Sony Xperia Z1 review: The One Sony we've been waiting for?

Reviews Paul Briden 14:59, 25 Oct 2013

Is Sony's Xperia Z1 the best device the Japanese manufacturer has ever produced? Read on to find out

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£599.00
Pros: 
Gorgeous design and solid build, brilliant display, incredibly fast performance, speedy web, good camera
Cons: 
Back panel is smudgy (except the white version), Flimsy port covers, mediocre speaker
Verdict: 
An excellent achievement, Sony has truly refined and distilled the highlights of previous devices into one cohesive and well-rounded package. It has its missteps but on the whole this is a brilliant smartphone

I should probably start this review by mentioning the fact that the Sony Xperia Z1 was, prior to its launch at IFA 2013 in early September, my most hotly anticipated smartphone release of the year. It’s true that this kind of pre-launch excitement is going to colour things, it means I’m going into this review hoping the Xperia Z1 will be amazing, and so the whole time I’ve been using this smartphone I’ve been continually reminding myself to put it under even more scrutiny, to be extra careful to ensure I don’t gloss over gripes and grumbles just to justify my months of hubris.

But there’s another side to this – why was I hoping the Xperia Z1 would be so incredible? Probably because my checklist of ‘wants’ on my ‘perfect’ smartphone is not actually that demanding, and yet I find to date very few candidates tick all the right boxes. Consequently, I can be pretty harsh towards phones which are actually not too bad, on the whole, it’s just that they fail to live up to this ideal and, often, there was only one little thing the manufacturer scrimped on to sully the whole package. Handsets are all too often ‘acceptable’ but it’s rare to find anything which is truly stunning.

So then, without further ado, let’s look at what the Sony Xperia Z1 offers and see if it lives up to my own personal hype.

Sony Xperia Z1 review: Design and build

Previously Sony’s designs have been a bit hit and miss, but with its most recent batch of handsets it’s been apparent that the company has developed a particular style, one which works and which is gradually being honed and distilled down into something pretty special.

Compared to its predecessor, the Xperia Z, the Xperia Z1 was something of a surprise at launch (actually a bit before, as leaks had already given us a look) as it quickly became apparent that it was a thicker handset with a wider bezel – the two golden areas of smartphone and tablet design where it’s generally thought that thinner and narrower is preferable.

But this is all relative, the Xperia Z may have been thinner with a narrower bezel, but the Xperia Z1 is still a thin phone and, ultimately, overall proportions, visual balance and design cohesion are more important in producing something which looks and feels good than individual details taken in isolation.

For the most part, I feel the Xperia Z1 does look fantastic – the panelled edging which we saw on previous flagships has been refined further and gives things a classy, slightly Art Deco appearance but while remaining subtle and understated. This time, the surround is actually the main body of the device and is one piece of machined aluminium, giving a tremendously solid and premium feel to the phone.

The front and back panel are both reinforced DragonTrail glass, which is something of a double-edged sword. Taking the Xperia Z1 out of the box it looks glorious and more than a bit like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very sci-fi and very sleek. However, the sheen is quickly lost when you spend some time handling the device.

By now we’re all used to the idea that touch displays get a bit smudgy and this is something which simply needs to be taken in stride, but the same isn’t true of the back panel and opting to use glass here has basically doubled-up the problem unnecessarily. With fingerprints and dust running from front to back the whole handset can look quite untidy indeed.

Anyone keen to buy the Sony Xperia Z1 should seriously consider the white model as having spent time with all three colour variants I can say it’s the only one which can get away with the glass back, as fingerprints and other debris barely show up at all here. The purple and black variants are not so fortunate and to some extent it does render all of Sony’s hard work in the visual design department a bit moot. This is a real shame.

While Sony’s new waterproofing certification means the 3.5mm audio jack no longer requires a port cover the rest of the Xperia Z1’s various entrances still need protection to ensure the IP58 label will let you dunk it in up to 1.5 metres of the wet stuff. The port covers are made of plastic, but they blend in very well with the main aluminium chassis.

