Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: the phone that doesn’t know it’s actually a tablet
“Wait, that’s a phone?”
That is one of the many bewildered questions we’ve received from passersby, friends, family, and everyone else since we received Sony’s latest … device last week. And that’s the very question that has unintentionally answered another we’ve been trying to resolve for going on three years now. At what point is a smartphone no longer a phone but a miniature tablet?
Smartphones have been continually growing for the last three years, from a common 3.5-inch display to 6-inches and beyond. The race has transferred from “who can cram more pixels in a panel” and “who can fix the largest camera sensor to the back of a phone” to “who can burst the seams of the average pant pocket.”
After Samsung’s Galaxy Note was a mild success, it was somewhat clear that “big” was in. And since then, every smartphone iteration has grown in size. Five inches, which used to be considered nonsensical, is quite average these days. And phones like the Galaxy Mega 6.3 leave us scratching our heads, feeling we may need to bring back the quite tasteful fanny pack, just to comfortably carry our phone with us.
And just when you think your 6.3-inch phone isn’t big enough, an unlikely hero, Sony, steps out from the shadows to unveil something bigger, better, and, of course, slimmer than ever before: the Xperia Z Ultra.
We’ve spent eight days with the Xperia Z Ultra, putting it through the paces. Have we finally met our match? Is 6.4 inches simply too large to be considered and carried as a smartphone? Read our full take on the Sony Xperia Z Ultra below!
But before we get started, we’d like to thank our friends at Negri Electronics once again for lending us the Sony Xperia Z Ultra for review. If you want an Xperia Z Ultra of your own or are looking for other smartphones and accessories, be sure to check out negrielectronics.com!
Video Review · Specs & Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Specs & Hardware
Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra has quite a few things going for it, and one of those things is its beefy list of specifications.
Powering the device is a rather snappy Snapdragon 800 chipset. For the record, that’s a 2.26GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU paired with an Adreno 330 GPU. As per the norm, it also comes with 2GB RAM, 16GB of fixed storage with a microSD slot for expansion, an 8-megapixel camera, 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and a 3,050mAh battery.
Of course, the most notable feature is the Z Ultra’s display. Large – at least in terms of smartphones – is an understatement. The Z Ultra’s display measures 6.4 inches diagonally with a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, for an overall density of 344 pixels per inch. The result is a quite nice looking display … from straight on.
Beside displays like the HTC One’s S-LCD3 panel or the Samsung Galaxy S 4’s Super AMOLED screen, the Triluminos panel on the Z Ultra simply isn’t in the same league. Colors are quite vibrant, thanks to the Mobile Bravia Engine 2. (The HSPA+ model we are using, C6802, is running old firmware and does not yet support the X-Reality Picture Engine like the LTE models.) However, blacks are very milky, and although viewing angles are better than we recall from other Xperia devices in the past, they’re still not on par with other current display technologies.
For all intents and purposes, most will never have an issue with the display on the Xperia Z Ultra. But if you’re a pixel junkie, you will be quick to notice the shortcomings of the Z Ultra’s picture quality.
And then there’s the touchscreen’s unreliability. We searched around for the entire week and have yet to confirm it to be a widespread issue, but our unit suffered from several inconsistencies. At times, swipes would be registered as taps. Other times, swipes and taps would not register at all. And sometimes phantom taps – where we weren’t even touching the phone and items would select themselves – would occur.
With this device, Sony introduced a new feature: the ability to use your standard pens or pencils (and other everyday objects) as styli. Pick up a pencil and start writing on the display, and it registers just as any ol’ capacitive stylus would. This, too, was inconsistent and gave us all sorts of trouble. Trying to draw a straight line would result in several aligned dots instead. And we feel, somehow, that these two problems are related. That said, we can confirm that we’re not the only ones with this stylus problem. Some commenters have reported similar issues with other Xperia devices, and two followers have confirmed the same problems with their Xperia Z Ultra.
It appears the issue may only affect a small percentage of users, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
On the outside (and size aside), the Xperia Z Ultra looks practically identical to its cousin, the Xperia Tablet Z, and its much smaller sibling, the Xperia Z. The front and back are composed of two slabs of glass, interrupted by only some Sony and Xperia branding, an earpiece speaker, microphone, and camera lens.
It employs the same industrial design Sony has used all year long, and that’s both good and bad.
This means, like the much smaller Xperia Z, the Z Ultra doesn’t really slip into the palm of your hand. Where most smartphones these days are contoured to the palm, the Xperia Z Ultra’s hard edges and completely flat backside make it feel like you’re holding a small clipboard instead of a well-designed, ergonomic smartphone. And its broad design means you’ll always be holding the phone with one hand and using the other to interact with it. Unless you have enormous hands, the Z Ultra is, for all intents and purposes, a two-handed phone.
It measures 179.4mm tall and 92.2mm wide. At the same time, it’s only 6.5mm thick and weighs 212g. The best way we can manage to put it is to say the size of this device is … awkward.
But there’s a much brighter side to the story. The phone itself is quite the looker. Like its next of kin, it’s … well, pretty. And we’re much more accepting of the silver power button that juts out of the right edge this time, though its placement, as well as the volume rocker’s, could be better.
The Xperia Z Ultra has something else in common with its close relatives: IP55 and IP58 dust-proofing and water resistance. Fling all the water and crud on the device you want, spray it off with a water hose, go for a shallow swim with it in your pocket, and it will be just fine, so long as you make sure you have a solid seal on all the ports. And this time, theoretically, you could listen to music with the phone underwater, as the 3.5mm headphone jack is itself water resistant and uncovered by default.
And then there’s the unfortunate reality. This is a 6.4-inch smartphone. Yes, holding it and carrying it in your pocket takes some getting used to. But that’s quite a bit more glass than you have on most other smartphones, times two. These expansive glass panels, though we’ve treated the Z Ultra like a newborn, have gathered tiny micro scratches along the back. And we can’t help but imagine what will happen if this phone abruptly gets up close and personal with a slab of asphalt or cement. Time will tell for sure, but I imagine there was a reason Apple moved away from dual-glass panels.
It feels great, but it rarely stands the test of time.
The software on the Z Ultra is something we’re quite familiar with. After the Xperia Z, ZL, and Tablet Z, we’ve certainly had plenty of hands-on time with practically the exact same software.
The appearance, deep down, isn’t all that different from stock Android. Sure, the icons are different, Sony adds its own widgets, you can adjust the accent color by switching between the eight different themes, and the quick toggles in the notification shade are user-definable. Even the app drawer is quite simple and only slightly tweaked from its original form (the widgets tab is missing, and it can be sorted in different ways).
Despite the few, small changes, Sony hasn’t completely killed the core experience. The Recent Apps button brings up a task switcher that’s only slightly altered to make room for Sony’s Small Apps, or free-floating applications that hover above whatever you’re currently doing. You can add to these Small Apps by downloading designated apps from the Play Store or turning your existing widgets into Small Apps, which we found quite useful. The ability to create your own Small Apps, such as making an RSS or Twitter feed into a free-floating application, is a nice touch.
At its core, the Xperia Z Ultra is running the previous version of Android, versions 4.2.2, which means it comes with most of the latest Android features: lock screen widgets, Daydream mode, Project Butter, and a handful of background tweaks.
Aside from that, the UI is quite unexciting. You can customize your home screens a little more than you can with stock, by adding and removing extra home screens. Swiping up from the soft home key will reveal Google Now. And in the Personalization submenu of the Settings app, you can rearrange the quick settings toggles and change your lock screen wallpaper separately from your home screen wallpaper.
The only additional tweaks Sony has included are throw settings for playing content on wireless displays, built-in support for connecting DUALSHOCK 3 wireless controllers, and some power management software for extending your battery life while in standby mode – nothing terribly thick that we’ve never seen before.
The UI isn’t horribly moving nor overbearing in any way. It’s simply there, and we feel it’s something we’d paint over with a launcher replacement in due time anyway.
Some icing on the cake: the stock keyboards isn’t the greatest we’ve ever used, not by a long shot – the gesture typing is inaccurate, but the word suggestion was generally quite helpful – but the stock keyboards (yes, there are multiple: an international keyboard, Chinese keyboard, and handwriting input method) are customizable. You can choose various layouts, such as a mini keyboard for one-handed use and T9, as well as change themes. Again, we would probably switch to a more refined keyboard experience over time, though.
The camera on the Xperia Z Ultra is nothing to get excited over. We’ve certainly experienced worse cameras, but there’s no question that better cameras exist, even excluding the Lumia 1020 or Galaxy S 4.
The interface is the same interface we experienced on the Xperia Z. It’s fairly intuitive with a horde of various shooting modes, filters, and settings to toggle. The Intelligent Auto mode does a pretty good job of automatically adjusting settings for specific scenarios, but the white balance, without some manual tweaking, always seemed to err on the cool side, giving most photos a lifeless feel.
