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Featured: Sony Xperia Z Review

June 2, 2013 - Written By Tom Dawson

2013 has been an interesting year for Sony, and one that they kicked off in style with this, the Xperia Z. One of the first 1080p devices on the market, it was unveiled at this year’s CES and was released around the world shortly after that. It’s taken us a little time to get our hands on an Xperia Z but, what matters is that we’ve had it for a few weeks and now we’re ready to bring you our review of the device. Currently, the only way to get your hands on the device in the States is to buy it from Sony’s online store. There’s word of the device coming to T-Mobile soon but, is it worth waiting for at this late stage of the year? Well, read on as I try to answer that question with the Android Headlines review of the Sony Xperia Z.

Design

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From a personal standpoint, I’m in love with the design of this device. Sure, there’s very little to it but, that’s what I like about it. Sony have done their best to deliver a very minimal looking device and here, it seems to have paid off. The easiest way to describe the Xperia Z is by likening it to a small slate, because that’s essentially what it is. Now, if you’re worried that such a thing would feel uncomfortable in the hand – don’t be. Even for long periods of time, the Xperia Z was more than comfortable enough in-hand.

One aspect of the device that is particularly irksome however, is the inclusion of all these flaps. There’s a flap for everything, a little cover to keep ports and such covered up to make the device water-resistant. These get quite annoying, because you have to open one up every time you charge the device, every time you use a pair of headphones etc etc. As you’ll below, the Xperia Z is covered with these little flaps.

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It might sound bizarre but, I’d say that my favorite part of the device, from a design standpoint, is that aluminum power button (no, not because it’s aluminum, but because it’s brilliant). You’re probably thinking how good can a button be. Here, Sony have a power button that is solid, protudes out of the body nicely and is perhaps the most logical placement for such a button I’ve ever come across on a phone.

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Overall though, the device is a looker, there’s no denying that. It’s somewhat of a fingerprint magnet and it’s certainly an unassuming device but, it’s a good-looking device that feels well built and sturdy. The glass front and back feel strong and I didn’t feel as if it would shatter from a drop. Being a 5-inch device, the Z is a little larger than the HTC One but, matches up nicely with the Galaxy S 4, and as always there are problems that make hitting the top-left of the display a struggle. The inclusion of software keys however, means that the device isn’t any taller than it needs to be.

Display

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The display here is what Sony are calling an OptiContrast display and at 1920 x 1080 you’d expect quite a bit from it. The good news is that this is a sharp display, very sharp in fact but, that’s where the good news ends really. Viewing angles on this panel are suspect and colors often look washed out, black was never really black and images that I felt should be punchy, were sort of bland and basic looking. Text is incredibly crisp and the display is easy on the eye but, this is not something I’d want to watch Netflix all night on, or indeed a movie.

It’s not all bad though, because the display is really quite good in sunlight. Contrary to common belief, there is such a thing as sunlight in the United Kingdom and in bright sunlight, the Xperia Z is still very visible. Colors take even more of a hit in the sun but, if you need to read a text or check directions, the Z has a great display for that.

After a few weeks, I found myself getting used to this display from Sony but, not in a good way. The high resolution really does help but, colors are more washed out than I’ve seen on a smartphone in a long time. Compare this to an AMOLED panel from Samsung or the HTC One display and the Xperia Z won’t impress.

It’s definitely a mixed bag here, overall though it’s not too bad, but it’s not that great either. Sony could have done much better than this, and the poor color representation here reminds me that this is a smartphone that came out towards the very beginning of the year, and in the display department this is a device that feels rushed.

Water Resistance

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If there’s one thing that you’d associate with the Xperia Z, it’s that you can pore water over it. This stands out for a couple of reasons. 1 – this is a premium handset, it’s currently Sony’s flagship and is definitely a high-end device. 2 – this is mostly a feature that you see on phones for the Japanese market, it’s not something we’re used to seeing in the West. Question is, does it really work? Well, YouTube has pretty much solved that question for us but, yes, it does work.

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The flaps that are mentioned above help keep the water out of the device’s ports, such as the microUSB port and microSD ports and the rest of the device is water-tight. It’s worth mentioning that is the water “resistant” not water “proof”. Essentially, you can splash it, you can pore water over it, you can spill beer on it. What you can’t do however, is submerge the device – or at least Sony don’t want you to. Even still, I’ve tried it and it does indeed work. Wait – you don’t believe me? See below.

