Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

What we're about to describe is the same kind of phenomenon we experienced with 5-inch phones in 2010. If you recall, that year marked the debut of the Dell Streak 5, an absolutely massive smartphone / tablet hybrid for that time. Fast-forward to 2013, when 5-inch screens are the norm and 6.44-inch displays are now considered too unwieldy. Such is the case with the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, which borrows many traits from the smaller Xperia Z while taking on a flatter shape. Basically, Sony turned the old Z into a plate phone. As it happens, we got a chance to play with one thanks to our friends at Negri Electronics, an online retailer in the US that sells the Z Ultra's baseline model for about $675. So is the phone comfortable to hold? Does it make more sense as a tablet? And does the Ultra have any redeeming traits outside of its size?

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review

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Hardware

I'd be using a tired cliché if I said I want to talk about the elephant in the room, but when you compare the Z to every other smartphone that's crossed my desk, it seems fitting. Compared to the new Motorola Droid Ultra, Sony's Ultra definitely feels more worthy of that moniker. After all, it remains true to the overall design and style of the Xperia Z, but there's still no mistaking the two devices when they're set side by side -- or in your pocket. Yes, when it comes to diagonal display size, the Z Ultra is the largest smartphone we've ever had the opportunity to review (unless you consider the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 a "smartphone" since it technically is capable of making phone calls).

The Z Ultra barely edges out the 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega in terms of screen size, but when it comes to general dimensions and weight, there's no question Sony's offering is the true champion. By the ruler, Sony's entry into the large-smartphone space comes in at 179.4 x 92.2 x 6.5 mm (7.06 x 3.63 x 0.26 inches), which makes it 11.8 millimeters taller (!), 4.2mm wider and 1.5mm thinner than the Mega. The Z Ultra is also one of the heftiest handsets we've played with in recent years, weighing in at 7.48 ounces (212g). Compared to the Mega, we're looking at a difference of 0.46 ounce (13g); given Sony's use of finer build materials and larger dimensions, this doesn't surprise us. Fun fact: the Z Ultra is also taller than the Kindle Paperwhite, and it weighs almost exactly the same. It's also as wide as a standard passport; chief designer Jun Katsunuma confirmed to us that this was done on purpose to mimic the size of something that travelers carry around all the time in their coat pockets.

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

Its size puts it in a strange netherworld between a comfortable smartphone and a small tablet.

But enough of the staggering numbers already -- how does the Z Ultra actually work in real life? Just as you'd expect: awkwardly. Its size puts it in this strange netherworld between a comfortable smartphone and a small tablet, and we have a feeling that even the largest of hands may find it a bit unwieldy. While the display takes advantage of a 16:9 aspect ratio, the bezels are quite tall on the top and bottom. This, combined with squared-off corners and flattened edges, makes for a rather unnatural fit. The Ultra's thin frame (almost too thin, frankly) helps your fingers curl around and grasp its sides, but it still feels like a stretch; one-handed use in particular gave our mitts a great deal more exercise than we're used to. We had no problem using the phone with two hands, although we found ourselves facing the temptation to use it in landscape mode much more frequently than portrait -- in other words, the Z Ultra still feels more like a small tablet (like the Nexus 7) than a smartphone. And, much like Google's 7-inch slate, it can technically fit in your pants pocket, but it may be too tall or wide to fit comfortably. We were constantly concerned it would slide out anytime we sat forward or changed our posture, but fortunately that never happened.

We enjoy thin phones as much as the next reviewer, but as we mentioned earlier, the Ultra may actually be a little too thin for its own good, which seems odd to say considering a thin profile is pretty much a necessity when handling a phone this size. The problem lies with the smooth, bulging edges, which make the device difficult to pick up off a table or some other flat surface.

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

Say what you will about its ergonomics, but thanks to tempered glass panels on both the front and back, the Z Ultra is one sleek device. On the downside, though, those shatterproof, scratch-resistant surfaces also make this a fingerprint magnet, and its smooth rear is hard to get a grip on. We're happy that the designers at least kept the metallic edges raised a hair above the glass, which may be a lifesaver depending on how prone you are to dropping phones.

