Sony Xperia Z1s (T-Mobile) review

Sony brings some welcome innovation to Android camera phones with the Xperia Z1s, a potent, waterproof model that nonetheless falls just short of greatness.
Photo of Sony Xperia Z1s (T-Mobile)

Sony is ratcheting up the camera phone wars with the Android-powered Xperia Z1s ($528 direct). Available exclusively on T-Mobile, the Xperia Z1s is a waterproof smartphone with a 5-inch 1080p display, just like its predecessor, the Xperia Z. The Z1s has an upgraded 20.7-megapixel camera with fun lens effects, a much larger battery, and a faster processor. The camera still isn’t as good as it needs to be, and there are some other minor issues, but the Z1s is an excellent choice if you want a speedy phone for multimedia or gaming that you can get wet.

Design, Display, and Connectivity
The Xperia Z1s measures 5.74 by 2.79 by 0.31 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.71 ounces, which makes it noticeably larger and heavier than the 5.1-ounce Xperia Z. It’s still quite attractive, though. The handset has glass front and back panels, with an IP58-rated waterproof coating that also supports finger tracking underwater, and a smoked silver and black plastic band wrapped around the edges. Covered charger and microSD memory card slot ports sit on the left side, along with a center-mounted docking port. The bottom edge houses the speakerphone and mic behind a long rectangular grille. On the right, there’s a covered SIM card slot, a circular silver power button, a volume rocker, and a camera shutter button, while the 3.5mm headphone jack is on the top edge.

The 5-inch, 1080p Triluminos display looks sharp at a very tight 441ppi, but not particularly vivid or bright. It’s a bit of a letdown coming from a Samsung Galaxy S4′s AMOLED display, or the super-bright HTC One. There’s a prominent bezel at the top and bottom, with a much thinner one on either side of the display; this explains why the phone is unusually tall given the display size. Typing on the on-screen keyboard is easy in portrait mode.

The Xperia Z1s supports LTE and HSPA+ 42. Its LTE modem is Category 4, so it handles the maximum speeds of T-Mobile’s upcoming 20+20 LTE network. You also get 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, NFC, and Bluetooth 4.0. In a series of speed tests, the Xperia Z1s averaged 12 to 14Mbps down and 7 to 15Mbps up in midtown Manhattan on T-Mobile’s rapidly expanding 4G LTE network. The Xperia Z1s also works as a wireless hotspot with the appropriate data plan.

Call Quality and Reception
Voice quality was mixed; we were hoping for an improvement over the Xperia Z1′s inferior call quality, but we didn’t get it. Through the earpiece, callers sounded trebly and a bit harsh. There’s plenty of gain available, but it’s not pleasant to listen to. Transmissions through the microphone had the opposite problem: They sounded muffled and indistinct, and the Xperia Z1s’s mic let plenty of Manhattan street noise through. An iPhone 5s on T-Mobile sounded much better in all cases; it suppressed background street noise, and my voice was clear, crisp, and still warm-sounding in both directions.

The Xperia Z1s also supports Wi-Fi calling, but my test unit kept throwing a SIM error whenever it was activated, even though the SIM worked fine otherwise for both voice calls and data. I also noticed some reception issues; my test model kept grabbing LTE and then losing it, and sometimes it dropped altogether with a red X for 15 seconds or so before coming back online. T-Mobile saw nothing wrong on its end, so I’ll chalk it up to a bad SIM card for now.

Calls sounded fine through a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset. Voice dialing worked fine over Bluetooth using Google’s built-in voice dialer. The Bluetooth stack is buggy, though; sometimes it took a minute or more to pair with the Jawbone Era, and once it froze up for a minute while searching for nearby devices. The speakerphone sounded clear and distinct, but should go louder than it does, which is an odd oversight given the large size of the phone. The oversized 3,000mAh battery should be good for extra-long battery life; we’re currently testing it and will update this review as soon as we have a result.

