The time is now: the Sony XPERIA Z finally arrives in the USA and frankly, that was not one minute too soon. If you remember, the handset has received accolades from our team when it was launched in January at CES 2013 where we gave it a Best of CES award. Since then, we procured a European handset around Mobile World Congress time and published a full review of the handset that I recommend you to read if you want all the glorious details, although I’ll come back to the most important points and differences in this article.
T-Mobile has managed to secure an exclusive deal with Sony, and although the XPERIA Z isn’t the highest-end smartphone out there, it has one of the best design (including water/dust resistance) and is among the most responsive handset that I played with recently. In this review, I’ll go over details that are specific to T-Mobile’s version of this handset and will tell you what you can expect from this U.S version of Sony’s handset.
"XPERIA Z HAS QUALITIES THAT SHOULD NOT BE IGNORED IN THE NAME OF SPECS"
Before we dive into the article, let’s take a quick look at the specifications. As you can see below, the XPERIA Z was announced weeks before the world started to switch to the Snapdragon 600 platform from Qualcomm. Just about now, handset makers are preparing to launch their Snapdragon 800 and Tegra 4 handsets, which would effectively leave the XPERIA Z two full generations behind in terms of processors “specs”. It’s impossible to ignore this fact since LG will likely announce their next-gen handset in a matter of weeks. Sony too has learned its lesson and will launch its own high-end Z Ultra handset very soon. However, you will see that the XPERIA Z has a number of qualities that shouldn’t be ignored just in the name of “specs”.
|Sony XPERIA Z||Galaxy S4||Nexus 4||Galaxy Note 2|
|Display Size “||5||4.99||4.7||5.5|
|Display Type||LCD||AMOLED||IPS||Super AMOLED|
|Main chip||Snapdragon S4 Pro||Snapdragon S600||Snapdragon S4 Pro||Exynos 4412 quad|
|Battery capacity||2330 mAH||2600||2100 mAh||3100 mAh|
|Micro SD||Yes||Yes||No||Yes (64GB max)|
|Back Camera (MP)||13||13||8||8|
|Front Camera (MP)||2.2||2||1.3||1.9|
|Internal Storage (GB)||16||16||8, 16||16, 32, 64|
You can learn all about the Sony OmniBalance industrial design details in our original review, but I’d like to point out the essentials here: first, the design of the Sony XPERIA Z remains absolutely stunning (well, decide for yourself from the gallery), and it’s very refreshing to see Sony take some real risks to pull this one off. It is one of the thinnest smartphone on the market bit still uses glass and other “premium” materials. If you don’t like plastic, take notice because there is very little of that on the XPERIA Z."THE SONY XPERIA Z DESIGN IS ABSOLUTELY STUNNING"
To maintain structural integrity, Sony has used a skeleton frame that holds the phone together, while leaving ample room for the internal components inside. The power button is particularly handy in my opinion since it is so prominent and easy to “feel”. It looks good too, and should become a signature design feature in the Sony line of products. This is probably the single most-used interface element: according to Sony, phone users press this button 76 times a day. I didn’t really keep track, but that seems pretty believable since I must have pressed it more than 5 times in the past hour. The easier it is to press, the faster you shut it down, and the better the battery life will be.
T-Mobile will carry both the black and purple versions of the smartphone. I currently have the black version, but I recommend you to check the purple one since I find it to look better/classier, and less prone to show fingerprints. A white version would be fabulous too, but that’s not an option right now as far as I know.
Water-resistant: One of the main advantage of this phone is that it is water-resistant (3 feet for 30mn) and dust resistant as well, so going to the beach or by the pool isn’t as hazardous as it may be with other phones. Some people have taken photos and videos underwater and all (the recorded sound is pretty good too!), but the more likely scenario is that someone may drop it in a pool, or splash it in a kitchen or in the rain. There are crazy statistics on phones and water damage: apparently half of the water-damaged phones are victims of a toilet drop, according to a UK study. Some smartphones are designed to shut-down if one of their water-sensors are tripped, so this is not an uncommon problem to have and iPhone users know all too well about potential water problems.
"SONY ENGINEERS HAVE SUCCEEDED IN MAKING IMAGES LOOK BETTER THAN LIFE, BUT NOT UNNATURAL" As you can see in the specs, Sony is using 1920×1080 display in this phone and as a result, the text and photos appear to be extremely crisp. Sony has done additional customization to make colors look “better”. Some of that work is embedded in the screen’s hardware, and some of it is done in software inside Android. When we talked to Sony engineers in Tokyo about this, they showed us how their LCD display was tuned to make images appear a bit nicer than normal (by tweaking color saturation and contrast), but not to the point that it would look unnatural.
The result was pretty compelling and it was all done with good taste. The same team also worked on the BRAVIA engine, which you may know from the Sony TVs in the form of a video processing chip. In the XPERIA Z, the BRAVIA engine function is performed by using the graphics processor (GPU) and all the computations are done via a “shader” (small GPU piece of code) to achieve a similar result aimed at improving images and movies with filters that can make them look more crisp, or by reducing visual noise.
T-Mobile specifics things…
"WIFI CALLING IS THE A FEATURE THAT EVERY CARRIER SHOULD OFFER, YET T-MOBILE IS THE ONLY ONE IN THE U.S" T-Mobile has managed to add some features that other carriers don’t have, and I believe that WiFi calling has to be at the top of the list. If you are not familiar with it, the idea is that when you are connected to a WiFi network (private or public), phone calls can be routed via WiFi at no additional charge. This is extremely useful in two situations:
1/ make up for a lack of coverage: if your home or office is located in an area that is not very well covered by T-Mobile’s network, WiFi can provide a solid fallback coverage that will ensure that voice call come and go.
2/ save on international roaming: I travel a lot, and when I was a T-Mobile customer, the WiFi calling feature saved me thousands of dollars in roaming fees. That’s the one feature that I was all carrier had – except that they are greedy. In any case, if you can connect to a WiFi network anywhere in the world, you can use your phone normally with your regular number and call with no roaming charges.
It doesn’t look like the Z is relying on UMA technology to do this, so if you walk about of the WiFi coverage in the middle of a call, the conversation should drop. I don’t think that it can hand-over the call to the GSM network. If there is a strong demand for this, I can setup a test.
No contract: since T-Mobile has is pushing its no-contract campaign, you may wonder what the cost will be like. From what I can tell, if you go for a common plan with 2GB of data/mo and include the price of the phone over two years, you will probably save $500 to $600, which is equivalent to your next new shiny smartphone…
Each of us has a different situation, but do your homework and see how much you can save. I believe that I don’t use 2GB, but I use a bit more than 1GB per month. Note that T-Mobile will not charge you overage fees for going over the limit. Instead, they will slow down your connection. That’s a good way to keep the budget under control.
HD Voice: T-Mobile can switch to a better audio quality if phones on both ends have the proper hardware. At the moment, T-Mobile lists the following phones as being HD Voice capable: Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3, iPhone 5, Lumia 521, BlackBerry Z10, BlackBerry Q10, Galaxy Note II. I suspect that all these phones use a chip from Audience (I know that the Galaxy Note 2 has it, although I was not able to confirm that information with the respective handset makers above – not that you care which chip provides this, right?)
"FORGET ALL THE FANCY OPTIONS, THE XPERIA Z IS AN EXCELLENT POINT AND SHOOT CAMERA" The XPERIA Z is a very proficient camera phone, and despite how techy (or not!) you are, chances are that you will simply use it as a point and shoot. I’m quite a photography enthusiast myself, but I rarely dwell into the sub-menus of any camera phone. Although there are some apps that make the experience a bit better, I mostly use the default app of whatever phone I happen to use at any given time.
The good thing about the XPERIA Z is that it uses an interface which is similar to what can be found on Sony’s cameras, so if you’ve used one of those before, you will be in a somewhat familiar terrain since icons and many functions are similar. Secondly, the auto-mode is very good and most of the time the camera just does the right thing.
At the end of the day, it’s about how well the basics can be covered and how much friction there is. Fortunately, the basis are very well covered, and there is little friction. Just aim and snap. It’s that simple.
"SONY VIDEO UNLIMITED OFFERS HIGHER HD VIDEO QUALITY THAN GOOGLE PLAY" In terms of entertainment, the XPERIA Z can handle music and videos very well, so that’s pretty easy. The 1080p display looks really good. When it comes to playing games, it’s a bit harder for the XPERIA Z to compete with faster smartphones with newer processors.
Sony offers quality content if you want to stray off Google Play, or if you are already a subscriber via PC or PlayStation devices. The advantage of using their Music Unlimited or Video Unlimited can be many-fold: first, you can access your media on non-Android devices (namely PC/PS). Secondly, Sony may have some exclusive movies or songs since they produce a number of hits every year. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I found the movie HD quality to be superior to Google Play’s (streaming or offline).
We already knew that the Z speaker can be quite loud, but that the sound is not as crisp as a couple of competitors could produce it. The reason is simple: it’s really hard to move a lot of “air” to produce loud and clear sound when the design is so thin. Still, it’s been proven that it is possible, so let’s hope that things get even better in the future.
