Once soaked, most smartphones usually turn into overpriced paperweights. Sony's Xperia Z1s, however, can survive a swim in your sink, commode or the shallow end of your pool, without giving up the ghost. That's because this 5-inch flagship phone, exclusive to T-Mobile for $0 down ($22 per month), is completely waterproof. Capable of staying submerged in up to 5 feet of water for 30 minutes, the Z1s can even capture photos underwater, thanks to its physical camera button. What's more, the phone's display can be used when the device -- or your fingers -- is wet. But is that enough of a reason to snag this device?
The Xperia Z1s has the same look and feel as Sony's previous generations of handsets, the Xperia Z and Xperia ZL. Like both of those phones, the 5-inch Xperia Z1s sports a rectangular design that would be uncomfortable to hold, if not for its rounded edges. The handset's glass rear panel is accentuated by its deep black paint job. Unfortunately, the glass also picks up a ton of dust and fingerprints, which you'll spend a good amount of time wiping off.
The front of the Z1s features a reflective Sony logo above its display. Below the display is about a half inch of empty space where you would expect to find the Back, Home and Recent Apps buttons. It's a waste of real estate that makes the Xperia's display look oddly small and the phone unnecessarily large.
On the Z1s' right side are its power button and undersized volume rocker, as well as its SIM-card slot. The left side includes the Xperia's microSD card slot and microUSB port, both of which get port covers. Up top is the handset's 3.5mm audio jack, which does not require a cover for the phone to remain waterproof.
At 5.7 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches and 5.7 ounces, the Xperia Z1s is larger and heavier than most of its direct competitors. The Samsung Galaxy S4 measures 5.3 x 2.7 x 0.25 inches and weighs 4.6 ounces, while the HTC One measures 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.47 inches and weighs 5.0 ounces. The LG G2 comes in at 5.3 x 2.7 x 0.25 inches and 5.04 ounces.
Unlike the Xperia Z and ZL, which are water-resistant, the Z1s is completely waterproof. With its ports closed, Sony says the phone can survive being submerged in up to 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. What's more, you can even snap photos underwater using the Z1s' physical camera button. Beyond its waterproofing, the Xperia Z1s also includes wet-finger-tracking technology, which lets you interact with the handset's touch screen even if your hands -- or the display -- are wet.
The Xperia Z1s comes with a 5-inch 1920 x 1080-pixel Triluminos display, which is bright but suffers from flaws. While text looked sharp and details in videos and photos were easy to see, colors were blown out. In a trailer for "X-Men: Days of Future Past," characters looked far too bright, causing colors to blend at points. Even the usually dark-green preview screen had the same neon hue as Mountain Dew.
Even with Sony's included X-Reality mobile image enhancer active, colors were still too hot. The Xperia's shallow viewing angles compound that problem; looking at the phone at even small angles causes the display to wash out.
On the plus side, the Xperia Z1s' display brightness of 417 lux is brighter than the LG G2's 376 lux, as well as the smartphone category average of 406 lux. The Samsung Galaxy S4's display tops out at 424 lux, while the HTC One's hit 433 lux.
Located on the handset's bottom edge, the Xperia Z1s' speakers offered a grating audio experience. Though loud enough to hear over the din of our newsroom, the phone produced music that sounded like it was recorded in an aluminum shack. Kanye West and Jay Z's "No Church in The Wild" was hollow and tinny, while individual instruments in rock songs were difficult to pick out.
The audio didn't improve much when we turned on Sony's ClearAudio+ software, which is meant to optimize sound settings when you're listening to music. When we turned off ClearAudio+ and switched on Clear Phase and xLOUD, we noticed a slight difference in sound quality, but it certainly wasn't enough to make us want to use the Xperia's external speaker.
Sony loaded the Xperia Z1s with a lightly skinned version of Android Jelly Bean 4.3. Overall, the interface is essentially unchanged from the Xperia Z. Dragging your finger down the lock screen still causes a cascade effect similar to that of a venetian blind. From here, you can unlock to the home screen and camera app, or swipe from left to right to access widgets for things such as Google Now, Email, Calendar and more.
