Xperia Z1 review: Sony's return to the megapixel wars
Over the past 18 months, CEO Kaz Hirai has been on a mission to unify the sprawling empire entrusted to him into a more cohesive and focused One Sony. On the mobile front, that’s resulted in Cyber-shot cameras and Bravia-branded displays appearing in handsets like the former flagship Xperia Z. Today’s Xperia Z1 continues that cross-pollination push with an even more comprehensive set of borrowed features, including its headline-grabbing 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS camera. The Z wasn't a phone without its flaws, however, so the more pressing issue is whether Sony can continue building on what worked and solve what didn’t.
A waterproof beauty
The thing that’s changed least between the Xperia Z and Xperia Z1 is the external design. Though the new phone keeps the same 5-inch screen size and 1920 x 1080 resolution, it’s actually a little larger and heavier than the older model. For the 16 percent increase in weight, you gain a 29 percent bigger battery (now at 3,000mAh) and enough room to fit a new 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS camera sensor. Visually and in day-to-day use, however, you’ll struggle to tell the difference between the two Xperias. Both are flat, rectangular slabs with glass on the front and back. Both feature machined aluminum power buttons on the side, and both look utterly gorgeous when set against the sea of plastic you usually have to wade through in your local phone store.
While the design is mostly undisturbed, the Xperia Z1 does have a few tangible improvements to offer. Firstly, there’s now a one-piece aluminum frame inside the handset that forms its skeleton and makes it that extra bit more rigid. Secondly, Sony has improved the Z1’s water resistance and no longer needs the annoying flappy cover protecting the headphone jack. Thirdly, and this will be important to shutterbugs eyeing the Xperia Z1 as a prosumer’s cameraphone, the new handset includes a two-stage shutter button that works well.
A less happy distinction that I found between the two phones was a series of scratches that collected on the glass back of the Z1, an issue that I didn’t have with the original Z. I can’t imagine Sony is using a less durable material in the newer model, but keep in mind that the Z1’s scratch resistance isn’t on the same level as its water and dust resistance.
As gorgeous and sophisticated as the Xperia Z1 may look, it also carries on the unfortunately awkward ergonomics of the Xperia Z. Nothing is fundamentally broken, but the perfectly rectangular shape and large size just never sit comfortably in the hand. Even with its imperfections, I still much prefer the Xperia Z1 over its most direct competitor, LG’s G2, which tries to reinvent smartphone ergonomics with a weirdly positioned power button.
The Z1 is right up to speed in the spec wars
Nothing about the Xperia Z1’s spec sheet suggests an abatement in the perennial Android spec race. Sony’s opted for the fastest processor around with the 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800, and added 2GB of RAM, microSD storage expansion, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC connectivity, MHL support, and a heaping of LTE bands. This sort of unbridled spec lust is echoed in the 5.2-inch G2, which is why I consider it such a close rival to the Xperia Z1. Another commonality between LG and Sony’s flagships is an abundance of dubiously useful software layered atop Android, but more on that later.
Has a whole lot of pixels, but the quality is lacking
X-Reality distortion field
Where the Xperia Z1 seeks to distinguish itself from both the competition and its predecessors is with Sony’s display technologies. Trickling down from the Bravia HDTV unit, the Z1 benefits from a Triluminos display, augmented with X-Reality for Mobile image and video processing. The former is a fancy way of saying the new screen has a wider color palette, while the latter is a compilation of sharpness, saturation, and noise-reduction adjustments that aim to improve the quality of media playback. There’s even an Intelligent Super Resolution technology that tries to fill in missing pixels in lower-resolution video.
For all its branding bluster, the Xperia Z1’s 5-inch display is a letdown, just as the Xperia Z was. The expanded color range is nice to have, but it doesn’t offer distinguishably better images than any of the leading competitors such as HTC’s One series. It also does nothing to rectify Sony’s chronic weakness with displays: poor viewing angles. Colors start washing out as soon as you tilt the phone away from you, and seeing the Z1 sitting side by side with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 really puts the Sony phone to shame. So it’s the same old story: a pixel-dense 1080p display that is nevertheless a clear step behind the competition.
X-Reality, the big ace up Sony’s sleeve, turns out to actually do more harm than good. Watching The Great British Bake Off on BBC’s iPlayer, I noticed lots of excess sharpness added to the footage, which lent the show a very artificial look. Perhaps this kind of post-processing excess will work well with dark and moody sci-fi movies, but it really ruins the look of more natural and realistic scenes.
Oversampling and over-processing
Sony has taken the motto of “go big or go home” literally with the Xperia Z1’s camera. The Exmor RS sensor inside is a 1/2.3-inch unit that’s among the biggest in any cameraphone, and the max resolution of 20.7 megapixels is testament to that. The vast majority of people will never need such huge pictures, however, so Sony has wisely set the Z1 to take 8-megapixel oversampled photos by default. The f/2.0 G Lens and BIONZ image processing are the other two components that Sony has adapted from its Cyber-shot point-and-shoot camera range. It’s another deluge of brand names, but what’s the bottom line?
