Sony hasn’t had an easy time breaking into the U.S. smartphone market, but it also hasn’t released any must-have phones. The Xperia Z was close, but it was held back by a dated processor and a T-Mobile carrier exclusive. The new Xperia Z1s is also tethered to T-Mobile, but it’s packing a much faster processor. In addition, it improves upon the waterproof properties of its predecessor and has a really great camera. That said, I still don’t think this is Sony’s breakthrough phone – though it does make me hopeful for the Xperia Z2.
All Xperias look the same in the dark
Physically, there’s not much going on here to distinguish the Z1s from other phones in the Xperia line – and that’s a good thing. I’d argue that Sony’s Xperia phones are the most attractive Android devices out there next to the HTC One. Covered in a sheet of glass on the front and back, the Xperia Z1s resembles an oversized version of the iPhone 4S. At 5.74 by 2.91 by 0.34 inches and 5.71 ounces, though, the Z1s is actually slightly larger and heavier than the Xperia Z. That’s a shame, since it features the same size screen. And when you look at the Z1s, there is an awful lot of excess bezel, especially when the market trend is to use as little as possible (which is a trend I can certainly get behind).
There are some design improvements over the Xperia Z, though. The corners of the Z1s have been smoothed out, so it feels more comfortable in your hand. What’s really exciting, though, is that the Z1s is fully waterproof. Whereas the Xperia Z was rated IP57 for water resistance, the Z1s is rated IP58. That means it can be completely submerged in up to 4.9 feet of freshwater for 30 minutes. I didn’t have a freshwater pond available to test this claim, but I can verify that it withstood a good 10 minutes in a measuring cup of Brooklyn tap water.
Another neat trick is that the camera can take photos underwater. All you have to do is press the physical camera button to load up the app and fire away. Sony has added wet finger tracking technology, so you can still manipulate the screen even when your hands are in the water. Again, I didn’t have a large body of water with which test more advanced shots, though the rudimentary photos I snapped out of my measuring cup looked pretty decent. But I’ll focus on the camera more in a bit.
Getting back to the design, the Xperia Z1s has an open headphone jack on the top edge of the phone. Unlike previous Xperia devices, it doesn’t need to be covered for the phone to remain waterproof, which is very convenient. The left side of the phone is home to covered microSD and power ports, while the right side has a covered SIM card slot, and unlike the headphone jack, these must be covered before immersing your phone in water (and I can’t really think of a good reason they wouldn’t be – swapping in a new microSD card while at the pool?). The right side of the phone is also home to Sony’s now-familiar Xperia power button, as well as volume and camera buttons that are a little too recessed for my liking.
Fast parts but a lackluster display
The Xperia Z1s is fast. With a 2.2GHz quad-core Qulacomm MSM8974 Snapdragon 800 processor and Adreno 330 graphics, it’s one of the fastest phones I’ve tested. It scored 31770 in the AnTuTu benchmark, which tests overall system performance, including CPU, GPU and RAM. That put it right at the top of the pack, falling slightly behind the LG G2, which uses the same processor.
Geekbench 3, which simulates real-world, processor-intensive tasks, scores single-core and multi-core performance separately. The Z1s beat the LG G2 this time around, scoring 916 for single-core performance and 2853 for multi-core (as opposed to 888 and 2229 when I tested the LG G2).
It also comes with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage (which gives you just over 26GB of available space) and a 3,000mAh battery, which is quoted for up to 15 hours of talk time or 6.75 hours of video playback. I was able to make it through a day of regular use on the phone with a single charge.
The phone was also super-fast on T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network where I tested it in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I saw average download speeds approaching 30Mbps and upload speeds nearing 20Mbps, though I did encounter a few network communication issues on the uploads. Calls sounded good on both ends of the line as well.
So given the phone is guaranteed to handle pretty much anything you can throw at it, it’s a pity that its screen isn’t very good. And this really surprised me. I was initially impressed when I got a first look at the phone before CES, but it was only for a few minutes in a fairly dark room. So while the pixel-rich, 5-inch 1080 TFT LCD makes a good first-impression, it wasn’t able to hold its own when I pit it directly against other devices.
