I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re all pretty excited to see what Sony has to offer with their newest and, so far, greatest (read: most important) smartphone – the Xperia Z. This is a momentous occasion for any Sony fan, as this is supposed to be, even more so than all other Xperia phones that have thus far come out – the return of Sony to mobile providence since the days of Sony Ericsson.
That’s not to discredit the previous Xperia phones – it’s just that, as an American, it’s important to make note of the fact that Sony phones seem distinctly rare in the States. That’s a bit of a travesty, because we all know that the electronics giant is capable of putting out some great smartphone tech. Well, they have certainly set out to prove that with their newest flagship device. With the most power processing package available on smartphones today, the 5 inch screen that we will see a lot this year (whether we like it or not), a unique design, and even water resistance, the Xperia Z is trying to bring everything to the table all at once. Does it succeed?
The short answer – yes. In a lot of ways, the Xperia Z succeeds by doing something that we as smartphone consumers always appreciate – it gets certain key details right. Especially since other phones have been showing us some of the pitfalls to having a larger-than-we’re-used-to screen, it is great to see that the Xperia Z tries to address them all.
Get your party hats out, everyone – this is Sony’ s coming out party. Even though the top-tier smartphone market is getting pretty crowded, you can rest assured that the Xperia Z sits squarely amongst its competitors and peers. Don’t forget to see the video review at the end if you want to see this sleek phone in action.
Look and Feel
The very first thing you will notice with the Xperia Z is its design. A question comes to mind – why don’t we see more angular designs on our smartphones? It’s like with cars these days – we see all of these circular curves and many of us long for the old days when things used to be a lot “boxier.” Maybe that’s just me, but I was definitely happy seeing what Sony came up with here. Simply put, this is their best looking device, further illustrated by the fact that their Xperia Tablet Z takes on largely the same aesthetic. (If you remember, I said that this kind of angular design is how tablets should look. I’m inclined to say that smartphones should adopt it, too.)
Both sides of the Xperia Z are encased in a tempered, shatter resistant glass (read:not Gorilla Glass) that already makes the phone look pretty darn sleek. That black slate look that I love so much is here, as the phone is, save for its various logos and legal information, completely black. On the front you don’t even get any capacitive buttons because the Xperia UI has it built in like a Nexus device. The front camera is a 2.2 megapixel shooter powered by a EXMOR R sensor capable of HDR.
The back of the Xperia Z remains black throughout with the logo in the middle and the 13 megapixel EXMOR RS powered camera. It is mostly here that you will come to learn about your love/hate relationship with the beautiful design of this phone – the fact that the Xperia Z will be wearing your fingerprints all the time. I mean it – all the time. If you choose to brag about your phone to your friends, have a cloth handy.
Coming around the sides, we see that the rigidity of the design is somewhat softened by some fiber-like material (called polymide) that pretty much fills in the gaps left by all the glass panels and pieces. The other thing you will find is that there are no ports – at first glance. To help with the waterproofing of this phone, the Xperia Z comes with a myriad of covers for all of its ports and the goodies they hide underneath.
These goodies include a headphone jack at the top with both the microUSB port and microSD slot right around the corner. The opposite end has the slot for the microSIM that doesn’t require a tool to get open – just use take off the cover and use your fingernail to pull out the tray via the small protruding section. At the bottom of this side is the speaker – it may not be a front facing speaker, but at least it’s not on the back.
And lastly, we have the button layout. After the great looking design, this is next detail that I feel the Xperia Z gets right. 5 inch phones will be the story of 2013, typically meaning that we will all have to learn some hand gymnastics to use our devices effectively. Not with the Xperia Z, at least with its buttons. They are all found in the middle of the right side, with the volume rockers just below the only part of the phone that stands out like a sore thumb – the silver power button. Some might think it is a little tacky, to have a metal pimple on the side, but I have yet to hear it from anyone. It’s a distinctive trait that I think Sony smartly added to what is supposed to be a uniquely awesome phone.
