2013 was a good year for Sony. After spending several years trying to get it right, the Xperia Z finally had people talking about them in the same breath as industry leaders like Samsung and HTC. The phone’s premium design with quality internals ensured popularity with power users, and it brought features like waterproof and dustproof into the mainstream – a feature on which Sony was genuinely ahead of the curve.
Not one to rest on their laurels, Sony followed up the Xperia Z almost immediately with the Xperia Z1 in the latter half of the year, throwing a 20.7MP camera into the mix – the largest seen in a phone at the time. While the camera didn’t hit the heights we’d hoped, Sony’s changes to the phone’s industrial design and keeping step with the latest internals available at the time made the Xperia Z1 a definite improvement over its older brother.
Fast-forward another 6 months and Sony has again released another flagship phone, this time competing with Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and HTC’s One (M8). Once again, Sony opted for slight improvements all round, rather than a radical redesign of the Z1. The result is a device that looks very similar to its predecessor, but with improved specs in almost every area. Does it do enough to beat out Samsung and HTC’s latest devices? Let’s find out.
The Xperia Z1 was quite large for a 5-inch phone – larger than the other flagships at the time, mainly because of the sizeable bezels around the screen. Sony has managed to keep the Z2 at pretty much the same physical size while increasing the screen size to 5.2 inches. By shrinking the bezels slightly, they’ve squeezed in a bigger display that makes much better use of the phone’s real estate.
The phone housing is pretty much the same: aluminium frame, chamfered edges and a glass back. The button and port placement is virtually identical too, with the headphone jack on top, and the power button, volume rocker and dedicated camera button on the right hand side.
The SIM slot, micro USB port and reset button live behind a flap on the left hand side of the device, while an almost identical flap on the right houses the microSD slot. The left edge of the device also contains a proprietary magnetic connector for connecting accessories like the magnetic charging dock.
The biggest design change is the speaker placement. The Z2’s speakers have a much lower profile than on the Z1, located behind small slots in the chamfers at the top and bottom of the device.
I for one am very glad they’ve managed to keep the phone the same size. Maybe it’s just because I’m used to something slightly smaller, but the Xperia Z2 is at the upper limit of what I can hold comfortably in my hand. The chamfered edges help somewhat, but it still feels a bit boxy and doesn’t fit as comfortably as, say, the curved body of the HTC One (M8).
Until trying out the Z2, I’d never used a phone with a glass back before. Not only is it slippery, but I feel like there’s twice as much chance of me breaking it and that made for a fairly uncomfortable experience. Sadly, my worst fears were confirmed. One afternoon, after only a couple of days use, I pulled our first Z2 out of my pocket to find that the screen wouldn’t register any touches. Closer inspection revealed a small crack in the lower right corner of the device. I don’t remember any particular incident that might have caused such a crack, and I certainly wasn’t overly rough with the phone, so this is certainly something to be aware of. If you are thinking about buying the Xperia Z2, I would highly recommend investing in a protective case.
Another thing that bothered me about the Z2 was the button placement, although this was more personal preference than anything. The power button and the volume rocker sit quite close together, in the middle of the right edge of the device. Ideally I would’ve preferred the power button higher up on the right hand side, which is where my index finger sits when holding the phone in my left hand. Unfortunately, this is where the MicroSD card slot sits. Instead, they’ve chosen to put the power button quite close to the volume rocker. This causes problems for people with slightly larger (read: chubby) hands, such as myself. I constantly found myself adjusting the volume when I was trying to turn the screen off, and vice versa. Given the size of the phone, I feel like Sony could have spaced things out a bit, even putting the power button on top of the device if they needed to. Still, it’s only a minor complaint, and I got used to the button placement as time went on.
Under the hood, the Xperia Z2 definitely competes with the big boys. Sporting a 2.3GHz Quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, it also comes with 3GB of RAM. Everything zips along very nicely – apps open virtually instantly, the UI is responsive, and there’s no noticeable lag at all. Can’t really ask for much more than that.
The Xperia Z2 only comes with 16GB of in-built storage, and only 12GB of that is available to use. Luckily, the MicroSD slot is compatible with cards up to 128GB.
Being a manufacturer of televisions, among other things, you’d think the display is one area that Sony would have locked down. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case in the past. The last couple of Sony phones (The Xperia Z1 and Z1 Compact) have shown definite improvements, but still fell short.
