Sony Xperia Z1S review

With 32GB of memory, a waterproof shell, and a 20.7-megapixel camera, Sony’s Xperia Z1S looks like it will be a great addition to T-Mobile’s lineup later this month.
With 32GB of memory, a waterproof shell, and a 20.7-megapixel camera, Sony’s Xperia Z1S looks like it will be a great addition to T-Mobile’s lineup later this month.
With 32GB of memory, a waterproof shell, and a 20.7-megapixel camera, Sony’s Xperia Z1S looks like it will be a great addition to T-Mobile’s lineup later this month.

Highs

  • Impressive camera, especially in low light
  • Waterproof
  • Slim, stylish design
  • Nice screen

Lows

  • Poorly placed speaker
  • Underwater camera ability seems niche
  • Splashing water activates touchscreen
  • Design attracts fingerprints and smudges

The major news on the mobile from Sony at 2014’s Consumer Electronics Show was the announcement of the Z1 Compact, a smartphone that looks to pack most of the features of the company’s recent Xperia flagship phones into a device with a smaller 4.3 inch screen.

The other phone announcement form the show floor of Sony’s CES booth in Las Vegas was the imminent U.S. availability of the company’s 5-inch-screen Z1, which launched internationally last September, but will finally be coming to T-Mobile stores as the Xperia Z1S (yes, the S is little, but we’ll be calling it the Z1S from here on out).

The Xperia Z1S, which will be available in T-Mobile stores on January 22, has been tweaked from the global Z1 in cooperation with T-Mobile to better fit the U.S. market. The main difference here is a step up to 32GB of internal storage (plus a MicroSD expansion slot). The headphone jack has also been moved from the top left edge to near the center.

There are also some T-Mobile-exclusive camera presets, and the phone comes pre-loaded with the PlayStation app store and the company’s Xperia camera apps, which Sony says is a first for a carrier-specific Xperia phone in the United States.

Sony Xperia Z1S review submerged

The rest of the package is a solid upgrade from the Xperia Z, Sony’s last US-specific flagship, but should be very familiar if you’ve been following the Z1.

After spending about a week with the phone, running around Las Vegas, first covering tech announcements and then spending a few days sightseeing, we came away impressed with the Z1S. Its specs aren’t bleeding edge, but they’re about what we’d expect from a high-end smartphone here in the early days of 2014.

It’s the camera, though, that’s the real standout feature. Sony is billing the 20.7-megapixel sensor as “the best camera in a waterproof smartphone.” Frankly, we think that’s selling the sensor a bit short. After shooting hundreds of pictures with it here in Las Vegas, we’d say the Z1S’camera is likely the best you’ll find in an Android phone today. Its performance in low light in particular, is the best we’ve seen from any smartphone, period (save maybe for the 41-megapixel Lumia 1020).

Xperia style

If you’ve seen photos of the Z1, then you’ve seen the Z1S. The phone sports the familiar Xperia styling, similar to the Xperia Z, but with more of a two-toned look around the edges. Sony’s iconic silver power button still sits halfway up the right side, with flaps covering all the ports (save for the headphone jack), which makes the Z1S waterproof to beyond one meter (IP55 and IP58).

You’ll have to fiddle with the waterproof flaps fairly often, mostly when charging the phone.

The waterproof flaps are a mixed bag, though, as you’ll have to fiddle with them fairly often, mostly when charging the phone (via Micro USB). And this can certainly be annoying if you come home really late and want to plug your phone in so you can go to bed. Sony will be happy to sell you a charging dock that connects via two pins on the left side of the phone, but unless you only ever charge your phone at home, you’re still probably going to find the flaps annoying at some point. We’d really like to see Sony find a way to make the Micro USB port waterproof without the flap, the same way it did with the headphone jack.

And because the phone’s internals are sandwiched between two pieces of glossy glass, the Z1S is a fingerprint and grease magnet. So be prepared to be wiping it down a lot if you want the phone to look its best.

Also slightly disappointing is the Xperia Z1S’s single speaker. Like the Note 3, the Xperia’s speaker is mounted on the upper-left corner when holding the phone in landscape orientation. This means that when you hold it with two hands, your palm usually covers up the speaker, muting the audio output. And even without your hand getting in the way, the speaker here isn’t exactly impressive. You’ll mostly want to stick to headphones or a Bluetooth speaker.

