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T-Mobile Sony Xperia Z1s review: 20 megapixel camera phone in a waterproof wrapper

The Sony Xperia Z1s is one of the first official US wireless carrier smartphones for Sony in recent times and it has some great features. It's unfortunate that a maker of excellent TVs can't seem to get mobile displays right.

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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 38 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

T-Mobile retail package

I live in Washington State where the regular light rain doesn't keep many of us trapped inside; I regularly run, work, and play without regard for the elements. I have tried several cases for my phones to protect them from the elements, but am not much of a fan of the bulkiness that results from such protection. After a week with the new T-Mobile Xperia Z1s I think I may have found the perfect phone for the Pacific Northwest, but the washed out display has me hesitating just a bit.

Hardware

T-Mobile carried the and is the first to get this updated model. T-Mobile tends to be the carrier of choice for these latest Sony smartphones with unlocked models also available from the Sony store.

The Z1s is not just a US version of the Z1 with support for T-Mobile's HSPA+ wireless network. Other improvements include waterproofing of the 3.5mm headset jack so a cover is not needed, rounded corners giving it a more comfortable feel, 32GB of internal storage, and WiFi Calling.

I am a huge fan of the waterproof and dustproof nature of the phone, even if a couple of doors/covers need to be closed. I understand the IP58 rating means you can keep the phone under 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. This sounds like a perfect phone for running in the rain or taking out into the field.

Starting with the display, you get 5 inches of 1920x1080 pixels resolution (443 ppi) on the front. I'm not a real fan of the rather large black bezels above and below the display and that is one of the issues I have to get over before I pick one up for myself.

I also find the display to be a bit washed out on the home screen and in most apps. Gmail is particularly bad. I am a bit dumbfounded as to why the display can't challenge the best given that Sony makes some fantastic television displays. You can adjust white balance in the settings, but I have yet to find the magical mix to prevent the screen from being a bit washed out. OLED displays have excellent blacks, but tend to blow out colors and make them unrealistic. When looking at photos and videos the colors look pretty good on the Z1s. However, I expect better from a flagship phone.

Sony brands the display as Triluminos, but I don't see that as any kind of benefit at the moment. There is also a toggle for something called X-Reality that is supposed to enhance photos and videos, but I haven't yet seen a photo that made the difference apparent.

I work in Seattle and live 45 miles south so I commute via train daily and also travel on airplanes at least once a month. With confidential work content on my phones, I look at the reduced viewing angles of the Z1s as an added benefit and not as a negative. With the Z1s, the display is perfectly viewable straight on while adding an unintended privacy filter for those peaking at my large screen phone.

The waterproof headphone jack is near center on the top and requires no cover to maintain its waterproof rating. I really like the Sony power button near the center of the right side with the SIM card slot near the top, the volume button below the power button, and a physical camera button (similar to what you see on Windows Phone) near the bottom. There is also a lanyard opening at the bottom corner of the right side.

I prefer to have a physical camera button on my phone. You tap the power button and then press and hold the camera button to launch the camera and start using it without messing with your device. I did not find the ability to press and hold it in a locked state to launch the camera.

There are a couple of doors on the upper left side, one for the microUSB charging port and the other covering the microSD card slot. That's right, you can add up to 64GB of additional storage with this slot. The speaker is found on the bottom.

Like the front, the back is made of glass. However, it doesn't have an oleophobic coating so it is a major fingerprint magnet that requires you to wipe it down all the time. The 20.7 megapixel camera is found in the upper left corner of the back with a flash below the lens opening. NFC, Xperia, and T-Mobile lables are centered down the back.

The camera has optical image stabilization (OIS), which I think is important in these larger phones. The sensor is 1/2.3 that is the same as a Sony compact camera. There is also a 2 megapixel front facing camera.

Given the doors need to be closed, it would have been nice to see Qi wireless charging in place. As an HTC One user, I would also like to see an IR port on the Z1s, especially given the media focus of this device. I guess we can't have a device with everything in one package, but I'm hoping for more in 2014.

Software

Many Android phone makers add custom UIs to their devices. I like HTC's Sense, can't really stand Samsung and LG's overbearing interfaces, and also enjoy the nearly pure Google Moto X experience. The Sony UI is something in between the pure Google experience and Sense. For the most part, it is pretty close to a Google experience.

You will find the ability to have up to seven home screen panels that do not flip around continuously, then end going one way and then you have to flip the other way to go back. I do like their widget, app, wallpaper, and them selector that is available by pinching in on a home screen panel.

Sony has a cool menu in the app launcher where you swipe from left to right and see an easy list where you can search for apps, easily uninstall apps, show apps in your own order, alphabetically, as most used, and those you installed. You also have quick access to the Play Store and Sony Select store.

There are a few Sony apps loaded on the device, including some slick camera effects, backup & restore, File Commander, FM radio, OfficeSuite, PlayStation, Socialife News, Sony Select, Social Live, Smart Connect, Video Unlimited, Walkman, and Xperia Lounge. The Socialife News app is similar to HTC's BlinkFeed and Samsung's Magazine visual RSS apps.

