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

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MSRP: $649.00

The Good The Sony Z Ultra Google Play Edition 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.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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