T-Mobile’s contract-free plans start at just $50 per month for unlimited voice calls and texting and 500MB of data, after which T-Mobile throttles your data speeds to 2G. You can also get 2.5GB for $60 and unlimited data for $70. As before, these plans are stellar values compared with Verizon or AT&T.

Interface, Apps, and Multimedia
Under the hood is a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor with an Adreno 330 GPU and 2GB RAM. The Xperia Z1s runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, and a KitKat upgrade is in the works, but there’s no confirmed release date. Benchmark scores were excellent across the board; as you’d expect, the Xperia Z1s is as fast as the Galaxy Note 3 and all of the top-end Android tablets we’ve reviewed. You won’t have any problem running any of the one million third-party apps in Google Play; even graphically intensive games will be no problem. The Xperia Z1s supports the fitness-tracker networking protocol ANT+, and Sony plans to market the Z1s alongside its SmartWatch 2, which we’ve also reviewed separately.

You get five home screens to customize and swipe between. Everything looks and feels smooth. Sony includes its own Walkman, Movies, and Album apps, along with PlayStation and PlayStation Mobile for accessing your online PSN profile, messages, and notifications. Sony is promising a number of “second screen” PlayStation apps, and you can play PlayStation Mobile games with a wireless DualShock 3 controller. You also get MobiSystems Office Suite, which reads and edits Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, and Sony Select, which froze on startup. There’s also a lot of T-Mobile bloatware, which is unfortunate, especially since none of it can be removed.

There’s 32GB of internal storage, with 25.1GB free for your apps and media. The microSD card slot works with cards up to 64GB; my 64GB SanDisk card worked fine. The slot is a bit of a pain; I understand the port covers for waterproofing, but it’s pretty tough to get inside enough to press the card in to eject it. Music tracks sounded clear and full through Plantronics BackBeat Go stereo Bluetooth headphones , and the Xperia Z1s also played FLAC, OGG, and AAC files. Full-screen movies look sharp, if not exceptionally vivid, at resolutions up to 1080p, and it played all the usual formats including DivX and Xvid. You can also display content wirelessly on a Sony Bravia HDTV.

Camera and Conclusions
The 20.7-megapixel autofocus camera features a 27mm f/2 (35mm equivalent) focal length, image stabilization, and an HDR mode. It goes up to ISO 6400 in Superior Auto mode, but if you opt to shoot in manual mode you’re limited to ISO 800. The Z1s’s 1/2.3-inch sensor is the same size that’s found in compact cameras like the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS. It’s larger than those found in most cell phones, like the Xperia Z1′s, and the f/2 lens,  and collects more light than the f/2.4 lens found on the iPhone 5S. By default the camera shoots 8.3-megapixel stills, but can be set to capture 20-megapixel shots in its Manual mode. It supports lossless zoom up, just about 3x in a Superior Auto mode. There’s also a 2-megapixel front-facing camera for selfies and video chats.

Sony includes five apps dedicated to the camera: Info-eye, which scans books, wine bottles, and other objects and searches the Web for information about them; AR (Augmented Reality) effect, which adds costumes, glasses, flowers, or even dinosaurs to your photos; Background defocus, which lets you adjust the depth of field for your photos; Social live, which broadcasts live video on Facebook; and Timeshift burst, which grabs a series of 60 shots in rapid succession and lets you pick the absolute best one. The apps were fun, especially some of the filters and AR scenes—I love the filter that makes everything look like a sketch with color pencils.

We used Imatest to check and see just how sharp the Z1S’s lens is and just how well it does in lower light. On a standard SFRPlus test chart the Z1S manages to record 2,187 lines per picture height. That’s better than the 1,800 lines we use to define an image as sharp. The performance is not consistent from edge to edge; the corners of the image are very fuzzy, and there is some loss of detail as you move away from the center third of the frame. The lens also shows some barrel distortion, about 2.3 percent, which causes straight lines to bow outwards a bit. It’s noticeable if you look for it, but not out of line for a cell phone camera.

