I can’t fault it, but would I buy it?
DISCLAIMER: The Xperia XZ shown and commented on is a pre-production model. The hardware, software and performance is subject to change prior to release.
OK so this was a little unexpected. After re-branding their main smartphone series to ‘X’ earlier this year, we thought we’d seen all Sony had to offer for 2016. It seems we were mistaken though. There are two more devices for Sony to show off.
The standout specification on the list is the 23 megapixel camera with laser autofocus. Sony’s already half played this card; the X Performance has the 23 MP sensor. They aren’t the first to show off laser focusing either. So is this enough to wow the crowd?
There’s also been a fair few Sony releases in recent months. Not every phone is available in every region, but there are 6 new X range devices in half as many months. So where does the Xperia XZ sit at this family gathering?
We can’t talk about the Xperia XZ without mentioning the X Performance. That was originally the 2016 flagship, although has been sort of usurped after about 2 or 3 months. Even Tommen Baratheon lasted longer than that.
Now it is worth stating that the Performance wasn’t officially due to release in the UK. The XZ is launching at the same RRP (£549), so we’re expecting the Performance to disappear from UK shelves quickly, leaving only one flagship phone to order here.
Speaking of that price; it’s reasonable for this phone but might struggle against competition who have been selling for a few months and could discount in retaliation.
With the XZ, a return to the design language of earlier Z range devices is apparent. I’ve always been a fan of Sony’s utilitarian design. By the time the Z5 rolled out late last year, this unique style had been highly refined and iterated on.
In my opinion the X range designs did away with a lot of that work. Some remnants are on other X phones – they are still more ‘boxy’ than the competition – yet the corners are far more rounded and the edges curved.
Xperia XZ is slightly taller and thinner than other X phones, with square corners more akin to the older Z range. Personally I prefer this. I feel it effects a more professional profile, in opposition to rest of the X range’s more ‘mainstream’ look.
The front glass on the XZ is ever so slightly recessed into the frame. Other X phones protrude slightly with a 2.5D edge to mimic a curved display. Again I prefer the XZ look and this has a chance of better surviving drops and knocks. There’s a sense of symmetry too, with the back panel’s edging mirroring the glass on the front.
I’m sure someone at Sony can explain why the volume keys are on the bottom half of the phone. It’s been this way for a few generations now and it still doesn’t quite make sense to me. The only thing I can think of is that they are closer to the (always excellent) dedicated camera key for zooming.
With this many lines and edges you still don’t get the seamless feel of an iPhone or Galaxy. Like all top-end Sony devices though, the Xperia XZ still feels solid and well manufactured.
As an aside, I also think Sony’s side-mounted position of fingerprint sensor is the perfect placement too.
If you put this phone next to the X Performance then you haven’t gone mad. The internal specification is almost identical.
- Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow)
- New Snapdragon 820 64 bit processor / 3GB RAM
- 5.2” Full HD resolution – Enjoy content in great detail
- 23 MP Sony camera sensor with Laser Autofocus
- Lossless 5x Clear Zoom and <0.1 second autofocus
- 32 GB storage & micro SD support
- Fingerprint sensor
- USB Type-C
- Hi-Res audio support
Some differences include a slightly bigger screen and a new laser autofocus system. Sony tell me this improves on the ‘hybrid autofocus’ seen on the X Performance. Type-C USB is slowly coming to all the major brands so it’s no surprise Sony have squeezed it in to a late release here.
Those aren’t major differences though and trying to explain this to someone isn’t easy.
As always Sony cram top of the range hardware into their phones. This is the upgraded version of the Snapdragon 820, so heating issues have been addressed. The Sony camera lens/sensor combination has also been very impressive in recent years. We’ll take a closer look at that later.
Screen wise, Sony are playing it fairly safe with the 1080 x 1920 5.2” panel. Eschewing the 2K panels on competitors is probably for the best. It saves on battery life and manufacturing costs for what are arguable gains on a phone screen.
About 3 or 4 generations of Sony phones ago, it was common to say they had the slickest Android skin around.
That’s no longer the selling point it once was. Samsung have improved the performance of Touchwiz considerably. HTC, for what its worth, have lovely integration of their own features into Google’s code. Even cheaper Chinese manufacturers such as Lenovo have leveraged their own systems into clean, lightweight interfaces.
