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Sony Xperia Z Review

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The Sony Xperia Z is the first 1080p smartphone to be launched in the UK - but it won't be the last. The HTC One is scheduled to arrive next week and the Galaxy S4 appears next month. Luckily for Sony, the Xperia Z isn't just about its five inch Full HD display - the phone is also powerful, waterproof and looks good. In this review, we'll take a closer look at how the Xperia Z compares to the last generation of Android smartphones - including the Nexus 4 - as well as the One and Galaxy S4.

 

Thanks to Carphone Warehouse who provided this Sony Xperia Z review unit!

 

Specifications

 
Display: 5" at 1920 x 1080 (441 pixels per inch)
CPU: Snapdragon S4 Pro - quad-core 1.5 GHz
GPU: Adreno 320
Storage: 16 GB internal + up to 64 GB microSD
RAM: 2 GB
Camera: 13.1 megapixel (rear) + 2.2 megapixel (front)
Battery: 2330 mAh (up to 14 hours of 3G talk time)
Connectivity: HSDPA, Wireless N, Bluetooth 4, NFC, A-GPS
Software: Android 4.1.2
Dimensions: 139 x 71 x 7.9 mm
Weight: 146 grams
Certifications: IP57 water and dust resistant (1 meter for 30 minutes)
 
Unboxing
 
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Despite its large size, the Sony Xperia Z comes in a very small and tightly packed cardboard box - certainly good for the environment. The phone is displayed prominently on the top, with the accompany branding in the standard Sony and Xperia palette.
 
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Inside the box, we've got pretty much everything we could ask for. That includes the phone itself, sitting on the left hand side, and a range of cables packed below. There is a micro USB cable, a 1.5A USB AC adapter and a pair of headphones. There are also a few manuals for getting started.
 
There's not much to see here, so let's move onto the look of the phone itself.
 
Physical Features
 
The Sony Xperia Z is an attractive phone, there's no doubt about it. Its style is a fairly minimal evolution from last year's Xperia models, with a piano black glossy finish underneath glass on the front and back. The phone is rather more rectangular than the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, but still remains relatively comfortable to hold.
 
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As a function of the phone's waterproofing, all ports are covered with black plastic flaps. While this means that you have to remove and replace them each time you use one of these ports, it does also given the phone cleaner lines.
 
On the left hand side, we've got the micro USB charging and syncing port near the top, with microSD card slot just below. This slot can add up to 64 GB of storage space to your Xperia Z, which is a blessing considering the 16 GB of space found on the phone's internal memory can be quickly filled if you're a gamer or you want to watch a couple of 1080p movies. Below the microSD port are a pair of gold contacts, which can be used with some official Xperia Z accessories to allow charging without needing to remove a flap.
 
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The right hand-side of the phone is a little more feature-filled, with a micro SIM slot a little down from the top. I should note here that once installed, the Xperia Z will automatically download the appropriate giffgaff settings during the intial setup process; just remember to close the network selection menu if you don't get a giffgaff option.  The micro SIM slot is followed by the Xperia Z's two buttons: A circular silver lock button and a generously long volume bumper. It's a bit odd to have volume below lock, but the arrangement makes sense given the large frame of the phone. Unfortunately, there's no dedicated camera button here - something that definitely comes in useful for larger phones like the Xperia Z. 
 
At the very bottom of the right hand side we have the phone's speaker. The placement here is interesting, and no doubt another function of the phone's waterproof design. As it's on the side, if your phone is resting on a surface either face-down or face-up, you'll still be able to hear the speaker at full volume - a definite plus. If you're holding the phone though, you'll find it quite easy to cover the speaker with your fingers, which silences it completely - not brilliant. On balance I think it's a sensible placement, but it is certainly something to be aware of.
 
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The top of the phone has but one feature - the headphone jack, again covered by a plastic flap. This is a little more irritating to deal with than the microUSB slot, but still quite livable given the waterproofing.
 
On the bottom, we've got a rather Japanese feature - a small hollow through which a phone charm can be looped. While these are fairly rare in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, they're essential in Japan - even for business men and women.
 
No discussion of the Xperia Z would be complete without a brief description of the phone's display. As mentioned earlier, this is five inches across the diagonal and at Full HD resolution - 1920 x 1080. This matches the resolution found in Blu-ray movies and most other HD content. Due to the nature of LCD screens, 1080p content will be pixel-perfect and indeed looks fantastic, but lower resolution assets in apps or websites are more noticeable.
 
The display is certainly sharp, and the pixel-dense display is ideal for rendering crisp text and the aforementioned 1080p movies. But that's not all to a display, and in other areas things aren't quite as rosy. The colour accuracy seems a little bit off compared to the Nexus 4 and HTC's One and One X. Of all the 1080p displays we've seen so far, the Xperia Z's is probably the worst in that regard. While the display is certainly better than the 720p displays we saw last year, it's worth noting that if you were impressed with the screen on the HTC One or Galaxy S4 you may find a slightly sub-par experience here.
 
