Xperia Z1

After three months and a succession of software updates, what do we really think of Sony’s Xperia Z1?

The past year has been a pivotal one for Sony Mobile. After meandering through 2012 with a less than memorable product lineup, Sony introduced some of its strongest devices in 2013, along with a revamped design language. Among these was the company’s most impressive phone to date, the Xperia Z1, announced at the IFA conference in Berlin September and released shortly afterwards. The Z1 wasn’t a revolutionary change compared to the Xperia Z, Sony’s early-2013 standard-bearer, but it finally nailed a few important areas of the smartphone experience — specifically performance, battery life and camera.

I’ve been using the Z1 regularly over the past three months, and I’ve found that over the course of three successive software updates it’s become an even better phone than it was at launch. That said, some bugbears remain, and unfortunately many of them are longstanding issues common to Sony’s Xperia lineup.

Join us after the break for our long-term thoughts on the Sony Xperia Z1.

Xperia Z1

An unashamedly large phone

The Xperia Z1 is a great big slab of a phone.

Let’s get this out of the way — the Xperia Z1 is still sort of a brick. It’s a gigantic, blocky phone that’s as heavy as you’d expect given its glass and metal construction. It’s also got enormous bezels around its already sizeable 5-inch display. And the chunky, angular design does nothing for its ergonomics. But this is the design language Sony has settled on, and after four iterations of this design it seems it’s here to stay. That’s not to say the Z1 is horrible to hold and use — it’s certainly an improvement over its predecessor — but it takes some getting used to, especially if you’re coming from a smaller phone.

The pint-sized Xperia Z1 Compact solves these issues by downsizing to a 4.3-inch display while keeping the bigger version’s high-end internals — so at least there’s an alternative out there for those who find the full-size Z1 too unwieldy.

On the other hand, the Z1’s heft makes it feels substantial, unlike some lighter plastic phones we could mention. And that extra space also allows Sony to pack in an ample 3,000mAh battery, giving the phone enviable longevity.

Xperia Z1

New hardware, old problems

Sony's plasticky fixed screen protectors can be maddening.

We’d be remiss in not mentioning the couple of frustrating issues typical of Sony phones that continue to affect the Z1. First up are the slightly maddening fixed screen protectors used on all Xperia phones. Sony’s gotten better at making these less conspicuous in recent years, but the fact remains that with a plastic sheet covering both sides, you’ve got a glass-fronted, glass-backed phone that feels like plastic. What’s more, you can feel the rough edges of this film if you run your finger along the edge of the display. And the plastic coverings scratch more easily than the reinforced glass used in many smartphones. And they seem to impact touch sensitivity, too. The user experience is just worse all-round because of their presence.

You've got a glass-clad phone that feels like plastic.

(As an aside: you can remove the fixed screen protectors — though we don’t recommend this, and neither does Sony. You’ll lose the various bits of branding on the front and back — these are printed on the plastic, not the glass — and the oleophobic layer is applied to the screen protectors too, so the bare glass below will very easily get gunked up.)

So why does Sony continue to fit these screen protectors? At the CES 2014 show the company told us it’s intended as a shatterproof layer to keep everything intact in case of screen breakage — which is a nice idea. But if your screen breaks, your device is basically dead anyway. Compromising such a crucial part of the phone’s in-hand feel for slightly less catastrophic breakage just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile trade-off.

Xperia Z1Xperia Z1

Then there’s the fact that Sony just isn't great at smartphone displays. The Z1’s 1080p screen, with its lofty “Triluminos” monicker, looks pretty good when viewed straight-on. But drift even slightly to the left or right and things very quickly become washed-out. Though improved from Xperias Z, T and S, the Z1’s display still has pretty bad viewing angles.

It's bizarre that in 2014 Sony is still struggling with viewing angles.

Things show signs of improving with the Z1 Compact, which uses a considerably nicer-looking IPS panel — but it’s just bizarre that Sony, with its long history in televisions and other displays, has taken this long to get smartphone screens right.

