Sony Xperia Z2 review

Sony is in a funny place with its smartphones, pumping out a flagship device refresh every six months, rather than on a yearly cycle like most of its rivals.

This sees the Sony Xperia Z2 landing seven months after the Z1's September launch, offering much the same proposition but with plenty of updates. This urgency to release new devices could be taken as an explicit expression of Sony Mobile's ambitious aims, or a reflection that its top models haven't quite cut the mustard.

The Sony Xperia Z2 is an incremental reworking of the Xperia Z1, a device that we felt faced some challenges, despite some standout features such as a waterproof design. Does the Z2 go one better, or is it just more of the same?

Divisive design

When the first Xperia Z appeared, the monolithic high-quality design won us over. There's certainly something to be said for going skinny and we've always liked the glass sandwich approach, even when the rear panel is swapped for plastic as per the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact.

READ: Sony Xperia Z1 Compact review

That's all true of the Sony Xperia Z2. It fuses good quality materials with good build quality, but as with the Xperia Z1, we don't think the design pulls off the big-screen smartphone trick quite as well as rivals, like the LG G2, or as neatly as it does in the charming Z1 Compact model.

We like the looks of the chamfered metal waistband holding the device together, but on the rear edges things just feel a little too uncomfortable because the finish is a bit sharp. In the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet device we felt the smoothed edges were sufficient, but then the size of that device means its held differently so it doesn't press against the skin.

READ: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet review

There are a few millimetres difference compared to the Z1 and so our complaint about that device still stands in the Z2 phone: it's a little unwieldy in the hand. This really comes down to the squared profile of the Z2 more than the size, as it's much less comfortable to hold than either the Samsung Galaxy S5 or the HTC One (M8).

The HTC device is close in size, yet sits better in your hand because of its shape, with plenty of curves. This is a big device, measuring 146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2mm and weighing 163g. We're sure there will be plenty of readers who have an Xperia Z1 and don't find that a problem, in which case this is more of the same, but with more refinement.

READ: HTC One (M8) review

The Z2's waistband contains the physical connections, including the cutout for the charging dock which we'd recommend, as the Micro-USB connector is under a flap shared with the SIM card and it's a bit of a faff to open that every time you want to charge.

The flap is essential for the waterproof design, of course, which is one of the hallmark features of Xperia Z. If you don't want to fuss with removing it each time to charge then there is an optional charging cradle accessory that not only makes the phone sit upright and look cool, but clips straight into position thanks to magnetic contacts with minimal fuss.

By comparison the 3.5mm headphone socket is proofed without the need for a fussy flap to remove when you want to plug headphones in. The Z2's waterproofing is a touch more advanced that the Samsung Galaxy S5, so if you fancy diving into the pool for an ad hoc shot, the Z2 will see you proud.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The Z2's design does attract fingerprints and smears, as well as seeming to attract dust, so you'll forever be polishing its surfaces trying to keep it in pristine condition.

Overall the design is much the same as before: if you didn't like the Z1, you won't like the Z2, but if you're already a fan of the large scale "glass sandwich" design then you'll be pleased with the additional refinement.

Performance and battery life

While the exterior might be much the same as its predecessor, there have been a number of internal tweaks to the Z2's hardware. There's now a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset, clocked at 2.3GHz, and 3GB of RAM. If you want top spec, that's exactly what you get here.

That sees more RAM than the HTC One and SGS5, but all three devices are based on the same quad-core chipset. That should mean that all three behave in a similar way, which they do, but theoretically having more apps open and running in the background should be lighter on the available RAM.

As we have all three phone we did a quick test to see which would open Real Racing 3 first. The Z2 was the winner, arriving there first, but in other areas we've not noticed a huge difference in overall performance. Like its competitors it feels slick and fast, with no sign of lag when moving around the user interface, so it feels slightly faster in general use than the Galaxy S5.

Unlike the Z1, we haven't felt excessive overheating from the new chipset in a week's worth of use, but we'll continue to push this device and report any findings should that change.

The Z2 experience is every bit fitting of a flagship Android smartphone and Sony has also packed in a large battery to keep things running. The 3200mAh capacity cell packed into the body, along with Sony's clever Stamina mode that offers granular control over what is using power in the background, delivers a decent performance.

We've been impressed with Sony devices in the past, as the power saving options are really handy. On the Sony Xperia Z2, however, we haven't really needed them, because on average days, the Z2 has sailed through without a problem.

Of course, firing up intensive tasks will suck the life out of the battery at greater pace, but even on a day taking plenty of photos, we found the Xperia Z2 made it through without battery being a concern.

So you can put a big tick against power and performance for the Sony Xperia Z2. This is flagship done right.

Daring display

Sony has made a lot of noise about its display. The Xperia Z2 offers a 5.2-inch IPS LCD display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. That gives you a pixel density of 423ppi. The fractionally larger screen means the pixel density is a touch lower than its competitors from HTC and Samsung, but in reality, it's just as adept with detail.

