Sony Xperia Z review

4.5 out of 5
£529

For

Display, design, power control options, Sony's UI isn't offensive, waterproof

Against

Camera performance is average, might be too big for some

If the smartphone world is bored of HTC, or tiring of Samsung, then Sony Mobile might have found form at the best possible time in the Sony Xperia Z. Everything seems to pull together in the Xperia Z in a way it hasn’t before.

Sony’s forays into Android smartphones have been well documented. As Sony Ericsson we saw an array of handsets without a star. Then we had a hopeful Xperia S which wowed with its display, but confused with its design. Then a side-step into the Xperia T, the James Bond phone, that for us felt awkward in its design.

Recent efforts were blighted with unnecessary software, and a theme of using hardware that never really put Sony in the spotlight: that’s all changed with the Sony Xperia Z. But is there enough in this latest handset to give Sony the top spot?

Design

If you’re not wowed when you see the Sony Xperia Z, then you should probably stop reading now. A glass monolith, the 5-inch handset is certainly large. It measures 139 x 71 x 7.9mm and weighs 149g, so despite having one of the largest displays out there - before crossing into tablet territory - it isn't the heaviest device around.

That's down to the smart choice of materials, a tempered-glass sandwich, fused in a glassfibre frame. It feels every inch the luxury device. No tactile plastic, no dubious back covers, just a feeling of substance and, dare we say it, perfection.

Sure, it's glossy and you'll spend your time wiping this phone free of fingerprints and dust that it attracts in your pocket, but that's something we're happy to live with. With a glossy finish on every side, there’s always the risk that your phone is going to get scratched. After a week of use, there are a few light scratches on the rear of the Xperia Z, but we’ve mostly had it in a pocket of its own. Over the course of an average contract, it’s difficult to judge how it will age.

It feels solid and our concerns about whether it would withstand the rough and tumble of normal use were put to rest when we dropped it on the pavement (don’t tell Sony, we’re usually very careful). Landing on the corner it suffered a scuff but nothing more, whereas a similar mishap with the Nexus 4 lead to a cracked back corner, but this is purely anecdotal.

In terms of physical controls there aren’t many: the aluminium standby button sits in the middle of the right-hand side and we still have mixed feelings about its positioning, but this being a 5-inch handset, it feels slightly better placed than it did on the smaller Xperia T. There’s a volume rocker beneath this.

As the Xperia Z is waterproofed, all the ports and connections have covers with rubber O rings to keep dust and water out. This includes the SIM tray, 3.5mm headphone socket, USB port and microSD card slot. It might prove slightly contentious for some, as whenever you need to connect your phone to something, you’ll have to open the flap.

READ: HTC One preview

The presence of a microSD card slot adds flexibility to the Xperia Z, trumping the rival HTC One, which is limited to internal storage only.

That means that connecting headphones or a power cable leads to opening and closing these flaps. We can’t say we’re especially bothered about that, but perhaps the answer is to pick-up a set of wireless headphones. It’s no coincidence that Sony offers NFC-pairing Bluetooth headphones that it’s pushing along with the Sony Xperia Z and Sony Xperia Tablet Z.

Overall, we’re very impressed. It’s a big phone, yes, and it might be too big for some, but we love the design and we love the finish. It looks and feels like a premium Android handset and that’s exactly what it is.

Hardware and display

Looks are only skin deep, as they say, and when it comes to smartphones, there’s as much interest in the guts as there is in the garters. Fortunately, unlike previous handsets from Sony, this model doesn’t feel like it’s lagging behind. Well, not too far behind.

It offers the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset clocked at 1.5GHz with quad-core power, which is still very current, but in a spec sheet face-off, some might say that the absence of the latest Snapdragon 600 or 800 processor, sets it at a disadvantage. Backed by 2GB of RAM, the relative age of the hardware becomes rather insignificant in practical daily use, as the Sony Xperia Z is a slick, fast, phone that’s a pleasure to use.

The Xperia Z will get a little warm when you push it however. Fire up an intensive task and you’ll feel the warmth spreading across the back of the phone as the hardware gets busy.

There’s 16GB of internal storage with an added, and not to be dismissed, benefit of a microSD card slot for expansion. Elsewhere you’ll find that the Sony Xperia Z is fully connected: you’ve got all the wireless connections you expect, including NFC and 4G LTE.

The display, however, is where you’ll get excited. As a flagship handset, the Xperia Z packs in a full HD, 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution display. Spread over the 5-inches the screen occupies, that gives you a sharp 440ppi. That’s about as sharp as screens get at the moment.

Although we were suspicious about the manageability of a 5-inch display, the Xperia Z’s svelte frame makes it easier to handle, but it has to be said that it’s a stretch to be able to reach all areas of the phone one-handed. There’s a technique we’ve adopted, which involves dropping the phone slightly to reach the top and you probably will too.

But there’s one aspect that has blighted us in use. Stretching across the display when using it one-handed sometimes means that the fleshy part of your hand touches the corner of the display before your thumb hits the target. This has lead to, occasionally, things like minimising the keyboard mid-typing. It’s something you have to adapt to if you use a phone of this size.

The display itself though is glorious to behold. It’s bright and punchy and the auto-brightness can be manually adjusted to your preference, so you can bump it up or down if you feel the phone is consistently too bright or too dark. Bumping it up will have a detrimental effect on black levels, however, but there’s room to get things to your liking.

Sony Bravia Engine 2: Enhancement on (left)/ off (right)

Obviously the high resolution means that things are beautifully sharp. Fonts are crisp, photos look staggeringly good, even when they’re not. Websites are glorious to behold. The whites could perhaps be a little whiter, but we’ve little reason to complain. Sony’s Bravia Engine 2 sits in place as an enhancement option you can toggle, and it seems to increase contrast and saturation on photos especially, so everything looks good.

Calling and battery

The Sony Xperia Z isn’t awkward for making calls, despite the large size of the phone. There’s a sharp edge across the top, as there is around the phone, but unlike smaller handsets, it doesn't dig into your ear uncomfortably when on long calls.

To assist your calling, there’s a range of options, including noise suppression and the option to slow down the caller, although despite our tests, it was difficult to really see if these options made a huge difference to the calling experience. That said, we didn’t have any complaints about the call quality when using the phone.

We didn’t experience any dropped calls, but there were the odd moments when nothing seemed to be happening on the data front. This isn’t uncommon, and a quick flick over to flight mode and back again coaxed the phone back into speedy communication.

The battery is sealed inside the handset so cannot be changed. It’s a 2330mAh cell, but it’s the management of this battery that’s important. It might be a lower capacity than some rivals now offer - no doubt dictated by the design - however Sony’s smart power management options are impressive.

 

Many devices of this sort of size and power will burn through the battery unchecked in half a day. But with the customisable options Sony offers, we’ve happily got through most days without worrying whether the battery would last. Don’t be fooled, however. The battery management tweaks won’t make your device last longer when you’re running full blast, but it will cut down on wastage, like apps you don’t need chewing through power unnecessarily.

Stamina Mode will cut off data to apps that don’t need it when the display is off. Before you panic, you can select apps to stay live, so you won’t miss that email or Twitter update, for example. But it does mean that you don’t have apps drawing on the network unnecessarily. The low battery mode will disable features once you hit a particular mark, 30 per cent is the default, and again you can elect what stays and what goes. If you want to cut off everything, but keep Bluetooth, then that’s your choice.

You also get smart Wi-Fi which detects when you’re not in a familiar area and shuts the Wi-Fi off automatically. It works, too, so when you step out of the door, Wi-Fi will switch off. That might mean that when you arrive at Starbucks you need to remember to switch it on again, but we like what Sony has done here.

The result, as we’ve said, is that despite not having a battery the size of some of the endurance champions, we’ve been impressed with the life of the Sony Xperia Z.

