Sony Mobile’s John Featherstone told an audience of Sydney journalists last week that Sony would ‘bring the wow back’ with the Xperia Z, after a string of less-than-inspiring mobile products over the last couple of years. “Everybody knows Sony, it’s a brand people trust but we need to get the wow back,” claims Featherstone. “I believe with Xperia Z using this simplistic type of design and ideology behind it, it really brings the wow back.” These are bold claims by Sony, and Ausdroid has put the Xperia Z through its paces to try and determine whether Sony has brought the wow back, or missed the mark.
Over the last few years, Sony has — on its own, and earlier, through its partnership with Ericsson — released a slew of Xperia handsets. We’ve reviewed a few of them, and unfortunately for Sony (Ericsson), the response has been a bit of a yawn. Sony (Ericsson) tried — and failed — to inspire with some of its previous handsets which, to me at least, always felt like they were playing catchup with the likes of Samsung and HTC.
Enter, Sony’s latest flagship, the Xperia Z.
First impressions count, and before even picking up the Xperia Z, you can see a svelte, glass-encased phone with a large screen and smooth features. Running Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, sporting a bright 5″, 1080p display, the Xperia Z looks the part. With some nifty hardware, and some fun features (such as IP57 dust- and water-resistance), Sony’s 2013 Xperia flagship could be a show stopper.
Rather than do a complete run-down on every single thing that’s in the Xperia Z, I’d like to highlight some of them. Sony’s Featherstone hit the nail on the head when he identified some smartphone features as being ‘hygiene items’; that is, things that need to be present, but are not remarkable or trend-setting in their own right.
Suffice to say, the Xperia Z isn’t lacking anything in hardware that I’ve found, but it certainly has some standout features.
The Xperia Z has two cameras, which is unremarkable, but the resolution of the rear camera is something else. The rear-shooter is a 13.1 megapixel camera, with auto focus, a flash, and curiously the ability to record both still and video images in HDR (high dynamic range). HDR in still images is nothing new, or remarkable, but the ability to record videos with this image enhancement is a bit of a new feature — it’s not just the first smartphone camera to do this, but Sony claims it’s also one of the first compact digital cameras to do it as well.
The Xperia Z camera takes fantastic photos, so much so that you could quite easily leave the DSLR at home for most occasions. I have tried to capture a range of photos while out and about to give you an idea of the range of the Xperia Z camera, and I’ll leave it to you to decide. However, for my two cents, the camera is top notch, and certainly an order of magnitude better than other mobile cameras I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of using.
That 5 inch display
I have typically eschewed the larger screen mobiles, and those I’ve used in the past I’ve not enjoyed. A 5″ display is something new to me, having come immediately from the Motorola RAZR M which features a much smaller 4.3″ display. Next to the Xperia Z, the RAZR M looks (and is) tiny, and the difference in the screen quality really shows. Viewing a desktop-mode website on the RAZR M is a little painful, and involves a lot of scrolling around in all four directions. Not so on the Xperia Z – a full-body website like ours, or like the Sydney Morning Herald, is easily consumed on the Xperia Z’s large, lovely display but there are some areas where it isn’t quite so good.
Viewing angles aren’t as great. Lying flat on a table, the RAZR M is easily readable and has a high contrast between blacks and whites. The Xperia Z however is more washed out, with dark colours quickly fading out, and whites taking on a decidedly cream tinge. Why does this matter? For most of you, it probably won’t, but if you’re the type that works with your phone nearby lying flat on the desk, the Xperia Z’s screen isn’t all that easily read from a shallow angle. I’ve captured a couple of photos to demonstrate this difference in viewing angles.
Sony — funnily enough — doesn’t seem to think this matters too much, telling Ausdroid that predominantly, a mobile phone is used square-on to the user’s face, and thus the wash-out at different viewing angles isn’t really an issue. I don’t buy that.. if cheaper handsets can show a clear image at shallow viewing angles, why not the Xperia Z that will retail for $749? I guess you can’t have everything.
One of the features of the Xperia Z I’ve enjoyed playing with is the dust- and water-proof nature of its design. Nothing screams post-modern party trick like dropping your phone in a fish tank or a sink full of water, and admirably, the Xperia Z survives both with aplomb. You can see some of the photos I shot of my clown-fish inspecting the Xperia Z in the gallery, though admittedly, I shot these photos somewhat quickly as salt has a habit of corroding metal, and the Xperia Z has some exposed metal that I’d rather not destroy.
But party tricks aside, this is a cool feature.
The Xperia Z can do things that other phones can’t, and maybe shouldn’t. It can survive your participation in a Tough Mudder or Warrior Dash, or if you’re stupid enough to jump into the pool with your phone in your pocket, you won’t kill it. Be the envy of your friends by taking phone calls in the shower — yes, you can do that too (but should you?)
