sony experia z review 14 640x426The Xperia Z is Sony’s flagship smartphone unveiled at CES 2013, and the recipient of one of our Best of CES 2013 awards. At the show, we were immediately very impressed by the outstanding build quality and the beauty of this powerful handset. With the Xperia Z, Sony introduced its new design language, called OmniBalance, which will also be applied to Sony’s new tablet.

Alongside the Droid DNA, the Xperia Z is one of the first phones to offer a 5-inch 1080p display, and we know that we will see many other phones featuring similar displays later in 2013, and some have been shown during MWC. What sets the Xperia Z display apart is its new Bravia Mobile Engine 2 that reportedly enhances sharpness and contrast. It is a proprietary technology primarily developed for Sony’s Bravia TVs.

On the hardware side, the new handset benefits from the most powerful Qualcomm SoC available at launch time, the 1.5 Ghz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, 2 GB RAM and the new 13 MP Exmor RS sensor which is capable of shooting HDR video. Sony’s Exmor sensor line is famous for its high-performance in low-light situations, and we will make sure to check it for this review.

Last but not least, just like the Huawei Ascend D2, also unveiled at CES 2013 and offering similar hardware features, the Sony Xperia Z is dust (IP55) and water resistant (IP55/IP57)*. In this review, will cover how it feels to use the Xperia Z in the real world and we will carefully check if this beauty lives up to our expectations, performance-wise. We will see if Sony can finally gain its place as one of the leaders in the mobile devices industry.

Technical highlights

Sony XPERIA ZNexus 4Galaxy Note 2
Display Size “54.75.5
Display Resolution1920×10801280×7201280×720
Display TypeLCDIPSSuper AMOLED
Main chipSnapdragon S4 ProSnapdragon S4 ProExynos 4412  quad
RAM (GB)22
Battery capacity2330 mAH2100 mAh3100 mAh
Micro SDYesNoYes (64GB max)
Back Camera (MP)1388
Front Camera (MP)2.21.31.9
Internal Storage (GB)168/1616/32/64
Weight (oz)5.154.906.46
Width2.82.73.17
Height0.310.350.37
Length5.475.275.95

Context

We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that we tell you what we do with our smartphone(s): we typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. We browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but rarely watch movies or play music. Not many phone calls are made at all, 10 minutes a day, tops.

On the “apps” side, I like to check-in often (FourSquare, Facebook…) and tend to install a lot of apps on my phone (I review them and leave them there for a while). This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…

Industrial design

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The main reason why we selected the Xperia Z as one of our Best of CES 2013 Awards winners is its impressive build quality packaged in a beautiful body that is both large and very light at the same time. To date, the Xperia Z is truly Sony’s best smartphone ever!

At CES, we saw other smartphones delivering similar hardware features (5-inch/1080p/443 ppi/water resistant/thin/quad-core processor/13 MP sensor), such as the Huawei Ascend D2 or the ZTE Grand S, which is a hair thinner than the Sony handset (6.9 mm vs. 7.9mm/0.31”), but none of them featured such an outstanding look and feel.

With the Xperia Z, Sony totally reinvented its mobile device design language by introducing “OmniBalance”, which “focused on creating balance and symmetry in all directions” and delivers “subtly rounded edges and smooth reflective surfaces on all sides”, according to Sony’s press release and the specifications page.

Probably to set its new product line apart from the Samsung Galaxy series and its ultra rounded edges, Sony designed a handset built with right angles with very subtly rounded edges and went for a tempered-glass back cover, which contrasts greatly with the plastic backside found in the Korean manufacturer’s smartphones.

To some extent, Sony’s choice of materials makes the Xperia Z closer in style to the LG Optimus G, the Nexus 4 and even the iPhone 4S. However, its 90-degrees angles are a great differentiator from all the other glass-coated products available on the market.

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Front Side: Similarly to the LG Optimus G, the front side of the Sony Xperia Z features a stylish and minimalist edge-to-edge tempered glass design with subtle branding at the top. The front camera lens sits at the left side of the Sony logo, and the small LED is located at the top right. There are no capacitive buttons, Sony preferred to go digital for the main Android commands.  Additionally, the front is covered with an anti-shatter film for durability.

