It's time to set the record straight: the original Xperia Z, launched back in February, was a decent phone. A solid phone. It was as if Sony had suddenly paused its chaotic schedule of handset releases in order to take stock of what Android users actually want: things like 1080p, microSD and a premium look and feel. And yet, the Xperia Z failed to be compelling. It wasn't just its subpar battery life that held it back. It was also the lack of a standout feature, which caused the phone to be buried amidst all the news of the GS4 and the HTC One -- and also by the announcement of the Lumia 1020 Windows Phone, whose camera suddenly made Sony's pokey, 13-megapixel module look like old technology.
That's why today, just seven months later, we're looking at a new flagship: the Xperia Z1 (codenamed Honami, and not to be confused with the Xperia ZL), with a far more boast-worthy camera and some other subtle-but-important enhancements. Buyers of the Xperia Z may understandably be displeased at being left behind so soon, but -- as much as we feel for them -- we'd hazard a guess that they don't constitute an especially large population anyway. In contrast, the Xperia Z1 should have much greater mainstream appeal. Read on to discover why.
Lack of image stabilization hurts video and low-light stills
1080p display has bad viewing angles
The Z1 ticks all the main boxes for a cutting-edge Android flagship, with superb 20-megapixel stills being an added bonus. However, if you're looking for the very best cameraphone on the market, this isn't it.
It rained heavily while this review was being written. The Xperia Z1 was used for calls in the middle of downpours; it was dunked into pints of beer; it facilitated the reading of e-books while in the bath; and it came out none the worse for wear. Admittedly, there was a slightly hoppy scent around the seams for a couple of days, but only until the phone was washed under tap.
The reason for this ruggedness is of course Sony's waterproof and dustproof design. The phone's predecessor, the Xperia Z, was rated to survive immersion down to a depth of one meter, whereas the Z1 can go slightly deeper, to a depth of 1.5m, and it can function there for up to 30 minutes. This is only in fresh water, mind you -- don't try it in the sea, and don't expect it to survive an assault of mud or sand.
The environmental protection comes courtesy of internal seals within the headphone jack (top-left), the loudspeaker (which runs along the bottom), the power button, volume rocker and camera button (all three of which run along the right side). There are also plastic flaps over the SIM slot (just above the power button) and the microSD slot and micro-USB / charging ports (both on the left side).
These flaps are an improved design, with the micro-USB flap in particular being larger and less fiddly when it comes to plugging in a charge cable. You can also get a magnetic charging dock accessory for around $50, which connects to a dedicated terminal on the left edge and will probably make charging even more convenient.
All is not perfect, however. The tempered glass continues to attract just as much pocket-fluff as the Xperia Z did. Both the front and rear sides of the phone have an uncanny ability to entice little particles of fabric away from a piece of clothing, to the point where it sometimes makes the phone look messy.
The issue with the loudspeaker is more serious: it butts up right against your palm when you hold the phone in landscape position to watch video, which obviously has an impact on the audio quality -- especially since the speaker is weak and tinny to start with. Fortunately, audio quality from the sealed headphone jack is excellent.
It's worth mentioning that the Z1 is even bigger than the Z. Yes, it avoids having a hump to contain its expanded camera module, but the extra machinery has merely been shunted into the upper bezel of the phone, making it noticeably longer by half a centimeter. Then again, the increase in girth is less of an issue -- the Z1 is still just 8.5mm thick and should be easily pocketable by anyone who's used to big phones.
Overall, we'd say that the Z1's use of a solid chunk of aluminum, sandwiched between two glass panels, gives it an understated gravitas. Nice little details like the well-placed notification LED (at the top of the front panel) are just about sufficient to overcome the other bothers. It's hardly a cheap phone, at £600 SIM-free in the UK it's at the upper end of what you'd pay for a top-of-the-line Android, but it starts to justify that price point as soon as you pick it up. It's a sleek and impervious chunk of rigidity; a thing that commands respect.
Sony Xperia Z1
144.4 x 73.9 x 8.5 mm
1,920 x 1,080
Triluminos LCD with 16 million colors
3,050mAh Li-ion (non-removable)
16GB (12GB free)
MicroSDXC, up to 64GB
20.7MP (1/2.3-inch sensor, f/2.0 lens with 27mm equiv. focal length)
The Z1 possesses a 5-inch, 1080p (441-ppi) LCD display that you're either going to love or hate. Depending on your frame of reference, you'll either notice poor viewing angles and faded blacks, or amazing sharpness and natural color reproduction. All of these assertions are true: it's as if Sony has designed its Triluminos screen on the premise that you'll always be looking directly at it, and that you'll spend more time watching 1080p movies than navigating Android.
Indeed, it's mainly with native 1080p content that the display comes alive, and its crispness becomes even greater than that of the Xperia Z. This is perhaps due to tweaks to the picture engine, which loses the old Bravia branding in favor of the slightly vacuous name of "X-Reality," and which is mostly good, but occasionally over-does things like edge-sharpening.
Ultimately, this is too subjective to call outright. Yours truly likes the look of movies with the X-Reality switched off (it's too erratic, and sometimes messes up the appearance of footage that is too highly compressed or not full 1080p), and with the power-conserving backlight profile also switched off (which slightly increases power consumption, but stops shadows from crushing to black so steeply). We wouldn't rate it as highly as the HTC Super LCD 3, perhaps, but we definitely prefer it to Samsung's AMOLED technology.
This section of our phone reviews just hasn't been the same since the Lumia 1020 came to town. Other manufacturers are still playing catch-up to Nokia's Microsoft's PureView technology, and Sony is no exception. In fact, whatever else you might read online, there's just no way that the Z1's camera module can technically match the Lumia 1020's. It boils down to the laws of physics: the Z1's sensor is smaller (1/2.3 of an inch, versus 1/1.5); it has fewer pixels to play with (20.7 million versus 41 million); and it lacks optical image stabilization (OIS).
But here's what we need to find out: even if the Z1 can't claim to be the 1020's equal, does it at least deserve to eat at the same table? Or is it overwhelmed to the point where it may as well get its coat and go home? So, rather than dwell on Sony's camera app -- which is pretty basic, anyway -- we'll get right to the task of trying to gauge imaging performance at a hardware level.
Importantly, the Z1 shares a key technology with the Lumia 1020 in the form of downsampling. Whereas the Lumia creates downsampled 5-megapixel still images from its 41MP sensor, the Z1 uses similar mathematical techniques to produce 8MP stills from a 20MP image. And although the sampling ratio is smaller, the impact of Sony's "pixel-binning" is immediately visible and beneficial. You lose resolution on your final image, of course, but you also lose lots of nasty image noise.
To demonstrate that this technology actually works in the Z1, let's compare the two images below, of an old bomber called the "Triple First." The top image was taken with manual settings and represents the full-res, 20.7-megapixel output from the sensor in relatively poor indoor lighting. In order to get a decent exposure, we had to bump the ISO to 400, which introduced quite a lot of noise, and -- more detrimentally -- the shutter had to stay open for 1/10th of a second -- long enough for some serious hand-shake to creep into the shot.
Next, we switched to the Z1's "Superior auto" mode, which detected the lack of ambient light and automatically activated pixel-binning to compensate, thereby lowering the output resolution to 8.3 megapixels. Although Superior auto mode is a bit hit-and-miss at the software level, since it often misunderstands what type of scene the camera is looking at, in this instance it worked a treat. It allowed the ISO to be pumped even higher, up to 800, without adding much noise. In turn, this allowed the shutter to open and close in around half the time, totally eradicating any motion blur in the image. As you can see below, the result is a better image, albeit with lower resolution. As an added bonus, the auto mode has also managed to improve white balance in this shot -- however, more generally, Superior auto mode was hit and miss with colors and exposure and definitely not something that can be relied upon in all situations.
So far, so good. But what happens if we want to keep that original 20-megapixel image? And what if we stack up the Z1 against its nemesis, the Lumia 1020? To explore this, we had to switch back to manual mode and set resolution to 20.7MP again. It's worth noting that this kills a bunch of camera options, such as HDR, scene selection and digital image stabilization -- but it was the only way to push the Z1's sensor to its limits.
