Sony Xperia Z1 review: the king of waterproof phones
The Sony Xperia Z from the very beginning of the year tried to close the gap between ruggedized (sort of) and flagship phones. There were a lot of pros, and, of course, cons, but we applaud Sony for taking the project further.
At this year’s IFA, in Berlin, the Japanese company unveiled the Xperia Z1, the natural evolution to the Xperia Z from CES. It is improved in many categories over its predecessor, bringing improved IP-ratings, better specs, a larger camera, and, to sum it up, basically a better everything.
We’ve had the pleasure of using the Z1 for a period of ten days, exclusively, as our daily driver. It landed at our doorstep on September 10, thanks to our friends at Clove.co.uk. We think we got to know its pros, cons, and aces up its sleeve pretty well. We also had the pleasure of seeing it operate side-by-side, compared with other flagship phones.
How does the Sony Xperia Z1 cope with the fierce competition? Are we recommending it? Should you invest a rather large amount in Sony’s 2013 flagship? Does “the world’s leading camera in a smartphone” live up to the expectations?
Find out all of the above, plus much more, in or Sony Xperia Z1 review, below!
Video Review · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Video Review, Unboxing, and Comparisons
Specs & Hardware
As we’re getting towards the end of 2013, we’re seeing more and more powerful devices pop up on the market, as OEMs are continuing their battle for spec-supremacy. Of course, an “autumn phone” or IFA phone will be more powerful, at least on paper, than a “winter” / “spring phone” or CES / MWC phone. This is also the case with the Xperia Z1.
While maintaining the five-inch form factor from its predecessor, Sony brought some improvements to the screen itself. We’re still looking at full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution –with the same, whopping PPI rating of 441– but the panel now features Sony’s own TRILUMINOS display technology, ported to mobile. It should offer richer colors while maintaining them as close to natural as possible, and a wider overall palette. This, combined with Sony’s X-Reality for mobile technology –image analysis and optimization– truly offer the Z1 an edge over the Xperia Z.
Colors are natural, the overall brightness is good, and so is outdoor visibility. However, the screen has two downsides, which don’t necessarily make it a bad screen, but which could definitely be improved in the future. Contrast could be better and blacks could be deeper, on one hand, and side-angle visibility can also be further improved. There’s a huge difference between looking at the screen dead-on, and glancing at it from the side: colors wash out, become unnatural, and contrast is lost. Furthermore, if you are watching movies or pictures in landscape mode, from a relative close distance, chances are one of your eyes, if not both, will see the opposite side of the screen somewhat off-angle. It’s not very annoying but you’ll have to get used to it (or hold it further away).
The processor at the Xperia Z1’s heart is Qualcomm’s latest and greatest, the Snapdragon 800. Clocked at 2.2GHz, it does an excellent job at handling everything you throw at it, of course, helped by the 2GB of random access memory on board. There is only 16GB of storage available for your files; however, one can easily upgrade that with a microSD card of up to 64GB, for a total of 80GB.
The camera is referred to by the manufacturer as “the world’s leading camera in a smartphone”. It is a 20.7-megapixel shooter with Sony’s own 27mm wide angle F2.0 aperture G Lens. The sensor is quite large at 1/2.3 inches and features technologies like Exmor RS for mobile and the BIONZ mobile image processing engine. The main camera goes in tandem with a two-megapixel front-facer.
Radio support includes aGPS, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and WiFi functionality, as well as compatibility with networks operating on the following frequencies: UMTS HSPA+ 850 (Band V), 900 (Band VIII), 1700 (Band IV), 1900 (Band II), 2100 (Band I) MHz, GSM GPRS/EDGE 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz, as well as LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 20).
The 3,000mAh battery is non-user-accessible nor replaceable, but that’s mainly due to the waterproof (IPX5 and IPX8) and dust-resistant (IP5X) construction.
Despite being thin, at 8.5mm, the Sony Xperia Z1 is a rather large phone. It is 144mm tall and 74mm wide, and, a lot of that is due to the relatively large bezels. Of course, it’s all a matter of taste (and we’re sure that bezel sizes were, at one point, influenced by the waterproof and dust resistant construction); we just wish it was a little bit smaller.
However, there’s no compromise when it comes to build materials and quality. Sony used a single-piece aluminum frame and a by-now-famous sandwiched glass construction in building the Z1. There’s durable tempered glass on the front and back, which makes the phone feel premium. Buttons and flaps don’t wobble or squeak, and the entire phone, despite being made out of glass, feels solid. To keep it short: the Sony Xperia Z1 is a pleasure to hold.
Three flaps (one for the microSD card, one for the micro USB port, and one for the micro-SIM tray) are in charge of keeping water and dust out of the Z1. There’s no flap on the 3.5mm headphone jack; Sony micro-coated it to make it withstand water.
…and, since we’re taking about the headphone jack, that’s the only thing you’ll find on the top of the phone. Not too many things are going on on the bottom either: there’s a wide speaker grill and a lanyard hole. Speakerphone performance is good, though the volume could be higher overall, and the sound a little bit less tinnier. Don’t expect to use it for a while after submersion, at least until the speaker itself dries out.
