Xperia Z1 or Z1S – There can be only one!

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We’ve seen a ton of great quality mobile handsets this past year. Samsung wowed everyone with the S4 and Note 3. HTC brought their A-game with the One series. Nokia blew the doors off with this year’s Lumia line. Apple turned the mobile space upside down with the new iPhones. Even RIM stepped it up with their BB10 devices. What is there to expect of Sony after showing off their beautiful Z line early last year? The answer to that is, of course, the stunning Xperia Z1 and Z1S.

Technically, they sport the same internals, with some modifications that are noticeable on the outside of the device. I currently own both devices, so I thought I’d give you guys a look and see which one might be better for you to use on T-Mobile’s network. T-Mobile currently sells the Z1S model (C6916) for $600. It’s pretty easy to get the Z1 (C6903) for about $100 less than that imported and shipped to your door. We’re going to look into the differences between the models and see if it’s worth paying the premium for the branded T-Mobile model.

Specs

5-inch 1920×1080 LCD display w/ Triluminos imaging
2.3Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 SoC w/ Adreno 330 GPU
2GB RAM
SD support for 128GB microSD cards
20.7MP rear sensor (1/2.3 inches) w/ BIONZ processor + f/2.0 G Lens
2MP front-facing sensor
IP58 certified: Dustproof, water resistant up to 1m for 30min
WiFi (a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth 4.0 LE, A-GPS, NFC
1080p video capture
144 x 74 x 8.5 mm
170 grams

Z1S:

Android 4.3 Jellybean
32GB internal storage
2G Network – GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
3G Network – HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100
4G Network – LTE  700 MHz Class 13 / 1700 / 2100

Z1:

Android 4.4.2 Jellybean
16GB internal storage
2G Network – GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
3G Network – HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100
4G Network – LTE 800 / 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1800 / 1900 / 2100 / 2600

Build

The new Xperia line stands tall on the shoulders of its predecessor, the Xperia Z. It uses the same 5” 1080 x 1920 display, the same aluminum and glass construction, and the same internal storage on both the Z1 and Z1S, but with a 32GB storage upgrade on the Z1S. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, however. The newer siblings are thinner, but also a bit larger (taller and wider) and heavier than the original Z at about 170 grams. While these sound like drawbacks, they are anything but that. The added bulk allows for more rounded corners providing a more comfortable grip. This alone is a huge improvement in design, as the thicker profile also allows Sony to pack in an amazing camera sensor and a whopping 3,000mAh battery, while the Omnibalance design of the phone keeps the weight evenly distributed in your hand.

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Speaking of design, the Z1 features a rigid, one-piece aluminum frame that blends perfectly into the phone’s character. It is largely unnoticeable and understated, save for the carefully crafted power button. The Z1S uses a plastic frame around the entire device to improve signal strength. The plastic frame is painted to look like metal, but ends up looking unnaturally glossy. It probably wouldn’t stand out as much if not for the retention of the aluminum power button. The volume rocker on both devices flows with the frame right on down into the dedicated, two-stage camera button, providing a subtle hint of this handset’s true focus.

Sony has cleverly integrated the port covers into the design of the phone. Above the power button is the microSIM slot. Right next to the microSIM slot, still inside the same cover rests a small, red reset button, which will help if the phone ever becomes frozen or stuck somewhere. The opposite side houses a cover for a microSD slot, which support up to 128GB with the exFAT format or 64GB FAT32/exFAT format. Next to that is a cover for a standard microUSB port with MHL support for hooking up a second wired display. In the middle of that side sits an indention for the magnetic charger. This is the only place where Sony has broken their otherwise flawless lines in the design. This should have either been pogo pins like the Xperia Z or somehow had the charge port flush with the side. The microSD and microUSB covers are reversed between the Z1 and Z1S, with the microSD port closer towards the top of the Z1, and the microUSB port taking its place on the Z1S. The covers over these ports are all aluminum on the Z1, and all plastic on the Z1S. They open from the outside on the Z1, while the Z1S hinges the port covers in the center.

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The front display is protected by scratch resistant Gorilla Glass 3 covered up by a factory installed screen shatter-protector. The rear glass panel is a shatterproof Dragontrail glass also with a screen shatter-protector pre-installed. On the Z1, this style of aluminum frame with glass front and back panels reminds me of the radical styling on the iPhone 4S, although the Z1 manages to have its own very unique style and appearance. However, this common ground between Apple and Sony conveys a strong sense of both quality and prestige. The plastic frame around the Z1S ends up looking rather silly with the glossy finish to it.

