REVIEW: Sony Xperia Z1

Despite a few missteps the Xperia Z1 strengthens Sony’s position as a premier smartphone player. But if you’re buying the phone on the promise of an excellent camera then you will be disappointed.

Xperia Z1

The Sony Xperia Z1 is Sony’s second entry in the high-end smartphone arena, a rapidly growing segment of the market that the Japanese giant has been vying for ever since it acquired Ericsson’s remaining share in its mobile business for $US1.47 billion last year. 

With Sony’s pedigree in hardware design and under the newly appointed CEO Kaz Hirai’s directive to unify the business, the company entered the premium smartphone market earlier this year with the Sony Xperia Z, a high-end smartphone that came with a unique water and dust resistant design.

The smartphone leveraged elements from Sony’s camera and television businesses with an Exmor RS camera and Bravia branded display tech for the screen which oddly enough were two critical areas that the Xperia Z fell short when compared with the competition at the time.

Sony’s follow up, the Xperia Z1, comes with a headline grabbing 20.7 megapixel camera, latest high end mobile processor and an improved water and dust resistant design. But is it enough to cement Sony at the top of the smartphone heap?

Premium feeling design that isn’t afraid of water

The first thing that grabs you about the Z1 is how big it is.

It possesses the same 5-inch screen size as Samsung’s Galaxy S4 but the phone’s physical size is noticeably bigger due to the large bezels, which is something to be aware of if pocketability is a concern.

Like its predecessor, the Xperia Z1 is covered in hardened glass both front and back (Dragontrail glass on the front and Gorilla glass on the back) that should cope with well with scratches but you will still want to invest in a case for protection against drops.

Sony has opted for an aluminium band around the frame of the device which also houses a dedicated camera button, machined aluminum power button, Micro SD card slot for expandable storage and a micro USB port in addition to a proprietary magnetic connection that can be equipped with an optional charging dock accessory. 

The ports are still covered in protective rubber flaps so that it can withstand exposure to water and dust but thankfully there’s no cover required on the 3.5mm headphone jack this time around as Sony has instead micro-coated the port with water proofing material.

I personally still prefer the sleek industrial design of the HTC One and iPhone 5s but it’s a classy premium feeling design nonetheless that is well ahead of the plastic enamoured build of the Galaxy S4 and LG’s G2.

It’s also a design that can be submerged in up to 1.5 meters of freshwater for 30 minutes and is impervious to dust, a feat Sony has achieved without compromising on the look of the phone. 

Good display let down by poor viewing angles

The 1080p 5-inch display is sharp at 441 PPI (pixels per inch) that looks great when viewed directly in-front but unfortunately, looking at the display slightly off centre or tilting it to the side makes the colours on the screen look washed out and unrecognisable.

Poor viewing angles was a problem that plagued the original Xperia Z and the issue remains with the Z1. This could be due to Sony’s persistence in using a TFT based LCD panel instead of an IPS or AMOLED screen like the competition.

However, the screen is bright and performs well in outdoor viewing, easily beating the Galaxy S4’s AMOLED screen in this respect and just a notch below the iPhone 5s’ IPS display. 

The screen borrows elements from it’s Bravia Television unit with “Triluminos” display for a wider colour gamut and “X-Reality” image enhancement technology that attempts to improve the quality of media playback by automatically adjusting picture elements such as brightness, contrast, colours and sharpness.

All in all, viewing videos and images looked great with a natural colour tone, we just wish it had better viewing angles.

Camera disappoints

One of the biggest selling points of the Xperia Z1 is the 20.7 megapixel camera and the 1/2.3-inch size sensor, making it at least on paper, the most capable smartphone camera outside of the Nokia Lumia 1020.

Other aspects of the camera include a f/2.0 (aperture) G Lens and BIONZ image processing, features that have trickled down from the company’s Cyber-shot camera range.

So do the actual pictures and videos produced by the Xperia Z1 beat the Android and iPhone competition?

In ideal lighting conditions, yes, the Xperia Z1 produces better quality shots and video. The dedicated two-step camera button which initiates focus when lightly pressed and executes a shot when completely depressed also worked well.

Unfortunately, the camera is let down by disappointing low light performance.

Images taken in less than ideal lighting situations resulted in severely noisy images that were noticeably lacking in detail regardless of whether we shot in the default “Superior auto mode” or manual mode.

Another issue we observed in many of our shots is that the edges of the images appear to lose detail.

We assume that these issues have to do with the software and not the sensor and we hope that Sony can rectify it with a future software update.

As it stands, low light shots fall well short of the Nokia 1020 and even the iPhone 5s and HTC One.

Blazing performance

If you already inhabit the Sony software ecosystem with entertainment services such as Music Unlimited (streaming music), Video Unlimited (streaming movies and TV shows), Playstation Mobile for gaming and PlayMemories for online photo storage, then you will appreciate the company’s integrated approach with its custom Android skin.

Even if you don’t use any of those services, it’s easy enough to bypass and access Google’s Play Store and other bread and butter Android services.

Sony’s approach to Android may not be as feature rich as Samsung’s TouchWiz but it's clean, light and elegant and doesn’t bombard you with features that you will never use, which is definitely appreciated.

Little tweaks such as the ability to search, filter and categorise apps in the App Drawer and the ability to quickly access productivity tools such as notes, calculator, voice recorder and calendar from the multitasking screen are all useful additions.

The phone is powered by the latest Snapdragon 800 2.3Ghz quad core processor with 2GB of RAM and it made light work of anything we threw at it.

Surprisingly, the Z1 only comes with version 4.2.2 Jelly Bean out of the box instead of the newer 4.3 version. As a point of comparison, the Galaxy Note 3 which also came out at the same time comes with Android 4.3.

Given Sony’s less than stellar record of delivering timely Android updates, we hope the company doesn’t drag its feet in delivering the 4.3 update which takes advantage of the low power features of Bluetooth 4.0 in addition to other performance improvements. 

Impressive battery life

Sony has impressively managed to squeeze in a 3000 mAh non-replaceable battery and in our tests we were able to easily get through a full day off a single charge. The Galaxy Note 3 is the only other smartphone on the market that has a slightly bigger battery capacity (3200 mAh) than the Z1.

It did however, take a ridiculously long time to charge, needing a little over three hours of charging time to go from a completely depleted state to 100 per cent. 

As the Xperia Z before it and the recently released Samsung Galaxy S4 Active,  it's one of the few premium smartphones on the market that is both water and dust resistant. The Z1 however, can be submerged slightly deeper than both the original Xperia Z and Samsung Galaxy S4 Active at 1.5 meters for up to 30 minutes.

The phone also remains useable while submerged so you can take underwater snaps or respond to text messages in the pouring rain. It’s also nice not having to worry about accidentally dropping your phone in water. Just remember that it won’t withstand saltwater only fresh water so beaches are out of the question.

It’s worth mentioning that while the built-in mono speaker did the job for loudspeaker calls, using the speaker for anything else was grating to the ear and a far cry from the excellent stereo speakers found on the HTC One and iPhone 5s.

Despite a few missteps with the screen’s viewing angles and bulky form factor, the Xperia Z1 is a highly recommended Android smartphone and strengthens Sony’s position as a premier smartphone player after spending years competing within the low-mid range end of the market.

But if you’re mainly buying the phone on the promise of an excellent camera then you will be disappointed at least if and until Sony resolve the low light performance issues that currently plague the handset.