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Xperia Z1 hands-on review: The best Android handset available today

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For years now, Sony has been considered the underdog of the Android arena. The consumer electronics giant was not able to break into the major leagues with its handsets, and saw lukewarm consumer interest in its devices even after bringing its mobile division in-house. That all changed this year, however, as Sony launched a renewed bid on the smartphone front with the Xperia Z.

The 5-inch water and dust resistant device showcased what Sony could achieve, and while the device had a few inherent flaws with the screen and battery life, Sony has continued to tweak away. The culmination of its year-long efforts is the Xperia Z1. The Xperia Z1 brings a lot of features from Sony’s product lines. It utilizes the Cybershot image stabilization usually found in Sony’s Cybershot digital cameras, and has a Bionz image processing unit that is normally found in its DSLRs. The screen on the Xperia Z1 features Sony’s Triluminos technology, and has a mobile X-Reality engine that is used in Sony’s TVs. The mobile is the best Sony has ever made, and announces Sony’s intentions of becoming a major player in the Android arena. But is it worth its high asking price? Let’s find out:

Design

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The Xperia Z1 retains the OmniBalance design ethos that Sony has featured in high-end Xperia devices this year. The Xperia Z1 is very similar in styling to the Xperia Z, although the Xperia Z1 comes with an aluminium frame around the sides that adds to the rigidity of the device, and makes it easier to hold. The Xperia Z1 is also heavier at 170 gms, which is a good thing as it now comes with a much larger 3,000 mAh battery to the 2,330 mAh battery on the Xperia Z.

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The Xperia Z1 comes with a glass front and back, and the device is water, dust and shatter proof. The device is certified IP58, which means it can be submerged in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes. Although the device is shatter resistant, it does pick up scratches quite easily. Another new feature on the device is a dedicated camera button, which can be activated to launch the camera UI even when the device is off. Also, the 3.5 mm audio jack is not covered as it was on the Xperia Z, which should make it easier for users to access it.

Hardware and performance

The Sony Xperia Z1 comes with the best hardware that is currently available. Sony has been criticized in the past for featuring out-dated hardware on its mobiles, and this is thankfully not the case on the Xperia Z1. The Xperia Z1 comes with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 mobile SoC, which is the best that Qualcomm has to offer. The same chip is found in other high-end devices that have been launched of late, which include the LG G2 and the international version of the Galaxy Note 3.

The Snapdragon 800 features a 2.2 GHz quad-core krait 400 CPU and an Adreno 330 GPU. The only processor that is faster than this is the A7 SoC which is used in the iPhone 5s. The A7 features a dual-core 64-bit processor that uses ARM’s v8 instruction set. Qualcomm said that it would inculcate 64-bit processing architecture in its offerings next year, so for now the Snapdragon 800 is the reigning king when it comes to Android hardware.

The Xperia Z1 also comes with 2 GB RAM, 16 GB internal storage along with a micro-SD card slot that can facilitate an additional 64 GB of storage. The device has Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Wi-Fi Direct, USB OTG and NFC. The device can be connected to your HDTV thanks to MHL connectivity, and you can also use mirror your screen on other Miracast devices. The inclusion of DLNA means that you can use this feature to stream content across various DLNA-enabled devices.

The laundry list of new features as well as the high-end hardware means that it is a delight to use the Xperia Z1 on a day to day basis. Sony has even tweaked the UI so that it is now lag-free, and has cut down on the unnecessary transition animations. This leads to one of the best manufacturer custom UIs available on an Android device today. Sony has managed to include a lot of features and not make the device feel like it was filled with bloatware. Samsung can learn a lot from Sony in this regard.

The device is fast when it comes to all facets of everyday usage. Gaming is a cinch, with the most demanding games loading with nary a stutter. Browsing and watching videos and images on the 5-inch full-HD screen is a delight, and the device has the best camera to be included in an Android device to date. The only other device which comes close to it in terms of imaging prowess is the Lumia 1020.

Display

The Xperia Z1 features a 5-icnh TFT LCD full-HD screen with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. This gives the device a pixel density of 441 ppi. The screen on the device comes with Sony’s Triluminos display technology, which allows for a wider gamut of colours to be shown on the device. It has been found that screens that utilized this technology feature a colour gamut that is 50 percent higher than what conventional LCDs achieve.

The Xperia Z1 also features another technology that is usually found in Sony’s TVs, which is the X-Reality engine. This is an image processing technology that reduces noise and creates better saturation and contrast level s in images and videos. Sony has been tweaking this technology for years now, and its inclusion on the Xperia Z1 should give the device an edge over other high-end mobiles.