Noise can be an issue with smartphones, even those with larger sensors. Packing a lot of pixels into a smaller sensor, even the 1/2.3-inch size found in the Z1S, can cause an image to show an excessive amount of noise, and the slim design of phones also makes heat a major factor: A hot sensor is a noisy sensor. The Z1S does a decent job controlling noise at its two lowest ISO settings (50, 100), where it shows 1.6 and 1.8 percent respectively. But it jumps up to 3.6 percent at ISO 200. Close examination of our ISO test scene on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display shows that Sony is applying some aggressive noise reduction to images at ISO 400 and 800. There’s a noticeable falloff in detail which is going to make you want to utilize the camera’s flash in dim conditions, but when shooting under the sun or in brightly lit rooms the camera should manage ISO 200 or below with ease thanks to its f/2 lens, which is where you want to keep it for optimal quality.

Comparing real world shots to those from high-resolution phone cameras, including the the Xperia Z, and they haven’t quite measured up to their ratings in image quality. Sadly, that’s still in play here. The Xperia Z1s takes fine pictures, that border on very good outdoors. But in both the real world and in the lab, we preferred the output from the Lumia 1020 and the iPhone 5s.

For example, contrast is relatively poor both indoors and out when directly compared with the iPhone 5S. Detail is excellent—just as good, if not better—but the overall tone of photos is a bit flat, and the Xperia Z1s had trouble adjusting to lighting. But sometimes flesh tones came out jaundiced indoors, which looked really weird.

Like other phone cameras with larger sensors that we’ve seen, including the Lumia 1020, startup and focus speed are issues with the Z1S. It requires about 2.1 seconds to launch its app (using the camera button) and capture a photo. Part of the delay is due to the focus speed, which is on average about half a second. That’s a long delay when compared to the iPhone 5s, which focuses almost instantly, or a good compact camera like the Elph 330 HS, which focuses and fires in just 0.15-second. Burst shooting is more impressive, although it is limited to 8-megapixel captures in burst mode. In either High Speed or Standard burst modes, holding down the shutter button fires off photos continuously at 10fps or 2fps, respectively, for as long as you hold the shutter down.

Recorded 1080p videos played smoothly at 30 frames per second from both cameras, though you can’t tap to focus the way you can with photos. Image stabilization was superb; I saw very little shaking in the various videos I recorded with the Xperia Z1s. And you can shoot photos and videos underwater, though the sound will obviously be muffled.

The Xperia Z1s is a powerful smartphone with plenty of distinct features that help it stand out from the crowd. The Samsung Galaxy S4 still edges it out; it’s thinner, lighter, has a more vivid AMOLED display, and Samsung’s TouchWiz UI layer and apps are arguably more useful. But the S4′s camera isn’t quite as good (although it’s faster), and the S4 isn’t as rugged or water-resistant either. The Apple iPhone 5s still has the world’s best app selection and a camera that focuses in an instant and also delivers impressive image quality, despite its inferior-sounding 8-megapixel sensor. But it’s held back by a sub-720p 4-inch display and it’s not nearly as customizable from a UI perspective. Finally, the Motorola Moto X offers a nicely manageable form factor that’s split roughly between the iPhone 5S and the Xperia Z1s, and it offers near-stock Android and excellent voice control, but it’s not as fast, its screen is only 720p, and its camera falls short.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS, LTE
Screen Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
NFC Yes
Dimensions 5.74 x 2.79 x 0.31 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Video Camera Resolution 1080p
Available Integrated Storage 25.1GB GB
Processor Speed 2.26 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Quad-Core
GPS Yes
Service Provider T-Mobile
Total Integrated Storage 32GB GB
High-Speed Data EDGE, EVDO, UMTS, LTE, HSPA+ 42
Weight 5.71 oz
Screen Type TFT LCD
Operating System as Tested Android 4.3
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 20.7
Colors Available Black
Screen Pixels Per Inch 441 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 1700, 2600, 700
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 5 inches
Capacities Available 32GB
Bluetooth Version 4.0

Verdict
Sony brings some welcome innovation to Android camera phones with the Xperia Z1s, a potent, waterproof model that nonetheless falls just short of greatness.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc