Sony Xperia Z1 review

Sony's twice-yearly flagship cycle has given birth to the Sony Xperia Z1, a super-charged refresh of the Sony Xperia Z offering a super-sized 5-inch HD screen. 

The Xperia Z isn't exactly that old, yet Sony has already seen fit to tweak the design and bump the specs. The Z1 looks to have it all at first glance, but it's launching into a different market - one where the big Android players have their strongest handsets to date. Things have changed fairly dramatically since the original Xperia Z's inception: Samsung has fleshed out its Galaxy S4 portfolio and the HTC One's design is breaking hearts everywhere.

Just as with the original Xperia Z, Sony is looking to steal the show once again with the Z1. But can it? It's a tough market. Once you peel the Sony Xperia Z1 away from its impressive spec sheet, is this the hottest Android handset out there right now?

Design

The Xperia Z1 is flat on both its front and back, but it's in the middle of this smartphone sandwich that Sony has made the its most prominent design tweak to differ from the earlier Z model. The edging now has a very slight curve, which Sony said was to make it nicer to hold. The previous device was a little sharp on the corners and this new model refines that.

The earlier Xperia Z handset also suffered because of way the sides had plastic body-coloured panels stuck into it. It looked okay, but there was obviously some scope for this to look a little messy and it attracted a lot of dust from pockets in those tiny gaps. The Sony Xperia Z1 is tighter all round, exhibiting a higher-quality finish than before, so this fluff-gathering is no longer a problem. It's a better-built device and that's saying a lot, because we already really liked the build of the Xperia Z.

READ: Sony Xperia Z review

The Sony Xperia Z1 is also water-resistant, which is why there are flaps to cover the various ports and sockets. The exception is the 3.5mm headphone socket, which is open, saving you from having to continually open the cover when you want to plug in. Just like the Samsung Galaxy Active it's now waterproofed minus the cover - it's more convenient all round.

There is still the fuss of opening the Micro-USB cover each night when you need to charge the thing, but there are contact points on the side of the Z1 for a dock.

It's here that we're not so keen on the design. The recess for charging is on the left-hand side of the device and is cut into the phone's waistband, leaving fairly sharp edges. If you use your phone with your right hand, then it falls right under where your gripping fingers will be clutching it. A minor detail, but one that's irked us as we've used the phone.

Gripping the handset faces a new challenge in this slightly larger frame too. It now measures 144.4 x 73.9 x 8.5mm, growing a little in all directions compared to the Xperia Z's footprint. With those new rounded edges, there's less bite in your hand when you grip it. It feels larger; and bigger than those few additional mm would suggest.

Because this is a flat slab of a phone too, it doesn't nestle down into your hand like some of its large-screened rivals. As a result, it can feel a little more slippery. The other downer of this increase in size is that your thumb has further to travel around the display. Even with fairly large hands, this phone is a stretch and some of that comes down to the larger frame.

Compare the Z1 with the 5-inch Samsung Galaxy S4: Samsung's phone is smaller in all dimensions despite having the same size display. There seems to be more space around the Sony display than necessary, especially at the top and bottom of the phone. Perhaps this is just a by-product of the design and the masses of tech crammed in, but it feels like wasted space, as it doesn't offer forward-facing speakers, capacitive buttons or anything else.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

But let's be fair on this Android handset. The Sony Xperia Z1 looks stunning, it's a distinctive design and there's no questioning the quality of the build. It's a real credit to Sony that it has created this closed-body phone, but still provided the flexibility of microSD storage expansion over the 16GB internally, in a waterproof body. You might question the value of the waterproofing, but as summer rolls into autumn and the rains start to fall, not having to worry about getting your phone wet is a real bonus.

The layout of buttons is convenient too. This handset is a little too large to put the standby button on the top - it would be a real stretch to reach it - but its location on the side is practical. The volume rocker sits just beneath it and we feel it's little small, but we're pleased to see the dedicated camera shutter/camera button at the bottom for quick-access to the camera from standby with a long press.

A Bravia move from Sony

Sony is pushing its various sub-brands in mobile devices. For the Z1's display that means Bravia. That's been the case for several generations of Sony devices, rolling in the X-Reality for mobile - formerly Bravia Engine - as well as Sony's Triluminos technology.

Trademarks aside, we're more interested in how this display performs in the real world. If there was a criticism of the Xperia Z, it was that the viewing angles weren't that great. Unfortunately for the Xperia Z1, not much has really changed.

Viewing angles just aren't as impressive as you'd expect from a flagship device. If you're looking at it face-on then there's no problem, but lay it flat on a table or use it to show your assembled family your holiday snaps and only those looking straight at it will get the quality of image you'll want them to see. Compared to the best displays out there, the whites aren't quite as clean and bright, it's only head-on that there's plenty of colour and vibrance.

