Sony Xperia XZ Review

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. That’s most likely the motto over at Sony’s smartphone division, as they’ve been cranking out new high-priced handhelds for a few years now and have found themselves outclassed and outmatched every time they finally hit the market. The Sony Xperia XZ however, is meant to be their hail-Mary.

A smartphone with style, power and an identity to match its price-tag. And once again, Sony’s latest device does feel completely outmatched within its price-class by newer and established upstarts on the scene. That’s not too bad however. Because while the Xperia XZ may not be committing any smartphone regicide right now, it’s still Sony’s best phone released so far.

Hold me, touch me, thrill me

Lets start with the cosmetics itself. Sony has gone for a more subtle and understated look this time, with the model I reviewed boasting a premium black metal and glass finish on the back. Fortunately, it’s not a scratch-magnet like the iPhone 7 is, as the finish is of a duller and more resistant quality. It’s essentially the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey when it comes to design, a massive black slab with angular corners and rounded sides.

And that makes it the nicest phone I’ve held in my tiny palms all year. There’s a certain sense of uniformity with all smartphones lately, but I like the Xperia XZ. It somehow takes the best of those design influences and manages to stand out while falling in the same camp. It’s got a decent amount of heft to it, feels great and the button placement results in it not accidentally butt-dialling your mom.

It’s also water-resistant, able to survive a splash of H20 and shrug it off. Handy stuff, as I almost caught a cold when I stood outside during a rainstorm to test this feature out, deathly afraid that I was about to become a lightning magnet. But the Xperia XZ soldiered on in this downpour, with a stiff upper lip. Anything more than that however, and you’re going to void your warranty as Sony cautioned against attending any pool party that has spontaneous dips into the deep end.

Sony has kept its configuration to the right hand side, so lefties beware. You’ve got a dual power button-fingerprint sensor on the side, volume controls and a shutter to work with in a subtle manner. At the rear, you’ve got the camera and the fancy sensor that Sony has been boasting about. Good, clean and refined design that weighs around 161 grams. All this, and the mighty 23 megapixel camera doesn’t even bulge out whatsoever. It’s flatter than the Maldives.

Less is more, and the Sony Xperia XZ says a lot with it has.

Screen queen

For anyone who rocks a Samsung S7 or iPhone, the XZ’s screen is most likely going to result in some scoffing. Scoffing to the max. With a top resolution of 1920x1080p, there’s nothing ultra about that high-res display. Thing is, I’m not entirely convinced that such a display is that necessary yet. It drains more juice from your battery and the differences aren’t as big of a difference as you’d imagine.

Full HD is still more than serviceable and easily capable for applications and media. And at that resolution, the Xperia XZ does a bang-up job. The luminosity of the screens glares on beautifully, able to easily match the brightness of its various rivals. I placed it next to my Huawei P9 (which also has a 1080p resolution screen), cranked the brightness up to max and the results were a total stalemate. Not bad at all, especially if I need to ever use a Solar Flare attack sometime in the future.

With a real estate of 5.2 inches for the screen, it’s a nice fit as well. Especially in my Trumpy hands, where it felt yuge.

Under the hood

Right, that’s the surface of the Xperia XZ glossed over. So what’s under that hood? What’s keeping the Xperia XZ going? If you had to wrench it open, you’d find a pretty standard set of internals with the grunt of it being handled by a 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor and an entire 3GB of RAM. Not bad stuff, but once again outclassed by the competition.

Will the Xperia XZ run your apps and provide a smooth experience? Yes, yes it will and in an able manner. In fact, it actually ran superbly with a slightly more limited set of hardware. Say what you like about Sony, but they do know how to cobble together a capable cellphone with what’s available. Not once did the Xperia XZ crash, while heat was kept to a minimum with even the most demanding of apps being run and the background filled with lesser tests.

I’ll say it again, Sony knows hardware. I just wish that they could extend that intelligence to software as well. Because that’s where the Xperia XZ suffers. You’ve got to deal with the usual bloatware on offer here, everything from apps that are pointless when you have a dedicated browsing space set up to a bonkers AVG app that drinks in RAM like a man dying of thirst in the desert.

All of this is run by Android 6 Marshmallow right out of the box, which is admittedly one of the better Android operating systems that I’ve gone hands-on with this year. But the bloatware made what should have been an otherwise smoother experience a bit annoying. Thankfully, my inner Broken Matt Hardy allowed me to DELETE! DELETE! DELETE the offending software as soon as possible.

There’s an update on the way however, so we’ll see if Sony can patch things up.

Lights,camera and action-shots!