In much the same way that Samsung has maintained a consistent design for its Galaxy S4-era devices (the Mega and S4 Mini are prime examples), Sony is using the same design language it introduced with the original Xperia Z. In fact, at a glance you would think the two were close relatives, except for the fact that the Ultra clearly got a different gene for size. Both have a simple Sony logo just above the display with a front-facing camera to the left. Both have a circular aluminum power / standby button in the center of the right edge. Both feature the same build materials and squared corners. Heck, both even have holes for lanyards. Look closer, however, and you'll find each one offers its own distinct personality.

We'll begin with the edges, which sport small slots where the mic and speaker grille sit. There's just one slot for each, and they sit at the top-left and the bottom-right, respectively. Both are questionable locations, since your fingers are likely to cover both slots when you use the device in landscape mode. The right is the busiest of the four sides, as it's home to the volume rocker, power button, microSDXC / micro-SIM ports and 3.5mm headphone jack. You'll find a micro-USB / MHL / USB OTG port as well as a docking port for a Sony-branded DK30 magnetic charging dock. On the front, there's a 2-megapixel front-facing camera and an LED notification light above the 6.44-inch display, with nothing of significance below it. An earpiece resides up top with a mic on the bottom, each housed in a tiny, narrow slot. Let's not forget the back, although for the most part, it's forgettable: the obligatory Sony and Xperia logos are here, as well as an NFC logo and simple flash-less 8MP camera. The 3,050mAh battery pack, meanwhile, is sealed underneath.

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

You'll also notice that all but one of the important slots are covered with sealable tabs; the only one that isn't is the headphone jack. Whereas the Xperia Z was IP57-certified to withstand dust and up to 30 minutes of submersion in three feet of water, the Z Ultra is IP58-certified, which means it's technically considered "waterproof" and can survive in five feet of water for 30 minutes. This is still a rare quality in a large smartphone sold outside of Japan, and one we'd like to see more of in our neck of the woods. It even adds to the device's sleek design, as the edges of the phone aren't interrupted by very many ports. Just be careful here, because we often had difficulty snapping the tabs back into place properly.

Our review unit was the C6802 in black, with quad-band GSM / EDGE and penta-band (850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100) HSPA+ promising up to 42 Mbps down and 5.8 Mbps up. This particular model is devoid of LTE radios, so if you're looking for the higher speeds, you'll want to seek out the C6806 (for North America) and C6833 (the European model) next month, both of which feature Cat 4 with a theoretical max of 150 Mbps downlink speeds. Rounding out the specs, the Xperia Z Ultra features 16GB of internal storage (11.8 gigs of which are user-accessible), Bluetooth 4.0 with AptX and ANT+, aGPS / GLONASS support, DLNA, USB 2.0, MTP support, FM radio, WiFi Direct and dual-band 802.11a/ac/b/g/n/. Finally, you can choose from three different colors: black, white and purple.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra
Dimensions 179.4 x 92.2 x 6.5 mm (7.06 x 3.63 x 0.26 inches)
Weight 7.48 oz. (212g)
Screen size 6.44 inches
Screen resolution 1,920 x 1,080 (344 ppi)
Screen type
Battery 3,050mAh Li-ion (non-removable)
Internal storage 16GB
External storage MicroSDXC, up to 64GB support
Rear camera 8MP,
Front-facing cam 2MP,
Video capture 1080p / 30 fps (rear and front)
NFC Yes
Radios

All models: penta-band HSPA+ (850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100), quad-band GSM / EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900)

LTE depends on model (C6802 doesn't offer LTE)

Bluetooth v4.0
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM8974)
CPU 2.2GHz quad-core Krait 400
GPU Adreno 330
RAM 2GB
Entertainment MHL, USB OTG, WiFi Direct, DLNA
WiFi Dual-band, 802.11a/ac/b/g/n
Wireless Charging No
Operating system Android 4.2.2 (Sony-specific UI)

Display

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

Of course, we'd be remiss to talk about the size of the phone without actually discussing the display. Before we started playing with the unit, we were concerned that Sony would approach the Z Ultra in the same way it did the Xperia Z. Despite having a much higher pixel density, that 5-inch TFT screen -- with its poor lighting, subpar viewing angles and unimpressive outdoor performance -- proved to be one of the weakest 1080p panels we've reviewed thus far. Fortunately, the 6.44-inch Triluminos display is a much-needed improvement and hopefully foreshadows future flagships with smaller screens and full HD resolution.