Elsewhere Sony’s still using plastic flaps to protect all its various ports — a necessity for a waterproof smartphone. Thankfully unlike the Z, the Z1’s headphones jack isn’t behind a plastic door, removing one regular annoyance. The microUSB connector is still behind one of these sealed ports, but as an alternative you can use the Z1’s magnetic charging port with the official Sony charging dock, which works great. It’s probably as close as we’re going to get to having a waterproof smartphone without any real compromises.

(And on the subject of ports, it is indeed possible for them to come detached if they're open and being moved around in a bag or pocket, as I discovered while tethering in a CES press conference. Reinserting them is simple enough, if you're able to track down the tiny, loose piece of plastic. If not, replacements are readily available on eBay, and they're really easy to re-fit.)

I’ve dedicated a lot of words to nitpicking here, so let’s wrap up by saying that neither the plastic screen protectors nor the display are deal-breakingly bad. But they’re distinct areas of weakness that Sony could very easily avoid.

Xperia Z1

An updated and improved Z1

In our original review of the Xperia Z1 we highlighted a pretty nasty software bug that we ran into not once but twice during our testing. On forums this has become known as the “black screen of death” or “sleep of death,” and apparently it’s affected a number of Xperia devices in recent years. It goes something like this — after going to sleep the phone’s display will fail to power on again, permanently. A hard reset fixes the problem, but we had to perform a factory reset to get up and running again. (A nasty bug to have slipped through the net, but hey, we’ve seen worse.) Fortunately the first firmware update for the Z1 fixed this issue, and brought improvements to the Z1’s camera and battery performance too.

The first update for the Z1 fixed a bunch of issues, while improving the camera and battery life.

Back in September we found that the Z1’s camera was great at times but unreliable on occasion — autofocus could be janky, and the camera had a tendency to keep the shutter open for way too long in low-light scenes, leading to motion-blurred shots. The first (October) software update for the Z1 fixed both issues, and as we’ll discuss a little later, the Xperia Z1 now comfortably ranks among the best Android cameraphones out there.

Camera app

Onto battery performance, and on the original firmware we got a respectable 11 or so hours of mixed heavy use out of the Z1 before reaching the low battery warning level. Subsequent firmware updates have improved the Z1’s battery life significantly, and on the current Android 4.3-based ROM it’s not just good but really great. Using the Z1 on 4G LTE at CES 2014 — a punishing gauntlet for smartphone batteries — I never had to worry about a mid-day charge, even without using the Z1’s “stamina mode,” which cuts down background data when the screen is off.

Elsewhere, the phone is just a bit snappier on Android 4.3 than 4.2. And Sony has continued to add more features through app updates and new stuff on the Google Play Store, such as system-wide themes and new camera shooting modes.

Sony’s Xperia UI might not be as easy on the eyes as stock Android 4.4 or HTC Sense, but at least it’s well-designed, inoffensive and fast. I'm not the biggest user of Sony's content ecosystem, which comes preloaded on the Z1, but I've found other software features like the wide array of power management settings to be useful, as I have the fine control Sony's audio options gives you over music playback. And yes, Sony's X-Reality image enhancer might blow out colors a little and make everything look bright and shiny, but there's no denying it also makes photos captured by the Z1 look considerably better on its display.

One of the best Android phone cameras

Considered as a whole, the Z1’s camera performs admirably.

With the initial camera gripes fixed through software updates, I’ve found the Xperia Z1 to be one of the best Android cameraphones out there. It isn’t perfect in all situations — Sony’s camera app still likes to over-process things a little, and it’s clear that OIS (optical image stabilization) would greatly benefit things by allowing the shutter to remain open longer (and ISO to be reduced) in night shots. But considered as a whole, the Z1’s camera performs admirably — and crucially, both startup and shutter lag are effectively nonexistent.

