You may have noticed there has been a trend in the last couple of years within the Android smartphone market. Companies like Samsung, LG and others are stuffing their devices full of software features ““ in many cases useless and redundant. Sony came up with a different plan, though, and its sticking to its guns.
Sony is concentrating on their strengths of old, something that has been with them from the get go. They are focusing on beautiful, strong and durable designs, as well as great screen technology and photographic prowess.
The Xperia name is synonymous with slim design and the Z1 is no exception. It comes in at 8.5mm doesn’t sound wafer thin, only until until you realize that inside its body there’s a 1/2.3″ sensor and a 3,000mAh battery. The sensor is 70% bigger in terms of surface area than what smartphones usually get (1/3″) and large sensors require bigger optics, hence thicker phones. The same goes for high-capacity batteries.
Here are some of the key features:
20.7MP autofocus camera with a 1/2.3″ Exmor RS sensor and F/2.0 Sony G Lens
1080p video recording @ 30fps
2 MP front-facing camera, 1080p video recording
IP 58 certification – dust resistant and waterproof
16GB of built-in storage; microSD card slot
Sony has recently sold their laptop division to focus completely on mobile phones. Let‘s see if they were right in thinking they can take on this market dominated by Apple and Samsung. Design and Build
The Xperia Z1 is more of a slab than any other phone on the market. Featuring a primarily rectangular design, the Z1 is both 8.5mm thick and 170 grams heavy, which makes it a little bit heavier than the average handset. The aluminium chassis is carved out of a solid block of aluminium and it really is just a frame – most of the material is removed, leaving only a light but tough frame. The two scratch-resistant glass panels on the front and back, the big battery and the waterproof seals are surely to blame for making the Xperia Z1 heavier than the competition.
The glass and aluminium does feel great in the hand, though. Plastic would have made the device a lot lighter, but almost every time it lacks the premium feel that comes with glass and aluminium chassis.
The placement of the ports is also very well thought out. This time around you don‘t have a flap over the audio jack, which is great. These flaps over the ports are of course to assist with the waterproof of the device. Your USB port and microSD slot are on the left hand side, where as the SIM card slot you‘ll find on the right, along with the power button, volume rocker and a hardware shutter key (yeah, it‘s brilliant, right?).
This is one of the few Androids out there with a hardware shutter button, and we welcome it wholeheartedly. It does make using the camera much easier, especially when you want to take photos underwater.
All in all, we praise the design of the Z1, but we do have an issue with it and it‘s kind of an important one. Quite simply put, it is just too big. This device is not supposed to be a phablet, but it almost feels like one. It competes with other 5-inch phones, though you wouldn‘t know it holding it. It is difficult to handle ““ and sometimes even to hold ““ in one hand, even for people with relatively large hands. You will definitely strain those hand muscles trying to work the device with on hand all the time. If you do have Wookie hands, though, you‘ll be just fine.
It is actually such a shame, because the build makes it an ultra-premium feeling device. But the massive bezels ““ not just those above and below ““ make the Sony quite a bit wider and longer than its competition. The bezels make it look much less slick, more bulky, and the 5-inch screen somewhat gets lost in translation. Screen
The Xperia Z1’s 5-inch screen displays at full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution. It all looks pretty standard on paper, but once again, Sony disappoints with the inclusion of a mediocre LCD panel in the Xperia Z1. The choice of eIPS technology holds the display back from being on the same quality level as the LG G2 or iPhone 5S.
Let‘s talk about the positives first. The screen has a pixel density count that equates to 441 ppi, which means you still have great clarity. There aren‘t any jagged edges on icons or text and no visible pixels. It also lends itself well to viewing HD video and high quality photos.
When you are outdoors, the panel is bright and sharp on the eye. The auto-brightness settings on the Z1, like on many others, don‘t work that well though. It either seems extremely bright or very dim, there is very little gradient for the amount of light being displayed. Also, whether by design or necessity with the waterproofness, it appears as though the display module has a few more layers than competing smartphone LCD panels, which means the display itself is set slightly back from the glass protecting it.
The screen’s extra layers don’t appear to affect readability but do have a negative effect on viewing angles. Out of any high-end phone currently available that you can name, the Xperia Z1 will have the worst viewing angles by far. At angles, colours are washed out significantly, and you‘ll even notice some distortion. The overall colour quality and accuracy isn‘t all that good either.
Once again, Sony hasn‘t addressed one of the biggest problems with the Xperia Z. The screen isn‘t horrible, but for the premium price you will be paying for a Z1 (more than the competition, by the way), I feel this is an important part of the phone that has been neglected. It can‘t even compare to the screens on the LG G2, iPhone 5S and even Nexus 5. User Interface
Out of the box, the device runs Android 4.2.2 with a custom Sony skin and a few extra features, although the additions aren‘t quite on the scale of the Samsung Galaxy S4 or LG G2.
We aren‘t major fans of heavy skins on top of Android, and if you are the same you will be delighted to find that once again Sony hasn‘t mucked around with Android too much. In many respects the design cues of vanilla Android are kept throughout the lockscreen, homescreen and other applications, but it still leads me to think that Sony‘s skin is skinning for the sake of skinning, rather than trying to introduce something new to the Android ecosystem. Why not just rather have stock Android and be done with it? That being said, the little changes there are look nice and are easy on the eye.
