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printed November 28, 2014
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Review: Sony Xperia Z1S for T-Mobile

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Media

If there's one thing the Z1S covers in spades, it’s media. The Z1S can be used to consume and/or create just about any type of media content imaginable. Are you ready? Here we go…

 

Media

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As expected, the Google Play Store and its selection of books, magazines, music, and movies is on board. These are the same apps found on most Android devices. They work well.

Sony uses its own Walkman and video player apps and dismisses Google's, which aren't included. The Sony Walkman app is a feature-rich music player and surpasses the Google Play Music app in terms of usability and cool tools. I like the way it arranges playlists and albums, and it has a nice visual look and feel. It played everything I sideloaded (songs purchased from Amazon, Apple, and Google) without issue. It has a great equalizer for customizing the sound.

 

Walkman

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The Xperia Z1S also includes Sony Music Unlimited and Sony Videos Unlimited. These are content stores run by the Sony Entertainment Network. Once you create a Sony account (or use your existing PlayStation Network account), $10 per month buys you unlimited music streaming each month via Music Unlimited. The service can cache playlists on the device for offline playback and offers tons more features. The Movies Unlimited service offers movie rentals. Pricing for the rentals varies by title.

The Z1S has an FM radio (headphones req'd) and TrackID, which can be used to identify songs. The Z1S also has an app called Smart Connect that uses DLNA to connect it to other DLNA-certified devices for playing media content over a Wi-Fi network. The app works well; I had no trouble pairing the Z1S with my TV sets, for example.

Lastly, T-Mobile TV is on board, which can be used to stream television content over T-Mobile's network. This service, which costs $10 per month, performed poorly in my tests, even over LTE. It was slow and halted from time to time.

Camera

Sony has refreshed its camera software a little bit in order to make it easier to use. It offers most of the functionality found on the Z, but rearranges the layout so there isn't so much confronting you every time you launch the camera app. The app can be launched when the device is asleep with a long press of the camera button. It takes about 2 seconds to wake up.

Sony got rid of the controls that used to run across the top of the viewfinder. Instead, they are all now positioned on either the left or right sides of the screen. The shutter buttons (camera, video camera, modes) are all on the right, while the flash, user-facing camera and settings are all on the left.

The default shooting mode is called Superior Auto. It’s good at detecting various types of scenes and then adjusting the settings to match what you’re looking at. Basically what this means is that it can switch between macro photography (shooting close-ups), HDR photography, and regular photography automatically. It's also good at noticing low-light situations and adjusting the flash accordingly.

The other shooting modes entail Manual; Info-Eye (augmented reality search tool); Social Live (publishes directly to Facebook); Timeshift Burst (takes a quick burst before you press the shutter button to increase likelihood of getting good shot); AR Effect (take photos with virtual scenes and characters); Picture effect (artistic filters); Panorama; and Background Defocus (blurs the background so the foreground subject pops).

Each of these individual modes works fairly well. I didn't have much luck with the Info-Eye feature, perhaps because I live in the sticks of NJ and there's nothing of interest around. The AR Effect will probably appeal to teenagers and those looking to be silly. I don't see much to be gained from the artistic filters in the Picture Effect tool, as so many filters are available from so many other apps. The Background Defocus function is perhaps the most useful, as it can create usable portraits.

The Z1S can also detect smiles, and can make various different shutter sounds. I like that the flash has four settings, including fill-flash. Fill-flash helps take photos when you have a light background and a dark foreground and you want to make the foreground pop a little bit (it uses a lower-power burst than the normal flash mode.)

Everything about the camera is fast. It focuses quickly, and shoots/saves images quickly.

 

Camera

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Photos

The Z1S uses a 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor from Sony with backside illumination. It also has a G Lens and an f/2.3 aperture rating. That means it can shoot HDR photos and video and do so in extremely low-light environments. The end results are impressive. The Z1S did an excellent job of capturing images that were bright and lively, in focus, correctly exposed, and with proper white balance. I was particularly impressed with how it did in poorly lit rooms without the use of the flash. The camera of the Z1S produces some of the finest photos I've seen from a Sony smartphone.