The problem is that they follow the same design as seemingly every other port cover in history and certainly the same as those used on Sony’s other waterproof models. This means the port cover is held on by flimsy little strips of plastic and it seems like there’s a fairly strong likelihood of them snapping off after a while, thus rendering your waterproof phone not so waterproof after all. Some kind of solid sliding ports would have been better here both in terms of keeping with the rest of the premium build and for actual usability and durability. Of course, I’m not saying it’s a dead certainty that your port covers will snap off, but if I was spending my hard-earned on tis device I’d be a bit worried about it if I was relying on the phone maintaining its watertight qualities.

The circular silvery power button makes a return on the right-hand side of the phone, and very smart it looks too. The volume rocker is just below and both controls feel solid with satisfying travel to them. It’s equally usable in either hand too. Above the power button is the micro SIM tray while on the opposite edge of the device are the microSD and microUSB ports and just below this is a charging connector for Sony’s bespoke charging dock.

Also on the right hand-side towards the bottom is the dedicated two-stage camera shutter key. Just below this there’s even a little lanyard loop built into the chassis.

As a final note I should mention the size of the device. It is on the larger side with its 5-inch display and a reasonable expanse of bodywork surrounding it, while all that glass and metal gives it a surprising amount of heft, though it could hardly be described as heavy. I wouldn’t describe it as being particularly unbalanced either, though I did think there was a wee bit more weight towards the top of the handset – not enough to be a problem, but noticeable nonetheless. I didn’t have too much trouble using the Xperia Z1, but my hands are quite big and I can imagine others may struggle as it does feel quite wide in the hand for me.

Sony Xperia Z1 review: Display

I’ve previously been very impressed with Sony’s display tech. The company is pretty good at leveraging its HD TV expertise and under the ‘One Sony’ brand that’s a pattern of behaviour which looks set to continue. The Xperia Z1 sports a 5-inch touch panel, in keeping with the current trend for larger screens, and likewise packs a 1920x1080 pixel full HD resolution at 440 pixels-per-inch (ppi).

It also uses a combination of Sony’s Triluminos display and X-Reality Engine technologies, and between the two these help to provide rich and natural looking colour. Contrast is reasonably good, although black depth isn’t as good as AMOLED alternatives, meaning black on-screen will look a little ‘lighter’ than the truer black of the phone’s fascia (well, the black model, at least).

Sharpness is excellent and brightness is robust enough that not only do things look punchy under normal conditions, but you can use the phone outside in the sunshine without too much trouble. Viewing angles don’t stand up well at all, but personally this isn’t something which bothers me in the slightest. If you like sharing what’s on your screen with friends looking over your shoulder though, this may not suit you very well.

For normal media viewing everything looks great, but you really notice the difference when watching or viewing full HD 1080p content where, as with the Xperia Z, everything takes on an incredible and cinematic, almost 3D-like quality. It’s superb for watching full-length feature films and TV shows or playing flashy games.

Sony Xperia Z1 review: Hardware, software and performance

Firstly, the vital statistics. The Xperia Z1 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor clocked at 2.2GHz with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 graphics processing unit (GPU). On the software front it runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean with the Sony UI on top.

But what does all that mean for the end user experience? Well, let’s start with the UI.

User Interface

The Sony UI on top of Android 4.2.2 is all about contrasts. In terms of both the way UI elements work and look, it is similar to pure Android, and yet very different at the same time. Meanwhile another contrast is between the extremely bright and colourful app icons and themes, and the black, grey and white monochromatic approach to various menu screens.

In terms of what the UI actually adds, the lock-screen features a set of scrollable quick-access screens/widgets, showing you a bit of information from the associated app and letting you go straight in if you select one and then put in your unlock code or pattern. The default widget is your standard clock/date, and to the right of this is the camera. Scrolling to the left will show you a plus icon where you can add from a selection of your installed apps which support the feature. You can add up to four in total.

As is typical of most custom UIs, the drop-down notifications menu has a bar of quick settings at the top, including a sound/silent/vibrate toggle, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Brightness and a shortcut to the full Settings menu.

