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Sony Xperia Z review

We review the Xperia Z, the new flagship Android phone from Sony.

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The Xperia Z sees Sony looking to build on its recent success as an Android handset manufacturer. Having jumped ahead of HTC in market share and with a greater focus on the high end, the Z is Sony’s flagship device for 2013. It brings with a host of new features ranging from a full 1080p display, to waterproof housing. It is with this that the company will be looking to start chipping away at Samsung’s lead. But does it have what it takes?

Design and build

With a five-inch display squeezed in a body only marginally larger than the Galaxy S III the Xperia Z stays just the right side of phablet territory, although it does push the limits of how large a smartphone can realistically be. As much as we like a larger screen on an Android device we wouldn’t want them to go beyond this point for mainstream, general purpose products.

The phone feels large, thanks to its design. It adopts Sony’s trademark monolith style, but while that works fine for TVs and game consoles, feels far less appropriate in what is the most personal piece of tech you own. All sharp angles and square edges, the Xperia Z does not sit as comfortably in the hand as most other devices of this size. Most manufacturers curve the edges of their devices to make them seem slimmer and smoother; here they dig into your palm as you hold it and you’re always aware of just how large the handset is.

The device is available in three different colours, black, white and purple. We tested both the black and white versions and found the white to be far more appealing, with the lighter shade being less cold and unfriendly than the black one. It doesn’t show up the fingerprints so much, something that was startlingly evident on the black model. And is also enables the power button to blend in more – this is perfectly placed about halfway up the right hand side of the device, right under your right thumb, and, oddly, is the sole chrome coloured object on the entire phone.

Otherwise the phone is an exercise in minimalist design. There’s a volume rocker alongside the power button (but non camera shutter key), and on the left slots for microUSB and microSD card, both well sealed. The standard headphone port is on the top, and the microSIM slot on the right, also all sealed. There are no buttons on the front, and the back case is not removeable, limiting you to the power available in the fixed 2330 mAh battery.

The sole other design feature of note is a subtly placed hole in the bottom corner where you can affix a lanyard (although you will need to supply your own). For a device built for ‘real world’ use this could be a surprisingly useful feature.

It almost goes without saying that the build quality of the Xperia Z is exceptional. It is solid, with a fairly weighty feel, and made from plastic and glass. The phone is semi-ruggedised, IP57 certified to protect it against dust and water. It can withstand being submerged in one metre of water for up to an hour. In practice it means you’re more likely to be unworried about using the phone in the rain than you would with any other device. We tested it a variety of damp scenarios and after the initial tentativeness (holding a phone in a bowl of water is not a normal activity, after all) we were never worried that something bad might happen. You do need to make sure that the covers for all the ports are properly closed, but they do seal very tightly. They also seemed to have been designed sturdily enough to last for the lifetime of the phone, although only time will tell on that one, especially in the case of the microUSB and headphone ports which may well get daily use.

Screen 

The centrepiece of the Xperia Z is its 1080p display. This full HD equates to more than two million pixels crammed into the five inch screen, more than double we’ve been enjoying on the 720p displays from last year. The pixel density of 441ppi is hugely impressive – although no longer top of the class since the announcement of the HTC One, which has the same resolution on a smaller screen.

The resolution is stunning. You’ll squint as far as you can to see if you can discern any individual pixels, but it is impossible. It is perfect for text, which is now probably as comfortable to read as on any device outside of those with E-ink displays, and if you load it up with HD videos you will find there are few video experiences better than what this can offer. And yes, it is noticeably better than a 720p screen.

Yet the screen is far from perfect. When we had previewed the Xperia Z before we were dazzled by the sheer number of pixels, and the smoothness of the text and images it produced as a result. But the blacks on the LCD screen are not even close to being as deep as those on OLED screens, or even the SuperLCD variants used by the likes of HTC.  The colours, equally, have a tendency to appear washed out and lacking in the vibrancy we would expect to see. The contrast also needs to be more, well, contrasty. Cranking up the brightness does not help – it underlines the problem if anything – and tilting the screen exposes far from optimal viewing angles.

As a result the screen seems a tad disappointing. When you’re immersing yourself in a movie it won’t matter at all, it’s just we had hoped to be blown away by it, and we weren’t.

