Review: Sony Xperia Z1

Jamie Feltham
November 3, 2013

The advertising campaign for the Xperia Z1 calls it ‘the best of Sony in a smartphone’. But what does that really mean? What is the best of Sony? The Japanese company makes a lot more than just phones these days, and the Z1 is supposed to take its expertise in other areas like cameras and gaming and fit them into a new handset.

[alert type=alert-blue]DESIGN[/alert]

The Xperia Z1 stands out from other high-end phones thanks to its size and basic design.

Obviously, it’s a big phone with a 5 inch display, which makes it about the same size as a Samsung Galaxy phone. This is much larger than we’re used to with most handsets. We’d call it a phablet, but the company already has one of those with the Xperia Z Ultra. While this gives the screen plenty of space, it also takes up a lot of room in your pocket. If a 5 inch display sounds too big for you then you’ll want to wait for the recently-announced Z1 mini. That said, Sony has managed to keep the phone very thin, measuring at 8.5 mm.

Every surface on the Xperia Z1 is completely flat, and the corners are at 95 degree angles. Compared to old Xperias that featured a light bar on the bottom it looks basic. Even the home buttons have been moved from their usual place at the bottom of the phone and put onto the screen. That’s not a bad thing as the simple design is attractive. The black model that we used has silver strips at the side that look cool and the glass casing makes the phone shine and look very expensive. Despite this, Sony says the phone is both dust and water resistant.

Sony has also managed to hide most of the ports to keep the phone looking simple. The SIM, microUSB and microSD slots are all hidden away behind covers in the side that can easily be removed. Only the headphone jack is left exposed at the top, as well as the power, volume and camera buttons that sit at the side. The buttons have all be downsized a little so that they don’t stand out but are still easy to press.

[alert type=alert-blue]PERFORMANCE DISPLAY[/alert]

The Xperia Z1 has a Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor, which is top of the range in current smartphones. It runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, so there are plenty of apps and games available to put the phone to the test. You’ll be able to play any game from the Play Store on this phone without any issues with their framerate or loading times.

Loading other apps like Twitter and Facebook takes less than five seconds, and you will be able to have lots of apps running at once without the phone slowing down. It will occasionally start to get a little hot when you’re running processor-hungry games or using lots of programs at once, but it’s never as much as an issue as it is with other powerhouse phones like the LG G2.

In terms of storage, the Xperia Z1 has 16GB of free space available, which is common in most high-end phones. We’d have liked the option for a 32GB model as most companies offer this size too, but you can expand the space all the way up to 64GB with your own microSD card.

We’ve already mentioned that the phone has a big display, so apps and games are never cramped on the screen. The phone supports a crisp 1080p resolution, so all the apps you run will look vibrant and videos are very detailed.

[alert type=alert-blue]SOFTWARE[/alert]

Built-in software is an area where the Z1 really shines. Sony has made a big deal about the Walkman, Movies and Games apps that are included with the phone, and for good reason.

Just like how Android phones link up with Google accounts, Sony’s phone will also link you up with your Sony Entertainment Network account. You’re likely to already have one of these if you’ve ever used a PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, or shopped at one of the company’s digital stores for music or movies.

This makes the phone very accessible. We loaded up the movies app and were surprised to find TV shows and films that we had bought in the past ready to be downloaded and viewed on the phone. The same goes for the Walkman app which will remember any music you’ve previously bought from the company and have it ready to play. If you have Sony’s Music Unlimited streaming service then it’s good to go here.

The PlayStation Mobile app is perhaps one area where the company could be doing better. Mobile is essentially another store filled with small games that can be shared between a phone and a PlayStation Vita handheld system. Any games you buy here will be stored within the app itself and not available through the phone’s menu, which makes them a hassle to manage. There are some great titles available through the app, but we wish they were more accessible. The company is also yet to add some of its own franchises like Uncharted and God of War to the store, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Not every addition is welcome, however. There’s an app named Sony Select which is little more than a recommendations service that links you to the Play Store. It’s been built into the phone’s home menu, but given that the Store itself has recommendations on the front page, it only gets in the way when browsing.

[alert type=alert-blue]CAMERA AND AUDIO[/alert]

The Z1 is fitted with a 20.7MP rear-facing camera, which takes highly-detailed images. It’s not the best smartphone camera on the market thanks to the Lumia 1020’s incredible 41MP snapper, but it gets very close.

It’s able to take images with colours that are true to life and show up on the phone’s screen as crystal clear. You’re even able to zoom into an image very closely before it starts showing any blur. We took photos in both low-lightning conditions and outside and found the camera to perform accurately. Built-in flash helps make indoor snaps show up.

There are a few issues when it comes to video recording, like slow image focussing. The camera struggled to quickly adapt to moving images, leaving a lot of objects blurred for a few seconds. Videos taken in areas with low lighting also had a yellowish tinge to them. But the camera uses the full size of the screen to cram in a lot of footage.

Much like with movies and music, the phone has an album app that links to facebook, flickr and even searches nearby devices to bring all of your images under one hub.

The phone’s speakers are very powerful, but Sony has fitted them to the very bottom of the device. This means that if you are viewing any videos with the phone held in a landscape position, your hand will cover the speakers. This makes it hard to recommend the Z1 as a video viewing device, which is a shame given the excellent display.

[alert type=alert-blue]BATTERY[/alert]

The 3000 mAh battery inside the Z1 is top of the range, but still can’t support a smartphone this powerful for very long. Using the Z1 as a general use phone throughout the day with plenty of phone calls and web browsing will run the battery flat in about seven hours. The battery icon at the top of the screen ticks down at an alarming rate. At one point, we unplugged the phone from full charge, and saw it hit 99% within two minutes of using it.

Sony has built in a lot of customisable settings to help you get the most out of the battery. You’re able to turn off the wi-fi and mobile data as soon as the phone’s screen goes to sleep and there’s even a mode that automatically conserves power when the battery gets low. It’s good to have these options but even with them all switched on it drains too fast. Charging will only take about three hours however.

[alert type=alert-blue]CONCLUSION[/alert]

So, what does ‘the best of Sony’ mean? Based on the Z1, it’s seemingly a few things. First, some excellent software that borrows from the company’s other divisions to make the Z1 one of the most accessible phones on the market. Next is the camera, which is second only to the Lumia 1020’s. Throw in a sleek design and powerful performance, and it would seem that Sony has a lot of strengths.

But the company also has a few weaknesses. The Z1 manages to drain a powerful battery very quickly and is a bit bigger than we’d like for a smartphone. But the pros of the Z1 far outweigh the cons, making for Sony’s best effort in the smartphone industry for a while.

About the Author

Jamie Feltham

Videogamer, music listener, squash player, exerciser, technology journalister. Multimedia journalism graduate, writing for the What Mobile mag and website

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