Z Ultra.

It's big and the hardware is oh-so-sexy, but is it for you?

Just when everyone gave up hope on the rumor that Sony was going to be participating in the Google Play edition program, Google and Sony dropped the Z Ultra GPe right on top of us. Because it was a surprise, the Z Ultra GPe wasn't subject to the weeks (or months) of speculation and dissection that most phones go through before the come to market, but we all have a pretty good idea what to expect based on the Xperia branded Z Ultra and previous Google Play edition devices.

Does the Z Ultra fulfill the dreams and wants of everyone looking for a big Nexus phone? Maybe. It's definitely big, it's just about as Googly stock Android as the Nexus 4 or Nexus 7, and it's absolutely free of extra boot loader security so you can own your phone. That's going to tick all the boxes and satisfy some folks, and they have already made up their minds. 

For the rest of us, read on.

Hardware

if a big phone is what you want you just found one

The Z Ultra is big. Let that sink in a little bit, because unless you've used one you don't understand what I mean when I say big. It's closer in size to the Nexus 7 than it is the Galaxy Note 3, but it's a phone not a tablet. Or it is a tablet and not a phone. Or it's a tablet that is also a phone. We're not going to try and put a label on it, and we're just going to go with really, really big.

For some folks, this is a great thing. For other folks, this will be an instant deal-breaker. It's important enough to start the review off with, because from the first moment you handle it, the size is what you're going to notice. We're not going to knock it based on the size, though we all agree it's too big for any of us. Different strokes for different folks, and if a big phone is what you want you just found one.

Since we're talking about the size, this is a great place to drop the specs for those who are into them.

Specs

specs

  • 6.4-inch 1920 x 1080 Triluminous IPS LCD (342ppi) with Sony's X Reality display software
  • Qualcomm MSM8974 Quad Core 2.2 GHz Snapdragon CPU
  • 179 x 92 x 6.5 mm; 212g
  • 8MP main camera with Exmor RS sensor; 2MP front camera
  • GSM/EDGE/GPRS  — 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
  • 3G  — 850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100 MHz
  • LTE — 700, 850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100, 2600 MHz
  • 16GB Internal storage with microSD card slot
  • 2GB RAM
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac dual-band Wifi
  • NFC with Android Beam
  • Bluetooth 4
  • A-GPS
  • 3,000 mAh Lithium-Polymer battery
  • Full RGB notification LED
  • IP55 dust resistant and IP58 waterproof 
  • Android 4.4 

You will be blown away by the look and design that covers all those specs. Solid sheets of glass adorn both sides, the plastic center has a solid, soft-coated feel, and everything is smooth and rounded. The thinness of the Z Ultra is impressive, and the front and back are free from labels, stickers and other NASCAR-esque decorations. You'll know have a big, well-built and designed piece of phonery in your hands when you pick up the Z Ultra. 

Z Ultra.

You will be blown away by the look and design

That design and all that glass also means it's going to be more prone to accidental damage than other phones, and that is especially worrisome on the Z Ultra because it's awkward to get a good handle on this thing. The rounded sides and slick (via Sony's special polymer built-in screen protector) surfaces offer nowhere to get a good grip. There is a Yin to every Yang.

Every port, button and control you find on every other phone is present, though the layout is slightly different. Because of the sheer size, the power and volume controls are halfway down the right side of the phone. Directly across on the left is a magnetic charging connector, and the speaker is on the bottom right — next to a lanyard or wrist strap anchor point. The placement of the power and volume works well, and because the Z Ultra is a bit tricky to hold sometimes, we reckon more than a few people will take advantage of those lanyard holes.

Z Ultra. Z Ultra.

Higher up on the sides — there's plenty of room here — are the things that require internal access, and would break the IP58 dust and waterproofing. They're covered by flimsy rubber and plastic flaps that feel out of place with the rest of the quality construction. That's not too terrible for the microSD card slot and the SIM tray assembly perched on the right-side, because you're rarely going to be opening the cover. On the left, though, under an equally flimsy flap is the USB and power port. Most people aren't going to buy a charging dock, so I see this as a primary failure point. If you plan to take advantage of the waterproof nature of the Z Ultra, do yourself a favor and buy the magnetic dock or charging cable.

Z Ultra.

Sony's X Reality display and ClearAudio+

Great display hardware deserves great display driver software, and the Z Ultra delivers

You'll need to get past what feel like enormous top and bottom bezels on the front of the Z Ultra. Like the Nexus 7 — with equally giant bezels — they're likely there by design so you have somewhere to hold the device in landscape. We get that, and to be honest usability has to come first and foremost, but they still look comically big. 

