Sony Xperia Z1 review: Walking on water

GSMArena team, 19 September 2013.

Unboxing the Sony Xperia Z1

The Xperia Z1 box is quite small and slim, considering there's a fairly large device inside. While compact packaging is impressive, there's a downside - part of why the box is so small is because Sony chose not to include a headset. While people who care about sound would probably use their own, we still expected to have one in the box, this is an expensive flagship after all.

What you get is the phone itself, a compact charger and a microUSB cable for charging and data transfer. We certainly hope your regional retail package does better than that.

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The compact box doesn't have a headset inside

Sony Xperia Z1 360-degree spin

The Sony Xperia Z1 measures 144 x 74 x 8.5 mm - it's thin but almost 6mm taller and 3mm wider than the LG G2 (with a 5.2" screen). The 170g of weight is above average too. Yes, the Lumia 920 was heavier, but the xenon-packing Lumia 1020 and 928 are both around 160g.

Design and handling

OmniBalance permeates the Sony Xperia line, making high-end phones stand out and more affordable phones look premium. The Xperia Z1 is as high as it gets in the smartphone food chain and Sony has spared no expense building it.

The aluminum chassis is carved out of a solid block of aluminum and it really is just a frame - most of the material is removed, leaving only a light but tough frame. The two scratch-resistant glass panels on the front and back, the big battery and the water-resistant seals are surely to blame for making the Xperia Z1 heavier than the competition.

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Sony Xperia Z1 sized up against the HTC One, LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy S4

Aluminum and glass do look and feel good though, plastic would have made for a lighter phone but nine out of ten times it completely lacks the premium feel of the Z1 materials.

Another thing that deserves commendation is that Sony has worked in a good deal of easily accessible ports and slots - the microSIM and microSD card slots can be opened with bare hands, unlike most unibody phones that require a SIM ejector and omit the memory slot altogether. Those slots are protected by plastic flaps with rubber seals to keep water out and, better yet, flow smoothly with the design.

There's more, the Sony Xperia Z1 is one of the few phones (especially Androids) that has a hardware shutter key. Yes, on-screen controls have become quite good and enable things like touch focus, but a hardware key is still one of our preferred ways to snap a photo.

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Easy to access microSIM and microSD card slots

That's all well-deserved praise for Sony's work on the Xperia Z1 design, but we do have an issue with it - quite simply, it's a little too big. It's bigger than the Xperia Z, which was already on the big side and ergonomics suffer from the extra width, especially with the angles on the side of the frame that dig into your palm a bit.

Holding the Z1 is a different experience than most 5" phones, which are already too big or at least on the very line for some people. To be honest, the Z1 is quite a handful and the chunky 170g of weight doesn't help the in-hand feel either.

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Sony Xperia Z1 in the hand

Pocketability is also hurt a bit by the size of the handset - the Xperia Z1 is thin enough to slip into most pockets but every time you bend your leg the phone will remind you of its presence.

All that said, we can hold and use the Z1 but it's dangerously close to the experience you get with phablets like the LG Optimus G and Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which call for two-hand usage and at least make up for the less than perfect ergonomics by offering substantially more screen real estate.

Hardware overview

The Sony Xperia Z1 is a typical Xperia member - you can see a screen on the front and almost nothing else, but hidden are the RGB notification light, sensors and a front-facing camera.

The front-facer is a 2.1MP unit, enough resolution for 1080p video. The status LED is hidden inside the earpiece this time rather than having a dedicated spot. It's a bit small and, being inside the recessed earpiece, visibility at an angle is worse. We would have liked to see a large strip below the screen - there's plenty of room there (which is currently blank space) and big RGB strips are both attractive and easy to see as previous Xperia designs have demonstrated.

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Earpiece with a hidden RGB notification light, sensors and front-facing camera nothing below the screen

Let's move on to the sides of the handset. Sony is using a new two-stage process to anodize the aluminum and has painted the middle of the sides for a two-tone look, which works very well.

The right side is the busiest. In the upper corner is the microSIM card slot under its protective flap. Just below it is the aluminum power key (a signature element of the OmniBalance design) and the volume rocker (which is a bit too small and thin for our taste). And at the bottom of the right side - or the right corner if you hold the Xperia Z1 horizontally to take a shot - is the two-stage shutter key.

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Right side: microSIM card slot, aluminum power key, shutter key

On the left side of the device are two more flaps, one for the microSD card slot (marked by a subtle microSD label and logo) and one for the microUSB port. All the flaps are rubber-lined to keep water out, but that means you have to open them to use what's underneath - changing a SIM or SD card is rare, but plugging in the microUSB port is fairly common (mostly to charge the phone).

To compensate for that, Sony has left two pogo pins exposed that can charge the phone without worrying about flaps, provided you have a compatible accessory like the charging dock. That dock has magnets that match the magnets in the phone itself, so that the two snap together with the pogo pins perfectly aligned.

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Left side: microSD card slot and microUSB port, plus pogo pins for charging

The top of the phone holds the 3.5mm audio jack that has been left exposed. That's not a cause for concern though as the jack has been waterproofed (on the Xperia Z, the jack was under a flap, which was annoying). The loudspeaker at the bottom is bigger than the speaker on the Xperia Z1, but we've yet to see if that's just the grille or the speaker really is more powerful (we'll get to that in the telephony chapter).

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The water-resistant 3.5mm audio jack is left exposed same goes for the loudspeaker on the bottom

The back of the phone is one big slab of scratch-resistant glass. Sony doesn't say who made this particular glass, but on the Xperia Z it was reportedly something called Dragon Glass.

Anyway, the back also holds the headline feature of the Sony Xperia Z1, the 20.7MP camera lens. It has a wide 27mm wide Sony G Lens with a fast F/2.0 aperture and a Sony Exmor RS backside illuminated (BSI) sensor, which as we've already mentioned, is 70% bigger than the majority of smartphone camera sensors.

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The back of the Xperia Z1 is made of scratch-resistant glass and holds the impressive camera

Fast aperture and a big BSI sensor is what you want to hear if you're looking for great low-light photography. A small, single-LED flash is not. We'll see if the Z1 can deliver on its promises.

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