What is the Sony Xperia Z Ultra?

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a big ol' phone. It’s huge in fact. After the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega, Sony is pushing the limits of what is acceptable to carry in your pocket with this giant 6.4-inch Android smartphone.

It has a Full HD display, is almost as thin as the world’s slimmest _phone_ the Huawei Ascend P6, and runs on the same powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core CPU that impressed so much on the Sony Xperia Z1. It has all the ingredients to make it a hugely desirable phone. There’s just one rather large problem - did we mention it's massive?

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Sony Xperia Z Ultra - Design

Sony has found a look for its Xperia range. It's something very different to what Apple, HTC and Samsung are currently doing. The Xperia Z Ultra sandwiches front and back glass panels between an aluminium frame - Sony calls it the ‘Omni-Balance’ design.

The Xperia Z Ultra
has an anti-scratch plastic film on both sides to protect it from your keys and coins like the Xperia Z. And it's available in white, black and purple.

The corners are subtly curved and don’t press into the palm when holding. Compared to the Galaxy Mega 6.3 this feels like a _phone_ you can be proud to show off, until people realise it’s not a tablet, that is.

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Like the Xperia Z1, the Z Ultra is dust-proof and IP8-certified so when the rubber-sealed latches on its sides are closed it is waterproof at five feet depth for 30 minutes. The original Z can only be dunked down to three feet.

It's great that there’s an improvement in waterproof-ness in the Xperia Z Ultra, but the lack of a camera trigger button makes the water resistance far less useful, unless you have a habit of dropping your phone in the bath or swimming pool.

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is amazingly thin - just 6.5mm thick. In comparison, the Mega 6.3 is 8mm and the world’s slimmest smartphone, the Huawei Ascend is 6.2mm.

At 212g, the Z Ultra it is slightly heavier than the Mega 6.3 (199g), but considering the more premium materials used, it's not really a surprise.

If there is one thing most Samsung and Sony phones share these days, it’s the lack of consistency of button, port and speaker placement. The aluminium on/off button and volume rocker stay put and are now joined by microSD and microSIM card slots. The microUSB port is still over on the left with the 3.5mm headphone jack opposite it on the right.

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The most frustrating change is the decision to move the Xperia Z Ultra's speaker to the bottom of the phone so in landscape mode you regularly block the speaker with your hand and drown out the sound. The good news is that the latches across the card slots are far more robust than on previous Xperia smartphones leaving us confident they will withstand a bit more punishment.

As for single-handed operation, it’s literally a tall order. Even the biggest-handed folk will struggle to get to grips with the Xperia Z Ultra. It's a stretch to reach a thumb to the centre of the screen never, mind the top of it. 


Holding in landscape the weight does start to become a slight issue too. Once you hold it in two hands everything changes. It’s a reason to think of the Z Ultra more as a tablet than a phone.

Unlike most tablets, the Xperia Z Ultra fits in a pocket, but doesn't leave much room for anything else. You wouldn't want to bend down too far with the thing in there. It can fit into the back pocket as well if you want but you are probably asking for it to get nicked.

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Sony Xperia Z Ultra - Screen Quality

Where the Z Ultra wipes the floor with the Mega 6.3 is the screen. Sony taken tech from its TV business and bunged it into this phone.

The Z Ultra has a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution TFT display with Sony’s Bravia Engine 2 and Triluminos display tech. The aim is to offer exceptionally natural colours and sharper images.
The screen improves massively on the Xperia Z and the ‘sensor on lens’ technology clearly helps to improve the viewing angles. 
 
The range and depth of colours is where the Z Ultra really impresses. It offers rich, vibrant surroundings for HD video and photos. Where it does lack slightly is sharpness. Despite the vivid colours, the 344 pixels per inch density doesn’t entirely hold up on the big Z Ultra screen - in part thanks to the less-than-amazing contrast.

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Sony’s capacitive screen supports 10-point multitouch and more interestingly offers pen input. It doesn’t come with its own stylus like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 but you can use a normal pencil, ballpoint pen or even a coin to interact with the screen.

It does work, but with varying results. Picking up a pencil first, the screen struggles to even register the interaction. It's the same with a ballpoint pen, trying to apply the correct amount of pressure and angle to register a response. We actually had more luck using a coin, opening up the app launcher, swiping through homescreens and drawing in the Sketch application.

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As you can imagine, it’s quite difficult trying to write with a 5p coin and the slimness of the Ultra Z makes it difficult to rest your palm like you can on the Galaxy Note 8.0, for instance, to get a comfortable writing position. Samsung clearly doesn't have anything to immediately worry about in this department just yet.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra - Software & Apps

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean and should receive an Android 4.3 update, but as it stands it’s much the same from what we’ve seen on the Xperia Z1 and Xperia Z. Sony’s skinning of the UI is improving in terms of intuitiveness and stylish looks.

Xperia Z Ultra screenshots


It offers the same native apps as the Xperia Z and Z1, and they are a mixed bag in terms of usefulness. At one end of the spectrum you have the well designed Walkman, Album (photo gallery) and Movies applications. At the other end, there’s the not so great PlayStation Mobile, Sony Select, Social Life and Xperia Privilege app offerings. 

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The most important thing is that the Sony's presence is not as overbearing as some approaches to using the Android OS and the widgets can of course always be removed.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra - Performance

For such a big phone, it’s great to see Sony give the Xperia Z Ultra the kind of power it really needs to excel. There’s a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core CPU, 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 GPU. It impresses in all departments. Navigating homescreens is a smooth and lag-free, web browsing is quick, streaming video is done with ease and it handles graphically demanding gaming with little issue.

