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Review: Sony Xperia Z1S for T-Mobile

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Jan 15, 2014, 7:00 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   @zeman_e

The Sony Xperia Z1S offers T-Mobile customers a top-notch media experience in a slim and attractive piece of hardware. Here is Phone Scoop's full review.

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Is It Your Type

T-Mobile continues its hot streak with the Sony Xperia Z1S, a waterproof smartphone that has good looks and solid performance. The Z1S takes the place of the Z as Sony's hero phone in the U.S. and it goes toe-to-toe with today's best devices. Toss in a dose of Sony style and you have a compelling combination. If you're tired of Galaxys, iPhones, and Lumias, this Xperia might offer the differentiated experience you're seeking.

Body

The Xperia Z1S makes a good thing better. It takes the best aspects of last year's Z and improves upon them markedly. The hardware is top-notch in terms of quality and construction, and it has good looks to boot.

The Z1S is a slab-style device that has a polycarbonate frame sandwiched between two glass panels. Similar to the LG Nexus 4 and Apple iPhone 4/4S, glass forms both the front and back surfaces. The device is thin, light, and attractive. The simple design elements speak for themselves. You don't have to do much to give glass some class, and the Z1S has both to spare. The glossy and reflective glass panels are offset by the matte-finished frame. The signature Sony screen lock button, which is large, chrome, and circular, stands out nicely along one edge of the device. This button design was a conscious choice from Sony, and it's found on most of Sony's modern Xperia-branded devices. The Z1S is available in black, white, and an attractive purple.

Perhaps the Z1S's biggest improvement over the Z is the overall feel in the hand. The Z had sharp edges that often cut into your palm when the phone was held tightly. The Z1S has rounded edges that are much more comfortable when the phone is gripped. That said, the Z1S is still a wide phone that may introduce usability issues for those with small hands. My thumb could not reach the top 20% of the phone unless I repositioned my grip. The waif-like front-to-back dimensions mean it should fit into most pockets without issue, but the height and width might cause pocketability problems here and there.

Like the Z, there are no physical controls on the front of the Z1S. The screen consumes a significant portion of the front surface, but there is still a wee bit too much bezel as far as I'm concerned. I'd prefer Sony minimized its bezels moving forward. The three standard Android buttons show up along the bottom edge of the screen as they are needed.

Body  

The Z1S is waterproof. Sony has upped the marketing lingo. The Z was water resistant. Waterproof, to Sony, means the Z1S can sit in up to 4.9 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. In order to gain that protection from water, the Z1S is sealed up tight. There is no removable back cover and no access to the battery at all. The microUSB port - and slots for the SIM and memory cards - are all accessible along the side edges. Each is protected by its own hatch. I dislike the hatches intensely, but I suppose at the end of the day the only one with which most people will interact on a daily basis is the one protecting the microUSB port. The microUSB and microSD hatches are on the left and the SIM card hatch is on the right. All three require a bit of fingernail action to pry them loose. The headphone jack is not protected by a hatch, but is waterproof all the same. The hatches *must* be properly sealed in order to make the Z1S waterproof.

Considering just how often people manage to drop their devices into drinks, sinks, toilets, and puddles, perhaps dealing with the hatches is a worthy trade-off. By the way, I tested the waterproof-ness of the Z1S, and it can handle blowing rain, a faucet, and a bathtub quite well. The device includes wet-screen tracking, which means the screen (and even the camera!) can be touched and used when the device is submerged.

All of the buttons are placed along the right edge of the Z1S. The most obvious of these is the lock button, which is positioned approximately in the middle. It's really easy to find and use, and the travel and feedback are quite good. The volume toggle is below that. Its profile is minimal, and travel and feedback are quite poor. Sony could have done a much better job with this button. The Z1S adds a physical camera button. The button is very small, but it works well. I had no trouble finding and using it, and both stages of the two-stage key are clearly defined.

At the end of the day, the Z1S is an attractive piece of hardware that's well built. It's too bad there are a few usability niggles that detract just a teensy bit from the overall package.

Performance 

Screen

Sony often goes overboard with the fancy names it applies to its technology and devices. The Z1S is no different. Sure, it boasts Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2 and Triluminos brightness techs, but the display is still just a 5-inch 1080p HD LCD. The screen is exceptionally sharp and blindingly bright (when set up all the way.) I had no trouble reading the screen indoors or out. I thought colors came across as somewhat muted, meaning they weren't as vibrant as they could or should be. Further, the screen looks great when viewed head-on, but there's a significant brightness drop-off and color shift (turns yellow) when the screen is tilted side-to-side. In other words, the viewing angles aren't all that good. But as long as you're looking directly at it, the Z1S's screen is fantastic.

Signal

The Z1S performed under par when compared to other devices on T-Mobile's network in the greater New York City region. Not only did the Z1S struggle to connect to LTE when it was available, it often waffled between EDGE and HSPA+. I can't remember the last time I saw EDGE data show up on a T-Mobile device, especially in an area that I know offers both HSPA+ and LTE. What does this mean for real-world users? The Z1S was much slower at downloading apps, syncing email, and browsing the web than it should have been. As far as connecting calls, though, it pushed them all through on the first attempt, no matter how bad the signal conditions. I find the inconsistency a bit troubling.

