Android 4.2.2 software
The Z1 arrives running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. Visually, it's pretty much the same as the previous model. You'll get multiple homescreens to fill up with apps and live widgets, while any apps you don't want right at the front will be stored in a separate app list. The app list has had a tweak though and now features an options panel to the left, allowing you to easily sort your apps by most used, alphabetical, or by a custom order.
There's a touch-sensitive button below the screen to bring up a scrolling list of open apps, letting you quickly flick between. It also lets you fire up little mini apps that sit over the interface. There's a handy notes app that hovers, letting you copy in notes from one app and paste elsewhere without needing to open a separate app.
Processor and performance
Stuffed inside the Z1 is Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 800 processor. It's a quad-core chip clocked at a ridiculous 2.2GHz. That's a decent step up from the 1.9GHz found inside the Galaxy S4, so I was keen to see how the two really compare.
In short: It's an absolute monster. I fired up the Geekbench 2 benchmark test and was quickly given a score of 3,706, far outstripping the S4's 3,087. That makes the Z1 the most powerful Android device I've ever tested, giving scores rivalling some lower-end laptops. Similarly on the Quadrant benchmark, it achieved a whopping 17,825 -- a big step above the S4's 11,381. Needless to say, it whups the proverbial of its predecessor.
Unsurprisingly, general operation of the phone was enjoyably swift. Swiping around the homescreens and opening menus was free of any discernible lag, apps loaded without delay and web browsing in Chrome was very speedy indeed.
Gaming was handled extremely well too, with the demanding N.O.V.A 3 playing smoother than I think I've ever seen it run. Riptide GP 2, Shadowgun: Deadzone and Asphalt 8 all played at high frame rates giving exceptionally smooth gameplay. Whether gaming, editing photos and videos or streaming TV shows over Netflix, the Z1 has more than enough power to handle any task you're likely to throw at it.
Other than the phenomenal processor, the camera is one of the key areas that's seen an upgrade. The resolution has gone from an already impressive 13 megapixels to an astounding 20.7 megapixels. The sensor size too has been increased to 1/2.3-inch, which is bigger than the sensors you'd typically find inside smartphones. At 1/1.5-inch, the Nokia Lumia 1020's PureView sensor is one of the few that are bigger.
The larger the sensor, the more light can be taken in, which should help give overall better clarity, particularly in lower-light scenarios. That's helped too by a wide angle 27mm f/2.0 lens and Sony's Bionz image processor that apparently helps to minimise image noise. Of course, that's all meaningless if it still can't deliver decent shots, so let's take a look at some examples.
The phone's primary shooting mood is Superior Auto, which picks the best settings for the scene. If you want to shoot at the maximum 20-megapixels, you'll need to switch to manual mode. My original test shots I used for the review were very hit and miss. This first shot -- taken in auto mode -- of these smashing train tracks wasn't at all bad. It's exposed well for the bright clouds, without making the rest of the scene too dark. Zooming in shows generally good detail.
My second shot of this darkened woodland scene was much less impressive. Shooting again in auto mode, the camera seemed not only a little overexposed, but the colours are totally washed out, and the overall quality is poor, resulting in a very disappointing photo overall.
Switching to manual mode, however, allowed me to adjust white balance and exposure levels in order to get a more satisfactory photo -- although that's not something you should be forced to do in order to get good photos.
I whisked the phone off to Tuscany in Italy, alongside the Nokia Lumia 1020, in order to gather some more test photos. The phone generally performed quite well, but I still found it a little hit and miss. In this cobbled street near Panzano, the Lumia achieved a much sharper image, particularly on the brickwork and on the streetlamp. The Z1 had warmer colour tones, but the Lumia's colour was more natural. Both phones were set to manual mode for resolution, but settings were left on auto.
The two did a decent job of capturing this church front, thanks to their wide angle lenses. At full screen, it's possible to see a lot of detail on both images, although the Z1 loses some clarity away from the centre. The Lumia also managed to achieved a much richer colour tone.
The Z1 did a fair job of capturing this night time scene in Siena, this time in full auto mode. It has a colder image tone than the Lumia, although this time it was more accurate. The Lumia again seems to have the edge in overall clarity, particularly when you look at the building details on the left.
Inside this grocery shop -- again on full auto mode on both -- there's little to tell between either shot. Both have an excellent grasp on exposure, saturation and clarity.
The same is true in this street shot in San Gimignano, with both phones exposing well for the scene (again, full auto). The Lumia had richer, but colder colours, but this of course can be tweaked on both phones with the white balance settings.
The Lumia takes the top spot in my final comparison shot (auto) of this storm passing overhead in Siena. The deep colours on the clouds and the warmer tones on the buildings result in a much more satisfying photo.
The Z1 did do a superb job in capturing this image taken from a pool in Greve. There's an incredible amount of dynamic range visible, with the shadowy areas being clearly visibly, while the bright sky remains well exposed. It's a very impressive shot.
Notably though, I was taking the photo from within the swimming pool, thanks to the waterproofing, which also allowed me to take an underwater selfie -- something which the Lumia 1020 is not capable of doing. If you find yourself by the beach or around pools a lot, wanting to take photos, the Z1 should be your phone of choice.
While I stand by the reservations I had about the auto mode's abilities in my initial test shots, my updated tests show that the hardware is certainly there to capture some brilliant photos. I'd like to see a software update that will allow the auto mode to do a better job though as the Lumia seemed to have the edge here. As phones are best for taking quick snaps when action occurs, it's likely that most of you won't want to spend your time fiddling around with various settings to try and capture a scene well.
In general though, the Z1's camera does a good job, but the addition of extra pixels hasn't pushed it much ahead of its competitors.
The Z1 does have a couple of camera tricks up its sleeve too, in case being waterproof wasn't enough. Chief among which is the augmented reality tool that overlays comedy hats, facial hair and even dinosaurs over your image in real time. Other in-camera apps include a panorama mode -- which isn't anywhere near as good as the Galaxy S4's -- a 'best shot' burst mode and various artistic effects.
Sony has shoved in a 3,000mAh battery, which is quite capacious, so I was really hoping for some impressive battery life. That monstrous processor seems to have taken its toll though, as the phone lasted 6 hours 45 minutes on our video loop battery drain test. While that improves slightly over the previous model, it's not competing well against the Galaxy S4's 10 hours 30 minutes.
As with all smart phones though, actual battery life varies wildly depending on how you use it. If you spend your day playing demanding games with the screen turned up to blinding levels, don't expect an impressive life. Avoid streaming videos and be careful about how much Internet browsing you're doing and you shouldn't struggle to get a day of use. As a general rule though, expect to charge any smart phone every night.
The Xperia Z1's slick, waterproof design, its good screen and of course its monstrously powerful processor make it a hugely impressive phone, easily justifying its flagship status. It's let down, however, by a high-resolution camera that doesn't produce attractive photos, and its battery life is disappointing too.