A pinch gesture or hold press on a homescreen will bring up a customisation menu, here you can scroll between homescreens, add or remove homescreens (up to seven in total), set the default homescreen, add apps and widgets, or change wallpapers and themes.

Android’s multitasking carousel has been modified slightly, it’s more or less the same layout and operation, but includes Sony’s “small apps” bar which lets you launch a range of mini apps as overlay windows on the homescreen which can be moved around or closed by tapping the ‘X’.

The bar is scrollable and includes a browser, sticky notes tool, calculator, stopwatch, voice recorder and screen capture tool. You can also expand this menu with the arrow icon and pick from a small selection of supported apps, including the Gmail inbox, Chrome bookmarks and Google’s calendar.

A plus icon lets you download more small apps via Google Play or select existing widgets on your phone to convert into small apps – which works very well, I converted the Youtube widget with no issues.

The app drawer is also a little different. It’s presented as a series of pages scrollable with a ‘snap scroll’ horizontally. In the default page, that is, the page furthest to the left, swiping from left to right will bring up a search and organisation tool. You can perform a search, uninstall apps, jump to the Google Play store or Sony’s “Select” portal, or sort apps alphabetically, by “most used”, show only apps you’ve installed or use your own custom order. On any other app page you can summon the same menu but you have to swipe in from the left-hand edge of the display.

I have mixed feelings about the Sony UI, on the one hand I think it walks the line well between keeping the features of stock Android and adding a few custom tweaks to Sony’s liking. The functionality is fine. Except, that is, for the keyboard, which I found rather clunky. It does support optional Swype-style gesture input which works very well and I found this the only satisfying way to use the default keyboard reliably.

Ultimately, the Sony UI is a significant visual overhaul from Google’s design and not necessarily for the better. It’s quite odd, if you look at the main homescreen with a custom wallpaper it looks all clean, neat and tidy, how Android should look, but open up any menu screen and suddenly it’s a bit too dull and clinical. Sony’s Settings menu icon and the menu within stand out as particular eyesores.

Having said all of that, it feels a bit daft to seriously complain about all this stuff when you can stick a launcher on there and get things how you like (including a custom keyboard, which I’d heartily recommend). Put more simply, while I might have gripes with the UI it wouldn’t put me off buying the phone, as there are ways and means to get round it – such are the joys of Android.

Processor and performance

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 continues to impress with an almost nonchalantly fluid and responsive execution of Google’s platform. Just as it did on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 it runs Android flawlessly here too – I did not encounter a single blip or judder during my entire time with the Sony Xperia Z1. Screen transitions are smooth and multitasking is highly capable even when stacking up a large quantity of intensive apps. The Xperia Z1 will deftly handle any smartphone task you throw its way and makes short work of graphically demanding gaming.

And for the say-so, here are the benchmarks showing just how insanely quick the Xperia Z1 is. Vellamo clocked the handset with a score of 1153 (virtually the same as the Galaxy Note 3), Quadrant gave it 20297 (again, a wee bit behind the Galaxy Note 3’s 20903, but a negligible difference) and AnTuTu actually pegged Sony’s device a bit faster with a score of 34902 – faster than the HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4 and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 (32837).

Sony Xperia Z1 review: Battery

I was a bit apprehensive about the Sony Xperia Z1’s battery life as this was the main stumbling block for the Xperia Z, but as it turns out I needn’t have worried. Despite a bigger, badder processor and some tweaked display tech (always a major drain), the larger 3,000mAh battery pack provides more than enough juice to keep you going.

Running the handset from 100% charge with full screen brightness, Wi-Fi and mobile data switched on and using it in my typical daily routine, which I would describe as fairly moderate usage, I found the Xperia Z1 lasted me a full two days from about 8am to around midnight. This was without making use of Sony’s Stamina Mode battery saving tweaks.

The Django Test 

The Xperia Z1 also fared well in our Django test. From 100% charge on full brightness with Wi-Fi and mobile data on, the Xperia Z1 played the entirety of Django Unchained (2 hours 45 minutes) with 68% charge left to spare. Again, this was without Stamina mode. That's actually a slightly better result than the Galaxy Note 3's 64%.