The photos above were all shot using the Intelligent Auto shooting mode, producing 8-megapixel stills. Click the thumbnails on the right for full 20-megapixel samples from the Z1 camera.
The Xperia Z1 can produce truly excellent images, but is held back by Sony’s penchant for excessive post-processing and a habit for overexposing outdoor shots. The most common artifices you’ll find in your pictures are a noise-reduction algorithm that produces artificially uniform blocks of color and an associated sharpening treatment that enhances edges. The exposure issue is sadly common among smartphone cameras: you get a sort of haze in outdoor photos where the camera shutter is kept open for too long.
Ultimately, though, these downsides are trifling compared to the Xperia Z1’s upside. An impressive amount of detail is kept even after Sony’s done its best to destroy it. The LED flash works well and doesn’t whitewash nearby subjects. Nighttime photos keep image noise competently suppressed, and even the full 20-megapixel pictures can look good under the right circumstances. It’s just a very capable piece of hardware that could’ve done with some smarter software.
Speaking of software, Sony does provide a plethora of functionality-extending camera apps. The headliner among them is the Bambuser-powered Social live, which allows you to stream up to 10 minutes of video directly to your Facebook profile. The feed can be public or limited to just your friends and the whole thing works very well. Also nice is the Timeshift burst feature, which grabs 30 frames before the shutter is pressed and 30 after, giving you a quick choice of the full 61 to pick your favorite. Although there’s a lot of filler in among these extra apps, they’re not entirely without merit and add some value to the camera experience.
The headline says 20 megapixels, but you'll mostly be shooting at 8 megapixels
Software and performance
Same old Xperia
Beyond the camera augmentations, very little has changed in Sony’s Xperia software. Once you unlock the phone through the familiar window blinds animation, you’re met with a richly customizable set of homescreens, a wide variety of available widgets, and a typical set of app tray and notifications options. A customizable set of quick toggles in the notifications tray puts your most common settings within easy reach and the multitasking menu lets you launch mini-apps, such as a calculator, that hover atop the usual content. At this point, pretty much every Android manufacturer has rolled out some version or another of these features and users of previous Xperia phones will feel right at home.
This is the first phone since the Nokia N9 to get haptic feedback right
The onscreen keyboard hasn’t changed, however the Xperia Z1 has a lovely new haptic feedback system that I really enjoyed using. Not since the exceptional Nokia N9 have I cared about haptic feedback, but Sony’s implementation even sounds great. Start typing at speed and you’ll be transported to the middle of a laser gun fight in progress.
The Z1’s vibration motor, which provides the tactile feedback when typing, is amusingly overpowered. You won’t be missing any calls or messages with this amount of rumble in your pocket. That’s just part of Sony’s fastidiousness with the mechanics of its phones — the audio hardware is similarly robust, with crystal-clear phone calls and an above-average loudspeaker.
Shipping with Android 4.2.2, the Xperia Z1 is one small step behind the latest Android version. That omission actually holds the phone back a bit — Bluetooth Low Energy and OpenGL ES 3.0 support comes as part of the Android 4.3 package, which the Z1 is ideally positioned to benefit from, thanks to its Bluetooth 4.0 chip and beastly processor. With the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 already on sale and running 4.3 quite competently, Sony’s failure to fully capitalize on the Z1’s laudable specs isn’t entirely forgivable.
The Snapdragon 800 processor at the Xperia Z1’s heart offers reliably quick and lag-free performance. It’s especially noticeable when using the camera or browsing through large photo albums — everything happens at a satisfyingly snappy pace. I struggle to find too many scenarios where the full power of a souped-up quad-core processor proves necessary, but Sony doesn’t seem to have made too many sacrifices to make it fit.
Sony still lacks uniquely compelling software
The generous 3,000mAh power reserve and Snapdragon system-on-chip are identical to the ones inside the LG G2, so you won’t be surprised to hear that the Z1 lasts through a day’s use with relative ease. Having used an iPhone 5 extensively over the past few months, I can say the Z1 lasts at least as long. To give that endurance a boost, you can turn on Sony’s Stamina mode, which disables the wireless radios and any background apps when the screen is turned off. I still consider this the best power-saving mode from any Android phone maker — mostly because, once I whitelist the Gmail and Twitter apps in order to receive notifications from them, I struggle to tell the difference between it and regular operation.
The final One Sony aspect of this phone comes from the company’s entertainment division. A free 60-day subscription to Music Unlimited, 10 free PlayStation Mobile games, and six free movies will be bundled with every Xperia Z1 purchase — intended both as an incentive to buy the phone and a stimulus to tap into Sony’s content consumption ecosystem. This would be a far bigger deal if Sony’s services were more competitive, but I find little reason to lock myself into a single Android phone vendor’s ecosystem when Google and others provide better alternatives.