When Sony first showed us its Xperia Z handset at CES earlier in 2013, we didn’t expect a new model in the series until the following year. Boy, were we wrong, as Sony has a follow-up all ready to go, sporting an upgraded body, faster innards, and a new 20 megapixel camera.
A new Sony Xperia for the latter half of the year, this model takes much of what was praised in the previous generation and gives it a step up, making it possible for the handset to compete with the calibre of devices coming out just before Christmas.
There are quite a few devices making their way out to store shelves in that time, so it makes sense for Sony to update the Xperia Z, and these changes are coming in the Z1.
We’ll start with the things that haven’t received a huge set of changes, and that seems to be the body and design.
The materials used here are a little difference, with a shift from plastic framing to aluminium, but like the Z from earlier in the year, it’s glass on both the front and back. That glass is mineral strengthened and better at protecting against drops than regular glass.
The design is still very much based around a softened rectangle, and Sony has included another 5 inch display — just like on the first iteration — running a Full HD resolution of 1920×1080, which in turn pushes out 441 pixels per inch.
Under this glass, you’ll find a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.2GHz with Adreno 330 graphics, working alongside 2GB RAM and 16GB storage, with more easily added thanks to the microSD storage slot found on the left side of the unit under a flap. Google’s Android 4.2 “Jelly Bean” is the operating system found here, with Sony’s overlay found on top.
Connectivity options aren’t spared in this model, with 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication, GPS, DLNA, and Cat4-compliant 4G LTE, which of course works with the more common Cat3 connections that practically all Australian telcos now support.
Cameras are on pretty much every smartphone now, and that doesn’t chance on the Z1, with Sony bringing a 20.7 megapixel sensor to the back of the Xperia Z1, relying on a 1/2.3 inch-sized sensor boasting image stabilisation, auto-focus, Full HD video capture, and supporting some augmented reality assisted camera modes, as well as an LED flash, while the front camera is a 2 megapixel shooter with Full HD video support, too.
Of particular note in the Z1 is the weather-proofing, and just like on the Sony Xperia Z from earlier in 2013, this one has some, which is more than most smartphones can say. Sony has managed to get the Z1 certified for IP58, which means it’s resistant to one metre of water for up to 30 minutes, with some dust resistance also provided.
The battery in the Z1 is rated for 3000mAh, but it is not removable, as everything is encased in the body. You will find a few flaps here and there, with the flap for the microSD on the left just above the one for the microUSB charge and data transfer port, a jack that also supports the MHL video display method that works via HDMI ports.
The microSIM slot can be found on the top right edge of the phone, with the SIM sitting in a small plastic tray and covered by a flap, while the remainder of physical buttons all exist below this flap, including a circular power button, volume rocket directly below it, and camera shutter button at the very bottom.
The 3.5mm jack is at the very top of the handset on the left side.
While all Android smartphones tend to include soft buttons, the ones normally found in these devices are virtual and on-screen in the Z1, just like how Google’s own devices work, as well as what we’ve seen on LG’s and Huawei’s.
All of this sits in a body measuring 8.5mm thick and weighing 170 grams.
It’s barely been six months, and already we have an updated Z handset from Sony. We can’t say we’re totally surprised, mind you: while the Xperia Z was an excellent phone, it had an outdated processor that made it easily beaten by the likes of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, even if the sum of its parts were brilliant, regardless.
Now in October, we’re ready to see a more perfected model, this thing isn’t bad at all.
For the Z1, Sony has elected to use a similar same body to what it released earlier in the year on the first Z, with mineral strengthened glass on both the front and back, and an aluminium frame holding both these sections, replacing the polycarbonate frame we saw last time.
It’s a design that can feel blocky thanks to its very rectangular form, softened as it may be, but still altogether sturdy.
In fact, the use of aluminium and glass makes this one of the best built smartphones of the year, comparable in heft and in a solid build to what LG offered in the Optimus G and the Nexus 4. It’s not quite as well balanced as either the Apple iPhone 5S or the HTC One, but the glass design does manage to feel stronger and more sturdy than any of the plastic bodies we’ve seen all year.
