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Sony Xperia Z Review: Real Android Heavyweight?

Published by on May 6th, 2013, No Comments

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Slowly but surely, Sony has been turning its fortunes around in the smartphone market. It went through some dark days while in a partnership with Ericsson, but has now stepped out of that dark shadow of its history and seems ready to take on the world.

The last couple of flagship smartphones that Sony have brought to market have been their first real step in the right direction and they are trying to make the most of the little momentum they do have with their newest flagship, the Sony Xperia Z. A lot is riding on this device for the Japanese company and they need it to be a big seller. We have learned that they sold 4.6 million devices in the first 40 days after release, but now that the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 have hit the market, can it still compete?

Is the Xperia Z Sony’s new flag bearer? Well, all the signs are there, and after the great phone that was the Xperia T, we look at how Sony can evolve to compete with the Android heavyweights.

Here are some of the key features:

  • Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE support; 3G with HSPA; LTE
  • 5″ 16M-color 1080p capacitive touchscreen; Bravia Mobile Engine 2
  • Android OS v4.1.1 Jelly Bean with custom UI
  • Quad-core 1.5 GHz Krait CPU, 2 GB RAM, Adreno 320 GPU; Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset
  • 13 MP autofocus camera with LED flash and geo-tagging, HDR
  • 1080p video recording @ 30fps with HDR mode, continuous autofocus and stereo sound
  • 2.2 MP front-facing camera, 1080p video recording
  • 16GB of built-in storage; microSD card slot
  • 2330 mAh battery

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Sony got a jump on the competition with the Xperia Z and at the time of release it seemed to have the best technology available. It still compares well with all the current competition, so it might have even more legs to stand on than previous Sony flagships.

Design and Build

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The familiar angular Sony design is still prevalent here, but it doesn’t have the arced back that its predecessor had. The flat glass covered back is much more modern, and in conjunction with the glass front we must say that it is a looker. It’s perhaps not as pretty as an iPhone or HTC One, but you won’t be embarrassed to be seen with this nice piece of design in public.

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You will notice that there aren’t any open ports anywhere on the device – those are housed under a series of flaps/covers – to ensure this Sony is completely waterproof, but it does also work well with the overall design of the phone. It’s got no gaps or openings to spoil any angle of the device – everything looks stylish and very consistent.

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The choice of materials for this device probably only has one negative – especially with the purple version we used – which would be that having glass on both sides provides a lot of area that is susceptible to finger prints being left behind, but that is a minor gripe. Cleaning it is very easy in any case.

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The overall build quality is excellent, it is extremely sturdy and among the most durable smartphones we’ve ever seen. You will really have to abuse this device for it to be damaged in any way, which is actually one of this device’s selling points.

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Its thinness and minimal bezel is very appealing. Throw in the fact that it has a quality not many other smartphones have – dust and water resistance – and it is even more appealing. You can submerge the entire phone in water without doing any damage to the delicate internals.

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Battery

You might expect a 5-inch, 1080p device would need a larger battery than the 2330 mAh battery you get with the Xperia Z. Well, in our tests it actually performed very well. With a full charge the battery would consistently last a full day with heavy use. On average use, though, you could easily get two days out of it.

Sony actually employs an interesting solution to the battery life problem that mars so many smartphones these days. Stamina mode actually disables all background apps and data transfers when the screen is turned off. This eliminates some of the biggest reasons for power drains, as the processes that aren’t needed when the phone idles are switched off.

Incoming phone calls will of course still work as usual when the device idles, as well as any messages you might receive. You can also choose the apps that you don’t want to be affected by the stamina mode. It greatly improves battery life and is no gimmick. In one test, I let the phone remain on standby mode with little daily use, and in three days I lost only about 50% of the charge. Of course, heavy daily users won’t receive much benefit from stamina mode, but for the vast majority of smartphone users it makes a massive difference. Good on you, Sony!

Screen

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Not only the build and battery have been improved in the newest Xperia model. Sony stepped up to deliver a new full HD 1080p screen. That means that this 5-inch screen has over 2 million pixels at a density of 440 ppi. While that isn’t as dense as the 468 ppi, 4.7-inch HTC One – because of the smaller screen of the HTC One – it is still spectacularly dense and it’s a brilliantly detailed screen.

Compare that to the 326 ppi of the iPhone’s retina display, and you can imagine why people are falling head over heels for the new Android 1080p displays. While it might feel excessive in most regards (and probably is), the benefit of watching eye-popping HD movies and seeing the difference in intricate images or fine text does make it worth the spec bump.

Unfortunately, I found that the Xperia Z’s screen suffers from the same weaknesses that its predecessors have: poor viewing angles. Even though colours seem magical in normal use and the automatic brightness adjustments are well calibrated, tilting the phone away from you quickly washes out that beauty and clarity. It’s unfortunate that Sony continues with this problem, as it detracts from what the screen can actually deliver. We were also surprised to find that the Mobile Bravia Engine 2 didn’t prevent this problem.

Performance and Audio

The Sony Xperia Z uses a Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, with a quad-core clocking in at 1.5 GHz and 2GB of RAM. The Krait cores perform well, no matter how you use it. It handles all tasks with a breeze as you would expect. There were some small issues with the performance of the user interface – like a slight lag when unlocking the phone when using live wallpapers – but it is a minor hindrance.

Although it performs very well, the animations aren’t quite as fluid as you would find on the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4, and some other parts of the user interface can suffer occasionally, albeit slightly, but we would expect it to do better to compete with the aforementioned. The sluggish camera app was also a bit unimpressive.

The flip side of the coin is the brilliant audio performance that the Xperia Z boasts. The headset delivers a thoroughly satisfying array of responses to bass and treble alike, which will suit today’s music to aplomb. The external speaker at the bottom right corner also performs sufficiently. Sony is known for their sound capabilities, so no surprises here.

User Interface

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The Xperia Z launched with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, but is now upgradable to 4.2 Jelly Bean. In the past, we’ve seen Sony launch too many of their premium high-end smartphones without the latest software, but luckily they addressed this problem right away after launching the Z. You will have all the goodies associated with the latest versions of Android, including Google Now. The fine text of Google Now looks absolutely pin sharp on this device.

When taking a closer look at the Sony additions to Android, you are sure to find some likable functionality. There is a great gallery widget and expandable power management widget pre-installed. We don’t understand why they had to pack in an extra like the Walkman audio player, though, as the regular media player on Android is thoroughly adequate.

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Sony has upgraded its custom launcher, and the Xperia Z now gives you the option to change the number of homescreen panes from the default of five, to a maximum of seven.

A slight difference in the UI when compared to stock Android is that the app drawer isn’t next to the widget drawer as usual, which we don’t really care for.

Adding anything to the homescreen is done by tapping and holding on a blank area of a homescreen or using the pinch zoom out gesture. A context menu appears, allowing you to add various customizations to your phone – add widget, shortcuts to apps, change the wallpaper and change the theme. You can also add shortcuts from the app drawer by holding your finger over an icon and dragging it to the “Add to Homescreen” area.

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The rest of the UI is pretty true to stock Android, and the purists should find that quite appealing. The couple of extra Sony specific features don’t really set it apart from its rivals, but it does everything it needs to and does is well. It also has a mini app launcher as we saw on the Xperia T which also works well.

Overall, the UI is a pleasant place to be and to use. It doesn’t come with the plethora of features we see with the Galaxy S4 (which are mostly gimmicky) or the clean structure we see with the HTC One, but to the average user it will suffice for everyday use. We really want Sony to start thinking outside the box, though.

Camera

The Xperia Z is equipped with a 13 MP camera, and the app can be accessed directly from the lock screen. As mentioned, the app does struggle from time to time, so it doesn’t open as quickly as we would have liked. Once again, it doesn’t compare favourably when looking at the competitors from HTC and Samsung.

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The interface is pleasingly unassuming and has nice and easy shortcuts to switch between camera and video quickly. What is interesting is that Sony included a Superior auto mode (which shoots at 12MP) which then tries to guess (calculate?) what kind of scene you are trying to capture and will then adjust all camera parameters accordingly. If it guessed wrong, you can intervene to take the correct type of photograph. This is a good option for anyone who isn’t a photography enthusiast and knows all the intricacies that go with colour saturation, contrast and the like.

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The camera performance isn’t as good as I had expected it to be, though. The details in the photographs are hardly spectacular with slightly oversaturated colours. It also exhibited some graininess and blurriness. Therefore, there is no point in having a 13 MP camera, as you will never be able to use it at that scale. Video recording also had the same basic flaws.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z was released only five months after the previous flagship model, the Xperia T, but what a difference five months can make. The design has completely been revamped and we absolutely love it. If the previous polycarbonate designs weren’t to your tastes, the latest Sony will outshine previous iterations, no doubt.

It is great to see Sony trying to push the envelope to make a premium device, and that is exactly what this is. While there were some minor blips in terms of the performance and the camera, it’s not something that will bother anyone on a daily basis. The viewing angles of the screen also need to be addressed, though, and we truly hope that the next flagship from the Japanese company will sort that out.

While it is a good device, and Sony’s best to date, the fact remains that the Xperia Z remains one step behind the competition. Interestingly, it is the first Sony device to introduce an all-glass design, when other manufacturers are moving away from that. I think it was fortunate that Sony released this device earlier than the competition and was able to get some sales under the belt, because the Xperia Z fails to provide enough reason for purchasing it ahead of the HTC or Samsung alternatives.

The water and dust resistance is not something you will find every day on a device this size. It, together with the battery’s stamina mode is extremely useful, but they just don’t add enough to the device to make it truly desirable. Android purists will find much to like, as well as Sony faithful, but I can’t help but think Sony left plenty at the door with potential gone begging.

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