Not just an impressive megapixel count

The camera and the phone’s waterproof abilities are the Xperia Z1S’s main selling points, and the specs sound pretty great. The smartphone sports an impressive 20.7-megapixel sensor, which Sony says is a large 1/2.3 inches, combined with the company’s G lens and, thankfully, an LED flash, which the larger Z Ultra lacked.

Aside from the fancy sounding optics, there’s also a dedicated shutter button in the right corner – a nice feature for a camera-focused phone. But the button is small and a bit too stiff for our liking, so we mostly stuck to tapping the on-screen shutter button.

Sony and T-Mobile reps were quick to tout the phone’s abilities to take great underwater shots, and even had us try out its abilities by taking a couple snaps with the phone dunked in a fish tank during our hands-on before CES.

We can say for certain that the camera works underwater, but this seems like a fairly niche feature to use to sell a phone. If you’re planning on taking underwater photos, keep in mind you’ll need to be somewhere with very clear water and a lot of sunshine. Also, don’t. Just because a phone is waterproof doesn’t mean you should actively tempt fate. Be happy that a rainstorm won’t take out your Z1S.

Also, taking pictures when partially submerged may be a problem. When we tested the Z1Sin and around water, the touchscreen often responded to water hitting the screen by closing the camera app or launching other programs. Once we had the smartphone completely underwater, the issue went away. But if you’re in choppy water trying to take pictures, this could be very annoying.

In what almost seemed like an afterthought after all the talk of underwater photos, a Sony rep told us the camera would also deliver better low-light performance and reduced noise, likely thanks to the large camera sensor.

The Z1S’camera is likely the best you’ll find in an Android phone today.

Now, it’s great and all that the phone can take photos underwater. But most of us take far more photos in dimly lit restaurants and pubs than underwater. And on that front, the Z1S’s camera excels. We took a few shots in various low-light environments using the phone app’s Intelligent Auto feature. And so long as there was enough light for our eyes to see clearly, the camera delivered consistently useable shots. We compared the Z1S’ abilities to the HTC One, also touted for its low-light performance, and Sony’s Z1S delivers far-better photos in the near-dark.

Now, low-light photos taken with the Z1 don’t exactly look accurate. In fact, the phone seems to be doing some heavy processing of the images, as they generally appear brighter than the scene looks with our eyes. And there seems to yellowish tinge to photos taken in low light. But that’s a fairly small price to pay when you consider you can get useable shots with the Z1S without using flash under lighting conditions that would render nearly every other smartphone camera useless.

As for the Z1S’ imaging abilities under less taxing lighting conditions, the camera delivers on that front as well, but doesn’t break much ground. The images we took in and around the Las Vegas Strip looked very good, with a bit less noise than we’re used to, thanks likely to the fact that the Intelligent Auto setting down samples the 20.7-megapixel images to a more manageable 8 megapixels. You can use manual settings as well to get larger images, but suspect most users will be happy sticking to the auto settings.

It’s also worth noting that the Z1S’s camera is very fast and quick to focus. The auto-focus didn’t always get things right, but it worked fine far more often than not.

Typical superphone specs

Internally, the Xperia Z1S sounds like what we’d expect from a high-end smartphone in early 2014. The Z1S has a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM to go along with the expandable 32GB of storage. We don’t put much stock in smartphone benchmarks these days, since it’s been revealed that several companies (Samsung and HTC, perhaps others) tweaked their chips to deliver more impressive numbers. But for the record, the Z1S’s Quadrant score of 19,395 isn’t far behind Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3, which managed to break 20,000. The Note 3’s score, though, may be aided by the fact that it has 3GB of RAM.

There are several recent high-end Android phones with similar specs to the Z1S, but you won’t likely find anything significantly more powerful until we get a lot closer to May, when Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 805 is expected to arrive.

And in our anecdotal testing through about five days of heavy use, the Xperia Z1S always felt responsive and speedy, handling everything we threw at it with ease, and never once rebooting or crashing.

The Z1S’ 5-inch screen also looks good, sporting an expected 1080p resolution. Sony says it has borrowed its HDTV line’s Triluminos display tech, as well as an X-Reality image processing engine (essentially a form of upscaling), although we’re told the latter is turned off by default to save battery life.