In short, not only does the Xperia Z1 deal with the Xperia Z’s poor battery life, it buries the issue entirely. While the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 appears to squeeze out slightly better battery life from its 3,200mAh pack it is a considerably larger device and despite this the Xperia Z1’s lifespan on a single charge remains rather exceptional compared to most other competing devices.

Sony Xperia Z1 review: Camera

There are a lot of impressive specs associated with the Sony Xperia Z1’s camera setup. It sports a 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor yanked straight out of the company’s compact camera range. It has an f/2.0 aperture and the sensor size is 1/2.3”, while there’s also Sony’s aspheric G Lens, an LED flash and a dedicated BIONZ image processor.

The problem with this sort of thing is it sets the expectations higher, and if you were hoping this setup would deliver some absolutely stellar imaging capability then you’re going to be disappointed.

The Xperia Z1 is not a bad camera phone, on the contrary, it’s really rather good, but I did find it considerably more temperamental than some of its rivals and to get the best out of it does require a bit of persistence, patience and even luck.

Above: Sony's array of filters

To start with, you might as well get that 20-megapixel rating out of your head straight away. Capturing at 20-megapixels requires you to put the phone’s camera in Manual mode and you end up with a lot of settings which normally help produce a better picture being disabled, including HDR and stabilisation.

Above: Three shots captured at 20-megapixels

The higher megapixel rating is also a classic example of why more megapixels don’t necessarily mean better quality. I found I got much better results shooting at 8-megapixels on Auto and Superior Auto modes with less noise, better focus, better colour saturation – the works.

Above: Shots captured at 8-megapixels using Superior Auto

I’ve little doubt that a photography guru could use the Xperia Z1 in 20MP mode and consistently get some tremendous images, but for most users this isn’t going to cut it and you’re far better off using the auto modes for quicker and more reliable point-and-shoot use with great quality.

Images and video produced this way are sharp with plenty of detail, robust colour and excellent dynamic range, while noise – a bit of a problem with the Xperia Z – is kept nice and low this time around.

The auto mode isn’t without its hiccups though, it can have problems figuring out what you’re shooting at and how to adjust accordingly. Going in for close-up ‘Macro’ style shots will frequently go wrong as the camera suddenly changes its mind on where to focus at the last minute.

Above: Examples of temperamental focus

Video suffers from similar issues – overall the quality isn’t too bad, but it’s not exceptional and there is a sense of some of the camera’s more advanced trickery tripping over itself.

There's also Sony's set of augmented reality filters which seem to be primarily aimed at kids. They capture at a lower quality level but impose 3D images of dinosaurs, pixies and so forth. Personally, I can't see the point, this is a £600 phone made of glass. Please don't give it to kids.

Above: Panoramic capture

In other words, it’s still a bit hit-and-miss. It’s the consistency and ease-of-use that’s the real issue here, it’s quite telling that I had a better photography experience with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s unassuming 13-megapixel camera, where I was able to repeatedly get really great quality images with little to no effort. It feels like the Xperia Z1 really makes you work for your snaps by comparison. Even though the auto modes are far more reliable than manual, the number of times I’d line up what appeared to be a good shot which then turned out to be a bit naff was irritatingly high – that’s not something I encountered on Samsung’s device.

All of this sounds like I’m bashing the Xperia Z1’s camera, but rest assured, it is very, very good. It isn’t going to dethrone the Nokia Lumia 1020, but compared to everything else it’s well up there with the best of them and will provide an excellent experience for those looking to grab some great holiday snaps. Sony could do a lot more work here to make it more reliable and user-friendly but this is the sort of thing a software patch could probably fix to recalibrate the autofocus and BIONZ.

Update October 25 2013:

Lo and behold, Sony seems to have taken heed to criticisms of its camera tech and has issued a software update to improve things.

The update is rolling out globally to Xperia Z1 handsets and improves Burst Mode, Superior Auto, augmented reality effects and panoramic capture.