As with previous Xperia handsets, Sony doesn't let you customize app shortcuts for the lock screen, which is a bummer, considering most flagship Android phones offer that option. At the bottom of the Z1s' display are on-screen Android Back, Home and Recent Apps buttons. Above those sit icons for Chrome, the Google Play store, the apps drawer, Messages and the Phone.
Swiping up from the bottom of the screen opens the Google Now menu, while dragging down from the top gives you access to the Z1s' notifications menu. At the top of the notifications screen is a list of five quick settings for Sound, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS and the Settings menu. You can add an additional five of 16 available quick settings to the list from the Personalization page, for a total of 10 on-screen options.
Sony's interface also adds some interactivity to the apps drawer. Specifically, users can swipe from left to right from the main app-drawer screen to pull up a secondary apps menu from which you can arrange apps alphabetically or by most frequently used. You can also quickly access the Google Play and Sony Select stores.
The Xperia Z1s' keyboard resembles Google's standard Android keyboard, and includes features such as the Swype-like Gesture input, next-word prediction, autocorrect and a one-handed typing option. It was quick and easy to tap out messages and emails. The handset's keyboard can also learn your writing style by following how you write to friends via text message, Gmail, Facebook or Twitter.
Sony wants the Xperia Z1s to fit into the tech giant's overall commercial strategy, which is why it included its PlayStation app with the handset. Opening the app and logging in to your PSN account give you access to a host of mobile games and apps. You can also buy PlayStation Store game content on the Xperia, which you can later download to your PlayStation 3, PS4 or Vita.
The PlayStation app offers second-screen functionality for supported PS4 games, such as "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag." Users can also watch their friends play their PS4 games from the app and even use the Xperia as a controller for their systems.
The Xperia Z1s comes with a variety of first-party apps, including Sony Walkman, Album, Movies and the Sony Select app store. Sony's Socialife app serves as a reader for your social media accounts, while Sony Video Unlimited provides easy access to hundreds of Sony movies for purchase. T-Mobile has also thrown in its fair share of apps, including Mobile Hotspot, T-Mobile TV, T-Mobile Name ID and T-Mobile My Account.
If you're going to call your handset a flagship phone, it better pack top-of-the-line specs. And that's exactly what the Xperia Z1s does. Inside, you get a 2.2-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage, which can be augmented via an available 64GB microSD card slot. Games such as the resource-intensive "Modern Combat 4" ran smoothly, and the camera app launched in about a second.
It took the Xperia Z1s 15 seconds to launch the game "N.O.V.A. 3.," matching both the LG G2's time and smartphone category average. The HTC One took 16 seconds to open the app, while the Samsung Galaxy S4 took 18 seconds. It was the iPhone 5s that ruled this category, however, opening the app in a mere 4 seconds.
Using the VidTrim app, the Xperia Z1s transcoded a 204MB, 1080p video to 480p in 6 minutes and 27 seconds. The Snapdragon 800-powered LG G2 took 7:15, while the Snapdragon 600-powered Galaxy S4 took 7:27. The similarly equipped HTC One finished the test in 7:33. Each handset beat out the smartphone category average of 8:15.
On the Quadrant benchmark, which tests a smartphone's overall system performance, the Xperia Z1s scored a 17,333. That's worlds better than the category average of 8,065, as well as the Galaxy S4's score of 12,422 and the HTC One's 12,706. The LG G2, however, outperformed them all, with a score of 19,939.
The Xperia Z1s scored 2,901 on the Geekbench 3 multi-core test, crushing the category average of 1,616 and the Galaxy S4's score of 1,686. The LG G2 notched 1,800, while the HTC One topped out at 1,972. Apple's iPhone 5s came the closest to the Xperia's score, hitting 2,556.
In terms of graphics, the Xperia Z1s rang up an impressive score of 16,015 on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark. The average smartphone gets 9,808, while the Galaxy S4 hit 10,187 -- a hair shy of the HTC One's score of 10,325. Apple's iPhone 5s didn't fare much better, reaching just 13,795. The LG G2, however, once again came in first, with a score of 16,201.
Sony makes a big deal about the Xperia's 20.7-MP camera and wants users to get the most out of the phone's standout feature. To that end, the handset comes loaded with a variety of camera apps. In addition to the camera's Superior Auto and Manual modes, users get Sony's Info-Eye, Timeshift Burst, AR Effect, Social Live and Background Defocus.
Info-Eye captures photos of locations or objects, and automatically provides users with info about them. In our experience, the feature was hit or miss. A photo of a Barnes & Noble sign gave us a nonsensical string of characters, while a shot of a barrier with the words "Union Square Park" gave us info about the site.
Timeshift Burst lets users capture 61 shots within 2 seconds, including 1-second before you press the shutter button. In our testing, this feature worked really well, helping you pick the exact moment you want to capture. AR Effect lets you add different augmented-reality graphics -- including elves, fish, a forest and, our favorite, dinosaurs -- to your images.
Background Defocus lets you select an object in a photo, and then, after taking the picture, adjust the amount of blurriness of everything else around the object.
For those who want to share in real time with Facebook, Social Live lets you stream images and video directly to the social network.
In addition to these preloaded apps, users can download other camera-augmented apps. At the time of review, seven options were available, including Panorama, Evernote, Wikitude Places and MotionGraph, which lets you animate certain portions of still images, such as water pouring out of a pitcher.
Camera and Camcorder Performance
Sony equipped the Xperia Z1s' rear camera with a 20.7-MP sensor and f2.0 G lens. Unfortunately, the photos we captured looked underwhelming. An image of a group of flowers looked significantly blown out when compared to a shot of the same scene taken with the Nokia Lumia 1020's 40-MP camera (when viewed on our desktop). Yellows appeared too white in the Xperia's shots, while bright blues and pinks looked almost neon. However, details -- such as the lines in a flower's petals -- were easy to make out.
A 1080p video shot using the Xperia offered vibrant colors, as well as clear and crisp details. The Lumia's video suffered from oversaturated colors that made fine details, such as a building's brickwork, difficult to see.
4G LTE Performance
Since its acquisition of MetroPCS, T-Mobile has been expanding its LTE network at a rapid clip. The carrier now covers roughly 260 cities nationwide. That's still well short of Verizon's 500+ markets and AT&T's 470 markets, but more than Sprint's 185.
During our testing in Las Vegas, download speeds on the Xperia Z1s reached as high as 23 Mbps, and uploads reached up to 12 Mbps. In New York City's Flatiron district, speeds were a bit slower, with downloads topping out at 8 Mbps and uploads around 2 Mbps.
The Xperia Z1s' 3,000-mAh battery lasted an impressive 9 hours and 19 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over LTE with the display brightness set to 40 percent. That's far longer than the category average of 6:44. The iPhone 5s ran for just 5:46, while the Samsung Galaxy S4 lasted 6:41. The HTC One ran out of juice in 8:17, while the LG G2 lasted a very impressive 13:44.
Pricing and Value
T-Mobile recently launched its Get Out of Jail Free program, in which the carrier pays $350 of your early-termination fee from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon to switch to T-Mobile. Users can also trade in their handsets to the carrier, netting up to $650 per line for moving to T-Mobile. The provider also enables customers to use data overseas for no additional charge.
T-Mobile is offering the Xperia Z1s for no money down with 24 monthly payments of $22, for a total of $528. Throw in T-Mobile's $70 unlimited data, voice and text plan at a cost of $1,680 over two years, and you'll pay a grand total of $2,208 over the lifetime of the Xperia Z1s. In comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S4 costs $0 down with slightly more expensive monthly payments of $24.
The Xperia Z1s is a smartphone that can take a dip without calling it quits. We also like the fast performance and excellent battery life, as well as the fun camera apps and PlayStation app. Unfortunately, the Z1s' narrow viewing angles and lackluster camera are disappointing for a flagship smartphone.
If you want a handset with Snapdragon 800 power, you're better off picking up the LG G2, which has a better screen and even longer endurance. Overall, the Xperia Z1s is a viable option for those who want a fully waterproof design -- and we appreciate that Sony has brought a lot of its own technology to bear -- but we're still waiting for the company to produce a device that can go head-to-head with the best on the market.