Xperia Z1S deep-dive review: A stylish phone with power and panache

Sony's new Android phone combines a distinctive design and premium build with stellar stamina and an underwater-capable camera.

When you think of high-end smartphones in the U.S., Sony isn't the first name that comes to mind. However, its new Xperia Z1S -- available exclusively at T-Mobile starting January 22 -- could be the company's strongest effort yet to earn your attention.

Sony Xperia Z1S
Sony Xperia Z1S

On paper, the Z1S looks plenty impressive: The device has a distinctive design, a premium build and all the elements you'd expect in a high-end smartphone today. It also has some unusual standout qualities, like waterproof construction and a 21-megapixel camera that can shoot underwater.

The Xperia Z1S is being sold for a two-year T-Mobile payment plan of $22 per month, bringing its grand unsubsidized total to $528. The phone is available for preorder now.

So how does it all come together -- and what kind of real-world experience does it provide? I've been living with the Xperia Z1S for the past week to find out.

Body and display

One thing's for sure: You won't mistake the Xperia Z1S for any other device in T-Mobile's lineup. Sony's new phone stands out from the pack -- in a good way -- with its flat, squared-off shape and reflective black design. The phone has glass on its front and back and a silver-accented frame around its perimeter.

The frame on the Z1S is made of smooth plastic rather than the aluminum used on other Sony Xperia devices -- a move Sony tells me was made at T-Mobile's request -- but it doesn't look at all cheap. The phone is striking and stylish, and gives off a very premium vibe.

Of course, looks aren't everything -- and while the Z1S is a sight to be seen, it isn't exactly comfortable to hold. Thanks to its large horizontal bezels, the device is 5.7 x 2.9 x 0.34 in. and 5.71 ounces, which is on the upper end of the spectrum for a standard-sized smartphone. With the combination of size, shape and the nature of its materials, the Z1S feels a little awkward and unnatural in the hand. It's a stark contrast to the warm and ergonomic (but also less eye-catching) build of a phone like the Moto X.

The Z1S's materials also make it a magnet for fingerprint smudges and assorted lint -- far more so than any other device I've used. The device looks downright filthy every time I take it out of my pocket. That's not necessarily a deal-breaker, by any means, but it's something to keep in mind, especially with a phone whose appearance is otherwise so noteworthy.

The Xperia Z1S has a 5-in. 1080p LCD display. Generally speaking, the screen looks quite good: It's crystal clear with vivid detail and admirable brightness. Compared to other high-end phone displays, however, the Z1S's colors are noticeably less brilliant, and I can't help but thinking it looks just a tad bit washed out. Its viewing angles are also somewhat limited compared to other devices.

Sony Xperia Z1S
You can take the Z1S out in the rain or even into the tub (if you must) and not worry about it getting damaged

Aside from the 3.5mm headphone jack on its top edge, all of the Xperia Z1S's ports are protected by plastic covers -- part of the phone's waterproof construction. The benefit is that you can take the Z1S out in the rain or even into the tub (if you must) and not worry about it getting damaged; I bathed the phone in a pot of water to test it and, true to Sony's claim, it emerged unscathed. The screen won't respond to your fingers while it's underwater, but you can operate the phone's camera by way of a dedicated hardware button (more on that later in the review).

The downside to the waterproofing is that charging the phone is a minor pain, as you have to remove a protective flap every time you want to plug it in. The Z1S doesn't support wireless charging, but it does have a connector for a proprietary Sony charging dock -- so that's at least an option.

The Z1S has a single large speaker grille on its bottom edge. The phone's audio is reasonably loud, though fairly tinny and hollow-sounding. An optimization feature in the phone's settings called ClearAudio+ helps a little but can only do so much.

The Z1S doesn't have a dedicated HDMI-out port, but you can use its micro-USB port along with an MHL adapter to connect the phone to your TV. The device also allows for wireless screen mirroring with TVs that support the Miracast standard.

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