Sony has ushered in a range of improvements for its newest flagship, but it’s not enough to put the Xperia XZ on top
For Sony, 2016 has so far been a year of might-have-beens. After releasing the X and XA earlier this year to largely lukewarm reception, it’s attempting to liven things up with the Xperia XZ, a phone that some say is the first handset to truly bring Sony’s full firepower to bear this year.
So where does the Xperia XZ sit in Sony’s smartphone lineup? That’s easy: right at the top. It’s the follow-up to the excellent Sony Xperia Z5, and it carries with it all of Sony’s hopes and dreams for mobile domination.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Design
What the Xperia isn’t is a dramatically different-looking Sony phone. It’s still unashamedly slab-sided and rectangular, and that’s a good thing, because I rather like it.
A Sony Xperia phone looks just like you’d expect a phone to look, except it’s gone through the pleasing design process of Japanese minimalism, stripping back superfluous design elements to create a device that’s clean, crisp and feels wonderful in hand.
In terms of dimensions, the Xperia XZ is identical to the Xperia Z5 bar an extra 0.8mm in thickness and 7g in weight. It measures 72 x 8.1 x 146mm (WDH) and weighs 161g, putting it in the same general area as the Samsung Galaxy S7 or OnePlus 3.
One reason the XZ feels so great to hold and use is the slightly curved glass edges found on its front panel. Your thumb glides effortlessly over the screen, and the XZ’s lacquered metal sides provide a comfortable level of grip and warmth you don’t find on many other metal-body phones.
Sony also ditches the glass back of the Xperia Z range in favour of an all-metal one that, on the “Forest Blue” model I reviewed, looks rather appealing. I can imagine it looking a little more garish in platinum, however.
Sony has kept the recessed, side-mounted power-button-cum-fingerprint reader from the Z5, too, and it’s IP68 rated, just like the Xperia Z5, meaning it’s fully dust-resistant and waterproof to a depth of 1.5m for 30 minutes.
In fact, the only design flaw I can think of is that Sony still hasn’t rectified the problem with the position of its volume rocker. Since transforming the power button into a fingerprint reader, Sony has stubbornly refused to move the volume buttons – low on the right side of the phone – and they’re just as uncomfortable to use as on the Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Display
On paper, the Xperia XZ’s 5.2in Full HD IPS display is no different to that found in the Xperia Z5. Both are 5.2in, 1,080 x 1,920 resolution panels, augmented by Sony’s X-Reality Engine and Triluminos display technologies.
Somehow, though, the XZ’s display looks and feels more vibrant and alive, even with X-Reality for Mobile switched off. Colours take on more of a glow and look richer, even if both phones cover 99% of the sRGB colour space. However, it’s clear that Sony has made some incremental improvements to the XZ, upping its contrast ratio to 1,365:1, which is a direct consequence of a deeper black level of 0.45cd/m2.
Some may bemoan the lack of a higher-resolution screen, hoping Sony would put its display prowess into practice and develop a 1440p or 4K device, but on a 5.2in screen 1080p is more than enough.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Performance and specs
As a new flagship device, it should come as no surprise that at the heart of the Sony Xperia XZ is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, and here it’s backed up by 3GB of RAM. On the games front, this, combined with Sony’s resolve to stick to a 1080p screen, pays dividends.
In the GFXBench GL Manhattan 3 benchmark, the XZ outperformed the Z5 by quite a margin. In fact, the XZ outperforms all Android flagships bar the OnePlus 3 (which also has a 1,080 x 1,920-resolution display), to which it loses out by just a fraction.
Moving over to CPU-bound performance, the XZ isn’t quite as good. In the Geekbench 4 benchmark, despite having the same processor on board as the OnePlus 3, it lags distinctly behind – a performance gap that’s probably due to Sony’s Android skin. Still, it is quicker in both tests than the Xperia Z5.
As for other specifications, the XZ comes with 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, a USB Type-C connector, Quick Charge 3 fast-charge support and a microSD slot.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Camera
Core hardware isn’t the only thing the Sony Xperia XZ shares with the Xperia Z5, however. They both also have what looks like the same camera, complete with 23-megapixel resolution, f/2 aperture, and 1/2.3in sensor. Despite looking the same on paper, however, the XZ’s rear snapper is different: it now has laser autofocus (in addition to its hybrid phase-detect system) and an “RGBC-IR” sensor that should be able to assess the white balance of a scene more accurately and render more realistic colours.
Alongside these added sensors, the camera will launch and capture within 0.6 seconds, and has an ISO sensitivity of up to 12,800. The camera app did launch quickly, allowing you to take photos near instantaneously – it’s hard to say whether it took exactly 0.6 seconds, though. All you need to know is that it’s quick.
Comparing photos with the Samsung Galaxy S7 – the best camera available on any smartphone today – it’s clear to see Sony’s snapper is more than capable of taking great photos. However, it’s not quite the best in the business. In good light, images look vibrant and crisp, and colours well-balanced and true to life, but the S7’s images are a little crisper and more detailed.
In low light, the difference between the two widens. Despite the extra resolution, fine details are obscured by noise and over-processing – a problem we’ve seen with Sony’s smartphone cameras before. Still, you have to zoom in pretty close to see the differences, and I was largely very pleased with the results. This smartphone has an excellent camera; it’s just not quite as good as the best.
Not to be outdone by the competition, Sony has also included a ridiculously high-resolution 1/3in, 13-megapixel sensor in its front-facing selfie camera. Not only does this share the same bright f/2.0 aperture as the rear camera, but it’s also capable of HDR and 1080p video to help capture all your narcissistic moments.
As you can imagine, it’s one of the best front-facing cameras available on a smartphone, with images that come out clear and super-crisp. It lacks the same object tracking, laser autofocus and colour sensor of the rear camera, but chances are you won’t be trying to take award-winning shots with your front snapper anyway.
Sony has also introduced a rather handy, if somewhat gimmicky, feature for taking selfies. If, like me, you strain your eyes or fumble about trying to shift your grip to press the capture button when taking a selfie, Sony’s new palm-detect feature is a godsend. Simply show your hand to the camera and it’ll initiate a timer so you can easily snap photos without fumbling.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Battery life and features
One of Sony’s smartphones biggest strengths in recent times has been good battery life, with the Xperia’s battery-saving features turned on, you can easily get well over a day’s use before charging becomes an issue. The same can be said of the Xperia XZ.
In day-to-day use over the course of a few days, I found the battery typically lasted a full day and only dropped to that anxiety-inducing, sub-10% level once after a particularly heavy day. In our battery test, which runs a video in aeroplane mode with the phone’s brightness set to medium, the Xperia XZ dished out 14hrs 32mins of life – three hours more than the Xperia Z5.
Much of this extra battery life comes from the efficiency improvements found in the Snapdragon 820 over the Snapdragon 810, but Sony has also worked a bit of magic behind the scenes (so it says) to improve battery longevity.
First up is its intelligent charging system, which learns your habits and charges your phone appropriately. For instance, it won’t push the phone up to 100% until right before you generally tend to start using your phone in the day. It also closes down inactive background apps that tend to get left open and forgotten about, saving you slithers of battery life, processing power and storage space in the process.
During my time with the XZ, I didn’t really notice either of these processes going on in the background. Sometimes the phone would stop charging once it reached around 90% – presumably because it thought I wasn’t using it – but as soon as I began to use it, it’d kick back in. Having said that, after just a few days of use it’s hard to believe Sony’s intelligent systems had much time to learn my smartphone habits.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Verdict
Once again, Sony has produced a flagship smartphone that’s more than competent enough to stand with the industry’s big dogs. The improvements to its camera may not place it in the realms of the Samsung Galaxy S7, and its battery may not last quite as long either, but it’s good enough to sit up there with this generation’s smartphone standard bearers.
However, as with every Sony smartphone, there’s one caveat that really cripples its appeal – the price. Sony is asking for £549 for those wanting to buy an XZ outright. That’s a shade less than the arguably better Samsung Galaxy S7 and a whole lot more than the rather appealing OnePlus 3.
If the very best in performance isn’t your priority, you can pick up the equally competent Xperia Z5 on Amazon for £400. However, you’re still better off snapping up a OnePlus 3 for £329 and benefiting from its extra power and cleaner Android install.
After the fantastic leap of design and performance the Z5 brought over the Z3 and Z3+, the Sony Xperia XZ is more of an iterative improvement. But, while this resulted in a solid smartphone with an excellent camera, it isn’t good enough to draw level with the best.