The lockscreen has widget support and a quick launcher for the camera and homescreens are standard with a 4×4 grid and a traditional app launcher. The calendar app shows your calendar, the contacts app shows your contacts, the album app shows your images, and so forth. This is a benefit of the light Sony skin, which keeps down bloatware, but also provides the bare minimum in terms of features. We think this is a positive, and not a negative. Too many companies have fallen into the trap of trying to do too much.
Widgets and apps are added to the homescreen by long pressing on one of them, then the menu comes up from where you can browse to any homescreen and add whatever you would like to it.
This is also the menu from where you can choose different themes, meaning you don’t need to customize everything yourself if you don’t want to.
The Xperia Z1‘s keyboard is quite strange; I feel we must mention that. I couldn‘t get used to it at all, and consistently made errors when typing. The problem was quickly rectified by installing one of my favourite go-to apps, SwiftKey.
The Recent Apps multitasking menu has also been enhanced again by Sony’s development team. As well as a list of the apps and system setting pages you’ve used recently, this houses Sony’s original collection of mini apps, or floating extra additions to the OS designed to make note taking and other mundane tasks easier. The notifications tray is pretty standard and should be familiar to any Android user.
Performance and Battery Life
Like many other flagship smartphones released in the second half of 2013, the Xperia Z1 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 SoC. Alongside the Snapdragon 800, Sony has packed in 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot, NFC, and an array of sensors. Everything performs excellently, from daily usage with apps, video playback, gaming and the like.
If you‘re just looking for a high-end Android device that‘s fast and capable, the Xperia Z1 is definitely one of the best choices.
The Xperia Z1 comes with a 3,000mAh capacity battery, which compares favourably to the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. Sony threw the same jargon at the press as all companies do, saying it has 880 hours of standby time, but that is of no use to consumers. In terms of actual meaningful use, we found the Z1 was easily good for a whole day of use and then some. This include heavy usage days where we tested the camera, installed a lot of apps, etc.
Sony’s power-saving features don’t amount to much more than turning everything off when the battery reaches a (user definable) level, but there are some useful power-saving tips that pop up in the Notifications field. All in all, we would say the battery life is pretty strong, stronger than most. The only Android phone (excluding phablets) that can beat the Sony‘s battery life is the LG G2. Camera
The Sony Xperia Z1 boasts a unique Exmor RS sensor, custom built for the latest flagship. It’s the highest resolution available on an Android smartphone. So how do those extra megapixels, coming in at 20.7MP, help you?
Your first impressions of the camera are good. Colours look accurate and the white balance is good, though slightly cool. However, it’s not all rosy – there’s a lot of visible noise and the noise reduction is still strong enough to smear out some of the fine detail (especially in darker areas of the image). Funnily enough, we also found some issues with the camera missing focus on the subject you are trying to capture. These issues are minor, however, and you shouldn‘t notice it when using it in broad daylight.
Unfortunately, shooting in low light makes the noise stronger and you’ll need a steady hand. The heft of the phone makes hand shaking quite common for most of us, which is when the picture quality really suffers in low-light. You can see examples of this in our review camera samples here.
There are a couple of useful software features. The Timeshift Burst tool is one that’s definitely worth using, as it buffers a stack of shots, letting you leaf through them with a pleasant flipbook effect and choose the best one. You also get a range of augmented reality comedy features. Select the AR Effect toggle and a variety of computer generated scenes pop up, with the phone’s camera locking onto the floor and any faces in shot, and using these to overlay effects atop the image.
Sony made some bold claims about the camera of the Zperia Z1, but annoyingly it can‘t lay claim to the best smartphone camera out there thanks to its shoddy low-light performance. The Nokia Lumia 1020 and LG G2 will deliver a consistently better camera performance, mostly because of optical image stabilisation. Conclusion
There‘s a lot to this phone, and its high-end credentials are not in doubt. It looks good, feels great in your hand and the Sony speciality of waterproofness remains a key, if gimmicky, feature. That being said, the waterproof nature of the Xperia Z1 also played a significant role in adding bulk to its figure, no doubt.
The company has matured its OmniBalance design philosophy by ever so seductively continuing to use aluminium and glass. This arguably makes the Xperia Z1 one of the nicest looking smartphones that‘s come to market in recent years, maybe ever.
The camera however failed to impress us and some of the software features feel a bit gimmicky at times. This was a major let-down, but we are sure Sony will get this right with optical image stabilisation in the upcoming Xperia Z2. And as for the performance, the high-end processor powers the Z1 extremely well, with nothing in the way of noticeable slowdown or trouble, even when updating apps while opening and closing tools like a multitasking madman.
A major drawback of the original Xperia Z was its display, and we haven‘t taken any steps forward with the Z1, it seems. It can be washed out and not very good with colours, and the viewing angles are still dismal. The Super AMOLED unit of the Galaxy S4 packs more vibrant colours, while the LG G2‘s 5.2-inch screen is brighter and has better viewing angles, and is surrounded by almost no bezels.
The Xperia Z1 is a good phone; it‘s just not a great one. It certainly makes all Sony admirers happy and clearly shows that the company is taken on the right path in its fight as king of the hill. The best intentions aren’t always sufficient and making it to the top requires consistent hard work, which Sony is just beginning to put into this business. Perhaps the quick turnaround time ““ where Sony launched this device only six months after the predecessor ““ meant that there wasn‘t enough time to iron out all the kinks.