Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Gadget Goodies 21

image used under Creative Commons license, photo by John Biehler on Flickr
It's been awhile since we did a tech post.  And a recent change created another opportunity.  The image to the right is a Samsung Galaxy Note 2.  I chose that image because it's being held, which gives some relative idea of size.  That was the phone I had and recently sold.  I didn't sell it because I was tired of it or disliked it or it wasn't working right.

I had the Note 2, plus a Nexus 7 2013 tablet.  Both are awesome devices, both work well, and I'd recommend both any day of the week.  And, if you have both devices pretty much mirroring each other, you can switch between the two, using standby to preserve battery life on both.  That's a win/win.  Or is it?

image used under Creative Commons license, from
To the left is Hugo Barra introducing the Nexus 7.  I think that might be the original, not the latest model.  But consider that the original, which is now working its way toward being two years old, like the newer model, comfortably runs Android 4.4.2.

As I said, I had the newer model, which has a higher resolution screen (including a gorgeous, realistic color palette) and stereo speakers. I chose the picture to show relative size.  You can see, a Nexus 7 is big enough that I wouldn't want to try using it as a phone, without using a headset.

As I've said, both devices are great.  Either one, by itself, is highly usable and enjoyably so. However, each has its downside.  The Note 2, at 5.5", is great for almost everything.  But some things just begged for a larger screen, such as movie viewing.  The Nexus 7 is a great size for almost everything.  It falls short in two areas.  Using the popular swiping style keyboards covers a lot more screen territory, which may lead to more wrong guesses by autocorrect.  The other fly in the ointment is size.  Not only is even the small 7" device outlandish to use as a phone, it's not very pocketable, if at all.

Those individual shortcomings, along with switching devices becoming less than completely pleasurable, got me thinking about scaling down to one device.  When I say switching became not fun, that's balanced by the huge battery life extension by each spending lengthy standby periods. But there are apps that don't do well when you change devices and others that just become annoying trying to fully handle the same data on multiple devices and trying to stay up to date.  That set me on the hunt.

The Sony Xperia Z Ultra

image used under Creative Commons license, photo by Karlis Dambrans
My search came up with several possibilities.  LG, who makes the Nexus 5, has the Flex with a 6" screen.  That seemed too close to the 5.5" size my Note 2 had.  And, at the time, the curved screen seemed more a gimmick than useful.

The Samsung Galaxy Mega screen size of 6.3" seemed like it might be right.  But I'd already rooted my Note 2 to avoid Knox security and get rid of the usual bloatware.  It didn't make sense to go back to Android 4.2.2 from Cyanogenmod with Android 4.3.  

The third choice was the Sony Xperia Z Ultra 6806.  There is the 6.4" screen, online discussions seemed to indicate a minimal amount of bloat and an Android 4.4.2 upgrade already in the pipe.  But the phone is almost a year old.  That was one thing that had me wondering.... Till I looked at the specs.  It runs a 2.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 MSM8974 quad-core cpu, 2 gigs of RAM, 16 gigs of storage (11 gigs usable).  The specs match or beat brand new devices.  The 8 mpx camera with no flash is about right for a tablet, but old school for a phone.  If the camera is important, you may want to look at another Xperia model or another smartphone.  I don't take that many pictures, so that wasn't a deal breaker for me.

image used under Creative Commons license, photo by Karlis Dambrans
It took a week of waffling about whether I wanted to go that big before I pulled the trigger.  Two days later, the phone was here.  That's a picture of an Ultra, above right.  Again being held for size perspective.  While notably bigger than the Note 2, up top, it's still comfortably phone size.  That particular image has washed out screen colors.  Believe me, a real Z Ultra is not washed out.

That's the back of the Z Ultra, to the left. Except for the Sony name placement and the camera, when the screen is off, front and back look much the same.  A big black slab.  But not too big.  The thinness partly makes up for the width.  The Ultra is comfortable to hold.

image used under Creative Commons license, photo by Karlis Dambrans
The comments about minimal bloatware were right.  And many said I'd be happy with the phone.  Also right.  And, as the picture to the right attests, the Z Ultra doesn't look silly held to your ear, unlike most actual tablets.  

The 6.4" screen size seems to be at a "sweet spot".  It's big enough to handle the things I previously wanted a 7" screen for.  And I don't feel cheated out of screen real estate.  Colors on my Note 2 were warm and bold.  The Nexus 7 was vivid but more natural.  There was a difference between the two that was noticeable.  The Z Ultra is perhaps a tad warmer than the Nexus 7, but much closer in color palette to the Nexus 7.

Specs don't always tell the whole story.  If the OS isn't tweaked to make proper use of the hardware, what should have been a galloping race horse could turn into an slow moving mule.  Fortunately, Sony did a good job of using its hardware.

Audio on the Ultra is really good, with one exception.  The built in speaker leaves something to be desired for music.  Phone calls are great.  Plug a good set of speakers or earbuds into the earphone jack and the listener is treated to some great audio.  My Voyager Legend bluetooth headset is great for everything.  Even some VOIP apps that wouldn't recognize bluetooth on my Note 2 and Nexus 7 are working on the Ultra.

My one area of real concern was how it would do for battery life with a larger screen at 1080p resolution.  Screen size and "on time" can be real battery killers.  I'm a heavy user of email and social media.  I can sometimes do a half hour of solitaire.  And I have a Kindle app that I use on the Z Ultra. So, we're looking at some real battery killing potential.  Sony has some proprietary battery saving settings that I haven't yet tried.  My only battery saver tweaks have been to turn screen brightness down to about 20% and set wifi to only automatically turn on in locations I have set connections.

As you can imagine, my first week or so was a real battery drainer.  I was busy setting up, tweaking, readjusting, etc.  Things aren't 100%, yet.  But the last several days have been close to normal, whatever that is.  The Ultra gives a low battery warning at 30%, a higher level than most phones.  The day before yesterday was a moderate day, the phone came off the charger at 9 am. The battery level was at 27% at 10:15 pm.  Thirteen hours, plus a little.  Yesterday was a light day and I happened to need to be up really early.  So, the phone was off the charger at 6:40 am, I dozed off watching the 11 pm news, woke up at 1:40 am this morning, again at 27%.  So we're looking at something a little less than nineteen hours.  Those are two pretty great days.

Like the HTC One and several others, the Xperia Z Ultra doesn't open to allow battery swapping.  But with stats like the last several days, that doesn't appear to be an issue.  And, if you have a heavy day and need some help, the CP12 cover with built in spare battery will get you through it.  We'll talk more about that, in the next Gadget Goodies, along with some other accessories.

One note that may be important.  While smaller than most smaller tablets, the Z Ultra is bigger than most large smartphones.  It sticks up from rear jeans pockets and the size of jacket pockets could make a difference.  It will, of course fit in a briefcase, messenger bag, backpack, or woman's pocketbook.  If like me, you're male, dress casual most of the time, and live in a city that has a problem with smartphone theft, carrying the Ultra could prove to be an interesting challenge in Summer.  Personally, I'm going to invest in a couple of extra pairs of cargo pants and cargo shorts.

Overall, the Xperia Z Ultra is one of the best phones I've seen.  I expect to keep this one for awhile. Unless something drastically changes,  I'd probably replace it, when the time comes, with a future generation version of the same model.  I'm pleasantly impressed.  Does it sound like your kind of phone?


  1. Nice review. I also moved from Galaxy Note II to the Z Ultra. Your review reflect on how I feel about the change.


    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Both my Note 2 and Nexus 7 were great devices. I just got tired of switching devices. Especially since not all apps handled syncing between devices well.