Two weeks with Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra yeilds two conflicting opinions on this mega-phablet

Tomorrow morning is going to be hard. I need to format the Xperia Z Ultra I’ve been using for the past two weeks and return it to Sony PR’s gorgeous downtown Helsinki office. I’ll be the first to admit, when I pulled this 6.44 inch beast out of its box, I laughed. Even now, when I pull it out of my pocket, I often giggle at its absurd proportions, but I’ve developed feelings for this smartphone that I can’t ignore.

Let me start by saying that this is the first time in my career that I’ve had two phones to sample at the same time. Due to poor planning on my part, there’s currently a Z Ultra and a Note 3 on my desk right now. Seeing as how Sony only gave me two weeks with the phone, I decided to stick my one and only SIM card it in, but that hasn’t stopped me from also using the Note 3 during the length of this trial.

Why do I bother bringing up the Note 3?

Because it’s given me some fresh perspective on Samsung. The Z Ultra is better built, and not by a little, but by a lot. And despite the fact that the Snapdragon 800 in the Z Ultra is 100 MHz slower than the Snapdragon 800 in the Note 3, the phone feels far more responsive. Couple that with another spec, 3 GB of RAM in the Note 3 versus 2 GB of RAM in the Z Ultra, and I’m now absolutely certain that TouchWiz, even on today’s insanely fast chips, just slows everything down.

But before I get ahead of myself, let me answer the first question you’ve probably got on your mind: Is 6.44 inches too big? When I reviewed the 6.3 inch Galaxy Mega over the summer, I declared it to be just a tad too large, so surely the Z Ultra is utterly ridiculous, right? Well, it’s not. I’m not sure what setting Sony played with in Android, but they’ve managed to make the Xperia Z Ultra render an incredible amount of content in comparison to every other smartphone I’ve ever used.

Take these screenshots as an example. Look at this BBC article on the Sony:

Now look at the same article on the Note 3:

The difference is night and day, and I can’t tell you how much more enjoyable it is to read on the Z Ultra than the Note 3, despite the pixel per inch rating being obviously lower due to the 1080p screen being stretched out over a larger surface area. This difference is also noticeable, and again, quite enjoyable, when using email, messaging, flipping through photos, and of course, video.

But I haven’t answered the question, is the phone too big?

We’re currently in December, which means jacket weather. The Z Ultra slips into my coat’s breast pocket with ease and doesn’t bother me one bit. When I have to walk around with it at a social gathering, say at a friend’s house or at a bar, then I stick it in my back pocket. And that’s where the trouble comes.

Samsung’s Note 3 easily slides in and out of my jean’s front pocket, but the Xperia Z Ultra? Fuggedaboutit. It lives in my back pocket when I’m walking. And if I have to sit down, well, it’s coming out of my pocket and going on the table, which I hate, since I fully believe that when you’re with people, your phone should be out of sight.

Still, I can’t help but feel that Sony has got something here with this form factor. The smartphone as a concept may seem old and tired, but we’re just at the beginning of a very interesting revolution. Companies like Sony and Samsung are testing the waters with different screen sizes, and as someone who has been using a Note II since January, going to the Xperia Z Ultra felt like being in the future.

What about the other aspects of the device? Phone calls sound fine, but not as good as they do on Samsung’s Note 3 for some odd reason. I mean, both devices use the same exact modem, so Sony is doing something wrong, probably with their microphones, because people have told me I don’t sound as clear as I normally do.

Moving on to the camera, it’s bad. There’s no way to get around it, Sony applies some of the most aggressive post-processing image algorithms I’ve ever seen on a mobile device. When I show my girlfriend the pictures I take, she asks me if I applied a filter to them, and I always reply no, that’s simply what the camera spits out.

And as for multimedia, the screen is gorgeous, but you have to turn off Sony’s motion engine or whatever they call it, because it just makes videos look weird. The speaker also isn’t the best, and I found myself covering it up more often than not, which is disappointing for a phone that’s clearly targeted as an entertainment device.

Don’t even get me started on the power button, either, which is the size of a pimple that still needs a week to grow before you can pop it. Not only is the power button difficult to find using just your sense of touch, you need to squint at the metal frame covering the perimeter of the phone to locate that little sucker.

Oh and before I forget, the Xperia Z Ultra is waterproof. How useful is that? I’m lucky enough to have a bath tub in my flat, and my girlfriend loves watching her favorite shows on the phone while relaxing in the tub. If she drops the phone and it sinks to the bottom, no big deal. Not exactly a killer use case, obviously, but the phone is indeed robust, I’ll give it that much. Picking up a Samsung device after using the Xperia Z Ultra makes me seriously consider never buying another Samsung product.

What else am I forgetting?

Oh right, the battery. When you’re using the phone, you can watch the 3,000 mAh battery lose power in real time. Thank the gigantic display for that. But when the screen isn’t on, the phone seems to last just fine without any issues. The only problem with that is having such a large display makes you want to enjoy more articles, more books, more movies, more everything, which means you’ll be charging it every night. Guaranteed. At least it charges fast.

So who exactly is this phone for then?

I used to think that the Galaxy Note family introduced the world to “phablets”, but this phone has changed my mind. The Galaxy Notes are nothing more than large screen smartphones that also happen to have a stylus. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra on the other hand, you can think of it as a large smartphone if you want to, but to me, it’s a highly portable tablet that can also make phone calls. This next statement might sound controversial, but I think the Z Ultra is the first device that actually deserves to be called a phablet.

How would I change the Z Ultra?

I’d get rid of the power button and steal the “tap to wake” gesture that LG put in the G2 and that Nokia puts in their Windows Phones. I’d decrease the size of the top and bottom bezels so that the phone wouldn’t stick out of my pocket. I’d put one speaker on the top of the phone and one speaker on the bottom, so I could really enjoy media. I’d put in a better camera, but you can say that about every smartphone. And finally, I’d figure out a way to redesign the phone with some curves, because picking the Z Ultra up is really hard when it’s laying on a flat surface.

Should you buy the Z Ultra instead of a Note?

If you can put up with the size, I would say yes, with zero hesitation. The Z Ultra is, in my opinion, a better phone than the Note 3 for what I do with a phone, which is mainly reading and watching YouTube videos. If you’re even remotely considering this phone, do yourself a favor and go to your local store to have a play with it first.

But would I personally buy a Z Ultra?

No. I sold my Note II recently and bought a Moto G because I want to spend 2014 saving up for the rumored 5.5 inch iPhone. Now I very well may change my mind about the iPhone 6 between now and whenever Tim Cook gets up on stage and unveils it to the world, but for now, I think the “perfect” smartphone doesn’t exist.

Every smartphone is a compromise, I fully realize that. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra, while powerful, sleek, and industrial looking, is big and expensive. And that last point, the price, is what ultimately kills this thing in my eyes. With what Sony is asking for the Ultra, you can buy yourself a 4G LTE enabled Nexus 7 (or a 16 GB WiFi iPad mini with retina display) and a smartphone like the Moto G. Taking care of two devices is obviously a huge compromise versus having everything in one gizmo, but if it makes more financial sense, then why not?