Sony Xperia Z1 review

by: Joshua VergaraOctober 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.

  • 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

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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.

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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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.

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.

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.

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.

  • raj

    All the best Sony
    You have fared very well in 2013
    Starting with Xperia Z, then the Z Ultra and now the Z1.
    Kudos !!!!

    The only feather missing in your well designed and exquisite cap is a NEXUS cap….. which i guess is not far


    • sonyshit

      Like usual they’ll abandon this one when the Z2 come out!

      • Guest

        Please do not post a biased comment
        The name itself is abusive. Please play it down

        • Chris

          dont worry he is only sony’s hit fan!

    • Guest

      A water proof Nexus will be awesome

    • Leonardo Rojas

      Yeah! They even include a wrist belt hole :D

      I definitely am getting the Z Ultra!

  • Sky Baun

    Comes with 16 GB of ram?

    • YO

      no…only 2 GB of ram. But if you want you can send me the phone after you buy it and 100 euro and I will put on it 16 gb of ram.

      • Sky Baun

        Did you read the article? It says 16 GB of ram. I know it comes with 2gb

    • BH

      That is typo. It comes with 16GB internal memory, expandable to 64GB.

    • Adam Koueider

      Fixed! Thanks for the catch!

  • K.

    Do you know who made the display in your Xperia Z1? I have read many different reviews and user comments of the phone and they don’t agree on the quality of the display ( Some displays are made by Japan display and others by Sharp.

  • Len Človek

    The very best phone I have aver had! :)

  • Yumashish Subba

    I wonder why GSMArena’s review is so far from the opinions pointed out in this one. People have been trying to justify it by saying that the model they got was only a preview model but they adamantly refuse to do a re-review.

  • ryq24

    Z1 will not make sony Android King simply because its expensive and big and sony ,though they improve the display, is still way behind compared to samsung , htc, lg and other cheaper phone out there. I still hope Sony will address this issues if they ever plan to be worlds number three in mobile phone.

    • u noob

      other than the ‘view angle’ issue(which I assume most users don’t care)
      the display is much better than Samsung and LG, stop leave such bias comment

    • Leonardo Rojas

      Some days ago I played with the Xperia ZL in a store, a beautiful device inside and outside.
      Its screen was surprisingly outstanding, it had bright, clear, and had extremely nice color saturation. It definitely was a prove that inexperienced comments and commenters can harm reputation of a super high quality smartphone like this one.
      There was practically nothing to be disappointed about the viewing angles “problem”. I put it on weird angles, flat angles, and couldn’t see a problem.
      There was just a VERY slight color loss. Only that.

      I can’t sound more objective, but I’ve used smartphones with IPS displays, and the display in the ZL has almost nothing to envy of such.

      So, the display may not be perfect, but it’s on par with the best ones. Don’t know what’s your “way behind the others” claim about.

  • Lee

    Hate to do this.But you should know.Be careful when buying a Sony Xperia Z1.Some models are having yellow screen issues.Hope It’s a software problem.

  • Tony

    The camera is a massive disappointment. Sony’s overprocessing takes the detail out of every shot. I compared the shots I got with the ones I took with the original Xperia and the old ones were slightly more detailed although they still suffer with the same problem. Shots taken side by side with my Lumia 925 are worse in every case on the Z1. Sony really need to work on this because it drags down what could have been the best Android phone out there. The LG G2 also takes better shots even though the camera is 13 Megapixels. Sort this out and use the same screen as the Xperia Ultra and this would be a winner in every sense. Unfortunately the cheap screen and the overprocessing make this phone an also ran.

    • Garry DeWitt

      yeah the camera needs a little bullying if you’re in lower light, but in manual with night mode scene selected I find it dials down the processing quite a bit for some pretty good images. Not as good as my HTC one was in low light, of course, but not bad at all. And damn is it nice in full light.

      The idea of supersampled images from a larger MP is good (nokia employs this with the 1020 I think), but maybe sony needs to tweak the software that does it a little. I really feel it has the hardware though.

  • Jon Brashear

    Is this for sale yet if so where can i get it?

  • Rafael

    The IP58 certification part is wrong. The review says “Sony guarantees the Z1 can survive being submerged into one meter of water for up to 30 minutes”. This is an IPx7 certification.

    In fact, the 8 of the IP58 certification means that the device can be immersed beyond 1 m and that it “is suitable for continuous immersion in water under conditions which shall be specified by the manufacturer”.

    Most IP58 certified devices I have read about have limit of 10 meters for up to 30 minutes.

  • Leonardo Rojas

    Dang. Sony, always having drawbacks. How un-cool.

  • Leonardo Rojas

    Sorry to bother, but you didn’t include a word about RAM usage in this review either :(

  • Bernard Wong

    On the left Xperia Z1. On the right Xperia Z.

    • faisal

      hi bernard…need ur help.i own xperiz z n very dissapointed with its camera n battery.even my sp camera n battery much better than z….
      i want to trade in my z n buy the z1…is it worth to change.coz fr what i read…seems like u know better.kindly help.tq bro

      • Bernard Wong

        Hi Faisal…the Z1 is worth the upgrade. I have the Z and Z1 and believe me when I say “I have no regrets”. I took in consideration what’s New in the Z1. The premium feel of the Z1 body chassis is what caught my eye. About the camera… it’s already much better now after the 257 fw upgrade. As for the viewing angle… it’s stunning with the triluminous display compared with the OG Z although I don’t watch movies with it…usually I take videos and nfc it to my ZU…I feel dizzy when watching movies with the Z1..why I pick purple…coz I noticed everyone are going either black or white which I find it boring and becoming too common…Z1 is the best phone for me…I kinda like the Nokia 1020 too but it’s on Windows and apps not that many…

  • Seth Forbus

    I really like my Xperia Z, but I’m not seeing enough of a reason to jump ship yet to the Z1. The snapdragon 600 has blown me away so far, I’m sure the only thing I’m missing by not upgrading is a bump in battery life.

    • Brendon Brown

      Sorry to rain over your parade but the Xperia Z only has an Snapdragon S4 Pro processor :)

  • FransHoynck

    I do a lot of photography for my work. Most of the time using a Canon dslr and two Nikon compacts. For two weeks now I also use my new Xperia Z1. Good enough for a lot of shooting. It is the first camera I ever had that I can even use as a phone :-)

  • Giu

    Excellent review. Thanks!

  • Brendon Brown

    Yeah if Sony could just stop their minor drawbacks

    *insert appropriate meme*

    That’d be great !

  • Amer Dawod

    i really wanna have this phone … *-*
    i’m love sony <3 ;)

  • Guest

    does anyone know if the xperia z1 will work with LTE on at&t?

  • sharmainek28

    Recently I was REALLY low on cash and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money on the internet! I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills!! I’m so glad, I did this!!! – xmlj

  • mehdi

    hi faisal,
    how much a 2 year contract costs approximately?

  • Lauren

    I have to choose between a Samsung s4 and the Z1. Any suggestions?

    • Jeronimo Ivan Sandoval Martine

      Well, if you’re a Samsung user, you could wait 3 or so months for the SG 5, which will have next gen. flagship specs, such as the rumoured 1440p. Display and better processor. (although the Z2 is supposed to have the same things, with a snapdragon 805).
      From your options, I’d go for the Z1, as it is newer and better in every possible way, minus the screen (and dimensions, if that bothers you).

  • David Li

    how does 20 MP become 8 MP when cropped?, shouldn’t it be like 13 MP