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Sony Xperia Pro Review: Much More Than Just a Phone

Sony Xperia Pro Review: Much More Than Just a Phone

Don’t think of the Sony Xperia Pro as another run-of-the-mill attempt at relevance in the consumer smartphone market. That’s not who this phone is for, and that becomes patently obvious just taking it out of the box.

The experiential side of things only makes that clearer, as I’ll point out in this review. It had been at least a few years since I last tested a Sony handset, so going into something like the Xperia Pro didn’t feel all that familiar — and that’s because it’s not supposed to be for the average consumer.

The $2,500 price tag already serves notice on that, but being a photographer as well —- and one who owns a Sony mirrorless camera —- my familiarity had more to do with how much the Xperia Pro borrows from the company’s cameras. I dare say, this may be the first phone I’ve truly used that felt like it was made for photographers, videographers, and content creators.

Design and Build

Sony basically repurposed its Xperia 1 Mark II to make the Xperia Pro, except for some key differences. The Micro HDMI port is arguably the biggest because it enables the device to connect to cameras and become a monitor. Indeed, it succeeds in being the first phone to double as a 4K OLED HDR monitor. This one feature is the backbone of the entire device, for the simple fact nothing else is doing it right now.

The implications therein are pretty significant. 4K OLED HDR monitors can be terribly expensive, but those who have them rely on them to better gauge how a video will look after applying color correction or LUTs to video footage. So, rather than bringing in an extra piece of bulky equipment, the Xperia Pro can sit in instead. The 6.5-inch 4K HDR OLED (3840 x 1644) with 21:9 aspect ratio can do 10-bit playback, though its peak brightness may not be as it seems on paper.

Plus, it’s a utilitarian device that does more than just display an image when you start looking at the other elements that go with it. It’s a 5G-enabled phone capable of live-streaming at higher quality when maximizing the next-gen wireless network. Tether with a camera via USB-C and save images to the phone instead, taking advantage of cloud services or direct editing on the phone or computer later. The 512GB of internal storage can handle images by the boatload, and with the full breadth of Android onboard, your creative workflow just starts to feel lighter.

However, I’ll note as I go along here, there are caveats along the way. For example, you can’t use the phone’s storage as an alternative when capturing video — it has to save to a memory card first, and then you can transfer it over. However, the latest Sony Alpha firmware (v4.0) now lets you transfer images over to an FTP server while shooting, including both JPEG and RAW files. It was previously limited to just the Sony A7S III, but has since expanded to other models, too.

Still, you will need a card that can handle whatever it is you’re shooting. The Xperia Pro doesn’t speed up any of the capture process, only the workflow, provided you have all the right tools in place.

Setup and Compatibility

It was a wise move to make the Xperia Pro compatible with non-Sony cameras. As popular as the company’s mirrorless lineup is right now, there are plenty of Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, and Panasonic shooters out there.

The main reason for that is arguably convenience, but also credibility. The phone weighs a modest 225 grams and sports a 4,000mAh battery, two specs anyone could appreciate in the field. The phone’s External Monitor app is agnostic, and most importantly, is part of a familiar platform in Android. This is a smartphone, not a standalone device, so you essentially have the full breadth of a mobile operating system to go with the particular imaging features.

Sony even added ancillary things to the app to support connected cameras. The 180-degree flip reorients the screen to reduce any contortion with the Micro HDMI cable in case the port is on the opposite side of the camera. Grid lines, frame lines, brightness, screen lock and zoom magnification (2x, 3x, 4x) round out some of the available options. Double-tap or pinch-to-zoom the screen and it moves closer (based on the set magnification), but doesn’t allow you to select focus points or control the camera’s own features and settings. It just gives you a bigger screen to see what you’re doing.

I did run into some issues where the phone would just go black when I pressed the preview button to see a shot I just took, only to then randomly fix itself at a later time. I also could never get the USB-C tethering to work properly, and Sony told me it’s likely because I had a pre-production unit still running Android 10. As an alternative, I set up Sony’s Imaging Edge Mobile app to transfer images on the fly instead, all in original quality, not the 2MB default. It was a reasonable workaround, except I couldn’t use the FTP tethering feature that way.

OLED screens are fabulous, but they don’t do quite as well in sunlight, and that’s where I struggled a little to actually see what I was looking at. I ramped up the brightness setting, which helped a little, but Sony would’ve been better served increasing the nits on this panel.

Out in the Field

Sony provided me with a SmallRig for my camera for the purposes of this review, though it wasn’t an exact fit since it was for the A7S III, not the A7 III. Despite that, I got it to fit well enough to take out in the field and gauge the different use cases for such a setup. It was easy to attach a smartphone grip using a cold shoe adapter, though a ballhead would’ve been better for tilting the Xperia Pro when necessary.

I’m not one for selfies or vlogging, personally, but there’s real utility in this setup. Turn the screen around, and you can pretty much do anything you normally would when the lens faces you. It’s harder to see where you are in the frame if you step back too far on a bright sunny day, but otherwise, you should manage fine. If you use your DSLR or mirrorless camera for Zoom calls, you could make use of the same kind of setup as well. With the USB-C port in play, there’s plenty of room for some experimentation with different setups and layouts.

I found the OLED screen’s better contrast a real benefit in low-light shooting because it gave me some fair warning when noise might be an issue. Not with any visual pop-up, mind you, just the level of HDR and color correction built-in to the unit. As a monitor, the Xperia Pro helped when changing settings for different shots, since the menu was easier to view and navigate on a much larger display.

My review unit didn’t have full 5G access — I live in Canada, and the Xperia Pro is not currently for sale in Canada due to this limitation — so I couldn’t test out any live-streaming functionality. But, at least in theory, such a scenario wouldn’t be out of reach. It’s just a question of how much data you’ll need to live stream whatever it is you’re doing.

Internal Camera Features

Whatever the exact RS Exmor image sensors are inside, they’re the same as the Xperia 1 Mark II so don’t expect different output here. Each of the three lenses also simulates the most common focal lengths. The 12MP ultra-wide is a 16mm equivalent, the 12MP standard is a 24mm equivalent, and the 12MP 3x telephoto is at 70mm. Between them, digital zoom closes the gaps, so you can shoot from 16-200mm. I detest digital zoom, so tried hard to stay away from that, but it’s there in any case. There is a 3D Time-of-Flight sensor on board, too.

The main sensor is large for a phone at 1/1.7-inch, which is bigger than we’ve seen from most phones to date. Samsung has the ISOCELL GW1 in the same size in select phones, like the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and Galaxy S21 Ultra, but not the extent of Sony’s feature set here.

While there is a regular camera app, it’s the Photo Pro app that has the real goodies. Think of it like a Pro or Manual mode, albeit with the familiarity of Sony’s Alpha line. The settings and adjustments are very much what you’d expect, giving you full control over how you shoot. The dedicated hard shutter on the phone’s side also simplifies things further.

I chose to shoot everything in JPEG + RAW, since I established a decent workflow whereby I could immediately upload selected RAW files to Lightroom for editing. There was no real seamless way to automate that, so it was largely a manual exercise, but it did at least get the ball rolling.

It’s great that the Xperia Pro can do 20fps bursts, except both Hi and Lo Continuous bursts were greyed out anytime I chose to save in RAW, either alone or in tandem with a JPEG. That applied to all three lenses, somewhat limiting the ability to capture an action scene unprocessed. The good news is that AF face and eye detection are included, and they work really well.

Image Quality

The standard lens has a fixed f/1.7 aperture, so there’s room to pull in some light, but the image sensor, while large for a phone, can’t work miracles in every night or low-light situation. It’s hard to avoid noise, even if you play around with long exposure settings, and like with other phones, increasing the ISO is just opening the floodgates for all that grain to show up.

But Photo Pro is the kind of app that lets you get creative and try things out. Once you find a settings combo that works for you, you can lock it in place and go from there. I didn’t see an option for presets in the interface, though, unless I missed that somewhere. I shot whatever I could, including action scenes to get a sense of what was possible here. More than likely, you’ll need to edit what you got, but the RAW files at least leave wiggle room to do so. Not so much for the JPEGs.

I like that Sony just left color as it is because there’s no gimmicky saturation or processing going on. That’s why, at first, images looked a little muted to me, but looking through the settings, I saw that D-Range Optimizer was on by default and Soft Skin effect was off. The idea is clearly to capture images the way you see fit, not relying on computational software to figure that out. Novice shooters might find it daunting, which is why Sony includes the regular camera app as well. Then again, novice shooters aren’t likely to buy this phone.

To me, the best images come out of Photo Pro. I worked on the sample shots here in Lightroom, and I think they illustrate the limits involved. Optimal conditions make a big difference, and you do have the option to use continuous AF when you want to track a subject.

Video Recording

I really focused on still photography while testing the Xperia Pro, but I can see the allure for videographers of all stripes. The Cinema Pro app not only records in 4K at 24, 25, 30, and 60 frames per second but also slow-motion at 120 frames per second. It has built-in LUTs to choose from, plus the ability to change ISO, white balance, shutter, focus, and switch between the three lenses. Hybrid optical and electronic stabilization help keep things steady, and in my limited testing, I can attest to its ability that way.

I did notice the device could run a little hot after repeatedly shooting in 4K, or leaving it to record for longer periods. The warning pops up for the video in the regular camera app, but Cinema Pro can tax the phone’s processor just the same.

You can save footage in H.264 or HEVC (H.265) with 10-bit encoding in the BT.2020 color space. Theoretically, you could set things up so that the phone captures the same scene as your camera does from a different angle, through an articulating arm or some other setup. Again, there’s plenty of room to get creative.

A Unique Phone for Unique Needs

I haven’t even gotten into how good the Xperia Pro is as a gaming phone, and that it works flawlessly (and beautifully, given the screen) with cloud services like Xbox Game Pass. It plays streaming video wonderfully and is very useful for editing photos on the fly. With everything I’ve touched on already, it’s sometimes hard to remember this is a full-fledged Android phone.

It’s also unique because of its ability to be a double-duty device. If you have no interest or inclination to use this as a camera monitor, it’s simply not worth it otherwise. There are other phones great at mobile gaming and performing versatile functions. But as a live camera monitor? There’s nothing else really like it, at least for now.

Are There Alternatives?

The closest alternative would probably be Sony’s own Xperia 1 Mark II, except that device doesn’t have the Micro HDMI port and four 5G antennas. Plus, this one is a little more rugged, making it ideal for field use. While identical or iterative in every other way, Sony clearly made this device to address a need and carve out a more specialized niche.

Should You Buy It?

Sure, if you can justify the $2,500 price tag. Sony doesn’t say this outright, but I suspect the rationale is that, when combining the price of a monitor, phone, and other gear, the cost seems more palatable. Throw in better battery life, lighter weight, 5G functionality, Google Play Store access, and a good built-in camera, and the value only increases.

I would say that’s subjective because you could also buy a good lens for that money, so this is a value proposition aimed at pros who can spend that much and be cool with it.