Sony Xperia Z1: the new flagship with imaging at its heart (hands-on)

For a while, it looked like Sony was going to work its way up and down the alphabet with each new phone. More recently, however, it's settled on one letter -- for its flagships at least -- and the ultimate letter at that. Following the lead of other OEM's, Sony appears to be easing off the fragmented releases, instead training us that Z means business, Z Ultra means bigness, and the freshly announced Z1? Well that we'll soon find out. The oft-leaked, officially teased and newest member of the Z-family comes with a few distinct features, not the least of which is that Nokia-bating 20.7-megapixel camera. In addition to the show-stopping features, there are a few more that Sony is fast making its own (such as waterproofing). Does it all add up to a new masterpiece, or is it an incremental update? We spent some time with it to try and find out.

Before we get into detail, let's revisit the main specifications. The Xperia Z1 has a 5-inch, full HD (1080p) display, encased in an one-piece aluminum housing. Pry it open and you'll find a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800, supported by 2GB of RAM and 16GB of onboard storage ( with the option to expand via microSD) and a 3,000 mAh battery keeping things going. Oh yes, and that 20.7-megapixel, F2.0 camera that we already mentioned, along with a somewhat more conventional 2-megapixel snapper around the front. All of the above is kept safe from watery harm with IP58 level certification -- a significant step up from the IPX5/7 rating of the original Xperia Z.

DNP Sony Xperia Z1 the new flagship with imaging at its heart handson

What this effectively means is that Sony has taken its current flagship and refreshed the processor, tightened a few nuts and bolts, and surgically enhanced the camera. Cosmetically, the family heritage is strong. So much so, that without the original Xperia Z nearby for comparison, they are easily mistaken for one another. The Z1 is a shade taller and slightly more rounded at the edges / sides, but it's definitely subtle refinement, rather that drastic makeover.

One area we were hoping we might see improved was the display. The OptiContrast panel that disappointed in the orginal Xperia Z has been replaced with one sporting Sony's Triluminos and X-reality technology (inherited from its TV wing) and also present in the beefier Z Ultra. Our short time with the handset looked promising and, while it's hard to tell in such a short amount of time, we're hopeful it's likely to be an improvement on the Xperia Z's lackluster offering.

DNP Sony Xperia Z1 the new flagship with imaging at its heart handson

Enough of the display already we hear you cry. Like us, we imagine you're most interested in that camera. Okay, so it's not quite punching up in the same pixel range as Nokia's PureView, but it's definitely trying to step into the ring with it. Sony can at least lay claim to the highest resolution on an Android camera, for now. The company also claims that in independent tests, the 20.7MP shooter in the Z1 was the consumer favorite (beating the Nokia), but that's also something best left to the full review to decide. There is, however, a handful of sample shots below that we managed to grab in our time with the phone. The 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor comes with "Bionz for mobile" image processing technology plus 3 x "clear zoom" and ultra-lowlight functionality that, sadly, we were unable to test.

As if fancy camera specs weren't enough, Sony's also developed some custom camera apps to get even more mileage out of it. There's Info-Eye, similar in functionality to Google Goggles' visual search, plus AR effects and overlays. All pretty neat, but more useful -- and impressive -- were the stream-to-Facebook "Social Live" feature (so you can share moments with select / all friends) and a time-shift / burst feature that take over 60 shots, 30 of which before you've even pushed the button. Now you really can't miss that shot.

DNP Sony Xperia Z1 the new flagship with imaging at its heart handson

Sony tells us that it "believes that consumers want a flagship that's good at everything," and with some indisputably solid specifications across the board, it's hard to argue that they haven't at least reached for that goal. The Xperia Z1 is well built, zippy and responsive, and seems to keep the best bits of the original. Add to that key updates we saw first in the Z Ultra -- all stirred up with that megapixel mania -- and it becomes a tantalizing combination, that's for sure. Let's just hope that promise holds once we get it in for our full review, which given that it should land before the end of this month, hopefully won't be too long.

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