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Sony Xperia Z review

Our rating: 4.5

Introduction



The XPERIA Z is the latest and greatest mobile phone from one of the largest tech companies out there – Sony. It’s a phone that packs the latest specs and one of the first to introduce a full-HD display on a mobile. The enormous 5 incher packs 441 ppi which is a huge different compared to the current 720p top-sellers and the iPhone 5.  It’s also one of the first hi-end phones to have a real water proof case that allows you to swim with it for about half an hour. But do we really need this or is it just made for marketing purposes? We’ll see about that.



It ships with Android OS (starting with 4.1.2 Jelly Bean but gradually being upgraded) albeit with Sonys own launcher on top.



The camera's 13 megapixels shooter with Sony's Exmor RS sensor will be thoroughly tested and compared to the Canon EOS 7D, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and an old Canon Ixus compact camera.



This review will cover most features of the phone and try to put this killer in the context of the current and future market situation. Of course we will make a thorough conclusion where the above score is explained.



Have a good read!



What’s in the box



The phone comes in a small box containing – get this – the phone! It also contains a dock, USB-charger/cable, headphones with earbuds in two different sizes and a start-up guide. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. What you need to get going. It’s packed in a cheap cardboard box, which doesn’t match what Sony is trying to do (and to some extend have done) with this phone: make a state of the art, top notch and exclusive iPhone and Samsung killer. They could at least have used some molded plastic or something like that, but hey, we can’t have it all.



Handling



As it’s a pretty big phone (14x7 cm / 5.5x2.8 inches), it takes some time to get used to that alone – especially if you’re coming from a phone with a display under 4 inches. Compared to my current phone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the XPERIA Z has much sharper edges – a bit like the iPhone 4 onwards. That is clearly a design choice from Sony, but despite this design prioritization, it actually feels good in your hand and I don’t have the biggest hand out there (nor the smallest). It feels solid and exclusive. One downside to this, is a very smooth and slippery back. So remember not to place is on your pants or pillows. It will slide. I promise.




The Sony Xperia Z in the hand of guy (left) and a girl (right)

The Sony Xperia Z in the hand of guy (left) and a girl (right)




The basics: messaging and calling



On both these fairly important tasks, Sony has given the stock Android a run for its money on making a straight forward user interface. However, as you can read in the section called “Typing a web address in the browser” the same problem with punctuation is seen here. If you want to end a sentence with a period (.), you’d have to go to a sub menu to do it. It’s just stupid…



The interface when making a call is intuitive and easy to use and the call quality is very good.




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General user interface



Sony’s custom Android launcher



In my mind, Sony has made a launcher (the graphical user interface on top of the stock Android OS) that is extremely good looking and even better than the likes of Samsung (TouchWiz) and HTC (Sense). Icons, shortcuts and menus are intuitive located placed and easy to access. However, nothing is perfect. And this launcher isn’t perfect. I mean… when making a user interface, isn’t the main task (at least in phones) to make the user experience as fast and smooth as possible? Here and there, I wonder whether the designers has made certain features with the user in mind, or just with an ambition of making things better looking than stock Android, but with the cost of usefulness. Here’s two of the worst examples:



Settings short cut widget



As in stock Android there’s a pre-installed widget allowing the user to quickly turn basic settings (such as wi-fi, Bluetooth etc.) on and off and, at the same time, show what settings are on/off. Sony has tried to redesign this feature, but have somehow managed to make a three click version instead of the stock one click version. Allow me to explain: when I want to turn on wi-fi on my Galaxy Nexus with stock Android, I click on the wi-fi icon. That’s it. When I want to turn on wi-fi on the XPERIA Z, I click (first click) on what I think is the wi-fi on/off icon, but is actually a shortcut visually showing a grid of the settings that is on/off. When I click on it, I’m send to the actual setting where I then can turn on wi-fi (second click). After that, I want to go back to the home screen (third click). What the hell is going on here, Sony? Let me give a one-sentense crash course in designing software: place yourself in the eyes of the user when initiating your graphical mastermind and awesome, close to God like, coding abilities.






The settings shortcut widget. Sony left, stock android right.




