Xperia Z1s: Hands-on with Sony’s Waterproof Phone

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The Xperia Z1 was a powerful, sexy smartphone blessed with a seriously impressive camera and Sony’s premium design chops. By all accounts, it was a more than worthy competitor to the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Google Nexus 5, or any other Android flagship that’s made waves over the past few months. There was just one problem, though: it never made it across the Atlantic. Whoops.

With the newly-announced Xperia Z1s, though, Sony’s finally showing Americans some love. And judging by our recent hands-on time with the T-Mobile exclusive, it just might have a winner on its hands.

Now, there’s a reason this thing is called the Xperia Z1s. Much of what’s here is carried over from the original Z1, from the glass slabs that adorn the phone’s front and back to the relatively bare skin that covers Android 4.3 (soon to be Android 4.4, we’re told). It retains the flat, rectangular build of its predecessor too, so it still feels comfy in the hand, though the bezels are a tad wider than before.

We’re also looking at a largely similar spec sheet here: a 5-inch, 1080p display is accompanied by a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of expandable storage, and a hefty 3,000mAh battery. There isn’t much new underneath the hood, but that didn’t stop the Z1s from absolutely singing in our time with it. It should be up there with the most powerful Android phones from day one, but we’ll wait until we get some more extensive testing in before making any final judgments.

A few of the Z1’s thornier aspects are still hanging around, naturally. Its sides are composed of a plastic material that can’t help but feel cheap next to the elegant glass makeup of the rest of the device. Thanks to that big battery, its body as a whole is thicker (5.74 x 2.79 x .31 inches) and heavier (5.71 ounces) than we’d prefer. And despite Sony pumping in its “Triluminous” and “X-Reality” display tech, the screen we saw still suffered from subpar viewing angles (no IPS here) and colors looked just a little too saturated by default (relative to other high-end devices, at least).

Yet there are upgrades worth noting. Sony’s been big on making its devices “water-resistant” in the past, but now it can technically say the Xperia Z1s is waterproof. It’s been rated for IP58 certification, meaning that it can be dunked up to four and half feet underwater for around 30 minutes without any damage being done. A Sony rep joked that consumers should still back up their data if they feel like scuba diving with the thing, but at least poolside users won’t have to worry about any splash-based mishaps here. Also of note is the new headphone jack, which is now so water-resistant that it doesn’t have to be hidden underneath a garish flap like the rest of the phone’s ports.

We’ve been ignoring the most interesting aspect of the Z1s, though, so let’s just get on with it: the camera here looks great. It’s got the same 20.7-megapixel module as before, along with Sony’s proprietary G Lens and BIONZ image processor, and an Exmor RS image sensor that Sony says is larger than that of the Z1. The company says this will all add up to give the Z1s faster autofocus, faster image processing, better white balance and the like, but a crowded CES show floor wasn’t the best place for us to confirm such claims. Either way, taking a few quick shots — initiated by a new, dedicated camera button on the phone’s side — was painless, and the pics themselves came out looking quite sharp.

But the shooter’s real magic comes in its software, which Sony dubs the “Smart social camera.” The big thing is that there are now apps within the camera app itself, built by both Sony and third-party developers. These can be picked up through the Google Play Store, although Sony will give you its own recommendations within the camera app itself to get you started.

A handful of these apps will come pre-installed, although only one — a “Background Defocus” tool that adds a DSLR-style blur effect to your shots — is actually new. Most others seemed a tad silly — “Social Live” lets you livestream to Facebook, “AR Effects” drops goofy augmented reality figures onscreen, etc. — but opening up to developers like this gives Sony’s camera app a wealth of possibilities going forward.

Beyond all that, the Z1s comes with the PlayStation app pre-installed, and Sony is promising a host of “second-screen” apps that’ll mix the phone and the PS4 going forward. Also of note is the Z1s’ support for ANT+, which will make it compatible with a vast array of fitness tracking devices. And extra compatibility never hurt anybody.

Sony knows it bungled the launch of the Xperia Z last year, so it’s not wasting any time getting the Z1s out the door. You’ll be able to pre-order it from T-Mobile starting on January 13, with a full release coming on January 22. It’ll cost $603 outright, or $0 down with two years of $22 monthly payments through T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plan. It isn’t going to be the phone that moves Sony up the market share charts, but it looks like a promising mix of power, design, and some nifty camera tricks.



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