Sony Xperia Z1 review: Sony Xperia Z1 is powerful, but pricey too

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent

Average User Rating

4.5 stars 35 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The most powerful mobile device I've ever tested; Fully waterproof; Sleek, glass and aluminium design; Razor-sharp, bright screen.

The Bad Disappointing battery life; Wide bezel results in chunky body; Camera can be hit and miss in auto mode; Pricey.

The Bottom Line The Sony Xperia Z1 packs a Full HD display and a ludicrously powerful processor into a gorgeous, totally waterproof body. It has some serious bragging rights, but it's let down by its unimpressive battery life and chunky size.

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Sony wowed us last year with the introduction of its Xperia Z phone . Instead of the plasticky, chunky bodies of its previous phones, the Z had a stunning all-glass design and was among the first top-end smart phones to provide full protection from errant liquid-splashes.

With a four and a half star score and our much-coveted Editor's Choice award to its name, the Z didn't make it easy for its successor to impress. With a few key tweaks, including a ridiculously powerful quad-core processor, a new aluminium band around the edge and a 20.7-megapixel camera, the Xperia Z1 is ready to show its older brother who's boss.

At £600, it's certainly not competitive when it comes to affordability, but Sony is hoping its impressive spec sheet will make the Z1 a worthy purchase.

It's available now on a range of plans. You can get it free from £29 per month on a two-year contract, or SIM-free from £550.

Should I buy the Sony Xperia Z1?

With its sleek glass front and back and new aluminium frame, the Xperia Z1 is an undeniably beautiful piece of kit. The waterproof design helps keep it safe from all manner of liquids that would put an end to most other phones and its screen is better than ever. Its searingly mighty processor also makes it the most powerful phone I've ever tested.

Sony Xperia Z1 front
With its sleek glass front and back, the Xperia Z1 is a beautiful piece of kit.

It's not perfect though. Although it has the same screen size as the Samsung Galaxy S4 , it has a bigger body, making it a little cumbersome. Some of Sony's software tweaks aren't particularly welcome either, and will almost certainly slow down the time it takes to receive updates.

Finally, although the camera has seen an impressive bump to 20 megapixels, the images it produces aren't anything special. If you're after a phone with enough juice to tackle any task you're likely to throw at it, you'd be wise to opt for the Z1, but there are various other options to consider.

The Galaxy S4 should certainly be at the top of your list -- it's extremely powerful, has a brilliant screen and a camera capable of producing beautiful results. The S4 Active has similar specs but, like the Z1, has a waterproof body, protecting it from the elements. Alternatively, the all-metal HTC One not only looks superb, but it too has a Full HD screen and powerful quad-core processor.

Design

With only a glance, you might not immediately be able to tell much difference between the Z1 and its predecessor. It's roughly the same physical size, the sticking-out power button is in the same spot and the Sony and Xperia logos sit in the same place. The noticeable difference is the addition of a dedicated camera shutter button and an aluminium band around the edge.

The use of metal gives the phone a noticeable, luxurious feel as well as apparently strengthening it. The previous Z had slightly harsh edges, but the rounded aluminium feels much more comfortable. The downside is that the similar aesthetic makes it difficult to really show off that you have the latest technology in your hand. You'll likely have to actually point it out if you want someone to notice, and in my experience, "look at the metal parts on my phone" is a pretty awful conversation starter.

It maintains the same glass front and back which looks every bit as beautifully stark as it did on the previous model. Although they're toughened, any glass will scratch and break if you treat it brutally enough. You'll want to keep it in a case if you're clumsy, not to mention always carry a cleaning cloth to polish the fingerprints off.

Sony Xperia Z1 back
It maintains the same glass front and back as the previous model.

Like the Xperia Z, the Z1 is completely waterproof, surviving at a depth of 1.5 metres for up to 30 minutes. Even if you're not a diver who likes to Tweet among the corals, waterproofing for a phone is undeniably handy. Ever dropped your phone in the bath, splashed something on it in the kitchen or taken a call in the rain? The Z1 will cope fine with all of that.

It achieves total waterproofing by covering its main ports with rubberised flaps. It improves over the Z, however, by waterproofing the internal chamber of the headphone jack, meaning that it doesn't need to have its own cover. You'll no longer have to unclip a flap each and every time you pop in your headphones and, crucially, you don't have to worry about re-sealing afterwards -- something I found rather annoying on the Z.

With a 5-inch screen, it was bound to be a big blower, but the Z1 doesn't do itself any favours. It has a very wide bezel around the display, meaning that the body is very large. It's noticeably bigger than the Galaxy S4, even though they have the same size screen. The wide bezel also doesn't look particularly good -- it's worlds apart from the razor-thin bezel on LG's new G2 smart phone.

Sony Xperia Z1 comparison
If you're looking for a phone to easily slide into your pocket, this isn't it.

If you're looking for a phone to easily slide into your pocket, this isn't it. Make no mistake -- it's a big chap. I suggest going hands on in a shop before you buy if you're concerned about its size.

Display

The Z1 maintains the 5-inch screen size as well as the Full HD resolution of its predecessor. Sure, that's not an improvement for a new generation phone, but when you've already packed in a ludicrous amount of pixels into your phones, there's not really much room for improvement. Plus, anything more than 1080p in a device of this size would be completely redundant as your eyes can't physically make out the pixels at such a high level.

Sony reckons there have been improvements though. It now boasts the 'Triluminous' display technology that Sony plonks into its high-end TVs, which apparently improves colour and brightness. While that's mostly marketing nonsense, there's no denying that it's a great screen.

Side by side with the Galaxy S4, it doesn't have the same eye-popping colour saturation, but I actually preferred the Z1's more natural tones -- the S4 can be over the top at times. It's incredibly sharp, with even the smallest text looking crystal clear and the snow flurries and mountain ridges on my favourite test video were displayed with breathtaking clarity.

It's bright enough to scorch out your retinas too, once you ramp it up, but still manages to maintain colour tones. Viewing angles aren't brilliant though. Although the image itself doesn't distort when viewed from the side, colours become washed out and blacks turn into more of a grey shade.

Android 4.2.2 software

The Z1 arrives running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. Visually, it's pretty much the same as the previous model. You'll get multiple homescreens to fill up with apps and live widgets, while any apps you don't want right at the front will be stored in a separate app list. The app list has had a tweak though and now features an options panel to the left, allowing you to easily sort your apps by most used, alphabetical, or by a custom order.

Sony Xperia Z1
The interface has been changed quite a lot from standard Android, but Sony has made it easy to organise your apps.

There's a touch-sensitive button below the screen to bring up a scrolling list of open apps, letting you quickly flick between. It also lets you fire up little mini apps that sit over the interface. There's a handy notes app that hovers, letting you copy in notes from one app and paste elsewhere without needing to open a separate app.

Sony Xperia Z1
These mini apps make it easy to write notes or calculate sums while performing other tasks.
As it did on the Z, Sony has replaced the Android image and video gallery with its own offerings. They're not great though and make saved images more awkward to find than they should be. You'll get used to the layout with enough practice though. Sony's heavy tweaking of the interface, while generally quite attractive, does mean that updates to the Android software are probably going to take a long time to arrive. If you're keen to keep up to date with the latest releases, the Z1 isn't going to suit.

Processor and performance

Stuffed inside the Z1 is Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 800 processor. It's a quad-core chip clocked at a ridiculous 2.2GHz. That's a decent step up from the 1.9GHz found inside the Galaxy S4, so I was keen to see how the two really compare.

Sony Xperia Z1
That, right there, is the best score I've ever seen on an Android phone.

In short: It's an absolute monster. I fired up the Geekbench 2 benchmark test and was quickly given a score of 3,706, far outstripping the S4's 3,087. That makes the Z1 the most powerful Android device I've ever tested, giving scores rivalling some lower-end laptops. Similarly on the Quadrant benchmark, it achieved a whopping 17,825 -- a big step above the S4's 11,381. Needless to say, it whups the proverbial of its predecessor.

Unsurprisingly, general operation of the phone was enjoyably swift. Swiping around the homescreens and opening menus was free of any discernible lag, apps loaded without delay and web browsing in Chrome was very speedy indeed.

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Where to Buy

Sony Xperia Z1

Part Number: 1276-0471
Pricing is currently unavailable.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider not specified
  • Weight 169 g
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 20.7 pixels
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