Review: Sony Xperia XZ

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By Alexander Maxham October 11, 2016, 1:00pm
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Highlight - Excellent Camera Software and Build Quality Makes Sony Xperia XZ a Winner

In 2016, Sony opted to change their flagship lineup of smartphones from the Xperia Z to the Xperia X. Having announced a slew of Xperia X devices at Mobile World Congress in February. The company announced the Xperia X Compact and Xperia XZ at IFA in Berlin this past September. Which are the new "flagships" for the Japanese manufacturer. The Xperia X Compact carries on the tradition of being a small smartphone with relatively high-end specs. While the Xperia XZ is the new high-end flagship with a 5.2-inch display, which is already arguably a small device. Sony, unlike in years past, actually launched both smartphones in the US rather quickly (typically, it would take the company about 4-6 months to launch in the US) and the Xperia XZ is available now for $699, but without a working fingerprint sensor. At $699 unlocked, the Xperia XZ is not a cheap smartphone, so one has to wonder whether it's worth the rather high price tag that Sony is charging for it? Let's take a look at what the phone offers.

Specs

When it comes to specs, Sony has a 5.2-inch 1920x1080 resolution IPS LCD display here. This gives you 424 pixels per inch. It's running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor which is paired with the Adreno 530 GPU. Additionally, there is 3GB of RAM included with either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. The Xperia XZ is rated IP68 for water resistance and dust resistance. Dimensions for the device are 146 x 72 x 8.1mm and it weighs in at 161g.

On the optics side of things, we have a 23-megapixel camera on the back which has an aperture of f/2.0, and includes phase detection as well as laser autofocus. The front-facing camera is a 13-megapixel sensor which also has an f/2.0 aperture. Finally, the Xperia XZ is powered by a non-removable 2900mAh battery, along with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow on board.

In the Box

Sony has included all of the usual suspects inside the Xperia XZ's box. Right on top, you are greeted with the Xperia XZ, below that you'll find all of the necessary paperwork, including warranty information and a quick start guide. There's also the wall adapter along with the USB Type-A to USB Type-C cable. Remember that the Xperia XZ is indeed a USB-C compatible smartphone. Much like the Xperia X Compact is.

Hardware

Sony's hardware has largely been unchanged over the years. They have made a few changes to their design of their mobile products, for instance the left and right side of the Xperia XZ is a bit more rounded than previous models. Like the Xperia Z3 which sported flat sides all around. It's a design that has worked for them, instead of doing a major overhaul they innovate on the design they already have, with each release. The Xperia XZ is what some would call "boring" in terms of design. You have rounded sides, with a flat top, bottom, front and back. It is somewhat comfortable to hold in the hand, but that's about all its got going for it. It sports a 5.2-inch display with rather large bezels. In fact, the device is larger than the Honor 8 which is also sporting a 5.2-inch display.

The front of the Xperia XZ has the dual speakers, giving you some great audio from the device. There is also that front-facing camera to the left of the Sony logo, and the display in the middle. The back is rather plain, featuring just the 23-megapixel camera in the left corner, with the different sensors and LED flash just below it. There is a pretty faint Xperia logo on the back as well. The top of the Xperia XZ houses that 3.5mm headphone jack, definitely nice to see that Sony didn't jump on the bandwagon and opt to get rid of that. We also have the USB Type-C port on the bottom of the device. The left side houses the micro SD card slot and SIM card slot with the right side housing the power button, volume rocker and dedicated camera shutter button.

Sony offers the Xperia XZ in three colors, black, blue and white. Our review unit here is the black model and sadly, the backside is prone to attracting fingerprints. Even though it is metal. It does attract quite a few fingerprints, as you can likely see in the pictures throughout this review. It's a bit unfortunate, as the last thing we'd want to do is wipe down the back of our phone every single day, to keep those fingerprints off of it. However, the white model shouldn't have that issue, at least not as bad as the black and blue models do.

Otherwise the hardware on the Xperia XZ is pretty decent. It's a smartphone that you can definitely use with one hand, without struggling to reach the other side of the device. It also brings everything you expect out of a company like Sony. Now it would be nice to see Sony opt for a higher-resolution display, but keep in mind that keeping a 1080p panel here will keep battery life pretty decent. Additionally, we would have liked to see a larger battery inside. Other smartphones with the same size display, and a smaller overall footprint have larger batteries. And a 2900mAh battery is just barely enough, by most people's standards these days.

Display

When it comes to the display, you'd expect Sony to put in some of the best displays in their smartphones. After all, they want you to watch their movies on their smartphones. Sony has been one of the very few manufacturers to stick with a 1080p display on their flagship smartphones, and the Xperia XZ does indeed have a 1080p display. However, it does still look pretty great. Since the panel is a smaller panel than most other flagships - coming in at 5.2-inches - you still get a pretty high pixel density here. We're looking at 424 pixels per inch on the Xperia XZ, which is pretty decent, and looks amazing. Of course, a QHD or 2K display would definitely look nicer here, the Full HD display does its job and it preserves battery life. Something that is probably more important than getting more pixels per inch.

Sony has included a few modes for viewing images on this panel, located under Settings > Display, you can choose between turning it off, or using X-Reality for Mobile or Super-Vivid Mode. During our review, we used Super-Vivid mode, which Sony says will "maximize colors while viewing photos and videos, giving you surreal, vibrant and super-vivid images." It makes the images look much more vibrant, as it is supposed to. Additionally, Sony does give you granular controls for controlling the white balance of the display. So whether you like a cooler display or a warmer display, you can set it to your preferences, which is definitely  a nice feature to have included.

The display here is definitely a nice one to have on the Xperia XZ. Of course, many will prefer a QHD display, especially seeing as this smartphone is priced at $699, but the 1080p display does do quite well on this size panel.

Performance

Much like any other smartphone with the Snapdragon 820 inside and 3GB of RAM, the Xperia XZ performs quite well. However, there is a caveat there. The Xperia XZ seems to perform incredibly terrible with Snapchat. Now Snapchat is typically pretty resource intensive and most smartphones have issues with it - in fact many OEMs use Snapchat as a benchmark for how well their smartphone performs - but it was much worse with the Xperia XZ for some reason. I'm tempted to chalk that up to a bug in Snapchat, considering it wasn't like this every time I opened the app, just at random times. Otherwise the Snapdragon 820 performed like a champ.

Many out there are "spec heads" are going to look at the fact that the Xperia XZ only has 3GB of RAM and immediately say that it's not worthy of the "flagship" term, and that it doesn't have enough RAM. That is completely untrue. 3GB of RAM is plenty of RAM in Android, especially where the Android team has been working diligently in the past few versions to reduce the amount of RAM the OS uses. In fact, smartphones with as little as 512MB of RAM can run perfectly fine. The other thing to remember here is that "unused RAM is wasted RAM." During our time with the Xperia XZ, we never ran out of RAM, nor had issues with apps having to reload in the background, because there wasn't enough RAM to keep them open. So there's not much to complain about here with the amount of RAM in the Xperia XZ.

When it comes to gameplay, the Xperia XZ performs pretty well. Of course, that should come as no surprise as the Adreno 530 GPU that is inside is one of the best GPU's on the market right now. While you do get some pretty impressive gameplay from the Adreno 530 GPU, the only thing that hurts the Xperia XZ when it comes to playing games is the display. While the lower-resolution 1080p display is better because it uses less power, it also means that graphics aren't as eye-popping as they could be. Something that not everyone will complain about, but it is still worth mentioning here.

Sound Quality

If any Android smartphone maker is going to put out a smartphone with amazing sound, you'd expect it to be Sony. And it is. The front-facing speakers are amazing, and they aren't that large, so they are pretty well hidden, unlike one some of HTC's smartphones. These speakers put out some pretty amazing sound, whether you are listening to music or watching a video on YouTube. But there's more.

Sony has included a few settings here. There's DSEE HX which will upgrade the quality of the compressed music stored on your device, to near Hi-Res audio quality. There's also ClearAudio+, which is going to optimize sound settings and finally, the Dynamic normalizer, which minimizes volume differences between songs or videos.

It's nice to have a smartphone with front-facing speakers, as those appear to be a dying breed these days. But not only having front-facing speakers, but good front-facing speakers. Sony definitely lives up to their name when it comes to the Xperia XZ. This is a smartphone that any audiophile would love to have in their pocket.

Fingerprint Scanner

Sony had announced that the US models of the Xperia XZ (as well as the Xperia X Compact) would be coming without a fingerprint sensor. Although that's not totally true. The fingerprint sensor is indeed there, it is just not activated. It was reported recently that if you flash the UK firmware onto the US Xperia XZ, you can use the fingerprint sensor. Making the decision to disable the sensor a bit more interesting and puzzling for those in the US. Nonetheless, there is a dormant fingerprint sensor here, and if you're brave enough to flash the firmware, then you can have a working one. But it should have been active, out of the box.

Phone Calls & Networks

The Xperia XZ is only being sold as an unlocked smartphone. There's no carrier exclusives or availability this time around. With it sporting the Snapdragon 820 processor, many expected it to work on all four US carriers, but sadly that is not the case. We're looking at just AT&T and T-Mobile and other GSM carriers - like MetroPCS, and Cricket. During our review period, we've been using the Xperia XZ on the T-Mobile network and it has performed beautifully. We have had virtually the same experience as we have with just about any other smartphone running on T-Mobile's network. Which is definitely a great thing, especially for those looking to pick up the Xperia XZ and use it on T-Mobile.

Now, yes this does work on T-Mobile and AT&T, but there is no support for VoLTE, HD Voice or WiFi Calling, unfortunately. For the most part, those technologies only work with smartphones that have the carrier's own proprietary software on it (i.e. those that the carrier sells in their store). So as long as you're fine without having VoLTE, HD Voice or WiFi Calling, then the Xperia XZ is definitely a great choice. Luckily the Xperia XZ does support T-Mobile's band 12 (700MHz), which means you'll get great coverage from T-Mobile, even indoors, which is a bigger deal than it probably sounds like.

For those of you that really want to see what bands the Xperia XZ supports, they are listed below. Keep in mind that these are the bands for the US model, which is F8331:

GSM 850, 900, 1800, 1900

HSDPA 800, 850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100

LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 19, 20, 26, 28, 29, 32, 38, 39, 40, and 41

Benchmarks

As we've done with countless other smartphones, we ran three benchmarks on the Xperia XZ. We ran Geekbench 4, which the Xperia XZ scored 1584 in the single-core score, and a 3823 in the multi-core score. With AnTuTu, it scored 141,654, which puts it right between the Xiaomi Mi 5S and the OnePlus 3, which are running the Snapdragon 821 and Snapdragon 820 respectively. It's not a bad score by any stretch, and its in the same area as other Snapdragon 820-powered smartphones. Finally, with 3D Mark, we saw a score of 2545. You can see the detailed results in the gallery below.

Battery Life

This is an area that Sony has always done pretty well in. Battery Life has been pretty impressive for older Sony smartphones, and it's still rather impressive with the Xperia XZ, although it appears that competitors are catching up to it now. It actually appears that the Xperia X Compact which we reviewed a few weeks ago, has better battery life than the flagship Xperia XZ. Having said that, you can still get through a full day and then some. But it did appear that some things behind the scenes were keeping the phone awake in a few of our battery cycles. As you'll see in the gallery below. But we still got through a full day and then had, at the least, 29% left or more. Pretty impressive, even though it likely won't get you through two full days, it will get you through at least one full day, even if that's a long day.

Sony does also include two battery saving modes to help you get more out of your battery. There's STAMINA mode, which will prolong the battery time on your device, and this is done by disabling some functions on the device. You can choose to have this activate automatically at a certain percentage, or have it always on, or just simply leave it off forever. There's also Ultra STAMINA mode which takes things a bit deeper, and disables a lot of other things, and only leaves a few apps available, like the phone, contacts, messaging, camera, album, calendar, clock, calculator, settings and music. This is ultra helpful when you are in need of some juice, but can't charge your device anytime soon.

Speaking of charging, there is Quick Charge 3.0 included in the Xperia XZ. So you can quickly plug in your Xperia XZ and get a full charge in under an hour. We used both AUKEY and Anker's Quick Charge 3.0 wall chargers to charge the Xperia XZ and it worked out beautifully, giving us similar charge times to the LG G5 (2800mAh battery) and the Lenovo Moto G4 Plus (3000mAh battery). Making it a great feature for anyone that needs to quickly top off their Xperia XZ before heading out for the evening.

Software

When it comes to software, we are looking at Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow along with the July 1st, 2016 security patch included on the Xperia XZ. For those wondering, we're looking at build 39.0.A.1.250 at the time of writing this review. We did not receive any OTA updates during the week that we were testing the Xperia XZ. That doesn't mean you shouldn't expect any updates - you should always expect them - but remember that Sony is a bit slower than other major OEMs at sending out updates. Android 7.0 Nougat is supposedly coming, but there's no word yet on when that will be.

Sony is one of the few smartphone makers that is able to have the Google Now page in their launcher. Which means Google Now sits on the left side of the home screen. This allows you to quickly switch over to that page and see what's going on. Check what bills are coming due soon, what the score was on the game last night and so much more. Now the app drawer is a bit different from Google's vision. It's a horizontal sliding drawer, with 4x5 pages. Meaning there are 20 apps on each page. Now on the left side of the app drawer, you'll find suggested apps (these are based on apps you've opened and used) along with recommended apps below. Just tap on a recommended app and you'll be able to install it from Google Play. It's pretty simple, and a great way to find new apps to install. Now all throughout the app drawer, you'll find a search bar at the top for searching through applications. This allows you to quickly search through the apps on your device, especially helpful if you have a lot of apps installed.

Over the past couple of years, Sony has sort of followed in HTC's footsteps and made their software a bit closer to stock Android, and that's definitely apparent here on the Xperia XZ. Sony does have a few subtle changes included in their software, but nothing major, like you'd see in Samsung or LG's overlay. However, while attempting to keep it rather plain, Sony has also included several additional features to their software, which includes themes. There are four themes included, blue, black, pink and platinum. These match the colors that the Xperia XZ is available in. There are more that you can download and use. These aren't as overbearing as what you'd find on Samsung's smartphones, but still subtle enough.

On top of that, there is also a storage cleaner available in the settings. So instead of needing to download an app like Ccleaner, it's available right here in the OS. Just go into Settings and tap on Storage & Memory and it's right there. By default, "Smart cleaner" is enabled, and this will "automatically optimize storage and memory depending on frequency of app use. This will improve device performance." You can also uninstall apps from here. But the whole goal is to keep your device running smoothly and have storage available, should you need it.

Software is pretty top notch on the Xperia XZ. They've kept it rather plain, but still added tons of features inside for those that want and/or need those extra features. It's all in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and they are definitely doing a great job here.

Camera

Here's another area that you would expect Sony to excel in, and that's the camera. The Xperia XZ does sport an upgraded camera, which is a 23-megapixel sensor, and it does have all of the bells and whistles included. We're talking a 1/2.3" sensor that has a 24mm wide angle lens, with an aperture of f/2.0. Not to mention the 5-axis stabilization which provides some pretty amazing stability when recording video. Now you can have a sensor on the back of a smartphone, with all the technology in the world, but if the software isn't up to snuff, then it's no good. Luckily, Sony has done a great job here of critiquing the software to put out some amazing pictures, but also some pretty impressive modes.

As far as modes go here, Sony has kept things minimal while still having a slew of modes available. There's a manual mode, then auto and video. The final side is where you'll find all of the other modes that are included. These include AR effect, Sound Photo, Style Portrait, Creative Effect, Sticker Creator, 4K Video, Sweep Panorama and Timeshift Video. Now there are others that you can download as well, and the possibilities are virtually endless there. Within the camera's settings, you'll find things like the self-timer, color and brightness, resolution, object tracking, auto capturing and so much more. And it's all laid out pretty nicely, making it easy to find everything.

Now when it comes to actually taking photos with the Xperia XZ, things can be a bit slow. The shutter does take a few seconds, but it's not usually that bad, and you don't typically come back with blurry pictures. Which is always a good thing. Usually when you take pictures with the flash on, the shutter is much faster.

Camera Quality

Enough about the camera software, how good are the actual images that come out of the Xperia XZ? Well in the gallery below, you'll find all of the images we took with this camera. These aren't just the "good" ones, but all of the images taken with this smartphone, both the good and the bad. But finding a "bad" one, is going to be pretty tough, as they are all pretty good, in my opinion. There are a few pictures in the gallery below that were taken at night, in San Francisco, and you can tell that there is a bit of noise included here, but it's not bad at all. Having noise in pictures that are taken at night, with just street lights lighting up the picture, is quite normal. There are also two other pictures included, one taken with the flash and one without. I actually can't tell which one is which. The one with the flash on does give a little bit more light, but there's about the same amount of noise, so it doesn't really make a huge difference.

The pictures that came out of this smartphone are pretty good. But these days, it's tough to say whether it's better than another flagship. Considering most smartphones now have some pretty amazing cameras, and almost none of them take terrible pictures anymore. While it would have been cool to see what Sony can do with a dual-camera setup, the 23-megapixel camera here performs beautifully, and we have no issues in recommending it to anyone that is a photographer (whether they are professional or an amateur), or even someone that wants to replace their point and shoot with something that fits in their pocket and can double as a smartphone.

The Good

Build Quality

Camera

Battery Life

Software experience

Carrier Unlocked

The Bad

Display

Fingerprint magnet backside

Omission of the fingerprint reader

Position of the volume rocker and power button

No CDMA support

Wrap Up

Sony has the complete package here, minus the deactivated fingerprint sensor. Otherwise, the Xperia XZ does definitely check all of the boxes. It's not the perfect smartphone, obviously, but it is pretty close. And with Samsung's current issues with their Galaxy Note 7, this could be the time where Sony is able to pick up some new users and perhaps extend their marketshare, but at a price tag of $699, that's going to be a tough sell for many. When you are buying a Sony product, you are always paying a premium for the Sony brand. Similar to Apple with their Macbooks, iPhones and other products. If you're a fan of Sony, then the Xperia XZ is definitely a great smartphone to pick up.

Should you buy the Sony Xperia XZ?

As I mentioned, the Xperia XZ is a bit of a tough sell at $699. Sure it is flagship material, but it is also missing a great number of things that make other $699 smartphones worth the price. One is the display. A 1080p display is great for 5.2-inches, but not great for a price tag of $699. The other is the deactivated fingerprint scanner. With most smartphones, even budget ones that are under $200, coming out with fingerprint scanners, it's tough to see why Sony opted to leave it out, at least not turn it on, with the Xperia XZ. Especially where it probably cost them more to leave the fingerprint scanner dormant on the US models, only. Having said all that, this is a decent device and it will certainly make a certain camp of consumers happy.

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October 11, 2016, 1:00pm
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