Ever since Sony bought off Ericsson’s stake in their handset business, Sony Ericsson, Sony CEO Kaz Hirai has been actively pushing the notion of ‘One Sony’ that would amalgamate the knowhow of various divisions of the electronics behemoth into every product that sports the company’s branding. The Xperia Z launched earlier this year was the beginning of the “One Sony-ness” and the Xperia Z1 marks the first true device that brings out the best of Sony. So the Xperia Z1 gets the Triluminous Display and X-Reality image and video processing from the Bravia team while the 20.7-megapixel camera gets the F/2.0 G Lens, Bionz image processing and Exmor RS sensor from the Cyber-shot division. Learning from its Japanese smartphone division, like the Xperia Z, even the Xperia Z1 is waterproof though it takes it a step further with users no longer needing to cover the 3.5mm headset port anymore. The company is marketing the Xperia Z1 as the “Best of Sony” but is it really the best Android smartphone out there?
In terms of design, the Xperia Z1 is not a vast departure from the Xperia Z that it replaces as Sony’s flagship Android smartphone. The Z1 retains most of the elements I liked about its predecessor including the tempered glass back – the all glass and metal finish not only looks but also feels premium and top-notch. The trademark power button on the right side remains and so do the flap covered micro-USB charging port, SIM card slot and microSD card slot. Thankfully, the headset jack no longer has a flap to cover it.
While most of the design is the same, there are a few welcome changes. Sony has added an aluminum frame that according to it makes the phone sturdier. There is a dedicated two-stage camera button that can also switch on the camera even if the phone is locked, which is something I believe every smartphone should have, especially those with good cameras. The edges have also been rounded off a bit, so holding the phone is comfortable. That was a serious gripe I had with the Xperia Z’s design.
However, in order to house the bigger camera sensor and battery, Sony had to increase the size of the Xperia Z1, which is now a bit taller, wider and thicker than the Xperia Z. It also weighs more – 170 grams against 146 grams. While personally I like my phones to be on the chunkier side, the Xperia Z1 pushes it slightly too far. The bezel on top and bottom of the display are extra wide, which gets accentuated even further since Sony’s UI has onscreen menu buttons rather than going for dedicated buttons below the display. While the top part is covered with Sony’s branding, the lower bezel sticks out as a dead space. There is absolutely nothing happening there.
To give an idea, the Galaxy Note 3 is just 7mm taller than the Xperia Z1 but houses a 5.7-inch display compared to the Xperia Z1’s 5-inch display. The excessive bezel on the bottom also makes it difficult to reach close to the top edge of the display and makes one-handed use difficult. But it is a matter of getting used to and I don’t see it as something that could be the deal maker or breaker.
Sony had always been a generation behind competition when it came to core hardware specs. The Xperia Z, for instance, was running Qualcomm’s S4 Pro chipset while competing products were running Snapdragon 600 or its equivalent. The Xperia Z1 changes that trend, hopefully for good. It runs on the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset that is the best silicon one can ask for at this time. It is coupled with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage of which 11.79GB is available to users.
Then there is the 5-inch 1080p Triluminous display with X-Reality engine. Sony’s Triluminous technology works by tweaking the backlighting (sony calls it intelligent backlighting) to what it claims would offer more color shades and textures. While all these marketing terms might sound fancy on paper, the stark reality is that the quality of display hasn’t changed much and most of the issues that plagued the Xperia Z’s display are very much at play here too. My review unit had a noticeable yellow tinge to it and the viewing angles are almost non-existent for a smartphone that costs nearly Rs 45,000. Unless you are looking at the display straight on, colors would appear washed out. The display continues to be Sony’s weak point, something it needs to fix if it wants to compete with the flagship Samsung smartphone and increasingly even LG.
The biggest reason why anyone would go for the Xperia Z1, however, is its camera. The 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor is the biggest you’d get on an Android smartphone and only the Lumia 1020 offers something bigger. The 20.7-megapixel camera also boasts a F/2.0 G Lens and Bionz image processing. But these marketing jargons are as good as the actual performance.