Typing a web address in the browser



This is another thing where I’m lost for words in what was happening when implementing the following. It’s a small thing, but still. When you want to type a new web address in the browsers (Chrome) address line, you obviously want to add some periods (.) to the address. For instance wwwDOTreviewrootDOT.com. The thing is that you need to enter a sub menu to add a period as the dictionary constantly suggest words that block the place where the punctuations normally are. Not the fastest way of surfing the web and different to stock Android. I have no idea why they have removed the period from the bottom of the virtual keyboard. It’s not like there isn’t room for it…






Sony doesn't want us (read: are making it hard) to use dots...




All in all these mistakes are only a fraction of what this launcher does and Sony has made a good job in giving the user a Sony-take on an Android powered mobile.



Another quite different feature is the overview of running apps when clicking on the static tasks-icon at the bottom right. In stock Android you can see the open apps, open/enter them or close them by swiping from left to right or right to left. That’s it. On the XPERIA Z’s launcher, however, Sony has added different shortcuts to (as default) the calculator, the timer, a note writer and a sound recorder. You can remove or add your own shortcuts. Very cool and useful feature indeed.






This is different...in a good way




Apps and widgets



Given that this is an Android phone you will easily locate the apps shortcut in the center of the static menu on you home screen. When entering the list of apps, there are two main differences to the stock version. First of all you can now sort the apps by four different criteria: Own order, Alphabetical, Most used and Recently installed. As I’m used to the alphabetical order in stock Android, I was a bit confused as the apps were ordered by “Own order” as default – and I have never ordered the apps. Another small difference is the use of the wallpaper in the app list’s transparent background on the XPERIA Z.



The biggest different though, is the apparent no-show of widgets when navigating/swiping to the far right of the apps where they are located in stock Android. However, having a bit of knowledge of older versions of Android and other launchers, it didn’t take long to figure out how to add them to one of the five home screens. You simply make a long press on the place where you want a widget to be, and choose from the now visible menu containing links to widgets, apps, wallpapers and themes. Whether this makes more or less sense than the ‘normal’ way of adding widgets, is a matter of taste. They both work as they should and takes roughly the same amount of time to use.






Transparent app list with the posibility to order apps. No widgets here.




General performance



Given that the phone packs the latest and greatest in terms of hardware specs with quad-core CPU and 2 gigs of RAM, it’s no surprise that there’s very short load times when opening apps and jumping between them. Surprisingly though, I managed to experience a bit of lag when scrolling on medium to large web pages. That shouldn’t happen.



Battery life



Sony has taken advantage of the big size and fitted a large 2,400 mAh (milliampere-hour) battery in the Xperia Z. For comparison the iPhone 5 packs a 1,440 mAh battery. As with every other battery, it’s hard to compare it, as the operating system, apps and general use are variable factors that are extremely hard to control from person to person. That said, the OS (Sony’s launcher, not Android) tells the user how to save power by closing apps or shutting down connections that you don’t use.



Camera (still photos)



The rear camera on the XPERIA Z is equipped with a 13 megapixel sensor which, from a megapixel point of view, is enough for anyone. Out the box it’s set at 9 mp.



When using a camera - any camera - it’s always nice that it’s ready, when you want to use it. In other words; the best camera is the one that you have with you. In this case, you’d be carrying a pretty decent compact camera, but also a camera that takes approximately 4 seconds to start up after you’ve hit the icon for the camera app. That’s a bit of a letdown to be honest. The same task takes about 3 seconds on my Galaxy Nexus.



That said, the camera app is surprisingly intuitive to use, and offers the features you need. One of them is called “Superior auto” – a function that helps remove noise and gives you a broader contrast ratio when snapping photos. This is something that Sony has taken from their higher end cameras such as the NEX-series. As in HDR-mode the pictures are shot at 12 megapixel when using superior auto.




Superior auto on the Sony Xperia Z

Superior auto vs. normal




Another really cool feature (and as far as I know a first in a phone) is the possibility to take pictures in burst mode at 10 fps at 720p resolution (1280x720)(0.92 megapixel).



