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Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition review: Way too big, much too expensive

Sure, it packs a muscular processor and gigantic display into a thin design, but it's still too expensive for what you get.

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Brian Bennett
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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.

8 min read

Sony smartphone lovers have long waited for a Google Play Edition (GPE) device they can crow about, but unfortunately the $649 Sony Z Ultra GPE isn't it. Ridiculously large and awkward to use, at least as a traditional mobile handset, the Ultra is far from a flagship, pure-Android device like the HTC One or the Samsung Galaxy S4. What's more, it can't manage one of the Nexus 5's most impressive feats of balancing a compact size, affordable price, and excellent features. Even the Galaxy Note 3, while a big product takes up much less room in your fist and is ultimately a better phablet buy.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra GPE
7.3

Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition

The Good

The <b>Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition</b> squeezes a stunningly bright, and colorful display, stock Android 4.4 KitKat, and a muscular processor into an extremely thin package. With sealed ports, the water-resistant Z Ultra needn't fear liquid or exposure to dirt and dust.

The Bad

Even considering the Sony Z Ultra GPE’s carrier-unsubsidized status, $649 is an exorbitant amount to pay. The Z Ultra’s overblown size makes it unwieldy to operate and its camera is disappointing.

The Bottom Line

The Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition's insanely large size and stratospheric price make the Nexus 5 and Note 3 better options for pure Android power.

Yes, since this Z Ultra is officially sanctioned by Google, it runs a pristine version of Android 4.4 KitKat and it's available for purchase directly from the Google Play store. But even with those upsides, the Ultra is priced well out of reach of even the most well-heeled Android users. Now throw in the gadget's lackluster camera, and even the Z Ultra GPE's water-resistant feature can't save it from drowning.

Sony's shockingly large Z Ultra Google Play Edition (pictures)

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Design and build
I used to think that massive handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and HTC One Max were as big as a phone could possibly get. Boy, was I ever wrong. The Z Ultra Google Play Edition busted through my preconceived notions with the impact of a speeding 18-wheeler. Sporting a screen that measures a vast 6.4 inches across and a chassis spanning 7 inches tall by 3.6 inches wide, the Z Ultra really pushes the phablet envelope and lands squarely in small tablet territory.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
The Sony Z Ultra GPE's main draws are stock Android 4.4 KitKat and a lovely 6.4-inch screen. Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazingly the phone has a larger footprint than the Note 3 (6 inches by 3.1 inches by 0.33 inch) and One Max (6.5 inches by 3.2 inches by 0.4 inch), both astoundingly oversize mobile phones. The mighty Z Ultra even manages to dwarf the Samsung Galaxy Mega (6.6 inches by 3.5 inches by 0.3 inch), once the physical king of phablets.

I must give kudos to Sony for trimming down the Z Ultra's profile, though. At a mere 0.26 inch thick, the Ultra is noticeably thinner than HTC's and Samsung's phone/tablet hybrids. As a matter of fact, the device's slender frame makes it the most svelte smartphone I've seen in recent memory. Of course, with the gadget tipping the scales at 7.5 ounces, the Ultra is by no means lightweight.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
Despite its massive screen size, the Z Ultra is breathtakingly thin. Sarah Tew/CNET

No doubt the Z Ultra's density is a direct result of its extensive use of glass, both in front and back. This, coupled with the Z Ultra's angular shape and dark black colors, helps the device achieve a very sophisticated and elegant look. Sony crafted the Z Ultra to be highly dust- and water-resistant too. That means that turning on the kitchen faucet all the way and casually tossing the device into the sink isn't a reckless move.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
The glass backing of the Z Ultra is a smudge and fingerprint magnet. Sarah Tew/CNET

As a matter of fact it's your best way of keeping the phone clean since all of the handset's shiny and reflective surfaces translate into one serious fingerprint and grease magnet. As I found with the Sony Xperia Z before it, the phone's flashy exterior becomes soiled from the moment I picked it up. Just be sure you remember to seal all the Z Ultra's flexible flaps closed. They create a barrier against liquids for the phone's ports.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
The Z Ultra's ports have protective flaps to guard against dust and water. Sarah Tew/CNET

The only physical controls are on the right side -- a silver, circular power button and trim volume bar. Also here is a 3.5mm headphone jack which Sony says is also waterproof despite lacking a protective flap.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
For the Z Ultra, a proper dunking is all in a day's work. Sarah Tew/CNET

Display
It was clear to me from the second I scooped up the Z Ultra into my hands that the device's raison d'etre is its 6.4-inch screen and the sprawling visual real estate it provides. The Z Ultra's LCD panel has a crisp full-HD 1080p (1,920x1,080 pixels) resolution as well. It packs the same amount of pixels as do the Samsung Galaxy Note, HTC One Max, and Google Nexus 5. That said, since all those handsets have smaller displays, they also benefit from slightly higher PPI counts than the Z Ultra (342ppi).

I didn't notice any loss of detail and I enjoyed consuming all types of screen-centric content on the Z Ultra GPE. Whether it was Netflix movies, Web pages, photos, or skimming Flipboard news articles, the Z Ultra served up a fantastic view. Also, while the device's screen lacks the truly arresting colors, contrast, and wide viewing angles of the Note 3's OLED display, it does get pretty bright and serves up vivid hues.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
The Z Ultra GPE lacks the Google Experience Launcher you'll find on the Nexus 5. Sarah Tew/CNET

Software and interface
A huge part of the appeal of any Google Play Edition handset is its pure and unadulterated Android software, and here the Z Ultra doesn't disappoint. While not a true Google Nexus device, the phone runs a squeaky clean version of Android 4.4 KitKat and all the bells and whistles that go with it.

This includes a smarter, sharper-looking interface, Google Now notifications and advanced search, plus access to the company's vast catalog of digital content, apps, and services. Be advised, though, that the Z Ultra does not feature the Google Experience Launcher; that's only found on the Nexus 5. That means there's no enhanced quick launch bar at the foot of each home screen, nor will swiping all the way to the left fire up Google Now functions. For a full play-by-play breakdown of KitKat and how it handles on the Nexus 5, read our full Android 4.4 review.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
The Z Ultra GPE runs stock KitKat and supports landscape home screens. Brian Bennett/CNET

The Z Ultra GPE does have one interesting software twist. Like its bigger tablet sibling, the Nexus 7 (and further evidence that the Ultra is more slate than phone) turning the gadget on its side activates a landscape view of the home screens and app tray.

Camera
Unfortunately I wasn't impressed by the pictures I shot with the Z Ultra's 8-megapixel main camera. In shots taken outdoors and under strong midday sunlight I saw a decent amount of detail but I wasn't blown away by the crispness of objects and surfaces. The same goes for colors in images I captured under the same conditions. They lacked the same level of vibrancy and richness the Galaxy Note 3 typically grabs.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
The Z Ultra GPE uses the basic KitKat camera app. Sarah Tew/CNET

Indoors and in low light the situation deteriorated, with photos I snapped exhibiting plenty of noise and blur. Apparently without the flash engaged and in challenging environments like this, the Z Ultra tends to pump up the ISO and increase the exposure time. That's the usual cause for the image quality symptoms I described.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
Image noise and blur plagued low-light shots. Brian Bennett/CNET

I'm sure that the stock Android KitKat camera app and inherently weak photo processing plays a part here. Even so, the application does provide some handy shooting modes such as HDR, Panorama, and Photo Sphere (3D panorama). You can also manually select the exposure settings and choose image sizes beginning at QVGA and topping out at 8MP.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
Details and colors were better in strong sunlight. Brian Bennett/CNET

Sony Z Ultra GPE
With enough light the camera could capture distinct water droplets. Brian Bennett/CNET

Core components and performance
Driving the Sony Z Ultra's Android KitKat operating system is a fire-breathing 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 processor buttressed by a healthy 2GB dose of RAM. This, I'm sure, helped the Z Ultra to feel nimble in my hands. The sleek yet massive mobile machine proved to have the soul of a hot rod. Home screens, settings menus, and apps opened in a flash and I never experienced any delays or hang-ups while using the phone in everyday situations.

