So here's the Z. The last letter in the alphabet. This should be the ultimate Sony phone, right? What we have here is indeed Sony's Xperia Z, the latest device in their confusingly named line-up and their flagship device for 2013.
The device is straight out of this year's recipe book for high end devices, sharing it's screen resolution / size, camera, memory etc. with many of it's peers but also throwing in some neat party tricks of it's own. But how does it measure up? Read on to find out!
The Sony Xperia Z used in the review is a black, full retail unit, running ROM version 10.1.A.1.434.
In the box
In the box you'll find the phone (of course), a 1500mah mains to USB charger (with an extending earth pin that makes it nice and flat to chuck in your bag), a microUSB cable and a set of MH-EX300AP earbuds which are actually rather good (you can read more about them here).
Hardware - overview
Let's look at the raw specs of the device, which comes in white, black and purple colours.
- Android 4.1.2
- 1.5 GHz Qualcomm APQ8064+MDM9215M Quad Core (aka Snapdragon S4 Pro)
- 2GB RAM
- 16 GB ROM
- UMTS HSPA+ (Bands 1, 3, 5, 8 or bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 8)*
- GSM GPRS/EDGE 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
- LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20)
- 5" 1920 x 1080 display with Sony Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2
- 13 megapixel Exmor RS camera with Auto focus and LED flash
- 2 MP, Exmor R, front facing camera (1080p)
- IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n
- Bluetooth 4.0
- HDMI via MHL support
- xLoud™ Experience
- 3.5 mm audio jack (CTIA)
- IPX5/7 (water-resistant) & IP5X (dust-proof)
- microSD card slot, up to 32 GB
- 2400mah battery
- 139 x 71 x 7.9 mm
- 146 grams
Hardware - around the device
The theme of the Xperia Z is GLASS. As well as the glass front and glass back like the Nexus 4, it also has dark blue transparent plastic (which looks like glass) on the sides, top AND bottom. No question, the device is as much of a 'glass slab' as it gets. Thankfully it's far less susceptible to sliding off surfaces compared to the Nexus 4 by virtue of an extra mm or so on the rubberised corners.
The front of the device is of course dominated by by the 5" 1080P screen, above which sit the earpiece, front facing camera, Sony branding, various sensors and the notification LED. The Xperia Z uses Nexus-style on screen buttons, therefore there are no capacitive buttons on the front, just the microphone hole at the bottom (styled to match the earpiece).
The back of the device has the camera and LED flash at the top next to which sits the secondary microphone for noise cancellation, the Xperia logo is in the middle of the back and the various device CE, FCC IDs and the like are in shiny silver at the bottom.
The left side of the device has the microUSB port at the top behind a cover (as found on all openings, necessary for the water / dust ingress ratings), the microSD slot and dock connector pads. Covers for ports are really very annoying, but thanks to the dock connector pads, you won't have to open them up that often if you spring for the dock (priced at a not inconsiderable £40 at the time of writing - details!).
The right side of the device has the microSIM slot, large stylised power button (inspired by watch design apparently) and the volume rocker.
The top of the device has the 3.5mm headphone port, the bottom of the device is free of any connections.
The Xperia Z's design does little to hide it's size. The 7.9mm thickness does help, but the Z definitely feels large in your hand. I expected it to feel more compact by virtue of it's on screen buttons vs capacitive ones, but, well, it's a beast!
Like so many devices, the Xperia Z ships with Android 4.1 rather than Android 4.2. In reality, that doesn't make a lot of difference and an update to the latest and greatest is on it's way (although whether it's still the latest release by the time it arrives remains to be seen!).
Software wise, there are quite a lot of customisations going on...
- The startup wizard is customised.
- Sony's launcher gives you the ability to sort apps by a custom order, most recently used or most recently installed as well as alphabetically.
- The notification pulldown includes a number of quick toggles.
- The lock screen has music and camera shortcuts.
- The Alarm & Clock application has a custom look and feel.
- The Album (Gallery) application hooks into Sony's PlayMemories servicea s well as Facebook, Picasa and DLNA content.
- A Back up & restore application allows you to back up system apps / data, media files and downloaded apps / data to either SD card or the cloud (although it's not clear where 'the cloud' is or how it's configured!)
