7 September 2013

Sony Xperia Z1 - First Impressions

The Sony Xperia Z1 is yet another step in the comeback of a failing brand. While the headline spec may be the 20.7MP G Lens camera sensor, this is a phone packed to the rafters with cutting-edge tech.


It's hard to express the joy of comparing the Z1 to a previous Sony flagship cameraphone: the Satio from four years ago. Okay, that was a time when things were decidedly more Ericsson, but the difference between these two phones is vast.

That's not because the Z1 is an amazing phone (it might be, but it's hard to tell with only an hour's time playing with it) but just how bad the Sony Ericsson Satio was. It may have had a 12MP camera, but it was running Symbian, packed a resistive touchscreen and was generally one of the worst phones we've played with.

Thankfully Sony recognised its tailspin and is now producing phones like the Z1 - the follow-up to the Sony Xperia Z that launched earlier this year, and the design principles back that up.

Design


However, while this is also a water resistant and dust-proof phone (IP55 and IP58 rated), the chassis has a lot more metal packed in, with aluminium replacing the glass in many places throughout the Z1.

In doing so it's acquired some heft, with the depth of the phone noticeably greater in the hand. That's to accommodate the new camera sensor while maintaining the flat exterior, but it does make a huge difference when you pick up the phone for the first time.

Compared to the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One it's not that different, but with the added weight combined with the heavier innards and angular design, the Z1 feels like a much more substantial beast, which may put some people off.

There's a lot that's reminiscent of the Xperia Z Ultra here; not only because of the amount of technology that's been nabbed from the big Sony factory, but also because some of the clever design tweaks have made their way over to the new device too.

One of the things we're happiest to see is the headphone slot being open and unfettered. Sony has made the waterproof phone its own over the last year, and by removing the need for the headphone to have a cover it's made the Z1 so much more usable compared to its predecessor.

The rest of the slots follow Sony's heritage of premium design, being easy to shut while feeling secure against the elements should you want to lob your phone in a bucket of water and then roll it through a desert.

Don't do that, though. You'll probably lose it and be inadequately hydrated for such a trip.

There's a microSD card slot on offer still, which partly makes up for the lack of a removable battery. We're getting sick of the latter refrain – consumers want it, but phone designers want to make things as integrated as possible, and it's the ones with the pencils that win out.

But overall the Sony Xperia Z1 is a very well-finished phone that makes use of a number premium materials in its construction – the only issue for consumers could be the sheer heft of the device they're carrying in their pocket, and they'll have to decide whether the mega powerful new camera is worth it.

Screen


With the Xperia Z1, Sony has opened the door to the TV factory, selected its favourite model and then crammed it into a 5-inch screen, meaning you've got all manner of technology on offer.

Triluminous Display tech brings a really crisp and clear picture, and combined with X Reality on video playback serves to bring a phone that knows what its doing when it comes to a 1080p screen.

The display is definitely a step forward from the washed out nature of the Xperia Z, although the viewing angles are still not as impressive as seen on other phones.

The LG G2 is still the poster boy for phone displays, but the Z1 isn't that far behind, especially when its video processing kicks in.

The clarity and refresh rate are certainly impressive, but it still doesn't pack the wow factor seen from a number of other smartphones.

That's not to say it's not really good, it just still falls slightly short when compared to the clarity of the G2 or the colour reproduction of the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4 (provided you like higher colour saturation, that is).

Video playback


We can see that Sony has really worked hard on the video playback capabilities of the Xperia Z1, with the movies app in particular coming with a really nice interface.

Your last watched flick will display in the background of the app while you're selecting your next file, which really makes the phone feel like yours, rather than a sterile area to trawl through in search of anything to make the commute feel shorter.

The quality of 1080p video is really impressive on here as well, with the precision of the display making it a really high-end experience and the X Reality engine working hard to make sure even standard definition footage is upscaled to look clean and crisp.

Given that video (movies in particular) is one of Sony's strengths, we're glad to see that it's made a decent fist of things on its mobile devices.

CPU


Like its Xperia Ultra brother, the Sony Xperia Z1 comes with a 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, meaning whizzy fast speeds in a quad-core package.

This is the highest level of CPU on offer at the moment, and promises better battery management as well as an improved ability to connect to 4G networks, allowing the double speed connection that has been rolled out in a number of countries.

