Sony might be a household name when it comes televisions and audio products but in the smartphone segment, they are only just getting their foot in the door. They did have their fair share of success in their first solo outing (after ditching Ericsson) in the form of the Xperia S, Go, Sola and the Ion. 2013 didn’t really start off too well for Sony however as despite being the first to announce and launch this year’s flagship droids, the response from the market was strictly lukewarm at best. The Xperia Z was a striking phone no doubt, but many niggling issues held it back from reaching the success and fame Samsung’s Galaxy phones do.
Rather than just sitting tight and waiting for next year’s refresh, Sony went back to the drawing board with all the feedback and six months later, we have a refreshed flagship with the Xperia Z1. With a solid spec sheet and familiar design principles, is this enough to keep Sony fans happy without requiring another ‘flagship’ for the holidays? Let’s find out.
Design and Build
The Xperia Z1 may look like the Z from pictures but in reality, is brand new. The main chassis is built using a unibody aluminium frame which makes it feel a lot more rigid than the old model. It’s also gotten a bit of heft but it’s something we can live with. At 170g, the Z1 feels solid to hold and the slight increase in depth (now 8.5mm) gives a much better grip. The notification light is not built into the earpiece and is flanked by the 2MP camera and array of sensors. All the ports are covered by flaps which comply with the IP58 certification. We have a microSD, microUSB and microSIM slots along with the volume rocker, power button and a new addition in the form of a dedicated shutter button. The Z1 is a serious camera phone so adding a manual shutter button was a logical choice.
A good looker
The speaker and mouthpiece are placed in a wide grille at the bottom and a lanyard is thrown in as well for good measure. Around the back, we have the 20.7MP sensor and Sony’s G lens array for better optics. Sony has taken a beating when it comes to their smartphone optics, especially the high-end droids so we’re hoping the infusion of their Cybershot tech would save the day. The front and back are both protected by a screen guard which holds the glass in place in case it shatters. More than scratches, it’s the fingerprints you need to worry about as it goes from mirror finish to greasy in seconds.
Aluminium frame is a lot sturdier compared to Sony's previous offerings
We’re happy with what Sony has achieved with the Z1 in terms of design. There’s no overdose of chrome accents nor have they fallen prey to make the world’s slimmest phone. You’re left with a very comfortable smartphone with premium looks to back up the high price tag.
We’re happy to report that the dull, lifeless screen of the Z has been ditched for the Triluminos display we first saw on the Z Ultra. The brightness and colour contrast gets a huge boost and doesn’t seem washed out or faded in any way. The 5-inch Full HD display gives you ample screen real estate for browsing and watching videos. Sunlight legibility is awful, however, as it’s almost impossible to see anything on the display on a clear day and the sun beating down. In terms of software, we have Jelly Bean 4.2.2 and Sony’s tweaked Xperia skin which made its debut in the Z Ultra. The skin looks the same but there are added elements like toggle switches in the notification bar, a new options menu in the app drawer and few changes to the settings and loading screens. All of this works very smoothly without any lag. There are a couple of ‘small apps’ which can be accessed via the third onscreen button. You can add more from the Play store as well.
A familiar look
The Z1 is powered by Qalcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 800 SoC. This consists of four cores capable of running up to 2.2GHz. Add to this 2GB of RAM and we’re looking at some very smooth UI and app performance. Looking at some benchmarks, we got a pretty impressive 16151 points in 3DMark Ice Store Unlimited benchmark and 28435 in AnTuTu.
As powerful as it gets
While you should really take these number with a pinch of salt, it’s safe to say that the Z1 packs in one of the most powerful chipsets out there and is ready for even the most demanding games. However, with great power comes heating issues and the Z1 is no stranger to this. Fire up Google Maps or the camera and you’ll feel the Z1 quickly heat up around the back.