I can happily say that the display on the Xperia Z2 represents a big jump forward for Sony. Featuring ‘Triluminos’ technology from their television lines, the 5.2-inch 1080p (424ppi) display also uses Sony’s X-Reality picture engine, which constantly analyses and enhances the display. This means that the screen always looks quite vibrant, with brighter colours.
They’ve fixed the viewing angles too – colours stay accurate and vibrant for much longer as you move off-axis.
The Xperia Z2 packs a 3200mAh battery, and it definitely shows. I’m quite a heavy phone user, and I usually have several apps running in the background. There’s usually push notifications coming through as well as Bluetooth, GPS, etc. The Z2 took all this in its stride, and the battery only dipped under 30% at the end of the day.
It’s great to not have to worry about hunting around for chargers halfway through the day! With lighter usage, you could probably get a couple of days worth out of a charge.
If you want to get even more from the battery, Sony gives you a couple of options to do that. The first is Stamina Mode, which has been a regular feature on Sony’s devices for a while now. The way it works is fairly straightforward: when the screen is off, the phone also turns off a bunch of features like Wi-Fi, mobile data, and any other apps that may be running in the background. If there’s something you’d like to stay on, you can add it to the list of excluded apps.
The other option is a “low battery” mode, which kicks in when the battery dips below a pre-determined level. You can choose which features switch off when low battery mode is activated, and also have it automatically dim the screen brightness, or shorten the screen timeout length.
Sony’s big drawcard in the Xperia Z1 was the 20.7MP camera on the rear of the device, and it’s made an appearance again in the Z2. The Z1’s camera was a bit hit and miss, and while they have made some improvements, the camera on the Z2 certainly isn’t perfect.
The camera’s auto mode, amusingly named “superior auto”, is the default option, and it will theoretically pick the best shooting mode for your photo, while also focusing on your subject. In reality however, I found it to be less than useful. All too often, the camera would choose landscape mode while I was shooting a portrait, or macro mode when my subject was a few metres away. This resulted in exposure and white balance settings that were completely unsuitable for the pictures I was trying to capture. Finally, despite proudly boasting about the 20.7MP camera, Superior Auto mode only shoots in 8MP.
Switching to Manual mode gave me much more control over the different modes, as well as individual settings such as white balance, exposure, ISO and resolution. It’s a much better way to shoot, but it requires more fiddling about with menus and settings to get decent photos, which really shouldn’t be necessary.
As with most camera phones, low light images are pretty low quality. The graininess seems far more pronounced than with other flagship phones. While phone camera sensors are never going to be great in low-light conditions, I feel like Sony could have done better here and the effort put in by their peers in the industry to perfect low-light shooting bears this out.
There are a number of different modes available such as a Panorama mode, the ability to take photos and save them directly to your Evernote account, and Timeshift Burst which takes 60 shots before and after you push the shutter button, and then allows you to pick your favourites.
You can also download new camera modes and effects apps from the Play Store, which will then show up in the camera app’s modes menu. It’s a nice touch, and saves you having to change apps. There are about 20 different modes available to download, with the majority being third-party apps.
Sony’s other big feature for the Xperia Z2 is the ability to shoot ultra high definition 4K video. Like the 20MP resolution, 4K is not the default option, and can only be shot in the special ‘4K Video’ mode. 4K mode is fairly light-on in terms of settings, with exposure and white balance the only real adjustable options. Still, video quality is the main drawcard with this mode, and if you can handle the huge file sizes, this is the mode to shoot in.
There are a few different video modes to play with as well, with Timeshift Video being the most interesting among them. This mode lets you record high frame-rate video and then choose which sections of the footage to play in slow motion. It’s a cool little trick, and can be fun to play around with. Other modes include one that adds a vintage 8mm video camera filter to your videos, and a Vine app that lets you create your own 6-second movies to upload straight to Vine.
Overall, the Xperia Z2 has a pretty powerful camera, and you can get some good looking pics and video from it, but it feels harder than it should be, and some of the basics just don’t really cut it. This has been the case with Sony’s phones for a while now, and we expect better of them given their pedigree in the camera space.
The Xperia Z2 gives you all the connectivity options you would expect from a high-end smartphone in 2014, with support for Australian 3G and 4G networks, NFC, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wifi on 2.4 and 5Ghz bands. Everything works as it should, and I had no problems with wifi, mobile data or calls dropping out in my time with the Z2.
Call quality was pretty much what you’d expect, everything was clear and I had no issues in that department either.
The Xperia Z1 hid it’s stereo speakers behind a grille at the bottom of the device. This was all well and good, but the “stereo” aspect didn’t work that well when using the device in landscape mode, as both speakers ended up on the same side. This has been fixed with the Z2; the speakers are placed in the bezel on the top and bottom edges of the phone.
