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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

First Impressions: Xperia Z1, Z Ultra Phones

I impressed by the T-mobile international roaming plan. Coupled that with the fact that if you put a lot of people on a family plan, the costs are as low as what we were getting with Ting, without Ting's minute or data caps, so we made the determination to switch to T-mobile.

In any European country, the switch would be easily done by swapping out SIM cards. In the US, we're stuck buying new phones since the Ting phones are not GSM compliant. I wasn't going to do a lot of shopping, expecting to end up with either Moto G or the Nexus 5, but my wife had gotten used to a large screen Galaxy Note 2, and wasn't going back to a small screen. I thought about getting a Galaxy Note 3, but in the 2 years we'd had the Note 2, we'd had to replace it once for water damage, and I thought we could do better.

I noticed that Sony kept advertising its flagship phones as being waterproof, so a quick check on Amazon brought surprising results. The Xperia Z Ultra sells for $367 on Amazon (and much less if you're willing to buy the international version with no US warranty). In exchange for that (compared to the $349 Nexus 5), you get:

  • Much bigger screen (6.4" vs 5")
  • Waterproof (IP 58: submersion to 1.5m or 5')
  • Bigger battery (3050mAh)
  • Writeable with any ballpoint pen or pencil
  • No barometer (does anyone use the barometer on the Nexus 5?)
  • No flash for the camera
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Slower updates to the OS
There's a Google Play Edition of the Ultra Z for those who must have OS updates faster, but all the reviews say that stock android is no good for huge screen phones compared to Sony's skinned version, so we didn't consider it. The bigger screen cuts both ways, but if you ever read Chinese, you know how much difference a big screen makes.

That took care of Xiaoqin, but I didn't want the Z Ultra because it wouldn't fit in a cycling jersey pocket. I initially thought about using the travel Nokia 521 I used in Europe, but my mom was going on a trip so took off with it. I thought about buying another 521, but for long term daily use Android is still where the apps are.

The Xperia Z1 sells on Amazon for about $392. Compared with the Nexus 5, you get:
  • Waterproof (IP58)
  • Bigger battery (3000mAh)
  • Better camera (21mp, bigger sensor)
  • Slower update for the OS
  • No warranty (international version)
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Dedicated camera shutter button
You can solve the warranty issue by buying the product with a credit card that extends the warranty, though apparently some internet forums claim that Sony would warranty the product anyway.

For me, waterproofing trumps nearly everything else, and the dedicated camera shutter button means I'll be able to shoot from the bike, just like when I'm touring. That's handy. Against that is the possibility of screen cracks, which are apparently as common amongst Xperia users as they are on iPhone users. (For a while I never saw an iPhone without a cracked screen)

In any case, as you can see, the design of the Xperia phones are such that they easily justify their premium over the Nexus 5. The sealed battery is a pain, and I've ranted about it before, but on the other hand, I'd happily take the sealed battery in favor of a waterproof phone. Note that the Samsung Galaxy S5 is also waterproof (IP67) and does have a replaceable battery, indicating that it is possible to engineer a replaceable battery in a waterproof phone. However, the unlocked Galaxy S5 sells for $577.74 on Amazon, making it a non-contender.

First the hardware. The Xperia Z1 is a relatively thick phone, but otherwise looks good to me. People talk about phone design, but it's hard for me to ever get excited about rectangles. The Z Ultra, however, looks great. It's thin, and doesn't feel too heavy even though it's quite a bit heavier than the Z1. Both have great screens. I was worried about the screen because all the reviews claim that if you look at the phone at an off angle it doesn't look as good. In practice, you only use the phone that way if you lay it down on a table while having breakfast, and that's not a situation where you care much about visual fidelity.

The physical buttons on the phone work, but are the weakest part of the package. The power button, for instance, needs to be pressed pretty hard to respond, and the volume rocker and shutter button feels squishy. This seems to be par for the course for phones.

Uncropped, unprocessed, JPG shot by the Xperia Z1
I didn't use cameras much on smart phones prior to the Xperia Z1. They've never been very impressive, and to be honest, the UI on those phones suck. On-screen buttons are worthless when you need to shoot from a bike. The Z1, however, has a decent camera and a dedicated shutter button, so I gave it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised. The shutter button is laggy in that it takes a second or two before the phone wakes up and goes into photo mode, but that's comparable to the shutter lag on even a high end point and shoot such as the Sony RX100.  When you push the shutter, it shoots the picture, which is very nice, and the photos are very acceptable. I would still carry a RX100 on major trips, but for day to day use, it's more than good enough. Shooting from a bike with a phone with any other camera (the Nokia 521's buttons were even worse than the Xperia's) is pretty much impossible but easily executed on this phone after you get used to the form factor. Even 1080p videos look great. The only thing lacking is a RAW mode, but then again, I have no intention of upgrading Lightroom just to process photos taken with a phone camera anyway, so maybe it's just as well.

Note the lack of image stabilization does hurt the video

The flaps covering the USB port, microSD port, and SIM card trays are surprisingly well designed. You can pry them off with your fingers even without nails, and they snap back in place. The micro USB port of course is subject to wear, but Sony has provided a pogo pin slot which I look forward to trying.

Voice calls are a snap and I didn't notice any degradation of quality compared to the Nokia 521 I used prior to this phone. A nice side effect of going back to an Android phone is that Google Voice now works and folks will no longer try to call me back on a non-Google voice #. I'm definitely dreading the day Google kills this service, just like it has killed all the other services that I like and depended on in the past. The Z Ultra, of course, is a huge phone, and you may feel silly holding one to your ear. It certainly does look silly. So much so that Sony made the SBH52 to accompany the Z Ultra so you wouldn't look silly taking calls. On the one hand, it's funny to see a phone come with a mini-handset, on the other hand, the SBH52 is really well designed.

The software is Android 4.4.4. Strangely enough, the Z1 updated over the air, but the Z Ultra asked to be connected to a computer for the update to work. There's a surprisingly little amount of bloatware, though the default Walkman music player is a lot more annoying than Google Play Music. What did surprise me is the usefulness of the Sony SmartConnect app. For instance, my wife's Galaxy Note 2 used to just throw off all sorts of notifications all night, leading us to charge the phone outside the bedroom. With SmartConnect, you can tell the phone to disable notifications while charging between 10pm and 7am, say, and you'll have a blissfully silent phone without the need to re-enable notifications manually when you unplug the phone the next morning. You can also set the phone to automatically play music when you hook it up to headphones, a bluetooth headset (or even a specific bluetooth connection), etc.

The phone does run exceedingly fast, tackling task switching, movie playing, etc, with barely a hiccup. But coming from a Windows phone, I no longer see having a smoothly operating phone as something special. I just expect it from phones. The irony is that Android is now as much a bloated piece of software as Windows was back in the late 1990s, and it is indeed the must-have applications such as Google voice and Digg Reader that have me using it instead of much cheaper and faster alternatives. Microsoft was smart enough not to kill off apps that had its user base hooked, but Google doesn't have such a history.

Here's the interesting thing about screen size. When I tried the phones in the store, it was clear to me that the Ultra Z was too big for cycling jersey pockets, but I thought the Z1 would be big enough for casual use. But when going to a doctor's appointment, for instance, the Z1 just isn't big enough, and I found myself bringing a laptop or Windows tablet in order to compose content, while my wife was happy with her Ultra Z.

So far, my first impressions of the phones are positive. Hopefully, the phone will last long enough for me to take an international trip on in the future, now that I no longer have to buy a separate phone just for an international trip. If Sony keeps this up, its turnaround really might be working.

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