The Sony Xperia Z is an incredibly important device for Sony. For the last couple of years, it's been making fairly inconsequential Android devices that even look boring in the hands of double-oh-seven. Now, the new and improved Sony is back, with the Xperia Z -- and boy, is it ever back.
A high-end Android phone with a waterproof body and big, beautiful 5-inch screen.
People who want the very best Android experience, whilst in the shower.
Say 'waterproof phone', and images of primary-coloured bricks with dot-matrix screens come to mind. Not here. It's a looker. In fact, the Xperia Z is honestly one of the most aesthetically-mature Android phones on the market today. Where the Nexus 4 feels faintly embarrassing with the faux-chrome rim, the Xperia Z impresses with a minimalist, clean design, strongly reminiscent of the iPhone 4 -- flat, sharp edges and faintly rounded corners, with only a couple of hardware buttons (and no exposed ports) ruining the Philippe Starck-style sleekness. And yes, it comes in black. (Also a garish purple, if you're into that sort of thing.)
The Xperia Z is packing a 5-inch 1080p screen, giving a PPI of who really cares, because it's simply slack-jawed gorgeous. The pixels per inch is genuinely irrelevant (though it's actually 441 PPI, if you really must know), because even if you mash your face up against the glass, you're not going to see a single damned pixel. Needless to say, text is superbly sharp and readable even at laughably small sizes -- it's actually comfortable to browse the full desktop versions of sites like Giz or BBC News, without any panning or zooming. It's mind-blowing.
Though it's generally a superb screen, there are a few nit-picks -- blacks tend to be more of a blueish-green, for a start, and the screen isn't the best in the world for viewing in bright sunlight. (Not that I could find any of that during my test, mind you.) They're genuinely minor niggles, though -- this is still hands-down one of the best mobile panels out there. Movies, gaming, browsing your collection of obscure manga -- you name it, the Z's display handles it with considerable aplomb.
Of course, there's a worry that with a 5-inch screen, Sony's treading dangerously close to phablet territory. Thankfully, the anorexic bezels and overall thinness conspire to keep the Z usable. In fact, side-by-side, it's no wider, and only a gnat's eyelash taller, than the 4.7-inch Nexus 4. In the hand, it's certainly not the most ergonomic thing ever designed -- those pretty-but-very-flat sides see to that -- but it's still ok to use with one hand.
Performance is good, certainly among the best for Android devices, but it isn't quite as smooth as you'd expect. Scrolling around homescreens, and opening some apps -- Sony's camera app, in particular -- stutters on occasion, and it doesn't feel quite as fluid as on the Nexus 4 or an iPhone 5. Given that the Xperia Z has almost the same guts (bar the screen) as a Nexus 4 -- 1.5 GHz Snapdragon processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage -- I'm putting that down to a combination of the 1080p screen and Sony's Android skin. Still, while it might not be quite as snappy, day-to-day use is still impressively quick, and games and movies play without the slightest hiccup.
The camera, which provides a superb experience through-and-through. Sony have matched excellent image quality with arguably the best camera app layout we've ever seen. The Xperia Z has a 13MP Exmoor RS sensor, which reliably produces good-looking images with sharp details, mercifully free of Justin Bieber-levels of gratuitous messy noise. Autofocus and shutter speed were good (once the app finally manages to open, that is), and colour reproduction was top-notch.
Moreover, though, whoever designed Sony's camera app deserves a free holiday. The app displays at a much higher framerate than most, which gives a weird (but really good-weird) feel when you move the phone around -- there's none of the motion blur you get with, say, every other camera out there. The layout is also first-class, with enough buttons to be efficient without so many to piss you off. Plus, you can get to everything with your fat thumbs while you're holding the phone (in landscape mode, at least), which helps with getting the perfect shot quickly.
Woefully, the battery-life gremlins have come home to roost once more. That big screen and powerful processor munch through the 2,330mAh battery's electrons with depressing consistency, leaving you struggling to get through a full day of use. In real-world terms, you'll get through a working day without too many problems, but this ain't no Duracell bunny -- if you go partying at night, your phone won't be there to guide you to the kebab shop at the end.
