Sony and T-Mobile's Xperia Z1s is a breath of fresh air amid an increasingly stale smartphone market
It was the Xperia Z, released early last summer as a T-Mobile exclusive, that drew my attention to Sony. It was the company’s first high-profile smartphone to hit US shelves, and it was radically different from its competitors — with Sony’s exciting and fresh design language, polished UI, and superb production quality, the Xperia Z (quietly) put the rest of 2013’s Android flagships to shame, and I called its release a watershed moment for Sony here in the states.
With the Xperia Z1s, Sony has followed up in a big way, and it’s now clearer than ever that the US smartphone market has a serious new player.
The Xperia Z1s, first introduced earlier this month at CES, might not be the flashiest smartphone on the market. It may not ship with the longest list of features, or with the most powerful and future-proofed specs. You won’t see a flood of marketing hit the airwaves anytime soon, nor will you see Xperia billboards high above Times Square. But in its own reserved way, Sony and T-Mobile have quietly released one of the best smartphones on the market today.
Inside this review: Hardware | Software | Cameras | Bottom line | Xperia Z1s forums
Xperia Z1s Hardware: What's on the outside
Sony has sharpened its design language over the past two years into a clean, simple, and eye-catching formula: like other Xperias before it, the Z1s is a black slab monolith, with sharp corners, clean surfaces, and a premium finish. The Xperia Z1s is a sharp smartphone, and though its design hasn’t changed much since the Xperia Z, it still remains one of the most handsome you’ll find on a smartphone.
The Xperia Z1s is crafted from plastic rather than glass, which means it’s a bit more durable than the Xperia Z albeit a bit less premium. Its rear surface is a smooth and reflective black sheet, while its perimeter is an amalgam of matte black and glossy silver. Though the corners are sharp, the edges are curved just enough to make the Z1s comfortable to hold in one hand.
On the top of the Z1s you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack; the right side houses the power button, volume rocker, camera shutter and SIM card tray, while the left side houses the microSD slot, microUSB charger and two-pin magnetic charging mechanism. A long mono speaker can be found on the bottom of the device, capable of high volume yet largely limited in depth and clarity. It’s good, but not great.
The Xperia Z1s is fully waterproof, and not in the casual “water resistant sense” — it’s submersible up to 1.5 meters of freshwater for up to 30 minutes. This isn’t only great for the accident-prone, but also for enthusiasts who want to snap underwater photos, as the Z1s remains fully functional while submerged.
The Xperia Z1s display is five inches of full 1080p goodness. It uses Sony’s “TRILUMINOS” technology to achieve what’s marketed as the “widest color spectrum ever offered on a smartphone display,” as well as X-Reality, a mobile engine that selectively analyzes and processes images to reduce noise and optimize contrast, color and texture. Sony has also given the Z1s an OptiContrast panel, which eliminates the sensor layer and integrates it directly into the lens for less reflection and clearer viewing.
So what does all that technology mean in everyday use? For starters, this is one of the brightest displays you’ll find on a smartphone today. It looks superb in direct sunlight, and it remains readable and vivid even at 25 percent and 50 percent brightness. It’s also sharp and detailed thanks to its 441 ppi pixel density.
But it’s not perfect. The X1s suffers from truly terrible viewing angles, and colors tend to appear washed out and faded. And though whites are incredibly bright, blacks aren’t nearly as deep as they are on AMOLED and even LCD displays. Removing the preinstalled screen protector helps to some degree, but it doesn’t remedy the problems entirely. Some might also be turned off by the Xperia Z1s’ large bezel, though I liked the room it gave my fingers to rest on while viewing movies and other multimedia.
What's on the inside
Sony struck a nice balance between beauty and brains with the Xperia Z1s, equipping it with a Snapdragon 800 MSM8974 processor and 2 GB of RAM. The combo is more than enough to keep things speeding along, and I’ve yet to throw the Z1s a curveball it couldn’t handle.
Not only does the Z1s chug through things like game play, video editing, and multitasking with agility, but it also does so with stamina. Thanks to its incredible 3,000 mAh nonremovable battery, the Z1s can run for hours on end without a charge. I was able to make it though a full day of moderate to heavy usage with juice to spare, and when I played my cards right, I was able to easily coast into the next morning. Results vary, as you’ve seen in other reviews of the Z1s, so be sure to spend some time tweaking the device’s thorough power management settings. Rest assured, though, that those who aren’t playing 1080p videos on a loop for hours on end will find the Z1s’ battery more than sufficient.
Perhaps what’s most exciting about Sony’s recent evolution isn’t its superb hardware alone, but also its focus on a clean, lightweight, and cohesive UI. Sony’s user experience has tightened with each Xperia release, and here on the Z1s, running atop Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, it strikes a beautiful balance of fun and function.
Holistically speaking, Xperia UI is gorgeous. It’s playful without seeming silly, incorporating themes of blue, red, orange and green amid a mostly light palette. There aren’t any cartoonish sounds or visual effects here, yet it’s noticeably more welcoming than stock Android. Sony has clearly put a lot of thought into its UI, realizing that more and more consumers are looking beyond a smartphone’s exterior.
Xperia UI is lightweight, sacrificing the laundry list of overwrought features we’ve seen from Samsung and LG to maintain a level of usability and simplicity. Whereas competitors are creating custom apps and experiences for their smartphones, it seems as though Sony is simply linking its already existing features to its Xperia devices.