The screen is much better than the one featured on the Xperia Z, which suffered from low contrast levels. The Xperia Z1 does not suffer from the same issues, although there is one area in which the screen does not deliver. When you tilt the screen even a few inches to the left or right, colours start to look washed out. Bad viewing angles have been a mainstay of Sony’s mobile devices of late, and the problem is still not fixed on the Xperia Z1.

Camera

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Imaging prowess had been thoroughly redefined on the Xperia Z1, which comes with a sensor that has a resolution of 20.7 megapixels. The Exmor RS 1/2.3-inch sensor is one of the biggest to be included in a mobile device, and the results are evident from the start. Images and videos on the Xperia Z1 are incredibly detailed, and the device is one of the best when taking images in low-light conditions. Image stabilization is also featured on the device.

Sony has seen fit to throw in technology from its camera lines onto the device, and as such the Xperia Z1 features G Lens and a Bionz image processing unit that is usually found in its DSLRs. The G Lens assists when taking images in low-light conditions, while the Bionz processing unit allows for reducing noise and brings more detail to images. The device also comes with an intelligent Auto mode that automatically selects the best white balance, ISO and autofocus settings.

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In addition to the great camera, Sony has also included a set of new features that make good use of the technologies included in the device. The camera UI now comes with features like Time Shift mode, which is a burst mode that takes a total of 61 images in 2 seconds. The camera takes 30 images before you click the shutter and one when you click the shutter, and 30 after. You can select the best image out of the 61 or use all the images taken.

Info Eye is an augmented reality feature which gives you information on an image. If you’re near a tourist location, for instance, taking an image of that location and using Info Eye will give you all the relevant information about that location directly on the image. Social Live allows you to livestream to your Facebook wall, and shows real-time notifications from your friends.

Software

The Xperia Z1 comes with Sony’s custom UI, and this version has been retooled so that it is now much smoother than earlier iterations. Sony has added in a lot of customizations, which include new themes, backgrounds, custom sounds and the ability to set custom toggles. A new addition on the Xperia Z1 is PlayMemories, which allows you to share all your images and videos to Sony’s cloud servers, which can then be accessed from any device.

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The Xperia Z1 offers a high amount of customization, as you can now re-order your homescreens, and select a total of seven homescreens. The device comes with a lot of custom widgets that allow you to easily access commonly used settings. You can also customize what quick toggles show on the notification area.

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The launcher has a useful menu, which allows you to categorize your content the way you want it, and allows you to search for content faster.

You can connect a PlayStation 3 controller to the device and start playing games wirelessly. Considering the Play Store has some great games in its catalogue, this will come as a welcome addition to gamers. Sony has also included security features like remote erase, which lets you delete all data on the device remotely.

The only software issue with the device is that it currently comes with Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, which is getting dated as other manufacturers are beginning to include Android 4.3 Jelly Bean on their high-end devices.

Battery and connectivity

The Xperia Z1 comes with a 3,000 mAh battery, which Sony claims gives a talk-time of 13 hours on 2G and 15 hours on 3G. The device will last a day of heavy usage which involves gaming, watching videos and browsing along with calls.

Sony’s Stamina Mode power saving utility is featured on this device as well, and allows you to conserve battery usage when the device is idle. Through Stamina Mode, you can kill background services, and also whitelist services that you want running when the device is idle.

In terms of connectivity, the Xperia Z1 has everything that you might need. Although the device comes with LTE, it lacks the LTE bands that enable it to work on India’s TD-LTE networks. As such, you would not be able to use this device on India’s 4G networks, which are slowly starting to take off. The 4G services will most likely become mainstream in 2014, and we should see a host of 4G-enabled devices in the country then. Other connectivity features on the Xperia Z1 include Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and micro-USB 2.0.

Conclusion

The Xperia Z1 is the most complete device to come out of Sony. It has a gorgeous design, comes with a great screen, a large battery and features one of the best cameras to be included on a mobile. Sony is sweetening the deal by throwing in a load of freebies that include a 5,000 mAh battery pack, leather carrying case, and free 3G data. Sony is also bundling in 10 PlayStation Mobile games, 60-day access to its Music Unlimited service and six free movies. Sony has managed to turn things around in under a year, and the Xperia Z1 is a testament to that. The device can hold its own against other high-end offerings in the market today, like the LG G2 and the Galaxy Note 3, and manages to pull in a few punches of its own.