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Xperia (e)xcellence: Sony’s Xperia Z2 reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 4:30 pm 19/05/2014

The smartphone race in 2014 is heating up, and with both flagships out from Samsung and HTC, the time is right for Sony to show what it’s been working on in the form of the Xperia Z2, a smartphone boasting a big screen, lots of power, a massive battery, and an updated camera. Can this best the other flagship juggernauts, or does it lag behind?

Features

A new Xperia for 2014, the Z2 is Sony’s latest effort to produce an industry leading handset with high-end specs enough to impress customers keen to own something that they can feel confident in for the next year or two, which is how long most smartphones last for.

In this handset, Sony has evolved the body of the Z1 and updated the insides, as well as changing a few button placements.

First up, you’ll find slightly different insides, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor clocked sat 2.3GHz working alongside the Adreno 330 graphics processor, and paired with 3GB RAM and 16GB internal storage. Upgrading this last part is easily possible thanks to a microSD slot on the side which can take up to 128GB microSDXC.

Google’s Android 4.4 runs here, making it one of the few handsets released with Google’s latest edition, also known as “KitKat.”

Wireless connection options are catered for in every way most people will want them, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication, GPS, DLNA, and mobile connectivity through Category 4 4G LTE rated for up to 150Mbps downloads (network dependent). Wired is also here, with a microUSB port and a 3.5mm headset jack.

Regular point and shoot cameras are beginning to die, and they have smartphone cameras to thank for that, with Sony’s Xperia Z2 adding to this with its 20.7 megapixel rear camera with LED flash. Video support goes beyond Full HD for a change, with Ultra HD’s 4K capture included here, too.

Front-facing camera support is also provided in the form of a 2.2 megapixel camera capable of recording Full HD 1080p videos.

This all sits under a 5.2 inch Full HD 1920×1080 screen, showing a pixel clarity of 424 pixels per inch, and protected by strengthened glass to help when you drop the phone. The screen forms one side of the phone, while the other side — the back — is another piece of strengthened glass, with as frame of the phone in aluminium.

Two small speakers sit on the front, just at the top and bottom edges, with an LED light built into the top speaker.

Sony’s Xperia Z2 is also reasonably ruggedised, rated for a metre of water resistance for up to 30 minutes, and is totally dust-proof. Ports and slots are covered by flaps that hang on the side of the phone, and when sealed make the phone water and dust resistant.

These ports include one on the left edge covering the microUSB charge port and the microSIM card slot, while the one on the right covers the microSD slot for expanding the storage.

Buttons are few on this handset, as all soft buttons are built into the screen and reliant on Android’s on-screen software-based soft buttons. That said, you will find three buttons on the right edge, with a power button just above the middle, with a volume rocker below this, and a camera button at the very bottom.

The ports are limited, with the microUSB port for charging and data transfer, a 3.5mm headset jack up top to listen to music, and a Sony proprietary jack on the left edge for Sony’s docks.

The battery in the Sony Xperia Z2 is rated for 3200mAh and is not removable.

Performance

Does it seem too soon for an update for a Sony flagship smartphone? It hasn’t been that long… has it?

Late last year, Sony’s Xperia Z1 hit our shores, a phone sporting a 5 inch Full HD screen, Snapdragon 800 chip, and a 20 megapixel camera, making it a decent year-ender for so many people.

Barely six months later, Sony is ready with another newbie, evolving the design and specs just enough to make it more than an incremental update, and something that makes this new phone — the Xperia Z2 — the better phone to consider if you’re looking for the best of the best in the Sony smartphone line-up.

Pick it up and you’ll find a phone that is very similar to one we’ve seen before, which is basically a long flat rectangle without any obvious softened back like other phones. It’s a comfortable enough design, though it is very tall and wide.

That said, Sony’s placement of the buttons makes for an easy hold, with the power button on the right edge just where you’d grip the handset, and a volume rocker just underneath this, making it easy to flick on with one hand if needed.

Construction also appears to be solid, too, which is good given that this is Sony’s flagship product, so you’d kind of hope for that.

As such, there’s a frame of aluminium that looks professional enough, with big pieces of mineral-strengthened glass on the front and back, making it a pretty and sleek handset, though one that easily picks up on any fingerprints you may have.

Overall, it’s an elegant phone, though it doesn’t quite have the same sleek look that HTC’s brushed-metal One M8 adopts.

Keeping everything on par with previous products is the build quality, which appears to have been improved slightly.

We’re happy to see the ruggedness stick around on this product from the previous generations, and that appears to be an area Sony understands, with IP certification ratings for being dust-proof and water resistance for up to 30 minutes of water or immersion down to one metre.

That’s a rating of IP58, which puts it on par with the Z1 before it, and means it’ll survive a dip in the pool, provided you make sure the phone covers are in place.

Sony’s efforts continue on the screen, which are very good on the Xperia Z2. You’ll find some of the best of Sony here, with a very bright Full HD screen found on the phone powered by Sony’s Triluminos technology, the same sort of high-grade panel with solid colour recreation that the company used on the last of its Sony VAIO laptops.

With a 5.2 inch display and the 1920×1080 Full HD resolution, there’s a pixel clarity of roughly 424 pixels per inch (ppi), putting the screen 100 pixels per inch higher than the Retina-grade screen Apple uses on its iPhone 5S.

This means pictures and text are very clear, and this helps with the colour, which appears very strong on this display, too. Viewing angles appear to be excellent from most sides, though extreme vertical angles can wash out ever so slightly.

Overall, we’re happy to use this screen, though it can be a touch too bright in dark conditions, with the adaptive light controls not having enough room to move when the lights go down, meaning you’ll often have too bright a screen when you really want less brightness and contrast.

Get stuck into using the phone, though, and you’ll see Sony has played its cards particularly well on the Z2.

The fact of the matter is there’s a lot of competition in the smartphone race for 2014, and Sony needs to be in there with a strong competitor, because it’s playing for keeps. Fortunately, it appears to be doing something right, because there’s so much to like about the Z2.

First is the operating system, and with Android 4.4 “KitKat” on the Z2 out of the box, we’re delighted to see Sony going with the most up-to-date version of Google’s operating system.

The overlay is pretty minimal here, but is still one of the best you can find in Australia, keeping the simplicity close to what Google envisioned, but still giving everything a Sony spin.

The wallpaper and lockscreen animations appear to have been taken right out of the Sony PlayStation design team, while the menus all sport icons with less of a 3D look, and some simple left to right gesture swiping in order to get things going.

Multiple homescreens and menus are still here, as per usual with Android, with Sony including a shortcut dock you can easily change, something Samsung’s phones struggle with in Australia.

The menu system is one of the better around, and just like it is on the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, you’ll find a swipe from left to right on the edge of the menu screen will reveal menu sort orders, uninstall options, and a shortcut to both Google’s and Sony’s app stores.

It’s simple and easy, and given how uncomplicated everything is, you’ll probably be happy to stick with it.

Performance is also solid, hardly surprising given the specs of the Z2 are right on par with both the excellent performers that are the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5.

In fact, even though the quad-core 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chip and Adreno 330 graphics chip are practically spot on, the benchmarks appear just a little lower than they should be, especially in comparison to products sporting the same chips.

That said, benchmarks are mostly synthetic, and the performance appears to be strong across the board in all of our tests, with little to no slowdowns in everything we did, from loading multiple applications quickly and multitasking between them, jumping into the camera whenever we wanted to by holding down the physical camera button, and pulling down the dropdown bar to view notifications while we were playing a game.

Sony has even bested rivals with an extra gigabyte of RAM, pushing past the 2GB sweet spot for Android and included 3GB, making the Xperia Z2 less likely to run out of steam when you’re running several apps.

Mobile broadband also excels here, hardly surprising since every flagship is rated for strong 4G speeds these days.

The Sony Xperia Z2 is no different in this regard, spec’d for Category 4 LTE connectivity, giving it a maximum download speed of 150Mbps on compatible networks (Vodafone only in Australia at the time this was published), with high speeds still on offer from Australia’s Category 3 4G networks handled by Telstra and Optus.

Our tests revealed speeds between 30 and 50Mbps were easily had, with upload speeds around that of 20-30 possible too.

Even the battery manages to impress, and much more so than what Samsung managed from this year’s Galaxy S5.

The regular GadgetGuy real-world use test includes making phone calls, surfing the web, streaming music, playing the odd game, taking photos, reading and writing emails, and doing some of that thing we call social networking, and. throughout it, the Xperia Z2 never let up, providing a solid day and a half of battery life.

Extra testing found that if you throttle your phone, a day is possible, while more relaxed users will see two days out of the 3200mAh battery.

That’s an impressive performance for devices with the Snapdragon 801 processor, of which we’ve seen three thus far, with the Xperia Z2 edging out the HTC One M8 just marginally in battery life, though it does have a bigger battery to work with.

It’s a bigger battery again than the Galaxy S5, though, and it totally destroys the Galaxy S5’s battery performance, which itself barely makes it through a whole day.

Good work to Sony on this one, because battery life is one of the biggest concerns customers has, and the Xperia Z2 nails it, matching decent battery life with excellent system performance.

Also on the positive side is the camera, and while it might not seem like a huge departure from the 20 megapixel shooter included on last year’s Xperia Z1, the low-light image quality, speed, and ability to capture 4K video are all improvements.

First up is the speed, which appears to be faster across the board.

You can load this up by pressing either the camera shortcut or one of the shortcuts on the camera widget, or alternatively press the camera button on the side which makes the camera fire up practically instantly, ready to let you take the shot in the “superior” automatic mode, which actually does a decent job most of the time.

