Conclusion

Conclusion - The Good

  • Good exposure and color
  • 20.7MP mode resolves good detail in bright light
  • Excellent build quality, dust- and waterproof body
  • Physical shutter button
  • Comfortable to hold as a camera, thanks to angular shapes
  • Very quick access to camera app from lock screen
  • Quick and responsive operation
  • MicroSD exansion slot
  • Good battery life

Conclusion - The Bad

  • Processing artifacts and noise even at low ISOs
  • Strong corner softness on our sample
  • Better than usual digital zoom (still not great though)
  • Lens location means it's very easy to shade with your finger
  • Camera settings not saved when you leave app or go to sleep mode
  • Exposure cannot be linked to focus point
  • Some features and scene modes only available in 8MP mode
  • Most special modes only produce 1080p output
  • No optical image stabilization and slow shutter speeds in low light means increased risk of blur

Overall Conclusion

It only takes a quick glance at the Xperia Z1 to know that the new Sony flagship is a premium device. With its glass front and back and aluminum edges it is beautifully made and feels reassuringly heavy in your hand. The dust and water seals not only provide a degree of ruggedness for the urban jungle but also mean you can actually take underwater images.

The physical two-way shutter button in combination with the angular shape of the device make the Xperia Z1 feel more like a compact camera when taking pictures than most other smartphones we've seen. A long-press of the shutter button gives you very quick access to the camera app so you're more likely to capture the decisive moment.  

In terms of image quality the Z1 is a bit of a double-edged sword. Exposure and white balance are usually spot on but those who put a lot of emphasis on image detail, pixel-level image quality and imaging features can find better alternatives.  

Features & Operation

You can find most features and modes that you would expect from a top-end device in the Z1's camera app but a closer look reveals that they're not quite as powerful as on some of best Android competitors. The effect filters and the Timeshift Burst mode, for example, only produce image output at 1080p video size. The stitching of the panoramas isn't great and their size is no way near to what we've seen on the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the iPhone 5s. Some features and settings, like the HDR mode or the full sensitivity range up to ISO 3200, are only available in manual mode and not in the maximum 20.7MP resolution. This can be kind of confusing and it'll take you a while to find your way around the possible feature/resolution combinations.

Some of the other shooting modes, such as Info-eye and AR Effect are a little gimmicky but they can be fun to play with and you can even download more modes that then can be directly accessed from the camera app. Sphere, for example, is a decent alternative to Google's Photosphere function in the Android 4.3 camera app. 

In terms of operation the physical shutter button and the angular shape give the Xperia Z1 a real compact camera feel. However, we were not too convinced by the camera app. In the default Superior Auto mode manual intervention is pretty much limited to switching the flash on and off. It would be nice if you could at least apply exposure compensation and activate HDR in this mode. 

If you're after the best built-in camera features and a more seamless camera app operation there are currently better options such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One. However, for its quick camera access through the shutter button we would prefer the Xperia Z1 as a point-and-shoot device.

Image Quality

In terms of image quality the Xperia Z1 gets all the important stuff right. Exposure, color and white balance are good, in almost all lighting conditions and without any manual interference. So all you need to do is press the shutter and you get good results that can be posted straight away to a social network or emailed.

However, if you zoom into the Sony's huge 20.7M images close-up the results look a little disappointing, despite the sensor that at 1/2.3 inches is larger than on most competing smartphones. At a 100% view the Sony images show a lot of noise and processing artifacts, even at low ISOs. As you would expect, this gets worse as you go up the ISO scale. That said, chroma noise is well under control on the Z1 and most noise is of the grainy kind that it is much easier to live with.

Despite the strong processing the Z1 is capable of resolving a lot of detail in central areas of the frame but the closer you get to the edge the more detail is lost to corner softness which, combined with noise and noise reduction, does not make for pleasant close-up viewing.

In many ways ignoring the 20.7MP high resolution mode and sticking with 8MP makes most sense on the Z1. Noise and artifacts are much less pronounced and the resolution is still more than enough for most typical smartphone use cases in 8MP mode. Compared to the high resolution files you only sacrifice some detail in the center of the frame as the corner softness renders the higher pixel-count almost irrelevant toward the edges of the frame. As an added benefit you use less storage and have access to the HDR mode and the ISO 1600 and 3200 settings. If you would like to see the Z1's image quality next to its competitors also have a look at our most recent smartphone shootout

The Final Word

The Sony Xperia Z1 is a beautifully made smartphone with top-end specs, but in terms of pixel-level image quality its camera cannot compete with the best in class such as the Nokia Lumia 1020 or iPhone 5s. For those users who want innovative built-in imaging features the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One might be a better choice.

Nevertheless, the Sony Xperia Z1's reliable exposure and decent image quality in its 8MP mode make it an ideal point-and-shoot smartphone for those users who prefer all-automatic shooting. Thanks to its physical shutter button, quick camera access and angular, "camera-friendly" shape it's one of our favorite smartphone cameras this year. 

DXOMark Mobile Score
76

DXOMark Image Quality Assessment

The Sony Xperia Z1 has improved in almost all areas over its predecessor, the Xperia Z, and with a DxOMark Mobile score of 76 is taking the number two spot in the DxO smartphone rankings, between the Nokia 808 on the top spot and the Apple iPhone 5s at number three.

In still image mode the DxOMark team found the Xperia Z1 to get the exposure right and produce excellent detail and color in good light. Noise levels are low across all light situations. The autofocus is reliable and the testers were also pleased with the  Z1's flash performance.

However, slight color shading is sometimes noticeable and slow shutter speeds in low light can lead to motion blur. Images also show some artifacts and low-contrast detail is being smeared in low light.

In video mode the Xperia Z1 showed good overall performance but the autofocus lacks stability and a residual high frequency motion is visible in indoor conditions for walking movements. For a more detailed analysis, visit www.dxomark.com.

Photo Mobile Score 77   Video Mobile Score 74
Exposure and Contrast 85   Exposure and Contrast 92
Color 77   Color 85
Autofocus 73   Autofocus 60
Texture 66   Texture 64
Noise 84   Noise 85
Photo Artifacts 74   Video Artifacts 75
Flash 84   Stabilization 59
Sony Xperia Z1
Category: Mobile Phone
Camera and Photo Features
Screen Quality
Ergonomics and Handling
Video Quality
Still Image Quality
Speed and Responsiveness
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Sony Xperia Z1 is beautifully made and comes with a lot of processing power. However, its pixel-level image quality is not quite up there with the best. Some competitors also offer better imaging features. That said, the Sony Xperia Z1's reliable exposure and pleasant tonality make it an ideal point-and-shoot device for Auto Mode shooters. Thanks to its physical shutter button and quick camera access, it's one of our favorite smartphone cameras this year.
78%
Overall score

Sample Gallery

There are 58 images in our Sony Xperia Z1 samples gallery, a mixture of 20.7 and 8MP files. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution.