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Review: Sony Xperia Z1S: Great Smartphone, Phenomenal Dinosaur Camera

Thu, 02/13/2014 - 10:51am
Ben Munson

Putting all your eggs in one basket is a classic no-no. But putting one egg in every basket imaginable is a similarly bad idea. The fact that Sony does so much, from video games consoles to car stereos to Miley Cyrus albums, could also explain why its product categories like smartphones sometimes seem like a small afterthought.

So it was a welcome surprise to see Sony recently choose to divest itself of its flailing VAIO PC unit and commit more focus to mobile. With smartphones like the Xperia Z1S hitting shelves, mobile looks like a worthwhile endeavor.

At first glance, the Z1S strikes an imposing figure, all sleek and black, like a monolith sent from space. Its waterproof body keeps the microSD, SIM and USB ports all covered and fairly blended in so the only features that stand out are the headphone jack and a round, silver power button, which is cleverly mounted on the side for easier reach. A volume rocker and camera button are also hardly visible on the side but handy when needed.

Practically every single smudge and fingerprint, unfortunately, are visible on the shiny casing, a situation that could drive a perfectly sane person bonkers with endless polishing. Once you get past that, there’s plenty to like about the Z1S.

Display

The Z1S’s screen, with a 1920 x 1080 resolution hitting 443 ppi, has caught some slack for looking a little washed out. But by cranking up the brightness—which didn’t seem to negatively impact battery life too much—and playing with the white balance, I was able to get nice results. Viewing from the side though is a bit of an issue and at anything more than a 30-degree angle, clarity really starts to diminish.

Software

Sony runs a fairly non-intrusive skin on top of Android 4.3—no word yet on when this T-Mobile-exclusive device is getting KitKat. That T-Mobile deal resulted in a lot of bloatware that can only be hidden, not removed. But nice additions like OfficeSuite, that allows you to edit Word, Excel and Powerpoint files, make it easier to ignore the unwanted baggage. Plus, Google standards like Chrome, Now and the Play Store all responded quickly and smoothly.

The keyboard looks much like a standard Android version but it features some nice customization options, like allowing it to learn your writing style to enhance accuracy by granting access to your email and social media accounts.

Hardware

The Z1S packs a muscular 2.2 GHz Snapdragon 800 processor under the hood, which made it easy to smoothly move through any task. The 3,000 mAh battery held up nicely to moderate use throughout the day, though charging it full does take a little longer. Call quality was more than adequate. The 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal storage are pretty standard for a high-end phone but its expandable storage (up to 64 GB) is a nice touch that not all phones feature.

In addition to a solid spec. sheet, the Z1S is also waterproof for up to 30 minutes at depths of around five feet. That means you can take it in the swimming pool—no salt water for this smartphone—but it more likely means spills or accidental dunks won’t be catastrophic to the device.

Camera

Topping even Nokia’s Pureview, the Z1S features a 20.7 megapixel camera. It also boasts an 8x optical zoom and an LED flash. All of this is well and good but camera specs don’t always translate to good photos. Luckily, the Z1S excels in natural light, holds its own in low light and packs a bunch of useful and fun extras. The camera is a little slow to launch but the shots mostly come out crisp and with decent color recreation. Timeshift burst works well for picking the best shot, some of the filters are fairly artsy and the AR mode—which layers animated elves, dinosaurs and other effects on top of the frame—made for an entertaining work meeting.

Throw in sharp videos shot in 1080p and the fact that you can shoot underwater and it’s easy to name the Z1S’s camera the highlight of the device.

Conclusion

Sony has built a handsome, if somewhat smudge-prone, smartphone in the Xperia Z1S. Its display is not the best on the market but with a little fiddling, it looks darn good. The impressive specs make it a great entertainment device and the native communications and productivity apps make it good for more important things. The camera manages to be a confident straightforward picture taker, as well as pretty fun. At $600 full price, the Xperia Z1S is priced about right. Through T-Mobile, the phone goes for zero down and 24 monthly payments of $25 and right now, it comes with a Sony Bluetooth speaker, making it a nice deal.

If the Z1S is the kind of smartphone Sony can make now, it should be interesting to see what the company comes up with now that it’s putting even more focus on mobile.

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