Z Ultra.

Between them, you've got a very nice display. The Triluminous 1080p screen offers deep blacks, vivid color and nice wide viewing angles. The colors look and "feel" accurate, and you'll not be noticing any pixels at normal viewing distances. Sony's X Reality engine seems to be doing a fine job, and we're glad to see it as an addition to the software. Great display hardware deserves great display driver software, and the Z Ultra delivers. Even with the giant bezels.

Z Ultra.

ClearAudio+ is another great addition we're happy to see in the software

ClearAudio+ also makes a noticeable difference for the better. A fully customizable equalizer and headphone surround settings are on board, and you'll definitely want to do some adjusting. Playing with the manual settings can do just as much harm as good if you don't know what you're doing, so Sony also offers a one-tap solution to automatically optimize things for listening to music. The default delivers nice audio through the external loudspeaker, and the result is clean, crisp audio and leveling at the cost of some volume. With a good set of headphones your music will rival the iPod for clarity and quality, and the normalizing is excellent to keep everything the same volume between tracks. Another great addition we're happy to see in the software.

Using this big beast

Z Ultra.

Before the recent 4.4.2 software update, the Z Ultra was a mess that I couldn't have recommended to anyone. Glaring bugs like the device security settings crashing, or not being able to uninstall applications made us wonder how the Z Ultra ever made it out the door and available for sale. Thankfully, Sony quickly addressed things and the software is much better. It's still a little unstable sometimes, but it's useable and 4.4.2 runs about as well as it does on the Nexus 7 or the Nexus 5. Like those Nexus devices, it will see speedy updates and small bug fixes during these first months of its life. Usually, they make things better. Google Play edition phones aren't Nexus phones, but they get updated like one.

about me

Toss out the X Reality engine and the ClearAudio+ settings, and you have pretty standard Google flavored Android Kool-Aid. The Nexus 5 specific launcher isn't on board, of course, but as a trade-off you only have one gallery — the Google+ Photos app. Don't worry, the 4.4.2 AOSP gallery app — complete with all the editing functions — works very well if you build and side load it, so this was a business rather than a technical decision. Third party gallery apps also work just fine, and for many are a better solution anyway.

SD card

We also can't talk about a device running Google Android with an SD card without mentioning how things work — or not work. By default, it's up to the application developer to read and write to and from the SD card for data or application storage. Kit Kat introduced even more APIs for this. Android no longer treats the SD card as part of the device storage at a system level. Some applications have been updated to support storage to the SD card, but many have not. Google updated their own Google Play Music app with the latest version to do this, but since it's not an open-source app this doesn't help developers very much or serve as an example. Know going in that using the SD card in conjunction with your favorite app rests in the hands of the app developer. The good news is that folks with the Galaxy S4 Google Play edition have already done the homework, and you can find out which apps use the SD card from them. Hit the forums and ask!

home grid app-grid

The software itself is built for a standard phone, translated to fit on 6.4-inches of real estate. The home screen is a five by five grid with the persistent Google Search bar and dock, and the app drawer is a six by five horizontal scrolling grid. While this is an efficient use of the space for the most part, plenty of applications have a bit too much empty space because of the dot pitch and sheer size of the screen. 

NO CRUSH FOR YOU

Speaking of apps, there are an inordinate number of them not compatible with the Z Ultra on Google Play. Apps that work with the Snapdragon 800 and 1080p display of the Nexus 5 show as not compatible with the Snapdragon 800 and 1080p display of the Z Ultra. Developers need to check and see that things look and work as expected on the jumbotron that is the Z Ultra and add support in the developer console at Google Play when they are. Call it fragmentation or call it choice, but it's something you'll have to deal with at least for a while.

Quick hits:

  • Calls are clear on both ends
  • Bluetooth works as advertised
  • GPS found a signal and locked on just fine, and navigation was accurate while driving
  • External speaker volume is a little low
  • The camera is sub-par

Z Ultra.

That last one is a bit disappointing, given the Exmor sensor. The 8MP shooter also sits a bit too close to the middle of the device, and using it will give you a lot of pictures with your fingers in them. Besides the physical issues, the camera struggles to focus and there are issues with the color and white balance. We expect better in 2013 (soon to be 2014) and from Sony. Hopefully, these are software issues because the camera is really that bad.

camera sample camera sample

Don't buy the Z Ultra for the camera. 

