Review of the Sony Xperia Z1


The Z1 is the new high end of the Sony Xperia range of phones. That puts it in direct competition with other high-end phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S4, the HTC One, and Nokia Lumia 1020. Thatís a tough bracket to stand out in and the Z1 doesnít really do a very good job at it.

Last Updated: 09-Nov-2013

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

In fact, this is probably the most negative review Iíve ever written. In virtually every category except one (the processor and GPU) the Z1 is a disappointment. That word comes up frequently throughout this review, because no other word better describes the feeling I got as I tested each aspect of the phone.

However, before you get too concerned I should note that ďdisappointmentĒ is a relatively mild word when it comes to criticizing a phone. I didnít use words like failure, disastrous, terrible, or any other terms with severely negative connotations. The Z1 is an okay phone, but nothing really stands out.

RF Performance

I was able to compare the Z1 with a Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini over to Howard Chuiís house. His basement is a great place to perform RF tests, because he has a cold cellar that cuts out most of the signal. I have never tested an S3 Mini, but every other Samsung model Iíve ever tested have always had near enough identical RF performance, so we can probably safely assume the S3 Mini and S4 are about the same.

In LTE mode the Z1 looses rather badly to the S3 Mini. Both phones were on Bell Mobility, and Bell has only Band 4 LTE in Howardís area, thus we can be sure that both phones were working on the same band and the same network. I could walk the S3 Mini into the cold storage room and still get data (albeit a little slow). However, I couldnít maintain any useful data service on the Z1 at the door to the cold storage room, and if I walked into it the Z1 would lose service every time.

In HSPA testing (where I made calls and walked into the cold storage room) both phones held up about the same, and so in this one limited aspect at the very least, the Z1 does okay for itself.

WiFi Performance

I tested the Z1 against my Samsung Galaxy S4 to see which one could pull off the best WiFi speeds under varying conditions. Insomuch as downlink speed was concerned, both phones did about the same, regardless of signal level. However, when it came to uplink speeds there was a clear and decisive victory for the GS4. My internet uplink speed is 3 Mbps and when the WiFi signal is strong both the Z1 and the GS4 had no problem providing that speed.

I headed down to my basement for the next test, where the signal from my hotspot on the second floor (I have one on the main floor too) is weak enough to degrade performance. Download speed degrades from around 30 Mbps (the speed of my cable connection) to around 7 to 8 Mbps on both phones. However, while the GS4 continued to provide predictable 3-Mbps uploads, the Z1 struggled at around 1.3 to 1.4 Mbps. This behavior remained consistent in countless tests in different locations in the basement.

I used the WiFi Analyzer app to check the reported WiFi signal and it was the same give-or-take a few dB. Even weaker signals in my neighborhood also registered on both phones at around the same dB level. This might suggest a flaw in the WiFi radio in the Z1 I was testing, but I can only report what I can obverse with the test unit.

Audio Performance

The earpiece on the Z1 is only average and produces sound that can best be described as neutral with a hint of shallowness. In other words, its fine for most conversations, but it lacks the low-frequency response that gives other phones a richer overall sound. That doesnít mean the phone sound tinny, because it does not. However, I came away feeling that it was adequate.

Speakerphone performance is certainly disappointing. If you turn it up too high the sound distorts, but when you turn it down low enough that the distortion goes away youíre left with pretty pathetic volume for carrying on a conversation in all but the quietest environments.

Multimedia Audio


The sound is exceedingly tinny, shallow, and low in volume. In fact, the Samsung Galaxy S4 sounds so much better than the Z1 that itís hard to describe just how much so. And remember, the S4 sounds terrible compared to the Boom Sound of HTC One, so you can begin to appreciate just how poor the multimedia audio is on the Z1. It gets the job done, but thatís about the only nice thing you can really say about it. This is the kind of audio Iíd have expected from a super-low-cost budget Android phone, not a top-of-the-line model selling for over $700 off-contract.

Display

Disappointments continue with the screen. While it does sport the expected 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080), the quality of the screen is pathetic. Unless you view it straight on the colors wash out and the screen looses detail and contrast. I didnít realize just how often I looked at a screen from angles other than straight on before I had to spend time with this phone. The degradation of the image is just too great to ignore and being forced to constantly angle the phone so that it faces you is often problematic.

Over the last year or so LCD screens have gotten much better and they are usually capable of getting much brighter than a Super AMOLED display. Sadly this is not true of the Z1. Its maximum brightness is decidedly dimmer than that of the full brightness on the GS4. That makes is markedly more difficult to see outdoor in bright conditions than pretty much any other phone on the market right now. Indoors, viewed straight on, the screen looks pretty nice, but its color reproduction isnít the greatest.

So while this isnít the worse screen Iíve ever seen over the years, it certainly gets close. This is once again an inexcusable thing to find on a $700+ smartphone the purports to be a top-of-the-line model.

Dimensions

I donít normally include a section on this, because usually the size of the phone is normally a function of the size of the screen. The screen on the Z1 is 5.0 inches diagonally, which is identical to the GS4. However, the Z1 is noticeably larger than the GS4 in every single dimension. Itís 74 mm wide, which is 5 mm wider than the GS4. Itís 144 mm tall, which is 7.4 mm taller than the GS4, itís 8.5 mm thick, which is 0.6 mm thicker than that the GS4, and it weighs 170 grams, which is a whopping 40 grams heavier than the GS4. Some of that weight, though not all, can be attributed to it having a 3,000 mAh battery vs the 2,600 mAh one in the GS4.

