Sony was the first of the big-name manufacturers to launch a new 2013 flagship smartphone back in March, with the Sony Xperia Z, a 5-inch model outwardly rather similar to the new Sony Xperia Z1.
The Xperia Z beat the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 to market, offering a quad-core processor, 1080p display, 13 megapixel camera, 2GB of RAM, and water and dust resistance. It was awesome. And still is, seeing as so little time has passed since it arrived.
But now there's a new Sony flagship for the spring/summer season, in the large, glossy shape of the Xperia Z1. There's a more powerful processor inside, a higher-spec camera and a new metal chassis, but it's still recognisably related to the older Z, both in design terms and the software it runs.
It's a premium model too, with the Z1 currently being sold direct from Sony for a stonking great $779 in Australia, the price you pay for a metallic, 5-inch machine, powered by what's generally agreed to be the fastest and most capable mobile processor available today. Given the Xperia Z's only seven months old and was no slouch, is there really a need for the Z1 upgrade so soon after?
As with the Xperia Z, the Z1's 5-inch screen displays at full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution. The key upgrades here are hidden inside, with the Z1 powered by a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset clocked at 2.2GHz and backed up by the same 2GB of working RAM as the Z, plus an upgraded aluminium chassis that rounds off the sharp edges of the Z in favour of a gentler, colder, metallic feel. The headline feature is the 20.7 megapixel camera sensor, on paper a vast upgrade over the 13MP unit inside the older Z.
As with the Xperia Z, the Z1 is certified to IP standards for dust and water resistance, so ought to be 100 per cent impervious to the more mundane threat of pocket fluff. Indeed, the phone's ports – microSD, USB and micro-SIM – are all hidden behind rubber stoppers, to keep water, dust and fluff at bay. The Z1's 3.5mm headphone jack is open to the elements on the top-left corner of the phone, so Sony's done a bit of useful work here to waterproof that and do away with the rubber stopper.
We thought the addition of a flap over the USB connector would be a textbook first-world problem causing frustration on a daily basis, but no. It pops out easily. It pops back in easily. It's a second and a half worth investing each day in return for a fully waterproof phone.
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Holding the Sony Xperia Z1 is a treat to the senses too, as the Z1 features a full glass exterior as well as a smooth, featureless and button-free front. The back's so shiny you could mistake it for a display, albeit a broken display that's stuck showing the Sony logo in the middle.
Sony's designers have ensured that the Z1's plastic sides extend by a fraction of a millimetre over the phone's glassy rear. This acts as a shock absorber and means the glass should be protected from casual tosses onto hard surfaces - although we've scratched the back a little already. But that was probably from chucking it in the sea to check its water resistance, so we have only ourselves to blame.
It feels big and wide, although thanks to also being rather tall as well it manages to balance pretty nicely in the hand. It's also cool to the touch, with the aluminium sides giving your hand the odd chill when it's been out on a table for a while.
Sony's also stuck with its idea of putting the power button on the side of the phone a little above the middle, meaning it's easy to find and naturally appears where your fingers tend to sit when holding a phone of this size.
But being so slim and smooth has you worrying. Putting it in a pocket makes you stress that it's so slick it's surely only a matter of time before it somehow works itself up and out onto the floor. But that's not happened to us yet. We are probably just worrying too much. It encourages you to worry, as it's such a large lump of a phone you're always aware of its presence.
Thanks to the positioning of the power button it is just about possible to use the Xperia Z1 in one hand. It's not entirely comfortable to hold, though, as the angular slab design and glass back has you panicking that it's a very droppable item. Your fingers end up seeking out the docking port as the only gripping spot, as that's the only feature on the left-hand side of the Z1 that isn't completely smooth and flush.
The front... no, wait, this is the back. The back looks like the front. It's all glass and smooth, although we suspect it's not made from stuff as tough as that which covers the front, as a fair few tiny scratches have developed in a little over a week of use.
The right-hand edge features the microSIM card tray - which can be pulled out with a fingernail - power button, volume up/down toggle and the camera shutter button, the latter of which can be used to open up the camera by holding it down for a second or so.