A large factor in setting the Z1 and Z1S apart from any who dare to challenge them, is the element protection built-in. They are waterproof and dust proof to IP55/IP58 ratings meaning the duo is resistant to dust ingress, water jets, and being submersed in water for 30 minutes. The uncovered headphone jacks on the top left of the Z1 and slightly off centered on the Z1S are able to be filled with water without shorting out anything inside the phone thanks to a micro-coating of the port with water proofing material. There have only been a handful of Android devices through the years to offer such rigid protection, yet all have had to sacrifice the overall design in order to achieve such a feat. Sony does the user a service here by taking their mind off the impending danger of a light drizzle, or even a spill into the swimming pool, which plagues most other smartphones.

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The Xperia Z1 is available to order in one of three colors: black, white, and purple, while the Z1S is available only in black. The black color is very subtle, allowing you to blend into the sea of other phone owners without raising eyebrows in your direction. The white pops out at you, gleaming in sunlight, begging for attention. Then there’s the purple. Sony’s royal color has an air of elegance in every corner, line, and detail. It feels exciting and subdued all at the same time. It’s a color that this phone was meant to have and commands attention. Even Sony themselves said that the purple they used was a combination of red, which is warm and reassuring and blue, which is exciting. Whatever. The purple Z1 is gorgeous; that’s all you need to know. T-Mobile decided not to take any color chances with the Z1S and stuck with the decent-looking black color.

Display

Like the previous Xperia Z, the Z1 and Z1S are built around a 5” 1080 x 1920 resolution display, coming in at a whopping 441 ppi. Sony has done a good job at improving the display technology all around, since the Xperia Z got lower marks and was generally underwhelming with generally washed out colors, and blacks that were just a touch below gray. The improvements to the display are immediately obvious on the Z1 brothers.

The main difference from the original Z’s display is that Sony switched to a proprietary Triluminos panel adapted from the calibration technology in their Bravia line of televisions. This improves the color range significantly on the newer Z1 pair compared to their predecessor. Even with this technology the Z1 and Z1S displays do not beat out the other competitors on the market.

The viewing angles are really the only place where the display suffers. Whites are crisp and accurate; blacks are deep and harrowing, but if you tilt the phone more than about 40 degrees off-axis, you’re seeing an entirely different color space. In real world use, this in not an issue unless you’re trying to fit five people around the screen for a YouTube clip.

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Sony has also baked in its X-Reality engine, which is supposed to selectively process each image on the screen and provide the sharpest, most color accurate image possible. It automatically adjusts the brightness, contrast, colors and sharpness on the fly. After watching a few movies with wide color gamuts, such as The Dark Knight, Super 8, and The Wizard of Oz, I found that Sony has really outdone themselves here. The intelligent upscaling improves the pixilation common in older movies, or those of a lower quality source rip. The low light conditions in The Dark Knight are excellent due to the reduction of noise and sharpened textures.

Bright sunlight isn’t a problem either with Sony’s OptiContrast technology which adjusts the screen contrast to better suit the image to the lighting conditions of the room or outdoor space. Sony uses Direct Touch technology to incorporate the touch sensor into the lens layer, which greatly increases the responsiveness of touches. The display is miles ahead of the Galaxy S4’s AMOLED display and just a bit under the IPS display on the iPhone 5S. The natural color tone of movies and images look amazing, but viewing angles leave a bit to be desired.

Camera

Here we are at the meat and potatoes of the whole handset. The camera found in the Z1 and Z1S is the biggest advance they offer. Most Android smartphones of this generation are using 8MP to 13 MP shooters, except for HTC, who’ve opted for fewer, bigger pixels. Sony steps it up here with its 20.7MP camera. This means the only phone that packs in more pixels is the Nokia Lumia 1020 with 41MP, but at the expense of a thicker package and camera protrusion on the rear.

Competition aside, Sony has worked diligently to make the sensor and aspherical lens array that goes with it. As a result, we get a powerful camera that is not only fast and incredibly responsive, but one that delivers excellent results to boot. The camera module benefits from Sony’s vast experience in high quality sensors, which have even been included in recent iPhones. The both Z1 and Z1S have a 1/2.3″ 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor with ISO 6400 sensitivity and are paired with a 27mm wide Sony G-Lens and a large f2.0 aperture.

