Sony Xperia Z Ultra

8th Nov 2013 | 15:56

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Is it a tablet? Is it a phone? Really... do you care?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

This is Sony at its best - all its great technology is packed in here. It's enormous though, so make sure you're ready for the added heft and looks you'll be getting.

Like:

Great screen; Strong battery; Powerful CPU;

Dislike:

Poor camera; High price;

Overview, design and feel

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a phone that takes the best of the internet and lets it all fly across an impossibly large screen. With the best of Sony's technology inside, does the 6.4-inch screen put it out of reach for most people?

Let us paint you a picture: a man walks into a bar. Pulls out his phone. It's got a five-inch screen. The jukebox grinds to a halt, glasses drop, smash on the floor and the crowd recoils in horror.

If you could see that happening just two or three years ago, can you imagine the scene if you whipped the even bigger Xperia Z Ultra out in public? There'd be carnage. As it is, you'll certainly raise more than a few eyebrows.

Sony's continuing its assault on the portability market – indeed, it's continuing its assault on our senses too. The Xperia Z Ultra is a massive phone. Or a small tablet. A phablet, even, if you subscribe to that idea.

Because let's face it – these things are no longer obscene. Like them or hate them, big phones and small tablet combinations appear to be here to stay. And Sony clearly wants a nice meaty slice of the pie.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

There have been some genuine innovations over the last year – with megapixel levels pushed up to 20MP and phones and tablets that are waterproof. We never tire of being able to run a tablet under the shower just for the hell of it. You can do that with the Xperia Z Ultra. But it still doesn't feel right.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

And where Samsung took the plunge two years ago now with the Galaxy Note, the phablet section which many (this reviewer included) thought would never grow has soared.

Everyone seems to be walking around with them (or maybe we just notice them more because they're so different, so it seems like everyone has them) but other OEMs have spotted there is money to be made here.

And this is Sony's first attempt at the middle ground.

In terms of the competition, the Xperia Z Ultra is firmly pitted against one device: the also just released Samsung Galaxy Note 3. It's bigger – in fact, it's a similar size to the Galaxy Mega, Samsung's own huge offering – but specs wise, it's nearer to the Note range.

It even nods its head towards Samsung's big selling point on these devices – the S-Pen – with a pencil recognition capability. We'll explore that later in the review.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Let's just say that, for now – if you think you know what to expect when you grab the Xperia Z Ultra, you're probably mistaken. We knew it would be big. But boy, does it feel enormous.

Then again, big is beautiful and the Xperia Z Ultra feels like a genuinely expensive, classy piece of kit. If you've fondled an Xperia Z phone at any point, you'll know what we're talking about here.

All black glass, high gloss, front and back with very little to interrupt that apart from the Sony logo on the front and the Xperia logo on the back. In fact, if you've felt the new Nexus 7 2013 model, you'll feel right at home.

As we look at it, all we can think is how much it looks like it could be that device's little brother. And that's definitely not a bad mantle to have.

When the screen's off, it melts away and the whole front just looks like one beautiful black panel. If you look hard, you'll spot the front facing camera at the top, but not the notification light, which also sits there hidden from view.

The left hand side has the charging offerings – two contact points for a dock and the actual micro USB slot which, like many other devices, is hidden behind a rubber port. This keeps it forever watertight so that you can actually functionally use the Xperia Z Ultra in the bath without fear.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review

Sony appears to have listened to grumbles past and made it a little easier to open and close without the flap getting in the way.

Round the other side, you'll see areas for the microSD expansion slot and SIM card insertion (again, hidden by rubber stoppers), the volume rocker and standby button.

We'd normally moan here about the placement of the standby button but the fact is that it's not so much of an issue on a handset of this size. Everyone will hold theirs differently, but everything seemed well placed.

There's also a headphone jack at the top of this side. What's great is there is no covering for the headphone socket – and yet, this too is waterproof.

Goodness knows what Sony's managed to do here, but it's made it work and it means there is one less annoyance when you want to listen to some music or just audio in general. Big thumbs up here.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room. And by 'elephant', we mean it, since size is everything here. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is enormous.

We're talking dimensions of 179 x 92 x 6.5mm. That means it's tall, it's wide. But it's also actually rather thin, and we like that. The weight is very evenly distributed. The worst thing Sony could have done is give us something that was top- or bottom-heavy and very difficult to handle. This works perfectly for us.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

It's when you press that standby button on the side that you see where the magic really lies. The Xperia Z Ultra has the most beautiful display. 6.4-inches in size with 1920 x 1080 resolution.

