Sony had quite a product assault earlier in the year, fleshing out their Xperia range with devices encompassing almost all letters of the alphabet. They have now decided to use a more imaginative nomenclature and following a few months without a notable release are including numbers in their device names too. All that, and a whole range of new hardware, leads us to the Sony Xperia Z1.
This is an update to the Xperia Z announced in January and unlike with that device, Sony are right at the cutting edge where specs are concerned. When the original Z was announced, Sony put a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro system in there just as all their competitors were moving to the Snapdragon 600. This time round, Sony have made sure to put the latest and greatest Snapdragon 800 system into their flagship. Along with 2Gb of RAM, a 5" 1080p full HD screen, 16Gb of expandable storage, a 20.7 megapixel camera and a fully waterproof design, the Z1 wades into battle with all the necessary weapons to take on the big boys.
Despite the screen being the same size as on the Xperia Z, the body of the Z1 has got larger in all dimensions and is noticeably heavier. This feels like a bizarre decision given the work Samsung and LG in particular have done to reduce the bulk of their devices. The Samsung Galaxy S4 with the same size screen is considerably smaller and lighter whilst the recently launched LG G2 with its slightly larger screen is also usefully more compact.
There is no other way of putting it, the ergonomics of the Z1 are awful. The screen looks tiny in that large body and the Z1 employs on screen buttons rather than separate buttons like on the S4 so you lose valuable screen real estate. The bottom of the Z1 has a large cutout for the speaker which sounds like a good thing except that the edges have a slightly sharp edge. So when holding the phone with it resting on your finger which I often do, it cuts in uncomfortably and the weight of the thing makes it worse. At 170g this is a real heavyweight and it makes a difference. On the left side of the phone is a cutout with connectors for the dock Sony will happily sell you and again this is just a badly designed mess of a feature. Other manufacturers manage to use flush pogo pins, but Sony have a cutout with sharp edges that were always under my fingers when I held the device.
This is far from a single handed device and I found myself shuffling it around in my hands constantly to try and reach the various parts of the phone I needed to interact with. This allowed me to get a good feel of the materials in use which include a lovely aluminium chassis with glass front and back. This all sounds great, but Sony have decided to use their now usual shatter proof screen covers on both sides of the Z1. These are horrible plastic screens that have taken away any pretence of a premium feel. The Z1 feels like plastic despite being glass and metal. I did not pull the covers off on this phone but did on the Xperia Tablet Z which immeasurably improved the experience. You remove them at your own risk, but no one else seems to need these covers.
One of the biggest complaints about the original Xperia Z was that the screen was not all that one would hope for. So what of the Z1? Well Sony have gone all out with this 1920x1080 resolution TFT panel which they call a Triluminous display with X-Reality Engine. So you would imagine that it is top notch? It isn't. This is not a bad screen by any means, that would be a ludicrous thing to say, but this is nowhere near the quality of a good IPS panel such as those that HTC, LG and Apple use. If you are a fan of AMOLED screens, you will not like the warmly calibrated, slightly washed out nature of the Z1's unit. Looking at it head on, it is lovely, but as usual for a Sony phone, viewing angles are poor and colours do not pop off the screen. I would be happy with this as my only phone screen, but compared to the others on the market, it doesn't do the job.
So what of that pixel rich camera? How does it shape up? Sony have mobilised the full force of their camera branding on us with a unique Exmor RS sensor, a G Lens, and a Sony BIONZ image processor. It has an F2.0 aperture and is of course backside illuminated. But the most important thing is that the sensor is much larger than most used in smartphones. It should be a great camera. Unfortunately, it does not live up to its billing in the slightest. Whilst it is possible to take lovely colour rich, clear and sharp pictures outdoors, I have not managed to take a single indoor or low light picture that gets close to its competitors. Having taken nearly 1000 photos in all, I have reached the conclusion that the unit I have must be faulty. I simply cannot believe that the camera is as poor as the images it is outputting given the technology on board.
The camera takes pictures in various modes, but the two of interest are Superior auto and Manual. The former of these takes 8 megapixel 16:9 photos that are created using the same sort of oversampling techniques that Nokia employ in their stunning Lumia 1020. Superior auto will also process the image based on lighting conditions and various other factors. In manual mode, you can make use of all 20.7 megapixels taking a 4:3 image with a rather large file size as the result. Manual gives you control over almost all aspects of the photos being taken. Either way, the output is unimpressive, noisy, lacking in detail and generally disappointing.
You can view some camera samples here with the 8 megapixel version taken in Superior auto mode on the left and the 20.7 megapixel version taken in manual mode with no setting changes on the right. Click on each thumbnail to see the full version. The two sets of indoor shots were taken in reasonable light where I would expect a very good result, it was the middle of the day with plenty of light streaming in.
The best feature of the camera on the Z1 is that there is a proper two stage dedicated camera button which can wake the phone directly to the camera app. It is something that should on every phone in my opinion.
Waterproofing and IP ratings have been part of the Sony offering for a while now and the Z1 is no different. It is IP58 rated and is waterproof without a cover on the headphone socket, which is an excellent improvement on the Z. It sounds like covers on the ports would be a pain, but in the end, it is not so bad and the waterproofing is actually a nice feature to have.
Sony have included a 3000mAh battery in the Z1 which is nice and big and has reasonably good endurance. There is higher than expected drain when web browsing especially, but overall it performs really well. The phone works very well as a phone! Signal strength is generally excellent as well. So the basics all work properly as you would expect for a high end flagship device.
So what of the software side? In short, it is much much more successful than the hardware. Sony actually have a very good offering that is now fairly light touch and stable. They err on the side of enhancing Android rather than skinning it in the manner of Samsung or LG or HTC. That is not to say they don't change things, but it is quite attractive and well thought through.
Running Android 4.2.2 the Z1 is an absolute flyer. This might well be the fastest phone I have ever used. The combination of the Snapdragon 800 and the fairly light touch Sony software make it extremely fast and fluid, a joy to use in every way. I have yet to see any lag or slow downs at all. This is a very impressive job from Sony and they are not getting enough credit for it in my opinion.
The software enhancements are widespread here but some of the notable ones include the notification drawer which is now a single piece rather than the stock Android two sided drawer. There are still customisable shortcuts at the top which don't take up too much screen real estate. The home screens have been tweaked quite heavily with nice 3D style animations as you swipe between them. They have a 4x4 grid above the usual Android dock and you can have upwards of seven screens to customise with any of them being the default home screen. Adding widgets and apps is done via a rather nice mode accessed from a long press on an empty part of any home screen. You can add widgets and apps quickly as well as change wallpaper and theme.
Some stock apps have been replaced including contacts, the dialler, calendar and messaging. These are generally attractive and well designed and seem to run as well as the stock apps would. They use Sony's pleasant lighter colours rather than the standard Android dark colour schemes. This is a matter of opinion, but both work well. The album is of Sony's design and is rather nifty in how it shows your pictures. You can zoom in and out on the album to see more or fewer images at once. Again, it works well.
The Sony keyboard is actually pretty great. It is fast to use and fairly accurate with good predictive capabilities and as a bonus, it can be customised a little. Overall, it is quite impressive and was my keyboard of choice while using the phone.
Sony also provide two important apps for their overall content play, Walkman and Video Unlimited which allow you to get access to the Sony content store through the Playstation network. If you just want to listen to music or watch your own videos, these apps can be ignored, but they are good and work well. Sony have a decently wide selection of movies, but I would generally use Google's Play store to get access to these things. If you have a Playstation, then at least these options are available.
Whilst this is a fairly quick look at what the Sony Xperia Z1 offers, I hope it is clear that this is a phone which is extremely fast in operation and generally has a delightful user experience on the software front. Sony have done an awesome job in getting their software so well optimised and smooth. I just wish I could put that software into some hardware that is not so poorly designed. This is an unnecessarily large and heavy phone which becomes tiring to use for any length of time and has an annoyingly poor camera. The camera would benefit from OIS as it is a hard phone to hold steady, but this is searching for a solution to a problem that should not exist.
Also, why do Sony keep factory fitting plastic screen protectors onto their glass and metal devices? This alone is enough to put me off the Z1. I don't mind a plastic phone but this is a metal and glass phone that feels plastic. Sony are the only company doing this and I do not understand why they feel the need.
Ultimately, if you like Sony Xperia phones, the Z1 is their ultimate expression of the brand, but it is too flawed for me.