Sony Xperia Z1 Review: In Depth

What didn’t we like about the Sony Xperia Z after using it for a few months? Its terrible battery life, mediocre camera and its washed out screen. Aside from that, it was a perfectly good flagship.

What’s new in the Sony Xperia Z1? A bigger battery, a better camera and a new screen technology – things are looking up. 

The Xperia Z1 also carries forward all the things we love about the Z, its classical, rectangular design, its weatherproofing and Sony’s clean, respectful take on Android. Paired with the fastest processor around and this thing looks like a bona fide beast. 

“You haven’t changed a bit!” 

Well, that’s not entirely true. While the Sony Xperia Z1 may look virtually identical to its predecessor, the Xperia Z, it bears some marked, welcome differences. 

Starting at the core, the Z1 is built around a single piece of metal. As such, it feels much more solid. This adds some girth, clocking in an additional 0.6mm, but the pay off in the hand is worth it. 

Perhaps the biggest improvement on the convenience front is an exposed 3.5mm headphone jack. With no flaps in sight atop its cavity, plugging in and out will prove as easy as on any non-waterproof smartphone.  

The final major difference comes in the form of a two-stage camera button. While small, it isn’t fiddly, protruding adequately and providing decent dual detent feedback. With a long-press waking the phone straight into the camera app, it’s a perfect addition when coupled with the on-board 20.7-megapixel camera. 

Water proofing and dust resistance mean the microSIM and microSD card slot all reside under flaps, along with the microUSB port.

All in all, the Xperia Z1 feels good and looks great. It isn’t soft or ergonomic as a result of its angular corners, neither is it a waif in your hand or pocket and it doesn’t quite match the HTC One or iPhone 5 in terms of premium-factor. It still trounces the plastic-fantastic Samsung Galaxy S4 and LG G2, while also improving upon the Xperia Z. 

Triluminous triumph? 

Sadly not. The Xperia Z1 delivers the same washed out, under-illuminated screen experience as the Xperia Z did way back in January. 

For anyone not in the know, this doesn’t translate to a bad experience in isolation – but side by side with the likes of the LG G2, there’s just no comparison. 

Outdoor viewability isn’t where it needs to be either, and the fascia and back panel absolutely adore fingerprints. The Xperia Z1 also packs an anti-shatter screen protector atop the scratch resistant display. Ironically, this screen protector isn’t scratch resistant, so expect a scuff or two in day to day use.

On the plus side, thanks to the incredibly high pixel density of 441 PPI, the Xperia Z1 looks very sharp. Sony’s X-Reality for mobile engine helps add a little pizzazz to movies and photos, though it still isn’t enough to make the display competitive. 

These downfalls are a real shame; we know Sony can produce a great display. Aside from their TV expertise, the Xperia Z Ultra’s OptiContrast Triluminous panel for example is utterly mesmerising. The Xperia Z1’s, unfortunately, isn’t. Next time eh? 

Same Sony inside 

Running Android 4.2, the Xperia Z1 gives you access to all the apps in the Google Play Store as well as a familiar array of home screens and menus.  

Skinned with Sony’s user interface, the experience is incrementally improved over that of the Xperia Z, retaining the clean icons and typefaces, easy to swap out themes and Sony’s Entertainment Network enhancements and apps. 

This all boils down to a variable number of home screens, a pull-down notifications bar with some quick settings toggles and an applications tray. Swipe from the left edge of the apps tray to reveal an expanded menu, providing shortcuts to Sony Select, the Google Play Store and other app management options. The ‘Music’ and ‘Movies’ apps are all deeply integrated into Music and Video Unlimited, perfect for anyone with a PS3 or intent on getting a PS4. 

The main area the UI really improves upon over other Sony phones and indeed, other non-Nexus Android phones, is smoothness. This is the first time Sony’s UI is silky smooth and perfectly stable.  

We’d suggest this was down to the shiny new 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, but Sony’s efforts optimising Android also have plenty to do with it. Sony has therefore joined the ranks of HTC, making a skin for Android that’s consistently buttery smooth.  

One criticism of the new Xperia Z1 UI would be that it isn’t particularly new. You would be forgiven for missing the enhancements over the Xperia Z. While the improved stability and performance is welcome, hopefully Sony will get a little bit more overhaulish with their next flagship.

20.7-megapixels. Really? 

Really – and a Sony G lens in tow too.

While Sony was the loser in the last megapixel war, with the Xperia Z’s 13-megapixel Exmor RS snapper grabbing less of the good stuff than much of the 8-megapixel competition, this time around, it’s looking much, much better. 

The default shooting mode, superior auto will make all the decisions for you, giving you an 8-megapixel image at the end. The results are generally on-point, with good noise handling, detail and quick capture.

If you want to shoot a full 20-megapixel image, you can do so in Manual mode. Don’t be fooled, despite the name, manual mode will give you few more options than exposure control and white balance. Timeshift burst takes multiple shots (61 to be exact) and lets you pick your favourite, while picture effect offers nine filters as seen on the Sony Xperia Z.

Sweep panorama does what it says on the tin, AR effect overlays your viewfinder with some fun 3D elements and Info-eye identifies wine bottles, landmarks and books. Why? So that it can connect you to recommended meals to go with you vino, eateries around your landmark or descriptions of potential reads. 

This connected element to Sony’s camera doesn’t stop there. Above and beyond giving you the option to photograph straight to Evernote, The Xperia Z1’s camera will also broadcast a live video feed to Facebook friends around the world.

Adding to the imaging experience, video recording on the Z1 is another high-point. Thanks to digital SteadyShot, handshake is compensated for nicely, focus is accurate and speedy, whether relying on auto focus or tap to focus, and facial recognition even softens faces mid-video, flattering your subjects and readjusting exposure brilliantly.

It’s safe to say, the Xperia Z1 is the best Android flagship on the market now in terms of imaging.

Movies, eBooks and games galore (so long as you’re indoors) 

Thanks to the screen, the multimedia experience on the Sony Xperia Z1 is best reserved for indoor viewing. Even on full brightness, the display simply can’t handle bright sunlight. Indoors however, while still slightly washed out, its perfectly enjoyable to watch a movie or read a book. 

Thanks to the 5-inches on offer coupled with that blisteringly fast processor, it also makes for a brilliant gaming device, powering through even the most grueling 3D blasters. 

The combination of Sony’s gorgeous Walkman app and Music Unlimited deliver an incredible music experience, making the Xperia Z1 the only Android smartphone to come with a seemingly limitless library of songs accessible from the in-built music app.

We would implore anyone who picks up this phone to sign up for a 30-day free Music Unlimited trial. It makes music discovery a breeze, opens you up to offline downloads and packs cloud based playlist functionality, syncing across PlayStation devices and Bravia TVs, not to mention other Music Unlimited enabled Androids.

Everything but an IR Blaster 

If you absolutely need an infrared TV remote control in your phone, then don’t get the Xperia Z1; we’re guessing you don’t though.  

The Z1 packs virtually every other connection you could ask for, ranging from 2G all the way through to 4G, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi and a GPS. It supports all major 4G bands (800, 850, 900, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100, 2600), and thanks to the Info-eye shooting mode, will even endow you with a wealth of wine, landmark and literature knowledge as outlined in the camera section.

There’s 16GB of onboard storage for all your apps, as well as microSD expandability for up to an additional 64GB. 

Paired with a Sony Bravia TV via Wi-Fi Direct, the Xperia Z1 can also push content wirelessly to a big screen using Sony’s NFC-centric one-touch mirroring, and for more traditional output, the microUSB port doubles up as an MHL connector. 

More mAh, more power? 

Yes indeed – packing 28% more mAh than the Sony Xperia Z, the Z1 manages to last a full day, without the need to flip on Battery Stamina mode. 

Introduced on the Xperia Z to compensate for its short lived cell, Battery Stamina Mode closes all background apps when the screen is off. This includes syncing and social media apps, so does a fine job in saving juice, letting you whitelist apps you want to keep running. 

With it activated therefore, a light to moderate user could get up to two days out of the Xperia Z1 – a huge, huge improvement over its predecessor. 


The Xperia Z1 is a very good package, but it isn’t a perfect smartphone. 

Its design and UI beat those of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and LG G2, its camera and processor trump the HTC One’s. It’s also expandable, well connected, and waterproof.  

We do have a few reservations when recommending it though. Its screen isn’t as bright or punchy as the other top-end displays out there. While just as pin-sharp, movies won’t look as immersive and outdoor viewability won’t be as strong. As a multimedia powerhouse therefore, it’s strong, but crippled. 

In every other respect, this is a very solid flagship, the most powerful phone currently on the market and a marked improvement over the Sony Xperia Z.

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