready to go. It has better cameras all around than the Xperia, and its rear display. While unfortunately tiny and not available in video (sigh), could just work for preliminary framing before you start recording. In any other context, the Mi 11 Ultra isn’t a steal, but at €1200, it’s a fraction of the price of the Xperia Pro-I. A small downside is that the Mi has just gone from shop shelves.
Zenfone 8 Flip
Don’t worry, the Zenfone 8 Flip is still readily accessible. For around 40% of the price of an Xperia and monitor combo, you’ll have a real one-device solution. Just add a selfie stick and you’re ready to go. In comparison to the Mi, this one sacrifices off-camera quality for display size. But adds the coolness and adaptability of the spinning camera.
iPhone 13 Pro Max
Or simply get a 1TB iPhone 13 Pro Max, that’s about as expensive as the Xperia Pro-I. Just add a selfie stick, and you’re there. Only ‘there’ is not quite the same destination as the original goal. Big sensor camera + a viewfinder, but at least the price is right.
Xperia 1 Mark III
Sony’s own Xperia 1 Mark III probably stands out the most as a worthy alternative. Only it doesn’t have the same primary image sensor. Other than that, the two phones share a whole lot of similarities in specs. Though the Mark III does cost $500 less. And is a bit more ‘phone-friendly’ in that it supports things like wireless charging. If you wanted a phone to double as a monitor for your actual camera, the Xperia Pro is still the one option for that, except you pay extra for the privilege.
Conclusion – is Sony Xperia Pro-i Worth Buying?
Maybe, but only if you have the $1,800 to spend on this one-of-a-kind camera system. Keep in mind that you are effectively paying at least $500 for the privilege of having a bigger image sensor. Only to be somewhat restricted in using its full resolution. The Xperia Pro-I is one of the greatest phone cameras money can buy. But at that price, you have to consider the cost-benefit of retaining your current phone vs purchasing an actual camera.
- No-nonsense design, high-end build, IP65/IP68 rating.
- The ridged frame is very grippy, the lanyard eyelet is a nice touch, the extra controls can be useful.
- Headphone jack and microSD slot are particularly appreciated on this one, given its intended use.
- The advanced photo and video capture apps are a boon if you know what you’re doing – and you probably do if you’re after the Pro-I.
- The camera system has great underlying potential, it just takes a bit of post processing to get the best results and the target audience will be happy with that.
- We can’t approve of the ‘1.0-inch type sensor’ marketing, when the phone clearly only uses a portion of it.
- The shutter release button lacks a clearly defined half-press point, is very sensitive, gets in the way occasionally.
- The display’s maximum brightness isn’t as high as on the best in business, the 4K resolution is good for bragging rights but hard to really appreciate.
- Battery life is below average.
- The selfie camera is a bit of a relic.
- Main camera video quality isn’t up to scratch.
- The vlog monitor lacks touch input and a playback option, the grip’s controls are limited.