Not only does this updated speaker placement fix the landscape issue, it also means that you can place the phone on the front or back side on a hard tabletop or a soft couch, and the sound will not be affected.
The sound quality is excellent considering that the phone is waterproof. It’s not quite at HTC’s Boomsound level, but it’s definitely getting close.
The Xperia Z2 comes with Android 4.4.2 out of the box, which seems to be par for the course these days. There’s no word yet on when the Z2 will see an update to 4.4.4 but, given that Sony are currently rolling out the update for the Z1 and Z1 Compact, we can probably expect to see this sooner rather than later.
Let’s face it, pretty much every Android phone manufacturer is going to want to put their own unique touch on the vanilla Android experience, and Sony is no exception. Thankfully, Sony’s efforts are quite minimal and far less intrusive than, say, TouchWiz or Sense. Most of Sony’s changes are purely cosmetic; different menu animations, slightly altered fonts, etc.
There are a couple of bigger changes – such as a menu overlay on the apps drawer that gives sorting and search options, and a reworked quick settings menu – but overall it doesn’t mess with vanilla Android too much, and is all the better for it.
One thing that has angered people with Sony’s past devices is the number of apps they include out of the box. I don’t mind a few extras, but I counted 25 on the Xperia Z2. Sure, a lot of these are useful for some people who’ll find them to be worthy additions, but it’d be nice to be given a choice rather than have them forced on me with no option to delete.
Sony is obviously a huge company with – among other things – their own record label, film distribution company, and even a video game publishing department. These are all established businesses with their own functioning ecosystems, so naturally Sony wants to encourage people to use these instead of Google’s apps.
Sony’s Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services, (available through their Movies and Walkman apps respectively) provide users with yet another place to purchase and view content. If you own other Sony products such as a Playstation 3, Playstation 4 or Internet-connected television, you can even share content between the devices.
An advantage to Sony having its own media ecosystems is that it can offer exclusive deals and content as a way to entice customers. They do this through an app called Xperia Lounge, available only on Xperia devices.
The app features exclusive videos and music from Sony’s catalogue as well as competitions, discount codes and free offers. During my time with the Xperia Z2 I was able to get 15% off all accessories from Sony Online and download a package of 6 films from Video Unlimited, which included The Amazing Spiderman, Django Unchained and Captain Phillips.
This sort of cross-promotion could work out well for Sony, as it could really give users a reason to pick them over the competition. If you were choosing between the Xperia Z2 and a Galaxy S5, a bunch of free movies might just tip you over the edge.
Some of the other apps Sony has included on the Xperia Z2 are quite useful. For example, Smart Connect is a handy app that allows you to create and edit profiles and events that can be triggered when the Xperia Z2 is connected to certain devices or accessories. For example, When I plug the Z2 into the charger after 9pm at night, it automatically triggers the “Night” event, which sets the phone volume to silent and turns on the alarm for the following morning. When 7am rolls around (or earlier, if I unplug the charger before then) the Night event ends, and everything goes back to how it was. It’s a nifty idea that works well, and can be customised for a number of different accessories such as headphones, smart watches and fitness trackers.
Others don’t quite hit the mark. Socialife News is a news aggregator, similar to HTC’s Blinkfeed service, but doesn’t work nearly as well. Despite customising the feeds to suit my interests, I continued to get stories that didn’t fit into what I’d chosen. What’s more, the stories would pop up in my notification window, and would take up quite a bit of room, which I found quite intrusive. Luckily, it can be turned off relatively easily.
Finally, The Xperia Z2 also comes with a few bundled-in apps. These include Evernote, Foursquare (though not Swarm), Vine, LinkedIn and Pixlr Express. Thankfully, these are not compulsory and can all be uninstalled.
As someone who is used to a slightly smaller device though, I found the extra size and weight difficult to handle. Once I added a case to the device it made it easier to hold, and also seemed to give it a bit more structural integrity. If you do decide to get the Z2, make sure you grab a protective case for it and you should be fine.
The extra GB of RAM in the Xperia Z2 means that it can handle pretty much any task you throw at it, and it’s a worthy competitor to Samsung’s and HTC’s current flagships – and at $60 less than the One M8 and about $150 less than the Galaxy S5 it’s definitely the cheaper option, too.
If you’re looking for a high-end smartphone, make sure you remember there are three big-name devices to choose from, not just two.
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