Combined with 2GB of RAM, there's very little you'll want when it comes to speed from the Sony Xperia Z1, thanks to a well-integrated chipset that's really more than enough for most users.

There will be 16GB of internal storage on offer as well as the microSD card slot, which means that even if you want to pack in a session of video editing on your phone you'll be able to do so easily with the required grunt on board.

We've yet to test the capabilities of the 3000mAh battery in the Z1 as yet, although we didn't notice a massive drop in the power pack during our testing, and this included a large amount of picture taking.

In our tests with other Snapdragon 800 devices we've seen some excellent battery life on offer, so we've got high hopes the trick will be repeated on the Xperia Z1.

Interface


Sony hasn't beaten around the bush when it comes to the interface on the Xperia Z1, keeping things simple and similar to that seen on its other Android devices at the moment.

Running Android 4.2 (with an upgrade to 4.3 likely in the next few months) things are very simple and well laid out on the Z1, with the ability to move widgets around with ease and the exploded view of all homescreens at once available simply by pinching in on the screen.

The widgets on offer are decent, with options like a camera pane that allows you to instantly open different modes rather than just booting into the main camera app and having to scoot around in there.

On top of a simple layout of music, movies and internet browsing, with things like Music Unlimited combined nicely with the relevant app, Sony has kept things simple with the Z1 while allowing most things you open up a good amount of power.

Camera


Here's where things get really interesting: the Sony Xperia Z1 camera is where the Japanese firm has really pushed the boat out.

With a 20.7MP sensor, strong low light ability and wide range of options to improve the quality of your photos, the camera on the Z1 takes mobile photography to another level.

When compared with the likes of the Nokia Lumia 1020, with its 41MP sensor, and the HTC One, with its 4MP Ultrapixel option, there's a feeling that the Z1 fits in between the two.

However, this is more of a camera in the traditional sense, taking really crisp and clear photos with little interpolation of multiple shots (as we've seen on the Nokia range). The result is a photo that just looks good, especially if you're firing the Superior auto mode which makes it almost impossible to take a bad shot.

We really like messing around with this option, as no matter what you're trying to do, be it take a close up picture, get a low light snap without the flash or even take a picture of text, the Z1 was able to work out what we needed time and again and adjust the settings to make use of it.

However, go beyond this and there are loads of modes to play with – some useful, and some less so.

We're intrigued by the possibility of being able to stream video from our phone over Facebook with Social Live – Sony seems to think there will be loads of uses for such a feature, but we can't really see what they might be beyond accidentally turning it on while you're on the toilet.

If you are desperate to destroy your battery at a wedding just so your grandparents, who sadly couldn't be there, can try to set up a Facebook account and miss it, then the option is there.

Timeshift Burst is probably the only other mode we think is worth talking about, and it really is. With a stupendously fast capture rate, you're getting dozens of photos from one shot that means you won't miss the right moment if there's movement going on.

Beyond that, the interface for selecting said photo is just brilliant. Being able to slide your thumb up and down the arc of picture options works so well, and while there was often a lot of blur present in most of the snaps we took, we generally could find at least one useable one.

This isn't a mode you'll be using regularly, but for anything where you aren't able to set the scene properly it's a really excellent option.

However, Sony told us that the camera software wasn't ready for final testing, and that seemed to bear out during our time with the phone - in comparison tests with the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, it was certainly a better picture, but not by much.

The raw pictures captured are decent without being mind blowing at the moment - but as we saw with the Xperia Z (and a multitude of other cameraphones) the tricks are mostly performed in post processing, so we'll wait to pass judgement.

However, it was disappointing to see that the pictures didn't blow our mind at this point, as that's what we were hoping from a cameraphone with such a ridiculous sensor.



Early verdict

 

The Sony Xperia Z1 is definitely another step forward from the brand that's going from strength to strength in the smartphone market.

It's an impressive phone that packs so much technology inside you can't help but enjoy all the treats on offer - and it's well packaged in a way that makes us love to try all the different features.

It's a chunky beast, which may put some people off, but the metallic chassis is one we really like and pushes the premium message even further, and the addition of a microSD card slot is one we always love to see.

Given it's not likely to command the mega cost of the Lumia 1020, the Z1 is a decent phone that will rival the Galaxy S4 on the shop shelves - so if you can get over the bulk, it's one of the most exciting smartphones to check out this year.

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