Back Side: Our preferred model is the purple version and we got it as a review unit. The beautiful color combined with the tempered glass coating really makes the device shine and the ultra subtle Xperia branding in the middle adds the final stylish touch to the whole package. On this European unit, there is absolutely no carrier logo, which is great, I wish that  the US models will get the same treatment!

The camera is located at the top, slightly on the left side with the LED flash just below. It is important to note that, unlike most of other competitive handsets such as the Galaxy Series or the LG Optimus G, the camera and the LED do not stick out from the smooth and flat surface, which fits perfectly the requirements of the OmniBalance design language.

Sides and connectors

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Being water and dust resistant for a non-rugged (hear: “bulky”) device has a significant impact on the design. To be fully water and dust resistant, as described in the official specifications, all ports must be covered with their rubber protected sealed covers.

According to Sony, when “all covers are firmly closed, the phone is protected against low pressure jets of water from all practicable directions in compliance with IP 55; and/or can be kept under 1 meter of fresh water for up to 30 minutes in compliance with IP 57”.

*IP55 and IP57 designate the Ingress Protection level (IP), which is designed by two numbers that describe the protection from solids and liquids. you read it like this : Ingresss Protection [Protection from Solids][Protection from liquids]. IP57 means that the XPERIA Z is dust “resistant” (level 5)but not “tight” (level 6). For liquids, it can be submerged in up to 1m of water as described above. If you want to know more, I suggest reading this simple explanation from 2mcctv.

In fact, the sealed covers on all ports greatly participates to the handset’s beauty and comply with the OmniBalance approach: all sides, also covered with tempered-glass, are perfectly smooth and flat. The trade off is a little annoyance once you have to uncover a connector to charge, plug the audio jack, slide the micro-Sim card in or add a microSD card. Personally, I am willing to suffer a bit to look elegant with a “tough” device.

The only elements that stick out on the edges are the protuberant rounded power button, located almost at the center of the right side, and the ultra thin volume rocker just below. The vintage looking silver power button is made of aluminum, and visually stands out against all the other external components, all covered with the same purple color found on the backside (except for the camera module). Just above the power, you will be able to open the cover to reach the micro-Sim card tray, which can be a little tricky to slide outside.

The micro-USB connector is placed at the top left and just below, you will find the micro-SD slot, which allows for up to 32GB memory expansion. On the left edge there is also a contact for a dock that we have not seen yet. On the top side on the right, you will find the 3.5 mm audio jack. All ports are covered.

Ergonomics and comfort

Due to its 90-degrees angles with subtle rounded edges, the Xperia Z is a little less comfortable to hold than curvier competitive devices, such as the Nokia Lumia 920 (except for the weight), the LG Optimus G or the Galaxy Smartphones.

However, its ultra-light weight makes it agreeable to carry around and its width fits perfectly in my palm. For instance, my thumb lands exactly on the power button, with a little effort to reach the volume rocker.

The design has been well thought for left handed people as well, when holding the phone in my left hand, my index landed right on the power button and it was very easy to operate the volume from there. Please note that we do not all have the same hands, for a woman, I have an average hand size.

Display (very good+)

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At Ubergizmo we are big fans of smartphones with large displays and we were very pleased to see that 5-inch with 1080p resolution (1920×1080) is now the new standard for Android handsets.  The IPS display delivers a good color rendering, however the blacks are more “dark grays” than “black”. In comparison, other displays in other smartphones provide slightly better contrasts. This is not really obvious unless you look at the Xperia Z next to another smartphone.

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Overall, looking at photos look very crisp and clear, thanks to the 1080p resolution, the high pixel density (441 ppi) and the high brightness (480 nits). In direct sunlight, the XPERIA Z at maximum brightness has nothing to envy to the Galaxy Note 2, iPhone 5 or other popular phones.

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With a shallow angle, the XPERIA Z display is more reflective

Misc software

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Virtual keyboard (very good): Typing with the thumbs using both hands in portrait mode is a quite comfortable position to input text quickly. I personally like the subtle force feedback of this virtual keyboard. Unlike the Galaxy Note 2, there is no numerical keys row placed at the top, so you need to switch to the numerical keys layout to type numbers. Just like the Samsung smartphone, the Xperia Z keyboard allows word prediction in two languages simultaneously, a feature that we appreciate a lot at Ubergizmo. Both the keyboard and the predictive text are very responsive.

