The Sony Xperia Z is Sony’s flagship smartphone for the new year, and I think it is unabashedly Sony Mobile’s best effort yet. Save for inductive charging, the Xperia Z has pretty much everything you could possibly want in a top-end smartphone: a quad-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro SOC, 2GB of RAM, a 5-inch 1080p LCD display, 16GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, LTE, NFC, a 2330mAh battery and a 13-megapixel autofocus camera encased in an IP57-rated waterproof and dustproof body constructed from 2 sheets of glass and a matte plastic frame. On paper, the Xperia Z offers a tremendous amount of power – right up there with the latest Android flagship devices like the HTC Butterfly – in an extremely beautiful and well-built package. Should you buy this phone? Read on to find out.
Hardware and Design:
In terms of physical design, the Xperia Z is unmistakably Sony in terms of its aesthetics. Just like the Acro S, the Xperia Z is a rectangular slab that actually looks distinctive; the detailing around the power button is lovely, as is the lanyard eyelet built into the bottom right corner of the device. The back of the device is completely flush with the exception of the camera lens which is sunken ever so slightly; the inserts on the sides of the Xperia Z are apparently shock-absorbing and are colour-matched with the back; the flaps over the ports and card slots (necessary to prevent water from seeping in) have rubber plugs on the inside – they fit tightly but are easy to detach. The only physical controls on the Xperia Z, apart from the aforementioned power button, is a volume rocker; both the volume control and power button are really solid and offer excellent press feedback.
I’ve always been a huge fan of waterproof smartphones because they unlock a whole new range of possibilities regarding what you can do with your phone and where you can take it. You can shoot photos and video in the rain, for instance. You can capture video underwater, at the beach or at the pool. Walking in a light drizzle? There’s no need to stop using your phone. Spill something on your phone? Wash it off under a tap. Drop your phone in the toilet? Fret not, not only will it continue to work, you can get it clean and sanitized again. You can keep your phone clean, all the time, by physically washing it. However, the loudspeaker strangely becomes unusable the moment water gets in it (seriously, you can hardly hear it) and only works properly when the water has dried out. The Xperia Z lacks a physical camera button, which means that it’s not really possible to capture photos underwater. I also wish that the Xperia Z supported inductive charging; given that the microUSB port is hidden under a flap, inductive charging would have made charging much more convenient on this device.
On the other hand, the Xperia Z is large, angular and slippery, which means that it’s difficult to get a good grip on it. I’ve spent a few days with it, and I still feel like I’m about to drop it. In addition, you definitely feel it in your pocket all the time. A 5-inch phone is just too large to use one-handed in my humble opinion – I thought my 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus was huge until I picked up the Xperia Z, and I can just about use the Galaxy Nexus one-handed in a pinch. With the Xperia Z, I have to slide it up and down my palm in order to use it one-handed. Because the glass back is so slippery, it genuinely feels like a precarious way to use this phone. The Xperia Z feels like a super-sized, slimmed-down iPhone 4S in the hand.
The landmark feature of the Xperia Z, just like the HTC Butterfly, is that 5-inch 1080p display with a pixel density of 440ppi. It’s a TFT LCD wrapped up in Sony’s marketing-speak, which makes it a Full HD Reality Display with OptiContrast Panel and Mobile Bravia Engine 2. As far as LCD displays go, it is a beautiful panel with pixels so tiny that you just can’t spot them no matter how closely you peer at the display. Now, it isn’t as bright or as vibrant as an AMOLED display, but that is a fact of the display technology used here. Unfortunately, viewing angles are mediocre – the display looks washed out to various degrees unless you’re looking at it dead-centre and visibility in sunlight is relatively poor because the display darkens significantly when viewed outdoors. The Xperia Z does not have a bad display – it has a very, very good display, but it misses the mark of perfection by a few points. Make what you will of that; personally, I can’t really tell the difference in pixel density and overall fidelity between a 720p display and the Xperia Z’s 1080p display in everyday use. In fact, because the user interface elements remain around the same size on the Xperia Z as they are on a 720p display, you can’t even fit more on one screen, making it even harder to see the real utility of a 1080p display.
Performance and Battery Life:
The Xperia Z, as expected, is an absolute screamer in terms of benchmark performance as well as perceived speed. There’s just about no lag or stuttering to be seen, scrolling is buttery smooth and the Xperia Z handles almost everything without any evidence of slowdown. For once, Sony has delivered a flagship smartphone that can compete head-on with its biggest rivals without walking away completely embarrassed. While I’ve actually seen my Galaxy Nexus consistently launch apps a touch quicker than the Xperia Z, it’s really hard to have any real complaints about the Xperia Z in this department.
I’ve been using the Xperia Z rather heavily over the past few days I’ve had it, and I’ve seen its 2330mAh battery last between 7 to 9 hours before the first low battery warning appears, with around 3 hours of screen on time. I think these are very respectable figures considering the fact that I was pretty much hammering it, but you might still want to have an external battery pack handy if you’ve got a long day ahead with this device. Of course, Sony has included some power management features with the Xperia Z, including a Stamina mode that disables cellular data when the screen is off. I haven’t used them because I haven’t felt like I needed them; the Xperia Z is perfectly capable of staying alive through an entire day at school and the 1-hour journey back home and I’ve been pretty satisfied with it in this regard.
The 13-megapixel camera on the Xperia Z is rather impressive as far as Android phones go; it produces images that are very decent in terms of captured detail, colour reproduction and noise levels in both daytime and low-light conditions. It’s definitely a much-improved camera from last year’s flagship, the Xperia S, and I’ve been very satisfied with it. Check out the photo samples for yourselves:
The camera app on the Xperia Z has loads of options, including an interesting HDR video mode that I haven’t had the opportunity to try just yet, an intelligent auto mode like what you would get on any decent point-and-shoot camera, a sweep panorama mode and a range of scene modes in addition to the usual touch focus, exposure compensation, ISO and white balance features. One quirk of Sony’s camera app is that you cannot use the camera on the Xperia Z while listening to music or any kind of audio; I really wish this would have been fixed long ago.
Note: You can check out the full photo gallery of photos shot with the Xperia Z here which I’ll be continually updating for as long as I have this device. .
The Xperia Z currently runs Sony’s customized build of Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, which means that Sony’s UXP NXT custom UI is alive and well on this device. It is still very polished and beautiful in terms of aesthetics, but Sony have made a few changes to their user interface and custom apps in the transition from Android 4.0 to Android 4.1. I’m very glad to see that Sony has embraced virtual Android buttons and followed post-4.0 Android conventions while the likes of Samsung and HTC have stubbornly stuck with physical or capacitive touch buttons so far. This means that you won’t see a Menu button unless the app you’re running requires it, the Back button changes to a Minimize Keyboard button when the virtual keyboard is onscreen and you can swipe up from the Home button to launch Google Now.
Sony have also seen fit to include toggle switches for Bluetooth, WiFi, cellular data and ringer mode in the notification drawer, positioned above everything else in the drawer. The virtual button bar and status bar are skinned in dark grey instead of black, while the multitasking menu has been changed more drastically, with the app switcher shrunken and shifted to the right and a new toolbar at the bottom for what Sony calls “Small Apps”, which basically work like Desk Accessories in classic Mac OS – mini utilities like a calculator and countdown timer that you can install from the Play Store that appear on top of whatever else you’re doing on your phone and can be dragged around.
I don’t know how useful these Small Apps actually are in everyday situations, but I don’t really like the fact that Sony left a completely blank space on the left side of the multitasking menu and chose to make the running apps’ thumbnails so small. On a related note, the stock launcher has actually regressed in terms of design and usability; while there’s now a 3D effect when swiping between homescreens (akin to the transition you get on an Android tablet), it’s actually more cumbersome to add an icon to a homescreen from the app grid. While you were able to tap and hold on an app in the app grid before and directly drop an icon wherever you wanted on the homescreen of your choice, you now have to drag the icon to the very top of the screen before being able to drop it wherever you want. In addition, adding a widget is even more cumbersome than it was, because the widget menu displays even fewer widgets at a time than it did before. On top of that, the app grid simply looks worse than the way it looked in Sony’s mix of Android 4.0.
Generally, the user experience that Sony provides on top of Android continues to be as inoffensive as it was before, and most aspects of the user interface that Sony has modified is tastefully designed. Some of Sony’s custom widgets now look flatter and darker. The lockscreen, for instance, has a beautiful Venetian blinds effect when you swipe it, in addition to providing quick access to the camera and music controls. The Walkman music player has gotten even better in terms of features and user interface; Sony has included even more sound enhancement options and made the Shuffle and Repeat options in the Now Playing screen a bit more accessible.
The customized Phone, Messaging, Email and Calendar apps now share a common theme, as do the Calculator and Clock apps; Timescape has been ripped out entirely and replaced with a more conventionally-designed social network aggregator called Socialife that supports Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader and YouTube; all of Sony’s media apps (Album, Movies and Walkman) have round icons and there have been slight improvements to the appearance of buttons, tabs, checkboxes and radio buttons. All of these are welcome and my opinion of Sony’s Android customizations is still very much a positive one.
The Sony Xperia Z is an extremely good smartphone and a very credible rival to the HTC Butterfly, and it’s hard to find any major, deal-breaking flaws with it. What you’re getting with the Xperia Z is top-notch design and build quality, top-end specifications with a brand new display, a modern version of Android with a user interface that continues to look and work better than other OEMs’ efforts, a camera that is actually worth the marketing labels thrown behind it and a rugged construction that ensures that your smartphone can go wherever you do, even if water and sand are involved.
The only thing about the Xperia Z that gives me pause is whether Sony will finally manage to speed up their process of delivering Android updates in the months ahead, given that the next version of Android is probably less than 6 months away now. After all, Sony’s 2012 flagship device, the Xperia S, is unfortunately still languishing on Android 4.0 even at this point in February 2013. Still, Sony has come a very long way as a smartphone maker in 2 years, and I am very excited to see the Xperia Z go on sale in several weeks. I can only hope that whatever launches at MWC doesn’t completely overshadow it, because the Z genuinely deserves better than that.