Sony Xperia Z1 review

October 9, 2013
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If the Xperia Z was Sony’s way of assuring us it’s still got it, the Xperia Z1 is Sony telling us that it’s done catching up and is now gunning for the first place, the position it owned undisputedly for so many years.

It takes more than a good smartphone to eclipse Samsung’s bright Galaxies. On paper, the Sony Xperia Z1 has it all – looks, build, specs, camera, software. But will the sum of these strengths outweigh the Xperia Z1’s weaknesses? Does the Z1 rise above the flaws of its predecessor?

The Xperia Z1 is now available unlocked around the world, and several operators will begin carrying it over the next weeks. Interested to see if it’s worth a place on your holiday shopping list? We take an in-depth look at all the things that matter in our Sony Xperia Z1 review.

Specifications

  • Size: 144 x 74 x 8.5 mm
  • Weight: 170 grams
  • Available colors: black, purple, white
  • Display: 5-inch TFT, 1920×1080 pixels, 441ppi, Triluminos, X-Reality engine
  • CPU and GPU: 2.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 MSM8974, Adreno 330
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Storage: 16 GB
  • microSD: up to 64 GB (SDXC supported)
  • Rear camera: 20.7 MP, 1/2.3-inch sensor, f/2.0 lens, 27mm focal length
  • Front camera: 2MP, 1080p video
  • SIM card: Micro SIM
  • Networks: GSM/HSPA+/LTE
  • Sensors and connectivity: NFC, Bluetooth 4, WiFi dual-band 802.11a/ac/b/g/n
  • Battery: 3000 mAh, built-in
  • Operating system: Android 4.2 Jelly Bean

Design and build

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To the untrained eye, the Xperia Z1 may seem virtually identical to the Xperia Z, but slightly different dimensions and a few design touches set the two phones apart. That means you’re not going to be impressed with the Xperia Z1 if you hated the Z, but the reverse applies as well. Fans of Sony’s 2013 design language will absolutely love the minimalist and understated allure of the slate-like Xperia Z1.

The Xperia Z1 is a relatively large phone, and it’s heavier than most competitors, at 170 grams. That gives it a nice heft that, coupled with the glass back, just screams premium quality. However, some may feel intimidated by the Z1’s dimensions and weight, especially since the rectangular profile makes it harder to hold than a device with a curved back. Call us spoiled, but we also wished the bezels around the display were a bit smaller.

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The Xperia Z1 is easier to hold than the Xperia Z thanks to the subtle curvature of the metal frame that goes around the phone’s sides. The metal and glass combine seamlessly in an ensemble that inspires refinement and precision.

The buttons on the Xperia Z1 are sturdy and crisp, which is especially important for the dedicated camera button. The two-stage shutter is responsive, though its placement on the lower right side of the phone will probably make it hard to action it in portrait mode. You may also need to get used to using the volume rocker and signature silver power button, which are both located on the Z1’s right side.

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One of the big selling points of the Xperia Z1 is its water resistance, but with it come unsightly plastic flaps covering the phone’s ports. The good news is they are unobtrusive once in place and they feel like they can take some abuse.

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To wrap up this section, we feel that Sony changed just enough on the Z1 to make it feel like a new phone, while maintaining the distinctive look that people now associate with Xperias.

Display

Much virtual ink has been spilled over the poor viewing angles of the Xperia Z, but, after the excellent Z Ultra, Sony fans were hoping to put that bad memory behind them. Well, the Xperia Z1 is definitely a great improvement in the display department, but the ghost of bad viewing angles is still making its presence felt.

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Look at the Xperia Z1 straight on (more or less) and the viewing experience is absolutely wonderful. The problems start when you look at the Z1’s TFT screen from an angle, like you would if you’d watch a video with someone else or glance at the phone sitting on the desk besides you. A greyish hue appears, smothering the otherwise vivid colors of the display, and, in some cases, making them almost invisible. It’s definitely not as bad as on the Xperia Z, but it’s not something we can gloss over either. Peculiarly, the LCD’s backlight bleeds at the screen’s edges, forming a bright halo of sorts. It’s another thing that you may not notice or care about, but it’s there.

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The Full HD, 441ppi display of the Xperia Z1 really comes into its own when consuming media, thanks to the vivid colors generated by the Triluminos screen and the smoothing effect of the X-Reality rendering engine. Watching nature documentaries on the Z1 is a lovely experience.

