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Top form: Sony’s 4G Full HD Xperia Z reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:59 pm 04/03/2013

The 2013 crop of flagship smartphones has arrived, and Sony’s Xperia Z is the first, bringing with it a 1080p Full HD screen measuring 5 inches diagonally, 13 megapixel camera, and a build quality that should survive your everyday life. Is it Sony’s best phone yet?

Features

Previewed at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, the Sony Xperia Z is aimed at being more than “just another Android smartphone,” packing in features that Sony hopes can put it at the top of the pack.

At the top of these is the screen, which is a 5 inch display with a Full HD 1920×1080 panel. With that many pixels, Sony has essentially crafted a phone capable of showing 441 pixels per inch, making it insanely sharp.

In fact, this screen is so sharp that it out-does Apple’s “Retina” screen display by over one hundred, leaving the iPhone 5’s 325ppi behind.

There’s your typical scratch-resistant glass coating this screen, though we don’t think this is Corning’s glass. Still, it should offer a modicum of protection, and combined with some IP57 certification, you’ll be able to take it into the wind, rain, and dusty environments too.

Under the hood, there’s more than just last year’s dual-core processing, with Sony including a quad-core 1.5GHz processor here, paired alongside the relatively recent Adreno 320 graphics chip and 2GB RAM. That last part (memory) has been known to make Android appear more fluid, with 2GB the current magic number to make Droid run well.

Speaking of Android, that’s running 4.1 “Jelly Bean” here, though an update to 4.2 is planned for the near future. The next generation of Sony’s Android overlay is loaded too, which makes the phone look and feel closer to other Sony audio visual products, such as the clear clock widget, PlayStation-esque backgrounds, and pages of menu screens.

Storage is set to 16GB in this handset, but you’re not locked in, and you can easily upgrade over the microSD slot found on the left side of the handset.

Connectivity is pretty normal, with 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi, DLNA, Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP, GPS, Near-Field Communication, and a 4G Long-Term Evolution modem inside, capable of some pretty serious download speeds if your telco supports them (currently Optus and Telstra, at the time of publishing).

The Xperia Z is also the first Android camera released in Australia that we know of to feature a 13 megapixel camera, pushing these devices past last year’s top-end 8 megapixel models. Full HD video capture is, of course on offer from this rear camera, but is also even possible on the front camera too, which is a 2.2 megapixel shooter.

Sony’s battery isn’t removable in this handset, and is set to 2330mAh, with charging available through either microUSB or a special set of gold connectors on the left side for a charging dock that Sony will release later on.

Ports on this handset include the microUSB and microSD on the left edge, the microSIM slot on the right, and a 3.5mm headset jack up top, all covered with removable flaps.

And while soft buttons are all the rage these days, and this handset uses Google’s built-in on-screen back, home, and multitasking buttons, there are a few physical buttons, with the volume rocker on the right edge and a circular aluminium power button just above this.

Performance

We’ve seen some pretty cool handsets from Sony in the past, but the Xperia Z feels different from the moment it’s removed from the box.

Past Sony/Sony Ericsson designs have either featured a softer curved shape or a more rectangular simple slate, and this one sticks with the latter, even reminding us of Sony’s recent range of TVs.

It’s a simple design, with a rectangular prism made from glass fibre polyamide, which is apparently used to substitute metal in car parts. That should boast a fair amount of strength, and it’s certainly a premium material as far as smartphones go.

The thickness manages to only be 7.9mm, and the 146 gram weight is balanced well, with the entire handset feeling like it was built as one solid thing. It’s not overly heavy at the top or bottom, but manages to feel complete, which Sony says is due to its “omni-balance” design.

The latest version of Sony’s Android overlay is also very easy to use here, with multiple homescreens that are easy to customise, user replaceable dock icons and shortcuts, an app menu system that can be re-ordered quickly, and a dropdown shortcut bar to access settings.

Sony has also thrown in something called “small apps,” which pop up when you press the multitask button on the bottom right.

Aside for being able to flick out apps from memory – a feature of Android for over a year now – Sony’s small apps allow you to quickly grab a calculator, timer, voice recorder, unit converter, or jot down some notes with a small overlay that sits on top of everything on your homescreen.

Overall, this feels like Sony’s answer to the LG QMemo or Samsung’s note taking facility built into the Galaxy Note 2, and if you like multitasking easily, you’ll find this a useful feature on the Xperia Z.

Type or swipe: it's your call.

The keyboard has also been improved too, and you’ll find that you can either type using the traditional virtual keyboard we’ve all seen, or drag your fingers over the letters in a Swype-like fashion.

This isn’t as good as what we’ve experienced in SwiftFlow, but does provide a decent experience for speedy typing.

We’re very much into the water and dust proofing Sony has built into this phone, with the knowledge learned from last year’s Xperia Go. This is a smartphone you shouldn’t feel concerned about taking out with you, because even if you get some muck on it, you can easily wash it off.

Run it under the tap and the smartphone is fine, the water running off and still functioning. If your device is on at the time, working and out of standby, you’ll see the touchscreen try to respond to the flow of water, the heaviness of the touch acting like slippery fingers.

The handset also apparently resists dust, though we didn’t have much to test that with here.

Performance-wise, this thing flies, pushing so far past last year’s HTC One X that its performance is nearly double that of that handset. Synthetic benchmarks don’t necessarily mean much, but according to our bench on Quadrant, the quad-core CPU on offer is capable of some decent speeds.

Transfer speeds will depend on where you are, but we managed speeds of around 20 to 30Mbps in the city, which was more than adequate for 4G.

The average battery life could be better, but offers what seems to be par for the course for a 4G LTE handset, with one day of life easily possible from this handset. You might get a little more, but in general, our day of web browsing, text writing, phone calls, picture taking, the odd game, and benching proved the typical 4G life of a day.

To Sony’s credit, there are some energy savings options not normally native to Android that have been thrown in here, such as the Stamina mode, which lets you selectively enable and disable the background downloading of various apps, among other things, to help retain a better battery life.

And then there’s that camera, that nifty 13.1 megapixel camera, which carries a easy-to-use interface that feels like it was lifted straight from Sony’s compact cameras.

There’s still no optical zoom like we get on a proper camera, but there is a “Superior Auto” mode which can pinpoint which settings to use best in most situations, while the “Picture Effect” mode carries nine different effects with real-time previews of each on-screen.

Performance of the camera seems to be strong, at least for a mobile phone, and we were surprised as to how bright images appeared to be even under low light.

Looking back at those images, there’s some obvious softness and artefacting, but the results were better than we expected.

Under low light, we managed better pictures than we expected.

Camera start-up time does need an improvement, with a three second delay often showing up, and the camera sometimes crashing to the standby screen, especially if you’ve started the camera from here.

Images also aren’t necessarily shot as quickly as you press the shutter, though on burst mode, you’ll manage a huge amount of shots. We stopped at 40, but you could probably get in more.

Testing it for a few days, we mostly found ourselves enjoying the company of the Xperia Z, and could easily see this in our pockets, but not everything is perfect for all customers.

First and foremost, the design won’t be to everyone’s liking.

The Xperia Z heralds a very simple look – it’s a rectangle with a bit of thickness to it – but it’s not the easiest to carry if you have smaller hands. The angles are softer on the side, which helps to make it less sharp, but it’s still a very wide and tall handset regardless.

While some people in the office loved it, others – this reviewer included – wished there was more to the design to accommodate the palm of the hand.

Rather than rest inside the hand, you really have to grip this design, and unless your fingers are long enough, that’s not necessarily an easy task.

We don’t often drop our handsets, but it nearly happened with this one, the edgy sides and slick glass on the front and back not exactly lending itself to being an easy carry.

Plugging in headphones also comes with the annoyance that you need to remove the headphone port cover, which actually just dangles there along the side. It’s one of the unfortunate parts about making a phone that is water and dust proof: you need a casing that protects the holes, and that’s just part and parcel of this design.

Sony’s choice of display appears to be high grade, and while we can’t fault the fact that this runs so many pixels inside the 5 inch display, the viewing angles aren’t as good as we had hoped.

Look at the screen dead on, and it’s a lovely experience, but move to any angle and the images wash out slightly. It’s not enough to bug people dramatically, but colours do become lighter, so try to keep your viewing focused straight down.

The mineral-resistant scratch-resistant glass covering the back doesn’t appear to be as good as Corning’s scratch-resistant glass, either, so you can expect to rack up a few micro-scratches as you drag it around from place to place.

And on a lesser note, taking the SIM card tray out from this phone isn’t the easiest. It’s almost like Sony made it to never be removed, because the tray is tiny, hard to grab with fingernails, and looks as though it can be thrown away.

We’ve spoken to at least one person who accidentally did, so do yourself a favour and don’t: the SIM tray might look disposable, but it’s absolutely not. You definitely need this.

Conclusion

While Sony’s choice of a simple rectangular prism design won’t appeal to everyone, it’s hard to deny what the company has accomplished with this handset.

Between the excellent performance of Android, the solid camera, and knowing that it will survive the rigours of day-to-day life, Sony’s Xperia Z is an excellent choice for a 2013 top-end smartphone. Recommended.

 

Price (RRP)

$TBA; Available on Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone in March

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

A water resistant flagship smartphone is pretty cool; Great performance from the processor and connection; Camera handles decently in darker environments; Small apps can be very useful;

Product Cons

Can prove hard to hold; SIM card tray is a little flimsy and hard to reach;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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