review Sony’s last few entries in the high-end Android smartphone market have been a little tepid, with the company lacking a high-profile winner such as the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One. The company’s new superphone, the Xperia Z, has the specs on paper to take it to the big boys. But how does it perform in practice? Read on to find out.
Note: Sections of this article are largely identical to our previous preview of the Xperia Z. If you’ve read that article and are only interested in how the Xperia Z performs in the wild, we recommend you skip the ‘Design’ and ‘Features’ sections and skip to ‘Performance’.
Sometimes we think smartphone design is all tending in the same direction recently, with the exception of a few standout lines such as the fluoro stylings of the Windows Phone models of Nokia and HTC and the more ‘natural’ colours and smooth shapes of Samsung’s Galaxy S III and S4 line. And the inspiration of that direction is pretty clear: It comes from Apple’s flagship iPhone line.
Like the iPhone 5, Sony’s Xperia Z is a flat, black (or white, if you choose, and it looks like there’s also going to be a purple option available) oblong with those rounded corners which Steve Jobs was so fond of. The main camera’s on the back at the top, there are volume buttons on the side, the Android buttons are below the large screen, yaddah yaddah yaddah. If you’ve played with a handful of Android phones over the past year, you know what to expect here.
Of course, there are a few different quirks about the Xperia Z’s design which are unusual. For starters, this is one of a soon-to-be long line of Android smartphones to launch in Australia which are built around a 5″ screen, sporting a 1080p HD resolution. This means the Xperia Z is slightly bigger than the 4.7″ and 4.8″ screens found on last year’s line-up of high-end Android smartphones, such as the aforementioned Galaxy S III and HTC One XL. And the screen does pop — as soon as you turn on the Xperia Z, you’ll notice how large, bright and vibrant it is.
You would expect this to make the Xperia Z quite bulky, but in practice it actually fits quite well in the hand. Much of this comes down to its thinness — it’s only 7.9mm thick — very close to the iPhone 5, which is one of the thinnest smartphones on the market at 7.6mm. In addition, Sony has taken the approach of keeping the smartphone’s width down as much as possible by pushing its touchscreen quite close to the edge of its physical casing. We like this approach a great deal — as it delivers a large screen with as minimal a physical footprint as possible. It also has a relatively middle-range weight (146g), despite its size.
Other aspects of the Xperia’s design which are notable include its aluminium on/off button on its side (apart from its size and the rubbery plastic rim, this is one of the most visible cues that it’s not an iPhone) and the fact that it’s covered in glass on both its front and back, an approach which we recently liked in the Nexus 4 manufactured by LG in coalition with Google.
Those new to the Xperia Z will notice one other major aspect of the smartphone’s design which is different from that of its rivals: The fact that its ports are not immediately obvious and accessible. It’s only upon closer inspection that you’ll find that key ports — such as the Xperia Z’s microUSB input — are hidden behind little plastic plugs, which protect those inputs from water and dust, helping to deliver the Xperia Z its IP55 and IP57 ratings; more on that later. The plugs aren’t annoying to pull out, but they do take a bit of getting used to.
Don’t kid yourself — this isn’t a phone which will stand out from the crowd. It’s a flat, usually black or white oblong like many of the other phones out there, and while it doesn’t feel exactly the same, you certainly won’t attract attention with the Xperia Z.
However, overall, we really quite like the Xperia Z’s design. It has a large, beautiful and clear screen, but that doesn’t stop this model from still feeling quite slim and light. The build quality of a top-level smartphone is here, and it feels comfortable in your hands. The hardware design of the Xperia Z is excellent.
It’s in its featureset which the Xperia Z really stands out from much of the competition. As we’ve mentioned, it’s one of the first of a wave of smartphones to feature a full 5″, 1080p HD screen. This means a resolution of 1080×1980 (not dissimilar from many computer monitors) and a pixel density of about 441 PPI. This is simply incredible (remember, the iPhone 5’s ‘Retina Display’ only does 326 PPI). You definitely can’t see individual pixels on this one, and, to be honest, the quality of the Xperia Z’s display is stunning.
Then there’s the Xperia Z’s camera. In the current generation of smartphones it’s common to see eight megapixel models as standard. The Xperia Z bumps this up to 13.1 megapixels. While HTC has recently given us reason to question the value of megapixel ratings (its new HTC One uses a lower rating in ‘ultrapixels’) and Nokia has also shown us that there can be dramatic differences between cameras even of the same megapixel rating, the sheer rating of the Xperia Z’s camera is a little intimidating.
On all other areas the Xperia Z is also industry-leading. It supports 4G speeds with Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, its processor is a quad-core 1.5GHz ‘Krait’ model coupled with a Adreno 320 graphics processor, it comes with a front-facing camera of 2.2 megapixels that can shoot video at 1080p at 30fps, and it has 2GB of RAM, 16GB of on-board storage and the option to add a microSD card for an extra 32GB of storage. The Xperia Z comes with Android 4.1.2 (‘Jelly Bean’), but it will be upgradeable to the excellent version 4.2.
