Sony‘s Xperia Z Ultra is an impressive phone – in physical size, style and technical specifications. On paper the phone looks fantastic and has probably attracted the interest of anyone who likes a large phone. But how big is too big? People scoffed at the Galaxy Note when it was released, but it spawned one of Samsung‘s – and the industry as a whole’s – most popular line of phones. Can the Xperia Z Ultra help Sony pull off the same trick?

When I first laid eyes on the Ultra, I was in love. I’m in the market for an upgrade from my Note II, and had been interested in the Ultra for some time; I love the Note II’s large screen and thought the Ultra would be more of the same, but better! I was also interested in the fact it is both water- and dust-proof, which would come in very handy for a day at the beach or accidental drop into water. When I first saw the phone in person, it was fully submerged in a large vase of water, an unnerving and alarming sight for any fan of technology. After fishing it out and drying it off I was transfixed and couldn’t put it down for the next hour. Did the love affair continue?

Pros

  • Enormous 6.4″ full HD screen with Sony Bravia Engine 2
  • Snapdragon 800 SoC
  • Dust-resistant and waterproof
  • Pen input without an s-pen

Cons

  • No camera flash and the camera takes photos which are noisy and grainy
  • Large top and bottom bezels making a large phone even larger
  • Too large to fit in many pockets, impractical for quick tasks

Hardware

The Ultra’s dimensions are 179.4 x 92.2 x 6.5 mm. This doesn’t really mean much until you can see and hold one. For reference it is 28mm taller and 12mm wider than the Note II, and 56mm taller and 54mm wider than the iPhone 5s, yet it’s slimmer than both and much closer to a tablet than it is to most phones.

It’s immediately recognisable as a Sony device, and looks very similar to the Xperia Z1. Sony makes stylish devices, and it’s good to see them continue to evolve their style with their latest releases.

The massive 6.4″ full HD screen dominates the front of the device, with no hardware buttons on the face – Sony continues to opt for on-screen buttons, which seems a waste as the bottom bezel could have easily accommodated capacitive buttons and returned some lost screen real estate.

The headphone jack is on the upper right hand side of the phone which I also find unusual, as any headphone plug will add width to what’s already a wide phone. The jack doesn’t require a flap to seal it, instead it’s sealed on the inside to ensure it is waterproof.

The power button is on the right hand side in the middle of the device, and is slightly recessed – this makes it difficult to press at times. Above the power button is a large flap concealing the SIM and Micro SD card slots, and below is the volume rocker. On the left side the Micro USB port is at the top, again protected by a flap, and a magnetic dock connector in the middle.

The rear of the phone is again glass, with a small camera located towards the upper middle. There’s notably no flash – LED or otherwise – near the camera, the omission of which is a disappointment for low light pictures and also because it’s often used as a torch. I suspect the flash was sacrificed to keep the phone slim, but I would have taken an extra millimetre and maybe a few more mAh battery and a camera flash than an ultra-thin phone.

Display

Watching movies, surfing the web, even replying to emails are a pleasure on this screen! Anyone coming from the saturated colours of an AMOLED phone may at first find the screen dull, but your eyes will adjust and come to appreciate the accuracy and realistic colours of Sony’s “Triluminous” screen technology.

At the bottom of the screen are Android’s standaerd on-screen buttons – Back, Home and Multi-tasking from left to right, with slight Sony design changes. Despite some Ausdroid staff‘s protests, coming from a Samsung phone I prefer to have the back button on the right since it’s the most commonly used button and makes one-handed operation much easier. Unfortunately, with the back button on the left and my right-handed phone use, it’s a real stretch to reach it one-handed and increases my risk of dropping the phone.

A unique feature of the screen is the ability to take input with any pencil or stylus for fine-point note taking or annotations. This flexibility is great (although pencils are hard to find on most desks these days), with high accuracy and relatively low latency, but it’s sadly just not as good as the Note’s S-pen. If you want a phone that excels at this type of input, you’ll probably buy a Note, but it is still a handy feature to have for occasional use like marking up a map or picture.

Camera

The Ultra’s 8 MP rear camera is, unfortunately, very ordinary. Photos are grainy in good conditions, and worse in low light. I expected a lot more from the camera given Sony’s Exmor R sensor and image stabilisation technology, especially given Sony’s reputation for quality in mobile cameras. It supports up to 16x digital zoom, though given the grainy results seen in my testing, I wouldn’t recommend trying it out.

The 2 MP front camera is good enough for video calling, but doesn’t produce results you’ll want to save to your gallery for later use, except in an absolute emergency.

Given the size and dimensions of the phone, it’s probably fair to say people are buying it for the screen rather than the camera, but that doesn’t excuse the poor performance.

