Back in February 2016 Sony killed off the Z line of devices and looked to the X line to bring them back to prominence. Attempting to increase their falling popularity, the Japanese giant brings the letter Z back, this time in conjunction with an X, to deliver a flagship device for 2016 that is as divisive as the naming convention suggests. Let’s take a look at the Sony Xperia XZ.
Sony had seemingly made a new bed to lie in at the start of the year, switching their focus away from the race to the top, and instead delivering smart devices that fit specific needs. However, less than 6 months later, Sony had a change of heart, and here we are once again with a flagship device with all the usual trimmings.
Specs & Features – Xperia XZ
- 5.2″ 1080p (424 ppi) IPS LCD display w/ Gorilla Glass
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset with Adreno 530 GPU
- 32GB/64GB storage options with 3GB RAM
- 23MP rear facing f/2.0 camera with Electronic Image Stabilisation (EIS), phase detection and laser auto focus
- Video: 2160p @ 30fps, 1080p @ 60FPS
- 13MP front facing f/2.0 camera
- Video 1080p @ 30fps
- IP68 certification, WiFi AC, Bluetooth 4.2, microSD card up to 256GB, Stereo speakers, NFC, GPS, Fingerprint sensor, USB Type-C Port
- Non-removable Li-Ion 2900 mAh battery
- Available in Black (in review here), Blue and Silver colour variants
All high-end specs we’re sure you’ll agree. Nothing to get sniffy about here other than perhaps the lack of a QHD display, which we’re personally fine with in general on high-end smartphones of this size. The only other slight niggle is the removal of the fingerprint sensor for our US cousins. Strange but true.
Overview & Use – Xperia XZ
The Sony Xperia XZ took the Z5 design and ran wiht it. Where the sides of the Z5 were ever-so-slightly curved to illicit an improved feel in hand, the Xperia XZ’s ‘loop’ design goes the whole hog and rounds those left and right edges. There is no such design element on the top and bottom edges however with those remaining flat and, well, edgy. Yes, the Xperia XZ can still stand up straight on a desk, for what that’s worth.
On the right side of the unit is where the majority of the tactile input will take place, with the power button-come-fingerprint scanner placed just above centre, the volume rocker in a strange place 3/4 of the way down the edge, and the dedicated camera button just below that. Still great to see those on current devices. Let’s just hover on the fingerprint scanner for just a second. It seems there are three acceptable places to have a fingerprint scanner now based on the leading OEMs; the side a-la Nextbit Robin, and this Xperia XZ, the back as the Google Pixel and LG G5 deliver, and the front button placement of the Samsung devices. There are merits to all of these, and it will be purely an individual’s choice and use case as to which is preferred. What we can say is that this is a very quick scanner but does allow you to turn on the screen without unlocking it, something the S7 never quite managed.
The left side of the device is microSD card/SIM tray (or dual SIM if you have that version – we don’t), and that’s about it. Again, lingering on this for a moment, the tray is rather flimsy, although that looks like by design, however each removal of it reboots the device. In the days when switching SIMs isn’t necessarily as alien as it used to be, we’re not sure that this is required. There are many phones that simply bounce the radio without the requirement for the entire OS to be rebooted to accommodate a new microSD card or SIM (the OnePlus 3 for example).
Rounding off the edges, there’s a pinhole microphone and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, and the USB Type-C port for charging on the bottom.
On the front is the lovely 5.2″ IPS LCD display, with Gorilla Glass protection. Now I think it’s safe to say that most on the MobileTechTalk team would prefer AMOLED displays due to the deeper blacks they can produce, but this is one of the nicer LCD displays we’ve seen and Sony always deliver a nice display. Moving on, there’s the front facing stereo speakers (top and bottom) which get sufficiently loud and have decent clarity and the front facing 13MP camera. Finishing off our tour, around back there’s the 23MP camera and the flash/sensor array.
Strong Design – Xperia XZ
This is a recognisable Sony design, with a some subtleties. The in hand feel for a device this size is actually decent. Most devices in 2016 have subtle curves, or chamfered edges, but the Xperia XZ goes all in on that loop design as Sony labels it, and it almost works. The curve doesn’t seem to be as continuous as it looks at first glance and your hand can start to take umbrage at the fact it was being misled to begin with, in long use sessions. Of course, the girth of the device, and the weight both have their upsides. They help the device feel substantial, and they, along with the choice of materials help deliver another very strong design aesthetic and a quality build.
Speaking of those materials, the fact a metallic back is in situ here means there’s some design changes internally. The NFC chip that usually sits to the backside of a smartphone is instead moved to the front of the device near the Sony logo. Not a deal breaker, but it can be awkward sometimes to get a good reading when you’re used to using a device with a back-facing chip.
More of a deal breaker here could be the placement of the buttons. The volume rocker in particular is in a strange position. Housing those controls towards the bottom of the right edge of the device meant that in our testing lefties had to use their middle or ring fingers to actuate the button, something that was alien to those that tried it, whilst right handed users had to tilt the device almost 45 degrees to the left to press the buttons with their thumb. With a little time, both became less tiresome, but neither became natural throughout the review period for us.
Moving on to the display here and again, we’ll reiterate that we have no problem with a 1080p display in 2016. The screen is sharp and vibrant, and controls in the software to change the temperature exist to tailor the experience as required. Brightness is no issue here with a maximum brightness in excess of 600 nits. It’s just, well, a nice display. Just don’t let the resolution put you off!
On Par Performance, Good Battery – Xperia XZ
Performance wise, the Xperia XZ delivers, as you’d expect it to. It’s utilising the Snapdragon 820, a staple of early/mid 2016 flagships and it has 3GB of RAM, which whilst not up there with the likes of the OnePlus 3/3T and it’s nearer competitors like the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10’s 4GB RAM, should be, and proved to be sufficient. Day to day operations such as social media interaction, YouTube streaming, gaming and browsing all go off without a hitch, and memory management of in-memory applications remain as good on this device as any previously mentioned. Interestingly we also didn’t see any stutter on this device during our review period which is almost unheard of. We might have gotten lucky, but we’re calling it out anyway!
So, performance is great, but how long will you be able to watch videos, troll your friends on social media, and take selfies for? Battery performance on the Xperia XZ is, unexpectedly, very good. For a 2016 flagship Android device, a 2900 mAh battery capacity would be considered sub-par but it performs admirably. We averaged around the 3.5 hours of screen on time, over a full 24 hours worth of standby on this device which beats out some of its competition. Granted, toe to toe we doubt it could compete with some of that same competition in pure screen on time, but in a combined showdown including the standby time, it holds its own. Whilst we never made use of them, there are battery saving tips and indeed toggles to help eek out some extra minutes when required. Whilst Android’s Doze functionality is not something to be sniffed at we think it’s safe to say that it has hampered some user experiences on some devices. The Sony Xperia XZ is thankfully not one of them and it’s deployment is spot on. Kudos Sony! Additionally, thanks to Quick Charge technology, you can charge up the XZ in double-quick time too.
Software….Work Needed- Xperia XZ
The software section of this review could be a real marmite portion. It truly depends on what you, the consumer wants from your user experience. If you’re a value-added consumer and look for bells and whistles then this might be the one for you. If you like stock, material design, and minimalist, then it’s there but you might have to look harder.
Let’s caveat that with, it’s not bad. Far from it. Let’s start with the positives.
There are some nice additions to the Sony Xperia UI, such as the ability to add Google Now integration, change how your apps look in the app drawer, double tap to sleep options and much more. All of these additions help users to shape the device to their own requirements, and whilst that’s all find and dandy, it’s not really needed.
HTC showed the way with their de-duplication of applications on the HTC 10 recently. Where they found they had applications which provided the same (or less in fairness) functionality than those that Google themselves offer, they opted to only include Google’s offering. Sure, this could be seen as pulling their trousers down completely paving the way for their manufacture of the Pixel, however it was a smart move. It makes the transition from device to device cleaner as we are switching devices more often now, and it also provides a reference point. That’s not to say the includes applications and features within Sony’s UI are bad. In fact, we actively liked some of them. The Google Now integration has already been mentioned, but the display calibration items especially were very helpful.
