Hands-on review: Sony Xperia Z1

Pros

  • Superb processor
  • Long battery life
  • Good camera features

Cons

  • Display has dodgy viewing angles
  • Chassis is slightly too large for screen
  • Runs warm

Sony seems to be on something of a roll in the smartphone department at the moment. Its Xperia Z, launched earlier this year, was a delightful looking handset that was water and dust resistant to boot. When I reviewed it, the Xperia Z came close to getting five stars. Then just a few weeks ago, the oversized Z Ultra with its massive 6.4in screen emulated the physical design of the Z and again almost got itself five stars.

And now, with the introduction of the all singing and dancing Xperia Z1, Sony has kept the great design standards from those two previous handsets. In many ways, the Z1 is an update to the Xperia Z that is again water resistant, and it adds in some new features. These include support for Sony’s new SmartWatch 2, some camera enhancements that include 20.7-megapixel stills shooting, and the very latest Qualcomm 2.2GHz quad-core processor.

The Sony Xperia Z1 doesn’t come cheap. Available in both black and white (and purple at Carphone Warehouse) it’ll set you back around £560 – so yes, this is a rival for top-end smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One and LG G2.

It’s worth noting that the water and dust resistance of the Xperia Z1 gives it an IP58 rating. Now, most handsets that go for an IP rating get IP57, but Sony has gone up a notch here, as it did with the Xperia Z Ultra. That increment of one means that the Xperia Z1 should handle water depths below a metre for longer than half an hour – IP57 doesn’t go beyond those limits. Still, I wouldn’t suggest you leave your handset in a bucket of water overnight!

Like those other Z handsets I mentioned at the outset of this review, the Sony Xperia Z1 is basically a monolith. The Z1 is slim at 8.5mm, and it looks solid. The use of a glass front and back give it a shiny, reflective look – and it’s actually quite a fingerprint magnet.

While the look is very close to that of the original Xperia Z, there’s been a bit of a chassis update with some aluminium being added between the front and back, which gives a bit of panache to the edges of the handset. The edges aren’t sheer as they were on the Z either. You can certainly tell the difference between the Z and the Z1 close up, but the design principles remain intact.

The back isn’t removable, so the microSIM and microSD slots live under hinged covers on the edges of the chassis. There’s also a cover protecting the microUSB connector. Add in a dock connector, volume rocker, camera shortcut button and the side-mounted power switch, and it’s true that both long edges are a bit busy. The headset slot is on the top – it’s not protected by a cover, but it does have water resistant features. On the bottom there’s a speaker which pumps out disappointing sound – its top volume is a bit quiet, and bass tones are not as strong as I’d like.

Sony has given the Xperia Z1 a 5in screen, although it looks a bit lost in the chassis. There’s a fair bit of bezel top and bottom, and the long side bezels are noticeable too. If you compare the dimensions to those of the LG G2 with its 5.2in screen, you’ll see what I mean: The G2 measures 70.9 x 9.1 x 138.5mm (WxDxH), while the Z1 comes in at 73.9 x 8.5 x 144.4mm (WxDxH). It is both taller and wider than the G2 while having a slightly smaller screen.

Pixel-wise, the Xperia Z1 matches the G2 and other top-end handsets with its 1,920 x 1,080 resolution. Sony adds in its Triluminos and X-Reality support so that images really do look great. The screen is quite reflective though, and viewing angles are disappointing.

The camera is an obvious candidate for star of the show, given that it’s a 20.7-megapixel affair, and its 1/2.3in sensor is worthy of a compact digital shooter. Photos are indeed pretty good, and they certainly let in plenty of light in general outdoor or daylight settings.

There are some neat extras including the ability to put overlays onto photos as you shoot, giving you various effects (sketch, kaleidoscope, fisheye and so on) and augmented reality elements which are 3D. It’s all quite clever, though smacking of novelty rather than real utility. The camera button is a feature that should help you with underwater photography if that’s what you want to do. The screen’s touch responsiveness is severely hampered by water, but the button should work fine. Still, would you really take your phone snorkelling with you?

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Internally there’s a lot to like here. Android 4.2 might not be at the cutting edge, especially now that Google has officially announced the Nexus 5 running Android 4.4, but the differences between the versions are not monumental, and version 4.2 will do most people fine. Sony’s Android skin and extras won’t be to every taste, but if you are into the Sony ecosystem you’ll most probably be a fan.

For example, pinned to the home screen is a Walkman app for playing tunes and streaming. I like it, but with Google’s own Play Music app also here there’s potential for confusion. The same goes for video playback with Movies, Video Unlimited, and Play Movies and TV, and there are other potential points of confusion such as having the Play store and Sony Select both here.

I do like Sony’s neat side swipe menu in the apps drawer which lets you fiddle with what’s displayed and get new apps really easily, and the ability to control music playback from the lock screen. And Sony has added some useful apps in the shape of Box, which is a cloud storage app, Notes for making shorts memos, TrackID, TrackID TV, and a few more. It doesn’t feel as cohesive as what some handsets offer by way of extras, though, and it’s always a pain when you need to download an app to get the best from it (as is the case with Office Suite here, as it needs to be upgraded to Pro before you can create documents).

The pre-installed extras reduce the 16GB of internal memory to 11.7GB available for your own use – but you’ve got access to a microSD card slot for storage expansion. That 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset I mentioned at the start of this review is supported by 2GB of RAM and is top of the range. Unsurprisingly, it coped with everything I threw at it and provided fast, smooth screen scrolling, video playback, gaming and more.

The 3000mAh battery got me through an average day with ease, which was good to see. However, if you are a heavy gamer or want to do a lot of streaming or media viewing you might have issues, and then you might want to employ Sony’s Stamina Mode. This lets you select which apps’ data connections you approve of being retained when the phone is in standby mode.

One worry is that I found the handset ran a bit warm, with definite heat coming through the backplate. This might be a medium to long-term concern.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia Z1 has some endearing features. The camera is a winner, the processor is top notch, and the design is good. However, the chassis is perhaps larger than it needs to be, and the display is not the best I’ve seen – it suffers from less than stellar viewing angles. Another slight concern is that my review sample ran a bit warm. Nonetheless, this is a good step forward for Sony’s Xperia range. Life at the top of the smartphone tree is getting nicely competitive again.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Sony Xperia Z1

Network

GSM multiband; HSPA multiband; 4G LTE multiband

Processor

2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon

Ram

2GB

Memory

16GB

Memory expansion

microSD

Display

5in, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels

Main camera

20.7-megapixel

Front camera

2.0-megapixel

NFC

Yes

Wi-Fi

Yes

GPS

Yes

FM radio

Yes

Battery

3,000mAh

Size

144.4 x 73.9 x 8.5 mm

Weight

169g

OS

Android 4.2