With the top Android OEMs competing for the top device in 2013, each of the companies announced their latest flagship devices within the first quarter of the year. While these device may have been announced in Q1, most only become available from April. Sony was the first to show their hand, with their flagship, the Sony Xperia Z, being announced at CES in January. Internationally, the Xperia Z was available almost three months before its major competitors, but does it have enough to compete against these heavyweights, or was it all a bit too early to the market?
While Sony released a number of Xperia smartphones in 2012 after their split with Ericsson, the Xperia Z is the first of many with a new design, called the omnibalance design. Its right-angled corners has gone somewhat against the grain of recent smartphones, but instead of looking out of place, it stands out as a thing of beauty. The thickness measures in at 7.9mm and weighs in at 146g, making it quite thin and light for a device of its size (although not the best). The Xperia Z has a glossy finish, not only on the front and rear, but also on its sides. While we can confirm the front the front sports a shatter proof and scratch-resistant glass, the rest of it is some type of glass-fiber polyamide. Sony has remained tight-lipped in this regard, but the end result is worth noting.
The display is also something to love, with full HD 1080x1920px running on Sony’s Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2. The Xperia Z is also the first to include the 1080p resolution on a 5” (or more) screen size, which includes a 441ppi density, which was later matched by Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and bettered by the HTC One, although it’s to be expected on a smaller, 4.7” screen. Sony’s new OptiContrast panel makes for sharper fonts and brighter imagery, but it does suffer under certain lighting conditions and viewing angles, which shouldn’t really be of concern to most users. The only real issue with the display is light leaks around the edges, most notable in use in the dark.
The Xperia Z comes with a few additional design tricks, which includes an IP57 certified dust and water resistance of up to one meter for 30 minutes. This means that the device is fully sealed, with numerous rubberised flaps covering each of the ports generally left exposed. The ports include that for the SIM card, microUSB, 3.5mm jack and microSD, with an aluminium power button and volume keys along the right side. Although these flaps serve the purpose of resisting the elements, it also aids the design in that it appears smooth around the sides. Unlike many other such flaps, they don’t feel cheap either. To add to this feature, the Xperia Z is also quite durable. The gloss finish isn’t simply for looks, as its tempered glass has an anti-shatter film, allowing the device to withstand some of the harshest of drops; something that was demonstrated by throwing the unit across the room, and even jumping on it a few times.
In terms of performance, there’s nothing lacking. The Xperia Z is fitted with a 1.5GHz Quad-Core CPU and Adreno 320 GPU, which is exactly what you’ll find in the LG Nexus 4. Although the smartphone doesn’t feature amongst the top in terms of benchmarks, there’s no lag or jitter during normal use. On the odd occasion, when running graphic intensive mobile games, such as Real Racing 3, there were one or two drops in framerate for 2 to 3 seconds, although it has to be added that the game itself is not fully optimised for the Xperia Z as yet.
Sony has placed quite a bit of focus on imagery going forward, which is likely to be seen first in its line-up of cameras, but the company has introduced its new Exmor RS sensor to the Xperia Z. The technology is meant to improve signal processing and HDR video capture. The updates don’t disappoint, offering pleasant photos in daylight. Despite being able to capture images at 13.1MP (4128x3096px), you’re more likely to make use of a lower 9MP, which offers widescreen capture. The camera software includes a feature called “Auto I+”, which in a nutshell offers better settings based on the environment, and definitely makes notable different in the changes conditions.
The Sony Xperia Z comes installed with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, which is expected to see an upgrade to 4.2.1 very soon. What’s really good about Sony’s version of Android is that it offers a more generic version of the OS over its rivals, including only the bare essentials in terms of adding its own flavour. This only aids the smoothness and performance of the device. One of my favourite additions over the generic Android OS is the task manager options, which allows you to remove apps in memory as well as open pop-up widgets within other apps, such as a calculator, stop-watch and timer. Other Sony apps include the standard Walkman music app, Sony Entertainment Network, Dropbox, File Commander, Sony’s WiFi-connected Media Remote, OfficeSuite, Sony Car, and Socialife, to name a few. Granted that the official 4.2.1 update is yet to be released, Sony has done something interesting in having released its own AOSP (Android Open Source Project) experimental ROM; a welcome bonus for the developer community.
The biggest disappointment, as with many smartphones, lies in its battery duration. The Xperia Z is fitted with a non-removable, 2330mAh Li-Ion battery, which in theory sounds good, but doesn’t match any length of use one would expect. During gaming, and other high performance scenarios, the battery tends to heat up quite significantly, which greatly reduces the battery life. One way in which to reduce this is to turn off the Sony Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2 capability in the settings menu, which adds about another hour to your game time, of the five or six hours you’d generally become accustomed to. During music play, however, the same results don’t apply, although battery life isn’t great either.
The Sony Xperia Z comes shortly after a shift in focus from Sony to that of mobile, gaming and imagery. While the smartphone is capable of delving into each of these areas, although competitive in each, it isn’t leading in any. Be that as it may, the Xperia Z is a well-rounded smartphone, while looking the part in the process. In times gone by, purchasing a smartphone that offers water- and dust-resistance meant settling for something a little chunkier and awkward looking. The Xperia Z, and the Xperia V gone before, has shown Sony’s ability to change this perception, designing good looking smartphones.
The Xperia Z will cost in the region of R7,500, which is a competitive price amongst other flagship contenders. With the range of smartphones currently available, the Xperia Z is safely in the top three best looking, top five in terms of its camera and top five in performance. Unfortunately, it may have come a little too soon, offering a chipset previously seen on the Nexus 4 (released in late 2012), whereas its competitors all offer later versions of the Qualcomm chipset (which even that may be soon be replaced before the end of Q2). There’s a lot to love about Sony’s new flagship, and as much as I’d like to have seen a more polished end-product, it can only boast the title of best phone available in Q1 of 2013. If you’ve already purchased a unit, or looking to do so, you won’t find much reason to despise the Xperia Z, as it’s still a very good smartphone.
You can find the full specifications here.