As we’ve mentioned earlier, September 2013 was a milestone month as far as smartphones are concerned, and saw flagship launches from the likes of Samsung, Sony, LG and Apple. Sony’s latest flagship, the Xperia Z1 (aka the Honami) was part of the elite bunch, and had been twirling the interwebs for quite a while before it was finally unveiled at IFA in Germany, and landed on Indian store shelves in a matter of a few weeks. Just goes to show how important the Indian market has become to most smartphone manufacturers.
The Xperia Z1’s headlining feature is its astonishing camera that boasts a 20.7-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor and comes with a Sony G lens (with 27mm wide angle and f/2.0 aperture), along with the BIONZ image processing engine. These are class-leading specs, and if you ignore Nokia’s Lumia 1020 (the device that turned the smartphone megapixel war on its head with its 41-megapixel sensor), these are the most mind-boggling camera capabilities we’ve seen on a smartphone yet. These aside, the Xperia Z1 is also loaded with top-notch specs and useful features, including resistance to both dust and water, similar to its siblings. Without further ado, here’s the complete lowdown of how the device fares.
Design and Hardware
The Xperia Z1 uses Sony’s OmniBalance design methodology as seen previously on the Xperia Z, the Xperia Tablet Z and the Xperia Z Ultra. It features a flat, blocky industrial design that doesn’t involve too many curves. On one hand, the design has now matured to a point where it feels quite familiar, but on the other, perhaps it’s bordering on becoming stale. Using a common set of design elements and following the same design strategy for too long may not work well in the long run, as we’ve seen with Samsung’s Galaxy range earlier. The Xperia Z1 doesn’t look drastically different as compared to the Xperia Z, and that can’t be a good thing. This is one of the factors why the Z1 probably won’t serve as a great upgrade for existing Xperia Z owners, class-leading shooting capabilities notwithstanding.
While the Xperia Z was a tad uncomfortable to hold, thankfully the Z1 is much better in that respect, thanks to an aluminum frame that holds the tempered glass front and back together. The metal frame also makes the phone look a tad better, and imparts a sturdier feel to it. Since the Xperia Z1 is dust- and water-resistant, you’ll find most ports (all except the 3.5mm audio socket) covered with rubber-lined tabs. The microSD and microUSB ports are placed on the left, while the micro-SIM slot is on the right. The right is also home to a circular power button placed in the center, bearing a machined metal finish quite similar to the one on the Xperia Z. Below it is the volume rocker, and a new addition — a dedicated shutter release key to complement that snapper. The audio socket is on top, and the phone speaker is placed at the bottom. Proceedings at the front are dominated by the 5-inch screen, and since the three Android keys are implemented as software overlays, you won’t find any other keys on the fascia. Above the screen, you’ll find a Sony logo, the sensors and the front-facing snapper, along with a small earpiece grille crammed between the point where the glass meets the frame. A notification LED is cleverly hidden within it. Flip the device over and you’ll be greeted by a circular camera lens placed on the top left corner, accompanied by an LED flash. And then you’ll find some more logos carrying NFC, Sony and Xperia branding as well. Overall, it’s an understated, yet elegant design, and you can get it in black, white or purple.
Sony has stuck with a 5-inch screen on the Z1, the same size as the Xperia Z, and as is apt for a flagship, it offers a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. With a pixel density of 441 ppi, it also boasts Sony’s display enhancements including Triluminos and X-Reality tech.
The Xperia Z’s display was a tad underwhelming and while we’d like to say that the Z1 has improved considerably, that isn’t the case sadly. Don’t get us wrong — the Z1’s display is stunning to look at, displays great colors and crisp graphics, but tends to lose its sheen the moment it’s turned sideways. Suffice it to say that viewing angles aren’t its strong point, but since in most cases you’d see it straight on, there’s not too much reason to worry (or crib, in our case). However, this is so apparent that it tends to become a bone of contention, especially when we’re talking about a flagship product that features superior enhancement technologies and comes from a company known for making awesome displays.
We highlighted the camera specs earlier, and it really doesn’t get better than this as far as any smartphone platform is concerned, barring Windows Phone. Mind-boggling specs apart, the Xperia Z1’s camera also gets a very handy two-step hardware key on the right, capable of waking the device from slumber and firing up the camera app directly. The app itself is fairly loaded and packs in a smorgasbord of features — the only way to complement those awesome hardware specs. By default, it shoots in Superior Auto mode, and optimizes camera settings automatically depending upon shooting conditions. This mode shoots stills at a resolution of 8-megapixels, using a downsampling technique similar to the one used by the Nokia Lumia 1020. To shoot in full 20.7-meg resolution, you need to switch to Manual mode, which also opens up access to quite a few other settings and tweaks.
The camera UI uses plugins and extensions, again very similar to the lenses concept used by Windows Phone, and by default, includes modes like Timeshift Burst, Picture Effect, Sweep Panorama, AR effect, Info-Eye and Social Live. The Timeshift Burst mode shoots 61 stills in just about 2 seconds, including a second before you actually hit the shutter, and one second after that. Then it displays a fan-shaped carousel of captured shots, and you can run your finger through them to view your subject like an animated flip album, and choose the shot you like best. AR effect throws in virtual characters and objects into your shots, while Info-Eye displays additional info about the objects you shoot, recognizing monuments, QR codes, business cards etc.
