Review: Sony Xperia Z1, The Monolith Returns

Android 4.2 in a 20 Mpx camera phone

Our score: 4/5
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Published: October 10, 2013 9:31 AM
Updated: March 3, 2014 12:53 PM
By Romain Thuret / Axel Mendy
Translated by: Hugh Ehreth
With Tristan François
After the tour de force dubbed Xperia Z that put Sony back on the map for high-end mobile phones, the Japanese brand has returned to claim another piece of the pie with the Xperia Z1. Though a few millimetres larger (144 x 74 x 8.5 mm) and a few grams heavier (170 g), the Z1 reprises the overall visual style of the original Z and has the same 5-inch Full HD display and water- and dust-resistance.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

The biggest changes are on the inside. The Xperia Z1 has a 2.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 mobile quad-core system-on-chip with 2 GB of RAM backing it up. The rear camera has been upgraded to 20.7 Megapixels with a G Lens derived from Sony's Alpha SLRs. The Z1 has 16 GB of storage (expandable via microSD), 4G LTE-compatibility, Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, plus a 3,000 mAh battery.

When the first Z came out last February, we found fault with the screen's contrast and the camera function, both of which were below par for a flagship smartphone of its time. Will the Z1 avoid the same pitfalls? Let's see...
 
Sony Xperia Z1

Design & Handling4/5



When it comes to design, we're in familiar territory. But that's hardly an insult, given how smitten we were with the Xperia Z. We have here another stylish, minimalist monolith with slightly more rounded edges. The USB port and microSD and SIM slots are once again sheltered by protective covers that add to the device's sense of visual uniformity. The only thing that shuns this theme—and it's intentional—is the round, silver ON/OFF button.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

Alas, like its predecessor, this button is poorly placed for the 89% of the world's population that is right-handed. But for the minority, it sits perfectly, right where the index finger falls. As for the headphone output, this time it has no protective cover, as Sony insists the new internal sealing keeps it waterproof.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

Ostensibly, little effort was made to contain the borders surrounding the screen, which measure 1 cm above and below and 5 mm to the left and right of the display, amounting to a good deal of wasted space.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

Glass is once again the material of choice for the front and back. The downside to this stylish choice is that the glass smudges so easily. Also, at a total of 170 grams, this is one of the heaviest high-end smartphones of 2013.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

That, and its large size for a 5-inch screen (the LG G2 is smaller, even though it has a bigger 5.2-inch screen), make the Xperia Z1 yet another atypical smartphone to handle.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

Display3/5



Sony says the Xperia Z1 has a better screen than the Xperia Z. It's an MVA display instead of IPS, and has Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) on a 5-inch surface, making for the same pixel density as the Xperia Z (441 dots per inch). However, this time it features Sony's Triluminos technology—found on several of the brand's monitors and TVs—that supposedly displays "true, natural shades of colour exactly as you see them in the real world". So, does it? Somewhat.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

Statistically speaking, the Xperia Z1's screen is indeed a step up from the Xperia Z's, but it isn't necessarily amazing compared to what other companies are doing right now. The Delta E has happily gone down from 7 to 5.5, the contrast ratio has gone up from 489:1 to 660:1 and the brightness goes up to 500 cd/m². The 13 ms ghosting time and 109 ms touch response delay are slightly higher than on the Xperia Z, but they're still some of the best figures on the market. The viewing angles, on the other hand, are just as narrow in portrait mode as they are on the Xperia Z: the images veers to white and the contrast drops when looked at horizontally, dropping even further when looked at vertically.

With the high pixel density, however, text and images look quite detailed.

Interface & Navigation4/5



On top of Android 4.2.2, Sony used its usual user interface that offers extra customisation features such as resizing for widgets and the ability to choose which desktop acts as the default home screen, all without too heavily adulterating the classic Android experience.
 
sony xperia z1     sony xperia z1

Sony's app bundle is back, with Video Unlimited (an expensive VOD service that has no HD movies), Sony Select and PlayStation Mobile. Sony's effort is commendable, but some of these apps, such as Xperia Privilege and Xperia Lounge, are still quite low on content. The quick settings were also disappointing. Out of the sixteen shortcuts (airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, 4G, Stamina, etc.), only ten can actually be activated. That's quite a step down from the twenty shortcuts found on the Samsung Galaxy S4 and LG G2.