Since this is our first encounter with a Triluminos smartphone, let's offer a brief explanation as to what the tech offers. These displays recently reappeared in Sony TVs after a lengthy absence -- the technology was dropped in 2009 due to its high costs -- so it was a pleasant surprise to see it show up on smaller devices so quickly. It's an RGB LED technology that employs the use of QD Display's quantum dots -- nanoparticles that emit very specific wavelengths of light. Each dot measures between 2nm and 10nm. Rather than using a white backlight which passes through RGB filters to create the intended color, the display uses a blue LED that stimulates quantum dots which emit pure green and pure red. In short, this new technique is supposed to create exceptionally pure colors.

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

The Ultra's non-PenTile display comes has 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, which means you'll get a pixel density of 344 ppi. This doesn't sound very good when you compare it to the 441 ppi density found on the Xperia Z, but we're confident you won't be bothered in the slightest. The Ultra's LCD panel is much brighter and offers more natural colors than the Z (in spite of the fact that it doesn't let you change white balance like the Z does). Those colors are less saturated than what we've seen on AMOLED panels. It also has excellent viewing angles and is one of the easiest to read in direct sunlight -- as long as you have it cranked up to full brightness, anyway. Needless to say, we were wholly impressed by the Z Ultra's screen; if Sony plans to use the same tech for smaller smartphones going forward, we imagine it'll give other 1080p-bearing handsets a run for their money.

Stylus fans, take note (see what we did there?): the Z Ultra doesn't come with any special pen or capacitive stylus. (As an aside, the S Pen used on the Galaxy Note series will not work on the Z Ultra.) However, the capacitive touchscreen is coated with a "super hard coat ASF" that's responsive and strong enough to support pen and pencil input. This, too, was included on purpose since business travelers often carry such relics with them. After hunting down a ballpoint and a trusty ol' No. 2, we can confirm that they do in fact work, though the touch sensor isn't capable of registering pressure, which means you can't push down on the screen to get a thicker stroke.

What's more, the slim bezels make it difficult to actually write on the phone, since we naturally want to rest the sides of our hands on the screen much like we do when taking a pen to actual paper. As a result, we often found ourselves accidentally pressing other keys -- including the home key, sadly -- which interrupted our workflow. In ideal conditions, the handwriting-recognition software was able to accurately interpret my chicken scratch, but even then it was successful only half the time. We still prefer the good old-fashioned virtual keyboard for text input, but we imagine people can get better with time and practice. In the meantime, it makes for a decent way to draw pictures and do whatever else that strikes your creative fancy.

Software

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

Out of the box, the Z Ultra features Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, although Sony has said it plans to update the firmware to 4.3 at some point. The build is thick with customizations and pre-loaded software, which is true of most recent Xperia devices, frankly. You'll be greeted by no fewer than 20 apps, most of which are Sony-branded. (For what it's worth, you can uninstall nearly half of them, while most of the rest can be disabled.) You'll also find a couple stock features missing, like the quick-notifications panel and Photo Sphere, but Daydream and lock screen widgets are there.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra screenshots

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Most of the Z Ultra's software features are carry-overs from the Xperia Z, so you're not going to see many differences here. Sony has, however, improved a few existing features, such as small apps. These multi-tasking widgets are pretty much the same thing as Samsung's and LG's screen-on-screen windows -- a must-have for larger smartphones these days. There are also a few clever touches thrown into the deeper realms of the device. For instance, if you stick your SIM into the phone and don't know the APN settings for your specific carrier, no worries -- just tell the phone to download them from the internet and apply them automatically. Through this method, we were up and running on AT&T in just a minute or two. Sony has also forgone a separate quick-notifications panel, opting instead to trim it down and add it to the top of the standard notification panel with the option to customize it however you'd like. Yep, this setup is quite similar to TouchWiz and other OEM Android skins.