The biggest problems are the viewing angles. You get about 15 degrees of freedom in any direction. Tilt the phone more than that, however, and it takes on a somewhat shimmery effect that makes it difficult to see, especially when there’s a white background on the screen. Another issue is that the screen doesn’t get nearly as bright as I’d like it to. I looked at it next to an iPhone 5s, a Moto X and a Nokia Lumia 1520, and the Xperia’s screen was by far the least vibrant. I also feel that colors look a little washed out compared to those other screens. Don’t get me wrong – games and video will look perfectly fine on the Z1s – just not as good as the competition.
All Sony everything
The phone runs Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) out of the box, along with plenty of customizations from Sony. It would’ve been nice to see Android 4.4 (KitKat), though Sony says an update is in the works.
You get five customizable home screens, four of which come preloaded with apps and widgets. You also get tons of Sony apps and features. Sony has once again included its Album, Movies and Walkman apps, as well as its PlayStation and PlayStation Mobile apps. The PlayStation app allows you to connect the phone to your PS4, but it doesn’t offer any additional features you can’t get upon downloading the app on another device from Google Play. There’s also a lot of bloatware, including more apps from Sony and three apps from T-Mobile. You probably won’t use many of these, but you also can’t uninstall them.
Sony’s software skin is pretty heavy handed, though it doesn’t cause any noticeable slowdown while using the phone. And I like the Power Management feature Sony snuck into the phone’s settings. By activating each of these power setting, the phone nearly triples its estimated battery life. Stamina mode disables background data when the screen is off. Low-battery mode disables certain functions to save power when you have low battery. And location-based Wi-Fi automatically activates your Wi-Fi mode when in range of a saved network. You can pick and choose which of these settings you want to use, and activating each will show an estimated gain on your battery life.
A promising but uneven camera
The Xperia Z1s features a 1/2.3-inch 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor, as well as Sony’s 27mm f/2.0 G Lens and Bionz image processing engine. What really got me excited, though, are the camera apps.
But first let’s focus on image quality. I mostly tested the phone in Superior Auto mode, since this is the default setting and the one most people are likely to use. In this mode, the camera actually captures 8.3-megapixel stills, though it supports lossless zoom up to 3x (which seems like a fair claim from the images I shot). You can also switch to manual mode if you want to shoot with the whole 20 megapixels, though you won’t be able to fire off a shot nearly as quickly.
Photos looked very good for the most part, and the camera does an excellent job capturing fine detail. The problem I encountered is that performance is rather uneven. Colors sometimes looked washed out, especially outdoors and with bright sunlight. Compared to images taken with the iPhone 5s, the Z1s was often able to capture better detail, but colors don’t look as vibrant. It’s still a solid shooter for the average phone pic, and digital image stabilization keeps videos looking super smooth. There’s also a 2-megapixel camera on the front for selfies and video chat.
What I really like about this phone’s camera, though, is that it’s modular. In other words, you can download apps and use them directly through the camera. Sony includes a number of apps to get you started.
Info-eye lets you capture an image and perform a visual search that provides related information (which worked surprisingly well in testing). Timeshift burst lets you capture 61 images within two seconds, so you can scroll back and forth to find the perfect image; sort of like a flip book.
AR effect lets you overlay a selection of customizable animations to your images before you take them. Other effects include background defocus, which lets you adjust the background blur, and a panorama mode, which is self explanatory. There are also plenty of picture effects, which basically put an Instagram-like filter on your photos before you even take them.
Problems aside, the Xperia Z1s is one of the best phones available from T-Mobile. But that’s also part of the problem. T-Mobile might be growing by leaps and bounds, but if Sony really wants to make a name for itself in the U.S., it needs to get its phones on all four major carriers. By limiting itself to just one carrier, it significantly decreases its chances of breaking through.
And while this is one of the better Android phones available, I still wouldn’t call it the best. For a new smartphone on T-Mobile, I still think the Samsung Galaxy S4 is a better bang for your buck: It has a nicer display and a much lighter form factor, two features I think will attract more buyers than a waterproof design. The Moto X is another strong option. Its camera isn’t as good, but it’s a much better size to handle, and gives you a newer, almost-stock version of Android, along with a wide range of voice control features.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy the Xperia Z1s. But you might want to think about waiting for the Xperia Z2.