Through the Walkman app you can sign up for Sony's $10/month music service called Music Unlimited. You can also toggle the service off within the Walkman app and use it as your preferred music player. Despite the name, the Video Unlimited service does not mean there is a subscription service for movies.

You will also find several T-Mobile utilities, such as My Account, Name ID, T-Mobile TV, Visual Voicemail, Mobile Hotspot, and Lookout. Some of these can be removed and some are actually useful.

Unfortunately, the Xperia Z1s launches with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and not Android 4.4 KitKat. Like others, Sony states it will come in a future update. However, new flagships in 2014 need to be launching with KitKat without excuse and I think I will stick with this as one minimum criteria that any new phone must meet. My Moto X has it and my old HTC One will get it soon.

Daily usage experiences

Compared to my other T-Mobile phones, I experienced better reception and connectivity on the Z1s. Phone calls sounded just fine and I never had any drop over the past week. The phone is super responsive and I never experienced any lag, even while running several apps and once and viewing the latest episode of Walking Dead.

Music playback through headphones was crisp, clear, and loud. The device speaker is OK, but can't compare to my iPhone 5s or HTC One.

Pros and Cons

It was actually quite easy for me to go through and come up with the pros and cons for the T-Mobile Sony Xperia Z1s, but as you can see my cons are really preferences and may not be a problem for many people.

Pros

  • Waterproof
  • microSD card slot for expanded storage
  • Finally an Android phone with a physical camera button
  • Solid camera performance and full-featured software
  • Long battery life thanks to 3000 mAh internal battery

Cons

  • Washed out screen in some apps
  • Thick top and bottom bezels
  • Android 4.3 and not 4.4

Pricing and availability

The Xperia Z1s is currently a T-Mobile exclusive and is available for just $528 full price or $22 per month for 24 months. That is a very reasonable price for a device with these specifications. A 32GB iPhone 5s is $749 so you can save $200 on a very capable Android phone with some unique capabilities.

The competition

Looking at T-Mobile's collection of Android phones, there are plenty of competitors to the Sony Xperia Z1s. These include the Note 3, HTC One, Galaxy S4, LG G2, and LG G Flex. I have now tried all of these phones and they all have the strengths and weaknesses. I picked the HTC One from these before and am trying to see what HTC may announce around MWC, but the waterproof functionality of the Z1s has me seriously considering it.

Specifications

  • Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
  • 2.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor
  • 20.7 megapixel camera with Sony Exmor RS
  • 5 inch 1080p display
  • 2 GB RAM and 32 GB internal storage with support for up to 64GB microSD card
  • 3000 mAh battery
  • Bluetooth 4.0 LE, 802.11 a/ac/b/g/n/r WiFi, NFC
  • Waterproof and dust resistant (IP58)
  • Dimensions of 145.7 x 73.9 x 8.55 mm and 162 grams

Conclusion

When I first saw the Z1s announces for T-Mobile I didn't think too much about it because I am satisfied with my HTC One and Moto X. However, it has been many years since I owned an Xperia phone (very cool Windows Mobile Xperia model) and I actually really grew to like what Sony is doing here with the Z1s.

It's about that time I start to think about a new device and the waterproof design, physical camera button, very long battery life, solid camera, and overall performance have me seriously considering a Sony Xperia Z1s.

It is reasonably priced for a high end smartphone and I plan to keep using this evaluation unit until my allotted time expires so I can try to make an informed decision. It is a classy looking phone and has some unique features.

Contributor's rating: 8 out of 10

Further reading

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Xperia Z1s in hand

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Glass back of the Z1s

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20.7 megapixel camera and flash

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Prominent metal power button on the right side

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Camera capture button and lanyard opening

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SIM card door on the upper right

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microUSB and microSD card slot covers in open position

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Magnetic connector for docking

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Waterproof headphone jack on top

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HTC One, Xperia Z1s, and Moto X

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Back of the HTC One, Xperia Z1s, and Moto X

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Xperia Z1s works fine in the snow

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It's comforting to know your phone can handle some elements

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Back of the Z1s in the snow

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A reminder pops up to close the doors

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Typical home screen panel

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Widgets and shortcuts on the Z1s

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Customizing the camera widget

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Managing your home screen panels

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Slick app management slide-in

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Sony Walkman music player

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Choosing themes for your Z1s

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Most settings are typical of Android

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You can use a 64GB microSD for more storage capacity

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Stamina mode will help you go for a long time

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Task switcher with cool small apps launcher

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Small apps work on top of the main interface

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Choosing your small apps

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You can add even more than what you see preloaded on the Z1s

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Using the Pocket Casts small app while browsing ZDNet

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Sony PlayStation games are supported as well

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The camera software is quite functional

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It is fun to play with some of the camera effects

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The camera turns my yard into a realm of dinosaurs

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More camera effects

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Socialife is Sony's RSS reader

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Customizing Socialife

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