Sony Xperia Z review
A high-resolution screen and classy Android customisations make this a great handset, but we prefer the HTC One's design
Review Date: 14 Mar 2014
Price when reviewed: £500
Reviewed By: Chris Finnamore
The Xperia Z was Sony's flagship phone for 2013, and continues the screen size and resolution arms race with its 5in, 1,920x1,080 display. It also has all the specifications you would expect from a high-end smartphone, including a quad-core 1.5GHz processor and a camera with a huge 13-megapixel sensor.
Sony is continuing to support last year's most powerful phones and tablets with promised updates to the latest Android 4.4 Kit Kat operating system. The Kit Kat update for the Xperia Z is currently being tested, following the roll-out of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean directly from Sony and via mobile networks across the world in the few months since late December 2013. The Jelly Bean update includes an extra bit of gloss to Sony's own user interface, too, as well as upgrading users to the Swiftkey soft keyboard. Meanwhile, Android 4.4 promises to bring even more features and greater power efficiently to this fantastic phone when the update lands in coming months.
The display's Full HD resolution is the same as that of this year's HTC One, but the slightly larger screen size should make text more legible at this resolution. We found we could view web pages in desktop mode and still read all the page's text easily without zooming in. This is a trick that the HTC One also pulls off, but we found the Xperia Z's extra 1/3 inch screen size made reading more comfortable.
The display is hugely bright, but we did notice some slight light leakage around the edges when looking at large blocks of black. The screen also suffers in comparison to AMOLED screens such as that of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which has far deeper blacks. It's still an impressive display, though, and seeing as no smartphone has an AMOLED screen of both this size and resolution it would be churlish to complain.
The display's certainly good enough, and large enough, for watching films and for gaming. We tried it out with the Asphalt 7 racing title, which looked fantastic, and almost like something off the PlayStation 3.
To accommodate such a big display, the handset is understandably huge, and you'll struggle to use it while carrying an umbrella. It's only 3mm wider than the HTC One and has a larger screen, though, so the Xperia Z isn’t excessively large as this generation of smartphones goes. A screen this big also requires a large battery to power it, and Sony has gone for a chunky 2,330mAh model - very similar to the 2,300mAh battery in the HTC One. Unfortunately, despite having such a big battery, the huge screen takes its toll. The phone managed 5h 48m in our continuous video playback battery life test, which is below average, showing this is one Android phone that will require regular charging.
Sony has taken a different approach to HTC when it comes to the phone's design. Instead of the HTC One's all-aluminium body, the Xperia Z is all about the glass front and rear. Sony is tight-lipped about the kind of glass it uses, but leaks from a Sony press conference suggest it has toughened Dragontrail glass on the front and the more common Corning Gorilla Glass on the rear. It does look good, but we didn’t find it as comfortable to hold as the HTC One with its rounded edges and cool burnished aluminium.
The Xperia Z does have a party trick, though; it's fully sealed against water and dust ingress, so will survive a rain shower or a drop from a top pocket into the toilet. The flaps covering its various ports are rubber-sealed and feel very sturdy when they clip in and out, so we're not too worried about them breaking off.
The Xperia Z runs Android 4.1, rather than the very latest 4.2 version. However, Sony claims that version 4.2 will be available for the Xperia Z "shortly after launch".
Even though it's now a few months since the Xperia Z was launched and we're yet to see the update, it's definitely on the way. A leaked version of Sony's Android 4.2.2 build has surfaced, and it has been successfully installed on an Xperia Z by one of the developers on www.xda-developers.com. The update will, of course, only work on handsets with unlocked bootloaders, but it does at least show that the 4.2 update is nearly here.
It's an update worth waiting for, as Android 4.2 brings several important improvements. You can now see widgets such as the calendar on the lock screen, so you can check your appointments without typing in your pin, and perform common functions straight from the notification bar; for example, if you have a missed call, you can call back or message the contact straight from the notification.
Sony's customisations to the operating system are tasteful; a large chunk of the homescreen is dedicated to a huge Sony Entertainment Network link/advert, but this is easy to remove if you don’t like the look of it.
Depending on how you like to use Android, you may prefer Sony's light-touch customisations to the rip-it-up-and-start-again of the latest version of HTC Sense, which turns your entire homescreen into a giant news feed from your social networks and various content providers.
Apart from the (removable) advert for the Sony Entertainment Network, Sony's Android customisations are fairly unobtrusive
We were impressed with the Xperia Z's keyboard; the screen is large enough that it’s easy to type accurately and quickly. At first, having to switch to the second-screen of buttons to access the full stop and comma keys annoyed us, but it's easy to customise the keyboard layout with the keyboard settings wizard, which gives you the choice of turning on comma and full stop keys, and adding punctuation as a long-press to each key.
The Xperia Z's 13-megapixel camera uses an Exmor RS sensor, which is designed to be particularly impressive in low light. Compared side-by-side with a Motorola RAZR i's camera, which is a fairly standard smartphone model, under low light the Xperia Z's sensor produced brighter images with far more detail.
Under indoor lighting conditions, when compared side by side with photos taken with the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Xperia Z really shone. This is one of the few phones we’ve seen that can take sharp photos indoors, and we saw very little noise or evidence of excessive noise reduction. It's very impressive.
Impressive focus and little noise indoors – CLICK TO ENLARGE
Outside, we were impressed with how the Xperia Z handled exposure; many phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S3, bleach out the sky, but the Xperia Z's camera picked up individual clouds. Colours are accurate, but for sheer amount of detail you can't beat the Galaxy S3; it picked up significantly more detail than the Xperia Z's camera, making images more lifelike.
Great exposure, but the Samsung Galaxy S3's camera picks up more detail outside
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