Unfortunately I wasn't impressed by the pictures I shot with the Z Ultra's 8-megapixel main camera. In shots taken outdoors and under strong midday sunlight I saw a decent amount of detail but I wasn't blown away by the crispness of objects and surfaces. The same goes for colors in images I captured under the same conditions. They lacked the same level of vibrancy and richness the Galaxy Note 3 typically grabs.
Indoors and in low light the situation deteriorated, with photos I snapped exhibiting plenty of noise and blur. Apparently without the flash engaged and in challenging environments like this, the Z Ultra tends to pump up the ISO and increase the exposure time. That's the usual cause for the image quality symptoms I described.
I'm sure that the stock Android KitKat camera app and inherently weak photo processing plays a part here. Even so, the application does provide some handy shooting modes such as HDR, Panorama, and Photo Sphere (3D panorama). You can also manually select the exposure settings and choose image sizes beginning at QVGA and topping out at 8MP.
Core components and performance
Driving the Sony Z Ultra's Android KitKat operating system is a fire-breathing 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 processor buttressed by a healthy 2GB dose of RAM. This, I'm sure, helped the Z Ultra to feel nimble in my hands. The sleek yet massive mobile machine proved to have the soul of a hot rod. Home screens, settings menus, and apps opened in a flash and I never experienced any delays or hang-ups while using the phone in everyday situations.
Oddly enough, synthetic benchmark performance contradicted the experience I had with the Z Ultra in the real world. For instance the device managed a Quadrant score of 9,010 -- a respectable showing, but much lower than what I would have expected from a handset with such a high-octane CPU. The HTC One (12,194) and the Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381) zoomed past the Ultra on the same test, even though both devices use slower CPUs. The Note 3 and the LG G2 trounced these devices, however, achieving 23,048 and 19,050, respectively. Even so it's wise to take these numbers with a grain of salt, especially considering how tempting it is for device makers to cheat the benchmarking game.
As an unlocked GSM handset the Sony Z Ultra GPE can connect to either T-Mobile or AT&T networks in the US. The phone also supports both carriers' 4G LTE data. In my particular case I used an active T-Mobile Micro-SIM card to test the Z Ultra's network worthiness.
To both T-Mobile's and the Xperia's credit, I managed to pull down an average 10.3 Mbps in downtown San Francisco. Uploads were even higher, clocking in at an average throughput of 13.5Mbps in the same location.
I tested the unlocked Sony Z Ultra GPE on T-Mobile's GSM cellular network in San Francisco and experienced solid but not outstanding call quality. When I spoke through the mouthpiece, callers described my voice to be clear, warm, and free of any noticeable imperfections. Additionally they didn't hear any pops, scratches, or background hiss and it wasn't immediately obvious that I spoke to them over a cellular line.
People I heard on my end also came through cleanly, though both the Z Ultra's earpiece and speakerphone were on the soft side in terms of volume. Callers also explained that my voice sounded more distant while chatting via the handset's speakerphone and even detected an occasional clip they didn't pick up on before.Sony Z Ultra GPE (T-Mobile) call quality sample Listen now:
Sony claims that users can expect up to 14 hours of talk time from the Z Ultra's 3,000 mAh battery and a standby time of 660 hours over LTE. In anecdotal use, however, the phone fell short of its rated longevity. I found that the Z Ultra could barely make it through a full 8-hour workday, granted one packed with lots of testing and heavy use.
For this reason I'll reserve my final judgment on the Z Ultra GPE's staying power until I have the chance to subject it to more rigorous scientific battery drain benchmarking.
The verdict and who should buy it
Initially I was very intrigued by Sony's decision to create a Google Play Edition of the Xperia Z Ultra, and by Google's choice to sell it. After analyzing the Z Ultra GPE, though, from many angles the device has sadly lost all its prospective appeal. Sure, this phone sports an excellent screen that paints imagery with a sharp and colorful brush. It's also breathtakingly thin and shoehorns powerful processing along with Android KitKat into a lovely design with sophisticated aesthetics.
Still, as is the case with the HTC One Max, it's easy to overreach when crafting a product straddling the line between smartphone and tablet. I'm sorry, but 6.4 inches is simply too much screen to handle for a standard cell phone. I haven't even mentioned the unbridled guffaws I sparked among friends when I fished out the Ultra from my bag in public. Worse, though, is the Z Ultra GPE's sky-high unlocked price of $649, which is downright scandalously expensive. For this substantial bundle of cash I wholeheartedly suggest buying a $399 Nexus 5 instead and a Nexus 7 tablet. Then you can either pocket the extra $20 or blow it on apps, movies, or games for your shiny new mobile toys.