The image below was taken at full resolution in slightly better lighting. The Z1's output is very encouraging, thanks primarily to Sony's fast f/2.0 G lens: the sample we have here is clear, detailed and unspoiled by noise (even though some noise is present). It's not as perfect as the Lumia shot directly beneath it, which has less noise and slightly better color balance and contrast, but the difference is arguably moderate. That's especially true since the Z1 is being put up against the full might of the Lumia's optical image stabilization, which allows it to keep its shutter open longer and therefore allow more light to hit the sensor.
Next, let's see how the Z1 and the Lumia 1020 compare when you take away the Lumia's advantage of optical image stabilization. This is actually an important test, because OIS is of little use when you're shooting a moving target. In fact, to get decent action shots with the Lumia, you have to deliberately disable OIS by selecting a shooting mode that prioritizes a high shutter speed.
Once again, the image samples weigh in the Lumia's favor. Even with OIS disabled, Nokia's handset takes less noisy action shots in low light. On the other hand, the Z1 is hardly outclassed. Its image is better exposed (read: brighter) and contains 50 percent more pixels. Sure, it's a bit noisy, but it's a passable image taken in very tricky circumstances. Moreover, when you consider shots with plentiful daylight, like the image of the docks below, the difference in quality between the two cameraphones becomes much, much less of an issue, with extra resolution being the only thing that puts the Lumia ahead.
In fact, this is pretty much how we'd sum up the difference between the still-image quality from these two rivals: the Lumia's advantage is significant, but it's also moderate enough that it can be considered rationally. Like any other spec, the Z1's camera module can be weighed up as part of a wider package of pros and cons -- it's not the best on the market, but it's probably the best camera module you can get in a skinny smartphone right now, and certainly -- as Sony's marketing claims -- it's the best camera in a waterproof smartphone. In terms of Android rivals, the Z1 is beaten only by the Galaxy S4 Zoom, which of course comes with even bigger humps than the Lumia 1020.
Ah, but wait. We can't finish this section without a look at video quality. Regrettably, if shooting video is as big a deal for you as shooting stills, then the Z1 has little to offer beyond other non-OIS Android phones. The lack of image stabilization means that a large portion of its total data rate (2.1 MB/s) is taken up with the artifacts of hand wobble. The Lumia, meanwhile, captures much richer video because it does away with this wobble and instead deploys its 2.5 MB/s data rate for the correct purpose: carrying actual detail from the scene. The clips below speak for themselves. (And special thanks to Parv and Liv for letting us exploit your beautiful wedding for phone testing purposes.)
There isn't a great deal to report in this section. It's the same, neutral Sony skin that has become more familiar without ever inspiring any strong opinions. Its strength lies in getting the basics right -- such as seamlessly accessing local and cloud-stored pics from within the Album app, or providing plentiful opportunities for controlling power consumption -- without distracting too heavily from the cleanliness of stock Android. Depending on your outlook, you'd either call it "gimmick free" or "slightly dull."
Then again, there are a few new features that deserve a mention in the latest software build, based on Android 4.2.2. The first of these is a more feature-rich lock screen that lets you add up to six widgets that can be seen without needing to unlock the phone -- including things like Gmail, Google Now and Google+. The "Personalization" screen now includes the ability to customize Quick Settings that are accessed from the notifications pull-down, which means you can get faster access to the brightness slider if you want it (and we certainly do). A new menu on the app drawer (activated by a swipe from the left edge of the screen) makes it easy to organize, uninstall and search for apps. Finally, there's more control over "small apps" that you can run in re-sizable windows on top of your home screens.
Sony's increasingly coherent ecosystem is present in the form of access to its Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited storefronts, as well as PlayStation Mobile -- Sony's own app and gaming platform that is finally starting to be fleshed out with titles. It's pretty shocking that Video Unlimited still doesn't offer HD purchases or rentals, and it's also true that Spotify and other music-streaming services mean there's nothing especially compelling about Music Unlimited. However, there are more PlayStation-branded apps on the way, and the desirability of Sony's ecosystem (and the amount of effort it lavishes on the various components) will likely grow once the PS4 lands in November.
Performance and battery life
Sony Xperia Z1
Galaxy S 4
SunSpider 1.0 (ms, lower is better)
GFX Bench Egypt 2.7 HD Offscreen (fps)
Battery rundown test
It was in this section that we previously came up against one of the biggest disappointments with the Xperia Z. Partly it was its Snapdragon S4 Pro processor lacked oomph compared to next-gen Snapdragon 600-equipped phones like the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One, but the bigger problem was that the Xperia Z, with its aging chip and thirsty 1080p display, consumed too much power.
