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Sony Xperia Z1S review: Killer flagship phone brought down by weak display

Dubbed the Xperia Z1S, Sony's attractive, powerful, and waterproof Xperia Z1 smartphone comes to America courtesy of T-Mobile.

Brian Bennett

Brian Bennett

Senior writer

Brian Bennett is a senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET. He reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from cordless and robot vacuum cleaners to fire pits, grills and coffee makers. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he rides longboards downhill in his free time.

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7 min read

At least in the US, Sony has yet to create a blockbuster smartphone on par with the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Google Nexus 5. With the Xperia Z1S, its latest flagship handset, the company makes a brave attempt at a smoother sail in American waters, but a disappointing screen makes the Z1S founder. Sure, its 5-inch display is big and boasts a full-HD resolution, but it lacks the visual impact of Sony's high-end competitors like the Nexus 5, the S4, and the Galaxy Note 3. Heck, even older handsets such as the HTC One serve up more inviting eye candy.

Sony Xperia Z1 S

Sony Xperia Z1S

The Good

The <b>Sony Xperia Z1S</b> has a striking, waterproof design, a fast processor, and a feature-packed camera that takes quality pictures.

The Bad

The Xperia Z1S' screen pales in comparison with other flagship smartphones' displays. The handset’s glass chassis feels slippery and collects prints and smudges easily.

The Bottom Line

The Xperia Z1S is the most impressive smartphone Sony has ever sold on any carrier, but an inferior screen makes Samsung's Galaxy handsets better deals.

Still, there is plenty right about the Z1S. Equipped with a speedy Snapdragon 800 processor, a full 32GB of internal storage, elegant glass construction, and a sharp 20MP camera, the Xperia Z1S is Sony's best carrier-branded smartphone yet. And available exclusively through T-Mobile, it's reasonably priced for the carrier's no-contract model ($528 up front or 24 monthly payments of $22). But even so, I wish that T-Mobile were selling the Xperia Z1 Compact instead. Astonishingly, the Compact matches the Z1S spec for spec and it boasts a higher-quality (if smaller) 4.3-inch display.

Sony's lovely Xperia Z1S (pictures)

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Design and build quality
If you have a soft spot for Sony's current Xperia lineup of mobile devices then you'll quickly warm up to the Z1S. It uses the same jet-black color scheme, sharp lines, glass panels, and silver accents gracing the Xperia Z, Xperia Z1, and Z1 Ultra. I admit I like the Xperia design language, which manages to be both sober yet sophisticated. It also helps Sony phones to stand out in a world overcrowded with look-alike plastic mobile gadgets.

The premium aesthetics of the Xperia Z1S do come at a price, however, namely glossy and highly reflective surfaces that attract finger grease and prints like it's going out of style. The Z1S' smooth sides also felt slippery in my hands, which caused me to yearn for the soft-touch frames of other phones.

Measuring a svelte 0.34-inch thick by 5.74 inches tall and 2.91 inches wide, the Xperia Z1S is quite pocket-friendly, though. Indeed, it's way more practical to grip and operate in one hand than Sony's behemoth Z1 Ultra. With the exception of a dedicated camera shutter key on the right edge, Sony keeps the phone's physical controls to a minimum too.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Sony places all the physical controls for the Xperia Z1S on its right side. Brian Bennett/CNET

A circular silver power button and thin volume rocker are the only other hardware keys. To keep them protected from the elements, the Xperia Z1S hides its microSD card slot, SIM card slot, and Micro-USB port behind stiff flaps. Up top is the 3.5mm headphone jack, while the device's bottom lip houses a trim but long stereo speaker.

With a full-HD resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, the Xperia Z1S' big 5-inch display is bright and renders crisp text and images. The screen's colors looked vibrant as well, though its LCD technology can't match the eye-popping hues and high-contrast of Samsung's OLED handsets. And in the short time I spent with the device it was clear that viewing angles drop sharply when not viewing the screen head-on. Also, colors adopted a distracting milky sheen when I twisted the phone slightly left, right, or up and down. I even experienced the unsettling effect when the device was placed flat on nearby desktops -- within arm's reach from my chair, mind you.

Sadly, the reason for this visual shortcoming is that the phone's LCD screen lacks IPS (in-plane switching) technology. Because they have much higher contrast than traditional LCDs and don't wash out off-angle either, IPS displays have become standard in today's LCD-equipped smartphones. It's really a shame that Sony chose not to outfit the Z1S accordingly.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Ports and expansion slots are sealed behind watertight flaps. Brian Bennett/CNET

Fearless of spills and grime
Thanks to Sony's dedication to giving the world water- and dust-resistant smartphones, all it takes to get the Xperia Z1S sparkly clean is a quick rinse. Just like the company's other Xperia gadgets, the Z1S is able to withstand submersion in water and exposure to rain as well as dirt particles.

Sony Xperia phones have a history of being waterproof. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony says the Xperia Z1S is rated to meet the IP58 durability standard -- essentially that means in addition to shrugging off sand and grit the device can survive prolonged dunks (30 minutes) in up to 4.5 feet of water. I can confirm that my Z1S test unit was as hardy as advertised. It's also a great comfort knowing that wet sink countertops or the odd drink spill won't faze this gadget.

Camera prowess
Around back you'll find the handset's main 20.7-megapixel camera and LED flash. Sony also touts that the Xperia Z1S uses its more premium G Lens, which it claims is superior to ordinary camera phone glass (though I bet it's constructed from quartz or clear plastic). Indoors the Z1S handled itself well and pictures of still-life images were well exposed, with accurate colors and clear details.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Indoor shots were clear and well-exposed. Brian Bennett/CNET

Outside photo quality was high as well, even when I shot under the weak winter sun and overcast skies of New York. I was able to capture images of wily, quick-footed children as well. The only real complaint I have is that the Z1S' camera takes its own sweet time to focus, which forced to me to fire many shots in a row for fear of missing the action. I also noticed that the camera's shot-to-shot speed was sluggish, at about a second between consecutive photos.

Sony Xperia Z1S
The camera was capable of nabbing shots of kids, that is, when it could focus in time. Brian Bennett/CNET
Sony Xperia Z1S
The camera app features many image-processing bells and whistles. Brian Bennett/CNET

Equipped with a feature-rich camera app, the Xperia Z1S certainly boasts lots of shooting modes and special effects such as HDR, burst mode, and face detection. One really quirky effect is the camera's AR mode, which lets you add virtual items such as T. rex dinosaurs, prehistoric foliage, and cartoon aviator goggles to unsuspecting people in your photos.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Add virtual effects to people. Brian Bennett/CNET

The most interesting camera feature to me though is what Sony calls Background Defocus, essentially a way to artfully blur the background while keeping subjects in the foreground clear and crisp. I can say the feature achieves moderately pleasing results though the look is obviously artificial.

Sony Xperia Z1S
The Background Defocus tool in action. Brian Bennett/CNET
Sony Xperia Z1S
Need to insert a 3D T-rex into an office photo? No problem. Brian Bennett/CNET

Core components and software
Sony grafted its own proprietary skin on top of the Xperia Z1S' Android 4.3 Jelly Bean software. Inherently Sony's special sauce isn't too distracting but I much prefer stock Android, which is more intuitive and easier for me to navigate.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Sony layers its own UI over Android, and T-Mobile puts its apps and services front and center. Brian Bennett/CNET

Driving the phone's operating system is a robust 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor linked to 2GB of RAM. You also get a standard of 32GB of internal storage, a roomy amount especially considering the microSD card expansion slot.

In everyday use, I found the Xperia Z1S able to handle its Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with speed and agility. Frankly, that's saying something, since the Sony smartphones I've used in the past, including the Xperia Z, were saddled with underpowered mobile chips. This is emphatically not the case with the Z1S.

Thanks to its cutting-edge Snapdragon 800 silicon, the device notched a very high Quadrant benchmark score of 20,809. That beats, though barely, how the LG G2 (19,050), Galaxy S4 (11,381), and HTC One (12,194) fared on the same test, though it doesn't beat the Galaxy Note 3 (23,048). Its Linpack result of 1,088.2 MFLOPs was equally impressive.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Quadrant tests confirmed the processing power of the Z1S. Brian Bennett/CNET

Call quality
I tested the Sony Xperia Z1S on T-Mobile's GSM network in New York and in my experience the phone delivered rock solid, if not outstanding, call quality. People I chatted with described my voice as clear and easy to discern, though they also detected a faint background hiss. On my end voices came over richly and with lots of lifelike presence but the earpiece didn't belt out copious amount of volume.

Sony Xperia Z1S call quality sample Listen now:

Data speeds
The biggest difference between the Xperia Z1S and its Xperia Z1 global counterpart is that it's been specially tuned to support T-Mobile's American flavor of 4G LTE. As a result the phone enjoys a fat pipe to swift wireless mobile data. In New York where I tested the Xperia Z1S I clocked average downloads at 17.8 Mbps. Uploads rolled in at a nimble average clip of 16.8 Mbps.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Data speeds when connected to T-Mobile's 4G LTE network were fast. Brian Bennett/CNET

Battery life
I managed to squeeze a satisfying amount of run time out of the Sony Xperia Z1S. Sony claims the phone and its 3,000mAh battery should power the Z1S for 6.75 hours of video playback while talk time is rated for 15 hours.

My tests fell in between these assertions. The device powered through CNET's video playback battery drain test for 10 hours and 32 minutes before calling it quits. The Galaxy Note 3, however, persevered for a long 15 hours when tasked with the same challenge.

Judging from its strong presence at CES 2014 where the company unveiled the Xperia Z1S, Sony's leadership has high hopes for this device. I've followed Sony for years and at the company's CES keynote, I could feel CEO Kaz Hirai's intense yearning for a return to Sony's "good old days" of mobile products people actually wanted to buy, such as the Walkman, Discman, and the first PSP gaming devices. Hirai trumpeted the Xperia Z1S as a product only Sony could make, one that draws on the firm's many areas of deep engineering expertise, and said it "truly is the best of Sony."

I certainly agree that the Z1S, like the nearly identical global Z1 model before it, is a powerful mobile machine and a device that flaunts a sleek style that's distinctly Sony. Sadly though, not even the smartest design nor fastest components can make up for a poor screen. It's a critical handset oversight: a phone's screen is as crucial as its software and battery life. That's why I'd strongly recommend competing devices on T-Mobile such as the Galaxy Note 3, Nexus 5, Galaxy S4, or even the HTC One. And like I said, it's just too bad T-Mobile didn't pick up the Xperia Z1 Compact instead.

Sony Xperia Z1 S

Sony Xperia Z1S

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8
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