But as far as performance and responsiveness go, the Xperia Z1 is just as good as the LG G2. They do, after all, have the same processor and RAM. And Sony's in-house interface and graphical additions don't appear to slow the Z1 down in any way whatsoever.

Multimedia4/5



Web browsing using either the Wi-Fi or 3G/4G connection is fast and fluid, one of the best on the market, and the Full HD resolution is necessarily a huge plus for enjoying online content.
 
Sony Xperia Z1

The camera function includes X-Reality, a feature designed to let users optimise their SD and HD video content. The video player supports a fairly wide range of file formats, but not quite as many as Samsung or LG's video players.
 
sony xperia z1

Between the Snapdragon 800 processor and Adreno 330 GPU, the Z1 is well-equipped to take on video games. All of the games available on Play Store run smoothly and the Full HD resolution is no obstacle for the Z1. PlayStation Mobile has several extra games, but not all of them are really worth the detour, in our opinion.

The sound quality through the built-in speakers is just as good as the sound through the headphone output. It's clear and has no distortion. The only drawback to the speakers is that they're located along the bottom edge, where your fingers often end up blocking the sound.
 

Battery Life4/5



With a 3,000 mAh battery in its guts, the Xperia Z1 has enough juice behind it not to fall dead in the middle of the day. It trails right behind the LG G2 with around 15 hours of continuous use, which equals out to about two full days of ordinary usage. And that's without Stamina mode on. A full charge takes just over 2½ hours.

Camera3/5



The Xperia Z1's camera uses a G lens and a Bionz image processor, both of which Sony developed for its DSLR cameras. Sony insists that the teaming up of its camera and mobile departments to build the lens has worked wonders, but we're not sure that argument really holds water...
 
Sony Xperia Z1

True, the 20.7 million pixels on the backlit 1/2.3" sensor (all other mobiles have 1/3.2" sensors, except the Nokia Lumia 1020, which has a 1/1.5" sensor) provide more information in the frame and create shots that are rich in detail, but only at the cost of heavy red overtones and graininess. In the best lighting conditions, pictures come out satisfactory, but no real leap has been made here. The picture quality is well below what you get on the Lumia 1020.

In low lighting, the Z1 captures a good amount of detail, but the image isn't as sharp and the noise and red overtones are even heavier. You can tell the image processor is doing its work here, but to no real avail. Snapping the same picture in the same conditions, the LG G2 takes in a bit less light, but makes for a much "cleaner" image overall, albeit with noticeable post-processing.

The Xperia Z1 also uses image processing to reinforce contours; it's not as heavily emphasised than on the Xperia Z, but it still deteriorates the quality of the images, especially when you zoom in, and the quality only gets worse the further you go towards the edges, much more so than on competing smartphone cameras.
 
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But it shoots and focuses quickly, similarly to the Galaxy S4 and G2. In terms of speed and responsiveness, the Z1's camera is great and the interface has been revised with more options and modes. One example is the augmented reality mode, which shows virtual content on the screen—a fun feature for kids.

Full HD 1080p videos (30 fps) are fairly standard with good but not revolutionary image quality. Social Live mode allows users to stream directly onto Facebook and show live comments on videos.
4/5 Sony Xperia Z1 DigitalVersus 2013-10-10 10:31:00

Pros

  • Quality finish / Waterproof & dustproof
  • Sony/Android interface
  • Overall responsiveness
  • Battery life
  • Full HD resolution

Cons

  • Just a rehashed Xperia Z?
  • 20 Mpx camera, but only at the cost of image noise and graininess
  • Narrow viewing angles
  • Big, heavy phone with wide borders

Conclusion

While other companies quickly caught up with and surpassed the Xperia Z, the Xperia Z1 is a great addition to the high-end Android stock, all without outperforming the competition. The camera isn't the leap forward Sony says it is, but the overall smartphone experience is nonetheless fun and effective in a stylish, responsive and powerful smartphone.

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