More broadly, detail capture is improved and low-light performance has also recieved a boost along with colour and contrast. We can see the evidence from pictures snapped before and after the update by a Dutch Xperia Z1 owner posting on the XDA Developer forums, which are included below.

Sony Xperia Z1 review: Storage, connectivity and web

With 16GB of onboard storage the Xperia Z1 is offering a little less than many have come to expect of a flagship and it would certainly have been nice to see a 32GB option here. That said, I for one have not managed to fill a 16GB phone to date, but I know people who listen to a lot of music and watch a lot of films, and who therefore say they require at least 32GB onboard or, alternatively, the inclusion of microSD support. Fortunately, in this instance, a microSD slot is indeed present and correct with a full 64GB support for high-capacity cards, so all your multimedia needs should be well catered for.

The web and browsing experience is quite rapid, Sunspider showed one of the fastest results I’ve ever seen in Chrome at 732 milliseconds. I thought this was an error at first so re-tested it a couple of times and it kept coming back in the same range, even going as low as 702 milliseconds. Vellamo’s HTML score came back at 2716, outgunning the Galaxy Note 3 by just a little bit.

Those results are reflected in actual use, websites load up incredibly quick even with multiple tabs already open. Sony’s Wi-Fi and mobile data modems seem pretty capable of maintaining fast, reliable connections too; I was rarely without some kind of reasonably speedy internet capability even on a three hour train journey into the countryside while relying on 3G.

Connectivity includes full 4G LTE and 3G (with HSPA+), Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi Hotspot, DLNA, Bluetooth 4.0, microUSB, NFC, GPS and MHL TV-Out.

A quick note on audio. I know some regular readers were hoping for stereo speakers but I’m sorry to say the Xperia Z1 only has a single loudspeaker. Audio quality is reasonable and the volume settings mean you can get things quite loud, but it’s not the best, it lacks range and you won’t get much in the way of booming bass notes as you do on the HTC One, for example. The headphone experience is absolutely fine, however, though as always this does depend on the quality of the headphones too.

Sony Xperia Z1 review: Conclusion

So where does this leave the Xperia Z1?

I am tremendously impressed by this handset, it is, in my view, one of the nicest devices on the market at the moment in terms of build quality and design.

It's also extremely powerful, one of the fastest handsets available alongside Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 and the LG G2.

It has advantages over the HTC One, a device with an equally nice exterior, in being much quicker and smoother in operation, providing microSD card support and it has a far more capable camera.

The camera is going to be a pivotal point for many buyers. For those whose interest in cameras goes no further than getting decent quality shots for social media: don't give it a second thought, it's easily good enough to keep most smartphone users happy.

But the important thing to remember is that the 20-megapixel rating may have been oversold somewhat. It's a great camera, but don't think it's going to re-define the camera phone like Nokia's PureView just because of the 20MP stamped on it.

I do have a few gripes with the Xperia Z1. The glass back panel simply isn't so great in practice and the port covers seem flimsy. A better speaker setup would've also been welcome, along with more onboard storage space, while the UI has its foibles.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these seem like minor issues and they don't spoil the overall feeling that this is a great device to use on a daily basis.

As with other Xperia devices it excels as a portable multimedia player with its excellent display providing cinematic visuals. The Xperia Z had this too, but the poor battery life let it down. With the Xperia Z1 the battery life is superb, while the enhanced display, ultrafast web and overall performance boost only improves things further.

Specifications

Length 144mm
Width 74mm
Thickness 8.5mm
Weight 170g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 5-inches
UK Launch September 2013
Phone Style Touchscreen smartphone
Typical Price £599
Website http://www.sonymobile.com/gb/products/phones/xperia-z1/?gclid=CIKC_rCMj7oCFbQetAodHUIAAA
Designer Lens Sony G Lens
Camera Resolution 20.7-megapixels
Video Resolution 1080p
Flash LED
Zoom Digital
Music Formats MP3/eAAC+/WAV/Flac
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Yes
Radio Yes

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