- Both the Playstation Network and Playstation Mobile are here, bridging the gap between your console and your mobile device. The Playstation Network puts all of your Playstation’s social features in the palm of your hand – stay in touch with friends, keep an eye on the leader board, and connect directly to your PS4 using this app. Playstation Mobile is where you’ll be able to download Playstation games optimized for your smartphone and play them on the go.
- Smart Connect brings all of your Sony products under one umbrella, and automates your devices based on how you use them. Connect your Xperia Z1s using NFC to your Sony-enabled television, camera, headphones or console to streamline all of the devices into one cohesive experience. Once connected, you’ll be able to automate each device directly from the Z1s based on time of day or location.
- You’ll find movies and TV from Sony Entertainment in the Video Unlimited app, where you’ll be able to browse, purchase, and stream content directly to you Z1s. There are cheaper alteratives out there like Netflix, Hulu, and even Google Play, though Video Unlimited features some exclusive titles that could be worth the extra dollar or two. You’ll be able to share this content from your Z1s to your Sony television if you’re so inclined.
- Walkman, one of Sony’s most recognizable brands, is present here in the form of a superb music player. It’s great for listening to your own collection as you’ll have access to Sony’s ClearAudio+ optimization software, which increases the bass and clarity of your music. It’s also great for exploring new music through Sony Unlimited, the company’s $9.99/month answer to Rdio and Spotify. Its collection isn’t as robust as its competition but again, its seamless integration with Sony televisions and Playstations may be worth the membership alone.
- Socialife News is Sony’s (poorly-named) answer to HTC’s Blinkfeed – it collects news, videos, photos and social updates based on your preferences and aggregates them in an attractive, easy-to-navigate app. Similarly, the Xperia Lounge is a beta app that contains mostly Sony-specific content, though I’m hoping that it will expand to other sources once the app exits its beta stage.
Most of the hype around the Xperia Z1s is centered on its camera, which Sony is calling one of the best on the market. Sony’s reputation in the imaging world is unmatched, so high expectations for the Z1s’ shooter aren’t unfair, especially given its spec sheet: with 20.7 megapixels, a 1/2.3” Exmor RS sensor, Sony’s G Lens and Bionz image processing engine, we were expecting some truly stellar results.
Unfortunately, the Z1s doesn’t always live up to its hype.
Like the Z1 (and its identical camera) before it, the Z1s produces a mixed bag of stellar and not-so-stellar shots. In good lighting, you’ll find that the Z1s produces well balanced, rich, and detailed shots. I found the colors to be balanced and vibrant without seeming unnatural, and photos were sharp and detailed even when zoomed or cropped. I was really impressed with the Z1s’ macro shots, which are some of the best I’ve ever seen from a smartphone camera.
It’s in low light where the Z1s stumbles. I found Bionz processor to be overeager in compensating low light, producing noisy images with inaccurate colors and a washed out finish. The LED flash here is quite good, though, so at least that alleviates some of the disappointment.
In terms of video quality, you've got full 1080p here with Sony's stellar SteadShot -- results were as good as you'll find on a smartphone today.
Though I was let down at times by the Z1s photos, I was never bored with its camera app. You’ll find that the Z1s is a downright blast to shoot photos and video with, and its handful of shooting options can be played with to create some truly interesting results. And with a dedicated shutter button, the Z1s has almost everything you need to replace your point and shoot.
Stick with Super Auto shooting for the Bionz processor to choose the perfect settings for the scene. If you’re brave enough, try playing with the Manual setting for control over exposure and white balance and access to scenes like Softskin, Night, Sports, Party, and Snow. There’s even a scene specifically designed for capturing photos of your food. Switch over to Picture effect for filters, or to Sweep Panorama for a simple-to-use stitcher. Then there’s Info-eye, which provides helpful popup information based on what you’ve captured in your viewfinder.
The most fun of all the Z1s’ shooting features has to be the Background Defocus mode. It’ll pick out the forefront of your photo and give the background a bokeh effect that can look like DSLR quality. It works the best in ideal lighting and when your subject is well defined from its background.
Call me an Xperia convert. As a longtime fan of HTC, I’ve used the One as my personal device for months now, and though I’ve used the S4, Note 3, Moto X, G2 and various BlackBerry and iPhones extensively, I’ve never been tempted to jump ship. Until now.
Sony has done something very exciting with its Xperia line by making smartphones that are exciting while still remaining familiar. The Z1s doesn’t look or feel like any of its competitors, and that’s a good thing. It’s a breath of fresh air among an increasingly stale smartphone market.
The Z1s’ design is striking and unique, and its UI is empowering without being overbearing. I love the display, despite its quirks, and the Z1s’ battery life is some of the best I’ve ever encountered. And though the camera stumbles in low light, it’s fun to use and capable of producing some really great results.
I’m excited to see the next fruit of T-Mobile and Sony’s partnership, which is quickly shaping up to be the most productive in the mobile industry today. We’re in the middle of a renaissance for both companies, and Xperia’s future is finally bright both abroad and here in the United States.
- Gorgeous design
- Waterproof, dustproof
- Comfortable one-handed usage
- Bright and beautiful display
- Fun-to-use camera
- Lightweight and useful UI
- Low-light photo quality is lacking
- Display suffers from poor viewing angles
- Speaker is tinny and sounds hollow