Last year we had the chance to test out Sony’s flagship Xperia Z1 smartphone as well as the Xperia Tablet Z. Both devices were good, in fact they were very good and they left us with a feeling that Sony was returning to its glory days of old.
They were however not the only devices that Sony released under its premium ‘Z’ moniker in 2013. Slotting neatly between the two was the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, a 6.4 inch phablet that dwarfs every other smartphone we had come through htxt.africa HQ last year.
Love them or hate them, phablets are here to stay. The question is whether the Xperia Z Ultra is the one you should be looking to buy?
Big. That’s pretty much the only word that comes to mind when you first catch sight of the Xperia Z Ultra. Once you get past that though, the overall design of the Z Ultra is unquestionably Sony’s.
It uses the same all glass front and back styling as its smaller sibling Xperia Z1 which attracts finger prints and smudges like ants to a picnic. The front it dominated by that massive 6.4 inch full HD display relegating the appearance of a front facing camera and the Sony logo at the top into obscurity.
The glossy, mirror-like expanse at the back of the Z Ultra is disturbed only four times with the 8MP camera joined by NFC, Sony and Xperia logos. Immediately noticeable is the absence of a flash for low light photography which surprised us.
Around the black plastic edges of the Ultra are the familiar small flaps that conceal the SIM and microSD card slots as well as the microUSB port. It’s these covers that give the Z Ultra the same IP58 ingress protection rating as the Z1 before it making it dust proof and water resistant up to a depth of one meter for up to 30 minutes. Joining these flaps are the power and volume buttons as well as a headphone jack and a proprietary connector for Sony’s dock.
What surprised us most of all when handling the Xperia Z Ultra though was just how light and thin it feels. Just 6.5mm thick the Xperia Z Ultra is barely thicker than the Huawei Ascend P6 which at 6.16mm made it almost invisible in even the skinniest pair of jeans. The 212 gram weight is almost double that of the 112 gram iPhone 5s but because that weight is spread out over such a large surface area the Z Ultra lands up feeling just as light in hand.
Where you cannot hide the Z Ultra’s size is in your pockets. We’ve never used the term having deep pockets as literally as we had to with the Z Ultra but it was not without merit. Fitting it into a pocket while standing is one matter, once you take a seat however the Z Ultra reminds you of its presence immediately and rather uncomfortably. Get ready to hear the question “Is that a phone in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” with alarming regularity.
Much of the components used for the Xperia Z Ultra are identical to those of the Xperia Z1. Just as in the Z1 the fantastic 2.2GHz quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor is joined by 2GB of RAM and 16GB of on-board storage. The latest wireless connectivity standards are all present with LTE, Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 ac WiFi present and accounted for. Even the 3050mAh battery in the Z Ultra is only slightly larger than the 3000mAh found in the Z1.
There are only two major differences between the hardware to speak of.
The obvious one is of course the display. While they have the same 1920X1080 full HD resolution, the Xperia Z Ultra’s display is significantly larger at 6.4 inches to the relatively small 5 inch display found in the Xperia Z1. It means that pixel density is reduced from 441 pixels per inch (ppi) to 344ppi.
The second major difference is in the camera. The Xperia Z1 has one of the largest smartphone camera sensors on the market at 20.7MP while the Z Ultra has to make do with an 8MP unit. The absence of a physical camera button and a flash for low light photography are also notable imaging omissions.
Once again the Xperia Z Ultra follows the Xperia Z1’s example launching with Android 4.2 installed but having been subsequently upgraded to Android 4.3 in recent months. Both phones are in line to receive an update to the latest version of Google’s mobile OS with a planned update to Android 4.4 for some time in 2014.
Sony’s customisation of Android has remained far less intrusive than Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and while we prefer the unadulterated Android experience we have very few complaints when it comes to Sony’s interpretation.
The 6.4 inch full HD display is by far and away the stand out feature of the Xperia Z Ultra. It uses the same Triluminous display technology as the Sony’s BRAVIA range of TVs as well as the company’s proprietary X-Reality engine. However the same tech managed to disappoint us in the Z1 with colours that washed out rather too easily for our liking.
The Xperia Z Ultra’s display is a thing of beauty, colours are vivid and lifelike and refused to wash out even at a ridiculous angle. Text is fantastically crisp and easy to read whether it was on a website or in an e-book. Webpages are rendered spectacularly without looking cramped or disjointed.
It’s with video however that a love affair with the Xperia Z Ultra truly blossoms, Full HD content in particular looks incredible. It’s almost enough to believe that the Z Ultra is entirely the result of an engineer at Sony wanting to carry a TV with him everywhere.
The greatest disappointment from the Xperia Z Ultra was its camera. While pictures in direct sunlight were as good as any other 8MP camera on the market it was in low light where the Z Ultra suffered. Without a flash there was no consistency to the shots we took indoors in dim light or at night.
It’s a real shame that Sony didn’t see fit to include the same 20.7MP unit from the Xperia Z1 in the Z Ultra in the way that they have with the shrunken down Xperia Z1 Compact.
Sad to say that the camera is by no means ‘Ultra’.
At 3050mAh the battery inside the Xperia Z Ultra joins the likes of the Xperia Z1, BlackBerry Z30, Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the LG G2 in the over 3000 club. But with a 6.4 inch display to cater for, the Xperia Z Ultra was always going to be fighting a losing battle in the battery life stakes.
Thankfully Sony has some of the best power management software in the game. As with the Xperia Z1 the Z Ultra give you the option to use a combination of three settings to prolong battery life.
Location aware WiFi uses GPS to only turn on the wireless radio when you’re near a preferred network saving power by preventing it from aimlessly searching for networks.
The aggressive STAMINA mode turns off all data network connections while the display is turned off refreshing everything only when you choose to use the phone.
While the Low Battery mode settings let you choose which phone functions are critical to you and should continue draining power when the battery runs low.
All told the Z Ultra struggles to complete a full day of hard use. The same display that makes it so good to use also takes its toll rather heavily on the battery. Going outside where it’s forced to increase brightness or playing games only makes things worse.
Recommending a phablet other than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 is difficult. Samsung’s third iteration of the original phablet has the best warranty available in South Africa not to mention better battery life and a better camera than the Sony Xperia Z Ultra.
While we love the brilliant display and the power that the Xperia Z Ultra brings to the party we don’t love the sheer volume of space that it consumes. It was near impossible to use while running or at gym to play music as we do with other phones because there was nowhere to put it while doing exercise. Not to mention that it was the first phone that did not fit into the adjustable car mount to test battery drain from GPS navigation.
If Sony had made a 7 inch tablet instead of a 6.4 inch phablet this review would have been almost unanimously full of praise. However as a smartphone it’s not good enough.
Battery life: 3.5/5
Value for Money: 3/5
Price: R6 999 – R11 000 depending on the retailer
Display: 6.4 inch Triluminous display with X-Reality engine. 1920X1080 resolution at 344ppi
Storage: 16GB expandable with microSD by up to 64GB
Camera: 8MP rear, 2Mp front facing
Networking: Dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE
Other: IP58 certified Dust proof and water proof at up to 1 meter for up to 30 minutes