That works out as a PPI of 344, which is more than enough for even the best opticians. You will not see any pixels on this screen. Some reviews have slated the color for being washed out.

We certainly had no complaints there. Whereas the Xperia Z phone from earlier this year had the worst issue with viewing angles, it seems Sony has listened and fixed that with this model.

In fact, our only complaint was with the lack of vivacity. We were using our review model alongside a Samsung Galaxy S4 which, of course, uses a different type of panel.

Many complain that Samsung's are too bright, too colourful, and not realistic enough. It's horses for courses and some will prefer the Xperia Z Ultra's truer-to-life palette. Either way, we challenge anybody to pick this device up and not be impressed with the screen.

They may be unimpressed with the ability to swap the battery out though. Yes, more and more manufacturers are sealing their power packs in, but with a device like this, which screams out to be a movie player for the commuting hours and a PDA for the rest of the day, this is going to use some juice.

It's not always practical to carry a charger around, and we would have preferred a little trade off in the design to allow a spare battery option.

That's even more so considering the price. As you'd expect, the Xperia Z Ultra is NOT cheap by any standards. SIM-free, you'll struggle to pick one up for much less than £600 / $675 (Around AU$638), although some stores are bunging a Smartwatch 2 in with the phablet.

Either way, don't expect to get this device free on a contact unless you're willing to part with around 25% more per month compared to the Sony Xperia Z1 each month for two years. Sounds a lot on the face of it – but if you'll use this as a phone and a tablet, it may represent a saving. You'll still likely be broke – but a little happier.

Interface

The Xperia Z Ultra comes rocking Android – but if you're looking for some 4.3.3 goodness, you'll be disappointed as you're firmly stuck in the land of 4.2 for now. That's not to say this is a bad version – 4.2 is a very solid iteration of Jelly Bean and it's what you'll find on most phones and tablets in late 2013 if they're not Google or Asus branded devices.

Sony has also intimated that the Xperia Z Ultra will be getting a spot of Android KitKat too - which is nice, albeit without a time frame.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Of course, Jelly Bean comes with the lovely Project Butter to just make things slip around a lot quicker, but the fact that the Xperia Z Ultra ships with such high specs inside means that things just fly around.

We loaded our homescreen with widgets and opened multiple apps in the hope of slowing things down. We really wanted lag – some, no matter how small, just to show that we could bring this thing to even the most minor of halts.

We had no such luck. The Xperia Z Ultra took everything we could chuck at it and still didn't even raise an eyebrow.

In the way that Samsung has built its Android brand on TouchWiz and HTC has gone with Sense, Sony too has its own proprietary interface. For those who like stock Android and hate Samsung's paint shop explosion, the offering on the Xperia series is not that far from pure Android.

It's a little more graphic, but it's not too in your face. We're fans. It adds functionality without calling for the aid of a sick bag.

Just how many apps do you want?

As with most launchers, you're limited in the number of homescreens you can have. The Xperia Z Ultra gives you a maximum of seven.

We've never found ourselves able to populate seven homescreens with widgets, apps and shortcuts but we are sure there are some of you out there who have. With that in mind, you can of course download an additional launcher.

The beauty is that if you like the look of the Xperia skin, you can download a third party launcher which will allow you to grab some extra functionality, but also download a theme to make it look like a Sony device.

As with all Android iterations, your apps are stored in an app drawer for easy access and you can jig around the order if you prefer.

Speaking of themes, that's something Sony allows you to do – and has done ever since the days of the T68m. Simply allowing you to change the colours of menus etc may sound like a very minor, insignificant ability. But for those of us who love Android for its sheer customisation options, it's a big deal.

Sometimes it really is the small things in life that bring the most joy. Of course, you can choose from some lovely built in wallpapers or download your own (static or live, knock yourself out) to bling your slab of phab up to the max.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review

As with most other OEM launchers, you'll find widgets in there that you really don't want or need.

These are usually designed to drive you to their relevant stores or bloatware apps and, in the majority of cases, they're the first thing you'll remove.

We did. But you can easily download your own, and there are some useful ones in there like shortcut toggles, which can be helpful.

Sony also gives you what it calls 'Smart Apps', which allow a limited form of multitasking. You can have a window open (say, for example, Facebook) and open a Smart App which appears on top of what you're doing in a little pop up window. Something like a note, or a calculator.

It's not as fluid as the offering from Samsung's Galaxy or Note ranges – or even what we saw on Sony's own Xperia Tablet Z – but it'll do for odds and sods.

For those coming to Android for the first time, it's not a hard system to learn, though iOS still has the edge in terms of Granny being able to take to it quicker. But this is a fluid OS, a fluid skin and if you invest some time – just a few hours – in getting to know it and learn your way around, you'll soon feel right at home.

Contacts and calling

In the old days, you bought a phone for calls. You bought a tablet for any other business. What do you do now? You buy a phablet for both.

The majority of people who buy the Xperia Z Ultra will not, we would venture, be making many phone calls on theirs. At least, not in the traditional sense of the word. There may be headsets, there may be Bluetooth hands free kits. There is unlikely to be much holding this up to the ear.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

OK, OK. So it does make phone calls. We'll get that bit out of the way. And you know what, it does it well.

We tried a few calls from the privacy of our own home with the curtains firmly closed and hiding behind the sofa just in case anyone saw. And we'll report back that audio quality is quite good. What's more, the Xperia Ultra kept a signal well.

Let's face it, you won't be walking around the street holding this up to your ear like an iPhone for two reasons: firstly, because you'll be a mugger's dream and secondly, because you'll get laughed at everywhere you go... and with good reason.

Pair the Xperia Z Ultra up to a Bluetooth headset, however, and you're in a much better position. We managed that easily enough and were able to make and receive calls like a dream. Most headsets are compatible. We tried a couple we had lying about, plus the car radio, and all worked flawlessly.

Unfortunately, if you plan on taking your calls using the loudspeaker, you may not be so happy with the results. The loudspeaker crucially lacks the one thing that makes it what it is: loud. It's a singular speaker at the bottom that is paltry at best.

Not only that, the quality is tinny and budget-sounding. Definitely not one of Sony's better offerings. Accidentally put your finger over it (which admittedly, considering the size of the Xperia Z Ultra, would be a major fluke) and you'll soon lose any sense of audio.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Contacts are accessed by going into the phone app (a shortcut for which is on the dock at the bottom of the screen) or opening the app drawer and going into 'Contacts'.

It's pretty bog standard really. Sony hasn't done anything massively creative here. It's taken the standard Android contacts app and changed the colour. That's pretty much it. It works well, so there's so no point in changing it for the sake of doing so.

Contacts can be accessed through smart dialing, the general phone book or the favourites list. Avatars are synced with Facebook and the phonebook is synced with Google.

If you've ever used a smartphone to make calls, you'll get it. Only difference here is that the on-screen buttons are huge because the screen is so big, which makes it all look slightly comical.

Messaging

Being an Android device, the Xperia Z Ultra supports all manner of messaging solutions, and it manages to do them all a good service.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

First of all, there are the email clients. Users are spoilt with two email options out of the box. There's the standard Android email app that you get on most other Google-esque devices. It supports POP3, IMAP and Exchange folders and is pretty run of the mill.

Gmail users are automatically signed in to Google's own email app which handles Gmail with style and seamlessly integrates with mailboxes, labels and so on. Even priority and social inboxes get the treatment.

As for SMS, again, it's the standard affair. It's nothing to write home about, nor is it so bad that you'll find yourself writing home about it to complain. SMS and MMS messages are handled through the same app.

You turn an SMS into an MMS by simply tapping the paperclip icon next to the text entry field and then choosing your attachment of choice.

Or you can go into the likes of the gallery app and pick what it is you want and then compose a message that way.

One of the really cool features of Android's messaging system is the preview option. This means that when you get a message, before the envelope appears in the notification area at the top, the actual text will scroll along.

So, you're sitting at your desk and your phone beeps – you glance across and you are then able to actually read the entire message in all its glory without even lifting a finger and picking it up.

Write straight onto the screen with a pencil

Social media is integrated in as much as you can download the relevant apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and have them then link into the OS, allowing you to share content via them and have them pop up with notifications in the notification bar up top.

The Xperia Ultra also invites you to sign into Facebook as you set it up from scratch so that it's able to then start popping users' profile pics into your address book. It's a functional integration without being too overbearing.

We are still scarred by the Timescape UI of old Xperia days that saw us plagued with constant notifications.

This, thankfully, strikes a happy medium. There is an app called SocialLife – a Sony take on those social media aggregators that put all of your Twitter and Facebook feeds in one place. It's a bit bland, but does the job if you like that sort of thing.

Of course, part of the whole messaging experience is being able to type your musings easily and this is where some will fall down. No matter how nimble you are, you may struggle to type on a device that has more in common with a paving slab.

Luckily, Sony has thought this through. There is personalisation on the keyboard here on a mass scale. Firstly, you can choose the look of your keyboard through a skin (very important for the shallow among us) and decide if you prefer Sony's lighter shades or a grey and black MacBook Pro style.

There's also a one-handed mode that actually works rather well considering the way the Xperia Ultra balances in the hand thanks to that even weight distribution.

When holding it in both palms, it's fairly easy to type onto and there is also the Sony version of Swype (now adopted by Google, SwiftKey and a whole lot more) that lets you swipe between letters and works far too well for it to be considered a gimmick.

If you just want to, y'know, type the old fashioned way, they keyboard has haptic feedback built in. Not something we'd normally mention but it deserves it here if only for comedy reasons. It is really strong. Which makes it sound really loud with that motor.

When typing messages quickly, it sounded like we were trying to jump start a car. The neighbours actually came around to see if everything was OK.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

And then we have something new – pencil integration. Think the S-Pen of the Samsung Note range, but imagine you could do the same kind of thing with a pencil. That's what the Ultra allows. In the demos, it looked fantastic. In practice, we found it not so great.

And it came down to one simple reason – we just never seemed to have a pencil around. In fact, we asked around, and everybody had pens – blue, red, green, black – you name it, they had the colours. But nobody seems to carry pencils any more apart from teachers and artists.

So to use this kind of functionality, you have to come prepared. Which then makes you wonder why Sony didn't just have a little pen in a dock like Samsung and be done with it. Either way, it works.

And though it seemed to lack the clarity of the S-Pen a bit as well as the fabulous Note apps that go with that. But for most people who just want a glorified stylus, it's enough.

Internet

For web browsing, we'd argue that there are few devices in this league. Quite simply, the Xperia Ultra is unmatched here. It's brilliant.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

This is for several reasons. Firstly, that screen. The pixel density is so great that text feels like it pops out, and although mobile versions of sites tend to load first, when you switch to desktop versions they compel you to look at them. Colours are vivid and browsing is a real pleasure here.

That would be nothing if loading speeds were rubbish, but web pages load in milliseconds. That's partly due to the software, partly due to the processor speed and partly due to the connection.

Remember, the Xperia Ultra supports both HSDPA+ and LTE as well as high speed Wi-Fi. In fact, we loaded up the TechRadar site (which isn't particularly light) and it was there within two seconds, letting us pan around and ready to browse fully in just under four.

That was on Wi-Fi. LTE was almost the same. It really is phenomenal.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

As for streaming video, you won't find much support for Flash. Indeed, you won't find any. Adobe has pulled its love for what was once the jewel in its crown.

'Too buggy' was the excuse. It's still technically possible to load Flash on if you go through the back door route as we did, but most people won't bother. And that's because they won't need to.

Most websites have modernised now and pulled their reliance on Flash, so it's less of an issue than it once was. There are still some that will give you that annoying 'plugin needed' symbol, however.

As for the bookmarking, you'll find that all of your bookmarks are brought across from Chrome, so long as you give the Xperia Ultra permission to import them.

That's because Chrome is the only browser on here. Sony hasn't been tempted, like other OEMs, to stick its own browser in – something which just confuses things a lot of the time.

Chrome is the default Android browser – it has been for a little while now - and it's a very stable, comprehensive offering. Bookmarks are shown with thumbnails and you can add them from your device, your computer or anywhere else. Since they're all synced, in the cloud, they'll show up wherever you look. Great, huh?

Camera

Have you been able to sense a 'but' coming? Good, because here it is.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Every titan has its week point, its Achilles heel. And the Xperia Z Ultra doesn't escape that. We're talking about the camera. What. A. Disappointment.

We won't go so far as to say the camera on the Xperia Z Ultra is bad. We'll go past that and tell you it is terrible. Seriously, we are astounded with how bad it is. Sony should never have bothered putting a camera on a device if this was the best it could do.

On paper, it doesn't look too bad. It's 8MP (although it says 7MP in the settings.) That's a bit 2011, but we can live with that. The Exmor RS makes it sound a little bit grander.

But if you're going to be taking a photograph in anything but absolutely perfect, strong, summer daylight, you're not going to get a sharp picture. In fact, in the week that we had the Xperia Z Ultra in our mitts, we didn't have one of those days, which explains why none of our photos looks like a perfectly lit masterpiece.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Let's get the biggest complaint out of the way first. The flash. Or lack of it. Yes, there is no light, no flash, no LED. Nothing. This is the craziest decision ever. It renders the camera completely useless in a lot of situations. Sure, Sony and others will say that you aren't buying this as a camera phone and most people who will want to take photos will use a dedicated camera.

But that's the excuse that tends to be churned out when there is no other defence. The fact of the matter is that although this is a phablet, Sony is very clearly marketing this as a phone first and cutting corners like that just wipes away that feeling you're holding something that has been cleverly crafted immediately.

How can this be the Ultra device when it's missing something even an old Nokia 6680 had. Poor show, Sony.

Without a light, your pictures will look terrible. The fact is that every photo we shot displayed some evidence of noise and grain. You don't expect it when you fire the camera up initially – the refresh rate on the lens is great so you feel you're going to get a great pic.

Yet when it's committed to memory, you get anything but. Sony has its automatic mode and this does make things marginally better. But we mean 'marginally'.

Problem is that it adds all kinds of bright colours to shots that shouldn't be there and loads more noise, so none of these photos are usable.

There are various other scene modes available, but they're not even worth mentioning. Sony has basically taken the camera software from its other Xperia devices, which pride themselves on having great cameras, and stuck it on an inferior device.

Like sticking a wedding dress on a pig. It may fit, but the snout sticks out eventually. You can change your resolution down to VGA (which would at least make you feel less embarrassed about the picture quality) and there are a couple of other options in there like 'Smile shutter'.

Which again, doesn't work. Maybe we don't have a good smile or maybe the camera can't work out the smile because it can't see one without a light. Who knows.

And there's no camera shutter button on the side. Again. We could really complain a lot here. But let's not get any more wound up. Deep breaths.

We can't remember being this disappointed in a phone camera for a long time. That says a lot. There is nothing that can redeem this for us.

Sample images

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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This was taken in decent indoor lighting but the result is disgraceful.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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As above – with several indoor lamps on, but shocking quality.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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Considering this was almost pitch black, the Xperia Z Ultra did manage to pick out details. But not anything worth showing.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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Close up in macro mode, the Xperia Z Ultra can distinguish text. But it's not particularly good.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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Colours that look bright in real life don't seem to get the same treatment from the Xperia Z Ultra lens

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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Even with something in shocking pink, the only shocking thing here is the dullness of the colour

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

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We tried bright outdoor light but it just all feels a bit flat.

Video

And unfortunately, the bashing continues here because the camera is obviously the same lens that works for the stills camera. So you get equal levels of poor video quality. The lack of a light means your shooting options are severely limited.

The Auto mode does as good a job of switching between lighting conditions as it does with the camera. Just a shame about that damn noise and lack of light. We still can't get over it.

In fact, the only thing that we can find here that is positive is the rate at which the video adjusts between lighting conditions. If you go from pitch black to bright light, it copes very well. Better than many other devices we have experienced.

There isn't really much of an adaption phase over a few seconds, it just switches. We wouldn't say we were impressed with this. But it was better than we thought.

You won't find many options for the dedicated video recorder. In fact, the options for the camera and the video are all lumped together. Which means that if you want to change anything during a video shoot, you can't. You have to end your video, go back to camera mode and then choose what it is you want to do before switching back to video.

The switch, at least, is easy. You just tap the red button beneath the stills camera to toggle into moving video shooting.

You can also take a still photo during a movie by tapping the shutter button and this will happen as your film continues to whirr on. It's a feature we tend to see as standard in phones nowadays. Do it on the Xperia Z Ultra, your still will be no larger than a 1MP file.

Not that that matters which such a rubbish camera. Did we mention we're not impressed?

Media

From famine to feast. Where the Xperia Ultra Z made us want to cry with its camera performance, when it came to the media offerings, we were really impressed.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

It's obvious why – just look at it. This is a device that was made for watching movies and playing games on. The screen is big enough, the shape makes it easy to hold in either portrait or landscape and that resolution is to die for.

Sony includes a mobile version of its Bravia TV engine in the Xperia Ultra Z. Sometimes these things are just marketing gimmicks, but with this device its an inclusion really worth mentioning.

Colours just pop out of the screen, the images are so sharp it's like having a small Sony TV in your hands.

There is something here that Sony could have done to ruin the whole experience and that is to not include a Micro SD card slot. That's what Google wants.

And if it was the case here, that would have been criminal. Thankfully Sony has gone with its heart, because the 16GB storage you get on paper (less out of the box because of the OS) will be gone within minutes once you start chucking your HD shows and games on this bad boy.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Newcomers may find it slightly confusing because there isn't just one store for everything (as in iTunes for the iPad). For example, Google gives you its options, while Sony does the same and then there's the thirdparty ones you can add on top of that.

Like Video – Google Play has its own video store. It's fairly well stocked. But Sony also has its own Video Unlimited store, which you're invited to try out.

We were fairly impressed with Sony's offering, though it stands to reason that one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world would have a good stock of movies in its digital vaults.

We tried a few random searches and it didn't let us down. Prices seemed fairly on a par with what you'll get elsewhere for either buying or renting movies.

In fact, the only thing we weren't keen on was the size of the movies. This is a full HD display with a beautiful screen. It's screaming out for HD in every possible way.

Yet all the movies we looked at (including the new releases) had only SD versions, with no option to download HD. Bearing in mind the movie is likely to download to the internal memory, perhaps this is a deliberate decision (on average, the SD movies were 1.1GB each, so an HD version would be enormous) but it did leave us feeling a bit short-changed.

That's not to say SD films look bad – because of that Bravia engine, they actually surpassed our expectations – but that's not the point.

If you want to buy music, again, you can do it via Google or Sony by default (not forgetting you can also download a thirdparty offering such as Amazon MP3, etc). Sony's offering is slightly different in that it doesn't offer a music store but a music service.

The Xperia Z Ultra is merely another device on which you can listen to your Music Unlimited subscription which allows you to stream unlimited tunes to your tablet in the same way you can with Spotify or other services. It's on a par with other similar services in terms of cost and will suit some users, depending on their preference of rent or ownership.

The brilliant YouTube app is preloaded, which was great news. And Sony has stuck with the FM radio, which we are huge fans of. Sometimes you just can't stream – especially if you're in a bad reception area – so it's nice not to be cut off from civilisation in every way.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

It's also worth noting that you can mirror a lot of your media to your TV if it is a Smart TV. The good news is that it doesn't have to be a Sony model (we managed fine with a 2012 Samsung Smart TV).

Sony calls it 'throwing' rather than 'mirroring', but regardless of semantics we found it worked very well. If you want to 'throw' stuff from, say, the YouTube app, you'll have to download a thirdparty solution from the Google Play store because it only works with natively held videos, photos and music.

If you decide to stick to listening to music on your Xperia Z Ultra because you don't want to 'throw' or have an older telly, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

In our review of the Xperia Z phone, we noted that the speaker was very tinny, but the performance of the Walkman software, via headphones, gave us one of the best audio experiences we've ever had on a smartphone.

The Xperia Z Ultra continues that trend, although don't plan on playing anything out of the loudspeaker unless you fancy getting beaten up for being so last century. It's embarrassing.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

If you're a reading fiend, then you have loads of options – Google offers you magazine subscriptions via its app with most of the big titles in there.

And as for books, you're spoilt for choice. Google Books is on there, allowing you to browse millions of titles and even download free samples to see if you like them.

It works similarly to the Amazon Kindle app which does the same thing and can be downloaded free from Google Play.

Between these two behemoths, you'll find there's no shortage of reading material.

It's also worth noting that Sony hasn't included an IR blaster on the Xperia Z Ultra. We were genuinely disappointed by this as we experienced one on the Xperia Tablet Z and it was a beauty.

The Ultra Z is the perfect size and form and it feels like Sony has missed a trick here. Especially when it appears the Japanese model does have one. What gives?

Battery life and benchmarks

The battery life is quoted by Sony as having 16 hours max talktime, 820 hours of standby, 110 hours of music and seven hours of video playback. Of course, in the official documentation, that's all followed by a load of asterixes to warn you that was all achieved in laboratory conditions.

And unless you're a scientist, you won't be using yours in a lab, which makes the whole thing pointless.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

There is no general rule with a device like this because we all use them differently. It's not as easy as just talking about a phone these days. The way to approach it is this: if the device is hammered, then the battery won't last. If you take some care in your use, you'll do well in the course of a day.

We found that it actually managed to last quite well. At 3050mAH, it's smaller than the Galaxy Note 3 and has a bigger screen to power. And yet, we found it performed as well as the Samsung device, if not better.

We took our Xperia Ultra Z off charge at 7am. We did that very modern thing of checking Facebook, Instagram and Twitter while the kettle boiled and read a few emails that had come in overnight.

We then left it an hour or so and when we picked it up, the Xperia Ultra Z was still showing 100%. This was with Gmail and MS Exchange pushing emails through all the while.

At about 8:30, we fired up TuneIn Radio and connected it to the car via Bluetooth and drove around with Google Maps navigating us for about 20 minutes. The screen was on the whole time, but we still had 89% remaining when we got back.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Over the course of the next few hours, we had a good intensive play. Downloading apps, playing with the camera. We took about 12 photos, shot a couple of small videos, watched a whole episode of Doctor Who on the screen, 'threw' a few photos to the telly, spent an hour or so browsing the web and made one 14 minute-long phone call.

By the time we went to bed at 10pm, the battery still had 32% remaining. It's worth noting that a good chunk of the day was spent travelling on the train where signal goes up and down like a crazy yo-yo so the Xperia Ultra Z would have had to work extra hard.

We were actually really impressed with that. We'd consider ourselves fairly heavy users and if you were to curtail your usage, you'd easily squeeze out two, maybe two and a half days out of that battery. It's worth also pointing out that that was without Sony's Stamina mode enabled.

That acts as a smart throttle of data services to keep the battery as high as possible. Expect even greater things if you enable it.

Here's where we would normally bemoan the lack of a removable battery. But we won't here. The fact that this seems to cope so well makes it less of an issue. If only other manufacturers would follow suit.

Connectivity

The Xperia Ultra Z is an ultra portable device for those who want power and connectivity on the move. And it doesn't disappoint.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

First of all, Wi-Fi is there and it's fast. Real fast. We had no issues connecting it to our 5GHz router and surfed at lightning speeds. Bluetooth is naturally supported (Sony's former partner, Ericsson, was synonymous with the technology in the early days) as is HSDPA+/LTE (4G) and NFC.

We're still not overly sold on NFC. It's not taken off and – dare we say it – we don't think it will until Apple introduces it as part of an iDevice to bring it to the public's attention. Which it won't do because AirDrop is here instead. We don't know if NFC will end up being another 3D or not.

It's a shame because Smart Tags could really be a big thing. The idea is that as soon as your phone goes near a particular tag (a small sticker, about the size of a medium coin), it'll complete a function you've determined.

You have to have some contact – it's not like Wi-Fi where you have to be within x-many feet – but it's literally a quick swipe against the rear of the phone to the tag that takes all of a second.

It may be turning Wi-Fi on or off, it may be sending a goodnight text to your mistress or setting an alarm. It's super-lazy – but also super-clever.

Sony has gotten rid of the Xperia Link app we saw on more recent devices which allowed you to connect to your laptop and use the device to tether as a modem.

It was a nice idea but, in late 2013, ultimately pointless, considering you can just make any Android phone into a wireless hotspot out of the box - albeit with less of a punishment on the charger.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

We've already mentioned DLNA and the Throw technology included in the Xperia Ultra Z. There's also the ability to mirror your screen to the television, but despite having success with Throw, we couldn't get the mirroring to work on our TV. It could be that this is only compatible with Sony sets.

For connecting to your PC, you just use the Micro USB cable and it instantly installs the necessary software. Apple fans can use their own dedicated 'Bridge' software. It's not brilliant, but credit where credit is due, it's a solution that works, and that's often overlooked for Android users.

At least Sony is nodding towards Mac owners, which is more than can be said for several other OEMs. It may not be as elegant as iTunes (insert angry disagreements here) but it is at least a start.

Apps

We're moving away from the days when you had a phone and you were stuck with the apps you got on there. In fact, we've gone the other way.

The first thing most smartphone owners do when they get their shiny new device is start downloading like crazy.

Unfortunately, that spells bad news for the manufacturers who like to load up their devices with so much useless bloatware because it'll get lost as soon as you start sticking your own stuff in, which is why they often put widgets and shortcuts on the homescreens too. Many newbies won't know how to remove these. It's a good ploy.

At the heart of the Xperia Ultra is Google. That's where the OS comes from and that means you get the staple Android offerings out of the box. That means the likes of Gmail, Google Calendar and of course, Google Maps, to name but a few.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Google Maps deserves special praise. It always does. It is the most comprehensive, up to date, mobile mapping solution out there. And it's free.

Plus it supports offline mapping. It's not just for reference, but it is now a full turn by turn navigation app which means that you are getting a full sat nav for no extra cost. It's basically the app that just keeps giving. And on a display like the Xperia Z Ultra's, that's pretty brilliant.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Sony gives us a few of its own – for example, Sony Select. Which is basically its own App Store – it never really quite makes sense on Android to do this because you'll get the same apps and more on the Play Store.

OEMs clearly want to confuse new users into thinking that theirs are the best places to get apps but it's just messy. TrackID is basically Shazam (in fairness, Sony has used this for years – long before Shazam lanched its app).

You're also treated to an app called Sketch – which is ok for doodles when using your finger or the pencil functionality. It's something to keep the kids entertained.


Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Xperia Lounge is meant to give you that feeling of buying into an exclusive club. You can enter competitions and read exclusive interviews with stars.

We can't see it lasting that long. This is the kind of app that peters away when nobody uses it. It says it is in beta. We'd be surprised if it ever graduates out.

And then there's Xperia Privilege. This app actually made us laugh out loud when we opened it. The app logo is very luxurious, and the name gives off the sense that this is something special.

We opened it expecting something akin to the Vertu Concierge service (obviously, at a much more basic level) and the first thing that popped up was a bright pink and green ad that looked like something from a magazine advert. It certainly entertained us. But not in the way Sony probably hopes.

Ultimately, you'll probably find you use the Google apps, not the Sony ones. But that's no bad thing. And installing apps is very, very quick. Probably the quickest experience we can remember on a smartphone, thanks to those internal speeds.

Official photography

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review

Sony Xperia Z Ultra review

Verdict

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra takes the phablet concept, adds a bit more size, a lot more elegance and throws in specs to die for.

More connectivity options than a very connected thing, more grunt than a Ferrari. Sony knows it will be a very niche device. But it clearly wants the Xperia Z Ultra to be the niche device. It's thrown money and specs at it. Will that be enough?

We liked:

The Xperia Z Ultra has phenomenal specs – from that beautiful screen, to its breathtaking design and powerful innards, there is so much that Sony has gotten right here.

It's not a gimmicky device and has given power users one of the things they often desperately crave – a good battery performance and top speeds.

We like that we can use it for the high-drain things: browsing the web and watching video, as well as a spot of Google navigation through the maps app. When you've got a phone like this with a screen that's phenomenal, it deserves to be used.

Having a microSD slot, as well as the open headphone jack, are great additions that make us feel like we're looking at a well-thought out handset that will be fine to come swimming with us.

We disliked:

The camera just ruined the entire experience for us. It's not that we intend to use the Xperia Z Ultra just to take photos, but it's the way that Sony has just not bothered to even try to make it usable. It leaves us worrying what other corners have been cut inside, away from view.

There's not a lot else wrong with the phone, thanks to the fact it brings top end technology in a different package. A lot of people will find the phone too large, simply due to hand size - there's an argument that with this phablet Sony has erred to hard on the side of 'ablet' over 'ph'.

Calling on this phone predictably becomes a chore. If you have to add a Bluetooth headset to make it work, you're doing it wrong.

Final verdict

The Xperia Z Ultra is one of those devices that makes you gasp. Partly because of its beautiful design and partly because its specs are so great. It's a phablet, but Sony wants you to also remember it's a phone.

The market is increasingly getting competitive and the Galaxy Note 3 is a strong challenger. But if you need something bigger, the race is strictly between the Xperia Z Ultra and the Galaxy Mega. And this wipes Samsung's offering off the table.

If you want something to surf the web on, play games and make occasional calls – and size isn't a problem – then the Xperia Z Ultra is it.

But if you even want to take occasional photos, then don't bother. Sony's really let itself down here. We admit that a camera on a phablet isn't the reason to buy a device, but we expected a lot more from Sony.

This is an excellent phablet, and one that will impress many. But with the higher base price, it could be a lot more impressive in some areas.

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