The SIM tray is peculiar, housing an impossibly flimsy piece of plastic that's used to insert the SIM, which is so thin it's bordering on paper-like. If you're a regular SIM-swapper it'll be a nightmare, as this teeny holder is definitely one of the few weak spots in the Z1's design.
The left-hand side has the microSD slot and USB connectors, which sit above the docking station pins, while the bottom edge is all speaker grill. It's not the best place for a speaker as, what with this being such a huge phone, you often end up supporting it with a finger or thumb while using it - blocking or at least changing the level of the audio when simply adjusting your grip. Not a massive flaw, but a minor annoyance all the same.
The bottom of the display is allocated for Android's software buttons, which are presented here in standard Back, Home and the Recent Apps multitasking button. There's enough chin beneath the display to ensure these software buttons aren't too low down the Z1's body, again helping to make one-handed use a little easier. No mean feat when dealing with a 5-inch monster.
Android 4.2.2 is the launch OS that arrives on the Xperia Z1, although Sony's completely redesigned every single aspect of the experience to make it altogether different from the stock Android experience. Xperia Z owners will recognise it all, though, as it's virtually identical in most respects to the OS powering the previous model.
All of Android's key features remain, though, albeit looking rather different. The lock screen lets you drag a finger up the display to unlock the phone with a sort of Venetian blind effect. If you drag left and right on the clock display, quick access to a suite of lock screen widgets can be gained.
These new lock widgets let you open the camera with one drag, or scroll to a Google Now widget, an email widget, your Google+ posts and more, without having to fully unlock the phone. Android's pull-down notifications menu is also accessible from the lock screen, and Sony has fiddled with the Notifications pane a great deal too. The largest alteration is the top list of feature toggles, which Sony calls the Quick Settings tab. This can be edited to feature up to 10 shortcuts in an order of your choosing.
Unlock the phone properly and you see a fairly simple initial Home screen, with your clock, Google search bar, a few Sony app shortcuts and the standard floating Android shortcut bar beneath. It's not particularly thrilling, with Sony barely changing the look of this Home layout for the last few years.
A pinch-zoom or long-press on the display brings up Sony's own shortcut and widget installer, which also pops up the wallpaper and theme setting options.
Hit the widget or shortcut option and a list of everything that's installed on your Z1 appears, ready for you to drag and drop into place on one of the Home screens. The Z1 initially arrives with five Home screens, but you can boost this to seven from this same menu, also tapping the little house icon that sits in the corner of each screen's display to make any particular layout the one the phone defaults to on boot and when quitting apps.
It's a nice, user friendly widget installation system that's a little more intuitive than the system used in the vanilla Android models like the Nexus 4.
Sony's taken a new approach to the Android app drawer, too. This big list of everything, accessed by pressing the grid on the floating dock, now comes with its own slide-in menu. From this, you can select apps to uninstall, edit the order they appear in, and, if you've really gone for broke in installing stuff, search for a particular app by name.
In terms of getting your apps, Google Play is the obvious choice, as that's the default app store that comes pre-loaded on every Android-powered phone. However, as all the hardware makers are keen to do, Sony's added its own Sony Select app recommendation engine here, which exists as both a standalone app and a massive, full-screen widget.
This is an odd thing that presents a curated selection of apps and media, with shortcuts that link to Google Play and Sony's own online shops, plus there are film links that open up not in Google's movie store but in Sony's own Video Unlimited app. Hence things start to become a little confusing, with the phone often pointing you off in various directions to get your content from competing services.
One of Sony's big wins when it comes to improving Google's standard Android options can be found in the Z1's Album photo gallery replacement. This completely bins Google's approach in favour of a double-fronted app that presents photos on the phone behind one tab and photos pulled in from social networks on the other, with the latter allowing you see photos your friends have posted to Facebook, images from Flickr, Picasa, Sony's PlayMemories cloud storage service and more.
Images in both galleries are displayed as cropped cubes, which you can zoom in and out of, forcing them to dynamically rearrange themselves. Zooming all the way out with a pinch-zoom gesture makes it dead easy to scroll back through all your pictures, with the grid broken down by month to make selections a little clearer.
