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.

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The software

The Xperia Z1S runs custom Sony software based on Google's Android 4.3 Jelly Bean operating system. Sony has not yet announced if or when it'll upgrade the phone to the more current Android 4.4 KitKat OS. (You can track the phone's upgrade status via my Android 4.4 upgrade list; as soon as there's any confirmed information about the device's progress, it'll be added onto that page.)

Sony's take on Android sticks pretty close to the core Google software in concept but introduces a fair amount of visual change. Some of the changes are relatively minor, like arbitrarily altered icons or a re-skinned system settings section, while others take a more negative toll on the user experience.

For instance, Sony has reworked the home screen in a way that makes it more difficult to place shortcuts where you want them. Instead of icons automatically dropping into the nearest available spot, as they do in stock Android, Sony's setup requires you to place them precisely in a guideline that appears on the screen; if you miss the mark, the icon shoots back to its previous location.

Xperia Z1S
Sony's setup requires you to place icons precisely in a guideline that appears on the screen.

Moving shortcuts out of the app drawer and onto the home screen also requires an extra step, for no apparent reason, and folders have been altered in a way that makes them both more cumbersome to manage and less attractive to view. Most of the system apps have also been given a custom coat of paint to no great effect -- a classic example of change for the sake of change.

In the big picture, though, these software sins really aren't that bad. Sony's take on Android is quite usable and far more palatable than the heavy-handed efforts most other manufacturers produce. And the fact that the company sticks with the standard on-screen Android navigation buttons goes a long way in making the phone pleasant to use.

To its credit, Sony has added a couple of potentially useful features into the mix. The Z1S's Recent Apps section, for instance, has a panel full of widgets that can open as movable windows on top of other content. The widgets are fairly limited in functionality, but you can add any regular widget into the list and turn it into a movable window as well.

Sony has also done away with the standalone Android Quick Settings panel and replaced it with a customizable bar of toggles that sits above the main notification panel. The implementation is tasteful in this context, and the ability to customize the toggles is a welcome touch.

The Xperia Z1S does come larded with ample bloatware, some of which can't be easily uninstalled. I had to go into the Android settings and manually disable Lookout, for example, to get it to quit bugging me with annoying (and unnecessary) security pop-ups.

Sony has bundled plenty of its own content services onto the phone, too -- services for purchasing movies, music and apps -- which causes some confusing overlap with the more robust Google equivalents already present on the device. The company has preloaded two different PlayStation apps as well: The curiously separated "PlayStation" and "PlayStation Mobile." The apps aren't anything you couldn't manually install onto any other Android device, but they do come with 10 free games here, which is a nice perk.

The Xperia Z1S also comes with a credit for six movie downloads from Sony's store as well as a 60-day trial of the company's music streaming service.

Bottom line

Too many Android phones slap together high-end components but fail to deliver anything new or memorable. Sony's Xperia Z1S is not one of those devices.

The Z1S has a striking premium design that's both distinctive and alluring. Its waterproof construction is a rare and interesting trait. Factor in the phone's excellent battery life and exceptional camera -- with its underwater photo-capturing potential -- and you've got an unusually compelling device with loads of attractive qualities.

The Z1S isn't going to be for everyone, though. Its display, while generally quite good, is less impressive than other HD screens on the market. It ships with a dated version of Android and no current guarantee as to if or when it'll be upgraded. And perhaps most significant, its design -- dazzling as it may be -- makes for a cold and boxy form that's awkward to hold.

So it ultimately comes down to you -- and what you want in a mobile device. If comfort and ergonomics are your priorities, the Z1S probably isn't the best choice for you. If you want a sleek and premium product, though, and don't mind a bulky frame, the Xperia Z1S is an outstanding high-end smartphone I'd readily recommend.

This article, Xperia Z1S deep-dive review: A stylish phone with power and panache, was originally published at

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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