Plus, there’s one other huge feature which many people will no doubt be interested in. The Xperia Z’s ports, as we mentioned earlier, are protected behind special flaps designed to protect the phone from water. This and other design features mean the Xperia Z is rated to the IP55 and IP57 water and dust resistance standards, and can be submerged in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes at a time. Similarly, its screen comes with wet finger tracking technology to aid when its wet.
Let’s just state it right out: The Xperia Z’s featureset is top-class. This is a phone which, on paper at least, should be a player.
There are most likely four areas which you’re going to be interested in when it comes to the Xperia Z’s performance: Camera, battery life, overall performance and user interface, and then there’s that water and dust resistance which is somewhat unique to this high-end Sony model.
In terms of the Xpera Z’s camera, we’d say two things. Firstly, as you can probably see from the unedited sample shots below (forgive the protruding finger in the top shot!), the Xperia Z’s camera is pretty good. We tested it against a variety of other smartphones we had in the office, and we normally found the quality pretty good. You’re not going to really have trouble with the Xperia Z, in terms of taking good shots and video in regular circumstances, and we’d say that it often gave shots we’ve taken with Apple’s iPhone 5 and Nokia’s Lumia 920 (which feature two of the most consistently best cameras in smartphones available today) decent competition. The Xperia Z’s camera is very solid.
However, the second thing we’d say is that this isn’t really what Sony’s advertising with the Xperia Z. This is a 13.1 megapixel camera; so you’d expect it to deliver at least slightly better shots than you’d get with other smartphone cameras. Not so. The 13.1 megapixels on the Xperia Z don’t really appear to mean much in terms of making the smartphone more competitive. It performs as well as, but not better, than the eight megapixel models common on the previous generation of smartphones. This goes to show (yet again) that when it comes to camera phones, megapixel ratings are probably no longer the most important benchmark. There are a lot of subtleties which go into smartphone camera design which also play a major part; and they’re not usually detailed in publicly available specifications.
We took the following shots in the same place at the same time, and cropped them in Photoshop. They’ve been compressed only slightly to JPG format — and all at the same quality. Out of the four, we’d probably say the iPhone 5, Nexus 4 and Xperia Z all took fairly similar good shots, while the colour in the Q10’s shot was out.
Sony Xperia Z:
Google Nexus 4:
Apple iPhone 5:
In terms of its battery life, it’s fair to say we weren’t that impressed by the Xperia Z. With its large screen and 4G speeds, coupled with its powerful CPU, this is not a model destined to go that long without a charge. If you’re commuting a little into work every day, you’re probably going to feel most comfortable charging it every night, especially if you use it a lot on the road. You’ll be able to push it through into the second day at a pinch, but you might find yourself reaching emergency level at the end of that second day. In addition, the Xperia Z doesn’t like being left alone on a desk without being plugged in; you’ll find it eventually goes dead after a few days of that. In short, the Xperia Z’s battery life is decent for its specs, but not great.
In terms of the Xperia Z’s other performance measures, we were pretty happy. The phone’s user interface performance is snappy, and we couldn’t find an application that would slow it down. It features a version of Android which is close enough to stock Android that we never really felt uncomfortable with it once we shifted the bundled Sony applications behind the scenes, and we even liked Sony’s graphic choices in terms of its theme. Its audio speakers are also good, and of course its screen is so lovely, large and clear that we really enjoyed playing video on it.
The Xperia Z’s water and dust protection appears to work well enough and definitely protects the model from getting easily damaged under normal usage — say, if you’re caught in the rain and need to make a call. The protection plugs are a little annoying to put in and take out, but you quickly get used to them; it helps if you don’t chew your fingernails, and so have a little to work with in terms of getting the plugs out.
When I think about all the products I’ve reviewed and played with over the past several years, it’s pretty clear that there are three categories of products. There are products with something obviously wrong with them (that would stop you buying them), there are products which are competent and generally solid but outshone by rival products in their category, and then there are the top of the pops — products which are the best in their category and which you personally want to buy after reviewing them.
Sony’s Xperia Z is clearly in the second category. It’s a very solid, competent product, and I would definitely recommend it. However, in its category (high-end smartphones), there are just better options out there. Apple’s iPhone 5, released substantially earlier than the Xperia Z, is at least as good a smartphone, and there’s also HTC’s One and Samsung’s Galaxy S4, both of which were released in Australia a little after the Xperia Z and which are also now available in the “Nexus experience” models with stock Android (albeit, not with 4G support in Australia just yet).
After several years of decent but not outstanding models, Sony has definitely not embarassed itself with the Xperia Z. This is a very solid phone, with excellent hardware, excellent build quality, inoffensive software and some additional features which other models lack. But it’s not the best in its field, and unfortunately for Sony, there are better models out there. Let’s hope the company keeps innovating and goes for a world-beater with its next Xperia model.
Image credit: Sony