That's where X-Reality really comes into its own, boosting colours to bring your pictures and videos to life. It can be slightly misleading as all the images look better on your phone than when you share them or move them to your computer, but it's an option we're happy to leave switched on. It does drain power, however, so on long days out, you might want to switch it off.

The 5-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel display - that's a 441ppi (pixels per inch) density - packs in plenty of detail, so when it comes to things like browsing the internet, you can make out fine details without the need to continuously zoom in and out. There's auto brightness, as well as the option to tweak this up and down manually, so if you want it dimmer at night, it's only a quick swipe away. There's plenty of brightness on offer too so we had no problems seeing what was on the display in bright daylight.

X-Reality on (left)/X-reality off (right)

Something to bear in mind is that Sony follows Google's lead with the Android controls sitting at the bottom of the display, rather than on a separate section of the phone as is the case for the likes of the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4. That means that in operation you potentially lose some of the display to these controls, so you get to see fractionally more on Samsung's 5-inch display, for example. In the case of things like movies, you'll still get a full screen experience, so it isn't a huge loss.

READ: HTC One review

Powerhouse

Where the Xperia Z1 really makes its moves is in the power department. Sitting under the hood is a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset with 2GB of RAM. This is the latest hardware from Qualcomm and it's good to see Sony up-to-date.

It's a more advanced chipset than most of its main rivals currently offer - with the exception of the LG G2 - and the performance is very good day-to-day. There's no sign of lag in daily operation and apps open with a snap. We tried starting up Real Racing 3 on the Sony Xperia Z1 and the HTC One simultaneously and the Sony was into the game before the HTC One had even got there.

READ: LG G2 review

That means you spend less time waiting and more time doing. When playing Real Racing 3 - a demanding game that runs beautifully on the Xperia Z1 - the 5-inches of the display give you plenty of space to enjoy the rich graphics of the game.

There's a downside, of course, to packing a huge amount of power into a smartphone, and that's heat. We found that after a session of gaming the Xperia Z1 was kicking out a lot of heat. It's especially noticeable around the back, between the Sony and NFC logos, which is where we believe the processor lies. At some points it was so hot we could feel that through the front of the display too. This happened on a number of games which we've played happily on lower-spec devices without such a big heat problem.

And it is a problem - irrelevant as to whether it's a Qualcomm or Sony issue - because when the phone is too hot, you can't use the camera, for example. This isn't the first device we've seen that gets hot though - sometimes it's an indicator of software that needs tweaking, and it can often be fixed with better software management of the hardware. It didn't appear to be a problem when watching movies or in general browsing, however, just on the more demanding stuff.

You might think that the huge display and the power on offer would result in a dwindling battery life, but in reality, the battery life is pretty good. There's a 3000mAh battery inside, but it's the software management on this front that's the most impressive. Sony's Stamina mode will let you select which apps you want to retain a data connection when the phone is in standby, so you get really good granular control over what the phone is doing.

We've found it to be effective when set to task and we had no problem getting through most days on a single charge. We praised the Xperia Z for the same reason and found that the Xperia Z1 performed well, so long as you make use of the options that Sony makes available to you.

Sound advice

Sound quality we found to cause some vibration when turned up to higher volumes, and the same can be said for the ear speaker which, unfortunately, is of average quality. We suspect that using the excellent speakers on the HTC One has shifted our expectations, but we found overall that callers via the Z1 weren't as rich as clear as they can be on other devices.

When it comes to headphones, however, the experience is much better. There's the convenience of the flap-free headphone socket, as well as plenty of enhancements you can apply to your music across the device, whether you're using Sony's own Walkman player, or Google's Play Music.

Sony layered over Android

On the software front, the Sony Xperia Z1 launches with Android 4.2.2, customised with Sony's skin over the top. Sony's tweaks sit in the middle ground of Android skins, leaving some of native Android as it is, and changing some elements heavily. It's an offering that's been getting stronger and stronger, but has suffered in the past with the addition of lots of bloatware from Sony that you might not want.

Things are better in the Z1, and there are some strong additions that we really like. For example, the notification bar gets power shortcuts which are useful and you can customise what is in there to those things you regularly want. The apps tray can be easily customised and filled with folders to make app organisation easier and there's plenty of deep Facebook integration.

It's really in the handling of media that Sony has made the biggest run of changes, with its Sony Walkman player app, the photo gallery and movie player. We've seen them all before in the earlier Z model so we won't spend too much time on them in this review, but we like how well connected they are. Online photo services flow into the Album options, detection of media servers feeds you video through the movies app, while music in the Walkman app is directly accessible. It all works well, and we especially have to commend the Xperia Z1 on its performance playing network content: we found it was quick to navigate our home media server and start playing video.