And now for the meat and filters of the Xperia XZ. Any smartphone wanting to be taken seriously these days needs a camera that justifies the price tag. If you’re willing to forgo a more expensive DSLR or mirrorless for a more mobile approach, then the camera has to match your attitude. It’s something that Sony hasn’t had much luck with this year,as their phones lacked any identity to help establish them as solid contenders.

It didn’t help either that Sony fails to understand that what makes Apple and Huawei so popular with smartphone photography is their software. Software which is designed to make good use of the hardware and give consumers options which go beyond more than just smart-auto. And that’s very much the case in point once again here, as the Xperia XZ’s 23 megapixel rear camera felt plain and average once again.

And then I started playing with it in manual, like I should have done from the beginning all along.

If you’re not that clued up on adjusting your white balance or shutter speed, the XZ will do an alright job. But you’ve really got to play with those settings in manual mode to compose the best picture possible. That’s because he camera works in tandem with a predictive hybrid laser autofocus that’s meant to give it an edge when your subject is in motion. Something most phones struggle with.

It is seriously good stuff. Sony’s laser when calibrated can capture that moment in time that is stunning and was thought previously beyond the realm of smartphones. If Henri Cartier-Bresson were still alive, he’d hang himself if he saw how easy it was to capture a moment in time. While the Xperia XZ lacks the sharpness of the Huawei P9 or the vibrancy of the iPhone 7, it has an identity at long last with that autofcous.

Quick, snappy and on point if you’re brave enough to play with it. The Huawei P9 may be my favourite smartphone camera of 2016, but dammit, the XZ is this close to toppling it thanks to that stunning laser-sharp autofocus. I don’t even know how they managed to fit that sensor into it. And once again, video ain’t too shabby either.

I always imagine that the Sony engineers treat video as an afterthought. It’s good but I can’t help but wonder what it’d be like if Sony pursued that avenue with the same mindset that they’ve applied to the photography side of the XZ. While the 1080p video that you can shoot at 60fps doesn’t go above and beyond, the image stabilisation certainly does.

I’m a big believer that with my line of work, where you hit showfloors and do quick interviews, doesn’t require having a broadcast-quality camera with a triple-threat of CCD-sensors embedded within. We’re very much living in an age of consumable entertainment, videos which are watched once and referenced later before our attention spans move on.

I believe that very much, to the point where I’d happily set the Xperia XZ up in a rig to do some showfloor shoots and record a QnA session. But I can’t help but wish that Sony would really double down its efforts on video. More than a laser autofocus, I believe this is where the house of PlayStation can establish its dominance with a unique hook in the smartphone industry.

Beyond 1080p, you can also try your hand at some 4K recording. If your display is up to the task, here’s a sample video I shot in 4K and 1080P at the local toy run this weekend:

Not a lot gets said these days about front-facing cameras, something that the Xperia XZ has a rather decent setup with. If you’re looking for a mirror to practice your blue steel on, the XZ packs a 13MP snapper for your gorgeous blue eyes. Here, hide your children, because I’m definitely going to be in Zoolander 3: The Legacy of Mugatu with these profile shots:

Battery will get you everywhere

Right, solid hardware, iffy software and a better than expected camera. How long will all of this last you then after a charge? Quite decently in my experience. Like any other smartphone on the market, you’ll easily get a day of heavy use out of the XZ and then some. Two days may be a bit of a stretch for heavy use, but that’s the price to pay for high-tech hardware in a handheld.

Where the XZ does truly stand out however, is with its bleed. Specifically, the energy bleed between sessions. Left overnight, the battery barely budges from its percentage with the XZ, using some form of black magic or efficient power management. Sony also has numerous tools tucked away within the XZ, to give it a second wind in a pinch and conserve stamina for the long run. Useful stuff really.

But for a casual user? During the second week that I had this phone I tested it far more gently, doing just quick browsing sessions, Instagram photo-capturing and sending messages and taking a few calls. I started that on a Monday. I didn’t need to charge the XZ until Thursday. And even when it’s low on power, Sony has managed to configure the XZ so that it’ll drink up some go-go juice from your outlet as efficiently as it can.

So what’s the verdict?

It’s difficult, it really is. Because the Sony Xperia XZ is still playing catch-up in a super competitive market right now. Not everyone has R500+ to spend on a phone contract every month and those who do will most likely look for more bang for their buck. And yet, I genuinely like this phone. It makes up for its various faults by having a superb body, godlike focus on the camera lens and a battery life that outlive you if you plan to use it moderately.

It’s Sony’s best phone by far, and a step in the right direction at long bloody last for the veteran developer of consumer hardware. It doesn’t have the pure Jack of all trades grunt that the Samsung S7 still offers, but this may be a phone for loyalists. People who stuck with Sony and who feel happy to continue that relationship. A friendship with benefits, you might even say.

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