Since games are so performance-dependent, I’ve included them in the section below…
Since the XPERIA Z is powered with a Snapdragon S4 Pro which was introduced in products in Sept/Oct of 2012, it is logical that it would have a hard time competing in raw performance with the latest Snapdragon 600, 800 and Tegra 4. If you want to see more synthetic benchmarks, go back to our original review, but the Antutu system performance benchmark provides an overall picture that is representative."XPERIA Z GAMING: REAL RACING AT 25-30FPS, DEAD TRIGGER LEVEL 1 AT 60FPS"
Games are the only types of games that can require 100% of the processing resources, and if you are a gamer, you may want to know what kind of games you can play. I downloaded Real Racing, which is a very demanding game with fancy graphics and it was completely playable at 25-30FPS. You may be able to get higher FPS with more recent and upcoming smartphones, but the experience was pretty good. The Zombie game Dead Trigger ran at 60FPS in the first level – not too shabby!
User Interface Responsiveness (excellent)
"KEYBOARD INTERACTION FEELS FASTER THAN ON A PURE ANDROID PHONE. NICE!" One may think that higher synthetic performance means higher responsiveness when interacting with the smartphone. The two don’t have to be correlated, especially if the user-interface is already running smoothly at 60 frames per second (FPS). Such smoothness can be achieved even with previous-generation hardware and iOS or Windows Phone (WP) have proven that. WP can actually achieve ultra-smooth user-interface even of very slow hardware and 256MB of RAM. On the opposite side, it is not uncommon to find smartphone with high-performance hardware, but with a relatively “laggy” user interface.
In this case, Sony has done a particularly good job with the XPERIA Z. Interestingly enough, I feel like this T-Mobile version runs smoother than the original European Z that we had back in February. I can’t tell if Sony has updated the firmware for all models, or if the T-Mobile version is the only one to have it, but I was very surprised to see that things like keyboard interaction are even more responsive than the Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Edition phones, which are supposed to be “butter smooth”.
Battery life (very good)
With a 2330 mAh battery, the XPERIA Z remains competitive with the top phones out there. We found the battery life to be “very good” with a depletion rate of less than 3% overnight (a bit more than 8hrs). With a moderate usage, you can easily use it for a day but I may recommend charging it every night, just to be sure that you won’t get into trouble on the day after. With my personal use, I have been able to charge it every other day, but that’s pushing it a little.
"STAMINA MODE CAN TAKE BATTERY LIFE TO THE NEXT LEVEL, BUT I DIDN’T NEED IT" That said, I haven’t even used the Battery Stamina mode that Sony has built-in, mainly because I didn’t need to. The idea is to shuts down wireless data connectivity for non-critical apps when the screen is OFF. This is a good idea since the 4G radio is one of the biggest power draw in a phone.
You get to choose which app gets wireless access via a whitelist, so you can effectively continue to receive the information that you want (email…) while other things will have to wait until you turn the display ON (foursquare, others…). This would basically require a one-time setup, and I’m pretty sure that most users could benefit from it, if they want to take a few minutes to set it up.
Conclusion (very good)
It’s nice to see the XPERIA Z finally available in the U.S. A wider carrier availability would have been even better, but T-Mobile wins by securing this exclusive deal with Sony. This carrier has interesting plans that could potentially save money for subscribers with a moderate usage pattern, but if you are coming from another carrier, make sure that the coverage is sufficient for your need. This is true for any carrier, and don’t forget that average national coverage doesn’t mean much if your particular area is not well covered. The opposite is true: if where you work/live/commute is well covered, the national average coverage is pointless."THE XPERIA Z IS VERY GOOD"
If you decide to decide that T-mobile can become your carrier of choice (the WiFi calls would be my reason to switch), the XPERIA Z is a fine choice. It may not have the fastest hardware on paper, but it does possess a particularly responsive user interface which has nothing to envy from the fastest phones out there, on the contrary quite a few would gain to be as snappy.
Overall, this is a very good phone that I think shouldn’t be judged on its hardware platform alone. Its design and relative ruggedness make it quite unique. We can’t give it an excellent rating because of the slightly slower hardware, but Sony came up with an excellent design and did a lot of great things in the software.
Availability: the XPERIA Z is available today at physical Sony Stores or at Sony online. It will be possible to pre-order from partners like T-Mobile starting on July 16th. Sony has put aside a stock of free Bluetooth headsets for those pre-order but with a “while supplies last” so this won’t be an automatic freebie. In terms of pricing we’re looking at a total cost of $579.99 in one lump sum, or $0 down and installments of $20 per month via T-Mobile.