- The Calculator application has a semi-scientific view by default, both in portrait and landscape modes.
- The Contacts application sadly doesn't offer much in the way of additional functionality over Android stock, no smart-dial in particular is a particular unfortunate omission.
- A Diagnostics app lets you run hardware tests on your device (and view facts about your phone).
- Facebook is preinstalled
- File Commander is an application from MobiSystems that also integrates with Drive, Dropbox, box and SugarSync.
- FM Radio (with the earphones as antenna as always) is included.
- A shortcut to install PlayStation Mobile is included.
- McAfee Mobile Security comes preloaded as a 30 day trial.
- The Movies application allows you to play content locally from your device, from the Sony Movies Unlimited service or via DLNA.
- Music Unlimited is Sony's Spotify rival that comes preinstalled and offers a 60 day trial. It's pretty good!
- NeoReader is a preinstalled QR code reader.
- Notes is a note taking application that syncs to Evernote.
- OfficeSuite is an, er, Office suite. The regular version is installed and the Pro version is a paid upgrade.
- PlayMemories Online is a service (also available here in the Play Store) that 'turns your photos and videos into beautiful "memories"' (aka it's an online photo catalogue).
- PlayNow appears to be Sony's own standalone app / games / music / images store.
- Smart Connect is a tool that helps you configure events based on connections to other devices or a specific time.
- Socialife is a Facebook / Twitter reading app.
- Sony Car is a large interface launcher for use in-car.
- Sony Select is Sony's application and game curation offering - recommended applications and games link to Play Store downloads.
- Support is an on device user guide and troubleshooter.
- TrackID is the a Shazam style music recognition application.
- Video Unlimited is Sony's film and TV content application. The name is a little misleading - the content, unlike the music application, isn't actually unlimited - you pay per download.
- Walkman is Sony's music player, both for local content and Music Unlimited / DLNA content.
- Wisepilot for Xperia is a navigation application (with payment required for full usage).
- Xperia Link is a tethering utility - it allows you to connect your tablet / PC to the internet using your phone.
So as you can see, there's quite a lot of 'bloat' / additional software on the Xperia Z, which isn't something we like to see. It's not quite so bad if you can disable / uninstall it and thankfully, you can do exactly that on the Z! You can completely uninstall File Commander, the Playstation Mobile launcher, McAfee, NeoReader, OfficeSuite, PlayNow, TrackID, Video Unlimited and WisePilot. In addition you can easily disable many of the other preinstalled applications including Backup & restore, Diagnostics, Movies, PlayMemories, Socialife, Sony car, Support and Xperia Link. It seems that very little is off limits when it comes to disabling the inbuilt software - good job Sony! You can get back to a pretty stock-feeling device.
When you first pick up the Xperia Z you'll be struck by how thin it is. Not only is it ACTUALLY thin (at only 7.9mm thick) but the design exaggerates it too. Being predominantly shatterproof glass it feels cool in the hand, not uncomfortable to hold, but you are instantly aware that you're holding a big device with a 5" screen.
The first step is to put in your SIM, which sits in a little tray behind a flap on the right. Thankfully, you can insert and remove the SIM card without needing an annoying pin or similar, something I really like. The power button on the right of the device is a really cool design feature, with a great feel to it. When you tap the button and the device springs into life, probably the first thing that you'll notice is the screen. Is that it? I'm sad to say it... but while the screen on the Xperia Z has a fantastically high resolution, it just can't live with the best from the likes of HTC when it comes to brightness and clarity. That's not to say it's a terrible screen... next to the Nexus 4 for example it looks absolutely fine... it just could be better. One positive is that the phone has very well calibrated auto brightness, something that seems to be increasingly rare!
As you step through the customised Sony startup experience you'll notice those Nexus style on screen keys... no physical hardware home / back / menu keys here. The keys are skinned slightly in a Sony style but they look good. I'm constantly torn between physical and on screen buttons but the on screen ones somehow seem to suit the lines of the Xperia Z better. The startup wizard itself isn't too long winded, so it doesn't take too long to get through that and into the device proper.