In an effort to combat it, Sony's incorporated a 'Stamina' mode into their custom Android skin. It promises to suppress background apps that you don't need, without impacting the usability of the device, and thus quadruple the battery life. In reality, there's as much chance of that happening as there is of Kaz Hirai doing his next keynote astride a flying unicorn. As far as I can tell, all Stamina mode really does is turn off mobile data when the screen's not on. If you do that, the only notifications you'll get are texts (which probably constitutes a tiny proportion of your communications), and phone calls. Yes, there's a whitelist of apps that are allowed to connect, but if you allow a couple of vital apps -- emails, WhatsApp, maybe Twitter -- battery life is gonna suck as hard as it did before you turned Stamina mode on.
There are a few hardware quirks on the Xperia Z that really need explaining. Like the power button, which is a giant aluminium hunk of a thing. Yes, it's tactile and all, but it's a) huge, unnecessary and feels quite out-of-place with the rest of the design, and b) it looks, feels and is positioned exactly like a camera shutter button, so I absolutely guarantee you'll accidentally lock the device about 50 per cent of the time when going into camera mode.
There's also a lanyard thingy on one of the corners. Because loads of people hang their five-inch superphones round their necks. Oh, and for the love of God, can manufacturers PLEASE stop putting charging ports on the side? Thanks.
- The waterproofing is really quite cool. It's achieved by having dainty little covers for all the ports, and while it's a tiny bit annoying, it's really no big deal, and actually aids the minimalist hardware design quite a lot. Plus it stops you from getting crap in all the ports. I tried my very hardest to defeat the waterproofing: I took the phone through an 8-kilometre assault course, pressure-washed it, went sailing with it, and sent dozens of messages from the shower, not to mention dropping it in innumerable drinks (top tip: dunking your smartphone in someone else's pint is an awesome party trick). The phone still works, although one of the water sensors has tripped (the pink thing you can see in the photo below), so maybe long-term you might see some water sneaking past those rubber bouncers.
- Although the glass isn't Gorilla Glass, the phone still failed to pick up any scratches during the aforementioned torture testing; plus, the chassis design is theoretically meant to make the 'phone more robust, and it definitely feels rock-solid -- I could totally see 007 using this as a makeshift ninja star or something.
- Sony's Android skin is generally OK but sometimes very annoying. Like the way widgets have been taken from the app screen and lodged into a screen you get to by long-pressing an empty home screen. Plus default messaging app is horrific. And there's a thing that looks like an awesome power-control widget but is actually a shortcut to a screenful of toggles, which is still handy but a total let-down. That said, it does add some vaguely-helpful crap like notification-screen power toggles.
- Connection speeds were decent, with HSPA+ downloads hovering around 6Mbps in central London.
- All the add-on Sony applications are worthless crap. The app store just links through to the Google Play Store, and the movie library is like a worse, more expensive version of Google's. Oh, and the Music Unlimited streaming service? If you're gonna pay 10 quid for a streaming music service, go get Spotify dumbo.
The only thing stopping me from recommending you fork out your cash is the price. At £529 SIM-free, it's about £250 more than the Nexus 4. Now, the Xperia Z has a lot of things that Google's darling doesn't -- classic good looks, waterproofing, a top-notch camera and a microSD card slot, not to put too fine a point on it. If it'd had above-average battery life, that would've been enough to clinch it. As is, it's a tough call to make. Price excepting, though, it's the best Android phone we've reviewed so far.
Sony Xperia Z
Gizrank: 4 stars
OS: Android Jelly Bean 4.1
CPU: 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro
Screen: 5-inch 1980x1080p
Storage: 16GB (upgradeable by 32GB with microSD card)
Camera: 13MP Exmoor RS
Battery: 2,330mAh Li-Ion
Price: £529, available SIM-free and on networks from 28th February
Sample Camera Images: