Fans of the Sony Xperia range of smartphones may have been left with a few false starts when it comes to their flagship Z series. The new X series smartphones were announced ahead of the Mobile World Congress back in February, but the range has been missing quite a few glaringly obvious omissions, that not including the dust and waterproof features. One year after having announced what would turn out to be the last from the Z series, the Xperia Z5 Premium, Sony finally announced their latest flagship for 2016, the Xperia XZ.
It seems that the fans had their way in part, with the Z seeing a return as the flagship, although now being part of the X series. As Sony describes it, the X series runs from A to Z, with the latter being the head of the family, and the former the base model. That does bring up a few questions as to where the Xperia X fits into that naming convention…perhaps it was simply just an oversight on their part. Maybe we just shouldn’t be expecting a range of 24 other devices that fit somewhere between the two aforementioned.
With Sony needing a mini-revival of sorts due to its recent fade in popularity, does the Xperia XZ live up to the Z premium moniker, and is it enough to sway opinion of the brand?
Build and Design
Sony has persisted with its OmniBalance design since it first released the Xperia Z back in 2013. With the announcement of the Xperia X series back in February, we already had an indication that Sony was not ready to move on from their design principles. That said, the XZ features a slight variant from the standard OmniBalance approach with a more flattened design.
Instead of the rectangle curvature on the length of the frame, the curvature is now along the width, which is most prominent along the left and right sides of the unit. Sony refers to this as the “loop” design. It isn’t quite Samsung Edge, but it has a certain appeal to it. The remaining aspects of the design remain largely intact, from the large top and bottom bezels, the thumb power button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor, with the volume rocker and dedicated camera button below that.
One notable change from the Xperia Z5 is that it no longer has the double glass approach (front and rear), instead opting for a more minimalist plastic rear. There’s also a range selection of finishes and panels on the device, and while the review unit I received is indicated as Mineral Black, the textures from the different panels means a difference in the shade or glossiness of the blacks. The textures are as a result of the different materials used, which include plastic on the bottom rear and sides, metal on the rear panel (a new material known as ALKALEIDO), and glass on the front panel. The buttons are also metallic. It’s XZ is definitely not the Z6 you would have expected, and not as seamless an approach, even compared to the other devices in the X series. In all honesty, however, the Platinum, Forest blue, and Deep pink colours look so much better than Mineral Black.
I don’t mind that Sony kept to its design basic of keeping the OmniBalance design at its core, but what I can’t forgive is how unbalanced it actually is. Sony has always been on the top of my list when it comes to sheer looks, design, textures, and build materials of their products, even from the lesser, mid-range units.
I don’t understand what the design team were thinking here, even if each of the differences in elements are as a result of some performance gains, drop in weight, or any such tricks needed to streamline or limit designers. The unit measures 146x72x8.1mm and weighs 161g. That’s 8g heavier than the Xperia X, and 9g heavier than Samsung’s Galaxy S7. And those aren’t even amongst the lightest of units among leading smartphones this year.
One thing Sony has reintroduced, which we last saw on the Z series, is its IP68 water and dust resistance. No other X series device includes this feature, and is a welcome change of approach from the previous units, and brings back additional functionality of the dedicated camera button.
Screen and Display
Sony has fitted the same size panel as the Z5, a 5.2″ IPS LCD display, with Full HD, 1080p resolution, which has a pixel density of 424ppi. Going back to the Z5 again, it’s basically the same panel, with only the addition of Corning’s Gorilla Glass. Compared to most other flagships this year with Quad HD, and beyond, resolutions, the XZ is definitely below par here. While the imagery isn’t bad by any means, I do wonder how it stacks up against others when it comes to the recent developments with mobile VR.
Given Sony’s investment in PSVR, it does make sense that the company doesn’t want to compete and cannibalise its own products, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to offer higher resolution on a flagship. There may be benefits in having a lower-res display when it comes to battery life and performance, but that shouldn’t be a reason to stop manufacturers from doing so.
As touched on above, the unit doesn’t suffer when it comes to clarity, and thanks to Sony’s Triluminos display and X-Reality Engine, it still remains one of the best screens on the market in terms of colours, brightness, and contrast. You also have Sony’s colour adjustment capabilities, allowing you to set the intensity of the colours, along with the white balance if need be.
Performance and Battery
The Xperia XZ is fitted with Qualcomm’s Quad-Core Snapdragon 820 CPU, Adreno 530 GPU, 3GB RAM and comes in variants of 32 and 64GB options. While many smartphone powerhouses have opted for 8 Core processors, Qualcomm has avoided this temptation, instead offering a more efficient Quad-Core approach, even for it’s leading SoCs. It does, however, offer 64-bit processing. The firmware installation takes up close to 50% of the 32GB storage capacity for the review unit, but if you do purchase this variant, there is the option to fit a microSD card with a capacity of up to 256GB. There are also two variants when it comes to the nanoSIM slot, a single SIM with microSD option, or dual SIM with an option of microSD or second SIM.
