Sony Xperia Z Ultra: hands-on with a 6.4-inch Android phone (update: video)

Sony's been explaining the design story behind its new Xperia range at a UK briefing, how it's trying to balance both the dematerialization of tech (touchscreens, gesture interfaces) and a design that's both desirable and beautiful -- and Sony's certainly got the latter down on its new smartphone. The Xperia Z Ultra follows the lines of the rest of the Z series. It has the same "OmniBalance" plane, uniform screen surface, but this time it measures in at 6.4 inches across, but still running at 1080p resolution. Yep, it does feel substantially bigger than the original Xperia Z -- check out our comparison gallery, the new Ultra model dwarfs it. You're looking at a screen width almost identical to a passport and that 6.5mm profile meant we could cram it into our trouser pockets without an issue. It's certainly a bigger device than the likes of LG's Optimus G Pro or Samsung's Galaxy Note II and you're going to have to test it out for yourself to see if you'd be willing to talk into this Xperia like a phone -- it's definitely going to catch the eye.

There's also Qualcomm's notable Snapdragon 800 powering the device on a relatively large 3,000mAh battery, while Sony's simplified the design dropping a few of those much-maligned protective flaps, at least on the headphone socket. There are more impressions and a hands-on video after the break! %Gallery-192241% %Gallery-192249%

The screen has been tweaked to enable input not only through capacitive styluses but also typical graphite pencils, with a new handwriting recognition keyboard available for scribbling notes on the go. In practice, it worked well, with Sony's own windowed mini-apps ensuring we had space to scribble regardless of which app we were running. It did add a few inadvertent spaces here and there, but nothing that some software tweaking couldn't solve ahead of its Q3 launch. There's been some less-favorable changes since the Xperia Z too, however; there's no flash for that rear-facing camera and a drop in resolution to 8 megapixels rather than the 13MP sensor of Sony's last flagship. Our early camera tests offered up images that were pretty crisp in well-lit conditions, but the noise started to creep in on shadows -- something that a flash would have solved to some degree.

Unsurprisingly, the Snapdragon 800 was as brutally productive as our early benchmarks hinted at. On this early model, we got a Sunspider score of 835.4ms -- and that's before optimization. The huge screen lent itself well to web-browsing and touch games, and while Sony's shrunk the keyboard for single handed use, we typically went for the full-sized keyboard, which was responsive and a joy to tap away on.

That 1080p display is sharp and bright, although we're not sure if it stands up against our current IPS, Super AMOLED and Super LCD3 favorites: there's still a dull haze at wider viewing angles. Obviously the pixels are spread a little thinner than on the 5-inch Xperia Z, but it wasn't all that noticeable on gallery viewing and web browsing -- text was still pin-sharp. There's a single speaker on the bottom edge, unfortunately placed where your hand will hold the device, but aside from that misfire, the design is a step ahead of other big-screen smartphones, like the Galaxy Note II. Sony has dropped the reflective panelled edges, preferring a brush-finish plastic surface that we found easier to grip.

We're intrigued as to whether that 3,000mAh battery will go the distance with such a big screen, but we'll have to wait for the full review to test it out. For now, the Xperia Z Ultra looks like a confident third flagship for Sony and some free media in the box (and gratis Music Unlimited trial) might help the company showcase its music and movie offering -- something that it's desperate to do.