Beast Mode: Sony Xperia Z Ultra, The Phablet's Phablet

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Beast Mode: Sony Xperia Z Ultra, The Phablet's Phablet

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That Battery Life Though! That Battery Life Though!

Everywhere I've gone and taken out Sony's Xperia Z Ultra, heads have turned. I'm at the grocery store and take the phone out, the checker and bagger both, "What is that? That's beautiful." Starbucks, just hanging out, at church, everywhere. Sony's definitely created a conversation piece in their behemoth 6.4" uber-phablet but the longer I had it, the more my inner dialogue turned to thoughts of what was missing rather than what was right. And that was actually a good thing! I'll tell you why.



After a few weeks with Sony's massive Xperia Z Ultra phablet, HTC's One Max feels small. I'm testing Sprint's Spark network and when I first took the One Max out  of the box, I had to double check the box to make sure I wasn't holding the One. The phone features a huge 6.4" full HD (that means 1080p) seemingly bezel-less display with Sony's TRILUMINOS and X-Reality display technologies built in. The device is sandwiched between two panes of glass with a faux-metal ring around the sides. The Ultra is available in black, white and purple (no fancy color pseudonyms here) in both HSPA+ and LTE versions for the GSM networks. I've been using the white version (model #C6806) with an AT&T SIM. The model number is important if you're not going to be using the phone on T-Mobile because C6806 is the one with all the necessary bands if you're staying away from the magenta network.


Beauty In The Beast

The phone looks great when you first take it out of the box! The display feels like it goes edge-to-edge surrounded by a thin, white lip/bezel and stereo speakers. On the display you'll see Sony's branding, light and proximity sensors and a front-facing 2MP camera. Around the sides of the phone you'll get Sony's unique, round, metal power button with the volume rocker right below that and at the bottom corner, holes for a lanyard attachment. Just above the power button are the microSD port and SIM slot, protected by a gasketed cover (the phone is water-resistant after all) and just above that the headphone port. The bottom of the phone has a microphone port, then moving around to the other side, you get pogo pins for charging and another gasket cover protected port for the microUSB sync/charge cable which leaves the top of the phone with one more microphone and nothing more. That back of the phone is where you'll see the 8 megapixel camera, an NFC logo (that's where the sensor is), Sony Xperia branding and that's that. It's definitely a clean design! The only thing that is missing from the arrangement is an LED flash.


I Haz A Sad. Kind Of.

For me, this experience became more about what was missing than what the phone actually had. Seeing as how I'm personally in the market for a new handset, I was squarely eyeing this phone but two very interesting points of contention arose amid my zeal. One: there's no flash for the camera! Yes, Sony gave us 8 megapixels and included their Exmor RS for mobile technology baked in but hamstrung the unit by leaving it in the land of low-light underperformance with the lack of LED flash. Exmor RS is specifically intended to help produce good pictures in low-light situations but low-light shots with this phone are noisy! It takes beautiful pictures in full daylight, but even under pretty well lit indoor conditions, shots can be very grainy. Then there are those front-firing stereo speakers… they are pretty weak. Looking at the size of the grills for the speakers, you shouldn't expect much but when you play a movie or music, the oomph just isn't there. And I was really hoping that it would be since they went with two front-firing speakers which is actually quite brilliant on a phone this size. The Xperia Z Ultra just screams, "Maximize me for multimedia utility and, all-purpose use!" But, with the lack of flash and mousy speakers the phablet falls just short of that.


The Good Far Outweighs The "Meh"

What the Xperia Z Ultra doesn't fall short is on style, display quality, added apps and feature set! Also, durability. As Sony phones tend to be, this one is water-resistant, dust proof and what that really means is, assuming all port covers are closed, you're protected against 1.50 meters of freshwater for up to 30 minutes. There have been concerns by some that the display is a little dark and though at its 50% setting it is definitely dimmer than competing products from Samsung, at brighter settings I found the display to be plenty bright. At its brightest setting I found the display completely readable under the bright California sun. In my own search for the best phablet for my usage, one of the elements that I've really come to enjoy is the ability to jot a note if necessary and Sony's included technology into the display to allow users to do just that. You can use a pen or pencil to write on the screen of the Ultra so long as the point is larger than 1mm. It isn't the same as using a Wacom pen or other pressure sensitive products like the S Pen but I found the lines created by using traditional writing instruments to be thin enough and the writing responsive enough that it worked for me and is definitely worth a look if you're a pen input fan. Again, just be sure the tip of whatever input implement you're using is wide enough or the lines won't register. I would like to see a good, dedicated "Notes" app specifically for writing input but there are those in the Google Play store which fit the bill.