The camera is a 20.7-megapixel unit behind a Sony G lens, which might seem like overkill for a smartphone, but the Z1 takes 8-megapixel shots by default, so there’s a good amount of oversampling going on. This gives you clearer shots fully zoomed out, while also allowing you to zoom in on a particular area without getting a blurry mess. (Look out for a few of these in the sample gallery.)

Camera

Sony’s camera app is designed for tinkerers and fast snappers alike. The Superior Auto setting — the default when jumping into the app via a shortcut key — will usually do a good job of working out what type of scene you’re shooting and switching scene modes accordingly. But there’s a smorgasbord of settings to tweak and tinker with if you jump into manual mode, and that’s before you even get to the Sony’s array of plugin apps, such as Timeshift Burst and Sweep Panorama.

And I’ve found the dedicated camera key to be useful, too — though mainly as a shortcut to the camera app rather than a replacement for the on-screen shutter key.

Here’s a quick selection of a couple dozen shots from the Z1 taken over the past couple of months. Not every image turns out this good, and often you have to take a few exposures to get one really great shot. But it's clear that this thing’s ceiling for image quality is impressively high.

Release cycles

Xperia buyers at the high end often have only six months or so before their phone is obsoleted.

Right now the Xperia Z1 is a little over four months old, and we’re already looking at the prospect of an Xperia Z2 launching at Mobile World Congress in February. See, Sony likes to release two flagships per year, which leaves consumers buying the company’s phones, often on multi-year contracts, in a difficult situation. That means Xperia buyers at the high end often have only six months or so before their phone is obsoleted, a dilemma they don’t have to deal with if they’re buying from Sony’s competitors, who typically operate on a yearly cycle.

Xperia family

Sure, the Xperia Z1 will be just as good when the Z2 comes along, but it’ll also slip down a place on Sony’s update priority list, a fate which has already befallen the barely year-old Xperia Z. Then there’s the fact that Sony is already being outpaced by the likes of HTC, Samsung and Motorola when it comes to Android OS updates. (Sony still has no specific timeframe for bringing the Z1 up to KitKat.)

There’s no perfect solution to this problem — clearly Sony thinks more phones are better than fewer, and if it aligns its phone releases to the availability of fancy new internal hardware, then that’s a competitive advantage. But it leaves owners of existing Xperias in a challenging situation when it comes time for the half-yearly refresh.

Xperia family

Sony’s best phone yet — but there’s still room for improvement

The Xperia Z1’s strengths perfectly mirror the Nexus 5’s weaknesses

The Xperia Z1 is Sony’s best phone yet, and still one of the better Android phones available today. Jumping between it and the Nexus 5 in recent months has been a curious experience, because as it turns out the Z1’s strengths perfectly mirror the Nexus’s weaknesses. It delivers fantastic battery life and a really great camera experience, two areas where the N5 has failed to impress. And with an attractive design and speedy hardware, it’s still worth your cash, even with its funky screen and plasticky-feeling glass.

The question of whether to buy a Z1 now is a little tricky, given that we’re probably around a month away from the launch of Sony’s next flagship phone. It’s possible to pick one up SIM-free for a little over £400, which is a good deal less than you’ll pay for whatever’s next. But if you’re buying on contract, you may want to wait the extra month and get the upgraded hardware. Similarly, if the Z1’s enormous size isn’t for you, the smaller but equally capable Z1 Compact is definitely worth a look.

Sony turned a corner in 2013 with some really great hardware.

Sony turned a corner in 2013, with some really great hardware and a foothold in the U.S. market through T-Mobile. In 2014 we'll be looking for the company to build on the strengths of the Z1 — the superb camera and excellent battery life — while cutting back on what makes it less enjoyable — the sheer bulk, subpar display and tacky, plastic screen protectors. Sony Mobile is already off to a solid start with the Z1 Compact, and there's no question that the company is in a stronger position now than it was a year ago. Nevertheless, the smartphone market is notoriously cutthroat, and new challengers from HTC and Samsung in the coming months aren't to be underestimated.