Conclusion

Z Ultra.

I really wish Sony had released the Z1 Google Play edition instead

This is tough, and easy at the same time. For a lot of people, the size makes the Z Ultra a non-starter. It's a polarizing spec, and those that appreciate it will never convince those that don't that a 6-inch plus screen on a phone is a good thing. If this sounds like you, know that you're missing a great display and great audio on a Google Android-powered device — and nothing else.

To me, the only reason to buy the Z Ultra over the Nexus 5 is because you want a 6.4-inch screen. There are minor differences in the software, and while the screen and sound on the Z Ultra are better, the camera is nowhere near as good and the price is $650. 

One other thought, is people who want a small tablet that can make the occasional phone call. If you've been wanting a Nexus 7 you can make voice calls with, and extra $420 will mostly make that a reality.

In the end, if you're that guy or gal who wants a really big phone without the additions from the OEM or running a custom ROM that may or may not be 100 percent complete, this is probably the best way to go. If you're not, there is nothing else here compelling enough to make this a must-have.

I really wish Sony had released the Z1 Google Play edition instead. 

 

Reader comments

Sony Z Ultra Google Play edition review

73 Comments

I second that notion. Also, could the glas(ala nexus 4) crack like a holiday ornament when dropped? Merry Christmas!

I find your lack of faith in android disturbing.

6.4" with Kit Kat? I doubt the Nexus would launch with those specs...

I keed, I know what you mean. Happy Holidays

I have the Note 3 and thought size wise it was the sweet spot for a phone. This is intriguing to say the least, could it bridge the gap perfectly between phone and tablet?

Posted via Android Central App

Thanks for sharing. Now go and tell them to make tablet versions of every non-Google app out there, because their own ones are already tablet-optimised.

Call me crazy, but... This is just too big for a phone, if it is close to the size of the Nexus 7 (which I love). And while I think all-in-one-ish devices are cool, I personally enjoy having different options when it comes to device choices. But this is an pretty attractive device!

I agree about the size, and it has some hefty bezels that make it bigger again, I've said this before but for the price of this you can buy a 16gb Nexus 5 and 7 and still have over $100 in your pocket, I'm just not really seeing the value here, nice device just a bit odd ball at a high price

Posted via Android Central App

If having one device that does it all is more important to you, then I guess that could be a reason. I, for one, am happy with my N5 and N7.

The same can be said about glass

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Happy Holiday's from my phone to yours...

Without the monster bezels too, so the device is at least manageable. Personally, I would like the Note3 w/ about a 5.3" screen and same design = sweetspot. Mine is just slightly big as a daily driver. Killer device tho and no stupid glass back.
To each their own tho. That's the counter-point to the "fragmentation" issue.

Yes, it is crazy big but I love it. The only thing that I wish is that it had is a better camera, it a little bit worse than the one on the nexus 4 (and that says a lot). Other than this thing is a beast of a phone/tablet. This is the only device that I don't see myself selling whenever I upgrade, it can be a great reader for the pool or jacuzzi (because of its waterproof capabilities) plus the perfect size for playing android games.

Posted via my Sony Z Ultra

same for me.
netflix is superb on it. lying in bed it fills my vision like a 40" TV would on the wall.

games are really immersive too.

yeah, sony could have fitted a better image sensor, and there's room for some LED flashes, and stereo speakers.

I currently have a 5.0 inch S4, I'm going to draw the line at 5.2inches, that's it. Probably at some point, 5.2inches will be mid-range, but by then "mid-range" will be no less than a Snapdragon 800, fast charging capabilities, and no less than 1080p, I'm speaking of by the time 5.2in is so common that it's considered "mid-range". I'm plenty, plenty happy with my S4, I've had it since it's release, no complaints.

Posted using Android Central App on my Samsung Galaxy S4 T-Mobile

Nah, size has to top out more sooner than later. I think 5-5.2 is going to be the normal size.

Phablet, Normal, mini

I agree. I remember way back in 2010 when the original HTC EVO came out and I was freaking out saying woah, 4.3 inches is too big! And now 3+yrs later a whole inch more is becoming slightly more common.

Posted using Android Central App on my Samsung Galaxy S4 T-Mobile

Yeah I hear you. I always wanted bigger than the Eris/Thunderbolt/Fascinate, got jealous about the 5.0" screens this year but really went for the home run with the Note 3. Figured why not skip a step?

This one is big enough, Maybe I will go with a 6" screen but any bigger and I am personally in table/joke to hold range.