Anecdotally, the screen looks great, but doesn’t noticeably stand out from other high-end smartphone screens we’ve seen lately. We will say, though, that we didn’t notice the same issues with the Z1S’s screen washing out in direct sunlight as we did with the larger Z Ultra. With the automatic brightness setting enabled, the phone was about as readable outside as our Galaxy S4.

Lots of camera presets

Along with the camera’s hardware, Sony is also talking up its image-capturing software with the Xperia Z1S. The Xperia camera app has several presets for stylizing your photos, and we liked that the menu for selecting them was very text-heavy, offering up helpful descriptions, rather than just a tiny example image.

Some of the presets are useful, like one that pulls up metadata about what you’re photographing, like a bottle of wine or a famous monument. It had no problems identifying and giving us information about the faux-Eifel Tower of the Paris hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. This feature could certainly come in handy when vacationing.

Sony-Xperia-Z1S-camera-image-1

Other presets seem fairly gimmicky (or kid-friendly if you’re feeling generous). For instance, there’s an augmented-reality camera view that places an animated dinosaur in the frame, and uses face detection to put goggles on people’s faces. As an alternative to dinosaurs, you can also add butterflies, fish, or toadstools, flowers, and elves. Again, this might be fun for kids, but isn’t likely something you’re going to be using regularly when shooting photos or video.

Some of the other presets include background defocus, which lets you use your finger to blur parts of an image that aren’t the main subject, and Timeshift Burst, which takes multiple photos before and after you press the shutter, letting you choose the best of the bunch. A Social Live setting also lets you broadcast events live to your friends on Facebook, which sounds like it would be useful for events like weddings and graduations, when all your friends and family can’t be there with you.

Battery life is (finally) good enough

Fairly short battery life was a problem for both the original Xperia Z and the larger Z Ultra. We’re happy to say it seems that Sony has fixed this with the Z1S. We wouldn’t say battery life is great, but there’s really little to complain about this time, given that the phone is just 8.5mm thick.

Unless you’re an extremely heavy user, the Z1S battery should last a whole day.

During a very busy day sightseeing on the Las Vegas Strip, we took over three hundred photos, uploaded several to Facebook over 4G, sent a few texts, and spent an hour or so surfing the Web. At the end of the day, the Z1S still showed 30 percent of its battery remaining when we went to bed after 15-and-a-half hours. Unless you’re an extremely heavy smartphone user (or you’re covering an event like CES), the Z1S should easily be able to last a whole day. Many users will get about a day-and-a-half of use before having to recharge the phone. That’s not the kind of battery life that we got with the Galaxy Note 3, but it’s pretty good – especially since Sony’s other recent phones have been rather disappointing on the battery front.

Conclusion

We’re happy to see Sony’s Z1 make it to a U.S. carrier in the form of the Z1S, especially since Sony saw fit to double the internal memory (16GB is pretty cramped for a modern high-end smartphone). We also think the Xperia line’s boxy design looks good, and is far more comfortable to hold in a device this size than with the similarly styled, though much larger Z Ultra.

And while the phone’s 5-inch, 1080p screen and Snapdragon 800 internals don’t break any ground, they are on par with other high-end smartphones. Aside from a few superfluous presets, we also like the Xperia camera app a lot.

It’s the Z1S’ camera that really sells the device, though. Sure, it can take photos underwater. But who cares about that? It takes surprisingly useable photos in the dark, which has always been a problem for camera phones. And photos generally look very good in brighter lighting conditions as well.

If you’re an Android fan (or an iOS user looking to switch) who wants a powerful smartphone with image-focused features, this is the new phone to beat. It’s also a great device even if you don’t care all that much about excellent photos. It’s thin, powerful, waterproof, and gets reasonably good battery life.

Our only major complaint, aside from the lackluster speaker, is that Sony’s design forces you to deal with a fiddly flaps over the charging door every day when charging. In the future, we hope Sony can come up with a better solution, while still keeping the Xperia line’s unique water and dust-resistant features.

Highs

  • Impressive camera, especially in low light
  • Waterproof
  • Slim, stylish design
  • Nice screen

Lows

  • Poorly placed speaker
  • Underwater camera ability seems niche
  • Splashing water activates touchscreen
  • Design attracts fingerprints and smudges
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