Like Nokia’s Lumia 1020, even here you’d end up shooting mostly 8-megapixel shots than anything close to 20.7-megapixels as Sony too is going for over-sampling for sharper shots in the auto-mode or what Sony calls the ‘Superior Auto’ mode. Unfortunately, there is nothing superior about the auto mode and it is a hit and miss affair. Under daylight conditions you will get great shots, but that you would typically get with any smartphone at this price segment. The auto-mode falls short of expectations in low light conditions. Photographs often turn out extremely noisy as the system pumps up the ISO to really high levels while at other times it gets the white balance wrong and the colors appear washed out.
However, that is something to do with Sony’s processing software than the hardware itself. Step into the manual mode where one can change the ISO and white balance settings and the camera dazzles. The results are often close to that of the Lumia 1020, which is saying a lot. I believe Sony should look into the software bit and probably release a patch to fix the ‘Superior Auto’ mode.
The Xperia Z1 runs on Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2 with its own skin on top. The skin is similar to what we have seen on earlier Xperia smartphones with the curtain drawer homescreen. Unlike the past where Sony made minimal changes, it has added a few tweaks which come in very handy. So the top notification drawer gets quick toggles for frequently used settings like data connectivity, brightness, Wi-Fi, hotspot, NFC, GPS and so on. In the apps menu, swiping from the left edge of the display brings in a new menu that lets you categorize which apps you’d want to see, search for installed apps, uninstall apps and a shortcut to the Play store among other options.
My favorite tweak, however, are these “mini apps” (applets?), which can be found in the multitasking menu. Essentially you can have a web browser, a calculator, a stopwatch and even a voice recorder, which would pop out in a tiny window on top of any screen where you might be. This is similar to what Samsung has done on the Note 3 with the “Pen Window” option that lets you draw a box anywhere on the display and summon some limited apps to function within that window.
Qualcomm has been having a dream run this year. First its Snapdragon 600 powered most Android smartphone flagships in the early part of the year and now the Snapdragon 800 is at hand for the crucial Holiday season. Almost every Android flagship this year is rocking the Snapdragon 800 chipset and it does not disappoint on the Xperia Z1. It is the best performing chipset I have seen on any smartphone with good battery backup, no dropped calls and can take almost any processor intensive task you throw at it. In this regard, the Xperia Z1 is as good as it gets.
I could easily get an entire day’s use from the Xperia Z1’s 3,000mAh battery. A 100 percent charge would last me for approximately 20 hours with two hours of calls, four hours of web browsing and two email accounts, a Twitter and Facebook account all set to receive push notifications. I had both 3G and Wi-Fi turned on at all times, with most of the web browsing happening on the 3G network. One thing worth pointing out is that the battery drain is minimal overnight when the phone is not in use. Unlike most Android smartphones, the Xperia Z1 even survived with just 5 percent battery left overnight.
I have already touched upon the camera performance, which is great in manual mode but is not exceptional in auto mode. One thing I love about the Xperia Z1 is it being waterproof. You won’t have to think twice before using the phone while you get caught in rain outside or even when your hands are wet. It is a huge benefit to have, especially for expensive devices like this. I remember having paid to get a smartphone under warranty fixed one summer because of “liquid damage” likely caused by sweat. The speaker, however, continues to be tinny and placed at the bottom of the phone where it gets muffled all the time.
Like the Xperia, even the Xperia Z1 is a mixed bag. At Rs 44,990, the Xperia Z1 does play its part as a premium smartphone. If you are among the ones who knows how to tweak camera settings to get a great shot, this is the best Android camphone you could possibly get. But you will have to live with the poor quality display, which is something I personally won’t sacrifice since you’d interact more with the display for everything than the camera.
If you can overlook the display aspect, the Xperia Z1 has everything going for it. Premium looks, a camera that takes great shots in manual mode and the satisfaction of it being waterproof. For good measure, Sony is also bundling in a portable power bank and is also providing accidental damage cover that includes cover for broken display.
Photos: Harshita Rastogi