Sony Xperia Z1S review: Does the Uncarrier finally have its Unphone?

Review
Sony Xperia Z1S Review

It’s understandable if you missed the unveiling of Sony’s revamped Xperia Z1S for T-Mobile in early January. After all, it was buried in a sea of seemingly unending announcements from this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show. But if you did miss Sony’s latest and greatest flagship Android phone, it’s worth doubling back. Sony’s presence in the U.S. smartphone market is hardly where the company wants it to be, and the Xperia Z1S represents Sony’s first effort of 2014 as the Japan-based consumer tech giant looks to gain momentum around the world.

Sony said during CES 2014 that it will aim to double its smartphone sales volume over the next two years. A T-Mobile exclusive almost certainly won’t go very far in helping the company achieve that goal.

But interestingly, the Z1S may actually be a fantastic fit for T-Mobile. The company brands itself as the “Uncarrier” — a scrappy underdog looking to shake up the industry. T-Mobile is not without its problems, of course, but as we learned recently when CEO John Legere announced that T-Mobile added 4.4 million net new subscribers last year, its strategy is working very well.

Could the Sony Xperia Z1S be the Uncarrier’s “Unphone” — a handset that comes from out of nowhere, defies convention and finds success against all odds?

Sony sent me an Xperia Z1S a couple of weeks ago but with CES 2014 in full swing, I didn’t have any time to look at the phone. I have since finally found the time to spend a few days testing the device though, and here are some quick thoughts:

Design and Hardware

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At first glance, the Xperia Z1S looks pretty boring — a flat rectangular handset with barely rounded corners. Upon closer inspection, there is a good amount of attention to detail that sets this phone apart from most.

The face of the handset is covered almost entirely by a single sheet of glass that is then mirrored on the back of the phone. Only the front has an oleophobic coating, however, so the glass back cover gets coated with dirt and oil fairly quickly.

The edges of the Z1S are hard plastic that is silver and black in color, though the silver has a hint of blue in it under the right lighting. It’s a nice look that fits well with the design identity of other Sony devices, from smartphones to TVs.

My biggest and perhaps only real gripe with the design is that the overall footprint of the phone is very large for the screen size. In a world where we’re approaching nearly edgeless displays on some smartphones, the Xperia Z1S has a lot of empty space around the screen.

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In a market dominated by cheap feeling plastics even at the high end, it’s nice to see Sony join the likes of Apple and HTC by opting for a more premium feel.

The glass on the front and the back of the Xperia Z1S definitely helps set it apart from plasticky rivals, and it also adds a good amount of heft to the device. If you like a handset with some weight to it, this is a good thing. For an idea of just how heavy the Z1S is, it weighs 162 grams. That compares to 112 grams for the iPhone 5s, 130 grams for Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and 168 grams for the Galaxy Note 3.

The bottom of the phone holds a speaker and microphone while the top is home to a standard audio port. A power button, volume rocker and dedicated two-stage camera button sit on the right side of the Z1S along with a covered SIM card slot. The left edge is home to a covered charging port, a covered microSD card slot and a dock connector. We’ll get back to those covers later.

On the back of the phone, the only things that accompany Xperia, T-Mobile and NFC branding are a camera lens, an LED flash and a secondary microphone for noise cancellation and audio recording during video capture.

Software

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The software on Sony’s Xperia Z1S is definitely a mixed bag.

On one hand, the 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor helps Android 4.3 Jelly Bean fly around on the Z1S with ease. During normal operation, I haven’t had any issues at all with bogging or slowness. But Sony’s user interface layer on top of Android is a bit, well, boring and bland.

The Z1S interface lacks any sort of creativity. It seems almost like Sony went through the motions just so that its phones wouldn’t have stock Android. It’s not ugly at all. It’s just not pretty.

This is particularly disappointing because one look at Sony’s Walkman app on the Xperia Z1S makes it incredibly clear that the company is capable of creating gorgeous, sleek designs. This app has a fantastic minimalistic interface with backgrounds that morph and change color over time.

It also has some terrific attention to detail. For example, tapping the play button on a track triggers a quick but clever 3D animation that transitions the play icon into a pause icon as it rotates to the right. Pausing a song then reverses the animation.

If the entire user interface on the Xperia Z1S looked like the Walkman app, I doubt I would be able to put this phone down. As it stands, I have no trouble putting this phone down.

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Sony does add some nice features to Android 4.3 such as the ability to monitor and limit mobile data during each billing period, as well as power management features that can dramatically extend the phone’s already solid battery life (the Z1S carried be through a full day of use — and then some — with no problem at all).

