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Sony Xperia Z1S Waterproof Smartphone Is a Near Miss

That's the best way to describe the new Sony Xperia Z1S smartphone, now available from T-Mobile for no money down and $22 a month for two years. Even if the Z1S is a near miss, it's still big news — this is the first U.S. carrier-specific Sony-branded smartphone since the company bought out its former partner, Ericsson, two years ago. (In the phone's proper name, the "S" is a superscript, like in a degree symbol or numerical power indicator, and indicates the phone is the U.S. version of Sony's Z1 phone unveiled in Europe last fall). The waterproof Z1S is packed with an impressive array of technology: a 5-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen with a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch (ppi), a 20.7-megapixel rear camera and a Qualcomm quad-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, all wrapped in an elegant piano-black package. Did we mention it's waterproof? Did we mention it's waterproof? It's a beautiful, high-powered device, but a bit late to the 5-inch fray (which has become the "new normal" among Android flagships) and marred by a couple of functional "oops" that make it hard to recommend over similarly sized competitors, especially since the Samsung Galaxy S5 will be coming in a month or so. The Z1S looks nothing like the iPhone 5S, the Samsung Galaxy S4, the HTC One or the LG G2. At 5.67 x 2.91 x 0.33 inches and 6 ounces, however, the Z1S is lightly larger and heftier than other 5-inch-screened super-phones (by comparison, the 5-inch waterproof Samsung Galaxy S4 Active is 5.5 x 2.81 x 0.36 inches and 5.04 ounces). Design flap Aesthetically, the Z1S is stygian black on both sides, ringed by a silver-colored band. While its design is sleekly distinct, the two black, mirrored sides are nearly identical; when pulling it from your pocket, you may be momentarily confused as to which side is the front. For a waterproof phone, the Z1S has lot of ports and jacks — microSD and SIM card slots and a microUSB jack — each covered by a flap. By comparison, the waterproof Samsung Galaxy S4 Active only has a cover on its microUSB port. If any of the jack flaps are ajar when you awaken the phone, you get a friendly and helpful reminder to "[p]lease close the external connector covers to secure waterproofing." Smartly, Sony has moved the round on/off button to the center of the right perimeter. Smartly, Sony has moved the round on/off button to the center of the right perimeter. You can now awaken the phone as you pick it up or, if you're already holding it, awaken it while keeping the Z1S evenly balanced in your hand. Similarly, the volume toggle is located just below the on/off switch, where you'd naturally be holding the Z1S during a call. On the left side are two mysterious prong terminals, which I assume are meant to pair with Sony's Smart Imaging Stand. Equipped with a quad-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, the Z1S is snappy and responsive. Out of the box the Z1S runs Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean" and will, at some point, be upgradable to version 4.4 "KitKat." Storage is 16GB, expandable via the microSD card slot. The full HD display of the Z1S is excellent at standing out in direct sunlight. But I found the contrast for text while web browsing a little light, especially when off-angle, compared to other large-screen phones. Feeling green As noted, the Z1S is equipped with a 20.7MP rear camera, the second-highest available in a smartphone from a major U.S. carrier (the Nokia Lumia 1020 features a 41MP imager), but its front imager is a more normal 2MP. While outdoor photos are unsurprisingly crisp and colorful, indoor photos are infused with an annoyingly odd pea-green tint, especially notable on surfaces that are supposed to be white. Indoor photos also are infused with more grain than I expected from such a high-resolution camera, but no more so than any other smartphone camera. This grain may be the result of the phone's pedestrian LED flash, rather than a Xenon light. (You can check out some samples in the gallery below.) To cut down on hand movement blur and jitter while shooting video, you get a digital version of Sony's SteadyShot stabilization. While videos are noticeably smoother, on closer examination you'll also notice a slight jitteriness — that's the digital stabilization at work. When I posted the sample video I shot (below), YouTube asked me if I wanted to smooth out the jitter (I didn't).