For those unaware, the 20 megapixel sensor in the Z2 doesn’t generally fire off 20 megapixel images, or rather, it doesn’t let you keep them. Instead, you’ll find it down-samples the 20 megapixel image to an 8 megapixel shot, essentially giving you a better quality shot.

Shot from the Sony Xperia Z2 smartphone

Most of the time, our shots looked excellent until you zoomed in, and the automatic modes do a decent job with focus most of the time.

That said, autofocus can be a little finicky on this camera, with most images looking sharp from the first glance, while other times you’ll find the Z2 focusing on completely the wrong thing and creating a blurry photo.

That doesn’t happen as often, but the few times it did, it was a little irritating.

Shot from the Sony Xperia Z2 smartphone

Outside of that minor AF glitch, you’ll find strong images mostly across the board, with some of the best low-light smartphone camera shooting we’ve ever seen.

Ignore the noise that you’ll see on the preview, because it’s simply on there when you take the photo, with the Xperia Z2 simply providing a little more light in the scene than you’d otherwise expected.

Testing the camera effects out: mosaic

Creative modes are also a welcome addition, and go beyond the basic monochromatic and colour tints, with some special effects such as motion trails, sketch modes, the warped colour bleeding of the Harris shutter, and an awesome tweakable mosaic mode that resembles what life is like if you’re living in an 8-bit video game (we had too much fun with this one).

Most of these can be used across stills and videos, making them fun for movies too.

The creative effects are also more than just the neato image effects, with slow motion effects able to be applied to video, augmented reality with dinosaurs and animated fish thrown in over the top of your field of view, and more camera options added in as extra apps.

Testing the camera effects out: augmented reality

Even 4K is here, which means there are now three smartphones on the market in Australia capable of capturing video for an Ultra HD TV, with the Sony Xperia Z2 joining the ranks of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S5 smartphones for this feature.

Full HD is also still available as an option, but 4K is now possible, which will please all six of you early adopters with a UHD TV.

Our only real issue with the Xperia Z2’s camera (outside of the aforementioned occasional autofocus glitch) is the manual mode, which just like it was on the Z1 feels woefully inadequate, and barely lets you do anything.

Shot from the Sony Xperia Z2 smartphone

Despite being called a “manual” mode, there are no manual modes to choose from. You can’t select shutter speed or aperture, and once you go into manual mode, there are only a few settings to choose from, with most of them scene modes.

Heaven forbid you decide to switch out of the 8 megapixels and take a 20 megapixel photo directly, because if you do, the few controls you have disappear, and the Z2’s camera basically becomes a bare-bones shooter with no controls of any kind outside the shutter itself.

Lots of effects modes to choose from.

But outside of the camera issues, there aren’t many negatives about the Z2 smartphone, with the remainder of them being about the design or a missing feature.

For instance, there’s no infrared port here, with the same feature missing from the Z1.

We don’t know many people using the TV remote function on their HTC One, LG G2, or Samsung Galaxy S5, but it’s impossible to use the Z2 as a remote of any kind if you don’t have a Sony AV or TV product, because there’s no infrared port on this handset.

Instead, Sony gets around this need by connecting to compatible Sony products over WiFi, which makes it like a remote, but also not one at all, unless you’re a part of the Sony product ecosystem for every other product you may own in your home.

The design also has some niggles with it because while Sony has softened the edges of this 5.2 inch phone, it’s still a very big phone.

With the top and bottom of the screen flanked by noticeable borders, the phone appears to be a little bigger than it should, and since it’s based around the design of a softened rectangle, it can sometimes come across that you have a big flat rectangular brick in your pocket.

Is it comfortable to wear on your person? Sure, provided you don’t have tight pants or pockets, but it’s still big all the same, and with Sony still going with its monolith inspired design, means the form isn’t quite as sloped as what you find on either the efforts by other brands.

The screen isn't half bad out in sunlight.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of strong competition in the 2014 smartphone race, but Sony has managed to produce one of the strongest entries you can consider, with a beautiful screen, excellent performance, and a camera is a serious contender for best smartphone camera of the year.

We had too much fun reviewing the Z2, especially thanks to the camera, which helped to cement the Xperia Z2 as one of our favourite handsets all year.

Personally, we’d prefer a slightly smaller device, and when Sony inevitably migrates these features to a smaller handset as it did in the Z1 Compact, maybe then we’ll have found the perfect compromise, but if you don’t mind as big phone, the 5.2 inch Sony Xperia Z2 is an excellent phone, and gives other phones a good run for their money.

Highly recommended.

Price (RRP)

$759

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Great build quality; Excellent battery life capable of achieving at least a day of life and well into a second day; Superb camera, with great low-light support and 4K UHD video capture; Fun creative camera effects which go beyond what most smartphone manufacturers offer; Easy to use; Solid 4G speeds; Notification light up top;

Product Cons

The rectangular size can still be a little awkward to hold, especially for smaller hands; Camera's manual mode needs some actual manual control; Autofocus can be a little finicky on the camera; Cover flaps can get annoying; No infrared port for controlling your TV;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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