Software

Sony’s customisations to Android 4.2.2 are unobtrusive, and mostly beneficial. Sony’s implementation of Quick Settings in the notification pulldown provides quick access to commonly-used settings and can be changed and reordered. Sony’s launcher uses a 6×7 grid making appropriate use of all that extra screen real estate, and has a slide-in menu (like a Navigation Drawer) in the app tray allowing you to search, filter and re-order applications to find what you need – a nice touch, but the categories and ordering is sadly not customisable.

The default keyboard supports gesture input and has a number of configuration and customisation options, and would be better if it had a row of numeric buttons as its top row considering how much screen space is available, but unfortunately it does not. Many people probably have a preferred third-party keyboard by now which they’ll will swap to anyway.

Sony’s packed in custom Music and Video software, with ties to their own online content stores and their own Playstation Mobile app and game store. The Video app was able to detect NAS devices on the local network, although it wouldn’t play DivX / XviD AVI files and couldn’t handle audio decoding in MKV files. The review unit also came with a “Reader” shortcut installed, which linked to the app in the Google Play store which apparently isn’t available in Australia (it looks like there’s two Sony Reader apps, and another is available for Australian users).

There’s also Sony Select – an app recommendation service that’s designed to promote particular apps that take Sony’s fancy – it links to Google Play for purchase and download, Sketch – a drawing app designed to make use of the Ultra’s large screen and ability to take finger, pencil and stylus input, a custom Backup and Restore app, and Smart Connect, which manages connections with external devices. NeoReader, McAfee Security, OfficeSuite 7 and a demo version of Temple Run 2 also came preinstalled on the review device.

Xperia Z Ultra

Sony

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Quad Core 2.4GHz CPU
  • 6.4 inch 1080×1920 display at 344 PPI
  • 16GB storage
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 8 MP rear camera
  • IP58 Certified – dust and water proof
  • Android 4.2.2
  • 3050 mAh non removable battery
  • 179.4 x 92.2 x 6.5 mm
  • 212g
Model number: C6833

Conclusion

The Ultra is a great big enormous phone that will unfortunately be impractically large for most people. I have a preference for large phones, but even I couldn’t bring myself to use the device on a daily basis as it just doesn’t suit my lifestyle – it doesn’t fit in any of my pockets, and is awkward to use for quick tasks. Others may find they’re happy to make some adjustments to accommodate the larger phone, but I couldn’t justify it.

If you’re considering this phone as your next purchase, I strongly recommend you visit a store and handle the device in person before buying to ensure you’re happy with the size.

If the size doesn’t bother you, then this is an awesome phone for media consumption with its massive, bright and sharp screen, Snapdragon 800 processor, large battery, water- and dust-proof features matched with a premium look and feel and expandable storage. It’s let down by the lack of a camera flash and a poor performing camera, but if you can fit this phone in your pocket then you’ve probably got room for a dedicated camera in another pocket.

Availability

Optus is the exclusive carrier, offering the Xperia Z Ultra on various 24-month contracts starting at $58 per month with 200 MB of data up to $100 per month for 3 GB.

Local retailers Harvey Norman, Dick Smith and JB Hifi are selling outright ($733, $747 and $732 respectively at the time of writing), Mobicity, Unique Mobiles and Expansys can supply both imported and Australian units between them at varying prices.

If you’re looking at prices overseas, make sure it is model C6833 for the 4G model – C6802 is 3G only (unreleased in Australia), and could explain a “bargain” price.

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  • Gregorian

    Yeah. I looked at one in Optus. I like a big phone, but this is one step too far.
    Consider it to be a really slim tablet, and it’s awesome.

    • Sujay Vilash

      Would you buy one ?

      • Gregorian

        It was a possibility until I saw it. It’s a tablet. Nicely made, but I don’t need another tablet.
        It would certainly be more convenient to carry around than a Nexus 7

        • Sujay Vilash

          Got it. On a separate issue, interesting choice of Avatar for your name ?

          • Gregorian

            The do not line up. Correct. I have to work on my branding.

          • Sujay Vilash

            What I was getting at is, is that a photo of the Hindu Lord Shiva ?

          • Gregorian

            Yup. Nothing deep to it. I just like the imagery.
            No disrespect intended. It just suited a mood at the moment.

          • Sujay Vilash

            Sounds good.

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  • NOZ

    Kogan have them at 599 atm

  • JeniSkunk

    If Sony released a version of this with a larger capacity battery, decent rear camera, and LED flash, I’d seriously consider buying one.
    Matt, typo in the specs. 8 MP rear, amera

    • Matt Booth

      Thank you, fixed

  • Greg

    Photos to compare with Nexus 7 and Asus PhonePad (or is it PadPhone?) would be appreciated.

  • plasmapuff

    Also as an aside, the retail models with the latest firmware actually have the X-reality engine instead of bravia 2. It adds sharpening and saturation instead of just saturation. It oversharpens a bit too much imo, but fortunately Sony lets you turn it off in display settings.

  • Joseph

    You can buy the mobile phone outright unlocked at http://www.vimvi.com.au/index.php/phones/sony/xperia-z-series.html for $450.