Face recognition of your pics is also a nice new touch, with the Z1 offering to associate a name with every photo you take, then sorting the results into photos based by person.
Images previously taken can be updated with a geo-tag, which then allows the Z1 to display them on a nice, spinning 3D globe. Given most peoples' photos will be taken within a few miles of where they live this probably isn't the most useful feature. But it is a nice globe.
The Recent Apps multitasking menu has also been enhanced again by Sony's development team. As well as a list of the apps and system setting pages you've used recently, this houses Sony's original collection of mini apps, or floating extra additions to the OS designed to make note taking and other mundane tasks easier.
There are six of the mini notes apps on the Z1 to begin with, offering quick access to an Active Clip tool for capturing and editing an image of whatever's on your display (something Android lets you do anyway by holding down the power button and volume down toggle), plus there's a floating Notes widget, timer, calculator, miniature browser tile and audio recorder in here too.
These are joined by smart little widgets for Gmail, Google's Calendar app and your Chrome bookmarks. They look extremely neat and clever, but do tend to get in the way a bit. Having a huge, opaque Gmail inbox permanently floating over your Home screens and apps isn't really a particularly useful feature.
Contacts and calling
The Z1's dialler is topped by four tabs, which access your contacts, the actual traditional number-pressing part you use to dial in any numbers you can actually remember, a starred collection of favourites for easy access and a fourth section dedicated to creating groups of contacts for simple mass SMS-ing of your friends.
The experience is built around your Google contacts, so once you're signed in with a Google email address any old contacts you've previously added to another Android model (or typed into Gmail over the years) will pop up here. If you haven't updated your phone for a very, very long time, there's the option to import contacts from a SIM card too.
Each of your contacts has their own little page, where you can add details such as their email addresses, instant messaging accounts, home addresses, web URLs and more, plus there's the option to "Place on Home screen" – which sticks a little 1 x 1 icon on your Home screen, which you can use as a handy shortcut to quickly contact any people you bother regularly.
The dialler supports a form of smart dialling, where it's enough to start typing the first couple of letters from a contact's name for the Z1 to suggest matching numbers in the top half of the screen.
Given that you're likely to have contacts pulled in from various places and social sites, both with and without meaningful contact details, the OS lets you filter these down a little. You can hide contacts without phone numbers (which will wipe out most Facebook and Twitter imports), show only people that are online in contactable apps, or choose to only see your Facebook friends and links to their profiles if you hate and would rather avoid spoken messages.
Adding an exciting new person to your Z1's contacts section is as simple as pressing the + icon on the contacts list, where you're asked if you'd like to back it up to your Google account or save it only to the device or a SIM.
Only the deeply paranoid would be advised to choose anything other than the Google option, as this means the details are backed up to the cloud, and can be salvaged in the event of a phone destruction crisis or theft. Plus they'll also sync instantly with any other Android devices you might use.
And on the odd occasion the Z1 forces you to stop poking it and actually talk to someone, the voice calling quality's great - very loud and relatively natural sounding. If you'd rather not speak, a pull-up menu can be accessed whenever a call comes in, from which you can reject the caller with a preset SMS.
Sony's adopted a nice burgundy colour to fill in the headers in both its email and SMS apps, which goes some way to making these text and list-based parts of Android look vaguely more interesting than usual.
The SMS tool alternates colours to keep messages threaded, plus there's a nice little bonus in here in the form of a sketch tool. Open this while composing a text and you can do a little drawing (probably of your genitals), which the phone converts to a multimedia message and attaches to the text.
Other SMS options include adding previously taken photos, opening the camera to take a snap live and have it instantly converted and attached. Plus there's a dead handy "Share my location" button that creates a shortcut to a URL of a Google Map of your precise location and whacks it into the SMS field for you. Which completely ruins games of hide-and-seek, but is very clever all the same.
The standard email app is also a burgundy masterclass in understatement, and it's all the better for its simplicity. The email app sets itself up automatically using login credentials from most major email providers, plus there's Exchange ActiveSync in there in case anyone needs a reason to try and put the purchase of the phone down as a legitimate tax expense.