Oddly enough, synthetic benchmark performance contradicted the experience I had with the Z Ultra in the real world. For instance the device managed a Quadrant score of 9,010 -- a respectable showing, but much lower than what I would have expected from a handset with such a high-octane CPU. The HTC One (12,194) and the Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381) zoomed past the Ultra on the same test, even though both devices use slower CPUs. The Note 3 and the LG G2 trounced these devices, however, achieving 23,048 and 19,050, respectively. Even so it's wise to take these numbers with a grain of salt, especially considering how tempting it is for device makers to cheat the benchmarking game.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
The Z Ultra GPE's Quadrant scores were nimble but lower than expected. Brian Bennett/CNET

Data speeds
As an unlocked GSM handset the Sony Z Ultra GPE can connect to either T-Mobile or AT&T networks in the US. The phone also supports both carriers' 4G LTE data. In my particular case I used an active T-Mobile Micro-SIM card to test the Z Ultra's network worthiness.

To both T-Mobile's and the Xperia's credit, I managed to pull down an average 10.3 Mbps in downtown San Francisco. Uploads were even higher, clocking in at an average throughput of 13.5Mbps in the same location.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
4G LTE over T-Mobile's network was swift. Brian Bennett/CNET

Call quality
I tested the unlocked Sony Z Ultra GPE on T-Mobile's GSM cellular network in San Francisco and experienced solid but not outstanding call quality. When I spoke through the mouthpiece, callers described my voice to be clear, warm, and free of any noticeable imperfections. Additionally they didn't hear any pops, scratches, or background hiss and it wasn't immediately obvious that I spoke to them over a cellular line.

People I heard on my end also came through cleanly, though both the Z Ultra's earpiece and speakerphone were on the soft side in terms of volume. Callers also explained that my voice sounded more distant while chatting via the handset's speakerphone and even detected an occasional clip they didn't pick up on before.

Sony Z Ultra GPE (T-Mobile) call quality sample Listen now:

Battery life
Sony claims that users can expect up to 14 hours of talk time from the Z Ultra's 3,000 mAh battery and a standby time of 660 hours over LTE. In anecdotal use, however, the phone fell short of its rated longevity. I found that the Z Ultra could barely make it through a full 8-hour workday, granted one packed with lots of testing and heavy use.

For this reason I'll reserve my final judgment on the Z Ultra GPE's staying power until I have the chance to subject it to more rigorous scientific battery drain benchmarking.

Sony Z Ultra GPE
Talking on the oversize Z Ultra GPE looks pretty comical. Sarah Tew/CNET

The verdict and who should buy it
Initially I was very intrigued by Sony's decision to create a Google Play Edition of the Xperia Z Ultra, and by Google's choice to sell it. After analyzing the Z Ultra GPE, though, from many angles the device has sadly lost all its prospective appeal. Sure, this phone sports an excellent screen that paints imagery with a sharp and colorful brush. It's also breathtakingly thin and shoehorns powerful processing along with Android KitKat into a lovely design with sophisticated aesthetics.

Still, as is the case with the HTC One Max, it's easy to overreach when crafting a product straddling the line between smartphone and tablet. I'm sorry, but 6.4 inches is simply too much screen to handle for a standard cell phone. I haven't even mentioned the unbridled guffaws I sparked among friends when I fished out the Ultra from my bag in public. Worse, though, is the Z Ultra GPE's sky-high unlocked price of $649, which is downright scandalously expensive. For this substantial bundle of cash I wholeheartedly suggest buying a $399 Nexus 5 instead and a Nexus 7 tablet. Then you can either pocket the extra $20 or blow it on apps, movies, or games for your shiny new mobile toys.


Sony Xperia Z Ultra GPE
7.3

Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7
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