The startup wizard will like be your first exposure to the Sony keyboard. It's fairly basic feature wise, but it does include a 12 key option for those converting from pre-QWERTY times. 3 different skins are available, probably the only key featuring missing is 'swipe' based input.
During initial setup your are prompted to sign up to the 'Sony Entertainment Network' (which will sign you into Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited etc.) and also your Google / Facebook / Twitter and Exchange ActiveSync accounts.
When you land at the initial homescreen, Sony content is front and centre. Walkman, Album, Movies and Sony Select are all there, as well as a big content widget. Easily changed thankfully. 5 homescreens are available, with the content easily configured by doing a pinch-zoom. With this being Android of course, if you don't like the stock launcher you can easily use another! The app drawer itself gives you a number of options for ordering your apps, is horizontally scrolling and has the option to share apps.
The pull down notification shade is customised on the Xperia Z, with toggles for sound mode, Bluetooth, WiFi and data connectivity plus a settings button. The settings app itself is fairly stock with a few additions. In the wireless settings there is a strange 'Wallet' option that lets you choose between 'Operator Wallet' and 'Google Wallet'. DLNA media options are also present here and in general are pretty prevalent throughout the UI, it's definitely something Sony are clearly looking to push. *buy a Sony TV!*
In the Display settings you'll find the 'Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2' image quality enhancer for phone and videos as well as a 'Themes' option. 8 different colour based themes are present and should cater for every taste! In the Storage menu you'll see both the internal storage (16GB total on my handset with just over 11GB available after a reset) and of course the options for your SD card... not something you see every day with handsets at the moment! An Xperia menu holds a number of settings unique to this device - Playstation Certified information, Screen mirroring, MirrorLink, Throw settings (for playing content from your phone on another device) and USB settings.
The power menu has some extensive options for getting the most out of the battery - more on that later.
Most of the other settings are pretty standard for Android 4.1. Yes, remember, this is Android 4.1 at the moment with Android 4.2 to follow, as seems to be the case with most devices.
From a performance perspective the device feels very smooth in use, as you'd expect from a phone with a high end quad core processor and 2GB RAM... it breezes through the most demanding of tasks. In real life, the fact it has the S4 Pro processor compared to the newer Snapdragon 600 isn't really evident.
Apparently some people still make calls on their phones nowadays... so I tried that too. Voice quality at both ends of the call is excellent and in speakerphone mode also the sound is admirably clear.
Wireless reception in general on the device is very good, maybe by virtue of it's glass body. Unfortunately I wasn't able to test LTE on the review device.
We've already talked about how the Xperia Z hooks into Sony's content services, so it's worth talking about what they are like and what the experience is like on the Z. Video Unlimited has a good selection of films, but they're not exactly cheap, averaging around £4 to rent and £12 to buy. I can't see a really compelling reason to use it over the other (more reasonable priced) video services out there.
Music Unlimited on the other hand is much better. The Z comes with a 60 day trial so you can give the flat rate streaming service a real workout and I have found it to have a great selection of music covering a wide range of tastes. This is a good time to talk about the speaker on the device... it's just OK. It's no 'HTC BoomSound' (of course), but at least the speaker is on the front and can pump out a decent level of volume. Sound via the included headphones is very good indeed, kudos to Sony for not just chucking the cheapest buds they could find in the box.
The Xperia Z features the new 13 Megapixel Exmor RS sensor. I had high hopes for the camera on the Z as one of my favourite mobile cameras of all time was the Xperia Arc with it's Exmor R sensor. So does it set the new benchmark for mobile cameras? Unfortunately not... which is a shame as a whole bunch of Android phones will be using the same sensor going forward.
To be fair, sometimes, in ideal conditions, the phone can take excellent pictures. The problem however is that far too often a picture doesn't come out too well and it's not really easy to see why. Introduce less than ideal conditions (low light, fast movement etc.) into the mix and you're going to be disappointed a lot more than you are delighted. The same applies with video - the results are disappointing and often inexplicably juddery and the much touted HDR video mode rarely produces video you'd actually want to post anywhere.