Another item which didn't fall short was the display. It is beautiful! Sony spent some time adapting their TRILUMINOS and X-Reality tech for mobile and it doesn't disappoint. The short of it is this… it takes video content and makes it look "better." It makes images sharper, increases color saturation and overall clarity. It is the equivalent of high-end HD TVs which take standard definition content and upscales to make that standard definition content look better on that display. Junichi Kosaka, a BRAVIA engineer puts it this way on Sony's blog here, "X-Reality for mobile analyzes images, reproduces lacking pixels, optimizing quality for sharpest vids. Also enhances composition & contrast." I've attached some pictures to this post which show the difference in picture quality having X-Reality turned on. I can tell you that it definitely makes a difference!


With regard to apps and features, Sony has kept this phone pretty close to stock Android, which is what they're known for. Sony does add some of their own software to the mix: Album, Walkman, Movies, Playstation Mobile, Sony Select, Socialife News, Video Unlimited, Smart Connect (which I love), Reader By Sony and Notes. That's pretty much it for "full apps." They are all pretty much what they sound like. Smart Connect, however, is very cool, allowing you to control exactly what your connected Bluetooth devices do and when. You can set times for these "Events" to do things like change sound profiles, adjust volume, start a particular app, place a phone call, send a text message, activate wifi or the phone's hotspot and so much more. It's kind of like having IFTTT built right into your phablet. Smart Connect even supports text-to-speech actions like "Read current time" and "Read text messages." Sony also gives you the ability to add in multi-tasking, quick access apps which, when activated, open up as small windows which stay on top of open apps. These are accessed by tapping the Multitask soft key on the bottom right of the screen. Sony calls these "small apps" and has more available to you via the Play Store, or you can take your favorite built-in Android widgets and turn them into "small apps." Xperia Connectivity is a menu item in the "Settings menu" and has controls for MirrorLink (the ability to control your Xperia from another device when connected via USB), Media server settings, DUALSHOCK 3 wireless controller and screen mirroring. MOGA PRO Power was one of my favorite accessories of the year, but with the Xperia Z Ultra you don't need to buy another gaming controller if you already own a PS3 and some DUALSHOCK controllers. Connect a controller up via USB which facilitates the wireless pairing of the devices and then you're all good to go. You can now use your gaming controller to get in some serious Android gaming on the beautiful 6" screen. Something my sons find much more useful than I do. If I'm gaming and using a console controller, I'm also using the console. And my full-size TV. Yeah, I know a total "get off my lawn" moment.


One thing about the Xperia Z Ultra, you won't find it in any carrier's store. If you want the phone, you'll have to walk into your nearest Sony Story, or order online from and choose your Ultra in either white, black or purple. Wait, one more option! If you're an Android purist you can also pick one up from the Google Play Store, a Google Play Edition aka GPE Sony Z Ultra, for $30 less than the cost for the LTE version direct from Sony. If you'd only be doing that to get the latest OS, KitKat should be rolling out to those of you who purchase from Sony any time now. I've been checking almost daily since I've seen the announcement but don't have it yet.


The Bottomline

I have to say that I really, absolutely LOVE this handset! It will be too big for some of you. I found myself having to two-hand the device many times even though I have pretty decent size meathooks. But you should expect that when you're talking about a 6.4" screen. It's practically a tablet! I'd call it a "beast" because it really is fast, can take everything you can throw at it (including spills), and the battery really is an all day battery. I hammered the phone with use, streaming music during my commute and much more and it just laughed at me and shrugged its shoulders. Seriously. It shrugged. I really wanted to make this my next phone, but I take a lot of pictures with my phone and the lack of a flash just won't do. That for me is a deal breaker but may not be for you, so your mileage may vary. It should be noted that I was using this phone on AT&T's network and it works just fine with regard to speed and connectivity. If you're going to pop an AT&T SIM into this phone instead of T-Mobile's just be sure you pick up the C6806 model number which includes all the bands you need to fully access AT&T's LTE network.

Tshaka Armstrong Tech Ninja Tshaka Armstong writes about the latest technology and helping FOX 11 Viewers understand how to be safer, smarter users of the internet and their "gadgets. He's also one of our social media guys, helping guide the station's online efforts and social media outreach.
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