 

Photos

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Video

Similarly, the Z1S's video camera did a great job of capturing HD video. I was impressed with the clarity, white balance, and exposure. As with still images, the Z1S does well in low-light situations thanks to the HDR video powers. Video captured with the Z1S is certainly YouTube worthy, and looks great on an HDTV.

Gallery

The Z1S forgoes the stock Android gallery in favor of one developed by Sony. Sony's gallery app is way more fun to use. The grid of thumbnails in the main view can be expanded and reshaped by using pinch-to-zoom gestures. By default, one thumbnail (the most recent image) is somewhat larger than the others. Grab that and do a reverse pinch gesture and it will grow to fill the screen. You can use these gestures to make all the thumbnails visible at the same time, or as few as three visible at a time. It makes dealing with the gallery more enjoyable.

Beyond this user interface, the Sony gallery has all the tools you expect to find on a modern smartphone. Individual photos and albums can be easily shared with others via messaging apps or social networks. Photos can also be cropped and rotated, as well as adjusted for exposure, etc.

If you're interested in backing up your photos, Sony offers its own online storage solution called PlayMemories Online. You can select any photos that are on the Z1S and send them to the PlayMemories app from within the gallery. The photos are then synced with an online account (which is free, but you have to register and set it up.)

 

Gallery

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Last, the newer Google+ Photos app is also on board. This app can be used to backup, access, and edit any photos you've saved to Google+ or Picasa. This app will eventually replace the stock Android gallery app, so you may as well get used to it. It has its own editing tools.

Apps

There are 52 apps preinstalled on the Z1S, and a fair number of them are T-Mobile-branded apps, such as the account manager, Named ID, visual voicemail, and so on. Many of Sony's apps - such as Walkman and Update Center - duplicate functions that are already baked into the Android platform.

Other Sony apps worth calling out include Sony Select, PlayStation, and Xperia Lounge. Sony Select is an app recommendation tool that works similarly to the Samsung Hub on Galaxy devices. It offers a selection of apps and games that Sony thinks you'll enjoy. PlayStation hooks you into the PlayStation Network to access your PS3/PS4 and other Sony content and services. You can also access your PSN messages through this app, and conduct IM chats with other PSN users. The Xperia Lounge is sort of "Hey, check out all this cool Sony Xperia stuff!" news app. It is organized like a magazine and offers articles and updates on all things Sony. Exciting, no?

 

Sony Apps

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Bluetooth

The Z1S supports the usual collection of Bluetooth profiles. I made calls through my car's hands-free system as well as mono headphones. The quality through both was good, though I found volume was lacking a bit. The Z1S supports the newer aptX profile for improved stereo Bluetooth quality. Music sent to an aptX-compatible Bluetooth speaker sounded incredible. I was also able to connect to other Bluetooth devices to push files back and forth. Bottom line, the Bluetooth radio worked perfectly.

Browser

The Z1S includes Google's Chrome browser. It does good job of rendering web sites on the Z1S's display. Chrome can be used to sync browsing history and bookmarks with the desktop version of Chrome. There are plenty of alternative browsers available in the Google Play Store should Chrome not suffice for you. Chrome did not interact all that well with T-Mobile's network. The Z1S was slow to load pages over EDGE, HSPA+, and LTE - or at least slower than other T-Mobile devices. Chrome worked perfectly over Wi-Fi.

 

Browser

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Clock

The lock screen clock is a thin, white, digital clock that's positioned at the top of the display. It can be hard to see and isn't customizable. There are a number of clock widgets for the home screens, but the time is almost always displayed in the status bar at the top.

GPS

The Z1S includes Google Maps. Google Maps is a known entity that performs very well. In terms of the GPS radio itself, the Z1S functioned flawlessly. It found me in 10 seconds or less, and was accurate to within about 25 feet. The combination of the Z1S's processor, GPS accuracy, and Google Maps worked well for live navigation.

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