Sony returns to the Android battlefield looking leaner and meaner than ever
Only a year after releasing the Xperia S, its first post-Ericsson phone, Sony has already reached the end of the alphabet with its flagship for 2013, the Xperia Z. The implication behind the name is that this handset is as ultimate as the letter Z itself, and Sony’s design and marketing teams have worked hard to amplify that idea. Cheap plastic has given way to tempered glass on the phone’s back and the power button is a precisely machined aluminum disc — so much time and attention has been poured into this one device that Sony’s ads are now boldly proclaiming it as innovative as the company’s hallowed Trinitron and Walkman brands. p>
One thing’s for sure: Sony’s not content with being an also-ran in the Android smartphone race, and the Z is its boldest attempt to grab the lead yet. It has all the requisite spec credentials — a 1080p display, quad-core processor, LTE — but it’s facing a market saturated with feature- and spec-rich devices that will demand something a little extra. Can Sony stand out on design alone, might the PlayStation Mobile experience finally deliver, or are we just staring down yet another overgrown Android looking for a raison d'être? Let’s find out. p>
A glass sandwich built around a patty of highly integrated electronics
Like the iPhone 4 and the Nexus 4, the Xperia Z has a glass panel covering its entire back, which together with the buttonless front makes for a highly symmetrical look and feel. The best tactile indication of which side of the phone you’re holding is probably the side-mounted power button, which protrudes from the middle of the right side, has a satisfying amount of travel, and is flanked by the phone’s volume rocker and Micro SIM card slot. There’s some curvature to soften the edges, but the Xperia Z is otherwise a diligent study in flat surfaces. Sony has clearly put an emphasis on not interrupting the all-glass aesthetic, which has led to the earpiece being tucked right into the top of the handset, with its opening being mirrored at the device’s bottom for the microphone.
Glass inserts can also be found on each side section of the Z, ensuring a consistent texture all around the phone. The trouble is that, although cohesive, the feel of this phone in the hand isn’t actually very good. The biggest culprit is, of course, the 5-inch form factor — it may well be impossible to design an ergonomically pleasing handset at that size — but Sony doesn’t help matters with its ultra-angular design. Whereas Nokia and HTC might start their phone sketches by drawing the hand into which they must fit, Sony’s design philosophy seems to prioritize the look over the feel.
You can submerge the entire phone in water without causing it any harm
Though it makes few concessions to ergonomics, the Xperia Z deserves credit for its thinness and minimal bezel — you get the sense that every superfluous millimeter has been shaven off this phone so as to make its size more palatable. Additionally, Sony’s endowed the Xperia Z with a quality that most other mobile manufacturers consider an extravagant extra: water resistance. You can submerge the entire phone in water without doing damage to its precious internals. That necessitates flaps covering every port on the Z, including the headphone jack, but on the balance it’s a trade-off worth making. In fact, if you buy the additional charging dock and make use of Sony’s launch promotion of bundling the Xperia Z with a set of MDR-1 Bluetooth headphones, you might never need to open the phone’s covers after slipping your SIM card in.
Adding to the Z’s ruggedness is a very rigid construction and all-around excellent build quality. It survived a pair of meter-high drops during my review and doesn’t convey the same sense of vulnerability that you might get when handling the aforementioned iPhone 4 / 4S or Nexus 4. Making an all-glass device that’s as durable as its plastic- or metal-shielded competitors is a design feat Sony should be commended for.
There’s a subtle ostentatiousness about the Xperia Z. While its lines are clean and mostly spartan, the high reflectivity from its glass surfaces and the vividness of its white and purple versions make it a difficult device to use discreetly. It’s also not easy to operate with just one hand, but at least its power button is easily accessible and its dimensions are minimal for the screen size. Keep in mind that those measurements have been tightly packed with components, so the Z’s weight is concomitantly greater as well — you won’t be mistaking it for the dainty Xperia SX any time soon.
The Xperia Z is more attractive with its screen turned off rather than on
Aside from overhauling its choice of materials, Sony has also stepped up big time in the display department with a new 1080p panel. That’s over 2 million pixels squeezed into a 5-inch footprint, resulting in a spectacularly dense and detailed display. Try as I might, I could never discern an individual pixel from those around it, which is hardly surprising given that the 440ppi (pixels per inch) density of the Z is roughly a third greater than the 326ppi of the iPhone’s Retina display. In fact, with most 720p displays already achieving similar results, you might say the full 1920 x 1080 resolution here is surplus to requirements. All the same, it feels good to know that any Full HD movies you choose to watch on the Z will receive a pixel-for-pixel reproduction on the phone’s large display. Even if that's largely a psychological comfort rather than a practical advantage.
Color accuracy and the automatic brightness adjustment are both well calibrated on the Z, however Sony’s latest flagship retains a weakness from its predecessors: poor viewing angles. Tilting the phone away from you (in any direction) quickly washes out the picture. Neither the optical lamination of the screen nor the software enhancements of the Mobile Bravia Engine 2 can prevent the loss of contrast and color fidelity when looking at the Z from an indirect angle. It’s disappointing to have to keep harping on this issue with Sony, whose whole Xperia line is characterized by the dichotomy of sophisticated design and inadequate LCDs. Just once, the company should splash out on a truly gorgeous display, such as you will find in the upcoming HTC One that the Xperia Z is going up against, and see how much of a difference that makes. As it stands today, the Xperia Z is more attractive with its screen turned off rather than on.
The Droid DNA this is not. If Verizon’s HTC handset has lowered your battery life expectations for 5-inch, 1080p phones, allow the Xperia Z to raise them back up again. In regular use, the new Sony phone consistently lasts for a full day on its 2330mAh battery. That might include syncing Gmail and social clients persistently, listening to music, occasional web browsing, video playback, and gaming, though Sony has an extra trick up its sleeve to improve endurance even further. It’s called Stamina mode.
What Sony does is as simple as it is effective: all background apps and data transfers are disabled when the screen is turned off, thereby eliminating the vampiric power draw of running processes you don’t need while the phone idles. You still receive phone calls and messages as usual, plus you can whitelist apps that you don’t want affected by Stamina mode, meaning that after a bit of tailoring you can run this as your phone’s default setting. Sony claims that enabling Stamina mode can quadruple the Xperia Z’s standby time, and my experience with the phone confirmed this feature is no gimmick. Leaving the phone to mostly idle for one day, I found it barely consumed 15 percent of its charge, and even that power consumption was primarily down to the few occasions when I turned it on and used it. Stamina mode will do little to help power users or avid mobile photographers, but for the vast majority of people — with whom the phone spends most of its time inactive — it can have a definite positive impact.
Stamina mode ain't no joke, brother
Reviewing the Xperia Z in the UK, I wasn’t able to test its LTE performance, whether in terms of reception or its effect on battery life. When it comes to 3G connectivity and voice calls, however, this phone acquits itself very well. Swapping the same SIM card between the Xperia Z and Xperia T, Sony’s newer phone is better at establishing and maintaining a clear connection, with massively improved voice quality to boot. In low-reception areas where the iPhone 5 would drop calls and the Xperia T would generate a tinny, echo-filled call, the Xperia Z is able to carry on an almost faultless conversation. Mobile data performance is similarly reliable, with my experience being corroborated by some strong Speedtest results and a consistently-filled signal bar.
Sony goes for minimalism with its Xperia Z packaging and accessories, bundling only a Micro USB cable, a charger, and a headset in the box — but what a headset it is. The sexily-titled MH-EX300AP delivers a tight, thoroughly satisfying bass response that’s ideally suited to modern music tastes. Though the treble can grow harsh at times, the sound quality on offer here is still markedly better than the afterthought buds you’d usually find taking up space in a smartphone’s box. Volume controls alongside the in-line mic would have been nice to have as well, but the bigger problem for the Xperia Z is its loudspeaker. Probably compelled by the desire for a water-resistant design, Sony has opted to side-mount the speaker at the bottom right of the phone, which makes it very easy to mute by holding the device in your right palm. Even when not physically obstructed, the speaker sounds muffled and its mediocrity stands in stark contrast to the headset, which you’d be well advised to use for all your musical needs.
Sony's tradition of bundling high-quality headsets with its phones continues
This is not the cameraphone you're looking for
At its CES launch earlier this year, Sony made a big deal of the Xperia Z’s new 13-megapixel Exmor RS sensor, but it needn’t have. It’s a letdown. While the sensor itself may be an improvement on previous generations, Sony’s software and post-processing are simply not good enough.
The camera app can be accessed directly from the lock screen, but takes a comparatively long time to get going — it’s no match for the lightning-quick operation you’d get from HTC and Samsung’s best phones, and even the Xperia T gets you to a state of readiness quicker thanks to its retention of a dedicated camera key that offers a quick launch function. Once inside the app, you’re provided a pleasingly barebones interface with a couple of quick shortcuts and the ability to record video or pictures without switching modes (as well as simultaneously).
Nothing here is unique to Sony, though the company does handle a couple of things differently. One is the autofocus, which only activates after you press the shutter button. You can set the area of focus in advance, but you won’t know whether the camera achieves focus (or how it’ll expose the image) until you instruct it to shoot. That’s unnecessarily unwieldy, and speaking of exposure, the Xperia Z seems to fluctuate between a sharp, contrasty mode and a softer, less processed look. The wide chasm between the two will have photography enthusiasts grinding their teeth in displeasure — clearly the Xperia Z has its struggles metering the surrounding light and its choices for what to do depending on that light also appear severely limited.
Most images shot with the Xperia Z exhibit the unfortunately familiar one-two punch of graininess and blurriness, the former arising from the basic process of turning photons into digital information, and the latter being applied by Sony to try and obscure that damage. Just to top off the over-processed appearance, Sony also throws in some extra sharpening to clean up some of its own noise-reducing blur. The end result are 13-megapixel photos that you’d never care to use at 13 megapixels, but they are decent at a more conventional resolution like 5 megapixels. It might have been preferable to just build a better 5-megapixel camera, however.
Video recording is also not without its flaws. Image stabilization helps when the camera’s stationary, but it makes pans jittery. Having to choose between shot stability and framing flexibility isn’t ideal. On the plus side, audio recording is excellently detailed, the autofocus shifts quickly between near and distant subjects, and the auto-exposure is usually reliable and adjusts swiftly.
Just because you call it HDR video doesn't mean it is HDR video
Sony also provides an optional HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode for both photos and video, however its effect can be described as negligible at best. HDR is intended as a method to enhance contrast by analyzing and combining multiple exposures of the same image, and indeed its appearance in video recording on the Xperia Z is the first time we’ve seen it enabled in motion capture, but its implementation simply isn’t very good. You’ll struggle to find any advantage to enabling HDR, and worse, motion blur may become an issue as the camera takes longer to expose the image multiple times.
Sony's sullying one of its most beloved brands with the atrocity that is PlayStation Mobile
Staying mostly faithful to the underlying Android interface, Sony’s Cosmic Flow skin is one of the more restrained (and thereby least offensive) OEM customizations of Google’s mobile OS. The Android navigation keys are all done in software, Google Now is accessed with the standard swipe up from the Home button, and the multitasking overview is almost identical to the stock option. Sony just enhances it with an added set of quick links to Small Apps (like a note taker and a calculator), while the notification tray up top is similarly augmented with a set of toggles for muting the phone or turning wireless communications on and off.
The choice of themes and widgets hasn’t changed from what Sony already offers on the Xperia S and Xperia T, leaving the lock screen to undergo the biggest makeover. There’s a new unlocking animation, simulating window blinds, and a pair of shortcuts taking you directly to the camera or media controls. It’s no longer as versatile, however, as the Xperia T’s ability to swipe directly into a text message or missed call from the lock screen notification has been removed.
Sony’s unique proposition on the software front is three-pronged: Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, and PlayStation Mobile. The subscription-based Music service is just one of a litany of options open to Android users at this point and the same is true of the rent-or-buy Video store — neither offers a standout reason to be used ahead of better-stocked alternatives from Amazon and Google. Most regrettably, PSM joins them in being a faint shadow of what one might expect from the service’s name alone.
The launch of the Xperia Play two years ago was supposed to herald the arrival of a brave new era of retro mobile gaming — all our favorite PS One titles were eventually going to join this new PlayStation Mobile movement and we’d all be doing that tactical espionage thing on our Xperia handsets. Alas, the PlayStation Store didn’t go live on mobile devices until recently and is presently populated by a random selection of disposable games. The PlayStation phone promise remains heartbreakingly unfulfilled.
Featuring a fancy new 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon chip, you’d expect the Xperia Z to breeze through anything and everything thrown at it. That’s mostly the case — there’s no app that unduly slows down this phone — however you’ll be hard-pressed to distinguish any speed advantage over its dual- or even single-core predecessors in day-to-day use. The user interface is not as immediately responsive as Samsung’s standard-setting Galaxy S III, nor are its animations anywhere near as fluid. Along with the sluggish camera app, this unimpressive performance leaves you feeling rightfully underwhelmed by the new four-core lifestyle.
The Xperia Z isn't slow, but it doesn't feel especially fast either
The challenge, for all of the incoming quad-core devices this year, is to prove that there’s a benefit in doubling the processor count yet again. Sony has certainly failed to do that with the Xperia Z, and given the fact that dual-core chips already offered performance far beyond what any mobile app could require, it doesn’t look likely that anyone else will either. Android phones have enough processing grunt as it is, what distinguishes them from one another these days are the phone maker’s software optimizations and additions to harness that power. Sony finds itself sadly lacking on both fronts here — the issue isn’t that the Xperia Z performs poorly, it’s that this phone’s billing and the company’s ambitions aimed at the top of the pile, whereas the experience of actually using it is straight out of the middle of the pack.
Sony's best Android phone to date is merely decent by the broader market's standards
Much like the Xperia S that came before it, the Xperia Z suffers from the unfortunate duality of being both Sony’s best phone to date and a merely average Android handset. There’s just no getting around the fact that Sony remains one step behind the competition. It stacks up a heaving spec sheet just as specs begin to matter least, it introduces an all-glass design just as others start to move away from it, and, most importantly, it fails to provide a compelling argument for purchasing it ahead of HTC, Samsung, or even LG’s alternatives.
Water and dust resistance is a rare and valuable trait for a phone of this size and the battery Stamina mode is legitimately useful, but together they just don’t add up to enough to make this device truly desirable. Sony loyalists and Android purists will find a few things to like, however the Xperia Z’s lasting legacy will be one of unfulfilled potential and inadequate differentiation.
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