Thus, in the hand. this phone actually handles quite well for its size. The button layout makes those primary functions easy to reach – a feat that the HTC Droid DNA (with its power button top and center of the device) and even the Oppo Find 5 (with its mirrored Samsung-esque layout) cannot boast.
Having a quite literally rectangular design allows for the phone to simply sit rigidly in the hand. I have had no fears that the phone will slip out of my hands, though its love for fingerprinting could eventually lead to too much oil slicking (how’s that for an image?). Your palm and fingers can easily grip the flat sides and a natural skin stick on the back makes some of the necessary hand gymnastics work well. And don’t get it twisted – you will definitely need to put some work in the handling of this phone just like any other 5 inch screen devices.
Despite having the same pitfalls that all 5 inch devices have, this is pretty much one of the best looking and handling phones out there right now. If not just for the button layout, other manufacturers should take notice that this “boxier” look simply works and they should try it sometime.
Screen and Display
What do 5 inch screens usually mean? Big resolution – 1080p worth. Sony isn’t about to miss the bandwagon with their Xperia Z, and their Bravia pedigree gives them a bit of an edge. The result is a pretty great TFT capacitive display that unfortunately has a few minor but noticeable flaws.
1080p is a big deal for a number of different reasons – if you have a lot of video content or want to watch YouTube in glorious HD, the Xperia Z is like a Sony TV in the palm of your hand. It is a joy to watch media on this device and it’s already obvious you will be getting a good viewing experience because the colors of the UI look very inviting and pleasing to the eye. If you have an eye for televisions, then you might know about Sony’s insane refresh rates on their big screens. Well, you get a taste of it in the Xperia Z, as it is hard not to notice how HD videos take on that kind of smooth motion look.
Text is another mark of a good screen and the Xperia Z is bringing 441ppi to this game. Sharpness is about as good as you may have ever seen on a smartphone, rivaling the Oppo Find 5’s great performing display. Zoom into some text and you will see how nicely this Sony beast renders it all.
Here is where the fun sort of stops, though – despite having the Bravia 2 engine to supposedly enhance the viewing experience, I found colors lacking a certain vibrancy and they almost look a little washed out. This is coincidentally the same experience I have had with Sony TVs – the refresh rate might be great, but the colors don’t pop out at me. It is purely a personal opinion whether or not that ruins the experience, but it was just a little too noticeable to not mention.
Perhaps this washing out of colors is even better alluded to by the viewing angles. While not entirely poor, it is sad to see that the Xperia Z loses some of its display integrity when you angle it out of plain view. Things seem to take on a grayer tone, suddenly, when you are not looking at the phone dead on. This isn’t that big of a deal until you get out into the open – direct sunlight already requires you to have the phone set to the highest brightness setting, but even at that point it can be tough to get stuff done if your eyes aren’t making a laser line for the screen.
Aside from all that, there is the problem we already discussed before – because of the glass material, the display is also very fingerprint prone. If you don’t take care to clean the screen often enough, your great looking videos will be hampered somewhat.
However, despite those few unfortunate gripes, the display is still a good performer that does what I think it sets out to do – make the Xperia Z a small taste of the full Bravia TV experience. A good example of this is the trailer for upcoming dance movie Battle of the Year – as an HD formatted video, you get the feeling that this is exactly the way Sony wanted it to look. And it does look pretty great. Whether or not these little nitpicks matter to you depends on what you look for in a display. I enjoy the Bravia look – even though it might be missing a couple specific things, it is still a greatly enjoyable viewing experience.
Hardware and Performance
Let’s start off with the internals and their subsequent performance. You might not really follow the Xperia Z closely, but if you follow the trends of top tier phones, then you know what to expect in Sony’s flagship: the 1.5GHz Qualcomm quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU backed by the Adreno 320 graphics package and 2GB of RAM. It is pretty much the standard of all top performing smartphones and it comes as no surprise that the Xperia Z sports it, as well.
That being said, the numbers don’t lie- this is definitely one of the most powerful phones and everyone should take notice. Benchmark numbers are only one way of looking at the performance of the phone (the proof is in the usage) but the Xperia Z certainly did a great job of putting itself atop many of its rivals.
This is one of the first phones I have ever reviewed that scored over 20000 right in front of my eyes on AnTuTu Benchmark. LG powerhouses Optimus G and Nexus 4 just barely missed the 20k mark, so it’s amazing to see the Xperia Z break that barrier with 20607.
Quadrant, on the other hand, gave it a score of 7914 – the Snapdragon S4 Pro typically scores in the 7000s, so the Xperia Z making it to the high end of 7k is a great feat, indeed. Epic Citadel is a great way of looking at the graphics performance, which was rated as very high – put in technical terms, the Xperia Z was able to render the entire Unreal Engine 2 powered benchmark at 57 frames per second.
And finally, a browser test by Vellamo Benchmark gave the Sony phone a 2189 score, which is almost 400 points higher than its current direct competitor, the Oppo Find 5. The Xperia Z, thus, has a great and fast browsing experience tucked into its built-in browser.
If Epic Citadel was any indication, gaming on the Xperia Z is a treat. While there might not be too many games currently in the Play Store that take full advantage of a 1080p display, that is set to change and I am sure that the Xperia Z will be able to hold its own. In the meantime, Temple Run 2 runs about as smoothly and crisply as you would want. Damn, is that game fun. It’s no Super Hexagon, though.
2GB of RAM is available for multitasking, and another area of detail that Sony gets right is the utilization of it all. This is illustrated very well by the inclusion of Small Apps. If you are one of the few owners (at least by my estimation) of Xperia phones, you may be familiar with these small overlays that help you get things done over what you are already doing. Small calculator, notes app, even a quick voice recorder appear over your currently running application to help you be even more productive. Just go to the recent apps screen and pick one. So far, I have seen little to no problems loading them up pretty much anywhere – so if you want to make a quick note about a video you’re viewing, go for it. Or crunch some numbers while you read some online WSJ.
In another great addition to the Xperia Z, Sony has put in a feature that many of you pine over – expandable memory. Seriously, this and removable batteries (note: this phone doesn’t have one) are aspects that can make or break some people’s opinions of smartphones. Anyway, you get a microSD slot here for all of your memory needs. It’s a good thing to have for anyone that needs it, especially in my case since this unit came with only 16GB. There will be 32GB variants, however.
And finally we have the speaker. This does deserve a mention because it isn’t relegated to the back of the phone. It is slowly becoming more of a trend to put the speakers on the front for a better listening experience, but in this case, the camera is on the very low bottom corner. That tiny speaker hole does get pretty loud, but it is very tinny and lacks clarity and fullness. One interesting thing about the speaker is that an extra driver seems to be located within the chassis, activated when the external speaker gets wet. I don’t know how it knows to reactivate the outer speaker, but it is a nice feature to have as part of the water resistance.
The Xperia Z, undoubtedly, is one of the best performers in the Android market today. Sony has gotten a lot of things right with their newest and greatest device, especially with the inclusion of that microSD slot. You will have no problems getting through the typical day to day tasks on this device, and I think it would take a hellish amount of stress to slow this beast down.
While always important, battery life seems to have taken on a whole new importance especially with emerging 5 inch phones. As the HTC Droid DNA illustrated, being optimized isn’t enough for extending general usage – you still need a bigger battery. The Sony Xperia Z, then comes with a 2330mAh performer that can’t be removed from the unibody design. That does come at a bit of a bummer – we got the microSD slot, but not only would it be hard to have a removable back cover and water resistance, perhaps we have to realize that we simply can’t win them all.
There have already been reports of mixed results regarding the Xperia Z’s battery. It’s not really all that negative, actually – mixed is a literal term here. While the talk time did last around the 16 hour mark, web browsing was also on par, with a final time of just over 6 hours. It was in the video playback, however, that the great results stopped. Clocking in at 5 and a half hours, the big display and perhaps somewhat the Bravia engine contribute to a time not quite indicative of the battery size.
I performed my own battery stress test, focusing on media viewing. Looping all of the included content, I indeed got 5 and a half hours out of the phone before it hit 5% and then blacked out soon after. While none (if not, very few) of us will probably have marathon viewing sessions like this, all of these tests show that the Xperia Z battery gets the job done, if without flying colors.
The HTC Droid DNA, despite its smaller battery, does work well through my days without much incident, so I don’t see why this won’t also be true for the Xperia Z. While charging every night will be required, that is a reality we basically have to live with all smartphone devices. At least you won’t be caught with your phone off before the end of the day.
If there is one thing I always look forward to in the Xperia phones, it’s the camera. In the old days, Sony Ericsson Cybershot phones were my jam, and I have nothing but high hopes that those days are far from behind Sony’s pedigree. So, in the Xperia Z, you get a 13 megapixel rear shooter powered by the exciting EXMOR RS sensor. There’s a nice feat in the front facing camera in the form of a 2.2 megapixel performer also powered by an EXMOR R sensor. It’s a nice camera to use, though it certainly won’t be great for more than the occasional video chat and self portrait.
The rear camera, however, is where it’s at. As is the case with pretty much any smartphone camera, good lighting is required for good pictures. However, Sony has put in some of their point and shoot features into the Xperia Z camera app. Mainly, the Superior Auto. This feature allows for the exposure analysis to find the appropriate scene/settings for the frame. In cases when you are snapping people in a low light setting, the camera will automatically go for “Night Portrait.” There are even profiles for pets, babies, and fireworks. For the most part, the camera app is pretty accurate, though manually tweaking these settings may seem moot when all you’re going to do anyway is put an Instagram filter over your photo (sigh).
You can take 13 megapixel 4:3 photos, but Sony left the setting on this unit at the 9 megapixel 16:9 ratio. That’s exactly my style, actually, so I just left it at that. As far as picture quality goes, this is definitely one of the better performers in the bunch that I’ve tested. I might not have had complete sunlight to make these pictures pop, but my overcast day in SoCal still came out very well and accurately captured the scene.
When a little more sun came out, I was able to take pictures of some flowers. Getting the focus right wasn’t too troublesome, and once it was locked, the resulting picture brought out the proper vibrancy of the flowers and there was also a pleasant depth of field look. Zooming into the picture yields an acceptable amount of grain, though this obviously becomes more pronounced the more you remove lighting.
Finally, this is a low light shot to illustrate that point. Cut into this image is the same scene shot with the flash diode, which actually did a good job of illuminating the scene. It’s still a pretty grainy picture compared to if the flash were not used and the scene was properly lit, but it gets the job done nonetheless.
As far as added features, there is HDR available as well as a Sweep Panaorama mode. I did not get to test the HDR feature (though I will be having a camera phone shootout soon) but the sweep panorama is a little bit of an odd one to me. You are supposed to sweep rather quickly, so getting a smooth transitioning shot is more possible, but the resulting photo always has a motion blur to it as a result. I don’t know what was supposed to happen with this feature, to be honest. If you can’t get clear panorama pictures, then what is it truly for? Novel, but a little confusing.
Finally, with video, you can have HDR turned on as well, but that was not tested in my time with the Xperia Z. 1080p video is possible in video recording, though there aren’t any extra features beyond that. Nonetheless, it yields very good video that requires some stabilization to reduce the typical jello effect most handheld mobile cameras suffer from. There is a built in stabilizer, which is great, though posting the Xperia Z up on a tripod is probably still the best bet for steady shots.
Ultimately, you’ll get one of the better smartphone cameras in the Xperia Z – while we still have a ways to go before DSLR quality is achieved, the Xperia Z remains as one of the best companions you can have: a great pocket shooter.
Before we start wrapping up, let’s take a gander at the Xperia UI. Let’s get one thing out of the way right away – this user interface looks a lot like the stock Android Ice Cream Sandwich. And for the most part, this is a good thing. The black and grey tones accented by white and neon blue hues make for a navigation experience that is very pleasing to the eyes. Also, with a few extra features thrown in, this simplistic but nice design remains functional.
As is becoming ubiquitous with Android operating systems, there is a power widget built into the notification dropdown. Modifying the homescreens with widgets and shortcuts is possible, but long pressing on a blank part of the screen brings up a couple new and welcome features. First of all, themes are also available along with the widget and wallpaper selections, which seem to change the wallpaper, the color of the accent hues, and… not much else. However, the real welcome built in feature is the ability to remove and add homescreens. While the standard 5 pages is pretty common, I personally like having only 3. I know some people who only like having 1. This is a nice feature to see appearing on third party Android operating systems.
You can easily arrange the app drawer in a few different ways, including alphabetically, by a simple dropdown above it. You can rearrange it manually by long pressing on an icon, but having to drag it up to the “Add to Home Screen” up top is a little different.
Ultimately, the general user interface takes on the design choices that Google put into its very successful ICS – and it simply works for the Xperia Z. A few other features from Google make it into this Xperia version of Jelly Bean 4.1, like Google Now. It works just about as well as ever, and is just as easily accessible by swiping up from the home button.
Speaking of apps, there are a few Sony-designed applications that are included. Aside from online purchase and streaming purchases, the classic Walkman application is available. Another old staple of the Sony Ericsson days was the Walkman phone (which I also owned at one point) and it is nice to see that branding live on. The Walkman app, then, is in line with the rest of the UI’s elegance. You swipe left and right between albums and songs, displayed in a card-like fashion. After that, Sony’s version of Beats, called ClearMusic+, adds clarity and richness (read: makes louder) to music and then a visualizer included if you find the regular area too bland.
And finally, I already mentioned the Small Apps earlier on – Sony’s way of promoting multitasking through the usage of small overlays that go over what you are already working on. All in all, the software in the Xperia Z brings you good parts of the Android experience, like the general ICS aesthetic, along with some of the best that Sony has historically had to offer. It is a good package and is a good example of how not going too overboard can also be rewarded.
I got this far without even really mentioning the water resistance of the Xperia Z, but that should be okay – we know what to expect with it and while it is a great feature to have for those accidental spills and rainy days, it is really just one in a long list of things that Sony’s new flagship phone gets right. Nonetheless, the Xperia Z can withstand up to one meter of depth in water and still remain functional after being pulled out of the depths. It is worth it to mention, for you adventurous types out there, that pretty much all functions of the phone are rendered inoperable when the phone is submerged – essentially, touches on the screen are no longer registered and without a dedicated camera button (which would have been a place for water to seep in) you won’t be able to snap underwater photos.
Be honest though – you will be showing your phone off and it’s fun to see people’s eyes go wide when you douse your phone in water only to see it trudge on.
For a good number of people, this is the phone that they have been waiting for - beautiful sleek form factor that we don’t see often enough, great specifications inside to make the performance last and go the distance, and the fulfillment of brand loyalty. Sony certainly isn’t among the top names in the Android market, but that should change – at least somewhat – with the release of their greatest mobile device yet.
The model I used for this review came up to about $800 unlocked, which is, admittedly, an incredible price for a smartphone. Even though it is a top tier device, the Nexus 4s of the world have certainly spoiled us a little with their great price tags. Nonetheless, the Xperia Z is sure to hit various markets’ shores in the coming few months and be ready and willing to contend with the likes of the LG Optimus G Pro and the elephant in the room, the Samsung Galaxy S4.
I don’t normally give numbered ratings for phones – after all, experiences with a phone are a purely subjective matter and my goal is to present the facts and opinions I come across in the usage of a new device so that you can make your own assessments when the time comes. That being said, I have seen the Sony Xperia Z get quite a few rave reviews that score it around a 9/10. If I were to break my rule for once, I would simply just agree with those reviews. This is a phone just shy of 5 stars that deserves an incredible amount of credit – it’s not just the phone that some of us have been waiting for, it’s the phone that Sony has been absolutely anticipating finally releasing.
And if the scores across the interwebs, my experience, and the enjoyment I think you’d have with the Xperia Z are any indication, Sony has a lot to be happy about. Here’s to hoping that the Sony Xperia Z makes it to the States in a big way on multiple phone carriers. If you feel the same way, let us know in the comments below and stay tuned for all of the best Android coverage right here at Android Authority.