Sony Xperia Z Ultra hands-on, specs, release date and price

Reviews Paul Briden 10:08, 29 Aug 2013

We've had some more hands-on time with the Sony Xperia Z Ultra and this time sent Paul Briden to have a go with it

Stunning Full HD display Water resistant (IP55/IP58 certified) Ultra-slim design
Freakishly large
This humongous device has a sheen of brilliance about it provided by its excellent display and sumptuous design. Whether its size will leave it festering in the hinterland of not-quite-smartphone, not-quite phablet, is not yet clear. We'll be taking a closer look soon though, so come back to read our final verdict.

I’m not in the least bit surprised Sony has entered the phablet market with the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, as it seems like just the sort of product the company is suited to. However, I must admit, I was a little surprised when I first learned it would be a 6.44-inch monster, the biggest of its kind and dangerously close to tablet territory.

But if 6.44-inches sounds big on paper then the shock of seeing the Xperia Z Ultra in person for the first time is something else entirely, the thing is absolutely colossal.

As far as its visual design and tactile build are concerned this is happily familiar territory as it’s just like the Xperia Z in every sense except scale. The back panel mirrors the display on the front by being similarly clad in glass while a polycarbonate surround has a quality feel and features contoured and panelled detailing. It’s incredibly thin at a mere 6.5mm and despite its considerable size it is very light in the hand.

Overall the handset is stunning to look at and radiates ‘premium’ vibes whether you’re eyeballing it from a distance or are up close and personal while swiping through its menus.

While the glass rear panel does look classy, an unfortunate side effect is that the charm is actually lost pretty quickly, as it shows up fingerprints like nothing else.

In terms of portability and general usability I found the lightness made up for the sheer size but you are going to need one hand to grip and the other to operate the touchscreen – there’s little scope for tapping out quick one-handed texts with your thumb here. There is a dedicated keyboard mode for the purpose but adjusting your grip but it just leads to a loss of balance and will likely see you dropping the phone.

While size-wise it is just about manageable enough in the hand, storage of the handset about your person might be a real issue. An inside jacket pocket works (I tested it) and a larger pocket on a pair of cargo pants is one possibility, but apart from that you’re almost certainly looking at the need for a bag of some description to tote this giant around. Skinny jeans are out of the question.  

And this is really where we get to the nitty gritty of the Xperia Z Ultra. Regardless of Sony’s intentions, in practical terms the device really is a tablet first and a smartphone second, just like the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 and Asus Fonepad, each a tablet with added call-making capabilities.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, because what both tablets and smartphones have in common is their use as multimedia consumption devices and the modern equivalent of a PDA in one.

In this respect it’s got a lot going for it.

The display is absolutely stunning as we’ve come to expect from Sony products. It’s a 1920x1080 pixel Full HD touchscreen using Triluminos technology, together with Sony’s X-Reality Engine layer (an evolution of the company’s Mobile Bravia Engine tech) which together create natural colours and a vivid, cinematic quality picture.

It produces fantastic imagery at 344 pixels-per-inch (ppi) which is incredibly clear and bright, with rich colour and punchy contrast to boot. As a device for watching films or gaming on the go you’d be hard pushed to find anything better on the current market.

That’s even more true when you consider the power, performance and smoothness of operation on show here.

Thanks to the use of Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor – currently the fastest smartphone chip on the planet – things do tick along at a suitably slick pace and for the majority of my time with the device there wasn’t a hint of lag or stuttering.

With one exception.

One of those PDA-like features I hinted at earlier is the fact that the Xperia Z Ultra accepts input from a stylus. It’s not based on a digitiser like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and will work with any third-party stylus or even a pencil.

I gave it a go with the pencil and was surprised at how responsive the input is for a non-digitiser setup. While you may not be able to influence the thickness of a line by adjusting pressure the input is remarkably accurate and highly usable for making quick notes or sketches to a reasonable standard.

The only issue is that I did encounter some lag when writing longer sentences, something which used to plague the original Samsung Galaxy Note. Admittedly this was a preview unit, so this problem may be ironed out on launch, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye out for in the full review.

In other areas the stylus input remained impressive – there’s a handwriting recognition tool in one of the pre-loaded apps which performs just as well as the equivalent on Samsung’s Galaxy Note range.

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra's screen has wake problems it would seem.

Many users of the device are reporting that the screen displays as blank when the power button is tapped, sometimes displaying green lines across the screen. The users has to press the power button repeatedly for it to wake up.

The device is still working in the background though, according to Phone Arena.

One user told Phone Arena he has to press the power button between five and 150 times to get the screen to wake up.

Here are some videos of the phone's problems:

The last thing to comment on is how great a job Sony has done with its UI. The Sony UI has been optimised to the display and received extra rows and columns for icon shortcuts. The rest of the design and functionality is largely unchanged from the Xperia Z, but getting to grips with the interface once again and running on the Snapdragon 800 chip I have to say it’s a very rewarding experience indeed.

Sony has struck an excellent balance between personalising its experience to its brand and retaining what’s good about stock Android at the same time – it essentially feels like stock Android with a visual skin (and a very tasteful one at that). This is exactly how third party UIs should be done in my view.

My biggest concern for the full review at this point is two-fold.

Firstly, whether any further issues with the size, in terms of day-to-day practicality, may arise over an extended use period, and secondly, given that the Xperia Z’s battery was distinctly sub-par I’m hopeful that enough has been done to ensure the 3,050mAh unit lurking inside the Xperia Z Ultra is going to be up to scratch this time round.

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra phablet is set for launch in the UK on September 12.

Unlocked Mobiles said they will be stocking the Sony Xperia Z Ultra from September 12 - that's one day earlier than rival SIM-free seller Expansys who will launch the device on September 13.

Unlocked Mobiles will be selling the device for £599.98 SIM free with free next day delivery which is also undercutting its competition.

Expansys, which already has the 6.44-inch Qualcomm Snapdragon 800-powered behemoth on pre-order for £639 SIM-free, revealed to us that it will be receiving stock on September 13 and will be stocking the device in both black and white colour variants for the same price.

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