Sony’s BIONZ mobile image processing engine is what powers the camera’s backend. It’s able to shoot both HDR photos and video along with a burst mode able to capture 61 frames in only 2 seconds. The default camera setting is called Superior Auto, and delivers 16:9 stills at 8MP quality. The advantage to this is that you can zoom in for up to 3 x magnification before the camera can no longer snap a full 8MP image. Switch to manual mode to take a full 20MP shot in 4:3. Superior Auto mode intelligently sets the optimal picture settings through a smart scene recognition.

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The Xperia Z1 and Z1S bring out the best in normal lighting conditions, particularly where contrasting colors are present. Low light conditions are very go0d as well, taking full advantage of that large aperture and sucking in all available light. It has a single LED flash under the camera. The dual flash of the iPhone 5S bests the Z1 and Z1S when it comes to natural flash lighting, though not by much.

Sony has done a remarkable job at improving the market of smartphone cameras. It captures full HD video at 30fps, stabilizes your video while you shoot it, and offers a wide range of options for tweaking and customizing your experience. There are a few other camera modes to mess with, such as Info-Eye, which allows you to take a picture of an object and pull up relevant information about it (similar to Google Goggles). There’s a nifty little augmented reality camera mode, where you can have your pets get chased by dinosaurs and even a Social mode to see what everyone else is snapping shots of. Sony even threw in a setting exclusive to the Z1S that can blur out the background behind a photographed subject. All around, the camera is what makes this phone stand out. You don’t need to be a genius to take a great shot on these phones. The Z1 and Z1S are built with the enthusiast and the uninformed at heart and handles both like a dream.

I’m not a guru when it comes to photography, but I know just enough to be dangerous. I’d suggest reading more about the camera from more knowledgeable reviews than this one. While I can give some pointers to achieving an excellent shot 90% of the time, I honestly prefer to stay on the Superior Auto setting, as it does its job very well.

Performance and Battery

What can I really say here? Sony packs in all the modern hardware you’d expect of their newest flagship. Sony decided to use the next-gen 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 (with 2GB of RAM) chip to its full potential. Since Sony doesn’t tune its chips to cheat benchmarks, you can see that it has end users in mind, and this fact shows through in the fluidity of the experience. There is no lag on this handset. Period. I’ve tried my best to create it. Opening every single floating window, using a floating video player with multiple instances, and running video and benchmarks at the same time. The Z1 and Z1S will power through all of it effortlessly.

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Battery life is excellent. If you go with the Z1 or Z1S, they last just under the marks my old Note 2, coming in at a very respectable 22 hours of moderate use with 5 hours of screen time. Disabling some of the pre-loaded apps, like Facebook, helps out substantially. It’s not difficult to make it all day without hunting for a charger. The built-in Stamina mode can really save your bacon when the battery starts dropping by disabling background data while the screen is off.

Conclusion

Of the pair, I believe the Z1 is the better device for several reasons, though I give credit to the Z1S where it is due. Sony and T-Mobile made a big sacrifice in the design choice to use a plastic frame over a metal one, though it does vastly improve signal reception on all radios. The choice to swap the positions of the micro-USB and micro-SD ports was an odd one, but not design breaking. Moving the headphone jack on the Z1S to a slightly right off centered position is just plain weird. It looks like they wanted it centered but couldn’t manage to get it done. Lastly, the choice to move the LED notification light from behind the top speaker grill is not attractive at all. The Z1 had the front camera on the top right of the phone, with the sensors on the left. The Z1 moves the front camera to the left with the sensors on the right. The LED notification light is now on the top right next to the sensors on the Z1S. It is not an elegant placement and looks like a small pinhole of a light. Furthermore, with the light active, you may see a different color depending on the angle you look at it.

The Z1 in purple is really an amazing device. It is stylish, regal, and powerful in use as well as design. Sony shows its hand in design and uses its vast knowledge in other electronics fields to assist in crafting a stunning device that really captures your attention. With the Z1S, they haven’t thrown it all out the window, but the sacrifices made show through easily in the changed design language where the carrier choices obviously were the deciding factor in several instances. Sure, you get 32GB of internal storage and vastly improved signal quality, but it is at the expense of the nature of the Z1 at its core.

Kenny Guilfou

About Kenny Guilfou

Kenny is a tech enthusiast and self-proclaimed grammar-Nazi. He enjoys constantly changing the look of his mobile device as well as berating others for their misuse of participles. His current favorite phone is the Xperia Z1, because he's a bit of a Sony fanboy.

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