Fortunately, Sony has addressed both those issues with the Z1. Starting with performance, the next-gen 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 (with 2GB of RAM) beats the Xperia Z's Snapdragon S4 Pro in all the main benchmarks. Sony's implementation of the Snapdragon 800 -- or its lack of tuning for benchmarks -- results in scores that don't always beat the Snapdragon 600 in the Samsung Galaxy S 4 by a huge margin, particularly in the case of SunSpider and CF-Bench. They're still great scores, however, and the Xperia Z1 was impeccably fluid in day-to-day use and at least on a par with other 2013 flagships in terms of app load times and other things we tend to notice.
(Correction: there were some false values for the GS4 in the table above, which exaggerated its performance. Apologies -- these have now been fixed.)
The improvement in battery life is even greater. On a day of light to moderate usage, including some camera work, the Xperia Z1 lasted for a long day, a night and five hours of the next day before hitting the red -- at which point it still had enough juice for a few more hours. Only once did we manage to kill the battery within a day -- and that was a 17-hour day that involved a one-hour Skype call over WiFi. In our standard looped video run-down test, the Xperia Z1 lasted over 12 hours -- not as quite as long as the LG G2, which has the same processor and 3,000mAh battery capacity, but a strong result nonetheless.
You do need to be careful with the battery in order to get the most out of it. We left the "Optimized backlight" setting switched on at all times except when playing a movie, and we also kept the X-Reality enhancer off. We didn't go as far as engaging the Z1's "Stamina mode," however, since that disables cellular and WiFi data while the display is off, which would prevent push notifications -- but some users, who don't need push, could extend battery life greatly by using that option.
One thing we did have to be careful of was WiFi -- during one rundown test, we accidentally left the phone connected to a WiFi network (we normally leave WiFi on, but disconnected), and somehow we nuked the battery in four hours -- likely due to Dropbox syncing photos in the background. It seems to be heavy WiFi use that is particularly inefficient, so be careful what apps you leave running. The upshot: the phone has great stamina, but you have to get to know it a little in order to achieve consistency.
Finally a note on call quality and data speeds: as with the Xperia Z, there really are no problems to report in this area. Calls are, if anything, clearer than average through the earpiece, but there's little positive to say about calls made through the meek speakerphone. As for data, we got solid 5 Mbps downloads and 1.2 Mbps uploads over HSPA+ on Vodafone in London at an indoor location with four or five bars of reception. The phone has a capable LTE modem too, of course, which delivered over 20Mbps down and 9Mbps up on O2's London network, even indoors and with only two bars of reception.
If we were being cynical, we'd say that the Xperia Z1 risks falling into the same trap as its predecessor. Sony has thrown everything it has into the new 20-megapixel camera module, and yet it hasn't managed to beat Nokia's flagship Windows Phone. The evidence is clear: the Z1 shoots noisier stills than the Lumia 1020 and its video recordings suffer immensely from the lack of optical image stabilization. That potentially compelling reason to buy the Z1 has already evaporated.
Then again, if you evaluate the Z1 on its individual merits, you can understand how the device might manage to win people over. Despite the marketing around the camera, this phone should actually be regarded as a jack-of-all-trades. To twist the phrase, the Z1 is masterful at being a jack-of-all-trades -- to the point where this well-roundedness becomes a compelling feature in its own right. The camera, the screen, the processor, the battery life, the build quality -- none of them are market-beaters on their own, but together, in one package, they make a sensible buy for anyone looking for a big-screened, high-spec Android smartphone.
Our only hesitation would be this: now that Sony is beginning to find its feet in this business, such that its technology is getting better from generation to generation, it's possible that the Z1 will be overwhelmed by a superior replacement within a year (or even six months). That is, after all, what happened to the Xperia Z. Whereas other manufacturers, like Samsung and HTC, have relatively clear and predictable release cycles, such that phone upgrades can be reliably synced to new launches, that doesn't yet apply to Sony -- so perhaps there's an argument for holding out to see what comes next.
Gallery: Sony Xperia Z1 down-sized camera samples | 32 Photos