Where Sony is really making a play is with colour output. By using its Triluminos branding, as found in its top Bravia televisions, the aim is all about delivering a wider array of colours. There's also X-Reality, which is about real-time boosting of colours in things like photos and movies on the display.

 

There's a noticeable difference that X-Reality brings, adding saturation to colours. A lot of saturation. In the past we've appreciated this additional boost, but on the Z2, we got the feeling that things were too saturated: realistic colours in photos were pushed too far, reminding us of some of the complaints we have had of AMOLED displays in the past.

Adding richness to a blue sky is lovely, but if the grass then looks like a sea of emerald then things have gone too far. We found our ice cream was more pea green than mint green and fresh-air rosy cheeks sometimes looked like sunburn.

The solution: simply switch X-Reality off within the settings. It's easy to do and we found we had to do exactly the same with the  Z2 Tablet's display.

There's the introduction of a new Sony tech on the Z2 - also on the Xperia Z2 Tablet - called Live Colour LED. This also works to boost colours, which makes us think the compiling of these various technologies has made X-Reality rather redundant anyway.

READ: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet review

The viewing angles on the Z2 are good thanks to the IPS display, but we did struggle with the polarisation. When wearing polarised sunglasses, the display wasn't visible in landscape so when we were snapping pictures we had to remove the sunnies. For other devices this blackout point is on a different plane, avoiding typical portrait or landscape aspects. Of course, it depends on the glasses you're wearing. And living in the UK it's not like we wear sunglasses all that often.

Overall, we're impressed with the display with X-Reality switched off. Some previous Sony devices have been weak on the display front, but the Xperia Z2 feels accomplished.

Sony software

The Sony Xperia Z2 arrives with Android 4.4 KitKat on board, along with Sony's usual adaptations over the top. At first glance, things are very much as they have been previously. We like Sony's take on Android as there are some nice elements such as the battery saving measures that we really appreciate. Sony has also done a good job to accommodate things like KitKat's translucent user interface, so it looks like a device that's up to date.

Joining this list is a double-tap to wake the display, which is quickly becoming the must-have convenience feature of smartphones. The SGS5 is worse off for not having this amongst its plethora of other adaptations, whereas the Z2, HTC One and LG G2 all offer it.

READ: LG G2 review

But the look and feel of Sony's interface is very much as it was before. The same lightweight home pages leave you free to customise and there's plenty of flexibility in the apps tray.

A two-finger swipe - or tapping the "quick settings" tab - gives you the access to hardware toggles. Strangely Sony pre-populates this area with eight shortcuts, but you can edit this and make it a longer list, which is much more useful for quick control.

The biggest change to the home pages, however, is an alteration of the usual Google Now shortcut. Sony has shoehorned in a shortcut to its "What's New" feature, which is really a top-level store front for Sony's content services of Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and the PlayStation Store.

It will offer content under "games and apps" that is from Google Play. The selection was rather limited during the review of this device, however we can see that this will be a method of Sony promoting Xperia apps. In this case, it was an Amazing Spider-Man 2 theme for the phone.

At first we thought that the quick access to What's New might be rather intrusive, but it isn't. If you're a user of Sony's content services you will likely find it useful. In our case we typically ignored it when swiping out way to Google Now.

Elsewhere the media experience is good. The photo album integrates plenty of your content from elsewhere and the Walkman music player offers Music Unlimited integration, but that can be turned off if you don't use it. We like being able to access network content quickly and easily, bringing an integrated entertainment experience. Vine is also pre-installed and integrated into the camera application.

There's still a fair amount of bloat software on the Xperia Z2 though. Aside from Sony's entertainment apps and the What's New offering, there's an additional navigation solution from Navigon - which you'll have to pay for - in addition to Xperia Lounge, TrackID TV, Xperia Care, Sony Select, Sociallife News, Sketch, Pixlr Express, PlayStation, PlayStation Mobile, Smart Connect, File Commander and OfficeSuite. Now breathe.

Some of these additions are more useful than others, but we also get the feeling that in some cases this simply adds a Sony route to doing something that's served better with a straightforward third party Android app.

If there's one thing we couldn't get on with, it was Sony's keyboard. It tries to offer everything from prediction to correct via trace entry, but we found it consistently failed to add basic things like apostrophes into words like can't. A quick change to the stock Android keyboard, or something more exciting like SwiftKey, will soon solve that problem. So it's a fairly irrelevant issue once modified.

Overall the Z2 delivers tweaks rather than huge changes to the Sony software experience. We fully expect updates to existing Xperia devices to bring this experience to older phones so everyone can take advantage, although Sony's user interface feels like it's changed the least compared to its rivals. Unsurprising given that the previous device arrived only seven months ago and we've seen the Z1 Compact since then too.

Sound quality

Sony is looking to boost the sound output in two areas on the Xperia Z2: the first is by opting for front-facing speakers; the second by supporting noise-cancellation when using compatible headphones.

The front-facing speakers are an upgrade over previous devices, but don't be fooled into thinking that these will compete with the HTC One's BoomSound, as they fall quite short, lacking the bass performance and warmth of those rival speakers. We also found that the speaker slots easily filled with pocket lint, so frequently needed a quick blow to clear them out.

The second audio trick that Sony has up the Xperia Z2's sleeve is support for noise cancellation. Rather than needing the headphones to have their own power source and the bulk that this normally entails, instead, if you have the Sony MDR-NC31EM headphones then you'll get the benefits of noise-cancellation from the phone. And the good news is that in the UK these headphones come bundled in the box.

The phone detects the headphones automatically on connection, so you get the benefit of noise-cancellation whether you're listening to music or not. You can change the type of cancellation - options are bus/train, flying, and office - but we found that the default bus/train was good for all situations. When travelling fast through a tunnel there was quite a sudden change in pressure from the headphones, but generally the cancellation is handled smoothly.

The MDR-NC31EM headphones are comfortable enough in-ear headphones that offer great performance. They might not have the richest audio output around, but that's compensated for by their other skills: better than your average in-the-box headphones by a long way.

They will also work when receiving calls: there are no controls and there's no cable mic blob, but instead the mics that handle the cancellation will also pick up your voice so you can make calls with no fuss, which is very clever.

From good vibrations to excessive vibrations. We also need to mention vibration alerts. Now, it might seem odd including that in a section talking about sound, but vibration on the Z2 is just noisy. Switch your phone to vibrate for that meeting and someone might ask if you've got a drill in your pocket; on the nightstand it frightened the life out of us. The result was that we disabled vibration, because it seemed too extreme and a sound we could do without.

Camera kudos

Sony has made a lot of noise about the camera on the Xperia Z2. With the launch of the Z1, we thought that expectations were inflated too far and although it offered good performance, many fell for the myth that more megapixels equate to better performance. But that's not the be all and end all of it.

The Xperia Z2 gives Sony the chance to have a second crack at taking the smartphone camera crown and again we see the return of the 20.7-megapixel 1/2.3-inch type sensor mounted on the rear of the handset.

The first thing to note is that in the default Superior Auto mode it's only shooting at 8-megapixels. In this mode you get few controls, the idea is that you point and shoot and the phone recognises the scene in front. It's mostly a good experience, but the lack of flash control or HDR (high dynamic range) irks us.

However, the manual shooting mode offers a better experience. It's manual by name only, as it still does everything for you, but you get control over lots of settings. What would typically be known as Programme Auto or "P" in camera terms.

It's here you can change the resolution, limit the ISO, engage HDR and control what the flash does. Unfortunately you can't make it the default launch mode, so you'll forever be switching away from Superior Auto when you want to get the most out of the camera.

The results are very good, but it's important to make sure you recognise the effect that Sony's X-Reality software has, because when you share those photos they'll look different off the device compared to how they do on the Z2's colour boosted display.

The HDR mode is useful for brightening up high contrast scenes, although it can look a little artificial. The Z2 struggles sometimes to give you nice clear blue skies: we found the rich blues to carry mottling even at low ISO settings, likely a result of contrast boosting, which is a minor negative to otherwise good shots.

With plenty of resolution there's the potential to zoom and re-crop, and as long as you're not intending to then print a large poster, it will still be good enough for social sharing, giving you a natural advantage over the HTC One's limited resolution from the UltraPixel camera.

In low light you'll need to call on higher ISO settings. And here image noise comes in to spoil the results, but it's not as obviously mottled as some competitors.

More often than not, you'll get the shot you're after as the Z2 comes with impressive overall camera performance. We don't put this down to that headline resolution figure, but all the other elements that are at play: from the camera app options, to SteadyShot image stabilisation and even the separate button dedicated to launching the camera software and firing the shutter.

The front-facing camera is 2.1 megapixels. It offers reasonable performance, but isn't the best out there if you're a selfie fanatic. Fine for Hangout calls and such like as required.

There are the usual array of AR overlays and other camera options, as well as plenty of options for video. The headline among them is 4K capture at 30fps which is quite something. For 1080p capture at 60fps there are options for slow-motion effects in Timeshift which are probably more practical and fun, while 720p can be recorded at 120fps for smooth quarter-speed playback. Cool feature set, crisp results. We're very happy.

Verdict

The Sony Xperia Z2 has the same design downfall that the Z1 did: this is a big device and it's less comfortable to hold than its rivals. That's something we feel detracts from the day-to-day experience because a smaller body design could have housed the same 5.2-inch screen in a more user friendly way.

However, Sony has opted for best-in-class waterproofing and a premium build that easily beats the plastics of Samsung's Galaxy S5, but can't better the metal body and curves of the HTC One M8.

There's power aplenty and the Z2 feels like it handles this better than the Z1. Despite the size of the display and the power on board, the battery life is respectable and with sensible use of Sony's Stamina mode and power saving options, it will happily see you through the day.

The camera experience offers plenty too, including those future-proof features like 4K capture being available for when you buy into that new Ultra HD telly.

Overall the Sony Xperia Z2 is a definite step forward for the series. It might be an incremental upgrade rather than a device overhaul, but it delivers in the areas that matter, making for a package that's highly desirable and ultra powerful.