I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this phone for some time now. Since Sony bought out the Ericsson side of things, it seems as if they have listened to the gripes customers have had with their mobile products. Every time over the last few years, when I used a Sony smartphone, I was always left feeling that something was missing. Sony were never ahead of the game, it always felt like they were trying to catch up.

They have now started to produce some really high end phones. If you look at the spec sheet for the Z1 it ticks all the boxes. From the latest Snapdragon processor, 20.7MP camera, 1080p screen and 3000mAh battery it’s hard to find anything that Sony has left out. They have also reworked the skin that they place on top of Android making it a lot less clunky and incorporated many features you see in custom launchers.

Sony are trying to sell this phone based on hardware features rather than software. If you check out the product page on Sony’s website for the Z1 you have to dig very hard to find a mention of Android. The only one we could find was on the specs page and even then there was no mention of their custom skin. This is a marked change in their approach. The Xperia UI was once one of the main features that was advertised by Sony. It was also one of the most criticised.

So after spending some time with the Z1 how does it measure up against other high end phones in it’s class? Let’s take a deeper look.

Design and Construction

Sony have tweaked the design a little from the Xperia Z. It’s still a large, mainly black, monolith. The chassis is now steel with rounded edges which improves  the feel of the device greatly in hand compared to the sharp edges of the Xperia Z. On the left side you have the volume rocker, on/ off switch, a dedicated shutter button and a flap that covers the SIM tray. The SIM tray is one of the flimsiest designs I’ve ever come across in any device. It’s wafer thin but it is something that thankfully should not be accessed too regularly by most.

On the other side there is two more flaps for the microSD card and micro USB connection. There is also a proprietary dock connector on the middle of the device.

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The speaker sits at the bottom of the device with the 3.5mm headset jack at the top. The top left corner on the back of the device houses the 20.7MP camera and flash which we’ll cover more later. It’s location though does leave it prone to you placing one of your fingers right over it when holding the phone in landscape to take a picture. If you press and hold the dedicated shutter button while the phone is asleep, it unlocks the device and launches the camera app in about a second.

Overall dimensions of 144 x 74 x 8.5 mm make this a pretty thin but overall, it’s a large device in hand.

The front and back of the phone are fingerprint magnets. Especially the back. If smudges on your precious annoy you, prepare to be doing a lot of cleaning. The device we’re using is a review unit provided by Sony and while I’m sure it has been around the houses at this stage, the back is already showing light scratches and scuff marks. It certainly seems like it will not stand the test of time well so you’ll need to pick up some sort of protective case with it if you’re getting one.

Another big selling point for the Z1 is its IP58 rating for dust and water resistance. It will supposedly protect the phone in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes which in real world terms means if you get caught out in a bad shower or drop the phone in a pool it should be fine.

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Screen

The screen is a 1080p, 5″ “TRILUMINOS”, lcd panel. The Z1 uses on screen keys for Home, Back and Multitasking rather than capacitive buttons below the screen. What this means for the user is that you are only effectively getting a screen size of about 4.65 inches. Why Sony has chose to go this way, I’m not sure. There is about a 20mm section at the bottom of the screen that could have housed hardwired buttons quite easily and freed up the whole 5 inches for people to use. After all, if you are buying a phone that is heading towards the larger end of the scale dimension wise, due to the large screen size, it would be nice to be able to fully utilise that extra screen real estate.

One of the issues previous Sony phones have suffered badly with was viewing angles. The Z1 improves on this but it’s still not perfect. To improve it you need to jack up the brightness which then washes the colours out. When you hold the screen in front of you there is a very limited window for getting the viewing angle spot on. If you tilt the top of the phone towards you even 5 degrees the screen takes on a warm colour. Tilt the top away from you and the bottom towards you and the screen takes on a cold colour appearance. It’s really noticeable on white background/ black text websites to the point that when you are scrolling with your thumb and the phone is just gently moving in your hand because of it, the screen appears to be changing colour ever so slightly.

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As you’d expect with a 1080p screen, text looks ultra sharp. It has allowed Sony to use incredibly thin fonts throughout the UI and it looks great.

High definition video is one area where the screen and the incredible processing power of the Snapdragon 800, Adreno 330 GPU and X-Reality software within come in to their own. Compared next to the iPhone 5 and the HTC One, all playing the same clip, the images that the Z1 can produce show a noticeable level of increased detail. It’s especially noticeable while watching HD YouTube clips with the HTC and the iPhone looking distinctly blurred compared to the Z1. The combination of Sony’s image processing experience and the high end specs of the phone are put to great use here.

Overall the screen is one of the best I’ve seen on any Sony device so far. It presents text beautifully and is great for watching movies. It’s just a shame about the viewing angles.

Speaker

The speaker is acceptably loud but lacking in any bass. As it’s situated in the traditional area at the bottom of the device, your hands will cover it when holding the phone in landscape. HTC and some other manufacturers have set the standard with dual front facing speakers and if you have experienced the difference that makes, not having it on a device will leave you feeling like there is something missing.

Battery

The Z1 comes with one of the largest capacity batteries available in a smartphone of it’s size. The 3000mAh, non-removable battery was enough to see us through a whole day of heavy usage and still have about 30% battery left when plugging it in at night. Sony has bundled several power saving options in the Power Management settings which perform in a similar manner to Apps like Juice Defender by turning off data connections while the screen is off. If you can live without push notifications and are happy to just get an update when the screen is on, you’ll easily push two full days out of this battery. Just like every phone is this category, when the screen is on, you are straight away using a considerable amount of energy, the majority of the power savings are all gained from reducing the background activities of the phone while the screen is off.

One thing to keep in mind with such a large battery is the amount of time it will take to charge. The wall charger that is included is rated for 1.5 Amps output which means you’ll be looking at about 2 hours for a full charge, which is fine, but if you use a standard USB port on a computer you’ll be looking at anything up to 6 hours to get to 100%.

UI, Android and included Apps

The Z1 comes out of the box running Android 4.2.2. While you’d always like to see flagship devices running the latest version of Android, it doesn’t have much impact to the overall experience on the Z1. Sony have recently announced that Android 4.3 is coming soon to the Z1 and KitKat is in the works for a new year release.

As I mentioned in my intro above, Sony has removed a lot of the bloat from their custom UI and with the added power under the hood now the whole system flies. In the few days we’ve been using the Z1 we haven’t noticed any lag or stuttering whatsoever. The UI now has more of the feel of a third party launcher such as Apex rather than the sluggish launchers we’ve seen from Sony in the past. Animations are fast and smooth and while you mightn’t have the level of customisability that you’d have with a third party launcher, it’s great to see companies like Sony listening to their customers and streamlining the experience rather than adding unnecessary clutter.

There are many useful features that Sony has added to the launcher that you will actually use. When you open the multitasking pane there is a row of icons at the bottom that allows you to open certain Apps in an overlay fashion. A resizable and movable window opens on top of whatever screen you are currently viewing, allowing you to use the App while still being able to interact with the initial screen you were on. If you drag the window to the bottom of the screen it minimizes into a floating icon and can be maximised again by swiping it up. It’s very useful for performing web searches for example while reading an email, saving you the hassle of having switching between Apps. Sony have included a list of Apps such as a calculator, a notes App, voice recorder and screen capture tool that are best suited to this function but you can add any App you like. It is a similar idea to the multi window option Samsung introduced but for me, Sony have implemented it in a much better way. It’s fast and fluid and as I mentioned, it’s something you would use rather than just being a gimmick.

In the App tray you have multiple options for sorting what way Apps appear. A settings menu slides out if you swipe your finger from the left edge of the screen giving you access to search, uninstall, sort alphabetically, sort manually, by most used, by user installed Apps and also gives shortcuts for both Google’s Play Store and Sony Select for App discovery.

One area where there is a lot of clutter though is in the pure amount of pre-installed, non-removable Sony Apps. Out of the box I counted 17 Apps installed by Sony. It’s certainly the most I have seen on any device and while some of them are useful and add some cool features, making them non-removable without rooting is sure to annoy some.

Benchmarks

Considering its internals, it’s no surprise that the Z1 produces some outstanding scores in the standard suite of benchmarks available for Android. Linpack regularly returned scores approaching 1000 Mflops with Quadrant giving a score of 21316 and AnTuTu showing a pretty impressive 33745. Needless to say this is one of the fastest Android phones we’ve ever tested.

Connectivity

The Z1 has pretty much has all the bases covered when it comes to connectivity. Specs include 42Mbps HSPA+, 150Mbps LTE, Bluetooth v4.0 with A2DP, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot, MHL support, USB On-the-go, NFC, GPS with A-GPS support and GLONASS. Basically everything.

On our 150/10Mbps WiFi connection in the office the phone was achieving speeds of around 95Mbps down and 8Mbps up. The signal strength indicator was always showing lower than other devices on the network but I’d say this is more of an issue with the way it is reported than actual signal strength as we didn’t experience any performance issues over WiFi.

Call quality was excellent and people reported that we sounded clear on the other end with little background noise. We didn’t get a chance to test the phone on a 4G network while we had it but on a HSPA+ connection it was achieving comparable speeds to similar devices on the same network.

Memory and Storage

The phone comes with 2GBs of RAM and 16GBs of internal storage. The system has about 4GBs of that storage reserved leaving the user with around 12GBs of free space. The phone also supports microSD cards up to 64GBs in size.

Camera

The camera App has the feel of a dedicated point and shoot when you are using it. There’s several easy to access settings and features and of course you have a physical shutter button which isn’t very common on smartphones. Beyond all of the specs and features though, where I feel the Z1 excels is in its ability to take some great shots straight out of the pocket with little need to go adjusting those finer settings.  The headline of course will be the high pixel count but, especially in smartphones, that doesn’t always mean better pictures.

While the phone is capable of shooting 20.7MP images, if you leave the camera in it’s default auto mode, it will shoot pictures in an 8MP landscape format. That might sound like quite a drop in resolution but in real world terms, you’d find it difficult to tell the difference between two photos taken at either resolution, unless you zoomed in. The 20.7MP image obviously has a lot more available detail for zooming or cropping but in a zoomed out view that you see on the phone or even on a monitor, they both look great. It also helps keep the file size down as the higher resolution images we took were all in the 8 to 10MB size range. Images have a very natural appearance with colours on the neutral side.

Other than Auto and Manual some of the other modes available are Info-Eye which tries to provide you info on where you are and what you are looking at from the web, Social Live which lets you live stream to a Facebook account, Timeshift Burst which is a mode that takes a series of images before and after you hit the shutter allowing you to pick the best image, AR Effect which adds an augmented reality animation over the image you are looking at (kids will love this one, dinosaurs, fish, butterflies and fairytale characters roaming around the picture!), Picture effects and Sweep Panorama.

Conclusion

There’s very few phones available in the Irish market right now that can tick as many boxes as the Z1 can. It pretty much has the best camera available on any Android device right now. The phone absolutely flys through just about every task you can throw at it and has enough battery capacity to get you through the day. The only thing holding it back from sitting at the top is the screen. At the rate Sony are releasing new models and addressing previous weak points it shouldn’t be too long before we are reviewing a Sony smartphone that’s setting the standard for the rest.