The positioning of the buttons helps this, with a circular metal button in the centre of the right edge acting as the power, and the volume rocker just beneath it.
If your hands can grip the just over 7cm horizontal length that the phone has, you’ll be able to hold this easily, and while this is a rectangular phone, it’s a touch comfier than the past generation thanks to edges that feel like they’ve been bevelled backwards for better hand grip support.
Sony hasn’t exactly broken the mould when it comes to the design of this, continuing with a layout that makes the phone an evolution of the Xperia Z it launched earlier in the year, reflected not just in the design, but also in the name of this model, the Z1.
There is also a camera button at the bottom right edge too, and this can help too if you decide you want to take a picture without touching the screen.
Like in the past model, you need to press this pretty firmly for it to register a press, but given this phone is certified for use in water, it’s at least good to know that there’s a button for taking photos when the touchscreen refused to function underwater, which will definitely happen here, like with other capacitive touchscreens.
Using the handset, you’ll see that this is the latest of Sony’s Xperia overlay for Android, and continues the look that many owners of Sony products are familiar with.
It’s clean, relatively easy to get the hand of, and makes it feel like you’re using another piece of Sony’s technology.
We’ve seen it for a while now, and over on Android 4.2, it’s just as nice as it ever was, making the Google Android interface easy for people to learn to use, with a dock that can be modified, multiple menu views, several homescreens, and a few nice widgets developed by Sony.
Multitasking is easily possible on the Z1, and we found that just like on the LG G2 and Galaxy Note 3, you can push this handset to the limits with 10-20 apps at once before it starts to get frustrated.
Just like on those devices, you’ll find some micro apps in the multitask screen, which Sony has called “small apps.”
These are literally that: smaller versions of apps you might already use that can run on top of the main home screen, and include a browser, calculator, mirror-mode that turns on the camera, voice recorder, calendar, and you can always download more from the Google Play Store.
One neat addition to this is that you can easily turn widgets into small apps, which is a feature we’ve not yet seen, and could be great for people who rely on widgets and want to move them around the screen with ease.
Sony has also provided a lovely screen to look at that is excellent dead on, though does succumb to a slight amount of wash out when viewed at the severe angles.
We’re told its one of Sony’s Triluminous displays, just like what’s appearing on the new Sony Bravia TVs and VAIO laptops, and that makes for some excellent colour and contrast. Paired with the Full HD resolution, the screen is lovely to look at, with sharp text across the board.
There’s also a reasonable amount of flexibility as to how you customise the Z1, too, with multiple ways to change the drop-down power controller, and it’s here you also find an option to turn on and off LTE.
That’s an interesting option, and if you have any problems jumping onto a 4G network, include this temporarily so you can at least switch it on. We needed to do this with our review unit, and while it’s a minor inconvenience, we weren’t the only reviewers this happened to, so it’s worth acknowledging.
The customisation is also bolstered by the upgradeability, and even though the back isn’t removable on this handset, you can rest easy knowing there’s a microSD slot to load up with extra storage if you need it, something we wish LG and HTC would make available on its flagship handsets.
We’re also happy with something else we’re surprised about: the sound, and in the Z1, Sony has provided a solid audio device for keen listeners of music.
There are quite a few audio settings for people eager to make their headphones have a different soundscape, with the inclusion of a few settings, such as an equaliser, but also different spaces for like “club” or “studio,” cross-talk reduction, and a normaliser which aims to minimise volume differences across things you’re listening to.
Weather-proofing is still a strong feature in this handset, and just like on the Galaxy S4 Active, we were able to take this handset into water without fear that it would die, which is a constant concern when you’re dealing with water and electronics.
Unlike the aforementioned Samsung handset, this phone doesn’t have the extra physical proofing on its body or physical buttons, and yet still retains its resistance to the elements, which is impressive.
To do this, Sony has had to put flappy covers over ports, which we can see annoying some, though the reasoning is sound as to why it’s been done this way.
