Hands on with Sony’s upcoming Xperia Z Ultra phablet

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I’ve just returned from a hands-on session with Sony’s first phablet, the Xperia Z Ultra, a massive 6.4-inch device that’s as much a tablet as it is a phone. I came away very impressed with its looks and performance, although I’m personally not yet  sold on the idea of a large phone as I still don’t think holding it to my ear makes me look like anything but a huge dork. The picture below proves the point:

Holding XU to my face
You too can own this silly, awkward look when the phone ships in September 2013.

Snapdragon-powered performance

Apart from its size, the other thing Sony was keen to show off was the fact that the Xperia Z Ultra uses Qualcomm’s (current) fastest mobile chip, the quad-core Snapdragon 800. The use of this particular processor potentially means much faster mobile game graphics in addition to a super-responsive Android experience. My hands-on time with the phone confirmed the latter, but Sony didn’t let us run any benchmarks as the phone at the event was an engineering sample so I can’t comment on the former. From what I know of the Snapdragon 800 so far, however, the potential of the Xperia Z Ultra’s super-speedy 3D graphics capabilities is definitely there.

Ultra vs Xperia Z thickness

Looks

In terms of its presentation, the Xperia Z Ultra is a brilliant-looking phone. Sony told us it’s even thinner than the Xperia Z, which I confirmed by pressing them together and taking a picture. It might not look like a big difference in the photo, but it is: 6.5mm vs 7.9mm is huge in tech terms. Even more impressive is that it’s also thinner than the Xperia Tablet Z, which I was surprised by considering the Tablet Z comes in at a positively anorexic thickness of 6.9mm. It’s also surprisingly lightweight for such a large phone: it weighs just 212g, and having handled it extensively this morning I’m confident most people will agree that it doesn’t feel like holding a brick. It is quite flat and long, however, which might make sitting down with it nestled in a pants pocket a little tricky.

Screen

Sony also made sure to tell us all about the Ultra’s screen, emphasising the fact that it’s the world’s largest Full HD screen on a smartphone and that it uses the company’s proprietary TriLuminos display technology that boosts the brightness and intensity of colours to produce gorgeous on-screen images. I must admit that on first impressions the screen does look pretty good, although I was hard pressed to see a huge difference between the Ultra’s screen and those of the Xperia Z and Tablet Z. Maybe more hands-on time in an actual review situation will show the difference, if there is one.

A touchscreen that works with pencils

I was most surprised by Sony’s announcement that the Xperia Z Ultra’s touchscreen can be manipulated by a pencil or pen if the nib is wide enough, and the video we were shown illustrated the way a pencil could be used just like any stylus to draw on the phone. I didn’t have a pen on me at the time to test it, but the announcement is enough to pique my interest and I can’t wait to try it out for myself when a review sample makes its way into my hands, hopefully in the very near future.

Not water-resistant: Waterproof

Sony also announced that the Xperia Z Ultra will not be referred to as water-resistant, but rather waterproof. That’s because it now complies with two certification standards that measure water resistance, IP55 and IP58. In terms of pure numbers, apparently the Ultra can survive for 30 minutes at 1.5 metres underwater, which is 0.5m deeper than either the Xperia Z or Tablet Z. Ah, progress!

photo 3
My BlackBerry Z10 looks so tiny by comparison.

Size counts

So, how big is a 6.4-inch smartphone? I held the Xperia Z Ultra up together with my BlackBerry Z10 to provide a bit of context, and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking “That’s a huge phone!”. Sony recognises that 6.4 inches is a lot, which is presumably why they announced the SBH52: a Bluetooth receiver that will make the Ultra a little more useable on a daily basis with its tiny screen to see who’s calling and the ability to use it as a handset to answer and make calls.

Window Android dressing

As with all recent Sony products based on Google’s Android operating system, the Ultra will have many small touches that ensure you’ll never forget it’s a Sony phone. These include Sony’s own wallpapers, several Sony apps as well as access to PlayStation Mobile and Sony’s media services. Well, sort of – those last two will require that you register a PlayStation account with a US address as those services are still not available to South African consumers. I was assured that Sony South Africa is working on it, however.

Wrapping up

I really liked what I saw this morning. The Xperia Z Ultra occupies the middle ground between  Sony’s Xperia Z and Tablet Z in terms of size, while offering much the same as what I enjoyed about those devices – looks, performance, durability. I was also quite pleased when Sony said it will be available in September, instead of 6 months after its initial announcement as has happened in the past with other Sony products (the PlayStation Vita, for example).

As was expected, there was no word on pricing, with Sony citing the currently-awful rand/dollar exchange rate as the reason for their reservations, so that still remains to be seen. Whatever happens with pricing, I look forward to getting my hands on a review sample, and seeing the Xperia Z Ultra in its final, polished form.

Tech Specs

Display: 6.44-inch Multi-touch 1920 x 1080 TFT with TriLuminos for mobile
Colours: Black, White
Size: 179.4 x 92.2 x 6.5 (mm)
Weight: 212g
OS: Google Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean)
Processor: Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 @ 2.2GHz
Storage: 16GB internal, microSD card expansion (up to 64GB)
Camera: 8MP with 16x digital zoom, auto focus, HDR
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, UMTS HSPA+, GSM GPRS/EDGE
Battery: 3 000maAh
Availability: September 2013
RRP: Unknown

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.

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