Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: Compensating for something?

Reviews Ben Griffin 17:28, 8 Nov 2013

Does up-scaling the Sony Xperia Z make the Xperia Z Ultra a bigger and better device? Ben Griffin investigates

Typical Price: 
Easy to view big display, Stylish and svelte design, Rapid performance
You really do need clown pockets to carry it and Dumbo ears to answer it
If you like Android, big screens and mobile phones that are distinctly un-mobile, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a solid workhorse

When I first laid eyes on the original Samsung Galaxy Note I thought it was a bit of a Marmite smartphone. I loved the easily viewable display, but I hated answering it because it made me feel ridiculous. Years of Trigger Happy TV had conditioned me to mock giant phones and now in a cruel twist of fate I was having to review one.

In the end, however, I rather liked it and it seems so did most of you guys because the Galaxy Note sold like hot cakes , as have its second and third-generation siblings. This explains why other manufacturers have decided to jump on the bandwagon with similar offerings, including the Sony Xperia Z Ultra on review today.

Knowing these 'phablets' are here to stay, I decided to see whether there's still a niche for over-sized phones (or undersized tablets) and if Sony has hit the nail on the head with the Xperia Z Ultra.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: Design

Unless you're eight feet tall with fingers like bananas, make no mistake, the Xperia Z Ultra is a beast. It manages to dwarf the already sizable Galaxy Note 3 and the HTC One Max, making it the biggest 'phablet' on the market. Until next week, that is. The reason for all the bulk is simple ─ Sony wanted to cram in a 6.4-inch display.

Now I like a large display size as much as the next man or woman, but it gets to a point where holding it with one hand can prove difficult (yes, that's what she said). It also meant typing on the keyboard in landscape mode required me to physically move my hand to reach the inner-most keys.

Sometimes it felt like the Xperia Z Ultra was wandering into a design minefield as far as usability is concerned, because certain tasks ended up being made more difficult by its sheer bulk. Pressing the back button when using it one-handed, for instance, meant adjusting the position of your hand and stretching.

"Take my strong hand!"

There were, of course, tasks where the Xperia Z Ultra comes into its own. Reading websites, checking emails, typing in portrait, watching movies, playing games ─ the almost Nexus 7-sized display is immensely practical.

In the Xperia Z Ultra's defence, the 6.5mm thickness, 212g weight and slim bezels make it feel like a high-end piece of kit, which it should when it commands a high-end price tag. I especially liked the shiny back plate, which is made from glass. Sure, it attracts dust and smears like it’s going out of fashion but that bothered me very little.

The buttons and general build quality is also great. Admittedly I was in no rush to see how well it would fare if I dropped it but I got the feeling it would probably survive. Which is reassuring given the slippery backplate. What I didn't like was the plastic covering over the mini-USB connection and microSD card slots as they felt a bit cheap.

These flaps do have a purpose, it must be said. The Xperia Ultra Z1 is water resistant - more so than its smaller Xperia Z cousin - to the point where you could, if feeling brave, drop it into the bath and it will live to tell the tale. While I never tried that out, it did survive running water from a tap.

One particularly cool feature is the ability to use a pen and pencil to draw on the screen, instead of a dedicated stylus. While the pen worked very well, the lead side of a pencil was a bit iffy, leaving the odd line broken unless I pressed down hard. Sadly, the display can't detect pressure so lines will always be the same thickness, regardless of the pressure applied.

Like a big television, it's strangely easy to adjust to the Xperia Z Ultra's sheer size. However, I always felt stupid answering a call in public. Of course, you could use a hands-free device and all is solved. How long you actually spend on the phone will have a bearing. If only occasionally, you could argue the benefits of that big-old display outweigh the embarrassment.

It will probably jab you in the hip

That's assuming you can actually carry the phone with you. Tight jeans, small handbags, compact man bags and small pockets may prove to be problematic. Still, it can be pocketed, which is more than you can say for the iPad Mini, Nexus 7 and other 7-inch tablets.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: Display

For all the bulk, you would hope the Xperia Z Ultra's display is top-notch. Fortunately, it really is. The wide viewing angles are forgiving for sharing content with adjacent chums and the detail is superb, thanks to the full HD 1920x1080 pixel display. Brightness is also excellent but not eye-burningly strong. Colours look more natural and less saturated out of the box than they do on a Samsung device.

Whether watching a film, checking out the latest YouTube sensation (Drift Cats, anyone?) or for reading websites, the Xperia Z Ultra excels. Other displays may offer better sharpness, for instance, but few can offer the same impact a 6.4-inch display affords. Whack on a pair of good headphones and your content will immerse you that little bit more.

Alongside the Xperia Z1's smaller display, the pixels-per-inch (ppi) number is less on the Xperia Z Ultra, at 441ppi and 341ppi respectively. Is the difference noticeable? Not especially. Beyond a certain point the human eye struggles to perceive the difference anyway. Just know that your eyes will thank you in years to come for going for such a large, high-quality display instead of something that causes you to strain.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: Specs & Hardware

Another benefit of the Xperia Z Ultra's 179x92x6.5mm size is that it allows plenty of room for powerful internals. The star of the show is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at an impressive 2.2GHz, which allows it to fly along with hardly any noticeable pauses or jittering.