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All in all though, the Xperia Z's chassis impresses, with an impressive monolithic look that is noticeably different to its two chief competitors in the HTC One and the Galaxy S4, yet consistent with the design language we've seen from Sony in the past. The ports and features are relatively easy to access thanks to their placement, and the whole thing is waterproof and dustproof. There's not much else you can ask for, really.
 
Software
 
The Xperia Z runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. This is one revision behind the current latest version (4.2.2), although Sony have promised an update at some point in the future. 
 
I understand that it's possible to unlock the bootloader of the Xperia Z and root it fairly easily, although I haven't yet had the opportunity to try this out for myself.
 
In my discussion of the software side of things, I'm going to cover three areas in which the Xperia Z is markedly different to stock Android: its power management features, its camera software and its styling.
 
Power Management Features
 
Each Android vendor is increasingly looking to software additions to differentiate their phones from those of their competitors. Sony have made a few such additions here, but thankfully each thing they've added does appear to offer real value rather than just be a gimmick (as Samsung's additions are often described). Probably the most noticeable for me are the Power Management features, which go far beyond the battery graphs available in the Battery app on most Android phones.
 
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Stamina Mode is perhaps the most useful toggle - when enabled, it disables mobile data and wireless while your screen is off, vastly extending the standby time of your phone. You can add apps that are unaffected by this setting, allowing you to keep it as your default mode without missing important notifications. 
 
The Low Battery mode goes further, changing or disabling a wide range of features like screen brightness, screen timeout, Wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, mobile data and auto-sync when the battery reaches a certain level. Each of these can be individually toggled too. 
 
Finally, Location-based WiFi allows wireless to be turned on only when you are near certain networks - as determined by GPS data.
 
Used in combination, these features vastly extend your battery life and turn the Xperia Z's rather pedestrian battery into one that can easily last for days at a time with light or moderate usage.
 
Camera
 
The one app that must be changed by all manufacturers is the camera app. Sony is no different of course, and they've provided a few good features on top of the already strong Android 4.1 camera. 
 
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The first of these are a much wider range of features and settings, including a rather intelligent 'Super Auto' mode that detects macro, low light and other such situations automatically and then adjusts the settings accordingly. If you'd prefer to control things manually, there's certainly enough depth here to make a third party camera app non-essential.
 
The camera also offers a wider range of settings than I've seen before on Android cameras, including allowing for the camera quick to launch to take a photo immediately, photos to be uploaded upon capture, the shutter sound to be disabled, photos to be taken when smiles are detected, images to be geotagged, etc etc.
 
Video capture also benefits from a wide range of settings and modes. One of the most vaunted is HDR video capture, but this was sadly lacking in my testing - the videos produced with the setting on and off don't look much different, and are rarely better. One actually useful feature is the ability to shoot video and stills simultaneously.
 
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All in all then, the camera software is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, the 13 megapixel sensor produced images that weren't noticeably better than good 8 megapixel cameras, like those on the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3. Low light images were fairly grainy, while pictures taken in normal conditions seemed a bit over-optimised.
 
Styling
 
Sony have added a few of their own touches to the phone - namely some moderate theming complete with launcher, lock screen, notification shade,  keyboard, settings menu and icons. I'd rate Sony as being moderate in their customisations, between heavy skinners like HTC, Samsung and LG and lighter options like Motorola and stock Android. By and in large, these changes either allow for new features or are reasonably inoffensive, with a few exceptions.
 
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The launcher is pretty close to the Android stock launcher, with a few different 'themes' available (in the lightest sense of the word) and a slightly swishier transition effect. I wasn't a fan of how apps were added and removed from the home screen, which was the opposite of stock Android for no discernable reason. In stock Android you drag an icon to the top to remove it, while here you drag it to the bottom (and risk having it end up in the dock instead of the bin). To add an icon to the home screen, in stock Android you would just press and hold on an icon, while on the Xperia Z you must press and hold, then drag it to the top of the screen, then back down to where you want it to go. The same is true for adding widgets. All in all, it's quite possible to get used to but seems arbitrarily different.
 
Despite the rather massive 5-inch 1080p display, maddeningly Sony have opted for the standard 4 x 4 arrangement of icons and have even forgone including the Google bar at the top of each screen. That makes for a very empty feeling launcher, with a lot of wasted space in all directions. After a few days of trying to stick with it, I swapped this out for Nova launcher. Here I elected to use a grid size of 6 x 5, with minimal padding and a persistent Google search bar. I also increased the number of icons in the dock to seven. This seems quite comfortable for me, particularly without icon labels, although 5 x 4 with icon labels might be more to others' tastes.
 
The lock screen is rather nice - a blind effect unlocks the phone, while a swipe along a line near the middle launches either the camera or the Walkman app,  depending on your swipe's direction. Sadly, there's no option to use Google Music instead of the Walkman app. The camera launch takes perhaps two seconds to complete, which is an odd experience after using the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 4, which both feature almost instant camera launches.
 
The notification shade is okay, with quick settings options available along the top for mute/vibrate/ringer, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, mobile data and a link to the Settings menu. Notifications come in below this.
 