Delivering this UI under the hood is Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow which isn’t flavour of the month anymore but is a very mature and stable platform. Rest assured, Sony are progressing with Nougat testing and we’re likely to see something before the turn of the year on that front.3
Overall the software is clean, and light feeling (performance wise for sure) and whilst some aspects irked us (not being able to remove suggestions from the app drawer!) we got on board with most of it and can see that they’re moving in the right direction.
All The Mega Pixels! – Xperia XZ
What has become the most talked about aspect of any smartphone over the last two years is of course the optical package it delivers. Sony have opted to stay clear of the recent dual-camera fad, and have instead deployed a 23MP rear facing camera, and a 13MP selfie camera on the Xperia XZ.
Let’s start by saying that the taking pictures with the Xperia XZ is speedy – very speedy. It’s also incredibly easy thanks to the double tap power button gesture, or the tap and hold camera button gesture. Ironically the former performs better than the latter. Let’s also point out that this device sports some changes over previous Xperia devices such as delivering EIS and not OIS (optical image stabilisation) stabilisation. There is a difference and it’s debatable which is better in which scenarios, but we have still found OIS to provide better still shots. EIS has proven to be particularly good when recording video content though. EIS uses software to perform stabilisation whereas OIS relies on moving parts within the optical setup.
We found decent shots with good contrast generally, and some good detail thanks to the megapixel count. Video at 1080p was also clean and clear, as was 4K albeit stabilisation was a bit hit and miss at 4K. Low light proved to be a bit of a boundary in our testing. Most of the shots we took (blame Scotland) were in dull conditions, with the viewfinder regularly suggesting we were taking night shots.
Speaking of, that viewfinder and the camera software, it’s actually a bit of a mess. There are multiple presses to get to a section called ‘Common Settings’ within the menu interface which is a tad ironic, and the recording in 4K can be completely overlooked by the laymen such is the fact it’s dealt with by an entirely different section of the viewfinder, rather than a resolution choice within the video section. Furthermore, HDR is accessible, but is buried in a menu in manual mode. Crazy indeed!
Thankfully using the software for the camera was easy and speedy when options were not needing to be changed.
Front facing wise, we weren’t particularly blown away by the 13MP camera. Video calls were fine, but selfies seemed full of grain in anything but perfectly lit conditions. The likes of Instagram and Snapchat are going to mean filters are added to these afterwards anyway, so if you’re a social media nut this might not bother you too much.
Overall, Sony delivered an acceptable camera experience, with the ability to get good shots in good conditions.
Final Thoughts: Solid But Unremarkable – Xperia XZ
Sony were going to have to do something pretty damn special to justify their lofty launch price. Things have improved a little since then with the Xperia XZ being available currently for £539 from our friends at Clove, but we’d still like to see that shrink to make it a compelling prospect.
Smartphones in 2016 are ubiquitous. There’s not a lot separating them. Most devices pick the same Snapdragon chips, use the same amount of RAM, jump between IPS LCD and AMOLED screens, and stay with the tried and tested slab design. Sony have done the same here with the Xperia XZ. You can’t make it down for that as everybody else is doing the same. The only phones that caused a buzz this year were those that tried to do something different (LG’s Friends, Nextbit’s Robin, OnePlus for price point, etc) so it’s hard to get upbeat about another generic device. Sadly the only unique part of this device, the button placement, is one which we had little love for.
That said, it’s a good generic device, and it stands up to most of the competition. It has good build quality, good internals, a decent camera, and decent battery life, as well as looking nailed on to get the next iteration of Google’s OS. If you can get a good deal (we’d say shoot for the £450 mark) this is well worth it for a current gen device.
Hell, if nothing else, it was nice to see the letter ‘Z’ ride once more wasn’t it?