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The question is this worth those pesky flaps? Well, I’d say so yes. I’m pretty good at taking care of smartphones but, I’ve plenty of friends that have killed iPhones, BlackBerries, HTCs, Samsungs and more from getting them wet. With the Xperia Z, you won’t have to worry about that. It’s also pretty cool as well. I found myself poring water on the device just for the sake of it more than once. It’s still quite incredible that Sony have managed to do this without the device losing its unique appeal or gaining weight.

Alongside this resistance to water comes a resistance to dust as well. That’s perhaps less useful than being nearly impervious to water but, if you’re someone who works in construction or something like that, then the Xperia Z might just last longer in your presence than most other smartphones.

The Camera

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Taking care of imaging in the Xperia Z is the 13-megapixel Exmor RS sensor from Sony. That sounds impressive but, overall the camera in the Xperia Z is a disappointing affair. The camera software itself is fast and responsive, there were no issues taking shots and the intelligent auto system seemed to work quite well. In a world where smartphone cameras were supposed to be evolving, the Xperia Z’s camera doesn’t hold up well and is pretty typical of what you’d expect from a small sensor with 13-megapixels crammed into it. In some cases, the camera can perform relatively well, take a look below, it’s not a bad photo, right?

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The full resolution version is in the gallery, and you can see that colors are a little over saturated. Other than that though, the resolution does make for some good images. In the sunlight. Things get very very different when you’re taking a photo in low light situations. Here’s a quick snap of one of my cats, indoors with lights on and light coming from adjacent rooms:

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The Xperia Z is pretty bad in low light, there’s more noise here than I’d have expected and I also wonder why the flash didn’t trigger. I’ll confess that I didn’t spend much time exploring the advance features of the Xperia Z, in fact I let the phone decide a lot of its own fate. Below are a variety of shots straight from the camera, no post-processing. Again, this is very disappointing from Sony, it’s not as if they should be having these troubles either – they’re a big player in the camera world and they make some of the best compact digital cameras. I expected a lot more from Sony.

Sony’s Software

These days, everyone wants to put their own “touch” on Android, and Sony are no different. Here, their software is much the same as it was on their 2012 devices, running atop Android 4.1. So, while that’s the Android 4.2 we’d like to see, it’s new enough to not make that much of a difference. Sony have made a few additions here that really do create a pleasant experience, which actually adds value rather than the illusion that more is better. Let’s start with the app drawer:

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There’s not much you can here, right? Well no not really, and thankfully Sony keep things minimal here. You can adjust how apps are laid out at the top, as well as searching through them. My only complaint is that the menu in the top right doesn’t contain a link to the Play Store. Now, if you choose to Uninstall something from that same menu, you’ll see these check boxes appear:

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This is a nice feature because, not only does it show you what you can uninstall but, it makes things a lot quicker, there’s one less action to perform here and deleting more than one app at a time is a breeze on the Xperia Z. You’ll notice that Sony has included soft keys here, which is a welcome addition, if we’re honest we wish more OEMs would finally start adopting these. Hitting the multitask button will bring this menu up:

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Sony have included a bunch of small apps that you can pull up from the bottom of this screen, which is a nice touch. Such as this calculator:

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These apps are quite useful really, and they hover above any app you might have open, they’re not sluggish at all and are just as fast as full apps.

Sony realize that people like to mix things up a bit, and so there are a plethora of themes to choose from:

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The lockscreen is a nice touch as well, with it’s cool blind effect as you slide down to unlock it, this can be configured to have its own wallpaper, which is quite nice.

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Overall, Sony’s software adds far more than it takes away. There are some subtles improvements to the software and there’s nothing that makes you think “What the hell is that?” as other skins do. Sony have done their best to keep things light and it does show. This felt more like I was using a themed version of Android, rather than a complete reskin of Android 4.1.

Included Apps

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There are three pages of apps installed on the Xperia Z, two above and one more below:

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This certainly looks like a lot of apps and, we suppose it is. One thing I will say is that a great number of these apps you can actually uninstall, so if you don’t like them you can just get rid of them. For the most part though, the included apps are just alternatives from Sony, all of your favorite Google apps are there right out of the box and there’s nothing too suspect here. Although, the inclusion of the McAffee security suite is a little strange.

Storage

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The Xperia Z I had for review was the 16GB version. Which had 11.73GB  free, with 9 GB or so available to me. That’s not awful when you think about it but, it is still around half of the storage gone in a blink of an eye. Those that need more storage will be perfectly happy to hear that this has microSD support and under one of those flaps lies your savior. I didn’t feel like I was running out of room on the Xperia Z but, it’s clear that there’s a little more space taken up than there should be.

Benchmarks & Performance

Personally, I find very little comfort in how well a device can benchmark but, they are a decent yard stick to measure how well the device can perform. Let’s take a look and see how the Xperia Z did in a few tests. Here’s Vellamo:

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Here’s the infamous AnTuTu result:

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Here are the Basemark results for the Z:

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Last but not least, here is Linpack:

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Forget benchmarks though, the Xperia Z performed really quite well throughout the last few weeks. Web pages loaded smoothly, zooming worked fine and game performance was solid as well. This is the same 1.5 Ghz Snapdragon S4 Pro in the Droid DNA and the Nexus 4 and it performs about as well. At no point did I find myself waiting for the device or experiencing any sort of lag. I’d describe the performance here “solid”, it’s not going to blow you away and it’s a little behind the Snapdragon 600 that’s showing up now but, it’s not too bad. I’d be happy with this performance on a daily basis that’s for sure.

Battery Life

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The battery life of the Xperia Z has really blown me away. It’s nothing like the Galaxy Note II or the Droid RAZR MAXX HD but, this is a regular phone, it’s just another high-end device. The amount of time the Xperia Z kept on going for really surprised me, for a device that is this thin and has a 1080p panel inside I wouldn’t have expected as much as I got from the 2,330 mAh battery. This was on typical use, which for me means a lot of text messaging, testing apps and games as well as the occasional phone. To put things into contrast, I really could last an entire day with this device. From waking up until I went to bed, the Xperia Z would keep on chugging along. All this was without using the Stamina Mode. Turn on the Stamina Mode and you’re looking at a further 30% battery life, what this mode does is essentially turns off data when the screen is locked and turns things off when you don’t need them.

The whole device is set up to get you the longest life possible. There are helpful pop-ups that frequently give you hints on how to get even more out of your battery. When it comes to battery life, the Xperia Z is great.

Call Quality

Phone call? What’s that? Joking aside, these things do still make voice calls you know! Sony have a decent-sounding handset on their hands here, it’s nothing too special but, the caller on the other end is clear enough and perfectly loud. There’s nothing to write home about here, some callers said I was “muffled” while others said I was clear enough. Take that for what you will but, overall the Xperia Z performs good enough as a phone.

The Final Word

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During my time with the Xperia Z, I really did grow to love it. I like the design of the phone, it feels good in the hand, the minimal and mysterious black slab that it is. I’m a big fan of minimal design and the Xperia Z is quite easily the most “minimal” Android smartphone out there. Does that mean it’s a boring device to look at? Certainly not, in fact I think I’d rather have this on my desk than the HTC One. Sony’s software is both minimal and helpful all in the same breath. There are a number of things that bring the phone down though, notably the poor camera performance and that wishy washy display that reminds me more of a bargain bucket TV set than a Bravia.

Then there’s the whole availability issue as well, the device is really quite difficult to get hold of in the States and while there’s word of it coming to T-Mobile, it’s perhaps going to be too little, too late. This is a good device from Sony, and they should have done better getting into people’s hands. Pricing is another factor as well, I’d say the Xperia Z was worth what Sony are asking for it but, only just. This is a conclusion I came to after living with the device for a few weeks – would I have made the same decision in a wireless store? Probably not.

It’s a real shame that Sony fell short on a number of things with the Xperia Z, the camera is disappointing and the display isn’t great for photo or video. The Xperia Z just can’t compare with the HTC One, the Galaxy S 4 or others when it comes to camera performance or display quality. Where the Xperia Z does hold its own however are its speed and its battery life. This is one of the few times I’ve not scratched the itch to tweak a device – I could even put AOSP on here if I wanted – because everything was fast enough, there were no issues of “lag” and I was pleasantly surprised at all times. Battery life is excellent and I never once worried about running out of juice with this thing, props to Sony for following through with their promise of good battery.

The Xperia Z is a good device when you asses it as the sum of its parts. Take the display and the camera – both areas where Sony should excel – and things start to unravel. Is this a good all-rounder? Absolutely. Is it a good device for taking photos with? No, not really. How about those that watch a lot of video on their phones? Again, not really. So, there you have it folks, the Sony Xperia Z.

Thanks to Phones 4U sending this review unit out where our British readers can take a look at mobile phones, including the Xperia Z