You'll found plenty of other apps gratuitously thrown in, most of which don't really come in handy. Sony Select is a pointless faux app store that gives you a list of recommended apps and, if you choose to download any of them, takes you into that app's standard Play Store page. Socialife is Sony's version of Flipboard, in which you can follow specific feeds or general categories. Smart Connect is an automation app much like Tasker or Motorola's Smart Actions, all of which let you assign a trigger event and a corresponding action whenever that occurs. TrackID is a Shazam clone; NeoReader works as a QR code reader; Sony Reader appears to be little more than a shortcut into the company's e-book store; and MagV is a Newsstand-like app that lets you browse, download and subscribe to various magazines. Fortunately, almost all of these apps can be disabled and about half can be uninstalled if it suits your fancy.

Camera

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

It's no secret that we're not especially fond of tablet cameras. Even if we felt comfortable taking pictures with them, most manufacturers simply don't put in best efforts if it's not on a smartphone. Since this is as close to a hybrid smartphone / tablet as we've ever seen before, which end of the spectrum does the Ultra's camera module occupy? The Ultra contains an older-gen 8MP Exmor R sensor and lacks an LED flash, so we'd say it's straddling the fence. Sony didn't want to make this a marquee imaging device, but it at least wanted to make sure it had something halfway decent.

There isn't much to say about the user interface because it's the same UI Sony has already used in several Xperia devices. While it's familiar to Sony fans, there is certainly a learning curve involved. Hitting the button in the upper-left corner brings up a row of different modes, many of which have features that are duplicated elsewhere. For instance, you can capture video in several different modes, as they all feature both shutter and record buttons on the right sidebar. Same goes with stills modes. Each one behaves slightly differently, and they each contain varying types of settings, so it'll be up to you to work out all of the nuances in functionality and performance so you can switch between them faster. Worst case: you usually can't go wrong with Superior Auto mode, which does its best to pick out ideal settings that dynamically change depending on your location, what you're trying to shoot and other factors.

Regardless of how you feel about the UI, you can't complain that there aren't enough settings. While Superior Auto is there for the quick shooters who don't want to make adjustments or fiddle around with them, there's plenty to keep enthusiasts occupied in the other modes: HDR, white balance, exposure, metering, image stabilizer, ISO, filters, scenes and focus modes are all there. For Superior and HDR features, the resolution gets knocked down to 7MP, but this small decrease won't come as a deterrent to most.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra sample shots

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The difficult thing about Superior Auto is the fact that it sometimes gets the best shot, but this isn't always a given. When going back and forth between it and the normal mode, there were some differences in white balance. For instance, images taken outdoors looked a little cold in normal mode and a little warm in Superior, but this was often reversed indoors. While color saturation was relatively good, images weren't as detailed as we're used to, and many of them suffered from a softer focus. Shadows and highlights also didn't mingle well together, but HDR typically made this issue go away.

The camera isn't amazing when it comes to low-light photography, either, but there is a lot of variance in quality depending on which mode you're in. Normal mode produces rather dark images; night mode does a good job at picking up extra light, but you often get blurry shots; pics taken in Superior Auto mode typically aren't fuzzy, but they tend to be noisier than we'd like. There are a few other modes you can experiment with, such as night portrait and "backlight + HDR," but we typically got mixed results with most of them. All said, there doesn't seem to be a perfect setting, but with a little bit of tweaking, you'll find the mode that works best for you.

Pro tip: If you're the spontaneous type who likes to take pictures on the fly, there's a "small app" for the camera in which the viewfinder can share screen space with other apps. Additionally, we experienced problems getting the shutter key to recognize our touch on multiple occasions; we often had to press the button more firmly in order to actually take the picture, so if you're in a noisy environment and can't hear the shutter sound, double-check the gallery to make sure your snapshot is actually there.

