Sony Xperia Z Ultra review

When is a phone a tablet or a tablet a phone? It is a question that is continuing to perplex as we see more and more companies releasing giant devices that look too big to be a phone, but too small to be a tablet. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a prime example, complete with a mammoth 6.4-inch screen.

Such devices fall under the "phablet" moniker. It's an ugly contraction of a word, usually heard with the precursor "I hate to use the word", but nontheless the name has stuck. Whether you loathe or love the name, there is no denying that big devices are here to stay and will continue to come in from all quarters. But is Sony's Xperia Z Ultra the pick of the bunch?

It's big, like really big

The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is big, the HTC One max is huge, and the Sony Xperia Z Ultra dwarfs both of them. It's massive. To say that it's closer to the tablet end of the scale than the phone would do it better justice. Sony, however, stands behind the Z Ultra as a phone. At the UK launch of the giant device, we overheard Sony staffers saying "it's not a tablet" repeatedly.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Note 3

The reason the phone is so big, is because the Z Ultra sports a 6.4-inch display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The screen is crisp, bright, clear, and has good viewing angles, better than we've seen on the Xperia Z or Zperia Z1.

Watching movies and playing games, as you can imagine, is lovely, as the display size makes this a really immersive experience. While bean counters will note that pixels per inch isn't as high as Xperia Z1 - it's 341ppi vs 441ppi - we don't think that you'll notice due to the size difference. The Z Ultra shows an image with plenty of detail.

While the overall footprint of the Z Ultra is large the sheer thinness of the phone is very impressive. It's as if Sony has run over the Z Ultra with a steam roller. It's just 6.5mm thick, or thin more to the point.

This automatically makes it the world's thinnest HD smartphone, and while the bezel to the sides of the display are very narrow, there's plenty of extra emtpy space to the top and bottom, making the Xperia Z Ultra longer than we'd like. That's a trait that carries through from the Xperia Z1. The full dimensions are 179 x 92 x 6.5mm with a weight of 212 grams.

READ: Sony Xperia Z1 review

As impressive as Sony's thin sandwich of technology is from a design point of view, it just doesn't sit comfortably in the hand as a phone. Grasped two-handed as a tablet it's fine, but trying to operate one-handed while riding on the bus was practically impossible. The 6.5mm thinness can feel a little sharp after a while so it can be a pain - literally - to hold.

The size also means it's not totally pocketable. The thickness doesn't pose a problem, but the length does. Even with regular cut jeans, it wouldn't fit in our pocket completely as they're just not deep enough.

Even if it does fit in your pocket we found that it then cut into our stomach when we sat down, which is very uncomfortable. Unless you are going to dump this in a bag or your suit jacket pocket - if those are big enough - then you are going to struggle. Putting it against your face to make a call will see it stick out 4cm beyond the chin. Unless you have a giant chin. But it is really, very big.

More of a notepad than a phone

Sony might be telling you this is a phone, but it's not really. It's not really a tablet either. It's more of a notepad in size, or dare we say it, of Filofax proportions. That comparison fits in even more nicely when you realise that the screen supports stylus input - even though you don't get one in the box. It's Sony's play to making the Xperia Z Ultra something other than a giant phone. While the Galaxy Note 3's S Pen offers a range of phablet functions, Sony's solution is one that's practical and sits in the middle. 

The Xperia Z Ultra can use a pencil or a pen as a stylus instead of needed a dedicated capacitive stylus. This is a great feature as they are normally lying around your desk ready to be used.

The screen doesn't include pressure support, but if you want to draw a quick sketch or write your notes instead of type them you can. The 6.4-inch screen means there is plenty of space to do so and the flat-backed design means that you can lie it flat on a desk to write on with stability, unlike the HTC One max, that has a curved back and rocks around when you prod it.

READ: HTC One max review

It's waterproof too

As if almost knowing that a device that is going to be put on a coffee table in your favourite cafe or bar is going to be prime for accidents, the Xperia Z Ultra, like the rest of the Xperia Z family, is waterproof. You could even throw it in the bath without worry.

Just like the Z1, the Ultra's 3.5mm headphone jack is without the awkward flap, but the rest of the unit is either sealed or has a flap to conceal the relevant socket. Beneath the top left flap is the Micro-USB socket and beneath the right flap is the micro SIM card slot and microSD card slot to expand the memory beyond the included 16GB, which sounds a little on the small size for a device of this stature. A 64GB microSD card should sort that out though.

The NFC chip is hidden beneath the camera lens which doesn't protrude; the only bits that do stick out are the now-standard Sony standard large silver power button on the side and the volume switch, both of which are well placed for operation when grasping the phone.

Performance and battery

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra features the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 3,050mAh battery which is fixed into the body rather than replaceable. You also get GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, 4G/LTE connectivity for most carriers around the world, DLNA, and pretty much every other bit of tech that you can probably think of or want. No there isn't a fingerprint scanner, but we can't say that's a loss here.