Software experience

The Xperia Z slips out the door with Android 4.1.2, but with a light dash of Sony customisation over the top. We say a light dash, it’s actually a heavy dollop, with changes across a number of areas of the phone. However, the basics stick to what you expect from Android. That means you have three touch controls on the bottom of the display, as you’d find on a Nexus device, hiding when necessary, rotating on demand.

Swipe down the notifications area and you’ll find hardware toggles here, as well as the settings shortcut, which are always handy. Open the apps tray and you’ll find option galore to organise those app icons. Like HTC Sense 5 on the HTC One, Sony here gives you the option to make folders, so you can bundle together apps, rather than having to scroll left and right trying to find them.

 

You can also uninstall directly from the apps tray, as well as search, but there’s no permanent option to dive into Google Play if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

There are tweaks in the menus, adding options, some of which we’ve already mentioned, and it seems like a sensible approach from Sony, with useful, rather than superfluous additions.

One of the hallmarks of Sony phones has always been the quantity of bundled apps. That’s the case here. In some cases, Sony is pushing its own services which you might choose to ignore, like Music Unlimited, Wisepilot, Sony Select, PlayNow, TrackID. Take them or leave them, we found the bundled most things into a folder to keep them out of the way.

There are tweaks to things like the calendar and contacts, which once filled with content don’t really add anything over the stock Android Jelly Bean options, accept for perhaps visual tweaks. There’s the obligatory link from contact’s profiles through to social networks if you’re connected together, with Sony leveraging Facebook and Twitter in most aspects of the handset to link things up.

That said, Android is natively very savvy at sharing, so the benefit is really that things like photos from Facebook flow into your connected photo albums, if you want. Its in the media apps - photos, movies and music - that Sony has made a number of tweaks. Timescape and Mediascape, thankfully, seem to have taken app retirement.

Photos, movies and music

The Album has had a heavy makeover from the stock Gallery app, as we’ve seen on Sony Mobile devices before. It’s divided into two areas, Pictures and My albums. Pictures are arranged by date, My albums breaks things down into folders for photos on your device, as well as rolling-in those online albums from PlayMemories, Facebook or Picasa.

You can also see where you’ve been snapping, as the albums will place your photos on the globe, thanks to geotagging. The Albums offer pinch zooming, so you can change the size of the thumbnails, which we like.

 

The Movies app also gives you a moving preview of the film you’ve been watching, which is a nice touch, although we found that videos we shot on the phone didn’t appear in the movies app. Videos we sideloaded did, however, as well as incorporating Video Unlimited, Sony’s own service. Streaming is also accessible through the Movies app for playing network content on another device.

However, Sony’s Movies is separate from Play Movies, and any movies you have through Google’s service will only appear in its app, which also lists all video content on the device, so you’ll probably use a mixture of both in reality.

When it comes to playback, video looks fantastic on the Xperia Z thanks to that huge screen. Whether it’s a movie you’ve sideloaded or one you’re streaming, it's a pleasure to watch. However, not all video codecs are supported and some DSLR footage we tested wouldn’t play, so you’ll still have to watch what you move across.

On the music front, Sony is leveraging the Walkman name, with the app offering, a nice visual design, as well as integrated sharing, the option to download artwork and tweak the sound output.

 

Adding a boost to the audio is Sony’s ClearAudio+, as a one-stop-shop for making your music sound better. You can tweak the equaliser if there are specific changes you want to make to the way your device sounds. With headphones connected, we’ve been perfectly happy with the audio performance of the Sony Xperia Z. There’s plenty of volume on offer and ClearAudio+ makes a noticeable difference.

The external speaker is located in the bottom right-hand corner of the phone and it’s pretty easy to cover with a hand when holding, which will almost completely muffle it. It offers hefty volume but isn’t great in terms of performance and we found it distorted as it reached the higher levels. It’s fine for incidental video watching and we had no complaints using it for conference calls.

 

Adding to the media offering is Smart Connect. It’s been on Sony devices for a while, allowing you to set-up various automated responses when you connect a particular device. Plug into the charger at night and you have set your phone to silent and opened the clock, unplug it in the morning and you can load your favourite news app.

Keyboard and browser

The Xperia Z comes with a keyboard modified by Sony. It’s a reasonable effort, but interestingly there are a number of customisation options for it. You can add and remove keys to your liking - for example, the Google Voice or a smiley key. You also get to control auto-correction options, or to engage trace entry.

The result is a keyboard that’s flexible and has a lot going for it. Of course, keyboards are plentiful on Android and if you don’t like what Sony is offering, then something like SwiftKey is only a few clicks away.

 

Taking the smart route to browsing, Sony has stuck with Chrome as the default browser. We like this as we consider Chrome to be the slickest browser on Android and the clever syncing options mean moving from desktop to mobile poses no problems as you can open tabs from other synced devices.

We also found it to be very fast, with plenty of power on offer to make pages load quickly. That, combined with the expansive screen, makes the Sony Xperia Z and great phone for browsing on the move.

Cameras

Given the time spent talking-up mobile cameras, you’d think that smartphones were camera first and phone second. In this case, the Xperia Z offers you a 13-megapixel Exmor R for mobile sensor for the rear camera and a 2-megapixel unit on the front.

As we’ve seen in previous Xperia devices, Sony has lavished attention on the camera, giving you a wealth of controls. This model doesn’t have a hardware “shutter” button, so it’s a case of jabbing onscreen to take a picture and you miss out  on the quick launch option that button provided on previous models.

However, you still get quick launch options, so if you have the swipe lock option on the lockscreen, the camera will launch and then either be ready for you, or take a shot, depending what you select. In doing so it knocks the focusing to the centre to speed things up.

Otherwise, the camera is sometimes a little slow to launch, but there are plenty of options on offer. There are focusing and metering options, scene selections, HDR and exposure compensation.

There’s also a range of smart options like burst shooting, pictures effects and panorama. In fact, just about everything you can think of. Some of it is a distraction from the straight and immediate shooting from the hip you might want in your phone, but we have to say we're big fans of the Harris shutter effect.

Harris shutter effect

The results are somewhat mixed too, with less than ideal conditions seeing noise creep into shots. On the phone they look great, but viewed on a larger screen, you’ll see that low-light images are soft and mottled. On dull days the Xperia Z also didn’t bring much punch to shots, although there are ways to boost the saturation, for example, to make them more exciting.

Overall, we get the feeling that the Xperia Z is typical as a camera phone. It’ll get you shots that will be fine for sharing on social networks and there are plenty of options, but it doesn’t excel. Our only caveat here is that while we've been testing the phone, we haven't seen a sunny days, where the phone may product much better results.

In terms of video, you get full HD capture, at 30fps and there’s plenty of detail captured. Like the photos, as the light dips video gets noisy and mushy. Keeping things mostly sharp is continuous autofocus, which is fairly fast to snap on to the subject without too much seeking.

You can also capture 1-megapixel stills as you film video and there’s an HDR video option which lifts shadows in video, so your background will be less gloomy, for example, but we also found it made colours a little strange and introduced ghosting around movement.

Verdict

There’s a lot to like about the Sony Xperia Z. It is the strongest Android phone that Sony has produced to date, fusing power, design and features. We don’t find Sony’s customisations to be too intrusive and the attention to battery life is to be welcomed. The practical waterproofing also means you don't have to worry when you drop your phone in the toilet, or spill a pint on it, and these things happen.

It’s not perfect, however, and the camera doesn’t appear to offer much over previous flagship Xperia devices. It’s a reasonable performer, however, but with rivals focusing all their attention on the camera, it’s not the greatest feature of the Z.

However, the display size, in this design of handset we like a lot. With some larger devices, you feel like you’re compromising to for the sake of having a large display. The Sony Xperia Z plays its hand nicely, giving you that large screen experience, battery life that’s well managed and overall performance that makes daily use a pleasure.

Sony is really taking the fight to HTC and Samsung. It could well come out on top.