Sony's keyboard, which is custom in appearance and lacking the long-press alternative characters and numbers that many keyboards use, is bang up to date when it comes to making the best of text input on mobile too.
The keyboard uses the gesture based, line drawing system for writing your words by drawing one continuous line from letter to letter, as popularised by third-party keyboard Swype. As well as this, it incorporates next word guessing, which analyses your typing style in an attempt to guess the next word you're about to write, a feature also pulled in from the unofficial keyboard word and used to such great effect in the SwiftKey app.
Both of these make typing simple, with the next word guessing ability often saving the day by managing to recreate a sentence you've previously typed - a joyous thing to discover when you've accidentally pressed back and quit an app and lost a chunk of text.
You can also find options for automatic space adding, full stop settings, word suggestion options and more, making it one of the more versatile keyboards out there and definitely worth sticking with.
The Sony keyboard's quick and lag free to use, although the haptic feedback is quite feeble even when turned up to the max.
Android's text management tools are really quite usable now, after taking a few frustrating years to come up with a system that works. Tapping on a word you've previously typed brings up a list of alternative suggestions to replace it with if you've made a typo, while a double-tap on any typed word pops up the copy and pasting menu, from where you're able to select a start and end point, then copy or cut the highlighted words, or paste whatever's already in the clipboard over the top.
The Xperia Z1 is simple when it comes to web use: you use Chrome. That's it. There is no Sony-made Browsing Unlimited option requiring a separate account, just Google's excellent little mobile browser powering everything and using the same account and systems as its popular desktop tool.
This means, once you've signed in with your Google account, you can access your desktop bookmarks on the Z1. Plus, if you want to go a step further, there's the option to have the phone synchronise desktop tabs with the mobile, meaning whatever you were browsing on PC is right there on your Z1 for easy access. It even links pages recently read on other Android phones and tablets, so you can pull in web links from your tablet, too.
Given the immense power of the Z1's Snapdragon 800 chipset, web use is obviously going to be pretty decent here. Pages load and pop into life almost as quickly as they do on modest laptops, plus embedded content, adverts and the rest of the stuff that populates the periphery of most web pages is also handled with ease.
Android Chrome's also developed the ability to save your passwords and auto-fill web forms just like its desktop alternative, which makes the soul-destroying task of having to fill in your personal details on a mobile display less of a chore.
Double-tapping on a text field zooms in to a pre-defined level, while pinch-zooming lets you get a closer look at any critical elements. The 5-inch 1080p display makes text beautifully sharp and clear, plus the phone's power means zooming, rotating the phone to landscape view and managing tabs (no matter how many are open) never gets clunky or bogged down.
The Xperia Z1 comes with a super high-end 20.7 megapixel camera sensor, launching it very near to the top of the hotly contested mobile megapixel charts. And 90% of the time, the Z1 produces some of the finest photos we've seen come off a phone camera.
The camera app itself is a custom Sony creation, offering a simplified interface that defaults to Sony's Superior Auto mode. This streamlined setting lets you toggle the flash options (fill, auto, and red-eye reduction) on and off, plus there's one options tab to activate slightly more advanced features like the smile-detection tool, burst mode, geotagging, and the auto-upload feature, with the latter wanting to dump copies of your pics to Sony's own PlayMemories Online cloud server.
For more stuff to play with, Sony's added an Apps toggle to the camera, which currently houses the photo effect tools, manual mode, timeshift burst mode, panorama stitcher, its Info-eye augmented reality search tool and more.
Manual mode lets users select their own white balance options and choose from some present scenes when recording video, which is as far as the manual tinkering goes here. The Timeshift Burst tool is one that's definitely worth using, as it buffers a stack of shots, letting you leaf through them with a pleasant flipbook effect and choose the best one.
You also get a range of augmented reality comedy features. Select the AR Effect toggle and a variety of computer generated scenes pop up, with the phone's camera locking onto the floor and any faces in shot, and using these to overlay effects atop the image. It's a bit silly, but kids will love seeing themselves wearing diving helmets and surrounded by fish.
