Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sony Xperia Z review

Earlier this year, we were treated with a review unit of the Xperia ZL. In our time with the device, we found it to be a very capable device with a few unfortunate shortcomings. Month after the review of its twin brother, we finally have our hands on the Xperia Z, an exclusive to Bell. Since we expect many of the strengths and weaknesses we saw on the ZL to show up on the Z where specs are identical, much of the focus will be on the hardware in our review of the Sony Xperia Z.

Overall Construction
As mentioned earlier, since the Z and ZL are practically identical handsets aside from the handset chassis most of the meat of this review will fall within this section. To say the Xperia Z is a beautiful device would be a gross understatement. From the second one grabs the device in their hand, it's clear that this is a premium device.

At 7.9 mm thin, the Xperia Z is one of the thinnest of phones on the market and makes its 9.8 mm twin seem excessively thick. We aren't sure exactly what the cause for the stark difference between the Z and ZL given the similar specifications but regardless the difference is very obvious. At 146g, the Xperia Z like the Xperia ZL is noticeably heavier than other competing smartphones.

As mentioned in our Xperia ZL review the biggest difference between the two co-flagship devices is the back of the device. Where the ZL had a soft touch rubberized back, the Z has an all Gorilla Glass back. This provides less grip than one might be accustomed to but adds to and extremely premium feeling finish. Other than the obligatory FCC and IC information on the bottom, the back is completely clean with the tastefully discreet Xperia branding on the back.

One major downside of the design of the Z versus the ZL is the increased dimensions in every axis other than the thickness. The Xperia Z is taller and wider than the ZL making it more difficult to use in one handed operation compared to the ZL and is significantly more noticeable in the pocket. The hard edges and larger footprint remind the user that they have a phone in their pocket when sitting down.

The other noticeable losses are the IR blaster and two stage camera button. While the usefulness of an IR blaster can be somewhat disputed, it's clear that anyone who liked the idea of controlling their A/V setup with their smartphone instead of a dedicated remote control will probably want to consider the Xperia ZL or even competing flagships like the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4. The camera button, on the other hand, is quite a loss no matter how you cut it, especially on the device this large.

The last claim to fame of the Xperia Z, and the centerpiece of Bell's marketing, over the ZL and other flagship devices is its IP55 and IP57 dust and water resistance. The Xperia Z is capable of staying submerged underwater for up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. This resistance is only possible if the flaps covering the USB port, 3.5mm headphone jack, microSIM and microSD card slot are all secured.

This means the use of unsightly flaps that are an unsettling break in the otherwise beautiful design of the Xperia Z. One especially annoying aspect of the flaps is when charging and plugging in headsets. The flaps are simply unsightly, annoying and quite frankly feel like they would break off after some time.

What this means at the end of the day is that prospective buyer stuck between the Xperia Z and ZL will have a choice to make between having an IR blaster, more compact design and a hardware camera button or have a more premium feeling device with water and dust proof capabilities. Again, as we mentioned in our Xperia ZL review, it seems like the Z and ZL were born out of competing designs and in the end both got launched and we still aren't sure this was the right direction. Thankfully the next Xperia flagship looks like it's going to address that as a single unified flagship.

Sony Xperia ZL

Like the ZL, the Xperia Z is sporting a 1080p Bravia Engine 2 powered LCD display. While the ZL was one of the first phones in Canada to sport a 1080p display, the competition has now caught up and surpassed the Z with their own 1080p displays and some with better overall displays. The same complaints we had with the ZL are also present on the Z with the Bravia Engine sometimes over aggressively saturating the images and video as well as viewing angles being as disappointing as on other Xperia devices.

That being said, just like with the Z, when looking at the Xperia Z head on, the display is still quite the sight. Text, videos and pictures are crisps and flush with detail. With regular everyday usage we don't think the average consumer will be bothered by the viewing angles and will probably not mind the off natural hues by the Bravia Engine, which can always be disabled.

Like every recent Xperia device we've reviewed Sony is still pre-applying screen protectors to their displays. Whether or not it is the reason for the bad viewing angles isn't confirmed but we don't recommend removing it as it is the film that has the Sony branding on it so I suspect it isn't supposed to be removed. That being said like the ZL before it the Z catches a lot of dust in the grove between the phone and the edge of the screen protector which is slightly annoying but not a deal breaker by any means.

As mentioned in our Xperia ZL review, the power button on the Z and ZL were subject of hours of detail and attention due to how central it is to the smartphone experience. There is no doubt that the power button on the Z is sturdy, tactile and stands out easily without looking at the device.

But like the ZL, the Z's button is very good but possibly doesn't warrant the kind of hype it got during the unveiling. It does stand out a bit from the rest of the design of the Z but in a good way as it is a unique identifier to the Xperia flagship line moving forward. That being said, most users will not appreciate this level of detail but will be influenced into believing the overall solidity of the device given the number of times the button is used.

One significant loss form the ZL is the two stage camera button. It seems that the designers of the Z didn't see the needs for a dedicated hardware camera button while the people who worked on the ZL thought otherwise. We consider this a pretty big loss considering how dedicated camera buttons have basically become extinct.

As with the ZL it looks like Sony is dedicated to implementing on screen buttons which is in our opinion the better implementation to bridge the gap of devices that still use the archaic menu button and those that have dropped support for it because of Android design guidelines. The more OEMs adopt this design the more App developers will conform to the Android design guidelines and the better the integration with Google Now for users.

Battery Life
At 2330, the Xperia Z is beat out by the ZL by 40mAh. We don't think the difference is enough to see a noticeable difference between the two devices and our experience confirmed it as battery life was quite similar. With stamina mode enabled and no macro managing of the power hungry parts of the phone we got through a day's worth of use out of a single charge with medium usage.

Internal Hardware
As mentioned numerous times throughout the review the Z sports the same internal hardware as the ZL so these specs will be very familiar.

- 1.5 GHz Qualcomm 4th Generation Quad Core Snapdragon S4 Pro Processor
- 2GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal storage
- Adreno 320 Graphic processor
- LTE/HPSA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 13 MP Exmor RS camera with 1080p video recording capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)

In everyday use, the Z was snappy responsive and generally a good experience. In our usually suite of benchmark tests, the Xperia Z scored in the 8000 range in Quadrant while reaching 20000 in Antutu. Numbers that fall in line with what we saw on the Xperia ZL.

LTE 4G Capabilities
In our time with the Z LTE speeds were excellent in the Greater Montreal Area. Download speeds were between 20-40mbps with slight occasional dips below 20 but overall speeds were excellent with the handset.

As usual we remind you that your mileage will vary and that our tests were conducted in Montreal.

Speaker and microphone
Like on the ZL, the Z performed pretty well in terms of microphone and earpiece performance. But we were sadly disappointed by the loudspeaker on the Z as it's in a position that would easily get blocked when watching a video. We imagine this restriction had to do with the water resistance which makes this small gripe easier to overlook.

Like with the rest of the review, our camera experience on the Xperia Z was just about identical to the Xperia ZL. The 13MP shooter was fairly respectable in overall usage producing faithful colors in stills but lacking in sharpness which is again surprising for 13MP shooter that has a lot of pixels to sample. Low light performance was, as expected, below the standards set by competitors like HTC with their Ultrapixel sensor.

Video performance was also the same with a solid 1080p at 30FPS. Motion blur was notciably absent and color reproduction was good. Unlike the ZL review we made sure to save the HD video sample.

Sample Pictures


Android 4.1 with Sony UI
This will probably be the shortest software section we've ever put in an Android Bugle review but for good reason. When we reviewed the Xperia ZL, it was running Android 4.1 with Sony's proprietary UI. At the time we questioned how low Sony would take to push out an update to Android 4.2 but surprisingly Sony beat most other manufacturers and pushed out an update to their device in a pretty respectable timeframe.

What's unfortunate with the Canadian version of the Xperia Z, is that it launches with Android 4.1 and still has yet (at the time we had our hands with the device) to receive an update to 4.2 despite other variants already updated to 4.2 as well as Bell's own Xperia ZL already being on 4.2 (as well as being phased out). We've reached out to Sony for more information and hope the update will be pushed out in a timely manner.

For more information on the software experience on the Xperia Z check out our Xperia ZL review.


With the Z, Sony put out its best effort in terms of hardware. The fantastic built quality of the handset clearly feels "Sony" while keeping up and surpassing some competitors in terms of built quality. But the Japanese company still has a way to go before making the serious dent they want to make on the smartphone market. That being said, numbers do looks promising as sales of the Z and ZL are very healthy relative to former Xperia flagships so we hope this trend continues for Sony.

If you're choosing between the Z and ZL the choice boils down to an IR blaster, more compact design and a hardware camera button or have a more premium feeling device with water and dust proof capabilities. To many the water/dust proof capabilities are enough to not only sway them away from the ZL but other flagship devices.

At the end of the day, the Xperia Z is a fantastic device that will most likely please most people with its sexy design and good overall performance but probably hasn't done enough to stand apart from the current crop of Android flagships.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9.5/10
- Fantastic feeling hardware. Exudes the feeling of great build quality. Feels significantly larger in one's pocket compared to the Xperia ZL

Screen: 8.5/10
- Like the ZL, great 1080p display for single user scenarios but suffers on off center viewing.

Buttons: 9/10
- Good to see Android virtual buttons for great Google Now integration. Significant loss in the camera hardware button.

Internal Hardware: 10/10
- Extremely snappy performance. Just about as good as current crop of flagships with newer Snapdragon 600 processors.

Battery Life: 8/10
- Similar battery life to the ZL. Not outstanding but good enough for all day usage.

Speaker and Microphone: 7.5/10
- Good speaker microphone and loudspeaker performance.

Camera: 9/10
- Stills have good color reproduction but subpar sharpness. Video was pretty good.

UI Changes: 8/10
- Sony's stripped down experience is the right way to customize Android by enhancing and not getting in the way of existing Android features. Sad to see the Z launch with 4.1.

Addition Enhancements: 8/10
- Sony’s ecosystem of NFC compatible speakers, receivers, TVs, etc is the most comprehensive collection of compatible electronics we’ve seen from a non-Apple OEM. This works well with their IR blaster to make it an integral part of your home entertainment system.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 6.5/10
- Lots of pre-loaded Bell apps.

Final Score: 8.4/10

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