The Walkman music player is very similar to the ones we’ve seen in the past and so is the video player. There are some new animations but apart from this, nothing’s really changed much. Audio quality is good through headphones and mercifully, the speaker volume is a lot louder compared to the Z and the Z Ultra. It’s not something you’d use to watch a movie but will suffice for alerts. The ClearAudio+ enhancement adds a nice punch to your music. You could also fine tune your audio through a 5-band graphic equaliser along with features such as Clear Stereo, Clear phase, xLOUD and Dynamic normaliser.
Good media capabilities
The video player won’t read WMV, FLV and some AVI files, but everything else, including MKV files, works just fine. There’s 16GB of onboard memory, which is expandable to 64GB via microSD card. Out of this, you get about 11.7GB for your media.
The Indian version of the Z1 will not support LTE but you do get full quad-band 3G and GSM support. There’s also Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac with Wi-Fi Direct and hotspot functionality, USB 2.0 and OTG support, Bluetooth v4.0, NFC, GPS and GLONASS. The good news is that Sony has fixed the earpiece issue that plagued the Z and Z Ultra. The echoing effect has gone leaving you with good audio reception even in noisy environments. Along with Google apps, Sony has thrown in a couple extras of their own like Sony Select, Sociallife, Video Unlimited (doesn’t work in India), TrackID, McAfee and their task automation app called Smart Connect.
The screen is a lot more vivid this time compared to the Z
This is Sony’s pièce de résistance as the Z1 packs in a massive 20.7MP 1/2.3-inch sensor and Sony’s G lens which is typically used in their point-and-shoot cameras. Digging a little deeper reveals a 27mm wide angle lens with an aperture of f/2.0. All of this comes together very well given the ideal lighting conditions. The Z1 loves macros as you can see from the sample images. Colours and texture are captured in great detail even when zoomed in all the way.
Gorgeous from every angle
The same goes for landscape shots. However, as the light dims, the performance starts taking a downward spiral. The shot of the cat was taken at roughly 7PM. You’ll notice that the details are a bit fuzzy and not very sharp. We tried this in burst and normal mode to negate any hand shake but this is the best we could get. At night, the Z1 still manages good macros with very little to no noise but anything with multiple light sources and the sensor goes crazy. There’s a whole lot of colour noise which just ruins the entire picture. It’s quite sad that Sony still hasn’t managed to crack good low-light pictures on their phones.
Captures excellent detail in macros
Good macro performance even without sun light
Details get a little hazy in low-light
Macros don't have any noise even without any light
Low-light landscape shots get shot to hell
The new interface is quite slick and easy to use and there are some new options added as well, like Timeshift burst, AR effect, Info-eye and Social live. Timeshift burst is impressive as it takes about 62 images the moment you release the shutter. You can see the AR effect in action in our video below. Info-eye lets you scan business cards and save all the details directly to your contacts or get more information on books and wines by pointing it at specific areas on the object. Finally, Social live lets you broadcast whatever you’re shooting live to your Facebook timeline.
The Z1 ran through our 8-hour loop test with 26 per cent battery to spare. This is with STAMINA mode turned off. Given the powerful chipset onboard, the larger 3000mAh battery will easily last you an entire day even with heavy usage.
Verdict and Price in India
With the Z1 retailing online for Rs 41,700, it’s hands-down a better option than the Xperia Z Ultra and worth the premium over the Xperia Z. Within the Xperia family, the Z1 is Sony’s best offering yet as it fixes most of the nagging issues from its predecessor, which is always a good thing. The Z1 excels in the media department, is waterproof and dustproof, has a powerful chipset and good battery life. The new camera is also pretty impressive for macros but fails miserably in low-light, which is a real disappointment considering all the hype around its imaging prowess. It does have some very interesting apps for the camera though, so we’ll give Sony credit for that. The heating issue and the poor sunlight legibility are the other two major niggles we had with the phone.
Overall, the Z1 is a marked improvement over its predecessor and we would recommed this as an upgrade to the Z. Choosing between this and the LG G2, however, poses a very tough dilemma which will be resolved shortly once we're done testing the latter, so stay tuned.
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