Entertainment (very good+)

In terms of entertainment, the Sony XPERIA Z is one of the best handset out there, mainly because of its huge, high-quality Full HD display. There is no way around it, just like it is true for HDTVs, when it comes to entertainment, bigger is better, and higher pixel density helps making things extra-crisp.

Video Playback (excellent): In our tests, the video playback looked very nice, which is mainly due to the screen size and image quality. In the handset market, it doesn’t beat the Galaxy Note 2 for the sheer size of the image, but when playing 1080p movies, the image is noticeably crisper, thanks to the extra resolution. We’ve said in the past that a 1080p Galaxy Note 2 would have been perfect, and the XPERIA Z shows that switching to 1080p is worth it. At this point, if you want both 1080p and a 5.5” display, the LG Optimus G Pro would be it.

Loudspeaker Sound(Loud, not so crisp): The only small issue we bumped into in terms of multimedia is the speaker quality: while the XPERIA Z does have a significantly louder speaker when compared to the Optimus G, the audio quality isn’t as good as what you can get with the iPhone 5 or the Galaxy Note 2, just to cite the ones we are most familiar with (and that I had with me during the review).

Audio is a very tough problem to crack for smartphone designers because to have great and powerful sound, you need to push a lot of air. This is very difficult with a thin design like the XPERIA Z. However, the iPhone 5 design is also comparably thin, so we think that there are alternatives with better loudspeakers out there.

Gaming: given how high the Sony XPERIA Z scores in GLBenchmark, we’re not surprised that it can run games very well. There’s no surprise there and as of today you can be assured that it will handle the most demanding Android games very well. It’s difficult to tell if the extra resolution will have an significant impact on the frame rate. If it ever did, developers could conceivably render to a lower resolution and scale the image up if needed — hopefully they won’t need to.

Imaging (Excellent)

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The camera application interface, in addition of being elegantly designed, is very efficient and easy to use. The camera and the video mode get one dedicated button each directly available on the home screen, no need to switch any more. After clicking on the camera icon at the top left corner, all options are available from the top of the display.

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The 12 Megapixel (MP) mode delivers 4/3 ratio images while you get a 16:9 ratio when you shoot at 9 MP. I shot photos using the iAuto mode and the HDR mode, in various lighting conditions, overall the image quality is very good. The iAuto mode is the same mode found in other Sony cameras that sets automatically the best shooting mode according to the lighting conditions, for example, when I was shooting at night it switched automatically to night scene.

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A Photo taken with the XPERIA Z indoors

Thanks to the Exmor RS sensor which performs very well in low lights, I got great results when shooting in the dark. The Xperia Z performed better in those conditions than the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and the iPhone 5.

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The Sony XPERIA Z outperforms the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in low-light

Videos: what was true with photos largely reflects on the video aspect of things. The Sony Xperia Z is certainly excellent at shooting 1080p videos. In regular lighting conditions, the Xperia Z delivers delivers a similar video quality when compared to the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Performance (excellent)

Antutu 3.x is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.

sony experia z antutu 3

The Sony XPERIA Z takes the lead in our Antutu 3.x tests. Keep in mind that since the test also includes memory speed and local storage performance, that may explain why the XPERIA Z gets a higher score than other smartphones like the DNA or the LG Optimus G, which uses the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro hardware platform. Also, note that more recent phones tend to do better, even if they run on the same hardware, so a firmware update may help these earlier phones down the road. The apps seem to load a bit faster on the XPERIA Z than on the Optimus G, so we suspect that it has a faster storage system or controller.

GLBenchmark 2.5, offscreen 1080p: this test has been designed to “stress” the graphics processor (GPU) by running a game-like demo which features a fight between various characters in many different environments (indoors, outdoors…).

sony experia z glbenchmark 25

In a graphics processor saturated test, it’s not surprising that the XPERIA Z would score like the DNA, which uses the same S4 Pro chip. The LG Optimus pro is somewhat far behind, but we pointed out our review that its performance jumped up and down in a somewhat random way. It is hurting it in synthetic benchmarks. As its stands, the Sony XPERIA Z can handle gaming with ease > that’s what this all means.

Geekbench 2: Geekbench tends to focus on synthetic floating point calculation performance rather than multi-core scalability. This is a good measure for general computing and generating accurate physics in games, on a per-core basis.

sony experia z geekbench2

The outcome is perfectly logical: the Snapdragon S4 Pro devices form a cluster, and it’s interesting to see that Samsung’s own Exynos chip in the Galaxy 2 performs in a similar fashion and even has a slight lead.

Perceived performance

But synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. In the real world, the overall system performance was perceptibly good, although we’ve seen more fluid user interfaces, we have to guess that after switching to a full HD display, we’re pretty happy with how fast things are, even if that could be even faster.

The app loading performance on the XPERIA Z is perceptibly superior, and that’s a good news for just about everyone. We think that it is due to a faster storage sub-system, which is relatively normal due to the constant advances in flash memory and flash controllers.

Battery life (very good)

Overnight battery depletion (very good): The Sony Xperia Z features a 2,330 mAh battery, slightly over the standard 2,100 mAh found in most high end smartphones with 4.7 to 4.8 inch displays. We suspect the extra battery capacity is probably needed to handle the the full HD display and its 480 nits brightness while keeping a good battery longevity. The overnight depletion is very good, when tested with a 3G SIM card, wifi and GPS on, it lost only 2% of charge in 9.5 hours.

Minimal usage (excellent): With no 3G network, no WiFi and no GPS and a few moment with the display on, the Xperia Z can last for days without recharging. After 36 hours, the phone only used 50% of battery.

Regular usage (regular – could be better): With regular usage, the display set at full brightness, wifi on, GPS on checking emails, taking a picture or two, checking the internet and so on, the battery depleted by 20% in one hour. This use case assumes you may be outdoors and therefore need the higher brightness to compensate for the sunlight. The display remains the single largest source of power depletion in most tasks, except when gaming where the main processor may draw even more power.

Intensive usage (regular – could be better): I played a HD video over WiFi with the display in full brightness for half an hour and the battery dropped from 43% to 24 % – which is 21% per 30 minutes with intensive use.

Knowing that battery depletion is linear (for a given task) we can calculate that the battery will last roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes while watching videos non-stop over WiFi. We would have expected slightly better performance with the intense use, however, we know that a slim body cannot accommodate a high capacity battery (3000mAh+).

Charging time (good): The charging time is pretty regular, using the provided charger (European model) the device was half charged in one hour, which is pretty good and standard.

Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the: display is ON. You can always refer to the Android battery report to see what is consuming the power. Finally, keep in mind that in the report, network transactions generated by apps can appear as “Android” as it is ultimately the OS that handles those transactions.

Conclusion (Very Good)

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The Xperia Z is an extremely elegant and well built smartphone that deliver serious performance. Knowing that 43% of Smartphones accidents occur with water, we can highly appreciate the water resistance feature.

Leveraging its craftsmanship in imaging technology, Sony pushed the envelope on the camera side. The user experience is great, thanks to the awesomely designed application and the performance is really good, especially in low light, thanks to its brand new EXMOR RS sensor.

We would have liked a slightly better battery longevity, however we know that there is always a trade-off for ultra slim bodies when it comes to power consumption. Additionally, we suspect that the 1080p screen might require more juice than regular resolution displays.

The 5-inch display with high pixel density (443 ppi) is a feast when it comes to watch a video, the image is crisp and clear and the viewing experience is quite comfortable despite the relatively small screen size (compared to a TV or a larger tablet).

Update: T-Mobile USA has secured an exclusive with Sony to provide the XPERIA Z to their customers. You can read about the T-Mobile version of the XPERIA Z here.

Filed in Cellphones >Featured >Reviews. Read more about Android, Sony and XPERIA Z.

Key SpecsXperia Z
StatusReleased
Resolution1920x1080
Size (Diagonal, Inches)5"
Processor NameMDM9215M /
4-core
1.5 GHz
Max. Total Storage Capacity80 GB
Megapixels13.1 MP
Battery Capacity (mAh)2330 mAh
Street Price$350
Complete product dataSony Xperia Z Full specs
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