Review: Sony Xperia Z1

Sony pours its consumer technology prowess into the Xperia Z1 (October 31st, 2013)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Sony

Price: From $199 on a two-year plan

The Good


  • - Excellent build quality, materials and design
    - Superb performance from its Snapdragon 800 chipset
    - Brilliant camera
    - Water and dust resistant
    - Non-intrusive Android overlay

The Bad


  • - Triluminos display strong, but off-axis viewing angles could be better
    - Sony smartphones yet to make an impact in the US market
    - Slightly thicker and heavier than Xperia Z

Sony has been making large strides with its smartphones over the past 12-18 months. Not only have its smartphone designs become more attractive while also boasting the latest specifications, but it has worked hard to dramatically improve the pace at which it rolls out updates for devices after they have been released. The Xperia Z, released earlier this year, was the first Sony smartphone that could genuinely go head-to-head with the best Android smartphones on the market. So when it recently launched the successor to the Xperia Z, dubbed the Xperia Z1, we were keen to see if it could take the current Android smartphone crown from the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the LG G2.

Design and construction

The Xperia Z1 adopts a very similar look and feel to the Xperia Z. It features a very angular and streamlined design that is built around a rigid one-piece aluminum chassis, which is apparent around its now more rounded edges. On its front is scratch resistant Gorilla Glass 3 and on its rear is shatterproof Dragontrail glass. The combination of aluminum and glass is reminiscent of the approach that Apple used with great success on the iPhone 4 and 4S, though the Xperia Z1 clearly has its own unique appearance and style. However, what it shares in common with Apple's products is that Sony's choice of materials and design language conveys both a sense of quality and prestige.



What helps to set the Xperia Z1 apart from its competition, apart from its top notch build quality, is that it is waterproof to IPX5 and IPX8 ratings, while it is dust-resistant to the IP5X rating. A few Android devices offer this capability, but they compromise the design of their premium model in order to ruggedize it. Sony preserves its looks, while delivering fantastic usability and takes a load off your mind as you no longer need to worry about ruining your investment in water. The only downside to the Xperia Z1 on the design front is that it is slightly thicker (8.5mm) and heavier (170g) than the Xperia Z. However, this is due to the inclusion of its marquee camera module (discussed in more detail below), which necessitates a wider chassis. Sony has taken advantage of the extra space to pack in an extra large 3,000 mAh battery, while its Omnibalance design keeps weight evenly distributed in your hand.




Display

Like the Xperia Z before it, the Xperia Z1 centres on a 5-inch 1080p LCD display with 441 pixels per inch. The Xperia Z1 ups the ante by switching to a Triluminos panel that uses a proprietary Sony display technology to produce a wider color gamut. There is no doubt that the Triluminos display in the Xperia Z1 is a marked improvement over the display in the Xperia Z in this regard, however its off-axis viewing angles could still do with some improvement. By comparison, the Triluminos display in the 6.4-inch Xperia Z Ultra is simply outstanding in every regard, so we were expecting the same level of image quality from the Xperia Z1. Interestingly, the Xperia Z1 off-axis viewing angles looked good when watching movies, but seemed slightly off when looking at websites or the Home screen at more acute angles. Realistically though, most people aren't going to shift their device around to look for this though, but it certainly notable.



Triluminos technology is not the only proprietary Sony display technology that it has baked into the Xperia Z1. The Xperia Z1 also incorporates Sony's X-Reality engine that analyses and selectively processes each image to produce the sharpest image possible. Ripped movies look significantly improved as pixilation is markedly reduced through intelligent image upscaling. Texture and outlines are sharpened and intelligent noise reduction helps to make footage shot in low-light conditions clearer and smoother. The Xperia Z1 display also incorporates Sony's OptiContrast technology for better viewing in bright sunlight, while it uses Direct Touch technology that integrates the sensor layer into the lens to boost responsiveness.




Camera

While there are many standout features on the Xperia Z1, none is more notable than the camera. Sony's goal has been to create a smartphone that can truly replace your point and shoot camera. At a Sony product launch that we attended, we saw some photo enlargements of Xperia Z1 photos snapped by leading Australian photographer Rex Dupain. The image quality was highly impressive, with Rex Dupain on hand to explain to Electronista that he had done very little post-production work on the photos. Most people would have been hard-pressed to tell that the photos weren't shot with a high quality camera. It was only on very close inspection that artefacts became apparent, but the enlargements were at least 25-inches in size.



The Xperia Z1 camera module benefits greatly from Sony's extensive experience in making high quality camera modules, which also feature in Apple's recent iPhones. The Xperia Z1 uses a 1/2.3" 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor with ISO 6400 sensitivity coupled with a 27mm wide Sony G-Lens and a large F2.0 aperture. Powering it at the backend is a discrete Sony BIONZ for mobile image processing engine. It is capable of shooting both HDR photos and video, along with a burst mode that can capture 61 frames in just 2 seconds. The camera app also incorporates a lot of the features and functions that you will recognise from Sony's camera range. This includes a Superior Auto setting that automatically sets the optimal shot settings through intelligent scene recognition. It also includes a very cool AR setting that kids, especially, will love.