Sound

I was generally pleased with the quality of phone calls patched through the Z1S. The earpiece produced clear, loud voices. I didn't have any issues holding conversations in noisy spaces, such as coffee shops or diners during lunchtime (when set up all the way). The majority of calls had a warm, pleasant sound. Those with whom I spoke through the Z1S said the same of my voice. As for the speakerphone, it offered clear calls that had a sharp quality to them. The volume produced by the speakerphone is decent for quieter spaces, such as an office with a closed door, but it could be drowned out in a car or noisy household. Ringers and alerts were loud enough to get my attention nearly all the time, though I missed a few calls because the vibrate alert wasn't very strong.

Battery

I have no complaints about the performance of the Z1S's battery. Over the course of a week, it consistently lasted from morning to night with no trouble - even in areas covered by LTE. I did find that heavy use of the camera takes a noticeable toll on the battery, but most other apps run without killing the power source. The Z1S offers plenty of tools to help manage battery life, too. For example, it includes Sony's Stamina Mode, which turns off the data radio whenever the screen is off. There's also a Low Battery mode that automatically turns off a customizable set of features (such as brightness, vibrate, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, sync, mobile data) when the battery drops below 30%. The controls help offset the lack of a removeable battery just a smidge.

Basics 

Menus

The Sony Xperia Z1S ships with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and Sony's user interface customizations. It looks and feels similar to most of the Xperia devices released by Sony over the course of the last year.

There are only two shortcuts on the lockscreen: one for the camera (even if there's a security code in place), and one for the music player. You can't customize the lock screen at all. You can also access the notification tray from the lock screen, but not if you've enabled a security code.

There are five home screen panels for customization. The Z1S includes plenty of widgets, apps, and shortcuts with which to fill the various screens. I like that the main app menu lets you view apps alphabetically, by most recently used, by the order in which they were downloaded, as well as user-arranged order. There's a nifty new tool that lets owners manage the app menu. It's also fairly easy to uninstall apps from the main app menu, as well as share them via social networks. The settings tools function just as on other Android devices, as does the notification tray, though Sony has given them its own look and feel.

The Z1S has Sony's Xperia Small Apps feature. When you press the multitasking button, the recent apps you've used appear as normal in a vertical column. However, a little strip of apps also appears along the bottom of the screen. The Xperia Small Apps include a calculator, note app, clock app, and voice memo app. These aren't shortcuts to full-fledged apps; they are miniature apps that pop up as a small window and remain open on top of any other apps you're using until you close them. The Small Apps can only be launched from the multitasking screen.

Menus  

The Z1S has a quad-core 2.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor. With Qualcomm's flagship silicon under the hood, the Z1S runs perfectly and without issue. I didn't see any performance problems.

Calls and Contacts

The phone and contact applications function similarly to the stock tools offered by Android 4.3. The phone app includes the expected features such as mute, hold, speakerphone, and add a line. The Z1S includes Wi-Fi Calling, which is a feature long offered by T-Mobile smartphones. Owners can take advantage of Wi-Fi networks to place internet-based calls when the cellular network is crummy. I tested this feature, and it worked well. Call quality over Wi-Fi was quite good. (As a bonus, you can also send SMS messages via Wi-Fi, too.)

Calls  

The contacts app syncs flawlessly with your Google, Exchange, and Facebook contact databases. There are only a couple of widgets and/or shortcuts for adding contacts to the home screen, but the tools taken together are powerful. There's nothing new or exciting to report here.

Contacts  

Messaging

The Z1S has the stock set of Android communications tools, including Gmail, email, Google+, and Hangouts. These apps function just as they do on other devices.

The Hangouts app ties into Google+ for video chats, IM, SMS, and MMS. I still find it rather awkward and clunky to use, especially since it maintains different conversation threads for IM contacts versus SMS/MMS contacts.

The Z1S also comes with Sony's SocialLife app, which is like HTC's BlinkFeed. It's a socialized reader that pulls in your Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube content, and runs it in a stream that's also interspersed with news items. You can customize the news that appears, and use SocialLife to interact with your social networks, as well as share the content that appears in the feed. If you're the type who likes to manage your feeds in a social way from a single user interface, SocialLife does a pretty good job of it. SocialLife stops short of offering all the messaging features found in the dedicated Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube apps, however.

Speaking of which, Facebook is preinstalled, but Twitter isn't.

Messages  

Extras 

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  

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  

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  

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  

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  

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  

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  

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.

Wrap-Up 

The Xperia Z1S isn't perfect, but it is perhaps as close as Sony has come to smartphone nirvana. The hardware works on almost every level: it looks good, is well-built, and functions well. The basics are well in hand: the screen is decent, the battery life excellent, and call quality very good. The stock Android communication tools all function perfectly and allow Z1S owners to keep in touch with their family, friends, and colleagues with ease.

The Z1S excels as a media machine. It has a comprehensive feature list that goes beyond the shotgun approach. Sony's apps actually work well and add value, rather than fill in space. The Walkman app is among the best on a mobile device for consuming music. The camera is more intuitive to use and produces better results than any phone Sony has produced to-date.

What are the Z1S's weaknesses? Well, data speeds are a bit slow, the multiple hatches can be annoying, and the double-sided glass design means you have twice as much opportunity to break it.

That said, the Sony Xperia Z1S is among the best smartphones currently available from T-Mobile.

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About the author, Eric M. Zeman:

Eric has been covering the mobile telecommunications industry for 17 years at various print and online publications. He studied at Rutgers Newark and University of Kentucky, and has a degree in writing. He likes playing guitar, attending concerts, listening to music, and driving sports cars.

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