Other hardware things of note
The Xperia Z positions power and volume controls about half-way along the right-hand side of the phone when looking at it straight on. The positioning of the controls makes them easy to use with either hand, though unless you’ve got monster hand-span, you’ll struggle to make too much use of the Xperia Z with just one hand; it’s far more comfortable as a two-hand device for all but the most simple of one-handed operation, such as answering a phone call or quickly responding to an SMS. For anything else, the sheer size of the handset demands a more involved grip.
Being a waterproof device, all the Xperia Z’s ports are covered when not in use, and if you plan on exercising the waterproof abilities, you’d want to make sure they stay covered and securely so. This does make some things a little annoying though — you have to remove a cover each time you want to charge your handset, or if you want to plug in some headphones. If you’re lucky enough to have a decent pair of bluetooth headphones, then worry not, you’ll not need to uncover the 3.5mm audio port to use them (though it’s there if you need it).
Again, I want to talk about the stand-out features — the really good, and really bad. Things in the software side that just work as they should won’t rate a mention here — if I don’t talk about it, it’s because it just does what you’d expect.
Wireless One-touch accessories
Why is this under software? Easy, because the hardware wouldn’t work if the software didn’t enable it. Sony has really pushed it’s One Touch concept with the Xperia Z, and has developed a range of accessories designed to use it and to use it well. What is it?
One Touch is the name Sony gives to its NFC / Bluetooth combination that allows you to pair the Xperia Z with a range of wireless accessories simply by tapping them together. Our review unit was supplied with a pair of Sony headphones (MDR-1RBT to be precise) to demonstrate this feature, and let me tell you it’s a breeze. Simply tap the rear of the Xperia Z to the One Touch logo on the side of the headphones (a discreet N shaped logo) and within seconds, not only are the headphones paired with the Xperia Z (if they haven’t been previously), but they’re instantly connected and ready to go.
Unlike some Bluetooth headphones, these Sony cans work really well and the sound quality is right up there. Bluetooth has had a habit in the past for destroying audio fidelity, but Sony has worked some magic into this combination to ensure that you’re not missing out by forgoing some wires.
Besides headphones, Sony’s One Touch lineup includes things like:
On the topic of display mirroring, the Xperia Z supports Miracast and will work with any Miracast certified display devices, however Ausdroid does not have any Miracast capable displays to test this with. A shame though this is, we did have the opportunity to play with this feature a little at the product launch, and we can say it works seamlessly and well. I didn’t observe any delay or jitter during the demonstration (and nor should I have), but I can only imagine that faster moving imagery might cause some issues, e.g. fast action scenes or fast-moving video games.
Operating system and basics
The Xperia Z launches with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, and breaking rank with some other smartphones released on this platform, Sony has promised an update to Android 4.2 shortly after launch (though at the time of writing, this hasn’t yet materialised). All the features you’ve come to expect from a Jelly Bean handset are present, including Google Now, gesture typing (although Sony includes a custom keyboard rather than the stock Android keyboard), and the more advanced Google apps.
However there are some downsides in what Sony has presented. The launcher, while visually appealing, makes it frustrating to add shortcuts to the home-screen. One must long-press on the desired app, and rather than just move it slightly to get the home-screen to appear so the icon can be placed, the would-be shortcut must be dragged to the top of the 5″ screen to the ‘add to home screen’ field, before the home-screen is displayed to allow this to happen. Not particularly intuitive, and a bit cumbersome with such a tall display.
That quirk aside, Sony’s launcher works pretty well and I’ve not felt the urge to replace it (unlike HTC’s launchers which usually last a day before being replaced).
Sony’s take on an Android keyboard is a mixed bag as well — while its text prediction capabilities are incredible, and even better than the stock Android 4.2 gesture keyboard at predicting what you actually want to say, I found some quirks that really should have been ironed out during testing. For example, type too quickly, and the prediction seems to pick things up too early, meaning that your attempt to type (for example) ‘birthday’ ends up rendering as birbirthday, or ‘attempt’ comes out as atattempt. Frustrating, and delays the typing speed significantly. I also noticed some lag when using the keyboard — noting that I didn’t see lag anywhere else in the Xperia Z experience — which just made things feel counter-intuitive.
Seeking to rule out a quirk in Sony’s keyboard, I obtained and installed the Android 4.2 stock gesture keyboard, and while it suffers from far less lag, it still doesn’t feel as fast or as smooth as it does on a Nexus device, and as we all know, the Android stock gesture keyboard isn’t all that clever at prediction or correction, quite often choosing improbable or ridiculous words instead of what might be, in the context, the most appropriate guess. Sony’s keyboard has this nailed, however, and if you’re a fast and inaccurate typer (like me) the Sony keyboard will compensate for this most of the time.
Menu button placement
Handsets that have lost their capacitive buttons in lieu of software buttons have tackled the placement of extra buttons in different ways, especially the three dotted menu button. Android’s design guidelines say that the menu button (or, more accurately, the Action Overflow button) should appear in an Action Bar at the top of an app’s layout.