Over in the system performance, the Sony Z1 is a phone that should last you at least a year, and likely beyond.
We’re talking about a set of specs that rivals the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and LG G2, and it shows, with practically no slow downs, solid benchmarks, and not much reason to worry about how many apps you should or shouldn’t be running at any one time.
Mobile download speeds are also equally impressive, a fact which doesn’t surprise us thanks to the inclusion of Cat4 LTE. For those unfamiliar, Cat4 is the very latest in 4G technology and effectively allows for speeds as high as 150Mbps, higher than the Cat3 that most 4G phones released in Australia support.
At the time of publishing, Vodafone was the only provider to support these speeds in Australia, but even with our Telstra SIM operating on Cat3 4G, we were able to get speeds as high as 77Mbps, which isn’t bad either, and runs circles around or home broadband connection.
While the mobile broadband performance appears solid, the battery life is less impressive, managing a mere day from its 3000mAh battery.
That’s a comfortable day, though you will want to charge it daily, and we found that as we pushed into the second day, the 20-30 percent we had remaining overnight didn’t leave us terribly comfortable that the Z1 would last well into the next day.
In fact, this was the first time we’d ever seen our battery tester report measurements that the cell was overheating, losing life as it did so.
It can also get a touch toasty as you use it, which makes sense when you see that the battery meter is overheating, though it doesn’t take it long for the rear glass to warm up and start feeling hot against your fingers.
The camera is also a mixed bag affair.
To its credit, Sony’s choice of a 20 megapixel sensor actually makes this an impressive little beast, but only on paper, since the Xperia Z1 will almost always default to using the 8 megapixel shooter.
More annoyingly, the scene modes which Sony classifies as “manual mode” (which aren’t and align more with the basic modes of a point and shoot camera) will also cease to exist if you decide to use the 20 megapixel camera, literally offering you touch focus and a shutter only.
It’s not exactly a full-featured 20 megapixel camera, that much we can confirm.
Most of the images on the Z1 appear to take that 20 megapixel sensor and produce an 8 megapixel image out of what’s available, which result in a high quality 8 megapixels, but its hardly the 20 that you’re supposedly getting.
As such, we’re not sure if we’d say it’s fair that Sony advertises that this is a 20.7 megapixel camera in a smartphone, especially since you’re practically only able to use eight.
We found low-light photography wasn’t the best in this camera, and while on-screen the images would look noisy, if these were shot in 8 megapixel, you found motion blur due to the camera keeping the sensor recording for longer, while the pretty basic 20 megapixel mode revealed dark shots with very little visible information.
There are some positive sides to the camera, though, with daylight images working a treat, some of the colourful effects being useful for the people who like being artistic, and we have to say that we’re fans of the augmented reality features Sony has thrown into the mix, including the ability to turn any environment into a dinosaur and volcano filled island, a butterfly park, or even apply funny masks to your face.
One camera mode can also be used with the GPS to work out where you are and tell you what’s around you, and there’s a neat mode which will take photos and send them directly to a social networking site.
Overall, these are extras to the camera mode, and do a lot to help make this camera special and not just a 20 megapixel shooter that doesn’t quite fulfil its dream of shooting 20 megapixel images.
While they’re neat, don’t expect to rely on any of these extras full time, as the gimmick wears off pretty quickly.
Another feature we’re seeing on other flagship smartphones is missing in action on this device, and that’s an infrared port. If you want to turn your phone into a universal remote, there’s no chance of that on the Xperia Z1.
You have to feel for the people who bought the Sony Xperia Z earlier in the year, only to realise recently that this model was coming out to take its place. There are similarities between the models, but in many ways, the Z1 is the phone the Z should have been.
There are positives and negatives to both, and we wish Sony had made an improvement to the battery here, as a day just isn’t as impressive as what competitors offer in a similar screen size.
Then again, there is so much else to like, and if you’re looking for a phone that will survive the next summer or two, and look stylish while doing so, you have to check out the Sony Xperia Z1.