In practice all that processing power leads to an incredibly powerful offering and we've yet to see the Xperia Z Ultra struggle with anything we've thrown at it. It's powerful and runs games quickly and effortlessly. We've tested the phone with a series of apps, games, and services, all running in the background and it's not once struggled.

The Xperia Z Ultra doesn't support 4K video, which we've recently saw in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Both run on the same platform, so we suspect it's only a software update away. You might not need 4K capture right now, but a year down the line, perhaps it'll be something you'll be pining for.

Because the battery is twice the size of that found in most phones, it also seemingly runs for twice as long. The battery is virtually identical to the Xperia Z1 in terms of capacity and in our tests we were getting a good day and a half of battery power with medium usage - including running it in conjunction with the Sony SmartWatch 2 on an active Bluetooth 4.0 connection most of the time.

Heavy usage cuts that down to a day, but a long day. As with anything the more you use it the harder the phone has to work. A heavy gaming session of Zombieland, Real Racing 3, Riptide GP2, or a hour-long run using the GPS clearly has impact on the battery life remaining.

That impressive battery life is mostly down to Sony's clever Battery Stamina feature. We absolutely love this, because it gives you granular control over what apps are doing in the background. It can be very agressive, but you can at least make sure that all those apps you love aren't pulling on your data connection while you're not looking at the phone. If you still want your WhatsApp messages to get through, you can simply tick the box, while leaving other apps to sleep in the background.

Sony's Android

On the software front, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra launches with Android 4.2.2, customised with Sony's virtual skin over the top, but Android 4.3 is promised for an update in the future.

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 through previous devices, but has suffered in the past with the addition of lots of bloatware from Sony that you might not want. There are over 20 dedicated Sony apps, some you can uninstall, others that you can merely disable.

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 models 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 too. It all works well, and we especially commend the Xperia Z Ultra on its performance with handling and 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 Z Ultra you can simply throw the app icons you don't want into a folder in the apps tray and ignore it. Sony sticks to Google Chrome as a default browser, which we think is the right move in giving you that seamless Google experience.

Sony's stock keyboard is just okay, but that's nothing a quick instal of SwiftKey can't sort. With the default keyboard 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. If you were in two minds over whether or not the Z or the Z1 was a double-thumber experience then the Ultra gets them off the hook, this definitely is a two-handed device.

Camera time

Instead of following on the Z1 with a 20.7-megapixel sensor, Sony has opted to keep things a bit more traditional in the Ultra with an 8-megapixel sensor instead.

In steps another Sony Mobile buzzword - Exmor RS for mobile - Sony's image sensor technology that works to make your pictures look better. There's some visible processing, but shots look pretty good.

Stepping away from phone tradition and more into the tablet realms there is no flash on the Z Ultra so that automatically hampers you in low-light situations, but Sony is hoping its Superior Auto mode will save the day regardless.

As found on other Sony Mobile devices the interface is easy to use with the ability to change scene mode options quickly as well as tinker with white balance, ISO, exposure and so forth.

The problem with Superior Auto is that it can sometimes get it wrong and then you've missed the moment. In our test shots some look amazing, others so-so. Low light certainly doesn't help that and the lack of a flash to act as an illuminator to assist focusing doesn't help either.

We found the one of the biggest problems was with auto white balance. This can be corrected, and for the most part you'll be able to achieve good results, but this isn't as good as many of the smartphone cameras on the market, including others from Sony. 

On the video front you get 1080p at 30fps and, again, depending on the light available this will depend on how good your video is. Shooting a video of a fire with nothing but the flames to illuminate it caused the Z Ultra to constantly try and find focus, while the colours were unnatural, almost unworldly. Something which the iPhone 5S, for example, didn't struggle with.

You also get a front-facing 2-megapixel camera for video calls and selfies. It's 1080p but basic in its performance.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a lovely thing, but as a dedicated phone - if you like to lift a phone to your ear as you should - then it's just too big to be practical. We can't help but see it as more of miniature tablet.

You'll know in yourself whether you're one of those people who want a larger-than-life phone experience or not, but the Ultra really pushes the limits to what we'd call a phone. For us it brings too many compromises when it comes to practical use.

The problem for Sony is that by going up in size by just 0.6-inches you get to buy the very good Nexus 7 for a third of the price, or by going down in size by the same screen size you get the Galaxy Note 3, the current best-in-class device.

You'll either love the concept of a phone bigger than your head or you won't, and that's the bottom line here. If you don't pick it up to makes calls then it makes a lot of sense. If it's the former then you won't be disappointed, but we just don't know how many people will fit into that category.

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a marvel as a device, but it's equally niche and that marvel might be limited in appeal.