Sony’s system still has a clean look and feel, although in the last couple of years inevitable feature creep has started to bloat the UI.
For instance you’re never explicitly nagged to do so, but system widgets such as ‘What’s New’ and a ‘Suggested’ feature in the app drawer are constantly trying to push you through Sony’s services to obtain new apps. It reminds me a lot of Samsung’s haranguing when they aggressively pushed their app store on Galaxy phones.
Any major manufacturer will have some software partnerships. I can therefore half overlook having SwiftKey, AVG, Amazon, Facebook etc. installed off the bat. These can’t be uninstalled though, only disabled.
I did find one nag – SwiftKey is the only available keyboard! It’s a very good app but I find that decision odd. You can install others from Google Play but I wonder why Sony went out of their way to remove the stock Google keyboard. Even the decent Xperia keyboard isn’t here. I suppose ‘money’ is the answer to that question.
Other apps are actually well integrated however and add value. Video/TV Sideview is one of these.
You set this up with a broad location (country/region) and preferred TV service provider. The app then pulls up the TV schedule. Browse the programmes and you can view information on the actors and even Tweets related to the show. I’m sure more than few media junkies would love this.
Overall the system seems a little faster than the last few Xperias I’ve used. Hopefully this means Sony have taken on board some previous criticisms. It’s also likely to be due in part to Marshmallow’s handling of background processes. I regularly had over a dozen apps in the background and the phone never shouted at me.
This is the major selling point for the XZ. As such I was expecting very good things.
First off, Sony overhauled their camera app earlier this year. All of these improvements carry over to the Xperia XZ.
This includes the camera app launch time, which is now almost instantaneous.
Also some features, such as 4K recording and other special modes, have been turned into separate apps, launching from the camera app.
This likely makes the footprint for the ‘camera’ app smaller and quicker to launch.
DxOMark scored the X Performance as high as any other mobile camera, so we can expect similar results from the near identical XZ. The new autofocus system may even bump that score a notch.
Key things to look out for on this camera include the wide angle G lens and new laser autofocus. The G Lens is better suited to outdoor landscape and group shots than competitors. The laser autofocus is undoubtedly quick. I was able to swiftly snap onto subjects over a range of distances and track moving objects.
Sony’s image processing also appears less oversaturated than other leading mobile cameras. Samsung for instance are known for very high contrast colours (helped by viewing on AMOLED screens), however camera enthusiasts sometimes score them down for ‘unnatural’ reproduction.
Overall the XZ delivers very fine resolution with little noise or grain. Colour reproduction is indeed very natural. Some of my colleagues thought the results to appear a little washed out. I countered that they were more ‘natural’, compared to the over processed and saturated ‘promo’ style images we get exposed to on a regular basis.
Personal preferences aside, you can’t really fault the results. There are plenty of settings in the app, noticeable difference between HDR and non-HDR imagery, and some fun filters and features to play with.
The Xperia XZ is a very good phone. I do have some concern over the size of Sony’s current range though.
Last year Sony Mobile supposedly committed to streamlining their offerings. Yet with two new phones we now have a total of 6 X range devices and one entry level E model. Even with 5 phones they were carrying too much weight for a division that’s supposed to have been on a diet.
By itself the XZ is a very decent flagship. It ticks all the right boxes and continues the Sony design language. However it can’t be looked at by itself. Retailing at £549 it matches the RRP of the Performance.
Admittedly that phone is now only available in other regions, so Sony have two flagships in different areas. If you had to pick between the two then the XZ should win out on raw specs alone.
Die hard Sony fans will no doubt be pleased with the subtle camera improvements and return to the Z style chassis. If this was the first major Sony release in a year then I would probably be a bit more excited.
I can’t help feeling that Sony don’t really know what to do with their smartphone business. They keep ticking over, releasing well-made phones with decent features. This is definitely one of those.
Yet they all seem to lack a killer feature or serious reason to buy. Sony aren’t going anywhere and they’ll keep on selling to core customers. However there’s nothing that shouts at you or drags consumers away from other brands. Perhaps Sony should stop trying to give us what they think we want, and actually start finding out.
If you’re choosing between the current top range smartphones then the Xperia XZ certainly won’t disappoint. It provides best in class processing, camera hardware, USB Type-C and an IP rating. Let’s hope Sony continue in this vein next year, committing their resources to developing less devices overall, and spending more time refining efforts like this into something more memorable.