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The benchmarks back up the Z Ultra’s processing prowess. In the Peacekeeper browser benchmark it score an impressive 789 putting it just below the iPhone 5 (907) and the iPad 4th generation (951). Running the 3D Mark Ice Storm benchmarks, it scores a 16770 putting up there with the Samsung Galaxy S4 (17732). The Geekbench 3 multi-core registers 2523 well above the Galaxy S4 (2076).

Sony Xperia Z Ultra - Camera Quality

While it doesn’t match the Xperia Z1 in the photo-taking department or let you put a T-Rex on your mate's head like that phone, you do get a decent 8-megapixel main camera. in the Xperia Z Ultra. It uses Sony’s Exmor RS image sensor and has a 16x digital zoom. 

Additionally, there’s a 2-megapixel front-facing camera and both cameras are capable of taking full HD video. The Galaxy Mega 6.3 in comparison hosts a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera and an 8-megapixel main sensor with a f/2.6 aperture lens.

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The Xperia Z Ultra camera app in action
 
Like the Z1 and Z, the Ultra uses the same camera UI with settings displayed above the screen. While it lacks Social Live and the augmented reality based Info Eye, there’s still plenty of shooting modes to stir your creativity including Burst mode, sweep panorama, HDR and even something specifically to take pictures of food.

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Photo taken in Superior mode with 8-megapixel resolution


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Photo taken in Superior mode with 8-megapixel resolution

 
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Photo taken in HDR mode with 8-megapixel resolution

You really shouldn’t expect Z1 or Nokia Lumia 1020-like images here. The decent colour reproduction makes the biggest impression here and you can capture good, but not fantastic photos in the right light. 

Upload the images to a computer for a closer look and you'll begin to notice some of the slightly grainy, overprocessed nature of images. Even in bright daylight, things can look a little gloomy. HDR does help to enhance photos but on the whole images will not blow you away When you need to get up close though, the macro mode impresses and offers good levels of detail.
 
The lack of a flash makes it even more of a tough task to take photos in low-lit environments. Again, colour accuracy is good, but images can look blurry and out of focus and zooming in shows the distinct lack of quality.

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Photo taken in low-light mode with 8-megapixel resolution

 
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Photo taken in low light mode with 16x digital zoom and 8-megapixel resolution

The front-facing camera has similar issues down to lighting where can become an issue, but in general is good enough for video calling and selfies. You can shoot Full HD video of yourself which is a nice addition.
 
In terms of shooting film, the main camera can record video up to Full HD 1080p in 16:9 ratio but doesn’t support HDR. Despite its exclusion you can choose from a series of different modes to adjust settings slightly whether you are filming at a sport event or at the beach. It's on par with the Xperia Z and Z1 producing good quality, high resolution video.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra - Battery Life

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra packs a 3,050 mAh capacity battery which is smaller than the one inside the Galaxy Mega 6.3 (3,200 mAh). You do still have some of the power management tools, specifically STAMINA mode to keep the Z Ultra going.

Sony claims you should get around 8 hours of life. In extreme conditions looping video the Z Ultra manages with maximum brightness around 5-6 hours but on general use manages around 7-8 hours. You will need to tap into that Stamina mode to get through a day’s use.
 
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In terms of speed of charging, hooking up to the power adaptor for 30 minutes from a critical battery levels jumps up around 10 per cent. Battery quickly drops off simply going on Twitter or browsing the net, though. Streaming movies hits it harder and it’s here where the screen invariably saps the life out of the battery. It can make it through a day, but for more intensive tasks, you really need to keep an eye on what you are using during the day.
 

Sony Xperia Z Ultra - Call & Sound Quality

Once you get over the embarrassment of putting the tablet-looking phone next to your ear, Sony includes a host of features to ensure calls come out nice and clear. There’s active noise cancellation using a secondary mic and 'HD voice' also aims to reduce background noise and improve clarity.
 
The call-making experience is very similar to our experience with the Xperia Z where calls can sound a little distant. The HD voice technology does a good job drowning out exterior noise but can sound hollow and muted at times.

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As for the internal speaker, we've already mentioned the issue of speaker placement becoming a nuisance when watching video or browsing in landscape mode.

It’s a very tiny speaker. Sony’s ClearAudio and xLoud enhancement audio tech aim to improve clarity, and while dialogue is nice and clear it’s overall a tinny experience. it lacks the warmth and richness needed to make it ideal for watching films. Things improve when you plug in a pair of headphones.
Sony Xperia Z Ultra product 13
 

Should I buy the Sony Xperia Z Ultra?

If you are truly sold on a phone this size, then the Z Ultra is the best 6-inch phone out there. It’s only real rival is the Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 (£449). The super-sized Galaxy S4 didn’t really make a good impression with its old specs and some performance issues. 

The Xperia Z Ultra at £600 is more expensive SIM-free and does have the same size issues. It's just feel too big to comfortably use as a phone and is more suited to be used as a tablet. We do like the bright, colourful screen, the Z1-like performance and it has a far nicer design than the Mega. We were left disappointed by some of the features to take advantage of the larger screen estate notably the frustrating input support and decent but not Z1-quality camera.

You have to keep an eye on what you are using to make sure the battery makes it through the day as well. If you really have to go for a ‘big phone’ without the worry of fitting in your pocket, using it in one hand or getting the benefits of the larger screen, we’d opt for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
 

Verdict

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a big phone with a big performance but it’s just too much to handle or keep in the pocket.