When Sony sells you a smartphone for $600, it’s making a promise. Actually, it makes a whole bunch of them: Power, beauty, waterproof protection, and everyday utility. Can this slab of metal and glass do it all?
To find out, we bought a retail unit and used it for several weeks. This is not a review unit sent by Sony, but one that we paid for in full — in other words, we don’t “owe” anyone a positive review, and this is our truly unbiased take on the Sony Xperia Z1.
Playing The Specs Game
Sony isn’t shy about touting the numbers here. With a Snapdragon 800 SoC, 2 gigabytes of RAM, an Adreno 330 GPU, and a 441 ppi 5-inch full-HD screen, the Xperia Z1 is a lot of phone. This is as high-end as Android gets circa early 2014, and it handled anything I threw at it with aplomb. Its glass casing packs a 3000 mAh battery that carries it through a full day’s use with ease.
Just for the sake of comparison, these are better specifications than what you’d get with the original Samsung Galaxy S4 (I9505), and are roughly on par with the refreshed S4 (I9506) and the LG Nexus 5 (read our review), two phones that also ship with the Snapdragon 800 and Adreno 330.
If I hadn’t mentioned the camera so far, that’s because it merits a section of its own: The Xperia Z1 ships with a 20-megapixel rear shooter that uses a sensor as large as the ones on many compact cameras. When I reviewed the Xperia Z, I found that the camera was not exactly astounding, and the Xperia Z1 seeks to atone for its older sibling’s shortcomings.
Let me put it this way: The Xperia Z1’s camera works. I am not just talking about image quality, which is on par with what I’d expect from a full fledged point-and-shoot, and is far better than any smartphone I’ve previously owned. It’s also the fact that the Z1 has a dedicated camera button, and is fast and responsive.
As I noted in my QX100 Smart Lens review, photography is as much about spontaneity and capturing the moment as it is about raw image quality. The Xperia Z1’s camera button wakes it up from sleep mode and puts you into the built-in camera app within about 3 seconds, or as long as it takes you to pull the phone out of your pocket and frame a shot.
Once you’ve composed your shot, the camera works as you’d expect it to: A half-press on the shutter button locks focus and exposure, and a full press captures an image. This also means you can recompose your image, just like with a “real” camera. One of the few software annoyances on the Xperia Z1 is that when quick-launching the camera like this, it always loads with Sony’s Superior Auto mode. This ambitious capture mode is supposed to auto-detect the current scene and load the appropriate preset (say, Sports, or Twilight Portrait). In reality, it doesn’t work as well as simply switching to Manual mode and dialing in your own settings. I found myself switching to Manual mode every time after I quick-launched the camera — something that definitely hampered speed and ease of use.
While we’re on the subject of camera software annoyances, there is no easy way to re-bind the camera button so that it launches a different camera app: You can only quick-launch Sony’s own camera, despite the fact that you may get better shots out of an app like Camera FV-5.
Sony went out of its way to make this feel like a “real” camera, and for the most part, it works. You get multiple modes, image stabilization, ISO and metering control, and much more.
The software takes advantage of the phone’s beastly specs to offer a mode called “Timeshift burst.” Meant for capturing action shots, this mode lets you press the shutter button and then flick back and forth between 30 different frames of that moment to get the exact shot you want. The interface works well and is very responsive and smooth to use. Unfortunately, even after you pick the image you wanted, all burst images are saved onto your device. I woke up one morning to find no less than 830 images of splashing waves auto-uploaded to my Google+ account.
Look and Feel: Don’t Let The Glass Back Fool You
Side by side, the Xperia Z1 is barely distinguishable from the $449.99 Xperia Z. There’s one extra hardware button for the camera, but other than that, it’s the same aesthetic: Sparse slabs with glass backs and a power button that’s reminiscent of the crown on an analog watch.
The Xperia Z atop of the Z1, showing how similar the power buttons are.
One impressive touch for the Xperia Z1 is that the headphone jack is actually open. This is not a big deal on most phones, only the Z1 is actually waterproof: You can submerge it in 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes, and it’ll keep working just fine. All other ports on the device are protected behind rubberized flaps, just like on the Z.
Another key difference from the Xperia Z is the placement and the size of the speaker: The Z’s speaker was one of the device’s weakest points, and the Z1 makes up for it with a larger, louder speaker. Mind you, it’s still not superb: It turns out making a waterproof speaker that sounds great is not an easy task.
Finally, a decidedly low-tech feature that still merits mention: The Z1 has a lanyard hook. Yup, it’s just a little hole in the corner of the metal chassis, but it means you can loop in a lanyard and keep the phone physically attached to your wrist. That’s a great way to make sure it doesn’t fall out of your hand when you’re running to make the bus, and just keeps it a bit safer in general: Some smartphone thieves just snatch the phone out of your hand when you’re mid-call, and this is one feature that makes it harder for them.
Good news on the software front: Sony did not utterly ruin Android. Yes, the phone does run a customized version of Android, but it’s actually fine, for the most part.
Instead of Android’s Quick Settings panel, you get quick toggles at the top of the pull-down notification menu. The Recent Tasks screens has also been customized, letting you launch Sony’s Small Apps. These are basically what they sound like: Miniaturized versions of apps that float over your other activities, letting you quickly pull up a calculator when you’re in the middle of something else.
The included launcher is one of the most impressive parts of Sony’s custom interface, featuring unique animations and a UI that lets you uninstall multiple apps at once (something even Nova doesn’t let you do). It wasn’t enough to get me to ditch Nova, but it did offer a genuinely useful experience.
Performance and Battery Life
It’s a beast. There’s no other way to say this: The Xperia Z1 outperforms every other Android device I’ve tested to date, hitting Antutu scores as high as 32,000 and 35,000 with ease. Just for the sake of comparison, that’s higher than you could expect to get with the Galaxy S4, or even with the Note 3 – and that’s with no overclocking or any software tweaks whatsoever, merely running Sony’s stock firmware. Antutu’s bar chart doesn’t lie:
It’s not just about the benchmarks, though: Demanding games like Asphalt 8: Airborne are silky-smooth, and navigating around Android itself is a lag-free, snappy experience. Two gigabytes of RAM means Android has lots of room for suspending apps in the background, making multitasking quick and easy. I did manage to get the phone to stutter a little bit in prolonged gaming sessions, mainly due to the CPU heating up and automatically throttling back. This is an issue you’ll come across with almost any modern smartphone – but then again, if you’re really serious about keeping your Z1 from overheating, you can always dip it in some water.
The lack of a user-replaceable battery is one of the few things I dislike about the phone, much like its predecessor. But while the Z had a relatively paltry 2330 mAh battery, the Z1’s 3000 mAh cell offers noticeably more power. Sony also built in a power-saving Stamina mode into its ROM, which lets you significantly extend the phone’s battery life by shutting down just about everything while the screen is off. Extended screen-on time will still drain the battery (naturally), but Stamina mode does mean you may be able to get through 2-3 days of conservative use (brief email/text sessions) without charging.
The Sony Xperia Z1 looks, feels, and costs like a premium device. This phone has “flagship” written all over it, and represents Sony’s most ambitious smartphone effort to date, pulling together its expertise in camera hardware, ruggedized devices, and industrial design. The fact that it so closely resembles the Xperia Z shows that Sony has found its stride, and managed to produce a device that gained both accolades from reviewers and traction in the marketplace.
If you love Android, are sick of Samsung’s TouchWiz, and want a camera that’s more than a match for the iPhone 5S’s one, the Sony Xperia Z1 is the device for you.
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