The s-pen and extra productivity help too....

My G2 at 5.2" is my max for a phone and that's because it has ultra tiny bezels. I'm happy with the 4.7 to 5.2 range if done right.

While this Sony product is not for me it seems like a pretty great all in one device for those not wanting a tablet. There's just no way this will be comfortable in my pocket.

Posted via G2+

This, the G2 is barely manageable one handed I like the fact that LG added a 4th touch /nav bar option to bring down the notification shade makes it easy without worrying about dropping the phone while trying to reach to the top of the device.

Posted via Android Central App

I have no problem with the Note one handed, but for those that do, there is one handed mode

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Happy Holiday's from my phone to yours...

The Notes are special devices(phones) that other OEMs haven't been able to match yet. 5 inches should be the standard screen size for smart phones imo.

Smart Watch - 5 inch smartphone - Notes - Tablets

Posted via Android Central App

I hear you. My parents got iPhones because they seem to think that a bigger screen madness the phone massive.

Posted via Android Central App

I've only owned a 4 inch something windows phone previously and made a switch to this beast, the non GPE one obviously.

And now im in a difficult position where i cant upgrade to a smaller sized screen! Seriously, the screen are massive at first but then you'll get use to it and all other phone will feel like that Xperia mini thing.

Posted via Android Central App

Nah, I want the GPE G Pad. It's the new N7, but seems better proportionally because it's not just a big ass phone. The N7 is great, I've got the first one, but the G Pad looks really sleek.

Sent via my Verizon Moto X

I don't want GPE like this one because its price. In few days I am bout to order nexus 5 32gb. I am looking forward owning nexus device.

Posted via Android Central App

I'm glad that smartphones are now being designed in such a way that bigger screen sizes don't necessarily mean an oversized brick of a device. Back in the days of the original Galaxy S and Evo, people were up in arms at the increasing "screen size war", saying that high end devices would soon be unmanageable and bulky. Now, with slimming bezels and thinner/lighter/tougher devices, it's conceivable to have a 5 or 5.2 inch device fit comfortably in the hand, and for the most part, able to be used one-handed by people with normal sized hands. I'm the new owner of a Note 3, and I never thought I would say that. When the original Note and the Note 2 came out, I didn't even give them a second thought. They were just too big, too unwieldily, and made little to no sense on a practical level. Once I held the Note 3 and used it for a few minutes, I was still on the fence. I decided to give it a try, and after a week and a day with it, It feels completely natural to me. For many things, I can still operate it with one hand as well. I know full well that this size device is not for everybody, but it's great that the option is there.

All of that being said, the Z Ultra is just too big for a phone, period. It's beautiful in terms of hardware and build quality, but those extra big bezels don't do it any favors. I feel the same with the One Max, it's just massive and heavy with huge bezels. I'll concede that there are people who would like the size of these devices, but I can't imagine that these things are going to find a lot of adopters. I think you could make the Note 3's screen a little bigger if you took the capacitive buttons and home button out in favor of a larger screen with on-screen buttons. But in terms of physical size, I think the Note is about as big as it can get in terms of comfort and portability. Just my three cents.

EDIT: I'll also add that, when the One came out, I fell in love with it, and if I had been able to upgrade 10 months ago, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. I had hopes that the One Max would be an ever-so-slightly bigger One, with a Snapdragon 800 and a bigger battery. If that were the case, I would have probably gotten it over the Note 3. But HTC felt the need to make it massive, with no internal improvements, and a lousy fingerprint scanner that's more novelty than anything else. Disappointed in that, as I think it could have been the perfect phone for late 2013.

Im glad I bought the Sony Xperia Z than ultra. Because the camera (my z) much better than this

Posted via Android Central App

Camera, maybe yea. But the whole processor and slim factor totally compensates for it.

If people are looking for good camera, Z1 is the answer

Posted via Android Central App - Xperia Z Ultra

The z ultra is decently good but it is a bit too big. I mean 6.4 inches is just too much. I mean my note 3 itself is quite big and i have big hands. So i feel that this device will be a bit cumbersome.
Nice review, made for a good read.

Posted via Android Central App

Thank you Jerry.
It's a nice big phone/ small table!

I will wait for Z Ultra 2 Google Edition with
1. Standard Qi charging capability
2. Better camera at least 13 Mp
3. Hardware buttons Like Galaxy S4

Give me that to replace my Nexus 7 HD and my Galaxy S4

I feel strange giving Phil operating hints, but he is not launching Google Now the easy way in the video. You do NOT need to press and hold down the home button and then swipe up, just use one motion of starting by swiping below and come up through the home button for Google Now to launch. I would hate it also if I did it the way Phil does, but since I don't I see no improvement in the launching from the left with my N5 and N7 or using the GEL with my N4. Just up swipe from any screen and Google Now launches - quick and easy.

