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.