There's some good news - the camera application itself has a fully featured and yet very accessible UI. The default mode is 'Superior Auto', however you can also select scene modes manually should you prefer... including 'gourmet' or 'pet'! All the other features you'd expect are there, burst mode, image effects, panorama, smile shutter, geotagging, self timer, HDR, manual exposure, auto and manual flash... the flash itself is also managed well.
As is often the case with phone cameras, the default image ratio is widescreen, which (unlike the HTC One) is actually a crop, so you should go straight into the settings and change it to the full 13MP image.
The Xperia Z comes ready to use the Playstation Mobile suite. It doesn't come with it pre-installed mind... you click the icon, which takes you to the browser, which provides you with a link to download an APK... which then doesn't install because you haven't enabled 'installation from unknown sources'. Very inelegant. To be fair, once you do jump through the appropriate hoops to get it installed... you'll probably wonder why you've bothered. The selection of titles is incredibly weak (a Team17'ised port of Lemmings is probably the only thing worth installing) and frankly PSM is an embarassment. With such a rich gaming heritage Sony should be doing way WAY better than this.
Water / dust proofing
The Xperia Z is IPX5/7 (Water-resistant) & IP5X (Dust-proof) - something quite unique, particularly in the European market. We sought permission to test it and it was granted, so we did! The first step was to check all the port covers were properly closed. Those little covers might be annoying... but they perform a vital function! I dropped the phone in a glass of water - all good. I took the phone in the shower - no problems (although water on the screen isn't great for the touch responsiveness). If you're prone to subjecting your phone to dust or liquid abuse... then the Z might be perfect for you.
The Xperia Z packs a pretty decent 2400mAh battery inside it's svelte body and battery life lived up to my expectations for a device of this stature... I could get through a full day... just about... with a good amount of use. Strangely when the device first arrived battery life was atrocious, but after a few days of use it seemed to settle down.
In addition to a good size battery, Sony have included a number of Power Management modes in the settings menu. STAMINA mode disables mobile data when the screen is off and is configurable to kick in at a particular battery percentage. Individual apps can be excluded from the data lockdown, which is a very cool feature. Low battery mode 'disables functions in order to save power when battery level is low'. Again this can be configured to activate at a specified battery level and functions you can configure in this option include brightness, screen timeout, vibrate, wifi, GPS, Bluetooth, auto sync and mobile data connectivity. A location based WiFi option turns off WiFi when you're out of range (based on cell towers), a function I have configured on my devices courtesy of Tasker - it's super useful. A battery percentage option also lives in this menu, which I know a lot of people are rather fond of.
So the Power Management options are very extensive... do they make much of a difference? Yes! When I carefully configured them I could get considerable extra life from my device... I also left some of them on all the time because they improved longevity without really compromising the user experience. Good job Sony!
The Xperia Z is a good phone. A very good phone. It has great specifications, a nice build, some features that make it quite unique and rather desirable - particularly the water / dust protection and the microSD support - yet somehow it doesn't feel like a truly outstanding flagship. The biggest disappointment for me is the screen... although it is 'good enough' and extremely high resolution, it just doesn't 'wow' like a top of the line handset should.
With that said, if you buy the Z you're not likely to be disappointed. As well as the aforementioned very good hardware, the software build (with the notable exception of Playstation Mobile!) is nicely done with the ability to revert it to a pretty stock feel very easily or the ability to go deep into the Sony ecosystem if you prefer that instead.
My advice would be to give the Z and it's competitors a little go before you make your purchase but if you do decide it's for you... you have my blessing.
Pros and cons
- Nice feeling, well made hardware, thin
- Water and dust resistant
- Handy dock for charging without opening port covers
- microSD expansion
- Clever battery life optimisation tools
- White and purple variants particularly look great
- So-so screen
- CPU is older than the Snapdragon 600 appearing in many devices now
- Disappointing camera
- Playstation Mobile is complete rubbish
The Xperia Z bootloader is unlockable using the official Sony tools, there is growing developer support and Sony themselves have even posted an AOSP Github for the Xperia Z which suggests completely stock ROMs from the developer community might not be too far away.
Where to buy
The Xperia Z can be purchased online at Dialaphone.
Have your say
Do you have a Xperia Z? Do you agree / disagree with my review? Post below!
Click here to view the item