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You Probably Won't Buy Sony's Amazing Waterproof Phone

Sony
Peter Z. Scheer
Managing Editor
Peter Scheer grew up in the newspaper business, spending family vacations with his mother at newspaper editors' conferences, enjoying daycare in editorial departments and begrudgingly reviewing his father's…
Peter Z. Scheer

Sony

There are only two phone brands of any consequence in America: Apple and Samsung. This has a lot to do with marketing, and also buyer loyalty. It’s a shame, since there are plenty of compelling devices that offer good reasons not to buy either an iPhone or a Galaxy S4. Yet for whatever reason, consumers have met genuine innovation with disinterest.

The best, most recent example is the Moto X. This is a phone produced with the combined genius of Motorola and Google and just about every reviewer gushes over it. Sales have been disappointing, and Google is trying to unload Motorola Mobility at a great financial loss.

Likewise, HTC continues to lose money, despite catching eyes with the HTC One, a phone that rivals the iPhone for build quality and exceeds its retina display with a brilliant screen that is almost addictive to look at.

One exception to this rule may be Google, which makes its own Nexus line of phones and tablets. The latest phone, the Nexus 5, is selling well, Google claims. But not too well, the company must hope, since it doesn’t want to upset its hardware partners that make phones using Google’s Android operating system. This is probably another reason why Google wants to sell Motorola. The company makes Nexus phones for developers and to prod other Android manufacturers in a particular direction, and it sells them cheap, but it’s intentionally not a blockbuster business.

Enter Sony. The once-indomitable pioneer of portable electronics is actually selling phones around the world, no small achievement since dissolving its partnership with Swedish communications firm Ericsson produced initially meager results. Now Sony wants in on the lucrative U.S. market, which is utterly dominated by just two companies. To get there, it has brought out a new American version of its international flagship Xperia Z1, which until now was available in the United States only unlocked and at high cost. Called the Z1S, the device is essentially the same, but you can get it only on T-Mobile and it has a plastic belt around the sides instead of aluminum.

That said, the Z1S feels like a quality product in the hand, and it keeps the hallmark features that make it a potential game-changer. Those are a waterproofing treatment that works fully submerged in the shallow end of a pool, and a 20.7 megapixel camera. There are numerous features besides — too many, in fact — but more on that later.

First, let’s talk about size. If the iPhone is too small (and it is), then the Xperia Z1S is too big. It’s a giant, with a thick bezel around the screen and a heft that makes flipping it around in the hand something of a wrist-sprainer. It will squeeze into the pocket on men’s jeans, but only just, and pulling it in and out requires some extra physical maneuvering. In Sony’s defense, this is entirely in keeping with phone trends, with devices getting larger and larger. Also, Sony announced a new compact edition of the Z1, with all the same benefits and a better screen, to boot, but there’s no word as of this posting on when, if ever, that device will come to these shores. Thanks to that compact version, however, we know that the Z1S’ girth is not the cost of waterproofing.

Some people love big phones, particularly because of their big and brilliant screens. Those people will be disappointed in the Z1S, which has a terrible display when compared with the competition. It’s simply weird, since one of Sony’s talking points is that it has brought all of its display know-how from making wonderful televisions to bear on the phone. It has rather the opposite of the desired effect, and I am now wondering whether Sony makes wonderful televisions at all.

Those defects aside, you have to respect a phone that can literally take a bath. Why do we need waterproof phones? Two scenarios leap to mind. Inclement weather is an obvious one. For those living in places where it rains or snows with any frequency, the Xperia Z1S is a godsend. It even has a sensitive enough screen to be used with regular gloves on (no need to buy special texting mittens). This is without any ruggedization, the gross rubber bulk that used to accompany all-weather devices. There are flaps around the charging, SD card and SIM ports, but the audio jack is open, accessible and also waterproof. For about $20 on Amazon, you can buy a charging cradle and never have to worry about prying open the charging flap, if that minor inconvenience troubles you.(Speaking of charging, it’s more or less a nonissue thanks to the Z1S’ gargantuan battery and intelligent power management. This is a smartphone you can use all day, night and beyond, without a refill. It’s an extraordinary feeling that has been all too lacking in the smartphone era.)

Those who work out frequently and take their phones with them might also consider waterproofing an important feature. You need not worry about drenching the Xperia in sweat, and if it gets gross, just bring it into the shower with you.

The other big-ticket feature of the Xperia, besides the waterproofing, is the camera, which takes pictures using a 20.7 megapixel sensor. The phone shrinks those images down, ostensibly to make better looking 8 megapixel photos. It mostly works. The Xperia Z1S takes the best photos I’ve seen on an Android phone. That said, they don’t look as good as the pictures I’ve taken on the iPhone 5S, a fact that boggles the mind. The sensor on the Xperia is bigger than the iPhone’s. Sony makes some of the best cameras in the world. It makes the camera on the iPhone, in fact. How can Apple’s alternative, which is a fraction of the size in every way, take better photos? Sony bills the Xperia Z1S as the best waterproof camera phone. That’s like saying it makes the best avocado ice cream. I can be convinced that’s both true and a good thing, but has anyone else tried? Also, it’s a tacit admission that despite the huge sensor, there are better snappers on the market.

Because of the giant camera, more than any other Android phone, the Sony needs a custom skin running on top of the operating system. And because, like most Android phone makers, Sony couldn’t resist bloating the hell out of the thing with crappy apps and bizarrely unnecessary software tweaks, it is slower, buggier and worse than it needs to be. Compared with the Nexus 5, which has similar guts, the Xperia Z1S is noticeably clumsy. It’s also running on an older version of Android, but that too has to do with software bloat. There isn’t just Twitter, there’s Twitter for Xperia and Facebook for Xperia and Sony Socialife News and apparently the phone can be used as a PlayStation 4 controller, which is OK, I guess, except that the slide-to-unlock feature doesn’t always work and is something you use literally every time you turn on your phone. Maybe instead of including a camera mode that — and this is no joke — adds dinosaurs and elves to my photos, you could get the unlock screen down. You have to learn to walk before you can augment reality.

Give Sony credit for releasing something truly unique into the phone world. We need more genuine innovation, and less hocus-pocus (looking at you, Samsung). We also need a phone not made by Apple that can take a decent picture.

If cost and carriers are factors, anyone looking for a good overall phone would probably be better served by the cheap Nexus 5 or the cheaper Moto X. This reviewer is partial to the Nexus 5 (particularly in black or the flashy new red). It has the best software of any mobile phone in the world, wireless charging and a beautiful screen.

If you care about photos and battery life and have to have an Android phone, the Xperia Z1S is worth considering. If you live anywhere damp, it’s a no-brainer.

Sales figures show most people will buy an iPhone or a Galaxy, snap a colorful plastic case on the back and call it a day. Those are perfectly good phones, and they’re available on every carrier. Still, it seems odd that there isn’t room in the marketplace for an attractive phone that takes nice photos and is, incidentally, waterproof. It would help if the Xperia ran a clean copy of the latest version of Android, and if it were network agnostic, like the Nexus 5. I suspect people will not buy the Z1S in great numbers. That’s OK. Sony has the money, interest and cleverness to keep pushing the envelope until shoppers come around.

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