Sony has waited and waited before bringing out a giant phone (or phablet, as they're usually referred to), but the waiting is now over. The Xperia Z Ultra is here, and with a couple of exceptions it is a top-end piece of kit. That said, the jury is still out on whether anyone will really want to part with £600 for a device that’s a smartphone which is too big for most pockets, and yet too small to take the place of a 10in tablet.
I’m not even sure the SmartWatch 2 and stereo Bluetooth headset that Clove (supplier of my review sample) is bundling will be enough of a lure. But if Sony has produced the Xperia Z Ultra just to show off, then for the most part it has done a spiffing job.
Let’s start with the aesthetics of this handset. Simply put, they’re stunning. The 179 x 92mm handset has chocolate bar dimensions, but it is way too big to use one-handed, and Sony doesn’t bother with any of the software tweaks Samsung uses in its giant handsets like the Galaxy Mega (review coming soon) where the keyboard and calculator can be slid to one side of the screen to help one-handers. Nope, Sony wants you to accept the Xperia Z Ultra for what it is, and that means no concessions related to its size.
At just 6.5mm thick it is sleek, and while tapping out an email one-handed is not a possibility, it’s a pleasure to hold in one hand for a bit of web browsing, video viewing, eBook reading or whatever else you want to do with it. The weight – 212 grams – is not insubstantial, but it’s not a problem either.
The chassis is a bit tall for the giant 6.4in screen. The bezel is about 1.5mm at the top and a shade more at the bottom. That’s a good thing if you want to hold the Xperia Z Ultra in two hands for a bit of widescreen gaming, as your fingers have somewhere to rest other than on the display.
Sony has played carefully with the narrow edges of the Xperia Z Ultra. The power button is a neat and silver round nub halfway down the right edge, nicely positioned for fingers that curl round the device. Everything else on the edges – apart from a depression on the left for a wireless charging pad – is completely black and blends in to near invisibility. Also on the right edge you have the volume rocker, headset slot and a covered slot for both microSIM and microSD. On the left edge there’s a covered microUSB slot for those of us without wireless charging.
You can’t get to the battery as the chassis is sealed – that’s heavily related to the fact that you’re in luck if you drop the Xperia Z Ultra in the bath mid-gaming session, as it has an IP58 rating against dust and water ingress.
Now, we’re used to seeing IP57 ratings. That’s the one given to the Xperia Z and countless other handsets. However, the IP58 rating is rarer. The first number refers to dust protection – the 5 means the Xperia Z Ultra is not completely dust-sealed, but motes can’t get inside to a degree where they’ll affect everyday working. The second number refers to water protection. 7 gives protection against 1 metre of water for 30 minutes, but the 8 rating takes immersion beyond 1 metre for longer than 30 minutes.
That giant screen is one of the key features of the Xperia Z Ultra. At 6.4in its 1,920 x 1,080 pixels are spread over quite a wide area, and it delivers a pixel density of 342 ppi. Compare that to the Xperia Z and you might feel cheated – its 5in screen shares the same number of pixels, and so offers 443 ppi.
But I think we’re splitting hairs if we make too much of this difference. The Xperia Z Ultra’s screen is full HD, sharp, bright and clear. There’s no fuzzy text when reading emails, eBooks, SMS or websites. It incorporates Sony’s mobile Bravia engine 2 and Triluminos technology, both of which help out in the video rendering department. The super vivid rendition AMOLED delivers, which some people like and some don’t, is avoided here in favour of less “blinged up” colours. Yes, video looks great.
Samsung has a great trick in its portfolio with its stylus supporting Galaxy Note range. Sony has a similar, but different, trick. You can write onto the screen with anything – your finger, a pen tip, the other end of a pen, house key, whatever you want. Handwriting recognition is pretty good – and fast. It’s a part of the keyboard, so you can use it in any app that accepts keyboard based input, and if you want to make handwritten notes there’s a pre-installed app for that which works quite well. There’s also a drawing app.
Under the hood beats what is perhaps the star of the Xperia Z Ultra show – a 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 chipset that is the fastest of the new Qualcomm range. It is quad-core, and coupled with 2GB of RAM it is blistering. I doubt there’s any app which will seriously challenge it. There’s also Near Field Communications, 4G support, and support for the Ant+ standard too – that’s used by heart rate monitors and other fitness-related kit.
All this goodness does make two aspects of the spec rather annoying. The camera shoots to 8-megapixels – some way off the 13-megapixels of the Xperia Z – and it lacks a flash. It is best described as average, and while it does shoot 1080p video it is still disappointing.
There’s a headline 16GB of built in storage, but when you factor in Sony’s user interface that sits on top of Android 4.2, and all the Sony widgets and apps, you are left with 11GB free. That’s still pretty healthy, but remember you can’t install apps onto SD cards any more, and apps are getting bigger all the time. This device deserves to be running some of the top-end games and you could be looking at 1GB or more per hit.
The Sony ecosystem is a shade overpowering for me with various apps designed to help you be a Sony fan to the core. I don’t really care for Xperia Lounge which pushes all things Sony at me, nor do I need Sony Select, which presents a subset of apps. And there’s plenty more like that eating into the 16GB of memory.
Still, let’s end on a high. The 3050mAh battery does a really good job, and I found that with my normal handset usage pattern I could easily get through two days between charges. Of course, if I owned the Xperia Z Ultra I’d be pushing it a lot more than I push my current phone, but I still reckon lasting more than a day is not out of the question.
The Xperia Z Ultra is expensive, and this handset’s size means it’s not going to work well as your everyday phone if you are a jeans, T-shirt and no jacket or bag kind of person. Equally, the screen isn’t big enough to deliver all you might want from a tablet. Even when put up against my new friend the Nexus 7, it feels just the wrong side of fiddly-small.
On the other hand, this phablet is blisteringly fast, really well made, and I’m going to miss the Xperia Z Ultra when it has to be returned.
Manufacturer and Model
Sony Xperia Z Ultra
GSM multi band; HSPA multi band; 4G LTE multi band
2.2GHz Qualcomm quad-core
6.4in, 1,920 x 1,080
179 x 92 x 6.5mm