Looks great on paper, but how does it actually fare? The Xperia Z1’s snapper takes great shots, especially in good lighting, and some decent shots in low light as well, despite the noise that does tend to creep in. The same goes for full HD videos. However, there is a slight bit of inconsistency in low light shots, especially if you stick to the default Superior Auto mode. Sony’s image-processing algorithms utilized by the camera seem to be culprit here, since switching to Manual mode and tweaking settings takes care of the iffiness involved. It’s clear that the Z1’s snapper is in a league of its own, especially as far as hardware is concerned, but maybe needs a software patch to iron out the tiny niggles. Maybe we’re reading too much into this, but it’s worth pointing out since the camera is really the hero feature here. That said, it’s not really a deal killer and the camera should keep most users happy.
Running Android 4.2.2, the Sony Xperia Z1 sports a skinned UI not too different from what we’ve seen on its siblings. It’s not as overpowering as Samsung’s TouchWiz or LG’s skin, but still, brings a fair amount of UI tweaks and enhancements. The windows blinds lockscreen animation is still there, but a new addition is a sidebar that slides out from the left of the app drawer, and lets you search installed apps, uninstall them and sort them in different ways, apart from giving you direct access to the Google Play Store. Sony’s ‘small apps‘ are also back and can be accessed via the task manager. These run as floating windows atop apps currently running, the list includes a browser, notes, timer, calculator and voice recorder. More can be added to the existing list via the Play Store, and widgets can be turned into small apps as well.
The notification bar includes a set of shortcuts and connectivity toggles, and this can be customized as per your own preferences. If you jump into the main device settings, you’ll find a few notable additions including Xperia Connectivity that aggregates a bunch of connectivity options such as screen mirroring, media server settings etc. In addition, you’ll find a slew of themes under Personalization, power management tools, along with sound and display enhancement settings placed under the corresponding heads. Again, worth pointing out that these aren’t as loaded as what you’d see in a flagship Samsung or an LG — which could be a big plus or a downer depending upon how you look at it.
As is typical of Sony, the device is loaded up to its gills with a plethora of pre-loaded apps and content offerings. Apart from Sony’s signature Walkman, Album and Movies app that bring their own set of features and enhancements, there’s Sony Music, Sony LIV, Sony’s own app storefront dubbed Sony Select, TrackID, McAfee Security, OfficeSuite, Flipkart eBooks, Magisto video editor, X4 Video Player and a file manager… apart from a few others. As you can fathom, it’s a fairly loaded set of software that’s ready to get you going straight out of the box, but some may view it as bloatware and prefer to use their own choice of apps instead.
Performance and battery life
The Sony Xperia Z1 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800, a quad-core chip clocked at 2.2GHz and includes 2GB of RAM and Adreno 330 graphics. After using it for a few days, it’s easy to see why this SoC is the darling of flagship Android phones. When it comes to performance, it really doesn’t get better than this at the moment, and it translates into great real-world usage experience. Phrases like ‘smooth and speedy performance’ tend to lose their meaning, because real-world usage is really top-notch. Apps and games load in a jiffy, the animations run on ball bearings and multi-tasking is a dream. We tried a few intensive games such as Dead Trigger and Riptide GP2 as well, and the graphics were as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Has to be said that the true potential of Android comes to the fore because of this, and the overall experience rises to a different level altogether.
The Xperia Z1 comes with 16GB of built-in storage. Approximately 12GB is available for use, but you can add more by making use of the microSD slot. The highly useful USB On-the-Go feature is also supported, and other connectivity options include dual-band Wi-Fi, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi hotspot, A-GPS and NFC. The sealed 3,000 mAh battery comfortably lasted us a full working day, and it can even be stretched into the second day if you’re frugal with your usage and use the built-in Stamina and power-saving modes properly. Call quality was good too and the built-in speaker is satisfactory — no complaints there.
It isn’t easy to pass judgment on a premium flagship device such as the Sony Xperia Z1, since the potential buyer’s mindset could vary drastically in this price segment. The Xperia Z1 is priced at Rs 44,990 (~ $725), and that’s not cheap by any means. However, considering that most flagships these days are priced above Rs 40,000, and keeping in mind the Z1’s top-notch hardware specs and loaded features, we don’t think that the pricing is unjustified. We’ll also need to keep in mind that when a person is ready to spend that kind of money on a phone, he or she has pretty much all the options open, and may not be averse to spending a few grand more, given a few good reasons. The whole definition of ‘value for money‘ changes at these price segments and the buyer is not just expecting the best out there in terms of performance, camera, screen quality, features and battery life, he or she is also looking for a device that carries a reputed brand name and can be flaunted in front of friends, peers and colleagues. And we can safely say that the Xperia Z1 scores highly on most points.
Our single biggest gripe with it is the screen’s relatively poor viewing angles, and to a small extent, a design that doesn’t vary drastically from its predecessor. But these apart, it comes across as an elegant-looking device that offers superb performance, a very capable camera, good battery life, great features and loaded software capabilities. It’s also worth pointing out (again), how useful its resistance to dust and water is, having the potential to change usage scenarios drastically — using it in the rain for example. Or just feeling more relaxed while placing the phone next to a glassful of water (or beer, if you identify with it better). It’s such a useful feature that it can tilt the balance in the Xperia Z1’s favor for quite a few users on its own, and we feel every handset manufacturer should seriously think about it and bring it to each of their premium (if not all) devices to make it a level playing field. Not beating about the bush anymore, we can heartily recommend the Sony Xperia Z1 to anyone in the market for a premium smartphone — a device that should definitely be amongst the top five in your list of options when you do decide to make that outlay.