Sony Xperia Z1 Review

November 5, 2013 | Mark Goldstein | |


The Sony Xperia Z1 is a new Android smartphone with lots of features aimed at the more discerning mobile photographer. Offering a 27mm equivalent fixed lens with a fast aperture of F2, the water-resistant and dust-proof Xperia Z1 also boasts a 20.7 megapixel 1/2.3-type Exmor RS image sensor, full 1080p high-definition video recording, a high resolution 5 inch LCD screen, a burst of 61 shots in two seconds in the Timeshift Burst mode, 3x clear image zoom, a built-in flash, Geotagging, Sweep Panoramas and nine creative Picture Effects. The Sony Xperia Z1 is available in black, purple and white for around £599 / $799.

Ease of Use

The Xperia Z1 is a large (144 x 74 x 8.5mm) but slim and light (170g) smartphone that just about fits into a trouser or jacket pocket. It has an all-glass design that's both water-resistant (up to 1 meter) and dust proof, useful if you routinely expose your smartphone to the elements. The Xperia Z1's lens is a 27mm equivalent optic with a fast maximum aperture of f/2, alongside which is a small built-in flash that's not particularly powerful.

As with most smartphones, the Xperia Z1 uses the Micro SD memory card format. There's a physical shutter release button, as well as a large soft version on the Xperia Z1's impressive 5 inch LCD screen. A smaller photo/movie record button toggles between the two modes. There is also a rocker switch for operating the 3x clear zoom, but we wouldn't recommend using it as the image quality quickly deteriorates the more you zoom in.

The combination of the wide-angle lens, f/2 aperture, effective built-in image stabilizer and maximum ISO speed of 800 makes this smartphone better suited to hand-held low-light photography than most other comparable devices. There's no means of gripping the Xperia Z1 the front or rear, making it a little difficult to get to grips with, especially since its glass body is very smooth. Also, because the lens is very close to the edge of the body, you have to be careful not to let your left forefinger stray into the frame.

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Front Apps Menu

Press the small On/Off button on the side and the Sony Xperia Z1 quickly readies itself for action in under a second. You then have to select the camera icon to access the Xperia Z1's camera app, which takes another second or so. We'd describe the general performance of the Xperia Z1 as snappy, with little waiting around for the camera to take a picture - its certainly just as responsive as the majority of compacts that we've reviewed.

By default the Xperia Z1 uses the Superior Intelligent Auto shooting mode. This works in virtually identical fashion to the intelligent auto modes of Panasonic's and Canon's compact ranges. Simply point the Xperia Z1 at a scene or subject and the camera analyses it and automatically chooses one of the pre-optimised settings to best suit. It also places emphasis on reducing blur and noise and increasing the dynamic range. It does such a good job that we used this mode for quite a lot of our shooting.

Face recognition and smile shutter functionality are also on board, the former mode biasing human faces in the frame and the latter mode firing the shutter when it detects a smiling subject. The Face Detection system automatically adjusts the focus, exposure and white balance for people in the frame, and can even be set to distinguish between children and adults. Smile Detection offers three self-explanatory options, Big, Average and Small. Used in conjunction, the Face and Smile Detection systems do result in more hits than misses, especially in contrasty lighting conditions, although all those smiling faces could ultimately freak you out a little!

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Image Displayed Turned On

The Manual shooting mode provides the full range of camera options and additionally allows you to change settings like the ISO speed, exposure compensation, white balance and metering. You can't manually set the aperture or shutter speed though.

The proven Sweep Panorama mode lets you capture a panoramic image very easily without the use of a tripod. All you need to decide is whether you would like to start from left or right, top or bottom. Then press and hold down the shutter release while doing a "sweep" with the camera in hand. Exposure compensation is available before you start the sweep, but the exposure is fixed once you depress the shutter button. After you are done with the sweeping, the camera does all the processing required, and presents you with a finished panoramic image. Note that if you do the sweeping too slowly, or you let go of the shutter release button too early, the panorama will not be completed.

Sony's long-standing HDR function is present to help even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow. You can see from the examples on the Image Quality page that this feature produces a photo with noticeably more dynamic range than one taken using one of the standard shooting modes, but at the same time without replicating the often "false" look of many HDR programs. It even works when shooting video, as on the Xperia Z, but isn't available if you choose the 20 megapixel image size.

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Exposure Menu Shooting Mode Menu

Go on to take the shot and JPEG images are quickly committed to memory in a single second, the screen momentarily blanking out and then displaying the captured image before the user can go on to take a second shot. In the special Timeshift Burst shooting mode, the Sony Xperia Z1 can shoot 61 photos in two seconds, an insanely fast rate for a smartphone, and you can either save all of the images or choose the best one from the sequence.

The Xperia Z1 can also shoot High Definition video clips at full 1080p HD with stereo sound plus the ability to change the scene mode, self-timer, smile shutter, focus mode, HDR, exposure level, white balance, metering, and image stabilizer options. The various options are 1920x1280, 1280x720 or MMS in the MP4 format, all at 30fps. During video recording you can take a 1 megapixel still image by pressing the on-screen shutter button.

There's a small icon for playing back your images in the top-right of the screen. Users have the ability to dip in and out of created folders of images or the calendar view, view thumbnails, select slideshows and choose transitional effects and accompanying music, share or delete shots. There are also a multitude of in-camera editing tools and retouching effects via the built-in Photo Editor and Pixl Express apps, including the ability to crop and sharpen an image and apply red-eye correction.

We're impressed by the Xperia Z1's handling and responsiveness - now let's take a closer look at its image quality...