I tested the camera up against some other cameras to see how it compares to them. As a benchmark camera, we use the 18 megapixel Canon EOS 7D Semi-pro DSLR equipped with a Sigma 17-70mm (27-113mm equivalent) f2.8-4.0 lens. This is done to see how close the current flagship phones are to the some of the best ‘real’ cameras out there. Bear in mind, that I bought the 7D in late 2009. Other than the 7D I compared the quality and detail level with my current phone, the Samsung Galaxy nexus, and a 7-year old compact camera – the 7 megapixel Canon Ixus 850 IS (also known as SD800 IS). I made an amateurish setup with some books and things with colors and took the following photo with all four cameras.






Watch this in full resolution (12 mp with superior auto) here: click




I tried to take the same picture with ’out-of-the-box-settings’ to fairly match the results afterwards. What you see below are 100% crops of the photos.






Comparison number one





And number two. You be the judge...




The first thing you’ll notice is the obvious difference in sheer size which of course is due to the difference in resolution of the camera’s sensor. The photos were taken indoors under fairly normal daylight conditions. That said, I’m pretty amazed over the noise levels on XPERIA Z. Not surprisingly the EOS 7D wins on both pictures, but I would have a hard time choosing the between the two phones – although the XPERIA might win by a narrow margin. It’s funny to see how little has actually happened with image quality from compact sensor the last 7 years. I mean, the Canon Ixus 850 IS was a good compact at the time and is still on level with the best camera phones out there – at least in daylight conditions.



Ease of use



The UI following a click on the camera app is very intuitive and well designed. There’s easy access to the settings and you can choose (with a single click) whether you want to shoot video or take still pictures. Although this is great, I wonder why they have left out the settings for movie recordings. I can, however, easily find them when clicking on the camera icon and clicking the “Video camera” option.



All things considered, the camera app is at least as good (if not better) than the one found in stock Android. Good work, Sony. It’s a matter of taste whether there are too many features or not (filters, modes, scene selections etc.). As a point-and-shoot kinda person there probably are too many features, but if you like too geek around with the settings, this might suit you. On the other hand, you don’t need to. Out of the box you can shoot images in great quality.






​Here are some of the filters when taking a picture of two...bananas!




Gallery



This app has changed a lot compared to the stock version. Even the name has changed from “Gallery” to “Album”. I like “Gallery” more to be honest. The graphical interface is completely different and Sony’s graphics department has made some pretty interesting changes which is…how should I put it…creative. When starting the app, you have an option of viewing all pictures sorted by date or your albums. The creativeness shows when swiping from left to right. The thumbnails become bigger and are hence rearranged and the other way around when swiping from right to left. If Steve Jobs had presented the XPERIA Z, he would have called it magical. All in all I like the changes. It’s a different take and a breath of fresh air to one of the central apps of Android and any mobile operating system for that matter.




​




Thoughts on the race for megapixels



As we saw above, a lot of megapixels sure pack your photos with more detail than if you are using a camera with a low amount of pixels. But here’s a question: why would any phone maker (or camera maker in general) want to squeeze more than, say, 10 megapixels on their sensors? Because it sells. Not because the pictures get better. That’s a fact. When advising megapixel oriented (read: novices) people what camera to buy, I always say the following: “I would rather have 5 megapixels on a large sensor, than 20 megapixel on a small sensor”. I know there’s a lot of other variables to be considered, but that is by far (in my humble opinion) the most important one. Given that Sony has put large sensors in their semi-compact cameras, I think it’s a matter of time before a phone will be marketed with a large sensor. My guess is, that we will see a large sensor in a phone within a year or two. Whether it’s Apple or Sony who gets there first is a matter of will (read: and a lot of investment).



The next step would then be to add optical zoom in a mobile phone along with the big sensor. Then we’re set and done. :o)



Video recording



As most hi-end phones today, the XPERIA Z sports a Full-HD video recorder. And yes, when you play back the movie it fills the screen in width and height. It looks stunning.



