Sony Xperia Z1S


I’ve been doing this every year. Whenever I think Android finally has a cohesive package, I like to give it another shot. The most recent device I've tried was the Nexus 7 and though I was relatively impressed by how much better things have gotten, my relationship with the device was short-lived due to terribly cheap hardware and an inconsistent software experience.


This is where Sony steps in. They’ve been on a steady decline but when they do something right, it’s often times really great. I had been fascinated by the Xperia Z lineup of phones for a while despite the fact that they're essentially non-existent in the US. They seemed like a breath of fresh air amongst their poorly made Android brothers.


The Sony Xperia Z1S is a US-only, or more specifically, a T-Mobile exclusive device. Don’t let that added “S” make you believe it’s a superior phone than the Z1 though. The only thing the Z1S adds is more storage (32GB as opposed to 16). It's a welcome change but the phone gives up one of the most redeeming characteristics of the Z1 - the machined aluminum frame. 


Yes, that’s right, the Z1S has a plastic frame. The Z1's sex-appeal was that it had that machined aluminum frame. I didn’t know this about the Z1S so was in total disappointment when I took it out of the box. The plastic chassis also reduces efficiencies, making the phone 0.05mm thicker and 1.3mm taller. It's still an impressively thin phone though the bezels are on the larger side.


Sony's done a pretty good job of making the metallization on the plastic frame though. It's a smooth satin that doesn't look overly "chrome". This is a hard trick to master and something companies like Samsung simply fail to execute. It looks like Sony has injection molded the frame in black plastic, vapor metalized it, and then used a laser to remove the metallization on the side surfaces. It's dishonest but it's pretty well executed dishonesty.


One thing Sony's actually made from aluminum is the power button. They talk about this button quite often and though it's definitely above average, it's not phenomenal. It's also proud, making it susceptible to accidental presses. 


I often talk about how the iPhone 4 is my all-time favorite phone in terms of design. The construction methodology was truly groundbreaking when it came out and it still feels better crafted than any phone in the market today. This is why I was so drawn to the Z1S - both the front and back are constructed from tempered glass.

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The back-paint of the glass doesn't seem to be simply black paint like the iPhone 4 though. It looks as if it's been vapor metalized, which Sony's mastered in the 90s - and is why the phone's frame looks decent.


The really strange thing about this phone is that Sony installs a shatter resistant plastic film on both the front and back glass panels. It's essentially a screen protector but uses a stronger adhesive, requiring the use of a scalpel for removal. I hate the feeling of using a plastic touch screen so decided to remove the protectors. This was a bad move as Sony only adds an oleophobic coating to the protectors and not the glass. They should really stop doing this to their phones. It's terrible.


For the longest time, I held the belief that a phone shouldn’t be significantly larger than the iPhone. I’m really beginning to think differently now though. The Z1S’ screen feels like a pretty good size to me. The bezels on this phone are definitely too large but the extra real-estate feels genuinely useful when you’re doing things like web browsing. 


What makes the Z1S really special in terms of hardware is this: it’s completely waterproof. Notice how I said waterproof, not water resistant. The Z1S capable of being completely submerged in water up to 1.5m for 30 minutes. Practical innovations in smartphones are hard to come by these days, but this is definitely one. Thumbs up.


I had romantic visions of taking a bath while reading on the phone or using it to listen to music while taking a shower. These things are all possible but the screen becomes completely unusable when wet, making the experience less than ideal. I should've expected this though; water interferes with the responsiveness of capacitive touch screens. 


In my opinion though, the greatest benefit of a waterproof phone is the ability to wash it in the sink. Phones get nasty pretty quick so with the Z1S, it can simply be washed using some hand soap under running water. Amazing.


To waterproof the phone, the ports have been covered with ugly little flaps lined with rubber seals. Very 90s.


Next to the USB port and SD card slot is a very Surface-like connector with contact pins. It seems a bit useless as the only accessory that really exists is a dock.


Unlike the other ports, the headphone jack up top doesn't need additional water protection. Makes sense since there's a high likelihood that you'll have headphones plugged in during everyday use.


You can find a lanyard loop and speaker on the bottom. If you want to watch videos while taking a bath or music while taking a shower, don't submerge the speaker in water because it'll fill the cavity and reduce the volume to a whisper.


The Xperia Z1S runs on JellyBean with some modifications by Sony. The changes that Sony's made are thankfully pretty unoffensive and a few actually improve upon stock Android (camera app is a good example). 


There's still a shitload of useless bloatware that's preinstalled and they can't be deleted. I honestly don't understand why anyone would want to use features like this multi-window mode where you can float mini-apps over regular ones. Google should seriously make it a policy to allow users to flick a switch and revert to stock Android.


Most Android fans will say that the flexibility of Android is its strength. I like this approach in principle but it's not ideal in practice. I realized that I need to install a keyboard so that I can type in Korean. It wasn't fun digging through the Play Store trying to find something good and then wasting so much time fiddling with settings to get everything where I wanted. An enthusiast may enjoy tinkering but as a mass consumer product, I feel that something fundamental as a keyboard should be usable out of the box.

