Hands-on with Sony's Xperia Z1: 'Sony is throwing everything at this phone'

Sony are hoping their new flagship smartphone will be the best Android device out there, David Phelan gets a hands-on with the handset to find out if it's got a chance.

David Phelan
Wednesday 04 September 2013 16:17

For months now, there’s been a buzz in the world of technology that Sony was about to release a mobile phone that would be a giant leap forward compared to its rivals and its own previous phones. “Sony is throwing everything at this phone,” those in the know would cryptically hint.

When the Sony Xperia Z arrived at the beginning of the year, many thought that was it. Or that the svelte, huge-screened Xperia Z Ultra was the one. But no. Today at IFA, the electronics trade show in Berlin, Sony Mobile announced the Xperia Z1.

This is the one they were talking about. Is it any good? After all, there are a number of impressive phones on the market to choose from. Initially I was unsure – does the world need another phone with a big five-inch display? I’ve spent some days with the first Z1 allowed outside Sony property to put it through its paces.

The software first: Sony’s take on Android is elegant and subtle with discreet icons and plenty of special elements like TrackID – Sony’s version of Shazam – and its entertainment download store.

But it’s the hardware’s features, some of which are genuinely groundbreaking, that stand out.

At first glance, it’s very similar to the Xperia Z, though a touch bigger in every direction – which is worrying as the Z was quite big enough, thank you. The same design language is evident here: glass front and back, matte frame and engraved power button gleaming on the side.

But look more closely and this is clearly a phone that’s much classier than its predecessor. Where the Z had slightly sharp sides, the Z1 boasts chamfered edges that are smooth and comfortable, disguising the bigger dimensions: this phone doesn’t seem significantly bigger and in fact feels better in the hand.

Chamfered edges and a solid consrtuction means that the 5-inch display doesn't feel like too much of a handful.

The screen is similar to the Z, too, a 5in Full HD display that makes use of Sony’s TV-making knowhow and has Triluminos X-Reality for Mobile, which just means it’s designed to enhance photos and videos – useful for upscaling YouTube content for instance. Sony’s supplied video looks breathtaking on this screen: rich, sumptuous and bright with realistic colours that avoid being over-saturated.

Also like the earlier Xperia Z and Z Ultra devices, this is a waterproof phone, so texting in the bath is a breeze (though the screen won’t work underwater if you drop it, butterfingers). Don’t be put off by the fact that there’s no flap to protect the headphone socket from water. It doesn’t need one. Sony has made it waterproof and flapless – an acknowledgement that too many flaps can be fiddly. You’ll still need to peel one back to put the sim card in or charge the phone through its microUSB socket. But there’s also a magnetic charging connector to avoid this faff.

The full HD screen makes use of Sony's expertise with displays - the colours are bright and sumptuous without becoming unrealistic.

The Xperia Z1 really stands out for its remarkable camera (see below for example pictures). It uses a custom-built sensor that is significantly bigger than most cameraphones can muster, so allowing light to be collected more effectively. And it has a startlingly high resolution – 20.7MP. Nokia’s forthcoming Lumia 1020 has an even higher pixel count (40MP) so cameraphones are suddenly becoming highly capable and Sony won’t have the market to itself.

Still, it’s not all about the pixels. Sony’s digital imaging division has created the phone’s camera, using the same high-quality components found on the Sony HX50 – a compact camera with an advanced sensor. The HX50 delivers mouthwatering results and the initial photos produced on the Xperia Z1 were very impressive.

Snaps from the Z1's 20.7 megapixel lens are impressive.

Like most cameraphones there’s no optical zoom here, but there are enough pixels to mean you can zoom in digitally and still have enough detail to look good. The phone’s Superior Auto camera setting is optimised to an eight-megapixel image, meaning you can zoom in considerably before image quality drops below this resolution, thanks to the exceptional sensor. Manual settings let you scale the heights of 20MP images and these are strikingly rich, though some shutter lag was evident on this setting. And, of course, file sizes increase hugely (from around 2MB to 6MB on sample shots).

There are also PlayStation mobile games included, plus access to the company’s video and audio stores and more. The Xperia Z1 has decent battery life (well, there’s room for it) and a nippy processor ensures there’s no stuttering, whatever you’re doing. This phone is a real all-rounder, so despite my earlier misgivings, it won me round. I’d say it’s the slickest, most powerful Android handset yet.

Even so, it won’t suit everyone: those favouring a smaller piece of glass to press to their ear will be better off with an iPhone 5, HTC One Mini or Nokia Lumia 1020.

Although it’s announced today, the phone will be in shops pretty soon – Sony says later this month.

This week is sure to see mobile phone releases from Samsung and next week will reveal the new iPhone. Competition has never been tougher but Sony’s phone is a contender: sleek, powerful and with an awesome camera.

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