Sony Xperia Z Ultra: Big and dangerously thin

Sony Xperia Z Ultra: Big and dangerously thin

Sony's entry into the phablet market is big and thin--really thin--but its powerful internals are about all it has going for it.

Thin is certainly in, at least where gadget design is concerned, and although other Android-handset manufacturers claim to have the thinnest model, Sony has swooped in with a large phone that really is thin. The company that brought us the Walkman and the PlayStation likely figured that being the thinnest phablet on the market would give the Xperia Z Ultra an edge over its large competitors. Not quite.

Sony's latest entry in the smartphone market, the Xperia Z Ultra is as big as big phones get--and, as I mentioned, it's also the thinnest. But while it comes equipped with some powerful internals, it misses the mark on other features that could have made this enormous Android handset a winner among phablets.

When big phones become ridiculous

Sony used to be at the forefront of gadget design, but its recent line of Android handsets seems to be stuck in time. At least you can't say the company is inconsistent.

The Xperia Z and ZL handsets were rectangular and awkward to hold, and even though their glass exteriors were more pleasing to look at than Samsung's polycarbonate creations, they still felt antiquated in their design. Sony stuck with the same angular body for the Xperia Z Ultra, but flattened it out so that it's extremely thin. Unlike the HTC One Max or Nokia's Lumia 1520, it's not at all bulky or heavy to hold, but it does feel too dainty, as if I could bend it in half if I really tried.

The Xperia Z Ultra is one of the biggest devices in the current phablet market. It's taller than the Samsung Galaxy Mega, which is already ridiculously big, and it makes the Galaxy Note 3 look like a normal-size phone. My biggest issues with it are that my palm constantly touches the screen while I'm browsing or typing out a message, and unless you can prop it up somewhere, it's not the easiest device to hold with one hand for watching videos.

Sony also packed the Xperia Z Ultra in a dustproof, water-resistant encasing, which is beneficial if you like to enjoy the outdoors or just hang out by the pool. The device is not very rugged, however: A short fall to the floor at the train station scuffed it up pretty badly, and I can only imagine how it would (or wouldn't) hold up to rigorous daily use.

The Xperia Z Ultra also has the same pull-open tabs that its predecessors and the Tablet Z used to shield the ports and slots from water. While the tabs are much easier to open this time around, they're difficult to keep closed, and they feel as if they're going to rip off at any second.

Big screen for feature presentations

The Xperia Z Ultra's 1080p, 6.44-inch, 344-pixels-per-inch display reminds me of the first time I laid eyes on a flat-screen television. It might seem unnecessarily big at first--but after you've spent some time with it, going back to anything smaller is hard.

With the Xperia Z Ultra, Sony included its Triluminos display, a new backlighting method that's supposed to deliver the most accurate color profiles by utilizing quantum dots to create light. The device's color profile is truly striking and much more accurate than, for example, the Galaxy Note 3's saturated Super AMOLED display. You'll have to adjust the handset's brightness out in the sunlight, however, and indoors the lowest brightness setting can be too low for you to see much under certain lamps. Also, although I enjoyed watching Hulu Plus and playing games on the device, the one speaker on the side sometimes sounded too strained for boombox-style volume blasting.

Speedy innards, subpar everything else

The Xperia Z Ultra runs on the now-standard 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor and 2GB of RAM. It's especially efficient with games and other graphically intensive apps, though at times it lags when exiting out of them. In benchmarking suites such as the GFX Bench 3D-graphics performance benchmark, the Xperia Z Ultra performed relatively well, but the Galaxy Note 3, which has the same internals, beat it out by just a few frames per second in each test.

Its battery life is extremely disappointing. The Xperia Z Ultra's 3050mAh battery pack managed only 5 hours, 38 minutes of constant video playback in Airplane Mode, and even playing a light game such as Tiny Death Star ate about 10 percent in just an hour. That's worse than the result we saw from the LG G Pad--a full-size, 8-inch tablet--and a far cry from HTC's latest phablet, the One Max. The Settings panel has a Power Management module that you can tweak to get an extra hour or two, and the device doesn't use up too much juice when it's in standby mode. You can also take advantage of the device's ultraquick charge capabilities via the proprietary power brick and charging cable that ship with it, though that means you'll have to carry around a charger or an external battery pack.

The quality of the rear-facing 8-megapixel camera isn't much to write home about. The camera lacks an exterior flash. The default Sony camera application starts you out in Superior auto mode, which is supposed to make automatic adjustments based on your shooting conditions, but the photo quality isn't much different from that of the regular shooting mode. In some instances during our tests, images came out grainy with faded colors, and though the Xperia Z Ultra performed all right in low-light shots with several of its various "scene" modes engaged, the photos still came out a bit fuzzy.

Video quality was also passable. An image stabilizer is definitely at work when you're filming, but the digital zoom comes out blurry and grainy.

Another version of Android

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra runs its own skinned version of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. At this point in the Android cycle, that's several iterations behind the most recent version. Sony has confirmed that Android 4.3 and 4.4 are on the horizon, though the company hasn't provided a specific time frame for the updates.

If you've used Sony products in the past, the software interface will likely appear familiar: It consists of black edges, thin and narrow fonts, and icons that are a significant departure from the flat look that Android sports in Kit Kat. Sony also packed the Xperia Z Ultra with a number of its own applications, including Socialife News, which works a bit like Flipboard and HTC's BlinkFeed, and PlayStation Mobile, Sony's own game store. On top of all that, Sony tosses in "small apps," which are pop-up apps that are particularly useful on a screen this size.

The Xperia Z Ultra comes bundled with handwriting recognition software, too, but such an app seems rather pointless when the device doesn't come with a stylus. Luckily, you can remove some of the included applications or at the very least disable them from running in the background if you're not particularly interested in them.

Bottom line

It feels as if Sony would have had a hit if it had just released a small tablet instead. The Xperia Z Ultra's large screen, coupled with the same display technology the company uses in its television sets, makes movie watching and reading comfortable. And although it didn't exactly fit in my jacket pocket, I found myself reaching for it when I needed to do more than swipe through a few apps. I liked it even more as a tablet than the second-generation Nexus 7.

As for it being your primary phone...well, have you seen what people look like with a device this big stuck to their ears?

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