Aside from the white balance issues, the 8-megapixel sensor didn’t seem to offer an impressive amount of detail. It often soft focused on objects, edges always seemed jagged. In absolute perfect conditions, the Z Ultra was capable of taking decent photos. But again, it was nothing to write home about.
Not to mention, the low-light performance was fairly poor and it doesn’t come with an LED flash.
Performance on the Z Ultra is undoubtedly the high point. The Snapdragon 800 paired with Jelly Bean’s Project Butter enhancements made for a rather smoother experience throughout usage. Even during heavy periods of multitasking or graphically-intensive gaming, the Z Ultra purred along smoothly with very few performance hiccups.
Games like Riptide GP2, Into the Dead, and Hungry Shark Evolution were a pleasure to play on the large display and never skipped a beat.
And the Z Ultra put up the numbers where it counts, too, posting the highest benchmark scores we’ve officially seen on a smartphone to date in Quadrant Standard, AnTuTu, Linpack, Geekbench, Smartbench, and the fastest time in SunSpider.
Frankly, we’re thoroughly impressed with this aspect of the Z Ultra.
Battery life, unfortunately, was not as positive. We were able to manage a full day of moderate usage on a single charge, but with little juice to spare. Through gaming, running some benchmarks, streaming Google Play Music, pulling three Gmail accounts, syncing Twitter, constant Google+ notifications, Instagram notifications, Google Voice, a few hundred messages in Hangouts, snapping photos, and light Web browsing, equating to nearly an hour and a half of total screen-on time, we were left with 30 percent battery after just shy of 19 hours.
On days of much heavier usage, the battery didn’t fare so well, but its standby time, especially with STAMINA mode enabled, is fantastic.
Call Quality/Network Performance
Call quality, on the other hand, was respectable on the Xperia Z Ultra. We never had trouble hearing callers using the earpiece speaker, and we were told we sounded more crisp than when we called with other flagship smartphones.
However, switching over to speakerphone resulted in robotic voices and not nearly enough volume. The speaker, located on bottom edge of the lower right corner, is tinny, quiet, and entirely too easy to cover up, and that results in a sub-par speakerphone experience.
Network speeds were passable, though. Tested on AT&T and T-Mobile HSPA+ networks in both the Charlotte metro and Winston-Salem areas of North Carolina, we averaged just over 5Mbps down and between 1Mbps and 2Mbps up. Our model, however, was limited to HSPA+ connectivity, so your mileage may vary, especially with the LTE models and support for those networks.
+ Some of the best performance numbers to date
+ The camera is passable
+ Water resistant and dust-proof
+ Great for gaming and video consumption
+ Charges very quickly
– Extremely large for a smartphone
– Mediocre display
– Relatively poor battery life
– Inconsistent touch responsiveness
– Uncertain availability
Pricing and Availability
Announced in late June, the Xperia Z Ultra launched in Asia last month, and is expected to launch September 12 in the UK. It has also passed through the FCC with compatibility for T-Mobile, but no official word on an actual US launch has surfaced.
However, if you’re looking for one now, you can snag the unlocked model from Negri Electronics from $699.50 to $839.50, plus applicable taxes.
Well, we’re torn. Our time with the Z Ultra was slightly sullied by what we believe to be a unit with a defective touchscreen. Yet as far as performance goes, there’s quite literally nothing to complain about. Sure, the battery life could be better, but it’s offset by the fact that the Z Ultra charges quickly. The display is far from the best, but it’s by no means bad. And the phone is dust-proof and water resistant, something every smartphone should be … but is not.
But when you get to the size argument, there’s no practical way to be entirely objective. Put simply, it’s too big for the average person. It’s a niche device. Still, we’re quite fond of extra large smartphones and smaller tablets – two categories that this phone straddles.
The lines between smartphone and tablet are as blurred as they’ve ever been. The problem with the Xperia Z Ultra, however, is that it tries to be both, yet it’s not perfect at being either. This device carries very little resemblance to its smaller foes – it looks and feels more like a small tablet than a phone. But it still carries the price tag of a high-end smartphone. A comparable small tablet, like the Nexus 7, is much cheaper with a better display and not all that much larger.
At the end of the day, we’re simply not sure where the Z Ultra fits into our lives, because it certainly doesn’t fit in our pockets. And as a smartphone, it will likely spend too much time in our bags – rather than our hands and pockets – to be a primary device.
Ultimately, as great as the Xperia Z Ultra is, it’s too big for comfort.