Ease of Learning: 4.5 / 5
Ease of Use: 4 / 5
Enjoyment: 4.5 / 5
Design: 4 / 5
Value for Money: 3 / 5
While Sony noticeably reduced the amount of smartphones it launched in 2013 over 2012, there were still a total of 10 different smartphones and a tablet launched by the Japanese OEM. A few months before Sony launched the Xperia Z1*, they released their take on the (oversized) phablet, examples of which we previously saw in the Samsung Galaxy Mega (at 6.3”), HTC One Max (at 5.9”), Huawei Ascend Mate (at 6.1”), and even Nokia’s Lumia 1520 (at 6”). While this space is still dominated by Samsung’s Galaxy Note range, there are a growing number of large-screened smartphones available today. The Xperia Z Ultra is Sony’s phablet version of the Xperia Z1, but can we compare the two smartphones side-by-side?
* Launched concurrently in South Africa
Build and Design
It’s difficult not to start with the obvious, the 6.4” screen. The Xperia Z Ultra has the same display as the Z1, a Triluminos display with Sony’s X-Reality Engine. Both displays have a 1080p resolution, the only difference being the 344 pixel density of the Ultra, opposed to the 441 of the Z1, due to its much larger screen. Based on the stats alone one would assume that the display quality is quite terrible, where in fact it is anything but. Surfing the web, browsing through photos, and watching movies on the display is great. There are, however, two major concerns (not issues) with such a large handset. The first is that you can’t successfully be used in one hand, unless you’re some kind of giant. Since many are accustomed to this even on smaller devices and other tablets, this isn’t much of a concern. The second is using the Ultra to make a call. There’s no denying it, you will look a bit ridiculous trying to pull this off; pretty much like the Galaxy Gear users making calls from their smartwatches.
A quick look at the specifications and you’ll be amazed at the dimensions of the Ultra. The device measures in at 179.4×92.2mm, dwarfing other genuinely big smartphones like the Galaxy Note. The real stand-out is how remarkably thin it is at just 6.5mm. To put that into perspective, that’s 1.1mm thinner than the iPhone 5s (7.6mm). And if you’re debating the fairness of such a comparison, it’s even thinner than the iPad Air (7.5mm). Despite all this, it only comes in at 5th position in terms of leading smartphones claiming to be the thinnest of them all. Being thin doesn’t count for much if the device cannot fit into your front or back pockets. Even if you do manage to squeeze it in, it’s uncomfortable to the point where you cannot lift your leg high enough to walk properly.
In terms of other hardware and specifications, the Xperia Z Ultra is almost identical to the Z1, bar one or two differences. The first of these is almost negligible, the Ultra sporting a 3050mAh battery, a mere 50mAh better off. Still, the battery life on the Ultra is quite good, with power users easily capable of managing a full day without needing to charge. After experimenting with a few settings and using the Stamina Mode, I was able to eke out almost three days of use before depleting the charge, which included making calls, browsing the web, and using a few apps in between.
The other difference in hardware is much more obvious, and casts a shadow on the Ultra. The Ultra packs an 8MP camera on the rear. It may not seem much, but when you compare many of the flagship devices from 2013, and even against the Z1’s 20.7MP camera, the Ultra’s 8MP appears rather jaded. To add insult to injury, there is no flash present. This effectively removes the ability to snap any night time photos, while reducing the quality of low-light images a great deal.
The remaining internals include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 2.2GHz Quad-Core CPU, Adreno 330 GPU, 16GB internal storage, 2GB of RAM, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and LTE.
A workaround for some of the concerns regarding the Z Ultra’s large size comes in the form of a few Sony accessories. The first of these is the SmartWatch 2 SW2, which interfaces with your Sony smartphones via one-touch NFC. The SW2 is also water, dust and scratch-resistant, making ideal for use in any weather. The device is compatible with any Android smartphone with version 4.0 or up, and has capabilities that includes Call handling (answer, reject, mute, volume handling), missed call notification, SMS/MMS, Email, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, music handling, Calendar, and Slideshow. While it may be more functional than the Galaxy Gear, you still have the same loudspeaker calling issue. Battery life on the SW2 is anywhere from 3-7 days depending on your usage.
The next accessory is the SBH52 Bluetooth Headset, which is connected via one-touch NFC. The SBH52 is effectively a dual-function accessory, which has calling capabilities as well as music playback. Once connected to your Android smartphone, you can make or receive calls as per normal, which doesn’t seem as silly to use. In addition, you can plug in your earphones via the 3.5mm jack and use it as an MP3 player, which streams from your handset. This means that you can leave your device, such as the Ultra, in your bag or jacket pocket while still having access to some phone functions.
The last in the list comes in the form of a charger, the DK30 Magnetic Charging Dock. With the Z Ultra’s IP58 certificate, there are a few annoying rubber flaps to open and close every time you need to charge your device. The DK30 allows users to simply dock the Ultra and charge, connecting via the exposed pins along the left side of the device.
There seems to be no end to the battle for supremacy when it comes to smartphone size, but there’s a limit to how big the screen can get before been classified as a tablet. With many 7” tablets already available, I don’t think that any of the competing OEMs would venture into that territory and still claim a device to be a phone and not a tablet. While there’s definitely plenty to love about the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, truth be told, this type of smartphone isn’t for everyone. The simple fact that it cannot fit comfortably into your pockets, if at all, makes it less mobile than your everyday smartphone. Pound for pound, the Xperia Z1 is much more of a complete device that the Ultra, and should be our first choice. If you’re simply looking for the biggest smartphone you can get your hands on, without any consideration for portability and price (anywhere between R7,000 and R10,000 depending on the retailer), the Xperia Z Ultra is your clear winner.
There is another variant of the Sony Xperia Z Ultra now available via the Google Play Store (not available in South Africa) at $649.99, $50 cheaper than the original. This Google Play Edition has been stripped of the standard UI and replaced with the vanilla version of Android.
You can find the full specifications here.