As when taking pictures, there’s a broad range of filters and other settings to jazz of your movie. However, you probably won’t use them on a regular basis, but that’s okay, because the phone is capable of shooting some proper video, as this video shows:





As you might notice, the movie lags a bit when panning, which isn’t too good. Other than that, it’s pretty sharp. It might have helped, if I had chosen another focus setting, but if I were to test all the settings on the camera, this review would have gone public around Christmas.



On the next video I went to a nearby beach on a windy day in heavy sunlight. I took a small walk to check the noise reduction, image stabilization, reaction to excessive backlight. I’m fairly happy with the result. Check it out.





You can choose from four different resolutions: Full-HD (1080p), HD (720p), VGA (480p) and low resolution for MMS (176x144).



Display



As Steve jobs said when introducing the retina display on the iPhone 4: “This is a biggy!”. And it was. It came with an industry leading pixel density way ahead of its competitors at the time and for some time.



The display on the XPERIA X is also a “biggy”. But in more than one sense. It’s both huge (at 5 inches) and packs one of the first Full-HD panels seen on a smartphone. It’s a freaking dream to look at. At around 441 ppi it slaughters all of the current market leaders by an enormous margin. For instance: the iPhone 5 packs 326 pixels pr. inch, the LG Nexus 4 318 ppi and the Samsung Galaxy S3 306 ppi.



Contrast levels are not like Samsung's Amoled displays but still ok. The screen is awesome to watch both video and pictures on. Of course the sheer size combined with the BRAVIA Engine 2 helps a bit here. When thinking about it, it’s actually mind boggling that Sony has managed to pack the exact same amount of pixels in this phone as on my Full-HD television.






The Xperia Z compared to my 40 inch Sony Bravia W4500. Same amount of pixels on these two!




It’s quite a disappointing feeling going from the display of the XPERIA Z to the one of my Galaxy Nexus which actually has a pretty good display at 720p (although pentile ordered pixels). As you can see, though, it is surpassed by a huge margin by the XPERIA.




Pixel density on the Sony Xperia Z compared to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus




The only thing I’m a bit disappointed with is the screen’s ability to attract fingerprints. It gets extremely greasy pretty fast and I’m not a greasy fingered guy.



Waterproofness



To some extend this is also a “biggy” – but only if you really want to go swimming on less than 1 meter of water (3 feet) or if you like taking your phone with you in heavy rain showers or stalk on Facebook when taking a shower. I mean, isn’t this just made for one obvious reason? Yep, you’re right. It’s clearly for all those people who constantly drops their phone in the toilet or let their kids drop it there for them. The extremely slippery back could be a valid argument in support for this theory. (sense the sarcasm).



When considering that all the ports and connections – including the one for charging – is constantly closed and have to be manually opened for access, I wonder whether it’s really worth it. This is clearly a matter of taste, but Sony has NOT saved on their marketing budget on not telling us about this feature.



Compared to…



iPhone 5





I could easily just refer to the ongoing battle between iOS and Android. But this isn’t just Android. Sony has managed to make a very stylistic skin to the android that somehow makes you forgot that it’s actually just a Jelly Bean device you’re holding in your hands.



That said, the two phones are indeed very different and Sony has not downgraded on the feature count. Actually there’s a bunch of new features that goes against the way Apple think – that less is more. The added features could be seen as an even more geeky phone than a stock Android (Nexus) device. I view it differently though. Many of the features are obviously well thought through and placed where you need them – much like iOS, but there’s just more stuff. More nice stuff. I like that.



Two things where the iPhone is ahead of its competitors are screen responsiveness and close to no lag when surfing the web – something I disappointingly have seen on the XPERIA Z.



From a price perspective the phones are both expensive gadgets. However, I’m pretty sure that the Sony will drop in price faster than the iPhone.



LG Nexus 4



​



The latest Googlephone packs somewhat the same specs – except that the screen is a bit smaller (at 4.7 inches) and it’s “only” has 316 ppi compared to the Sony’s 441 ppi. Both screens are ‘Retina’-like, which means that you can’t distinct different pixels from one another, but the Sony just seems a tiny bit sharper.