As has been the trend with most Xperia devices, the XZ is also fitted with front-facing speakers. The speakers are clearly visible by the cutouts and grills on the top and bottom of the screen. The sound quality is quite good for the most part, with very little distortion to speak of, even at high volumes. Speaking of which, the volume levels themselves aren’t that great, and while loud enough in a quiet room, isn’t quite loud enough to make use of in a small crowd. That said, I wouldn’t expect anyone’s phone to be their main source of speakers in a general setting apart from personal use. Sony has included some built-in hi-res audio support such as FLAC, LPCM, ALAC and DSD, while also being able to upscale compressed music from other formats.
The non-removable battery fitted to the XZ is a 2,900mAh Li-Ion unit. At first, battery life wasn’t very good, but since Sony sent me a brand new phone for review, it typically takes a few cycles to get the battery to perform more optimally, which I observed in the last days leading up to the end of the review. I could easily make it through a day on a full charge, even playing a game or two in between. Users can also switch on some of the battery optimisation features Sony include, which can easily extend the usage well into the second day. Continuous use of the device (like gaming) while on Wi-Fi resulted in usage of more than 12 hours, even as temperatures on the device itself weren’t ideal. You do also get Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, which, via the USB Type C port, is capable of charging up to 6 hours worth of use in just 30 minutes.
Overall performance of the XZ is good across all facets of usage, which includes gaming and video playback. Due to the 1080p resolution, the GPU isn’t stretched to the max of its capabilities, which means there were no stutters or decreases in frame rate at all. At times, I opened as many apps as I could running in the background, including downloading a few updates, and the device was still able to handle the strain. Where it struggled a bit was multitasking in the way of the data consumption. Downloading an app while requiring the data for an app, game or even a video yields some below-par results, as most of the resources seem to be geared toward completing a download or update before being able to watch a video more effortlessly.
While the camera fitted to the XZ has the same 23MP sensor you’ll find on the Xperia X, it has a lot more going for it than just the main sensor. Sony has fitted two supporting sensors on top of the main sensor, one for more vivid colours, and the other for depth perception. You’ll no doubt have noticed the strange grey circle above the LED flash below the 23MP sensor, this is the second sensor used for depth. Additionally, Sony has included 5-axis stabilisation, which is said to provide better results for users with shaky hands, much like myself. The results of the photos on the XZ shows that there’s a lot more going on to make a perfect image capture then just mere pixels. There is a marked improvement in the quality of photos, from the depth perception, vivid colours, and even black and white images.
The software has also been tweaked a bit over the previous X series smartphones. You’ll recall I noted the issues with the camera app on the Xperia X, which nearly paralysed the snapping abilities of the unit. But while the camera app has been updated and is a lot better to use, it still has a few issues, mostly related to the manual mode. The auto mode takes impressive photos in its own right, but if you’re a professional looking to tweak a few settings, it becomes a bit more complicated, clunky, and just outright cumbersome at times. You’ll easily notice that this mode offers settings adjustments for shutter speed, white balance, focus, and a few others, but is missing one of the most used in this format, ISO sensitivity. You are, however, able to set the scene itself, from which you’re able to choose quite a few. There’s also a setting for high ISO if you want. But that’s not nearly as flexible as the app should be for professionals, especially if the camera is one of the more important features on the XZ.
Apart from the wonky professional mode, though, the camera takes really good photos in general.
Sony has installed Google’s Android 6.0 Marshmallow on the Xperia XZ, alongside their inhouse Xperia UI launcher. The software feels a lot lighter than on most Android devices, and that’s a huge plus in terms of performance. Additionally, Sony has a few built-in Google features, such as the Now menu, which is a simple swipe to the left, much like Samsung’s Flipboard approach. I’m a fan and daily user of Google Now, which offers all my alerts, football scores and tables, meetings, flight and delivery tracking, weather, and many other features, which makes this integration extremely useful, as I no longer have to long-press the menu button for the option to choose the Now stream.
The XZ still has a few Sony pre-installed apps, but I won’t go as far as to call this bloatware. These include the likes of Amazon Shopping, AVG Protection, Album, Music, SwiftKey Keyboard, Weather, and What’s New. Apart from the Amazon, AVG and What’s New, all of these are quite useful apps.
At the end of the day, the Sony Xperia XZ delivers quite a mixed bag of goods. Elements that appeared easy to come by for Sony, like the design philosophy, has clearly been an issue this time around. Other aspects, like the camera, performance and battery life are quite good. But, there aren’t many buyers who would fork out the RRP of R12,999 for a device with mixed results, and nor should they.
I really expected a lot from the XZ, and I still enjoyed my time reviewing it, but it just didn’t deliver enough to warrant much love from prospective buyers. In all fairness, the smartphone industry hasn’t been set alight by the phones themselves, but rather some of the accessories and other gimmicks that have been sold alongside, as most flagships have merely been an iteration of their previous builds. It’s not all doom and gloom for Sony then, but there’s some work to be done yet to improve on 2016.