Video is captured at a max resolution of 1080p at 30fps with a bit rate of 17 to 18 Mbps in broad daylight, though we noticed that number was significantly lower in our low-light footage. In excellent lighting conditions, our movies showed crisp details, a little bit of noise and only a small amount of choppiness. Samples taken in lower lighting conditions -- this includes shady spots and even indoors in the early afternoon -- had more difficulty staying in focus and retaining detail. The audio is good too, as the phone canceled out a lot of redundant background noise and did a great job picking up voices.

Performance and battery life

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

The Xperia Z Ultra is not only the biggest phone we've reviewed -- it's also theoretically the most powerful, because it's powered by a 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm MSM8974 SoC. The 28nm chipset's more popularly known as the Snapdragon 800, which is just now starting to make its way into the latest and greatest smartphones. The 800 features four asynchronous Krait 400 cores (compared to Krait 300, the 400 offers higher clock speeds and lower latency) and an Adreno 330 GPU clocked at 450MHz. Additionally, the Z Ultra benefits from 2GB of RAM.

Without a doubt, the Snapdragon 800 delivers impressive results. Crazily enough, we'd had few (if any) concerns with the Snapdragon 600's performance, so the benefits of the faster Krait 400 cores are only seen in the most processor-intensive of tasks. Needless to say, the phone handles all of those tasks ever so smoothly, even when they were all running at the same time. After looking at the benchmarks, it was pretty clear that Sony's UI is a little slower than stock Android in some instances, as our CPU-related results were consistently worse on the Z Ultra than they were on Qualcomm's development devices (MDPs). That said, the Ultra exceeded our expectations for its JavaScript performance, as its SunSpider browser score was the lowest we've ever seen on a smartphone. Speaking of web performance, its Vellamo results were on par with the Snapdragon MDP.

Since this is the first Snapdragon 800-powered phone we've reviewed, that also means it's the first Adreno 330 GPU we've tested. Qualcomm claims a 50 percent boost in graphics performance over the Adreno 320 found in the Snapdragon 600 (the chipset used in the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4), as well as developer support for OpenCL and OpenGL ES 3.0. Let's check out the full suite of benchmarks:

Sony Xperia Z Ultra Xperia Z Snapdragon 800 MDP (phone)
Quadrant 2.0 18,966 8,019 22,022
Vellamo 2.0 2,957 2,198 2,914
AnTuTu 3.2 29,377 19,876 33,828
SunSpider 1.0 (ms) 431 1,900 674
GLBenchmark Egypt 2.7 HD Offscreen (fps) 23 13 N/A
CF-Bench 31,702 16,079 33,876
SunSpider: lower scores are better

As you take a look at the results above, none of the numbers here should be surprising -- after all, this is the natural next step for Qualcomm's Snapdragon lineup, and its performance is reflected not only on paper, but in real life as well. Admittedly, very few people need to have a phone powered by a quad-core 2.2GHz processor, but it should appease nitpicky power users and multi-taskers. On top of that, the S800 comes with support for all sorts of stellar components that aren't utilized in the Z Ultra (but the capability is fortunately there for future hardware). And let's face it: there's always room for more power in our phones, whether we take advantage of that extra capability to its fullest or not. That said, a 2.2GHz CPU is fantastically robust, but no one other than the pickiest of power users will likely take advantage of the superior speeds as often as they think they would.

While much of the same could be said about the Adreno 330 and its graphics performance, this is the area in which the average user will likely experience the greatest gains. We gave Riptide GP2 more than its fair share of testing in the last few days, and we marveled at the amount of intricate details it was capable of pushing to the screen without any sense of lag or delay. We also ran Epic Citadel and got similarly satisfactory results.

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

With a 3,050mAh battery, the Ultra should last an especially long time. The sad truth is, it doesn't -- at least, it doesn't compare to giants like the Note II and Motorola's Droid Maxx line. Don't get us wrong; it'll last through a busy workday. Indeed, we were able to get between 14 and 15 hours on a normal workload with the screen set at half brightness. However, a heavier or more intensive load, along with a brighter screen, will bring the runtime down to nine or 10 hours. It's sufficient, but not as good as we'd like to see from such a large battery.