There are also some very poor choices that Sony made with the Z1S’s software though. As a quick example, you can’t uninstall an app by long-tapping it in the menu. Instead, you have to do it from within Google Play or the app manager inside the Settings app.

Display

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“5.0 inch Full HD TRILUMINOS™ Display for mobile with X-Reality™ for mobile picture engine.” That is the exact wording Sony uses to describe the display on the Xperia Z1S. It’s a mouthful and I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what it means, but beneath all that marketing jargon lies a display that may or may not deserve the Sony name.

The Xperia Z1S screen is a mixed bag. With full HD resolution and a pixel density of 441 ppi, the phone’s 5-inch display is remarkably sharp. And just like Sony’s terrific LED TV line, the Z1S’s panel is also extremely bright. I find that light colors on the display are a bit washed out though, especially at a dimmer brightness settings.

Another odd issue with the display is the viewing angle. You don’t typically think of viewing angle as an issue cell phones might have, but the quality of the picture on the Xperia Z1S is severely degraded at an angle. Whites begin to yellow almost immediately as you turn the phone away from your face, to the point where sharing your display with a few other people to watch a video together really isn’t enjoyable.

Camera

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Of the camera on the Xperia Z1S, Sony says it’s “the world’s best camera in a waterproof smartphone.” I give the Z1S’s camera much more credit than that.

This handset packs a 20.7-megapixel camera with Sony’s own mobile image sensor, and it takes impressive photos. Just as the Z1S display is a mixed bag though, so too is the camera.

Photos captured by the 20.7-megapixel shooter are downsampled to 8 megapixels, but the resulting images are very sharp — more so than most camera phones I have tested. Color reproduction is an entirely different issue, however, and I find that colors in photos taken by the Z1S are washed out just like they are on the phone’s display.

Perhaps this is an issue that will be resolved in a future software update but for the time being, it mars an otherwise fantastic camera.

Sony’s Xperia Z1S also features a host of different camera modes and add-ons like other handsets, but some are particularly impressive. One example is called Background Defocus, which lets you identify the subject of your photo and have the background automatically blurred. The result is a great effect that mimics an SLR camera and it does an impressive job without any user intervention. Similar apps often require the user to manually trace the subject of the photo and then they blur the background digitally; Sony’s camera add-on actually captures multiple images while adjusting the focus.

Waterproofing

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Sony’s Xperia Z1S is waterproof. Not “water-resistant,” but waterproof. The distinction is fairly huge.

Many water-resistant phones on the market can withstand a splash or even a quick dunk and come out completely unscathed. Make no mistake, that capability is hugely important and it has the potential to save a lot of people a lot of money.

But the Z1S is waterproof. That means you can actually bring it with you in a swimming pool and capture photos or videos underwater (with your subject’s permission, please).

I tested the Z1S’s waterproofing by dunking it in a bowl of water and leaving it for a few minutes, and it came out just fine.

Of course there is one extremely minor compromise that user will have to make to enjoy the phone’s waterproofing, and that’s the requirement that they pop off a tethered cover above the charging port each time they connect a charger, and another one above the microSD slot each time they want to remove or replace the memory card.

To me, that’s a very small price to pay for real waterproofing that extends the functionality of a phone and saves its life in the event of an accidental spill or dunk.

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There is absolutely no question that the Sony Xperia  Z1S is a solid smartphone and a good choice for anyone looking for a flagship phone from America’s most important wireless carrier. Back to my initial question regarding whether or not this might be the Uncarrier’s “Unphone,” the answer is no, I’m afraid.

Like T-Mobile, Sony finds itself lagging behind enormous rivals in the U.S market. Also like T-Mobile, Sony has focused on a pain point — water damage — and solved it. But T-Mobile goes much further.

There are many, many things that make T-Mobile stand out compared to rivals. Its marketing message is clear and very, very loud. And the carrier beats all other nationwide wireless companies in an area that is near and dear to every consumer’s heart: price.

Sony’s Xperia Z1S has a lot going for it, but the device really doesn’t do enough to appeal to smartphone buyers in ways that leading phones do not. Waterproofing is a big innovation, but it’s also the only innovation as far as most consumers are concerned. Yes the display is big and bright, but plenty of other phones have big, bright displays. Sure, the 20.7-megapixel camera takes sharp photos, but many other handsets take great photos as well.

The list goes on and on.

T-Mobile began selling the Sony Xperia Z1S yesterday, January 22nd, for $0 down and 24 monthly payments of $22, totaling $528. The handset is a T-Mobile exclusive and will not be available from other carriers. That is a good price for a good phone — but it’s not a great phone and it doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the pack. I expect sales of the Z1S to reflect that.

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