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Also, yes, Android has a much richer ecosystem than Windows Phone but its apps are still trailing in comparison to iPhone. Key third-party apps like Twitter, Instagram and 1Password are simply far superior on iPhone and that's a deal breaker for me. There's also no consistency in interaction which makes it confusing when jumping between apps. Elemental things like confirm and back buttons are worded, located, and react differently which made me pretty frustrated after a few days of owning the phone.


Another dissatisfaction I have is that apps on Android are simply uglier than iPhone. Android was heading in a great direction but it never got the craftsmanship and focus it needed. The quality of design in most of the apps are simply inadmissible for a former iPhone user. I mean, just look at the Play Store app itself. It's hideous.


A truly functional issue with Android is the touch responsiveness. Although Android has become much smoother, it still doesn't feel as organic as iPhone. Trying to do things like moving icons or scrolling through long lists is made into a hassle because the screen doesn't react as you'd expect. Expect loads of accidental inputs. 


Android's not all bad though. I love the deep integration that's able occur like the ability to send an image to virtually any app I want. This is an area that Apple should open up on but manage using their brutal specifications and rules.


What makes Android really charming is its ambition. I love Google Now and believe it's the type of feature Apple should add to iOS. When I wake up in the morning, the phone tells me how long it'll take for me to get to work. When I landed in Korea for a business trip, it brought out a translator and currency converter. So future.


Sony isn't completely stupid so they also added a rather clever app called Smart Connect. You can make rules that change various settings on the phone when it connects with an accessory like headphones or their smartwatch. For instance, I have mine set to start the clock app and silence the phone when I connect the charger between 10PM and 7AM.


What made me enjoy Android a bit less is the terrible 5" display on the Z1S. Sony touts that it borrows BRAVIA technologies from their brilliant TVs but I don’t really see what they’re going on about. The display is washed out and has pretty bad viewing angles. The LCD is optically bonded to the glass and has an impressive 441 ppi but it's just unbelievably inaccurate. I've had troubles editing photos for Instagram because the results ended up looking surprisingly different from my intention. This is one of the worst displays I've used in a while.


The Z1S has a pretty impressive 20.7MP camera with a 1/2.3” sensor. All the photos on this website are shot with the Sony RX1 so I was quite excited to see how Sony's expertise there would apply on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, the results are good but not great. Though the hardware is technically admirable, the phone simply cannot compete with the iPhone's processing engine. Sony does include a manual mode that yields better results though I question if that's how you really want to shoot on a phone.


There's a proper two-stage camera button which is always welcome. When you launch the camera app with it though, it always goes to auto mode instead of your previously used setting. Annoying.


Here are a few shots I've taken with the Z1S. They're unaltered though some have been cropped/straightened.


To recap, the biggest drawbacks of Android come down to four major things: inconsistency, mediocre apps, poor design and unpredictable touch response. When I tell Android users that I'm not completely satisfied with the Z1S, I get yelled at for approaching Android the wrong way. These are the three main responses I get and why they don't work for me:


“Go buy a Nexus 5. It’s amazing.”

This is a hideous phone. I hate how the whole phone is made from plastic and particularly dislike the painted soft-touch coating. Yuck. The camera is also pretty bad.


“Get a Google Play Edition device you dumb dumb.”

The HTC One is the tempting choice here. Sadly, it doesn’t feel right to pay $550 for an increasingly aging phone and the rest of the choices are ugly plastic slabs. Also, the Sony skin isn't the biggest problem here, it's Android.


“Load Cyanogenmod on your Sony.”

As soon as you say anything bad about Android, you’ll get a thousand people yelling at you to load some ROM or attempt some crazy hack. I hate messing with my phone and there’s no way in hell that I’m going to spend hours “fixing” my brand new phone. If you need to hack your phone to make it work ideally, it’s garbage far as I’m concerned. Yes, I know, there are loads of people that enjoy tinkering with Android - I just don't think a product that forces complex mending is a good product for the masses.


Android is only a small part of the problem here though. Although Sony's created something more appealing than most Android phones, the Z1S is simply not progressive enough. I love the fact that the phone is completely waterproof but there are too many other faults like the faux-metal frame, factory-installed screen protector, and the terrible 5" display. It's also worth commenting that the design of the phone is okay but there's no dodging the fact that it's essentially a poorly executed iPhone 4.

This turned out to be another failed attempt at falling in love with an Android phone. I really wanted to love this phone but both the Xperia Z1S and Android both over promised and under delivered. Craftsmanship and sensitivity in design are the most important traits that I look for in a product but they weren't found in both the phone and its software. Android has a lot of "good" phones and is slowly becoming more cohesive and easy to live with with every iteration. It's still not quite there yet so I guess I'll be waiting another year.