Performance and battery life

The hardware specs are as impressive as you would expect from a flagship device, although with most high end phones standardising on a core set of specs it is becoming difficult to read much into the hardware as written on paper. The overall user experience is now where the real qualities of a phone lie, and also present each manufacturer with the opportunity to build real differentiation into their products.

For the record the Xperia Z is powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor with Adreno 320 graphics and 2GB RAM. And it absolutely flies. We encountered no stutter or jerkiness as we swiped and scrolled and there’s almost a brusqueness about the way some screen transitions are completed.

1080p videos and graphically rich games like GTA Vice City ran without a hitch, in both cases only a lack of oomph from the speakers letting things down.

There is the full complement of wireless connectivity options on display, including 4G. Onboard storage totals 16GB, of which just under 12GB is free out of the box. You can add an extra 32GB of your own with a microSD card.

Battery life is about on a par with the other devices in this price and spec range, by which we mean it will get you through a day of average use but not much more, while heavy use may even fall short of that. To help you get the most out of the battery Sony has equipped the Xperia Z with a very comprehensive power management app. This has two main modes – Stamina mode and Low battery mode. Stamina mode sets the mobile data connection to be switched off whenever the screen is off, so that it doesn’t use extra, unneeded power when the phone is sat unused in your pocket. It’s more nuanced than other third party solutions that can do a similar thing, as it also enables you to set up a whitelist of apps that can continue to function. So, your news and weather apps may not update when the screen is off, but your emails will still get through.

Low battery mode takes more of a sledgehammer approach to power saving, turning off features and reducing the screen brightness when the battery hits 30%. With a useful Estimated Standby Time predictor the Power Management app enables you to take control over your power usage more than on any other device, and can extend battery by a noticeable amount. Truth is, though, we’d rather not have to spend time setting up things like this, and would prefer manufacturers to simply take issues of battery life out of the equation entirely.

Software

The Power Management feature is the best part of Sony’s added software, which otherwise fails to match up to some of its counterparts.

Sony has comprehensively reskinned the user interface, which sits atop Android 4.1.2. It’s fairly light and easy to use, but only has a few hints at Android’s Holo theme, so is not entirely consistent in design with the Google apps and an increasing number of third party apps that also adopt that look

The software falls short of being as ambitious as that on Samsung’s TouchWiz, which includes all a whole suite of utilities aimed at reducing your direct interaction with the device, be it through speech, or eye tracking or other gestures. Nor does it match the added functionality of HTC’s Sense UI, such as in its extremely powerful camera app. As a result it is difficult to understand exactly what Sony is getting at with its skin. There isn’t an obvious theme connecting all of the tweaks and changes; many appear to exist just because they can.

Very few of the interface changes represent a better way of doing things, just a different one. Camera and music shortcuts on the lockscreen are nice, for example, but not as well implemented as the lockscreen widgets in Android 4.2, and are not accessible when the device is locked.

And the software extras mostly only serve to double up on what a Google-powered Android device already offers. So you get Wisepilot and Google Maps, Walkman and Google Music, Movies and Play Movies, Sony Select and the Play Store. The rest is build to help connect the phone to the rest of the Sony ecosystem, whether it be a remote control for your Sony TV, or using the Playstation Mobile service for a dose of retro gaming.

There’s nothing in the software that’s bad, per se, but none of it represents a reason why you would choose this phone over any other. And if that’s the case then we’d take an unskinned Android every time.

Verdict

The Xperia Z is Sony’s best smartphone to date. It takes the ideas the company has been working on over the last few years, and throws them all together in a more refined and polished manner than ever before. It ticks all the right boxes, yet there’s something missing. Maybe it’s the design – it’s a beautiful, striking phone but it feels larger in the hand than other devices with a similar footprint. Maybe it’s the screen, which has stunning resolution but lacks the vibrancy that we’ve seen elsewhere. Or maybe it is the software, which adds little of true value. Or maybe we’re being too harsh. As a media device, a camera phone or a workhorse capable of devouring any task you throw at it we have absolutely no complaints.

The bottom line is the Xperia Z is a great example of a high-end Android smartphone. It bears comparison with the best phone of the last year, like the Galaxy S III and the Nexus 4, but it does not stand in a class of its own.

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