The left-hand side features a dock connector for Sony’s own Magnetic Charging Dock DK31. Above that you’ll see two out of three flaps which cover the micro USB port –for synching and charging– as well as the microSD card slot right above it.
The opposite, right-hand, side is where you’ll find your third cover which keeps water and dust out and protects the microSIM card slot. There’s a small tray already inside the slot itself which you have to remove, and then with which you insert your SIM inside the tray itself. Further down, there’s your power button, and the volume rockers.
At the very bottom, on the right side, you’ll find a two-stage camera key, for focus and shutter release. It is something which, as we said it before, we’d like to see on every smartphone, as it is not only useful when taking pictures, but it dramatically reduces pocket-to-picture time; it acts as a shortcut key to the camera within the OS, and wakes the phone up from stand-by, directly in camera mode, while sleeping.
The front is made out of a single sheet of glass. At the far top you’ll find, from right to left, the two-megapixel front-facing camera, earpiece, notification light, Sony logo, and the proximity and ambient light sensors.
Everything else is just screen. A lot of it; five inches, to be more specific. There are no hardware or off-screen capacitive buttons to push or touch. Sony opted for on-screen shortcuts for multi-tasking, home, and back, something which makes the phone look really clean on the front, at the expense of screen real estate – the buttons take up some precious pixels, especially when browsing the web. The entire front is covered by Sony’s pre-installed screen film which protects the glass from shattering.
The back is also made out of a single sheet of tempered glass, which, just like in the case of the phone’s fron, is covered by a shatter-protective film. The camera is mounted on the top left side of the back, underneath which you’ll find the 20.7MP camera with G Lens. Towards the middle, an NFC logo indicates the exact contact point, and then there are the Sony and Xperia brand logos, to show them off to your friends.
Android 4.2.2 with Sony’s own UI on top of it is what operates the Sony Xperia Z1. Thanks to Google’s tweaks to the OS over time, as well as the powerhouse specs under the hood of the Z1, the phone is as snappy as a flagship Android phone can get in the second half of 2013.
Those familiar with the Xperia Z, or other phones from Sony’s lineup, will feel at home using the Z1. Those new to the phone will have no problem getting used to the custom user interface. Sony decided to keep its button on-screen, instead of going with a physical or beneath-the-screen capacitive solution. Of course, Google Now is in, but the notification shade has been changed completely. Despite the user’s ability to modify the shortcuts and toggles present, it is nowhere near stock.
Home screens and widgets are fluid, and you can always use one of the built-in device themes to further customize your phone. They’ll change wallpaper as well as the accent color throughout the system. You can also change the skin, as well as the layout of your keyboard, should you prefer to use a lighter, or darker, overall SIP theme. A selection of small apps, windowed applications running on top of everything, can be used to multitask, if that’s your cup of tea.
Then there are the bundled Sony applications, like TrackID for audio and TV, PlayStation mobile, Music and Video unlimited – offerings which enrich your experience and instantly welcome you to the Sony ecosystem. However, some of these might not be available in your region. There’s also Autodesk’s Pixlr Express application bundled out-of-the-box for those of you who want to edit your stills on the go, making adjustments or applying special effects post-shooting.
The album application has a neat way of displaying more or fewer image thumbnails, and the camera app allows the user to make a couple of tweaks, interestingly, in the auto mode. Superior Auto, Manual, Timeshift burst, Picture effect, Sweep panorama, AR effect, Social live, and Info eye are the available options.
Superior auto will produce eight-megapixel images, and the software does a great job at identifying the scene your are currently shooting in, adjusting the settings accordingly.
The manual mode is poor though. Of course you can select the scenes yourselves, but that’s only available in eight-megapixel output mode. Once you try to capture stills in the maximum 20MP mode, you are limited to only being able to set exposure and white balance, which kind of kills the manual mode for us.
Timeshift burst is Sony’s main camera feature, or at least that’s what friendly reps emphasized most at its introduction in Berlin at IFA 2013. It allows capturing 61 frames in 2 seconds, starting before even pressing the shutter button. You’re then presented with the frames, and you can select the best one, after scrolling through them. Of course, you can also choose to keep all of them.
…and then there are the other modes, like Social live, with which you can use to broadcast video to your friends on Facebook, a Google Goggles-like Info-eye mode, special Panorama shooting mode (though you have to be quick at moving the phone rather steadily), and an augmented reality mode to overlay funny objects on your stills. There’s also a Picture effect mode that applies special effects in real time, though the selection isn’t exhaustive. You can, of course, download more camera plugins (like Windows Phone lenses), if you wish to further improve your camera experience.
Whether it’s the sensor or the software which produces a great amount of noise is beyond us. We sure hope Sony can further improve the camera with future updates, because shooting in conditions other than perfect immediately generates a lot of noise. That noise is not only present in 20MP shots, in manual mode, but also in the eight-megapixel output range too.