Finally, the multi-tasking menu is quite different from normal Android. Instead of being a continuous bar from top to bottom, there are two sections in the Xperia Z's menu - a gray bar on the right for multi-tasking and a white bar across the bottom for running windowed apps. While these do allow for having notes or a timer on top of other apps, there are fewer options available than on Samsung's equivalent and few apps in the store as well. Still, it's nice to have the option.
 
Overall, Sony's customisations add rather than detract from the phone. While I prefer the look of stock Android, I'd very much like to see battery and camera features that are as comprehensive and helpful as those provided with the Xperia Z.
 
Benchmarking
 
Benchmarks are apps designed to allow easy comparison between the performance of different phones. There are a wide range of benchmarks available, and we'll be looking at some of the most popular options available to see how the Xperia Z's hardware and software compare to other leading smartphones.
 
In AnTuTu, a comprehensive benchmark that looks at CPU, GPU, RAM and I/O performance the Xperia Z scored 18891. That's a bit below the 20,000 we've seen reported for the Xperia Z from other publications. Even taking this higher score, the Xperia Z is still some way behind the Snapdragon 600 of the HTC One and Galaxy S4 (between 22,000 and 25,000) and is similar to the Nexus 4 with the same Snapdragon S4 Pro (around 18,000) and some way ahead of the Galaxy S3 (around 15500).
 
Quadrant is another overall benchmark that includes tests of CPU, 2D and 3D GPU performance, RAM and I/O.
Here the Xperia Z scored well, with a total tally of 7963. This compares favourably with the Nexus 4, which struggles at 4500, but isn't enough to beat either the HTC One (11700) or the Galaxy S4 (12700, Exynos octa-core version).
 
Browsermark is, as you might expect, a benchmark for web browsing performance. Here the Xperia Z performed well but again not quite at the top, recording a score of 2050. That's a dash off the HTC One's score of 2250 and miles behind the Galaxy S4 Octa (2700), but still considerably better than the Nexus 4 (1800) and Galaxy S3 (1250).
 
Overall, an impressive result but not the top of the pile. With rumours of a Snapdragon 600 equipped Xperia coming out later this year, the Xperia Z is fine under normal use but won't win the benchmark war in the long term.
 
Conclusion
 
The Sony Xperia Z is an interesting smartphone, offering good performance and some useful hardware and software features. In certain areas - battery life management, camera software, waterproofness - the Xperia Z is uniquely terrific. However, there are also some downsides - not least of which the fact that we've already heard rumours of the next Sony smartphone to hit later this year, which will include the same benefits of the Xperia Z but with a more powerful Snapdragon 600 chipset.
 
If you're not invested in the Sony ecosystem and don't like their style, then both the HTC One and Galaxy S4 look to be similarly powerful and well featured alternatives that I expect will see wider mainstream appeal. I'm hoping to review both of these phones in the next month or so, so stay tuned if you're on the fence. If stock Android is more your game, the Nexus 4 is still the best value smartphone on the market and the next generation of Nexus smartphones is only a few months away.
 
In the end, if you are looking for a powerful smartphone to pick up right now with a handsome and durable chassis, good battery life and clever camera software then the Xperia Z is an easy pick. If you can stand to wait a few months though, the odds are good that you'll find a better alternative.
 
Pros
 
  • Clever and helpful battery saving software
  • Comprehensive camera software and a decent sensor
  • Strong if not world-leading performance
  • Handsome waterproof chassis
  • Full HD display is great for text and 1080p video
 
Cons
 
  • Sony styling not to everyone's tastes
  • May be out-shone by upcoming smartphones
  • Outdated Android software
  • Probably the worst of the 1080p displays
11 Comments
soothsayer
very nice review. and its such a lovely phone. my dad has just got one as his first smartphone, which is pretty brave but it is a breeze to use and hes getting along with it pretty well so far
pupil
Looks like a pretty decent handset.
consultant

Very good review Thanks Smiley Happy

maestro

The minute I saw this phone I thought "Sony have done it again". Just like Samsung, they've really impressed me with their latest handsets. I wish them the best of success. Normally I'm an Apple fan (still am) but they really have got to up their game now. I see their hardware as sort of mid range now.

 

They need to make quad core processors now and need to change iOS a bit now. I'm already contemplating getting either a Samsung Galaxy or a Sony Xperia handset from the way things are going. 

 

To be honest, Samsung up raise the bar all the time - the S3 was mind blowing and the S4 looks jaw dropping. 

seer
Apple handsets are indeed mid range compared to Android. For me its all about apps though and Android is lacking with its half arsed ports. Unless things improve I'll be sticking to iOS in the future.
consultant
nice thanks for informative blog Smiley Happy
cicerone

i currently have the xperia s, and for me so far nothing has come close to how great i think it is, but i must say i would so love the xperia z, it just took me so long to be able to afford the one i have, by the time il probably be able to buy it there will probably be more great xperia's out to jaw drop at lol, great review, well done

head honcho
The waterproofing has been the most advertised feature as if the phone is aimed directly at all the people who can't last 6 months without dropping their phone down the toilet.
mastermind
Good review
student

awsome thread well worth checking out thanks again Smiley Surprised