Big screen phones or phablets have received their fair share of criticism over the years.
After all, who could possibly want a phone that couldn't be used with one hand and struggled to fit in your pocket?
But with Samsung selling more than 38 million Galaxy Note smartphones in just two years oversized phones are here to stay and their purpose has evolved from a purely content consumption device to smartphones that are better optimised for productivity related tasks.
Samsung’s success has spurred others to enter the space. HTC has weighed in with the HTC One Max, Nokia is taking Windows Phone into uncharted territory with the Lumia 1520 and 1320. And Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, offering a colossal 6.44-inch display and few unique features to challenge the Galaxy Note 3.
The first is the water and dust resistant build that also happens to be razor thin, followed by the ability to use any metallic object as the stylus.
So, how well does it perform and does the end user experience justify that big screen?
Unwieldy but thin
Make no mistake; the Xperia Z Ultra is big. Standing in at 179x92mm, it easily dwarfs the Galaxy Note 3 and is closer to Google’s Nexus 7 tablet in dimensions.
Everything about the Ultra’s form factor suggests that it’s a two hands only device and the design language almost encourages using the handset in landscape mode, at least most of the time. And you won’t find any usability tweaks on the software side that could make one handed use a possibility either.
On the Note 3, Samsung at least included a feature called “one-handed operation” mode that essentially shrunk down the keyboard and dialler so that you could still make calls and send text messages while using the phone with one hand.
No such luck with the Ultra but there’s the option to toggle the keyboard either towards the left or right of the screen. However, without an option to resize the keyboard to the optimal size of your hand, typing out messages one-handed is a struggle.
Too thin for its own good?
Despite the size, the Ultra is impressively thin at only 6.5mm. Sony claims it's the thinnest 1080P smartphone on the market but it just might be too thin for its own good.
The problem is that having such a thin design on a device that’s also quite tall reduces the level of rigidity. For example, we were able to easily flex the handset to an uncomfortable point without too much effort. It’s not going to snap in your hands but an accidental bend could conceivably crack it.
That said, Sony’s decision to avoid considerable reinforcement does mean that it has been able to keep things on the lighter side.
At 212 grams, it’s just a bit heavier than the Note 3 but considerably lighter than the Nexus 7. Of course, the Ultra possesses a more sophisticated build with a water and dust resistant design that can be submerged in water for up to 30 minutes.
There’s no Gorilla Glass here but Sony says the tempered glass material used on the front and back of the device is just as strong.
Top notch display
While we were disappointed with the screen on the original Xperia Z and the viewing angles on the recently released Xperia Z1, Sony has got it right with the Ultra.
The natural colour reproduction, great contrast, excellent viewing angles and impressive outdoor viewing combined with a large display makes watching movies and browsing the web an enjoyable experience.
Equally impressive is the screen’s ability to detect direct input from any metallic object including pencils, metallic pens and even the ends of a binder clip.
The handwriting recognition seemed to be just as accurate as using the S Pen on the Note 3 with my, far from neat, handwriting converting to text with minimal fuss. Similarly, using a pencil to swipe through menus and navigating the OS in general feels responsive.
The downside is that apart from the Notes and Sketch apps, you won’t find any other pen specific functions that perform on the Ultra. It feels bare in comparison to the feature rich Note 3 where the S Pen features are tightly integrated with the OS.
While Samsung has had a two year head start to flesh out their stylus-centric features it would have been nice to see Sony make a more serious investment on the software front, particularly for a device that is pitched as a note taking machine.
Another notable omission is the lack of pressure sensitivity which will be a deal breaker for those who plan on using the device for drawing and other creative output.
Fast performance but mediocre battery life
The Xperia Z Ultra comes with the latest Snapdragon 800 mobile processor clocked at 2.2Ghz with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage which can be expanded via a microSD card slot.
Just like the Xperia Z1, the phone absolutely screams through tasks and other than benchmarking apps, we were hard pressed to find applications that really pushed the handset. Multi-tasking between a large number of apps showed no signs of stutter.
However, the processing muscle combined with a massive display comes at the cost of precious battery life. We struggled to get through a full day of moderate use without having to reach for the charger. It’s odd that Sony chose to only go with a 3,000 mAh capacity battery especially when you consider that the smaller Galaxy Note 3 was able to squeeze in a larger 3,400 mAh battery. As a point of comparison, I was able to easily get through a full day with the Galaxy Note 3.
The camera’s nothing to crow about. There’s no onboard LED flash whatsoever and the camera struggled in varied lighting conditions. The pictures produced on a bright sunny day came out fine but lacked detail.
Questionable design choices
The Xperia Z Ultra is a decent first effort by Sony in the phablet market but is ultimately let down by some questionable design choices.
The decision to employ 17mm of bezel above and below the display on an already unwieldy device is odd. Had those vertical bezels been omitted, the Ultra would virtually have the same dimensions as the Note 3 but just a little wider. This would have made the device much easier to hold in the hand while still being able to conceivably fit in your pocket.
The ability to use any pencil or metallic pen as the stylus is a great feature and the handwriting recognition works fantastically well. But the absence of compelling native software that takes advantage of pen input is disappointing, not to mention the lack of pressure sensitivity, which effectively limits the device.
The battery life a significant deficiency and it’s a shame that Sony didn’t see it fit to sacrifice a few millimetres for a larger battery.
As it stands, the Xperia Z Ultra is impractical to use as a smartphone but perfectly fine to use as a tablet. However, the Galaxy Note 3 is a far more balanced option than the Ultra.
Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering business IT and consumer technology.