Android isn’t currently quite as smooth as Windows Phone or iOS but this is about as close as it gets for now. Games with intensive 3D graphics like Shadowgun: DeadZone run smoothly, apps open and close satisfyingly and there's rarely ever a hold-up when jumping between tasks. Nothing really requires this much processing might, but it's reassuring to have.

The Xperia Z Ultra also comes equipped with 2GB of RAM, Bluetooth 4.0, DLNA, NFC and 4G connectivity as well as 16GB of storage out of the box. It seems a bit cheap for Sony to not put a microSD card in the box, but at least you have the option of up to a 64GB boost in capacity.

Some of you may be sad to know there's no fingerprint scanner. Personally, I'm not bothered at all. However, knowing you may be tied to the phone for 18 or 24 months, the lack of 4k support does seem a shame. Granted, there's not a lot of ultra-high-definition content out there but it will become more prominent and the Galaxy Note 3 is already on the bandwagon. Hopefully a firmware update will rectify the situation, especially when Sony itself films its TV and film content at 8k.

Call quality was good - loud and clear - but can sometimes sound a tad distant, which is perhaps down to the active noise cancellation and HD Voice algorithms working their magic. The benefit is background noise is kept to a minimum, even in a relatively noisy area.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: Android

Android 4.2.2 runs the show, which means the Xperia Z Ultra narrowly misses out on Android 4.3 but an update has been promised. Over the top is Sony's own overlay, which sometimes feels a bit dated but it does the job well.

Highlights include the customisable notification bar and changes to the Sony Walkman player app, movie player and photo gallery (Album, as it's known) all of which were for the better. While there's not a lot of 'bloatware' apps to trawl through, I rarely found myself using PlayStation Mobile or Xperia Privilege. To be fair, you can always uninstall what you don't want.

The inclusion of OfficeSuite is useful for work but not as useful as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, while Pixlr can be handy for photo enthusiasts. File Commander can be helpful if you are a bit of a media hoarder. TV SideView lets you control a Sony TV with your Xperia Z Ultra, which you may or may not find useful.

Although purists will probably want Android in its vanilla form or with a custom launcher in tow, I was happy enough to use what Sony had provided ─ although in time the customisation bug so associated with Android was starting to bite again. Sony's offering is functional and stable, but there are options out there that will significantly improve the aesthetics and will slightly improve performance.

For those addicted to apps or reliant on a particular one, the Google Play Store offers a wealth of options, including the trendy staples such as Instagram and SnapChat. There are also plenty of awesome games out there to whittle away the time. Sadly, you will have to trawl through a lot of drivel to find new apps and games. Quality not quantity, Google.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: Camera & video

Tablet cameras are rarely worth writing home about, but what about hybrids? In the case of the Xperia Z Ultra, it's a mixed bag. The Exmor RS 8-megapixel sensor allows for some detailed shots that are pretty accurate in colour, but can appear soft in places. It's a reasonably accomplished camera but not in the same league as the Nokia Lumia 1020 and other recent flagship smartphones.

The lack of a flash does little to help the cause, especially when a lot of photos are going to be taken when lighting is anything but ideal at, say, a club or pub.

At least there's a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for 'selfies' (if they float your boat) and video calls plus a number of photo options designed to let you tweak a shot. It will even do all the work for you with Superior Auto, a mode that tries to pick the right ISO, white balance exposure and so on. The results are usually pretty good, but the function is by no means infallible.

Video fares better, with relatively smooth 1080p footage running at 30 frames-per-second. Noise is fairly well controlled until you start getting into low-light situations. The autofocus can also be a bit slow, although it was quite well behaved most of the time.

Sony Xperia Z review: Battery

The sizable 3,050mAh battery isn't the biggest you can find in a phablet. That accolade goes to the Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 and its 3,200mAh offering.

Having spent the day checking Twitter, Facebook, browsing the web, reading emails and watching the odd YouTube video, I managed a solid day's use. Games and video do dent the longevity, as does social networking, but that happens on any device. Having a big battery does at least give you a buffer.

Somehow the big display sips a relatively small amount of battery, to the extent that I felt confident upon leaving the house in the morning that the phone would be alive and well in the evening. Unless, of course, I rinsed the latest YouTube videos on the commute.

There are a number of tools to prolong the battery life, including Sony's Stamina, a mode which disables mobile data and Wi-Fi when your phone is locked. There's also a low battery mode for eking out a bit more juice, which is useful for those times when a charger feel like a million miles away.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: Conclusion

Sony has created a smartphone that's big on performance, but perhaps small in terms of its niche. If you want a big display, have large pockets and dislike the idea of a bulky tablet, the Xperia Z Ultra will do you proud. If, however, you spend a lot of your time making and answering calls, its unwieldy nature will be a turn-off.

Should you buy it over the Galaxy Note 3? For those who want an aesthetically pleasing device that can survive up to a metre underwater with the biggest display around and oodles of power, then yes. For everyone else, the Samsung is the less bulky and more refined option.


Length 179mm
Width 92mm
Thickness 6.5mm
Weight 212g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 6.4-inches
UK Launch July 2013
Phone Style Touchscreen Phablet
Typical Price £599
Designer Lens No
Camera Resolution 8-megapixels
Video Resolution 1080p
Flash No
Music Formats MP3/eAAC+/WMA/WAV/Flac
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Yes
Radio Yes

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