The effects can also be added to the front-facing camera shots for hilarious effect. The fun you will have. Images on this secondary cam come off at 1920 x 1080 resolution, and usually look a lot better and sharper than in this quite terrible low-light example.
One other clever feature introduced by Sony and exclusive to the Z1 is its Social Live video sharing tool. This lets you share a live video direct to Facebook, which pops up on the social site like any shared clip. You can broadcast up to 10 minutes of live footage direct from the Z1.
Quality depends on the speed of your internet connection, but even at a slightly low frame rate it's a useful tool for beaming images of children to relatives. Clips are also backed up to the Social Live servers, too, so they're rewatchable post-broadcast just like any other clip shared on the site.
Four more additional apps are available to download and add new features to the camera, like Sony's Motiongraph tool, an optional animated image creation plug-in available through Google Play. Install this and it appears on the Z1's options menu, which suggests we'll see more standalone photo apps appear in future. The PhotoShpere tool that ships with stock Android devices like the Nexus 4 is sadly missing, though.
In terms of image quality, the Xperia Z1 is a very competent performer. Outside, in both good and poor light, it does a great job. Movement doesn't trouble it, detail near and far is captured well and colours come across natural and not over or under-saturated.
Sony claims the phone uses the same technology as its separate compacts, and the results are indeed comparable - but only to that of an entry level compact.
In fact, it manages to perform even better when the light is a bit patchy. Here, the Z1 coped extremely well with a bright background and dark foreground, activating its Backlit mode to enhance the shady section and combine the two with ease. Great stuff.
The big problem with the Z1's camera comes when you're indoors. It's so keen to compete with the current crop of superb low-light performers like the HTC One and Nokia's PureView options that it seems to introduce too much noise to its pics.
Even in fairly good indoor light there's some fairly intrusive noise, with odd, bright white pixels appearing over the image. Scale photos down to, say, 500 pixels across, and the white speckled noise is still visible.
However, the low-light performance is there if you can ignore the noise - although it does annoyingly mean that Sony's claim to have the best camera out there isn't true indoors, putting it behind the likes of the LG G2, Nokia Lumia 1020 and even at times the HTC One.
The Z1 does work in dingy scenarios though, so at least you get images in situations where other phone sensors might fail.
When it's dark enough indoors to set the flash off, things improve. The background's still a bit noisy, but at least the subjects appear clear and it's not an overly bright flash so no colour is lost.
To access the camera even faster, there's the option to have the Z1 automatically capture a shot as soon as you open the app, meaning you can unpocket the thing, hold down the shutter button to launch the camera and have a decent image captured within one second.
Very impressive. It's a fast, responsive camera that produces great results in almost all scenarios, save the odd noisy indoor shot when it's not quite dark enough for a flash.
Finally, there's an inbuilt photo editor. It's your standard hipster filter and photo framing tool, with a nice pull-down menu that records your edit history, should you go too far with the retro tints and colourations. If that's not hardcore enough, Sony's also pre-loaded a copy of Pixlr Express, a more complex image manipulation tool.
Sony's heaped the tech spec bullet points on the Xperia Z1, suggesting the screen features a thing it calls a Triluminous Display. In reality, this means the screen's bright, extremely sharp, and although viewing angles aren't amazing, when sitting there viewing HD content right in front of your face, the picture quality really is impressive.
There's also a useful auto brightness option in here that enhances the controls of stock Android models. Sony lets you manually select a brightness level, with the Z1 then also able to manually adjust it for lighting conditions when it thinks it's necessary. On stock Android, it's either full auto or full manual.
It also seems to adjust brightness very gradually. We're yet to actually notice the screen brightening or dimming in front of our eyes, it just always seems to be at the right level. That's definitely a feature Sony's added that enhances usability quite a bit over standard Andriod models.
In terms of video playback, the 1080p display is good. Blacks are pretty black, frame rates of downloaded media and clips recorded yourself with the camera app are rock solid, and there's none of the tearing or artifacting generated by other cameras when attempting to capture 1080p clips.
Your own video clips are recorded at either 1080p, 720p or lowly SMS resolution, and the power of the Snapdragon 800 chipset ensure the results at max resolution are fantastic.
