Sony Xperia Z1 Android phone

The Xperia Z1's excellent camera and good build quality is let down by poor ergonomics and mediocre viewing angles

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Sony Xperia Z1
  • Sony Xperia Z1
  • Sony Xperia Z1
  • Sony Xperia Z1
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • Waterproof and dust-resistant
  • Camera works well in low light
  • Smooth software & good performance

Cons

  • Screen has poor viewing angles
  • Questionable ergonomics
  • Back glass scratches too easily

Bottom Line

The Sony Xperia Z1 boasts an attractive, glass-back design, a fully waterproof body and an impressive 20-megapixel camera. It's let down by poor ergonomics and a display with mediocre viewing angles, but remains a worthy choice overall.

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Sony's newest flagship smartphone for 2013, the Xperia Z1, is best described as an upgrade to the existing Xperia Z. It retains an attractive, glass-back design, but is now fully waterproof and has an upgraded 20-megapixel camera. The waterproof body is a real nice touch and the Xperia Z1 boasts impressive build quality, but it has poor ergonomics and a display with mediocre viewing angles.

A glass clad looker with poor ergonomics

The Sony Xperia Z1 follows a similar design to its predecessor, the Xperia Z. It retains a long, rectangular shape with flat sides, square corners and a sheet of tempered glass on both the front and the back. It's immediately distinguishable from the wealth of competing smartphones on the market due to this very square design, so Sony does deserve plenty of credit for effectively standing out from the pack.

That square design of the Xperia Z1 has both positives and negatives. On the plus side, the sheet of tempered glass on the back combined with a single piece of aluminium wrapped around the edge gives it a real premium feel. This immediately feels like a far more expensive handset than the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the LG G2. Design touches like the brushed aluminium power button, and the well positioned camera shutter key, will quickly become appreciated.

None

Picking up the Xperia Z1 always results in an awkward feeling that's hard to shake.

Unfortunately, the design also results in some negatives. The Z1 weighs a hefty 170g, the glass back easily picks up scratches, and the shape of the handset makes for poor ergonomics. The edges of the phone are a particular annoyance — they're a little sharp and often dig into your fingers. Even after a full week of use, picking up the Xperia Z1 always results in an awkward feeling that's hard to shake.

Perhaps the best design feature of the Xperia Z1 is the fact that it is waterproof, not just water resistant. The phone will handle fresh water at up to 1.5 metres for 30 minutes, and is also dust resistant, provided the flaps covering the microSD card slot, micro-USB port, and SIM card slot are all sealed. It works as advertised, though it's important to note that the Z1 won't guard against salt water, liquid chemicals, sand, or mud. A nice touch is the headphone jack, which unlike the Xperia Z, doesn't have an annoying flap you have to keep closed.

The glass back is a nice touch, but it easily picks up scratches.
The glass back is a nice touch, but it easily picks up scratches.

Viewing angles are mediocre compared to many rival models.

The Xperia Z1 lacks a removable battery but a left-sided microSD port allows you to expand the 16GB of internal memory. One big improvement over the Xperia Z is the loudspeaker. It's still a single speaker design, but it's been moved to the bottom of the phone, rather than on the side. You'll still want to use a dedicated Bluetooth speaker for any serious music listening, but it produces reasonable volume and quality for a smartphone.

The Sony Xperia Z1 has a 5in screen with a full HD resolution of 1920x1080. The screen is relatively bright and clear and displays very crisp text when looking directly front on, but its viewing angles are mediocre compared to many rival models, particularly the Galaxy Note 3. While most people who use their smartphone will be looking at the display directly front on, the Xperia Z1's screen is clearly the weakest aspect of this device.

The display has a high resolution, but viewing angles are mediocre.
The display has a high resolution, but viewing angles are mediocre.

A simple, clean Xperia UI

Sony has made minimal changes to the stock version of Android.

Sony appears to have taken a completely opposite direction compared to Samsung and LG when it comes to software. The company has made minimal changes to the stock version of Android but most of the changes it has made actually add to the overall user experience. The downside is that Sony appears to be as slow as ever with Android updates — the Xperia Z1 currently runs the 4.2 version of Android when its competitors have already moved on to 4.3. While many average consumers won't care, ardent Android fans could be tempted to steer clear.