The Galaxy S4 is often described as ďtoo bigĒ for a phone, but if thatís the case, then the Z1 is even larger with no advantage in screen size. Granted, the Galaxy Note 3 is larger still, but at least you get a huge screen with that beast. So to add to the litany of disappointments, the Z1 is disappointingly big (15% more volume than the GS4) and disappointingly heavy (31% heavier then GS4).

Camera

Things improve slightly with the camera, but if you were hoping this aspect of the Z1 would make up for the rest of the disappointments, then youíre going to be, well, disappointed. The 20-megapixel shooter on the Z1 does have a few pluses going for it, but overall the quality of the pictures it takes is often sub-par and the camera app is about the most annoying Iíve used in ages.

If you choose the fully automatic mode Sony takes away your choice of resolution and you are stuck with 16:9 downsized 8-megapixel images. If you switch to manual you can choose 20-megapixel pictures in 4:3 aspect ratio, as well as a bunch of other settings. However, when in manual the auto-focus doesnít work very well and I found that more often than not it would FAIL to correctly find the right focus and shots had to be retaken (sometimes multiple times) before it got it right.

If you do manage to get a well-focused picture, the Z1 seems to have a similar problem to the Lumia 1020 when it comes to resolving details in well-lit outdoor photographs. Iíve provided 2 image crops similar to those I provided in the Lumia 1020 review. Each show a tree in my backyard seen from the house and you can once again see that the GS4 did a markedly better job of resolving clean detail in the tree bark.

GS4


Xperia Z1


The camera app does support HDR, which is a feature thatís sadly missing from the Lumia 1020. However, it isnít a particularly great implementation, though it does provide the desired effect to some extent. Iíve included a couple of photographs taken from inside my house looking out a window. This a perfect test for HDR, because the light from outside the window is very bright, while the objects inside the house are quite dark.

GS4


Xperia Z1


Humanís have eyes (and associated optical processing) that allows us to see a large range of brightness in the same view. Film and digital optical sensors do not, and so to encompass a wider range of brightness levels we have to cheat a little. A typical HDR exposure scheme takes two or more photographs in rapid succession with differing exposures. The cameraís logic then combines the best-exposed bits from all of them to produce the final result.

As you can see in these examples, the Z1 picture still overexposes the bright images from outside, while still rendering the darker objects inside the house a little too darkly. In the GS4 picture you can see that the stuff outside the window is beautifully exposed, while the stuff inside is far better exposed than the Z1 picture. However, the GS4 possesses one of the best HDR implementations Iíve tried in a long time, so it may not be fair to judge the Z1 against it. At least the Z1 has an HDR mode, because the Lumia 1020 does not.

The Z1 does have rather impressive low-light sensitivity, with an ISO rating as high as 6,400. That is somewhat better than the maximum 4,000 ISO of the Lumia 1020. However, the amount of noise in low-light pictures far exceeds that from the Lumia 1020 and the results are really no better than from the GS4 under the same lighting conditions. In fact, in many ways the low-light shots look worse than those taken with the GS4 in some respects.

In summary then, the camera on the Z1 is, like many of the other aspects of this phone, disappointing. And this from a company that actually builds REAL CAMERAS. Iíve said it before in past Sony reviews, but why canít a camera company manage to put half-decent cameras in their smartphones?

GPS

I ran numerous tests on the GPS by recording tracks of both a bike ride and three drives using Sportstracker Pro. I made a parallel track using my GS4. When I first looked at the overview of the data I asked for a graph of the GPS accuracy, which on my GS4 was, as usual, 3 meters most of the time, with some 4 meter and a few 5 meter accuracies. The Z1 however report 3 meters only some of the time, but registered accuracies of only 12 to 15 minutes at other times.

Okay, so perhaps the GPS was just being a bit more honest about the true accuracy of the fixes. I therefore download a KML version of the tracks and I loaded them into Google Earth. Much to my surprise the reported inaccuracies had been correct. Whereas the track from the GS4 stuck almost perfectly with the route Iíd followed (right down to the lane Iíd been in while Iíd been driving), the track from the Z1 varied from lane to lane and sometimes had me on the wrong side of the road. I havenít seen such a poor showing from a smartphone GPS in quite some time.

Processor and Chipset

Just when you thought everything about the Z1 was a huge let-down we get to the one aspect of it that isnít a disappointment. Although not the first device to use the Snapdragon 800 chipset (which includes the Adreno 330 GPU) it is certainly one of the first. The new processor architecture and bump in speed from 1.9 GHz (in the GS4) to 2.3 GHz, along with the more-powerful GPU make for one very fast phone. In graphics-intensive situations (like Google Maps rendering 3D buildings) the performance difference is clearly noticeable.

Along with the faster processor we also get a bump up to LTE category 4, which means under ideal conditions on a 20-MHz channel you can get up to 150 Mbps (rather than just 100 Mbps on a category 3 device like the GS4). Base on impromptu testing I found that a category 4 device provides no faster speeds under any sub-ideal conditions. The maximum speed of a cat 3 device vs a cat 4 device is tied to processor speed. If conditions are such that you are getting less than optimal speed, it seems that a cat 4 device canít do any better than a cat 3 device anyway.

Conclusions

I came away from this review with a rather dismal view of the Xperia Z1. Had the device been a low-priced entry-level Android phone I might have been reasonably impressed, but as a high-end (and very expensive) model its complete lack of any standout features (the processor/GPU combo doesnít really count, because it wonít be long before are countless competitors with this same setup) made it difficult to justify.

Okay, it claims to be waterproof, and that might be a plus to you, but it seems you have to make way too many compromises for just that feature. However, none of the things wrong with the Z1 is severe enough to really annoy everyone and you might be able to live with the less-than-stellar aspects of this phone if something about it really catches your fancy. However, if you thought that the Z1 was a must-have high-end phone, then you may need to think again.
 

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