The thing to talk about when comparing these two phones aren’t the display, but the operating system. Having the same engine, Android 4.2 jelly Bean, it’s funny to see how different they actually are. Personally I like the thought of not having anything ‘disturbing’ the clean Android feel, but Sony has made a good job in making you forget this fact. You could argue that they have packed the XPERIA with too many new features, but as mentioned before, it’s really a matter of taste. Especially on the camera, Sony has had some sort of feature craze when brain storming at the office.



Considering the price tag, the LG Nexus 4 is clearly the way to go if you’re looking for a hi-end smartphone on a tight budget.



Samsung Galaxy S3



​



This phone has a lot of similarities to the XPERIA Z. The most obvious is, that it’s Android in new clothes. However, this time I actually think that the manufacture (Sony) has done a good job in refining the OS. A better job than Samsung. Like HTC Sense, Samsung’s TouchWiz seems a bit outdated compared to Sony’s take on an Android launcher. The S3 is dropping in price these days, so from a price perspective, the S3 is the winner at the moment. If you have the money, I would most definitely go for the Xperia Z though.



Conclusion



This is a great phone. I could end it there, but that would be too bad, because there’s more to it. Sony has managed to make a none-revolutionary phone with revolutionary specs – especially due to the awesome (and I mean AWESOME) display. When saying that it’s not a revolutionary phone it’s not only bad. I mean, the latest BMW or Mercedes aren’t revolutionary but they are probably very good cars. It’s the same with the Xperia Z. It truly is a very good phone on most levels. The general user interface (and hence Sony’s custom Android launcher) is to date the best I’ve seen. It puts Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense to shame and make them look old and outdated. Most of the system and default apps (like the camera, caller and messaging apps) have gotten an overhaul on the graphics which looks very decent – although the camera might have gotten too many features for some peoples liking.



Though most features seem useful and a step in the right direction compared to stock Android, there are also things that Sony needs to remake. Like really. First of all they need to add a shortcut to the period symbol (.) on their virtual keyboard. Second, they need to stop making graphics improvements when forgetting the user experience. The quick menu for changing basic settings is an example of this. The stock version is much better.



All in all though, the Xperia Z is a winner on 95% of its features and specs. I like it a lot and would love to swap my Samsung Galaxy Nexus with the Sony. The price makes me want to wait a bit though. If you’re looking for a new phone and want to upgrade from your outdated Android-phone and don’t care too much about the price, this is most certainly one of the phones to consider. It’s just a very cool phone. A big phone. But a cool phone. I give the Sony Xperia Z a rating of 4.5 out of 5.



If you liked this review, please share it!



Sony Denmark was kind enough to lend us the Xperia Z for testing. Thanks!



Product pictures




      





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Still photos




     



   



   



     



   



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Pros and cons

  • Amazing 5 inch 1080p screen

  • A great custon Android launcher made by Sony

  • Great performance

  • Great camera with lots of features

  • Very slim (if you like that)

  • Waterproof

  • Very slippery back

  • Some weird UI choices here and there (read the review)

  • A bit laggy browser experience when loading heavy web pages

  • all ports and connections are sealed due to waterproofness

Sony Xperia Z
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Specifications
Type Full-HD Smartphone
Camera 13 mp
Operating System Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
Storage 16 gb internal, micro SD slot
Video Recording 1080p, 720p, vga
Display Full HD 1080 x 1920 pixels, 5.0 inches (441 ppi)
Weight 146 g (5.15 oz)
Browser Chrome (HTML 5)
CPU Quad-core 1.5 GHz Krait
FM Radio Stereo FM radio with RDS (via headphone cable)
Data GPRS, EDGE, HSDPA, 42 Mbps; HSUPA, 5.8 Mbps; LTE, Cat3, 50 Mbps UL, 100 Mbps DL, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, USB
Music Playback MP3/eAAC+/WMA/WAV/Flac
Video Playback MP4/H.263/H.264/WMV
Dimensions 139 x 71 x 7.9 mm (5.47 x 2.80 x 0.31 in)
Battery Non-removable Li-Ion 2330 mAh battery. Stand-by: Up to 550 h (2G) / Up to 530 h (3G). Talk time: Up to 11 h (2G) / Up to 14 h (3G). Music play: Up to 40 h
Link Official Sony website


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