Stock Android fans rejoice—Google is quietly expanding its Google Play Edition lineup. The Sony Z Ultra ($649 direct) drops the Xperia branding and joins the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, adding another option for vanilla Android outside of the Nexus family. The Z Ultra, for the uninitiated, is the biggest and baddest Android phone around, packing an absolutely ludicrous 6.44-inch display and blazing fast Snapdragon 800 processor inside a wafer-thin and waterproof frame. This is a niche device inside and out, but I have a feeling that the type of user who even considers a phone like the Z Ultra might also be the type who appreciates a pure Google experience. The Galaxy S4 and Nexus 5 are more practical everyday devices and remain our Editors’ Choices, but there’s no denying the sheer audacity and awesomeness of the Z Ultra.
We’ve already tested the Xperia version of the Z Ultra, so head on over to that review for a full rundown on the design and features. The Google Play Edition is physically identical so we’ll focus on the software and performance differences here.
Network, Call Quality, and Performance
The Z Ultra GPE comes completely unlocked and without any carrier obligation. It supports GSM/EDGE/GPRS (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) and LTE (700/850/900/1700/1900/2100/2600 MHz), so you’ll be able to use it on T-Mobile or AT&T’s 4G networks here in the U.S. or overseas with an international SIM. I tested call quality on AT&T’s network in New York City. Earpiece volume is solid, and transmissions through the mic sound very full, though I noticed some persistent static. Noise cancellation blocked out a wide range of street sounds, but the mic seemed to pick up wind noises too easily, and even just a hearty laugh could produce crunchy static. In my tests, the Z Ultra lasted for 21 hours of continuous talk time, which should be plenty to last you through the day.
Though it has the same quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor with 2GB RAM, the GPE and Xperia Z Ultras turned in slightly different results in synthetic benchmarks. On the Antutu overall system test, for instance, the Xperia noted a 34240 versus the GPE’s 27843. It lagged behind on the Vellamo Web benchmark, but outpaced the Xperia version on Sunspider and Browsermark. The Xperia managed slightly higher frame rates on GFXBench and Basemark Taiji, too. As always, though, take these numbers with a grain of salt—both the Xperia and GPE Z Ultra are among the fastest Android smartphones out there and I honestly couldn’t tell any difference between the two in everyday use.
Android and Camera
The big ticket feature here, of course, is the unadulterated Android 4.4 (KitKat). The experience is more or less identical between the various Google Play Edition devices. Everything here is stock, from the launcher to the camera. You get your typical array of Google services, relatively barren home screens, Hangouts instead of a messaging app, and access to Google Now. It’s not the same experience you’ll get on the Nexus 5, though, as its missing features like swiping left for Google Now, or triggering an instant search by saying “OK Google” anytime the phone is on and unlocked.
There are no redundant manufacturer media services, thankfully, and no-preloaded apps outside of the core Google apps. In fact, bloatware is non-existent. It’s a breath of fresh air compared with carrier versions, though I actually like the aesthetics Sony has going for it on the Xperia version. And since it’s only available unlocked to begin with, there wasn’t much bloat to deal with on that particular model anyway.
So purists will love the stock look and feel, but it’s missing some features I’m actually starting to like in custom skins. You can’t customize the quick settings icons in the notification tray anymore, for instance, and there are no native power saving features either. I really liked being able to set the Z Ultra to whitelist certain apps for background data when idle, but to achieve that now I’d have to download a third-party app. The ability to pick and choose which features you want to add, though, is among the many draws of having a stock Android device.
Even after years of deference to pure Android, I’m not convinced that it really takes advantage of such a spacious and powerful device in a meaningful way. One big thing missing here is multitasking. Sure, Web pages and graphically intensive games look incredible on the Z Ultra, but there’s no real multitasking baked in here. As much as it pains me to say this, part of me misses the split-screen multitasking of (gulp) TouchWiz’d Samsung devices. You can quickly swap back and forth using the Recent Apps button, but it’s not quite as efficient, and I haven’t seen any good third-party solution. This is true of the Xperia and GPE Z Ultra, though, so if you’re deciding between the two, it’s not a point of distinction.
The 8-megapixel rear-facing camera gets the stock Android camera controls on the Z Ultra GPE. The camera app can start up, focus, and fire off a shot at a moment’s notice. Gone are Sony’s multitude of scene modes and adjustable settings, but you still get control over focus and exposure compensation, and you still have an HDR shooting mode. The sensor hasn’t changed, and there’s still no flash, so images are still overly noisy or blurry indoors and under low-lighting conditions. Colors tended to run a little cool as well. Outdoors and under good studio lighting, the camera takes sharp images, but not on the same level as the Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5s.
The Sony Z Ultra still seems more than a bit ridiculous to me, but I’m not going to knock it for its size here. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t give a damn about how big it is—in fact, that might be the reason you’re considering it. But should you get the Google Play Edition or the Xperia? The GPE is actually $30 less than the $680 Xperia, and the promise of timely OS updates is a huge selling point. And the faults of the GPE are the same in the Xperia; there’s no notable manner in which either device really takes advantage of the expansive screen. If your heart’s set on the giant Z Ultra, the Google Play Edition is the way to go, but if you just want a stock Android device, I’d recommend the much less expensive Nexus 5 or similarly priced Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition.
|Phone Capability / Network||GPRS, GSM, UMTS, LTE|
|Screen Resolution||1920 x 1080 pixels|
|Dimensions||7.05 x 3.62 x 0.26 inches|
|Video Camera Resolution||1080p|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||21 hours, 1 minutes|
|Processor Speed||2.2 GHz|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Quad-Core|
|Total Integrated Storage||16 GB|
|High-Speed Data||GPRS, UMTS, LTE, HSPA|
|Screen Type||TFT LCD|
|Operating System as Tested||Android 4.4|
|Camera Resolution||8 MP Rear|
|2 MP Front-Facing|
|Screen Pixels Per Inch||342 ppi|
|Bands||850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 1700|
|Form Factor||Candy Bar|
|Screen Size||6.44 inches|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc