The Xperia Z Ultra, Sony’s Mini-Tablet Sized Phone, Wants You To Talk Less & Watch More

Sony is steering its mobile ship into deeper waters with the Xperia Z Ultra. The 6.4-inch device (above, left) slots in the size gap between its former flagship handset, the 5-inch Xperia Z (above right), and its 10.1-inch Android slate, the Xperia Z Tablet. The Xperia Z Ultra might have more sensibly been named the Xperia Z Tablet Mini. Instead, Sony has hedged its bets with a name that doesn’t exclude either possibility: for some people this is a really big smartphone, for others it’s a highly portable small slate.

I got hands-on with the newest addition to Sony’s line up at a press event this morning. First impressions: there’s no getting away from the sheer size of this beast. The Xperia Z Ultra is a mammoth. It’s huge, crazy huge. It looks more like a mini tablet than a phone when you see it wielded in anger, which likely explains why Sony has felt the need to make a dummy handset accessory (powered by Bluetooth) so you don’t have to hold this slab up to your face. Doing that is going to invite ridicule unless you’re one of those Ballmer-sized business men with hands the size of dinner plates.

Even holding the Ultra in one hand feels a little ridiculous if you have smaller hands than average, like myself, but its slender profile (just 6.5mm) helps — meaning it doesn’t feel too palm-stretching. The main offsetting factor is a very lightweight feel. It’s surprisingly light in the hand (212g) for such a large device. You could happily hold it in one hand and not worry about getting wrist-ache. And if you can find a pocket on your person big enough to accomodate the Ultra it won’t feel like a drag, even if it drastically reduces your ability to bend.

Sony says the Ultra is about a third bigger than the Xperia Z (and has a third-extra in battery capacity too, so it’s still good for about one day’s use before needing a charge). And at 6.4-inches it’s considerably larger than Samsung’s 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II, and fractionally larger than Samsung’s newer phablet, the 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega. Rumours around the Galaxy Note refresh suggest Samsung is contemplating adding a 5.9-inch pane on the next iteration. Sony has evidently decided its worth making an even bigger splash with its own phablet foray. But with the Xperia Z already sitting on the cusp of phablet sizing, with its 5-inch pane, supersizing the sequel is the natural next step.

Sony talked up how consumer demand for bigger screens is growing — apparently as fast as the screens themselves are swelling. The likely reason for that, as I have previously argued, is that people are using smartphones for more rich media consumption and visual computing uses more of the time — fuelled by apps and high speed connectivity — rather than for talking on the phone. Screen size is therefore inflating to adapt to shifting use. And Sony reckons it’s well placed to capitalise on the momentum powering media consumption — thanks to its sprawling entertainment empire.

As with its other Xperia devices, Sony’s Android skin foreground access to this media content. Sony is hoping its content empire can become a differentiating force in the mobile devices space — and help it stand out in the crowded Android OEM segment. As with Sony other current Xperia devices, the Xperia Z Ultra is preloaded with its Walkman app providing access to music downloads and its Music Unlimited streaming service; Movies for video content, including access to Sony’s Video Unlimited store for renting or buying films; and PlayStation Mobile for accessing its games app store. There’s also Sony Reader for browsing and downloading ebook content.

Elsewhere, Sony has kept its Android tweaks to a minimum so there’s little getting in the way of enjoying Android 2.2 Jelly Bean as Google intended. The device felt slick and fast during my brief hands on, with no obvious signs of lag. The phone’s engine is a beefy 2.2 GHz quad-core chip (Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 processor) — possibly the first device to pack that CPU. It also includes 4G/LTE for high speed cellular connectivity.

The hardware design of the Xperia Z Ultra follows the same mold as the Xperia Z and Xperia Z Tablet. There are no showy embellishments. What you get is a clean, relatively blunt-sided high gloss slab (or at least it’s clean until you touch it, when the high gloss becomes a fingerprint magnet). The user’s eye is clearly intended to fall squarely on the screen — where Sony gets to really strut its stuff, by pulling in IP from its Bravia TV division to amp up the colour clarity and video playback experience on the handset. The Ultra is also the first device in Sony’s Xperia line-up to be badged with its latest Triluminos TV tech, which it said supports a greater range of colours.

The screen looked plenty bright during my hands on but as with other Sony mobile screen it’s not as saturated as Samsung’s high end AMOLED screens typically are. Sony opts for more true-to-life colourings with its display tech. The Xperia Z Ultra’s big, bright full 1080p HD pane obviously comes into its own for consuming video content. You can image the device being a handy travelling companion for watching TV shows and movies on the go, assuming you don’t want to lug around a full-fat tablet. Or for watching TV in the bath — being as the Ultra is waterproof. Gaming is also likely to work well with so much screen space for mashing virtual buttons.

The Ultra’s large physical size (179.4 x 92.2 x 6.5 mm) does mean typing can require two fingers to reach all the keys. But Sony has a software fix for that. It’s added a one-handed keyboard option which allows the user to switch from a screen-filling QWERTY to one which compacts into the right or left hand corner, depending on your choice (so that both right- and left-handed people can use it). So that’s pretty neat. You can of course further augment the Android keyboard experience by downloading alternative third party apps.

Sony has also added support for stylus input on the Ultra — presumably taking another cue from the Galaxy Note — for taking notes, sketching and for handwriting recognition. In a laudable move — especially for Sony, once the king of propriety accessories — there’s no specific stylus required here. You can draw on the screen with a pencil. Or even a fingernail.

To sum up, the Xperia Ultra Z feels like it has a lot going for it. Sony is refining its Android play to zero in on media consumption. And if it’s content you want to consume, then a 6.4-inch screen is exactly the sort of thing you’ll want in your pocket. Or, more realistically, in your handbag/manbag. Flagship smartphone screens aren’t getting any smaller either, so even if the Ultra feels like it’s pushing the screen size envelope a bit far right now, it’s unlikely to remain the biggest phablet in phablet-town for long.