Some handset manufacturers have developed their own crazy interpretations of this, and HTC’s Android 4.0.4 and 4.1 handsets – particularly those that retain their capacitive buttons – show this in an extra row above the capacitive buttons, reducing your screen real estate.
Sony has not only lost the capacitive buttons that so many dislike (I hate them), but has correctly (in my view) not created this ugly black bar to house the Action Overflow button; rather, Sony displays it as an add-on to the right side of the Back, Home, and Switcher buttons.
Sony has bundled just a couple of apps on the Xperia Z, having clearly learned a few lessons from watching what other manufacturers have tried. Rather than throw in everything and the kitchen sink, the Xperia Z comes fairly minimally equipped. Of particular note were Sony’s Album and Movies apps (which replace the stock Gallery application) which really make viewing photos and videos a breeze and an enjoyable experience. Albums are grouped under different headings depending on where they come from, e.g. Picasa, Facebook, on-device, shown on a photo map, or streamed from a UPNP media server such as Plex.
This is something you have to see and play with to appreciate, but it makes the stock Android gallery look a little un-polished; Sony’s offering is definitely more user friendly.
This is not true of all Sony’s apps though — Sony’s Calendar is just counter-intuitive. Calendar colours just don’t show properly, and for someone who uses up to half a dozen different calendars, having them all appear in red just made things very confusing, to the point that I gave up playing with it and immediately installed Google’s Calendar app from the Play Store and never looked back. Some things Google just does best.
Videos and Camera Quality
2 megapixel gallery
12 megapixel gallery
Sony Xperia Z
Sony aimed to bring the wow with the Xperia Z. How wow was it?
You know what? This is a really hard call. The Xperia Z is a phone that I actually want to really like. It has some great features which for me just make bits and pieces of life easier. One-touch wireless headphone pairing is awesome, and it works just exactly as it should, without the fiddly bits. Could your grandma do this? Yeah, she really could.
The Xperia Z is a handset that’s easy to use, and more importantly it’s easy to use the powerful features. No fiddling with Bluetooth settings, or pairing, or entering PIN numbers. Just tap and go – it just works.
These great features aside, the Xperia Z has some annoying quirks, too. The inexplicably laggy keyboard is an annoyance; it can be worked around, but I shouldn’t have to do that. Some of Sony’s apps that should be improvements, aren’t – notably the annoying calendar. There’s nothing here that kills the entire experience – in fact, for every annoyance there’s five moments of brilliance that make the Xperia Z a joy to use.
Hardware-wise, the Xperia Z is well designed and powerful, but the physical qualities too have some quirks. The rounded edges on the handset aren’t quite rounded enough to make them comfortable. The phone can be immersed in water and requires sealed port covers for this to work, yet there’s no inclusion of a pogo-pin charger to help users to protect their device (though you can buy one for about $50 more). In my opinion, an handset that comes with a $749 price tag should have this included in the box — a minimal dock charger, instead of a USB cable, is not much to ask.
As an aside, we note that Sony X members can get the Xperia Z for just $597.30 (plus $10 shipping). This is a shade over $150 off the RRP, and certainly makes the Xperia Z a very attractive proposition value-wise. However, there’s quite a waiting period to be accepted into the Sony X program, and of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll get in. Something to bear in mind, but not a deal-maker.
These detract from, but do not negate, the otherwise high quality of the hardware. The all-glass panels of the phone feel strong and they’re demonstrably tough; they’ll withstand an iPhone-destroying fall, and I’d like to see an iPhone go for a swim and survive. The Xperia Z is physically a comfortable size for carriage in your pocket, and for those who’d rather carry it in a bag or similar, you needn’t worry about it getting scratched up. After a week of living in my pocket with keys, change and other miscellany, the Xperia Z bears not a scratch. Other handsets — e.g. the Nexus 4 or iPhone 5 — will not fare so well.
Would I recommend the Xperia Z? Yes. I would.
Would I recommend you buy it outright? Probably not — it’s too expensive for what you get, but only just. I’d think $650 – $700 would be the ideal price point for bang vs buck.
Final conclusion? The Xperia Z is definitely a great handset, and it’s the best Sony handset I’ve used. The quality shows, and Sony’s dedication to making a handset that will meet the needs of most users is obvious. There are a couple of letdowns, but they’re not show-stoppers. My recommendation would definitely be to consider the Xperia Z, but to consider getting it via carrier on a subsidised plan.
Either that, or cross your fingers and hope that the recommended retail price is reduced somewhat to stimulate sales, because the Xperia Z is going to have a few competitors in 2013, including the HTC One – which we will shortly be reviewing – and Samsung’s looming Galaxy S IV.
Editor’s disclosure: On 22 March 2013, Sony advised Ausdroid Media Pty Ltd that it would be permitted to retain the Sony Xperia Z review handset together with the wireless headphones supplied for the review. Ausdroid has decided to accept Sony’s offer, and will decide what to do with the handset in the near future.
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