Last fall, I noted how Apple, Google, and Samsung focus on smartphone photography while sometimes ignoring essential functions like cellular reception (Pixel 6) that are necessary for these smartphones to serve as useful tools for the enterprise user. Sony went all-in on photography with its Sony Xperia Pro-I, but it also made it crystal clear that advanced photography was the focus of this expensive phone, and you won't find another camera experience like it in any other modern smartphone.
With the Xperia Pro-I, the "I" stands for imaging, Sony went all-in on providing a phone for its Sony Alpha camera professionals with smartphone apps that replicate the digital camera experience. Photographer Chase Jarvis said that the best camera is the one that is always with you, and with the Xperia Pro-I, photographers can pick up their smartphone on the go and capture content with an interface they are familiar with from their dedicated cameras.
- Advanced, expert-level camera apps
- Powerful camera hardware
- Solid battery life
- Excellent build quality
- Lovely high-resolution display
- Very expensive
- Limited zoom capability
- Sensitive shutter button
I was very excited to test out the Sony Xperia Pro-I since it has been quite some time since I've tried out a Sony Xperia smartphone, but after a few weeks with the phone, it is clear that it is too much for me and would take me a couple of months of use to accept the power of the cameras and software found on the phone. I am not a professional or even a very good amateur, photographer and like most smartphone users today, I simply open the default camera app and tap away on the screen to capture the majority of my still images and video content. The Xperia Pro-I offers a basic camera mode, but the $1,800 price is too high for people like me who rarely use manual mode on our phones, and it is not marketed towards the typical smartphone user.
14 years ago, I purchased my first Xperia, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, built by HTC, and it was one of my favorite phones ever due to the amazing hardware, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and other advanced features. The last Xperia I owned was the Sony Xperia Z3 in 2014, and it became one of my favorite Android smartphones. When I opened the box for the Xperia Pro-I, it was clear this too was a unique Sony device and built for a specific user.
The most distinguishing feature of the phone is found on the back, so that's where we will start. There are three cameras on the back of the phone, arranged vertically along the upper center with a very large camera sensor positioned below the 16mm f/2.2 12MP ultra-wide angle (124-degree field-of-view) camera. This large camera is the 24mm dual aperture f/2.0 & f/4.0 12MP wide-angle camera. Below this camera is the 3D iTOF sensor and the 50mm f/2.4 12MP standard camera. There is also a flashlight located at the top of the row of cameras. A mono microphone is found to the left of the large camera, while the ZEISS optics label is on the right side.
The back of the phone has a matte black finish, but it is still a bit slick, so be careful and hold on tight to your expensive phone. There is actually a lanyard opening on the lower left side of the phone, so you should consider securing it with a lanyard if you plan to use it as a dedicated camera.
We have seen a dedicated camera shutter button on past Sony phones. The one on the Xperia Pro-I is modeled after the Sony RX100 series. It's perfect for pressing and holding to launch the Photography Pro application when the phone is off (can also be disabled), but it also feels a bit mushy and doesn't provide solid tactile feedback when you press it for auto-focus and shutter release. There is also a small round button just above the shutter button that is a user-configurable button (visit Settings>System>Gestures>Shortcut key to change). By default, it launches the Video Pro application so you can jump right in and start recording video content.
Further up the right side is the awesome power button and fingerprint sensor. I'm a huge fan of the simple yet effective and fast side fingerprint sensors and am pleased that Sony continues to use this method. A single button for volume is also found further up the right side. There are grooves cut into all four sides of the phone to help with the grip and strength of the phone frame.
Traditionalists will love the fact that a 3.5mm headset audio port is positioned on the top, along with another mic opening. A USB-C port, and a mic opening, are located on the bottom edge of the phone. The SIM/microSD card slot is installed on the upper left side, and the tray can even be removed without the aid of a SIM card pin removal tool.
The 6.5-inch OLED display is lovely with high resolution, brilliant colors, and a high refresh rate. The 21:9 aspect ratio feels great in the hand and is good for video recording tasks. The display is flat, with minimal bezels all around. The front-facing camera is off to the left side of the upper middle. Dual stereo speakers fire out of thin slits at the top and bottom of the display and provide for an enjoyable audio experience.
Sony Xperia Pro-I specifications
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
- Main display: 6.5-inch, 21:9, 3840 x 1644 pixels resolution, OLED with 120Hz refresh rate
- Operating system: Android 11
- RAM: 12GB
- Storage: 512GB internal storage with microSD card slot
- Cameras: 12MP rear f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (124 degrees field-of-view), 12MP f/2.4 standard camera, and 12MP dual-aperture f/2.0 and f/4.0 wide-angle camera. 8MP f/2.0 front-facing camera.
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou/QZSS, NFC
- Dust/water resistance: IP68 rating with Gorilla Glass Victus on the front and Glass 6 on the back
- Battery: 4500 mAh non-removable with fast charging
- Dimensions: 166 x 72 x 8.9mm and 211g
It's clear that the Sony Xperia Pro-I comes with high-end specifications that beat nearly all of the current phones, with features from older phones that are nice to see on a modern smartphone.
Even though Android 12 has been out for a few months, the Sony Xperia Pro-I launches with Android 11 with no information on when it will be updated to the latest version of Android. The review unit has the 1 October 2021 Android security update, so it's a bit disappointing to see it is not more current.
Thankfully, Sony offers a fairly stock Android experience with a Google Discover home panel, default Google widgets, and the standard Google app launcher. In addition to the camera apps, Sony provides an external monitor app (connects the phone to Sony cameras), game enhancer, Sony headphones app, Sony music app, Sony news suite, Xperia transfer app, and a PlayStation app.
See also: Best Android phone 2022: Top expert picks.
Most of the Sony specific functions are found buried in various parts of the settings. Examples include the Side Sense bar (quick access to apps and multi-window use), ambient display settings, clock settings, DualShock 4 game controller settings, and a few other settings. Overall, it's a fairly stock Android experience, though, and there is no software installed that takes away from a solid Android experience.
Given that this phone is primarily a camera with phone functionality, the advanced camera apps warrant their own section of the review, and even then, this section doesn't begin to do justice to the capability of the apps. Unlike every other Android phone I have used, there is no application on the phone called Camera. Instead, Sony provides Photo Pro, Cinema Pro, and Video Pro apps. There is also an Imaging Edge app that supports connections to dedicated cameras.
After launching Photo Pro, a dial appears over on the left side of the viewfinder with the word Basic highlighted in purple. The Basic mode is what you expect from a typical point-and-shoot interface on other smartphones. The on-screen button is used to capture photos, including selfies videos, and scanning QR codes. Zoom levels, manual aperture switching, image aspect ratio, and more typical basic toggles to help you capture photos. Tap on the More button to access slow motion, portrait selfie, panorama, and creative effect options to add some creativity and style to your shots.
Tapping on the menu button also opens up a host of various camera settings, including drive mode, zoom settings (including AI super-resolution zoom), autofocus, object tracking, and much more. There is even an introduction to features, tutorials, and tips that I encourage you to check out since there is so much available to Xperia Pro-I users, and you are likely to learn more about the phone's camera capabilities.
According to Sony, when Auto mode is selected, the camera will automatically detect the scene and help you capture images with auto settings while reducing noise and camera shake. Users can see the various camera settings changing and being highlighted on the display with the ability to tap and tweak a few auto settings. There is no camera shutter button on the display as the physical camera shutter button is used to capture the photo. A lock slider is also available to lock in settings.
Program auto-selection enables the camera to control shutter speed automatically while you can control other settings. Shutter speed priority mode gives you the ability to adjust the shutter speed for fast-moving objects manually. Manual exposure mode gives you control over shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. A memory recall mode is also available.
The Video Pro application has a different layout than the Photo Pro app, with most controls and settings found on the right side and lower bar of the viewfinder. You can control ISO, shutter speed, white balance, focus, object tracking, and much more. The camera key can be assigned while there is also an on-screen record button. Like a dedicated physical camera, tapping the Disp button quickly toggles through display options too.
The Cinema Pro application is a video capture application focusing on helping creators shoot projects using an interface modeled after the Sony CineAlta Venice camera. The Venice CS look and other looks are provided to help you capture video like a professional, and it is clear you can spend days and weeks exploring and refining your videographer skills with this phone.
Daily usage experiences
Sony has several features that have been brought forward from phones of the past, including a microSD card, camera shutter button, 3.5mm audio port, and a notification light. These are all useful for professional photographers. Sony also offers a vlogger accessory, the Vlog Monitor, that lets you shoot with the rear cameras while the monitor is facing you. The accessory also supports external mics with tripod and grip control system support.
Wireless charging, a staple of today's modern phones, is not present, so you will be using the USB-C port to charge up the battery. I was able to use the camera and phone for hours on a single charge, and the battery life is solid. However, if you shoot a lot of video content, I recommend having a portable battery bank with you to recharge the phone. Standard smartphones also consume power at a fast rate when shooting video, but with this phone, you should be shooting more content than if you had an iPhone or Samsung phone. If you shoot in 4K, you may also experience the phone overheating at times with pop-up warnings about cool down periods.
I've always fancied Sony's form factor with a narrower, longer phone that is easy to hold and think this is a great benefit for a phone you are holding for extended periods to shoot content. I'm not a fan of the wide design of the iPhone, so I appreciate Sony's continued form factor here.
While the Sony Xperia Pro-I offers a Basic mode, smartphones like the iPhone 13 Pro, Google Pixel 6 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy S21 provide arguably better point-and-shoot performance and results. The real power of the Xperia Pro-I is in using the advanced manual modes of the various Sony camera applications that give you access to all of the camera hardware elements for extreme tuning. Sample images and videos found online are stunning, and professional photographers should enjoy having their "big camera" experience right in their pocket.
The Sony Xperia Pro-I is the most expensive non-foldable phone on the market, but it was not designed to compete with popular phones from Apple, Samsung, and Google. It is designed for a specific niche market, and it offers a lot for that segment of the world. I'm not sure that it offers $1,800 in value to professional photographers, but we'll have to see as more camera professionals spend weeks and months using the phone.