For our standard rundown test, we decided to try something new: instead of playing videos on an endless loop, we had a browser cycle through a series of 10 popular websites (including our own, naturally) at 55 percent brightness until the phone drained to 15 percent. The total test took four hours and eight minutes; since this is a new benchmark, we made sure to have some other phones to compare it with. The Galaxy Note II went for 5:28; the Xperia Z lasted for 3:31; and the Galaxy S 4 got through the same test in 3:35. (On a happy note, the Ultra's Quick Charge capability allows it to power up faster than many standard devices.)

Don't even think about gaming for a lengthy period of time. On multiple occasions, we sat down and played Riptide GP2 for hour-long spurts, and the average battery drain was roughly around 40 percent. The experience was fantastic and among the most realistic we've ever seen on a phone, but make sure you're sufficiently charged or close enough to an outlet when you begin your quest for water-racing domination.

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

Curiously, we encountered two problems we experienced with the phone that made us hesitant to fully recommend it. First, regardless of which headphones we plugged into the Z Ultra, the device didn't recognize any of them. Just to play it safe, we connected the same headphones into other handsets, at which point they worked perfectly. Additionally, we noticed that the scratchproof coating on the screen wasn't perfect; after a few days of casual handwriting with pens and pencils, we could see a number of marks in direct sunlight. Fortunately, they came off with some buffing, but it's something to consider before you start doodling on your screen with reckless abandon.

We were otherwise pleased with most other aspects of the phone's performance. We used the navigation for a full 40 minutes and the GPS followed us the entire way. The speaker was loud and clear enough for listening to music and watching videos without incident, but it wasn't anywhere close to being the loudest phone we've reviewed. Call quality wasn't bad, although the phone is so large that it admittedly took us a few tries to get our ear in the most optimal spot. By default, the audio was weak at the low end, but we were able to improve that somewhat after tweaking the EQ settings.

Pricing and comparison

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra, priced at roughly $675 on Negri Electronics for the HSPA+ version (the North American and European LTE models are on pre-order for $770 and $840, respectively), occupies a very unique and lonely place. Its closest competitor in size, the Galaxy Mega ($570), doesn't pack many high-end components and seems to suit users who prefer size and price over functionality. The Ultra, on the other hand, takes many of Sony's best features and top-end components in an attempt to make it appealing to more than just people with abnormally large hands or a lust for tablet-like displays. It may remain the size champion for a while, too; we're not expecting HTC's and Samsung's upcoming contenders to be this large, though we'll have to wait and review the devices before we can confidently say whether or not they're a better deal. For now, however, this is the best phone over the 6-inch threshold that you can buy.

Wrap-up

DNP Sony Xperia Z Ultra review the best phone you'll probably never buy

Just like we saw with the Samsung Galaxy Mega, your decision to purchase the Xperia Z Ultra depends mostly on its size. The Z Ultra doesn't offer any unique traits that would make people want to deal with its massive frame if they don't want to, and the price is going to scare off shoppers who are on the fence. For those dead-set on a larger smartphone, however, this is definitely the best 6-plus-inch device you can buy. Sony designed a sleek and good-looking handset with a few tablet tendencies, and you'll absolutely love the display and over-the-top processing power contained within its chassis. Without a doubt, its size and price are the two most critical factors, and you've probably already made up your mind without even using it. In short, your decision to buy (or not buy) the Z Ultra should be a quick one: you'll either love it or hate it, but you won't stay neutral for long.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.

Sony

Xperia Z Ultra

Pros

  • Beautiful display
  • Sleek, gorgeous design
  • Waterproof
  • Powerful performance

Cons

  • Awkward to hold
  • No camera flash
  • Battery life is decent, but doesn't live up to expectations
Conclusion

The Z Ultra is a powerful phone with a great display, but your purchase decision will ultimately depend on the price and how well the phone fits in your hand.

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Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: the best phone you'll probably never buy