The Xperia Z1's interface is very similar to its predecessor. There's four toggles in the notifications drop down that are by default set to sound, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and brightness, along with a shortcut to the settings menu. However, Sony now allows users to edit these shortcuts in the personalisation menu. You can choose from up to 11 more quick settings and arrange them in any order you like.

Sony's user interface is clean, slick and intuitive.
Sony's user interface is clean, slick and intuitive.

You can't remove some of Sony's annoying pre-loaded apps.

The applications drawer has also seen some minor but welcomed upgrades. Swiping to the right brings up a menu that enables apps to be sorted into multiple parameters, including by own order, alphabetical, and installed. You can also uninstall apps from this menu, though you can't remove some of Sony's annoying pre-loaded apps like Sony Select, and the Sociallife media aggregator.

Other positives include a minimalist lock screen which includes an attractive, shutter unlock animation, the Album app, which is fast, smooth and provides better sorting and scrolling options than other Android phones, and the Walkman music app, which offers an equaliser, a visualiser and has an intuitive interface. They keyboard has also been improved from the Xperia Z. It now includes full stop and comma keys on the main layout and the word prediction, while still not as accurate as Google's stock keyboard or the excellent Swiftkey third-party keyboard, is far better than Samsung and LG's efforts.

The Album app is fast and responsive and has a nice interface.
The Album app is fast and responsive and has a nice interface.

The Sony Xperia Z1 is a very smooth and fast smartphone. The 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM keeps things ticking over nicely and the phone doesn't exhibit any notable lag or slowdown during basic tasks. It also handles graphically intense games with notable ease.

Impressive camera, solid battery life

The highlight of the camera is its performance in low light.

The camera on the Xperia Z1 boasts a 1/2.3in sensor, a G lens with 27mm wide angle and a range of software features. The highlight of the camera is its performance in low light. The LED flash doesn't wash out images like most other smartphone cameras do, and even without the flash, the Xperia Z1 takes decent images in low lit environments. The Z1 produces images with impressive detail for a camera phone, but photos aren't significantly better than many other flagship devices on the market.

The Xperia Z1 has a 20-megapixel sensor, but the camera app is by default set to capture 8-megapixel photos. Capturing full 20-megapixel images is only available by switching to "manual mode", which allows users to adjust settings like white balance and ISO. This is a little disappointing as Sony's "superior auto" mode captures some excellent images with a minimum of fuss.

A photo we captured with the Xperia Z1 (click to enlarge).
A photo we captured with the Xperia Z1 (click to enlarge).

Other camera features include a "Timeshift burst" mode that takes 61 images in just two seconds — a second before and after pressing the shutter. It's a nice feature and works well when trying to capture fast motion. There's also an "Info-Eye" feature that uses augmented reality to provide a visual search function on any captured landmarks or particular items, a sweep panorama mode, and an effect mode that let's you shoot with up to nine live filters.

The Sony Xperia Z has a 3000mAh battery that performs reasonably well. It pushed us through a full day of use on most occasions and we experienced up to 16 hours of battery life on multiple days during our test period. Your figures will obviously vary depend on use but most average users should be more than satisfied with the Xperia Z1's battery performance.

There are eight camera modes in total.
There are eight camera modes in total.

The addition of a "Battery Stamina mode" certainly helps. This feature prevents applications from running when the screen is locked, therefore saving battery and improving standby time. You can individually select apps to bypass the feature if you wish. The screen still drains the battery fast when it's in use but the Xperia Z1 seems very power efficient in standby mode.

The Sony Xperia Z1 is available now in black, white, and purple colour variants through major Australian carriers Telstra, Optus and Virgin Mobile. It is also available outright for AU$779 through Sony Centres, Harvey Norman and Dick Smith Electronics retail stores.

In New Zealand, the Xperia Z1 sells for $999 outright from Telecom, $1,099 from Vodafone, and is available through Sony stores, Noel Leeming, JB Hi-Fi and several other retail outlets.

Struggling for Christmas presents this year? Check out our Christmas Gift Guide for some top tech suggestions and more.

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