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Performance and hardware

Many phones promise lag-free operation, but the Sony Xperia Z1 gets closer to delivering on the promise than most competitors. That’s thanks to the powerful Snapdragon 800 processor, a quad-core 2.3GHz Krait 400 coupled with an Adreno 330 GPU, but also to Sony’s optimization of Timescape UI, the Android overlay that powers the Xperia Z1.

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Unlike TouchWiz and to a lesser extent Sense, Sony’s UI is lightweight and relatively close to its stock origins, which shows in the generally speedy functioning of the phone. The Z1 sails through UI, apps, and even 3D games.

Waterproofing is a feature that people have come to associate with Sony’s high-end devices, and the Xperia Z1 lives up to the reputation with its IP58 ingress protection certification. IP58  means that Sony guarantees the Z1 can survive “long periods of immersion over 1m and under pressure”, as long as the plastic flaps protecting the ports are properly closed. While we wouldn’t call the Xperia Z1 a rugged device, it’s not only element-proof, but also pretty durable, as our recent drop test shows.

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The Xperia Z1 is equipped with an impressive 3000 mAh built-in battery, only matched by the LG G2 from the current Android flagships. In our testing, about six hours of moderate usage that included video shooting and playback, benchmarking, and some gaming, ate through 40 percent of the battery. In other words, unless you are a true power user, the Xperia Z1 should easily take you through a day of usage.

The earpiece speaker on the Xperia Z1 is very loud and voice call quality was generally adequate, though not very crisp. The opposite can be said about the large speaker found on the bottom side of phone, which emits rich sound, but lacks volume.

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The Sony Xperia Z1 comes with 16GB of internal storage, expandable with up to 64GB via microSD.

Camera

Sony has a long and glorious history in making cameras and imaging equipment, and with the Xperia Z1, the Japanese giant was dead set to show it.

The Z1 features a 20.7MP Exmor RS sensor, coupled with a 27mm f/2.0 G Lens module. On paper, these specs should satisfy any mobile shutterbug, and the quality of the samples below proves it. The level of detail is incredible and the colors are vibrant, though some may consider them a bit too saturated. The Xperia Z1 does relatively well in low-light conditions, though an aggressive sharpening algorithm removes a lot of detail from darker spots.

Sony’s camera isn’t among the most intuitive and feature-rich we used, though there a few potentially interesting additions, such as Social live, which integrates with Facebook, and Info-eye, a visual search tool similar to Google’s Goggle.

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Disappointingly, the full 20.7MP resolution of the sensor is only available in the 4:3 format in manual mode. If you want to shoot in 16:9, the resolution is cropped to just 8MP, which is enough for most use cases, but still small compared to the full resolution of the sensor.

Bottom line, the Sony Xperia Z1 has probably the best camera of any current Android smartphone.

Software

As we said above, Timescape UI is a relatively minimalist Android implementation, that doesn’t stray too far from the canon dictated by Google. The Z1’s UI takes many cues from stock Android, from the unencumbered homescreen, to the navigation bar, and the settings dropdown. Sony added a slew of pleasant transitions that make the OS a bit more interesting, without bogging it down. Overall, the amount of eye candy seems just right.

Not much has changed from earlier versions on the Xperia Z1’s UI. We still have Sony’s own media apps front and center, such as Walkman, Movies and Albums, as well as Small Apps, floating applications that can be used for common multitask jobs, such as calculating or jotting down a note. New additions to Small Apps include Gmail and Active Clip, which lets you take and edit screenshots quickly.

Video review

Pricing and final thoughts

If and when the Sony Xperia Z1 makes it to the roster of American carriers, it will likely cost $199 or more on a two-year contract. Unlocked, you can buy it now for prices hovering around the $750 mark, which is expensive, but not exaggeratedly so.

After using the Sony Xperia Z1 extensively, we’ve come to appreciate it for all its qualities, in spite of the blemishes that mar certain aspects of the phone. The Xperia Z1’s design is exquisite and its performance leaves nothing to be desired. The truly great camera, large battery, and unobtrusive software complete the picture of a best-in-class device. However, there are issues you should know about, like the phone’s weight, the mediocre viewing angles, and the limited resolution of the camera in 16:9 mode. The good news is none of these shortcomings are dealbreakers. Finally, there’s the high price tag to consider, though we tend to believe it’s worth it.

The success of any device depends on much more than its intrinsic qualities, so it remains to be seen if the Xperia Z1 will make Sony king of the Android smartphone world. What we’re sure off though is that the Z1 is a giant leap in that direction.

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