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First Impressions: Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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Phablets, love em’ or hate em’, this form factor is here to stay. Samsung created the niche with the Galaxy Note and established its leadership position with the Galaxy Note II, and while other manufacturers are churning out their own versions of a device that pushes the boundary of what can be called a phone, not many have really captured our attention.

Enter the Xperia Z Ultra, Sony’s debut large format smartphone that brings the brand’s trademark approach to product design combining form and function in one neat package. Read on for our first impressions.

The Xperia Z Ultra with its uniform front and rear glass façade carries Sony’s long tradition of great form and function effortlessly. Sony’s designers have translated Sony’s unique Omni Balance design — first seen in the Xperia Z – seamlessly into the Z Ultra while retaining the design’s signature sophisticated simplicity. It is a design that we’re quite fond of. And it is a design that has gone through some enhancements as well. Where the Xperia Z’s edges are sharp, the designers have softened the edges on the Z Ultra with a trick looking beveled aluminium frame.

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The Xperia Z Ultra further differentiates itself from other phablets by being a truly waterproof device with an IP58 rating allowing it to be submerged underwater beyond depths of 1 meter for longer than 30 minutes. In fact, it is the first full HD waterproof device. We really like that the headphone jack is now exposed making plugging a headphone into the Z Ultra quick and easy without having to fiddle with annoying flappy plastic covers.

In terms of dimensions, the Z Ultra is thin at just 6.5mm (versus 7.9mm on the Xperia Z) but with the 6.4-inch display, you’re not going to be able to slip the device into a your jeans or shirt pocket. On the upside, you get a sizeable 3,000mAh battery which means you’re going to be able to get one or two days run time on a single charge easy.

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In one word, the 6.4-inch full 1080p HD (about 344ppi) display is gorgeous. Sony’s Triluminos technology produces vibrant, natural colours with a wider colour spectrum while the X-Reality engine enhances sharpness and detail especially when viewing images and videos especially the ones that have been compressed after being uploaded to the internet. It is something you have to view for yourself to appreciate. Viewing angle has been improved as well. Unlike the Xperia Z where blacks appear washed out especially when viewing at acute angels, the display on the Z Ultra is great to look at from any angle. On screen movement appears natural thanks to a fast refresh rate and details a pin sharp whether reading text or viewing an image.

We also like that you can use a normal ballpoint pen or pencil as a stylus with the Xperia Z Ultra. We tried both a ballpoint pen and a pencil. Inputs are accurate and the ability to use a single pointing device to write on paper and on screen is immediately intuitive and natural. This method encourages you to interact with the Z Ultra with a pointing device more and more.

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Sony has also added some applications that make the most out of the unique stylus input but it’s not really anything different from similar offerings from Samsung or any other phablet maker out there. Speaking of inputs, the virtual keyboard can be optimized for one-handed operation but it is not particularly useful, the Z Ultra is just too big to use with just one hand.

With the blazing 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800, you know you’re not going to get shortchanged on performance. Paired with 2GB of RAM, there’s really nothing much that the Z Ultra can’t do. The device feels eager and always ready to pull out apps and large files with ease whenever you want it to. On board storage is a tad low with on 16GB available (11GB accessible to the user) but the device has a microSD card slot for you to expand that up to an additional 64GB of storage.

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In the camera department you get a 2MP front camera and an 8MP rear camera both capable of doing 1080p videos and if we read the press materials right, both have Sony’s Exmor RS backside illuminated sensor. Shockingly however, the Z Ultra doesn’t come with a camera flash. In terms of camera performance, it’s not something that we can comment on at the moment as all of the devices that we’ve tested are running an early unfinished firmware build.

There is a lot to like about the Z Ultra but it is not with its downsides. For one, the exclusion of an LED flash for the rear camera is perplexing for a device that has almost everything. Even if we’re not going to use the flash for taking pictures we’d still like to have an emergency flashlight handy and almost all current phones have it. What would Sony gain from not putting a flash in the Xperia Z Ultra. Many will be harking on this point.

Not having a dedicated camera button is something we don’t agree with either. Being a waterproof device with a large screen, you’d want to be able to shoot videos and take pictures while underwater. Without a dedicated camera button you won’t be able to as the screen is unable to recognize touch inputs when underwater.

Sony will also have to look at revamping it UX UI skin, comparing it with the HTC Sense 5 and even Samsung’s latest TouchWiz, Sony’s UX skin looks dated and unimaginative that’s scarce on features. This is a pity really considering how beautifully designed the device is.

As a phone it’s just too big and it’s not easy to wrap your digits around the device. The girth of the 6.4-inch display is going to be a challenge even if you have big hands and for smaller paws, you’ll find one-handed operation challenging to say the least. Also, the large display is a smudge magnet and you’ll yourself regularly wiping the screen down after each phone call because of the grime an oil transferred onto the screen from your face. As with all other large format smartphones, you’d be best to use the Z Ultra with a headset.

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Sony understands this and along with the launch of the Z Ultra, Sony introduced the SBH52 NFC-enabled Bluetooth headset. The SBH52 headset is a Bluetooth headset with a twist. In addition to an earpiece that you can hook onto your ear, the device can be used like a mini handset as well. The headset immensely useful and easy to setup thanks to NFC and with a built-in OLED display you can screen calls without the need to take Z Ultra out of your bag or purse. We like the SBH52, it has a nice understated design and Sony knows its way around Bluetooth headset. Let’s hope that Sony will bundle the headset together with the Z Ultra when the phone goes on sale in Malaysia sometime between late July and early August.

Overall, there’s a lot going for the Xperia Z Ultra. Great design, great screen, big battery and a truly waterproof phone are all strong points but the small stuff like the lack of a camera flash, no dedicated camera button and that dated UI skin is going to be an issue with when it comes to creating a great first impression.

So does the Xperia Z Ultra have what it takes to take on the Galaxy Note III? It certainly looks like it, but we’ll reserve our final thoughts when we get a chance to pit the two together.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra Hands-On Gallery

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