Sony Xperia Z Ultra review: first look

25 Jun 2013

Giant smartphones have become a common sight at press launches of late, and the latest to hit the scene is the Sony Xperia Z Ultra. We had the chance to try one out at an event in London today, and first impressions are that it's a serious contender.

For starters, Sony reckons it’s the slimmest big smartphone on the market. We’re not going to disagree: the Ultra is just 6.5mm thick, yet despite the dimensions, there was no hint of weakness across its aluminium frame and glass rear. It's a remarkably sturdy piece of kit, and Sony hasn’t just concentrated on making its latest Xperia feel solid – it’s comfortable to hold, too. The brushed aluminium borders aren’t quite as angular as the original Xperia Z, and don't dig into your palm in quite the same way. Its 212g weight is high for a smartphone, but then we'd expect a little bit of extra heft for a device this big.

The Ultra’s physical layout doesn’t stray far from existing Xperia Z devices. The metal, circular power button and slim volume rocker sit on the right-hand side, and the microSD and SIM card slots are covered with rubberised flaps. The left-hand edge houses a magnetic charger coupling that can be used with a dock accessory. The Ultra is more capable than ever when it comes to withstanding the elements: adherence to the IP58 classification means this device can withstand a dunking in around 1.5m of water for up to thirty minutes.

The slim frame isn’t the only thing we’re excited about. This is the first phone we’ve seen to use a Snapdragon 800 processor, which is a quad-core chip that runs at a mind-boggling 2.2GHz.

The Ultra is, to put it mildly, extremely fast. Sony’s demonstration unit blazed through SunSpider to a record-breaking time of 400ms, and it scored 861 in the Peacekeeper HTML 5 benchmark. The fastest phones we've seen previously have scored around 900ms in the former test, and our current A-List smartphone, the HTC One, achieved 759 in Peacekeeper. The Sony scored 11,895 in 3DMark’s extreme-level Ice Storm benchmark – 3DMark’s own figures show the HTC One scoring 6,440 in the that test.

It’s a benchmark-beating beast, and we didn’t see any signs of slowdown during our hands-on time with the Ultra. It whizzed through that 3DMark test without dropping any frames, and OS navigation was consistently smooth. The Ultra will ship with Android 4.2.2.

The 6.4in TFT display has the 1,080 x 1,920 resolution that we expect on large, high-end smartphones, but Sony claims it’s ahead of the chasing pack thanks to a couple of technologies it’s borrowed from its Bravia TVs: Triluminos tech for a wider colour gamut than other smartphone displays; and X-Reality - an image processing technique which analyses and sharpen images to improve clarity.

We’ll only be able to truly judge the Xperia’s display when we receive our review unit, but first impressions are good. It's pin-sharp thanks to a pixel density of 344ppi, colours seemed vibrant, and viewing angles were excellent.

Aside from quality, the display is able to boast a touchscreen that works, not only with fingers and thumbs, but also with pens and pencils as well as standard, non-active styli. Sony says it’s compatible with any pens with tips 1mm across or wider, and it worked instantly when we tried it with a ballpoint pen as well as a pencil – although a Bic biro didn’t work.

The rest of the Ultra’s specification is suitably high-end. There's NFC, it’s 4G compatible, and the 8-megapixel rear camera is partnered by a 2-megapixel front-facing shooter. The Ultra comes with 16GB of base storage with 11GB free for apps and files, and the microSD slot can handle 64GB memory cards.

Given how powerful the Xperia Z looks to be, it's a little worrying the battery isn't bigger. Its capacity is 3,000mAh capacity, which 400mAh more than the Samsung Galaxy S4. Still, the phone's stamina mode – which turns off wireless radios and other features when they’re not in use – should compensate. We'll reserve judgement, however, until we're able to run our 24-hour test on it.

Alas, there's no pricing info yet, but Sony says the Xperia Z Ultra will reach these shores in September. We’ll have a full review by then, too, but less us know if you’re tempted – or if this, like other "phablets" devices, is just too large to be used as a phone.

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