Sony Xperia Ultra Z prototype hands-on

It’s a risky move, letting the tech media play with a prototype of an upcoming smartphone.

Without the software, a smartphone is nothing but a high-tech paperweight, and prototype software is buggy at the best of times.

What will we find as we poke and prod at the unfinished product, and what will that lead us to write?

There are any number of reasons Sony decided to risk letting us media types have a “sneak peak” at the device: perhaps it is indicative of Sony’s confidence in the product, or maybe the absolute confidence it has in its marketings efforts.

That said, it’s an equally risky move for me to write about my experiences with a locked-down product prototype. Is it possible to provide you with non-trivial insight and information useful enough to help you make a future purchasing decision, or am I just a cog in the marketing wheel?

Lovely to look at, lovely to hold

Unfortunately (or perhaps thankfully), journalistic angst never met a deadline, so let’s just see what we can see, shall we? What follows is what I can tell you about the Sony Xperia Z Ultra from my short time with it.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra size versus iPhone 4S (hand modeling by Nafisa Akabor)
Sony Xperia Z Ultra size versus iPhone 4S (hand modelling kindly provided by Nafisa Akabor)

It’s as massive and unwieldy as it looks, but for folks looking for the latest-and-greatest in a smartphone that doubles as a small tablet this might not be a bad thing. To use this 6.44-inch monster as a phone I would invest in a Bluetooth headset of some kind as holding it up to your ear for a lengthy phone call could become quite the bicep endurance work-out.

It’s still surprisingly comfortable to hold. Though the size of the device makes it basically impossible to hold like a phone (you hold it by a corner or edge like you would a tablet), it’s not that unwieldy. This is because the device is very thin (6.4mm) and surprisingly light (212g). While a 200g smartphone sounds heavy, when you actually hold it it’s not an uncomfortable weight at all. For context it would probably be better to compare the Ultra’s weight to a 7-inch tablet. The Nexus 7, for example, weighs 340g.

It’s beautifully built. If you like the look of the other devices in Sony’s Xperia Z range, you’ll like the design of the Ultra. It’s basically an over-sized Xperia Z.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra immersed in water press shot
Sony Xperia Z Ultra immersed in water press shot

It’s rated as waterproof and not just water-resistant now. Not to be outdone by the IP67 rating Samsung is touting for its recently announced Galaxy S4 Active smartphone, Sony has upped the IP55/IP57 rating of the Xperia Z to IP55/IP58 on the Ultra. This means that the the Xperia Z Ultra has passed two sets of ingress protection tests and has a higher water resistance rating while the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active has a higher dust protection rating.

Infobox: Understanding IP ratings

The digits in an IP rating must be read individually and not as a single number. The first number represents dust (or “solid particle”) protection while the second represents the level of water protection.

Looking at just the rating of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active and Sony Xperia Z series, an IP67 rating translates to: “dust-tight” (6), and water resistance tested at a depth of 1m for 30 minutes (7).

If the first digit is a 5 it means “dust-protected”, which allows for some dust to enter the enclosure but not affect safety or the operation of the device.

If the second digit is an 8, it means the water resistance testing exceeded the requirements of an IPX7 device. In the case of the Xperia Z Ultra, Sony has said it is water resistant up to 1.5m for 30 minutes in freshwater.

If the second digit is a 5 (as in “IP55” on Xperia devices), it means the device resisted water jetting from a 6.3mm-diameter nozzle at a flow rate of 12.5l/min for 1 minute with the jet nozzle held 2.5m-3m from the device.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra slide-in menu in app tray
Sony Xperia Z Ultra slide-in menu in app tray

It runs Android 4.2 and seems to stay true to Google’s design guidelines. Sony is one of the few Android manufacturers to offer smartphones that make use of the software buttons introduced in Android 4.0. Its skin also seems to stay relatively close to the stock Holo experience from Google. Among the features added to its Android 4.2.2 build of its software is a slide-in menu on the app tray that can be accessed by swiping in from the left edge of the device.

Sony Xperia Z Ultra press shot showing right edge
Sony Xperia Z Ultra press shot showing headset jack

No cap on the headphone jack. Even though the Xperia Z Ultra has dust- and water-resistance ratings, Sony has been able to forego putting a cap on the headphone jack. This means the only time you have to fret over whether all the plugs are secure is when you charge through micro USB, or change out the SIM or microSD card. Sony also promises to offer a magnetic dock which will minimise the need to open the micro USB port.

Moar Angry Baby demotivational

Giev me moar infoz!

It wasn’t mere sensationalism when the headline said this was a prototype device.

I tried to sneak AnTuTu onto the demo unit being passed around at yesterday’s event at Sony’s shop in Vodacom World, and was soon shouted at by the device.

“DO NOT INSTALL THIS APP” the popup notification yelled at me, before AnTuTu was promptly wiped from the device (seemingly automatically). Sadly, Sony refused to let me grab a screenshot of the warning message.

Suffice to say that the device looks impressive, if not downright imposing due to its sheer size, and is definitely worth looking out for if you are into the smartphone-tablet Frankenstein-hybrid category.

Final judgement is reserved until the device is commercially launched however, as pricing, the contents of the retail box, the final software, and availability of accessories are important considerations for a device like this.

Look out for the Sony Xperia Z Ultra from your friendly neighbourhood mobile network operator from September 2013, provided nothing untoward happens to the shipment.

Specifications Sony Xperia Z Ultra
Dimensions 179.4 x 92.2 x 6.5mm
Weight 212g
Operating system Android 4.2
Display 6.44″ 1080p (1080×1920)
Rear camera 8MP
Front camera 2MP
Storage, internal 16GB
Storage, expandable microSD
RAM 2GB
Processor 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm MSM8974
Graphics Adreno 330
Battery 3,000mAh
Cellular data HSPA + LTE
NFC Yes

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Sony Xperia Ultra Z prototype hands-on