I got this as a Nexus 7 replacement. I'm happy with it. I don't use it as a phone but do have a sim card in there that's provisioned as a tablet. For what I use it for (mostly reading, surfing) it's great. I love that it fits in my back jeans pocket even with a folio case on. It's also a sexy piece of HW. Holding it and operating it one handed is obviously easier than doing the same with the Nexus 7. As a phone I think it's too ridiculously big BUT it's nice to know if I'm ever out and about and have it on me and my phone dies, I can swap the sims and have a phone back until I can charge my phone.

The z1 would have been better for Sony as a Google edition device the ultra sucks it's just to large and a suck camera

Posted via Android Central App Galaxy Note 3

Great review! And even i wish that Sony released GPe Z1 instead of this. Cos a majority of Sony buyers just want to get the latest firmware on their phones just like the nexus line of products :D and some want to enjoy the vanilla android experience :) so Sony and Google must look into this atleast in the next iteration of the Xperia Z series phones.

Posted via Android Central App

I have had one for a month now, previously having a Note 2. My brother-in-law still has his Note 2 and side by side the XZU makes it seem small. Once, the Note2 seemed big, but now it feels like a good size, and anything smaller seems like a toy!

I tend to think of it as an ultraportable tablet, rather than a homongous phablet!

the downsides...

I am not too bothered by the poor camera, but given the space on the back Sony could easily have fitted multi-LED flash!

And given the space on the front, Sony could have fitted better and stereo speakers, as the single speaker is a bit puny.

the screen is a fingerprint magnet. some people remove the screen protector, but it also loses the Sony logo.

no Qi charging

the upsides:

Performance is great, really quick, lag free, and 802.11a wifi is fast.

If I hold the XZU at standard distance when watching netflix, it's the same effective size as my 40" TV, so it's really fantastic for movies. Audio on the headphone is good.

Games can be really immersive, Polarbit Raging Thunder 2 racing game really comes alive.

The phone is thin and not too wide, so you can carry it in your jean's back pocket, although a fair amount sticks up! A jacket pocket works well. The battery is fixed, which allows it to be slim.

magnetic charging/quick-release connector is nice.

bluetooth supports APT-X as well as A2DP.

microSDHC slot allows you to carry a lot of data.

I'm thinking about getting this phone. After owning it for over 6 months would you still recommend it? I currently own the LG Optimus G Pro which is almost the same size as the Note 2.
What current version of android does it run?
Are there many apps that are not compatible with it?
Is the camera really that bad?
Thanks!

You have mentioned about GPS in your review, but I don't see any way to access/turn on GPS in google play edition of this phone. I thought only Sony edition of this phone has GPS on this. If it does have a GPS, can you let me know how to access it in this phone?

It's called "location" on the Sony Z Ultra Google Play edition. You can access it by pulling down the top screen, and clicking on the menu icon in the upper right corner.

Now that the Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition is $334.99 factory sealed at Expansys, I grabbed it! God, I love this big screen! Unlike my T-Mo Galaxy Note II, this one has the latest 4.4.4 Android and I'm banking it will get Android L. After several days use, the size factor is not as unwieldy as I expected. Thin and gorgeous (I got a thin, grippable protective cover because it is a bit slippery)! Lightning fast, no "freezing' so far. Easily fits in my back pocket of my slim fit jeans with room to spare (though about two-thirds of it is visible above the pocket). Latest 4.4.4. Coming off Galaxy Note 2 (and still wanting some of that experience), I added apps SmartStay+, Papyrus, Stylus Beta, and bought E LV Fine Point Stylus. Excellent capacitive touch for writing. I'm still working on that "sweet spot" when typing as sometimes the device feels top heavy. But thanks to the huge keyboard I never make mistakes typing anymore! Though the battery size is slightly smaller than the Galaxy Note II, I am getting the same daily battery life. The auto brightness (and overall display quality) is better than the Note II IMHO. I've only made one phone call so far and the sound quality was a bit tinny. Holding it while talking was not a problem (I really don't care what people think about how it looks up to my ear--get a life). Though the camera has no flash the latest Android upgrade gives the camera HDR which really helps in lower light. Gets LTE on T-Mo.