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It's Sync or Swim for the Sony Xperia Z1s, SmartWatch 2

Sony's latest mobile devices have plenty to offer, but they fall short of the competition.

Bonnie Cha

Sony is a recognized brand worldwide, but here in the U.S., the company is better known for its TVs, digital cameras and PlayStation game console than for its efforts in mobile devices.

To change that, Sony has slowly been bringing more of its smartphones to the States, and this week I tested its latest release, the Xperia Z1s.

Available exclusively from T-Mobile for $0 down and 24 equal monthly payments of $22, the Android-based handset improves on its predecessor, the Xperia Z, by offering a faster processor, bigger battery and upgraded camera. I’ve also been using Sony’s SmartWatch 2 as a companion device to receive notifications from the phone on my wrist.

Both products show that Sony definitely has something to offer in this overcrowded market. Smartwatch makers could take a lesson or two from Sony about how to design an accessory that’s not so clunky.

Meanwhile, the Xperia Z1s’s waterproof capabilities can give users some peace of mind when their phone takes a dip in the pool or toilet bowl. The smartphone also delivers good performance and solid battery life.

Yet, for different reasons, both fall short of being at the top of their game.

Sony Xperia Z1s

Aesthetically, the Xperia Z1s keeps in line with the Sony’s entire Xperia Z series, with its rectangular shape, black chassis and silver accents. It’s larger than the Xperia Z, at 5.75 inches tall by 2.92 inches wide by .34-inch thick, but it’s still manageable.

The Xperia Z1s’s five-inch 1080p display was a bit disappointing. It’s sharp and bright, but colors weren’t as vibrant compared to other high-end Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Nexus 5. I watched a Pixar short called “La Luna” on both the Xperia Z1s and Nexus 5, and I noticed that the colors were deeper and richer on the latter. The viewing angles were also more limited on the Xperia Z1s.

One thing I was particularly happy to see was the addition of a dedicated camera key on the right side of the phone. With it, you can now take pictures underwater, since the Xperia Z1s can be submerged in up to five feet of water for up to 30 minutes. The Xperia Z was also water-resistant, but there was no way to take underwater pictures.

If you do plan to go swimming with the smartphone, be sure that the attached microSD and microUSB covers are closed, so water doesn’t seep in. The headphone jack on top of the device can remain uncovered, though, since it has gone through a mechanical sealing process to make it waterproof. I dunked the Xperia Z1s in a fish tank and out in the San Francisco Bay multiple times, and it’s still working just fine.

In addition to the waterproof capabilities, Sony is also touting the Xperia’s camera as a standout feature. Aside from having a 20.7-megapixel sensor, the smartphone comes preloaded with a number of apps for adding different effects to images.

For example, there’s a background defocus effect that lets you blur the objects behind your main subject. All are fun to try, but I found the camera’s picture quality to be inconsistent.

I took photos in a variety of environments, and some came out looking beautiful, sharp and detailed, while others looked soft or grainy, with faded colors. The quality just didn’t compare to the Nokia Lumia 1020 or iPhone 5s.

It’s unfortunate, because the Xperia Z1s delivers an otherwise fine performance. The quad-core Snapdragon processor keeps the Android 4.3 device humming along smoothly. Call quality was clear, with minimal background noise. And while I didn’t do a formal battery test, with moderate usage, I was able to go a full 24 hours and then some before needing to recharge.

Sony SmartWatch 2

Keeping the Xperia Z1s company for the week was the SmartWatch 2. The accessory works with any Android 4.0 device (no iOS support) and displays incoming notifications from your handset to the watch’s face.

There are a couple of things I really like about the SmartWatch 2. For one, it’s comfortable to wear. It’s relatively lightweight, without feeling cheap. The rubber watchband is soft and flexible, and because it’s not as clunky as the Samsung Galaxy Gear or Qualcomm Toq, I was able to keep it on while typing on my laptop.

I also found it to be one of the more attractive smartwatches on the market. But things go downhill after that.

Connecting the watch to your smartphone is easy enough. You can do it either via Bluetooth or NFC, if your phone supports it. The Xperia Z1s is NFC-equipped, so I simply tapped the two devices together, and in just a few seconds, they were paired.

After that, though, you have to use Sony’s Smart Connect app to download all these extensions for the types of notifications you want — email, text messages, calls, Facebook, and so forth. On the one hand, it gives you control over which features you want, but it’s just not a very streamlined process.

Of the notifications I set up, all came in without a problem. But I was never able to get my Twitter account connected with the SmartWatch 2, even after troubleshooting with Sony. Navigating through the watch’s menus and trying to control some of the phone’s functions, like the music player, was also sluggish. Sometimes I felt it would have been faster just to pull the phone out of my purse and go to the app directly.

This brings us to the bigger question with smartwatches, which is, how much value are they really adding to our lives?

A few friends asked me about the watch after seeing it on my wrist, and after I told them what it does, many of them said, “Because it’s so hard to take your phone out of your pocket/purse and check it?” I’ll admit, I didn’t really have a good answer for that, because I agree.

Smartwatches are still very much a nice-to-have device, rather than a must-have device. And even though the SmartWatch 2 is one of the more affordable ones at $200, you’d be wise to save your money until these accessories become a little more polished and functional.

As for the Xperia Z1s, it’s a good smartphone, but some of its aforementioned drawbacks keep it behind the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. Still, if you want a waterproof phone, you’ll be well-served by Sony’s latest flagship.

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