Sony still adds plenty of its own services, as does Samsung, HTC, or LG, but with the Z1 you can simply throw the app icons you don't want into a folder in the apps tray and ignore it. Sony sticks to Chrome as a default browser, which we think is the right move in giving you that seamless Google experience, but it does tinker with the keyboard too.

Sony's stock keyboard is okay: it offers prediction and trace entry and so on, but it feels a little too big. One of the noticeable downsides of a larger phone is that we've made more entry errors and that's down to our hands touching part of the keyboard by accident when reaching across the keyboard with the thumb. Some third-party keyboards deal with this better, but we found Sony's keyboard to be slightly problematic. The Z1 is a device for double-thumbers we should think.

Camera at its core

Of all the aspects that Sony is pushing hard, it's the camera where it's really making the biggest play. First of all, the Xperia Z1 launches with the highest-resolution sensor to be found in an Android handset. It's got 20.7 megapixels of resolution crammed into that sensor.

Across all platforms, only the Nokia Lumia 1020 offers a higher resolution with its 41-megapixel sensor, although the two aren't directly comparable in terms of straight numbers, because of the way that Nokia puts those pixels to use and the physical size difference of the two sensor types.

But rather than just bumping up the number of pixels, Sony has increased the size of the sensor too. It's a 1/2.3-inch sensor, the sort of thing you'd find in a common compact camera. It is, in fact, exactly that, as its the sensor lifted from the Sony Cyber-shot HX50. This is partnered with a Sony G Lens and a Bionz imaging processor, with the intention to give you better quality results than all the rivals. However, numbers are sort of irrelevant here: it's only the results and the user experience that counts.

We've already mentioned the thumbs-up for the Z1's dedicated camera/shutter button and we also like Sony's camera app: the "Superior Auto" mode will do it all for you, or you can delve into the other camera apps on offer. Rather than just switching modes, you'll get a range of interesting options here. One of these is simply "manual" where you'll get more normal options, like being able to switch the aspect of the shots, or change the focusing mode, but the other apps are likely to grab more headlines.

The AR (Augmented Reality) effect will superimpose elements in the shot for some funny photos - party hats, fish, dinosaurs. It seems to provide endless giggles for kids and there's plenty of fun to be had, even if the novelty for adults will wear off in a snap. There's the option to add more apps and although there's little on offer at the moment, you can see how, like the Nokia "lens" apps, this could be a growing trend. You can shoot for Evernote, broadcast live to Facebook or use the Info-eye option to scan the scene in front of you and return information.

But let's talk about that 20.7-megapixel camera. It has a 27mm f/2.0 lens and is fast to focus and capture the shot. It's worth noting that the default Superior Auto mode doesn't capture at the headline 20-megapixels, it defaults to 8-megapixels instead. If you want the full resolution, you'll have to shoot in the manual mode, and we suspect that some will be shooting away without ever realising that the 20.7MP plastered on the back of the phone is never really being put to full use.

In good lighting, the Xperia Z1 will give you some lovely results, but there's little real advantage to the full resolution over the some of the lesser settings: zooming in to 100 per cent reveals the much of the detail is mushy so we'd be tempted to stick to the 8-megapixel offering to save storage space anyway.

In low-light conditions the Xperia Z1 is average. There's a lack of sharpness that comes from the high ISO selection and the resultant processing to reduce the image noise. That image noise appears from fairly early in the ISO range so, and like the majority of other smartphones, low-light shots won't ever be great.

Verdict

There's a lot to love about the Sony Xperia Z1. It's a valiant effort, but not infallible. We like the the design overall, it's a smart-looking device that exhibits plenty of quality and there's stacks of power under the hood of that 5-inch HD display.

It's the power that really shows off, as the Z1 skips through anything you can throw at it, but there are niggles: the display isn't the best in class, it gets too hot when you push it in the processor stakes, and all the efforts in the camera department don't seem to really bring huge gains.

It's saved by a user experience that's well refined and a battery life that's surprisingly good given the specs. But, as we've found, the Sony Xperia Z1 isn't the out-and-out winner in this class based on all its fancy specs.

In short: the original Z is bettered here, but in the fast-paced landscape of mobile phones it's not the best of the best. The physical size is chunky - a little bit too much for our liking, and we think others will feel the same; either go for one-handed comfortable use or super-sized Galaxy Note size - and the presence of lots of capable competitors out there means the Z1, despite all its positives, doesn't shine as brightly as its spec sheet would suggest.



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