Boy, is it hard to be a phone maker that is neither Apple or Samsung these days. What you need is a killer phone with best in class features. Luckily for Sony, it has made exactly this.
Small, black and square might be the way we describe most new smartphones, but Sony manages to find its own unique design within these parameters. The Z1 is squarer than many phones on the market in 2013, and is covered front and back with glossy black glass, which gives the phone a fantastic look and feel -- despite its attraction to greasy fingerprints.
The Z1 is one of the rare phones that looks just as good with the screen turned off as it does with the screen turned on. Without power, the screen is jet-black, without even the slightest hit that an LCD screen is below the glass.
It gets better when you hit the power button and see the 1080p resolution LCD screen in action too. Sony call this a 'Triluminos Display' and with 441-pixels per inch, text and images look razor sharp on the 5-inch screen. Like we saw on the Xperia Z Ultra, the screen on the Z1 isn't particularly bright, though. This means you might have to set the screen to 60% brightness to get the same picture you might get on a competitor's phone at 30%, and this can put extra strain on the battery.
Side-by-side with the Samsung Galaxy S4 -- one of this year's top sellers -- the screen in the Z1 is whiter, with somewhat truer colours. It lacks some of the contrast in the S4 screen though, so you can lose some of the depth when viewing images.
Sony's button placement the phone is a little unorthodox, with no mechanical navigation keys (it relies on software buttons for Home and Back, etc) while it puts the Power and Volume buttons under your fingers on the right side of the phone. It also has an indentation on the opposite side of the phone for a docking port, but annoyingly, this means that you always have something digging into your fingers, no matter how you hold the phone.
Like Z Ultra, the Z1 is waterproof, with ads for the phone showing people taking photos and videos underwater. To keep the phone safe from liquids, Sony puts tiny flaps over the phone's USB port, SIM card and memory card slots. This makes sense, but it is a pain to have to pick out these flaps every time you want to charge the handset -- something you will likely be doing everyday. Still, for those who have lost a phone to the darkest depths of a public toilet, this might be a small price to pay.
Sony's User Experience
As much as you might pick a phone based on how good the handset looks and feels, the user experience is arguably more important. The way you interact with a phone is more likely to sway your opinion of a device over the long run, than how it looks on your bedside table.
With this in mind, Sony deserve a big tick and a pat on the back. The user experience in the Z1 (and others in Sony's range) stands out among the other Android handsets available. Sony keeps things pretty simple with its home screen software and app drawer, but there are a few interesting usability tweaks on show.
For example, when you go into the app drawer, is laid out like you will find on almost all other Android phones. But if you swipe to the left, rather than the right, you'll discover a list of customisation options that re-order the apps drawer and apply filters to help you find your apps faster.
There is also loads of links to Facebook scattered through out Sony-designed apps, like Album, where there is a one-touch Facebook picture upload, and Walkman, where you can automatically post the music you are listing to to your wall.
Sony's virtual keyboard receives our 'most improved' award, after a big leap forward in usability. Previous keyboard software on Sony smartphones sat somewhere between tedious and appalling, but not so in the Z1.
The keyboard here enjoys a number of enhancements, including 'Gesture Typing' for creating words by swiping across the keys rather than tapping, and 'My Words' which scans your email, Twitter and Facebook to try and lean about the words you are most likely to use.
Bigger, badder 4G (Connectivity)
The smartphone buying world has an insatiable desire for things that go fast -- and then faster. 4G LTE technology has only been widely available for a couple of years, but already we're facing newer, speedier variants of the network advancements.
The Xperia Z1 is one of the first devices we've seen using Category 4 LTE -- the vast majority of current 4G devices are Cat 3. The step up from Cat 3 to Cat 4 is actually a 50% improvement in the potential speed to the device, with the Z1 being capable of download speeds of up to 150Mbps.
In everyday use, it is unlikely you will ever see speeds that match this, though you will feel the speed bump, we think. We saw speed test results of around 90Mbps in Sydney, which is crazy fast when you compare it to fixed line ADSL connections. Matched with the phone's powerful processor, and this makes for some very quick web browsing and media streaming.
Speaking of media, if you have a network attached storage (NAS) drive set up at home, you'll be excited to learn that the Z1 will connect to it without any tinkering with settings. Once the phone is connected to the same network over Wi-Fi, all of your videos, music and pictures stored on the drive will show up in the corresponding apps on the phone (Walkman, Album, Movies).
For the most part, the Z1 is a phone devoid of gimmicks and hyperbole-riddled marketing hype. But, there is a 20-megapixel camera, and as much as we want to embrace new technology, there is something about Sony's 'biggest is best' approach to photography that makes us a little skeptical.
The high-resolution image sensor isn't the only drawer card for this camera, with Sony working in a number of the same features that we've seen in other phones this year. There's a new Burst mode which takes a bunch of pics and lets you pic the best. You can use the same mode to remove elements from the background (like a photobombing stranger) or to find the best smile for each of the people in your photo.
But, the best new feature is a party trick that uses augmented reality to add animated elements into your photos, like dinosaurs, elves and underwater creatures. It is a goofy idea, but it is guaranteed to get a laugh.
For everyday photos, the Z1 does a decent job of taking pics for your social media accounts, but the image processing is just not up to scratch for anything more serious. This isn't too surprising, and not something we expect from a camera phone. 20-megapixels sounds like enough coloured dots to print out some impressive photos -- but we don't think it is quite capable of this.
Oh, but it can take photos underwater, so there's that.
Performance and battery
Despite Sony's solid reputation within tech circles, the company's smartphones have never been the fastest or most powerful, until now. Sony opts for a new Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, with quad-cores clocked at 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM and an Adreno 330 graphics core. The result is a silky-smooth smartphone experience to rival any of the big names in this game.
All elements of this phone snap immediately to life when you press on the icons. The Album, full of pictures, springs to life; an Address Book with 1,000 contacts appears immediately; and it jumps back to the Home Screens when commanded to. There is no waiting around when using this phone.
Call quality is good when using the Z1, although we do find you have to position the phone accurately on your ear to make sure you are accessing the speaker well to hear others on a call clearly. For hands-free calling, the speaker is along the bottom edge of the phone, and is quite loud. We've found it useful for calls, but also for listening to music when no speakers are available.
With a 3000mAh battery capacity, battery life should be one of the strong points of the Z1. Most phones this size have batteries ranging in capacity between 2000-2500mAh, so the unit here is significantly larger.
Strangely, this doesn't equate to 25% extra battery life, though the Z1 does do a pretty good job of staying awake. With moderate usage, we can easily get a day and a half out of the Z1, and even a full day with heavy use. It's a shame it doesn't last for longer, given the size of the battery, but we're guessing Sony's 'Triluminos Display' is a little more power hungry than the screens on phones by Samsung and HTC.
For the first time we can remember, Sony has a phone that stands toe-to-toe with the big names in this industry. We've wanted to like Sony phones before, but there was always something holding them back -- often performance. Not so with the Z1; it is as fast and powerful as any Samsung, has the good looks of the iPhone and HTCs, and is unique in a few keys ways too, like being water and shock-proof.
We wish the camera was a little better, though. Avid photographers will be annoyed with how close it comes to matching the industry's best camera phones, but ultimately how it falls short. We've found that you can sometimes overcome a few of the camera's quirks by tinkering with the manual controls, but this is only to take photos as good as an iPhone photographer takes by simply putting the lens and pressing the shutter.