As you can see from Rex Dupain photo samples below, the Xperia Z1 delivers outstanding results, particularly in normal lighting situations. Its low-light performance is very good as well, with its larger sensor pixels and large aperture taking full advantage of the available light on offer. It also has a built-in LED flash as well, although the new dual-LED flash on the iPhone 5s beats it out for more natural looking flash photography. Overall, though, there is a lot to like about the extensive settings options and shooting power of the Xperia Z1. If the quality of your smartphone photos is important to you, the Xperia Z1 will deliver outstanding results in a wide range of shooting contexts.





[Photos copyright Rex Dupain, courtesy of the Josef Leibovic Gallery, shot on the Sony Xperia Z1]


Performance

The Sony Xperia Z1 is one of the fastest smartphones on the market courtesy of its Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip clocked at 2.26 GHz. Thankfully, Sony's light customization of the Android 4.2.2 'Jelly Bean' operating system helps to ensure that the user experience is slick and stutter free. We already saw the benefits of this combination in our full review of the larger Xperia Z Ultra, which was one of the first volume smartphones to ship with Qualcomm's flagship chipset. It immediately took the Xperia Z Ultra to the front of the Android pack, well and truly outpacing the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, which run what has become Qualcomm's mid-range Snapdragon 600 chipset.



When it comes to mobile processors, the 1.3GHz dual-core Apple A7 64-bit chip in the iPhone 5s is the new benchmark, with an architecture that surpasses the best that Qualcomm is currently able to offer. However, the 32-bit 2.26GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 in the Xperia Z1 remains very powerful and outguns the Apple A7 in multi-core benchmarks thanks to its quad-cores, high clock speed and powerful Adreno 330 graphics. The Apple A7 scores particularly well in the single-core Geekbench 3 cross-platform CPU test scoring 1078 against a score multi-core score of 1934, while the 2.26GHz Snapdragon 800 chip in the Sony Xperia Z1 returns a single-core score of 900, but takes the lead with 2657 in the multi-core score. In the cross-platform 3D FutureMark Ice Storm Extreme graphics test, the Sony Xperia Z1 with its next-generation Adreno 330 GPU bests iPhone 5s in GPU performance with a score of 11925 against a score of 10038.




Connectivity

The Xperia Z1 offers 4G LTE cellular connectivity on multiple bands with different models catering to certain markets and networks. Wi-Fi support extends to the latest 802.11ac standard, while it remains backwards compatible with 802.11a/b/g/n. Sony has also built in support for Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA and Bluetooth 4.0. Additional connectivity options include support for MHL and USB 2.0. Further, Sony is also a big backer of NFC technology, with the company releasing in excess of 60 products over 2013 that are capable of pairing with the Xperia Z1 with one touch. If you have already bought into the Sony product experience, the Xperia Z1 will naturally slot right into your ecosystem.




Software

Of all the Android makers on the market, Sony's light customization of the Android operating system is by far the easiest to live with on a daily basis. Most of the added functionality that Sony has built into the device come in the form of apps. This is great from an end-user perspective as it puts Sony in a position to roll out firmware updates to its devices more quickly than other manufacturers who have taken a much more heavy hand to their Android customizations. It also means that Sony can independently roll out feature updates to its apps on a separate schedule, boosting functionality and adding features without leaving you consigned to waiting for a larger system update.



Sony-specific apps that come preinstalled on the Xperia Z1 include the a Walkman music app, Movies app, Album app as well as Sony Select, which is Sony's own curated app store. There are additional Sony branded apps on the Android app store that can extend the functionality of its built-in apps including Sony Music Unlimited and Sony Video Unlimited subscription content services. The only surprise is that Sony doesn't build in the latter two as standard, as it would help encourage its users to purchase Sony entertainment content directly from Sony itself - however, the choice to install them is certainly welcome. The customized Sony app that users will use the most is clearly the Camera app, which fans of Sony's cameras will feel instantly comfortable with.




Final thoughts

The Sony Xperia Z1 is an excellent smartphone that offers best in class performance in several key categories. It packs the best processor you can get in an Android device leaving you with a device that will still be powerful and relevant at the end of your two-year contract, or longer depending on your individual circumstances. It has outstanding build quality, is very well designed with a premium fit and finish, while offers great flexibility thanks to its water and dust resistance. The Xperia Z1 camera is also the best that Sony has ever put in a smartphone and will, for all intents and purposes, succeed in replacing your typical point and shoot camera. Its extra-large battery helps to ensure that you can take advantage of its power-user features without fear of running low on charge.

If you are in the market for a high-end Android smartphone, it's hard to go past the Sony Xperia Z1. Overall, it offers excellent performance, great usable features, plus access to Sony's extensive entertainment ecosystem. While it is not the most compact or svelte device on the market, Sony has concentrated on packing in as much proprietary technology from across its extensive technology portfolio to help differentiate the Xperia Z1 from its competition. It's a no brainer pick over the Samsung Galaxy S4 for both build quality and performance, while it matches the HTC One in the style stakes. The LG G2 probably offers a better overall display and it shares the same Snapdragon 800 chipset; however, it has reverted to a disappointing all-plastic build. Right now though, the Xperia Z1 is the best overall Android smartphone on the market.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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