Frame rates are high and consistent, colours appear natural, the focus options are useful and quick to react, while even tricky organic stuff like leaves, grass and water are captured with virtually zero blockiness or motion artifacting. The Z1 is a 1080p phone that delivers clips that look like they're 1080p, not the usual upscaled mush other phones try to pass off as HD material. It's extremely impressive.
The video app itself is stylish too. Sony's one of the few Android hardware makers that makes a big deal out of its video player and presents an obvious link to it, and it immediately impresses by looping a short clip of your most recently recorded clip in its header. That's how much spare power this phone has kicking around.
Of course, the reason for this front-and-centre video app is because Sony's Video Unlimited tool comes pre-loaded on the Z1 and, thanks to the Xperia Privilege app, you're given five free film downloads to test the download service. A two-hour film comes out to around 1.5GB in size, and once the Z1 has cached the first few minutes of the film you're able to begin watching while the rest loads.
The Xperia Z1 is another of Sony's media Trojan horses, designed to get you all signed up and comfortable with buying all your music and video from the other departments of the entertainment empire.
To this end, the Z1 comes pre-loaded with Walkman, Movies and PlayStation Mobile shortcuts all placed prominently on the main Home screen, encouraging buyers to explore Sony's shopping and paid streaming portals before they encounter the rival options powered by Google that are also part of the phone's app set.
The sort of good news is that Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited are now linked under the Sony Entertainment network banner, so once you've signed into one you're automatically also signed into the other.
The dangerous thing here is the way Sony uses a cloud-based "wallet" to manage payments. This means that, once signed up, video purchases made through Sony's app are instant, with the cloud automatically charging your credit card. This makes it easier to impulsively buy media on your mobile.
That said, it's probably worth sticking with Music Unlimited if you're a keen fan of new music. Having a Home screen widget that lets you access Sony's enormous back catalogue of virtually everything is a powerful feature and one that's quite addictive.
Shame it can't keep you signed in, though, as the Music Unlimited app seems to require you to open it regularly in order to sign in and connect to the server. Which renders the widget until you've signed in.
However, being a Google-powered mobile means there's another entirely separate and just as good music-getting ecosystem on the Xperia Z1, all accessed through the pre-installed Play Music app.
This is Google's go at offering everyone access to their own music collection and a cloud-based streaming service, and you can upload your own songs to it, too, for instant access on multiple devices.
It's free to use Play Music with your own music, plus there are two other ways to access music from Google - buying albums and tracks, or paying a $11.99 subscription to activate an unlimited music streaming service that's quite a bit like that offered by current streaming darling Spotify.
And, to illustrate how many competing ecosystems are on here that want to grab your $1.19 whenever you want to listen to a tune, Sony's TrackID music tagging system generates links to online music store 7digital whenever you ID a track through the phone. Which it does through a mobile web page. What a mess. It's enough to make a man go back to Bittorrenting everything and whacking it all on an SD card.
Battery and connectivity
The Xperia Z1 comes with a 3,000mAh capacity battery, which compares favourably to the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. Sony says you ought to get up to 880 hours of standby time and 110 hours of talk time, but those figures assume it's sitting there unused in a sock drawer for the time period.
In terms of actual meaningful use, we found the Z1 was easily good for a whole day of use and then some, with our review days including stacks of camera work, lots of tweeting and having the email app set to check for new messages every 30 minutes.
Sony's power-saving features don't amount to much more than turning everything off when the battery reaches a (user definable) level, but there are some useful power-saving tips that pop up in the Notifications field.
For example, the Z1 told us the Dropbox app was stopping the phone's Stamina energy saving tool from deactivating Wi-Fi when the screen was turned off, which is a useful thing to know and might help to genuinely improve power management.
Wireless connectivity is represented well in the Z1, with it supporting the new LTE or 4G bands, plus 3G HSDPA maxes out at a theoretical 42Mbps, should Three have positioned a phone mast at the end of your garden.
Sharing video is one of Sony's key boasts for the Z1, with it able to "Throw" footage to other devices. In practise, this means going through the cumbersome process of discovering and pairing the Z1 with another device, a process to tedious that the moment will surely have passed before the video or image can be shared. It also supports DLNA, which is a little easier to manage, plus screen mirroring through a select few devices that support Wi-Fi Direct connections.
Which are all lovely ideas, all pretty awkward in execution and unlikely to be used much.
And in an example of another area where Sony and Google's services overlap is in the phone location department. Heading to My Experia lets you track your mobile, set its alarm off, lock it down and even perform a full remote erase, mirroring the features of Google's own Android Device Manager.
Sony really ought to have a meeting with Google before it makes the Xperia Z2. It'd save it an awful lot of effort.
Maps and Apps
Where do we begin? Sony's gone a bit Samsung in its approach to pre-loading software on the Xperia Z1, so while its Android user interface appears simple and streamlined on the outside, there are heaps and heaps of software tools inside the app drawer to get to grips with.
Google's glorious Maps tool is here of course, with the Z1 managing to get a GPS lock within seconds of leaving the house and thinking about going to a place. It's a different Maps to the one we're used to, with Google simplifying it a bit and removing some of the Street View integration that used to make scoping out difficult future bends so easy. In its place is the option to have a satellite view of your route when using the GPS tool, plus it now comes with voice data pre-loaded - doing away with the need to download it from Google Play before using it for the first time.
As for other Google apps, you get the Gmail tool (complete with fan-angering coloured tabbing system that no one seems to like, understand or use), the YouTube app, Google+ and imaging spin-off G+ Photos for auto-uploading of your snaps to Google's social network, and its own media suite of Play Music, Play Books, Play Movies and Play Magazines.
The latter collection of stores is one area where Google's really upped its game over the last year or so. Play Music supports paid radio streaming of music and easy purchases that are instantly made available for listening, Play Books and Magazines both have a huge archive of titles.
Sony's put stacks of its own toys in here, too. Its Socialife app is Sony's own attempt at making a Flipboard clone, a sort of feed aggregator that pulls in news from loads of internet sources and does a fine job of making the pages look pretty and magazine-like.
And as with most other hardware makers and the mobile networks, Sony's put its own combined shop and deals portal on the Xperia Z1, which it calls the Xperia Lounge. It's not what marketing people would describe as a compelling proposition, offering a bland selection of competitions, content featuring Sony-stable music artists and the odd discount for things you probably don't really want. We'd uninstall it, if the phone would let us. But it won't.
One innovative thing is Sony's TV SideView app, which is a TV listings guide, designed to work as a second-screen accompaniment to your telly watching. As well as a lovely scrolling schedule, this app lets you share details of shows you're watching via Facebook and Twitter, although tweeting a link just puts the title of the programme into an empty tweet. So that's a bit... pointless.
Not pointless in the slightest is Sony's PlayStation Mobile app, your gateway into paying money for random indie titles you've never heard of. It's a great tool, although you will need a PlayStation Network account in order to gain access. Once in, there are loads of games of varying quality, some paid, some free and some freemium, with the highlight being a free-to-try version of ancient puzzle game Lemmings.
As for memory space to fit all this into, the Xperia Z1's 2GB of RAM and 16GB of onboard storage space means multitasking and app downloads are no problem. The internal storage is set as one unified chunk, meaning there's some 11.7GB available to store apps on. And there's that SD card slot for more. Hooray for that.
Hands on gallery
Initial shock at the size and featureless front and back of this imposing monolith soon turned to admiration. It's big and extravagant, but its chassis is a little more rounded than the Xperia Z's, making it easier on the hand than the angular older model it usurps.
The cool, rounded aluminium edges, chunky power button and glassy back just about give it enough character to make it loveable, once you've come up with a suitable method for holding it without stressing about dropping the slippery thing. We've already scratched the back up a little through gently putting it down on tables, mind, so it's one that might require a little care to keep in pristine condition. And given its $780 price tag, you are going to want to look after it.
And as for the performance, the high-end processor powers the Z1 extremely well, with nothing in the way of noticeable slowdown or trouble, even when updating apps while opening and closing tools like a multitasking madman.
The 1080p display is impressive. Video playback is fantastic, colours are deep and the images clear. Your own photos look great on the screen, the icons are sharp, web text readable.
This even trickles down to things like the camera, with image previews on the viewfinder appearing incredibly sharp and lifelike.
The camera is, for the most part, one of the best any company's managed to squeeze into a phone. Outdoors it performs extremely well, managing bright days, gloomy contrasts, sunsets, movement and more with ease.
It's only when indoors in poor light and without the flash that there's some noticeable noise on shots. 1080p video is smooth and effortless, too.
It is definitely waterproof. We chucked it in the sea lots of times and it still worked. The sound recording quality gets a bit muffled until the water dries off, but we suspect that might be what happens to all camera mics when you rudely throw them in water, so won't mark it down for that.
Touch screen responsiveness suffers a little when phone and fingers are soaked, but after a few tries it usually responds.
Sony's desire to push its other services is a little grating. It's nice having a free trial of its Music Unlimited service, but the way it demands credit card details to activate it, and sets renewals to "on" by default in the hope you forget to cancel, isn't great.
We've just committed $780 to buying the phone, must you try to gouge another $8 a month out of us?
This mass of Sony services all come with disclaimers and agreements to click before initial launch, plus Music Unlimited needs to regularly sign in.
Once a day you click on the Music Unlimited widget to play a song, and are told there are "No songs available" - which actually means you have to open the app and sign in to make it work again.
We're also, confusingly, going to mention the screen here. In certain situations - watching video, looking at snaps - it's excellent, and as rich and deep and colourful as you'd want. But the viewing angles are awful at times, the white balance miles off the likes of the HTC One, LG G2, Samsung Galaxy S4 or the iPhone 5S.
It's an odd thing to see, but Sony certainly cannot claim that its screen technology, of which it's tooting a fair bit thanks to lumping in a load of Bravia tech, can compete with the best the smartphone world has to offer.
The camera sensor is positioned right in the corner of the phone, so we found we'd quite often end up with fingers and bits of hand covering parts of the shot.
We're also massively uninspired by some of the performance levels of the camera - indoor specifically was not what we were expecting from a camera that promises to be as good as a high end compact. It's not terrible, but if you're buying the Xperia Z1 solely on its ability to take brilliant snaps anywhere, you'll be sorely disappointed.
It's a phone where you have to come up with your own special way of holding it when snapping, lest a pink blob mask the top-left corner of all your magic moments.
The speaker being at the bottom of the Z1 is a mixed blessing. It means there's no change to volume levels and audio quality when putting it down on a table or chucking it on the duvet, which is nice, but when viewing media in landscape orientation it's a bit distracting that the majority of the sound seems to come from off to one side. And resting it on a finger or thumb now muffles the sound instead.
The Xperia Z1 is another all-round great phone from Sony, just like the barely-out-of-short-trousers Xperia Z it replaces.
It has a superb display at times, a large battery that easily sails through a day of hardcore use, and one of the best cameras we've seen on a mobile phone for both stills, 1080p capture and clever AR and live streaming toys.
Problem is, so was Sony's Xperia Z which launched just seven months ago and is now available on much cheaper contracts than the Z1.
For a premium price of $779 it's hard to recommend buying the Xperia Z1 outright if you're already a Z owner, when it's basically a spec bump in a slightly more premium case.
However, if you're due an upgrade or are made of money, there's a lot in this package in terms of performance. The Xperia Z1 feels sturdy, is powerful enough that it won't be outdated at the end of a two-year contract, plus it's sleek and big enough to turn heads - although some of those heads might be turning to laugh as you try to manhandle such an enormous slab of extravagant phone hardware.
The Xperia Z1 is a powerful, luxury executive toy for those who have to have the biggest and best, regardless of whether they actually need it or not.
It's a Range Rover for the school run. A gold toilet seat. Having all the sport and film channels on a telly in the shed. You'll feel awesome with one in your pocket, but for an all-round device, it feels like Sony has dropped the ball on design and screen technology and gambled too hard on camera and screen tech - a move that didn't pay off fully.