And, since we mentioned Manual mode, just like above, in the UI section, we’ll say it again: there’s no real manual mode on the Xperia Z1, at least nowhere near the Nokia Pro Cam solution on top Lumia devices. In 20MP mode you can’t control shutter speed, ISO, focus, etc. What you can do in manual mode is set the white balance and exposure. Once you bring the output resolution down a notch, to eight-megapixel mode, then you are able to select scenes manually. This, in our opinion, should be addressed in future updates.
There’s also another thing we noticed in many of the shots: the far right edge of stills tends to wash out. We’re not looking at depth of field here, but instead, either an issue with the lenses or a software problem. We hope this is not a hardware issue and that this too can be fixed in future updates.
Low light sensitivity is good, though results will vary. They’re usually a hit or miss and when you manage to snap a frame, the output will be lacking detail. However, it will not lack noise. Still, if you can live with that, the Z1 has a rather sensitive sensor.
We’re more satisfied with the video capturing capabilities of the phone than with its picture-taking ones. There’s a sample within our review video at the beginning of this text review.
You can find camera samples in the gallery below!
Here at Pocketnow we strongly believe that benchmarks don’t matter. We’ve seen companies play it smart and cheat when it comes to performance tests anyways. So we’ll skip the numbers altogether and, instead, tell you, that the Sony Xperia Z1 is an extremely powerful phone.
Whether we’re talking day-to-day tasks, like launching applications, browsing the web, and other usual stuff, or, on the opposite end, heavy gaming (with graphic intense titles, like Asphalt 8), it doesn’t really break a sweat. During our ten-day test period with the Z1 we didn’t manage to bug it down, make it lag, hang, freeze, or anything crucial which would even raise the doubt of performance issues. You will have no problems at all with this phone, and, thanks to its top notch internals, you’ll also happen to own a future-proof device.
However, we’ve seen occasional stutters, slight hiccups, and scarce frame drops, every now and then. We even saw it hang for a fraction of a second while recording the camera sample for the review video above (something which we haven’t seen before, nor after that incident). Nonetheless, we strongly believe that we’re witnessing a software glitch, rather than a more serious issue; hence, this is something we think Sony can fix with future updates to the software, after doing some fine-tuning and optimization.
Reception was good: the phone holds on to the signal (voice and data) very well. However, as far as WiFi is concerned, it barely indicated maximum signal strength even while a couple of feet away from our router. This happened while testing out both 2.4 and 5GHz wireless signals.
Sound quality over the earpiece is good. People we talked to reported that we sounded good to them, and that’s also the way they sounded to us. Speakerphone performance is also good, though not HTC BoomSound-good. We wish the speaker was somewhat louder, and less tinny. There are software options to further improve the quality of sound blasted out from the bottom of the phone, and they do matter. Still, we were not shocked. Also, as we mentioned above, after submersion, you have to wait for the speaker to dry out in order to listen to music (or anything, really) through the speaker.
With our regular usage we got more than a day’s worth of battery life out of the 3,000mAh pack that’s powering the phone. We’re talking about phone calls, text messages, social media on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, taking pictures, browsing the web, instant messaging, Google Maps, YouTube videos, Spotify music streaming, and even workout tracking. You will definitely get at least one day’s worth of action on the Z1, given you don’t abuse the camera — which you’ll probably do in the first couple of days anyways.
+ excellent build quality and materials
+ super snappy performance and powerhouse specs
+ fluid user experience
+ waterproof and dust resistant build
+ microSD card for expansion
+ good battery life
– large phone
– large bezels
– still not perfect screen viewing angles (though improved over past models)
– poor camera software (especially manual mode)
– camera produces a lot of noise
Pricing and Availability
There’s currently no word on when, or if, US carriers will pick the Xperia Z1 up. However, you can grab your own from e-tailers, like Clove in the UK, were it is going for £470 (£564 with VAT), or in the neighborhood of $755 ($906 with VAT). Of course, this is a full-retail price for the unlocked phone.
If you’re in the US, or don’t want to import the phone from Europe, Negri Electronics has it for $749.50 – $825, depending on the color option.
We definitely recommend the Sony Xperia Z1. It is a very powerful device, and, Sony’s best phone yet. Needless to say the Z1 is part of the elite group of top Android phones, alongside the Samsung Galaxy S 4, Note 3, HTC One, LG G2, and the others. It is, however, the only phone among the top ones to have IP ratings which allow submersion under 1.5 meters of freshwater, while also being dust resistant at the same time.
Build quality is exceptional, waterproofing and dust resistance are welcome additions for those looking for such features, and the overall feeling you get while you hold or use the device is that you’re operating a premium product.
The weakest point is the camera, in our opinion, and we hope Sony can improve it in the future. The display is much improved over previous Sony models and offers good results when viewed straight-on. However, the viewing angles are still not good, side-visibility is poor, and colors wash out.
Overall, we enjoyed our time with the Xperia Z1. It is a very good effort from Sony and proves that the company is serious about its smartphones. With every new model, Sony is raising the bar, and, we hope that the next Xperia flagship review will no longer talk about a “better” screen and camera, but the best out there, at that moment