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Sony's first high-end phone of 2013 brings to the table a 1080p display and a glass-backed chassis

Android Central @ CESSony Mobile has spent much of the past couple of years struggling to reach parity with the leading Android manufacturers. Whether it was hardware or software, it seemed Sony offerings were always one step behind competing phones from HTC and Samsung. In 2011, the single-core Xperia Arc was pitted against the dual-core HTC Sensation and Galaxy S2. A year later, the story repeated itself with the Xperia S, which at launch ran a year-old Snapdragon S3 processor and a year-old version of Android. Despite some really interesting designs from Sony, the overall experience sometimes seemed lacking compared to the competition. Even the Xperia T, by all accounts a perfectly decent piece of hardware, missed out on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean at launch last October.

But Sony’s still hanging in there. It recently became the number two Android OEM in the UK. And though it’s yet to make much of a dent in the U.S. market, at least it’s got devices for sale on a major national carrier, which is more than can be said for some of the smaller Android players.

So that’s where we are in the lead-up to the Xperia Z announcement. Unveiled just three months after the Xperia T launched, the Z is a device that shows Sony isn’t resting on its laurels, at least when it comes to hardware. It’s right up there with the fastest, most beautiful smartphone hardware available, and frankly, that’s a first for Sony.

On the outside, the Xperia Z is a sexy piece of kit. Like the LG Optimus G it’s got a glass back panel, which gives it a kind of symmetry when held in the hand. As Optimus G, Nexus 4 and iPhone 4 owners will be aware, glass feels better in the hand the usual shiny polycarbonate used in the construction of most smartphones. The back panel is particularly striking on the white version, giving it very bright, reflective appearance. The jury’s out on how that shiny back panel will look after a couple of months of regular use, but the brand new demo units at Sony’s CES booth nevertheless looked awesome.

The outer trim of the Xperia Z is worth a mention too. It’s constructed of plastic, the only external part of the phone that is, but like the Optimus G’s, it’s thin enough that it doesn’t really bother us. Around the edge of the device, everything’s kept pretty sleek. Ports and connectors, including the headphone jack and microUSB, are hidden behind plastic protectors -- likely a requirement of the phone’s water and dust resistance creds. That does mean you’ll be dealing with fiddly little plastic flaps on a daily basis if you pick up an Xperia Z. As we’ve seen on other phones -- hey there, Droid DNA -- that can quickly become an annoyance.

Aside from any usability concerns of this kind, the Xperia Z is a gorgeous piece of hardware. It’s a large rectangular slab, but one that’s clearly been crafted with very close attention to detail. At 7.9mm thick, it’s just a hair thicker than HTC’s One S. Although it tips the scales at 146 grams, it feels deceptively light in regular use.

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Once again Sony’s opted to use on-screen buttons, and there’s an extremely thin bezel, meaning the front of the Xperia Z is covered almost completely by its 1920x1080 “Full HD Reality” display. As you’d expect for a screen packing a ridiculous 440ppi, the Xperia Z’s display is extremely sharp. Some Sony displays have suffered from washed-out colors and poor viewing angles, but the Xperia Z seems to have made some strides in this area. The Z’s viewing angles didn’t seem quite as wide as the Droid DNA we brought along for a side-by-side comparison, but it’s still a great-looking display. Once again, Sony’s opted to use on-screen buttons in this device, meaning you lose a portion of the screen most of the time. Therefore compared to the DNA, the Xperia Z seems a little shorter.

Internal specs are similarly impressive. The Xperia Z packs a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, the same chip powering the Nexus 4 and Optimus G, backed up by 2GB of RAM. There’s 32GB of storage on-board, expandable through microSD. The rear camera is a 13MP Sony Exmor RS unit, using the company’s new sensor and lens tech. In theory, this should provide better low-light shots, more accurate colors and less noise and distortion. Considering the noise that plagues some high-megapixel Sony smartphone cameras like the Xperia T, we’re curious to put this through its paces, although captured images certainly seemed sharp enough on the device’s screen.

Some other notables -- you’ve got 4G LTE connectivity out of the box, as well as a 2330mAh battery, which should provide plenty of juice for this type of device.

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On the software side, little has changed from the previous generation of Sony phones. The Sony UI is almost identical, save for a few minor lock screen launcher changes. The biggest change comes in the upgrade to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and with it, the inclusion of the “Project Butter” software enhancements. On (nearly) the latest version of Android, the Sony UI gets a substantial speed boost.

There are few surprised to be found in terms of bundled apps on the Xperia S. Sony continues to use its smartphone line to push its movie and music content through the Sony Entertainment. And the company’s still trying to breathe life into its older brands like Walkman by giving them a smartphone home.

The Xperia Z is a device that goes toe-to-toe with the latest high-end offerings from rival manufacturers, and Sony deserves credit for being one of the first manufacturers to bring a 5-inch, 1080p smartphone to life in such an attractive chassis. What remains to be seen is whether Sony can secure a timely U.S. launch for this product -- recall the six-month-long wait for the Xperia Ion, which debuted at last year’s CES. In Europe, it looks like we can expect a launch in early March, which isn’t too far away. What remains to be seen is how HTC and Samsung will counter, and whether Sony’s done enough early enough to make the Xperia Z a success.

More: Sony Xperia ZL hands-on


Reader comments

Sony Xperia Z hands-on


Don't mind the stupid port flaps, if it has wireless charging. Maybe the headphone port flap will get annoying, but I can live with it if it survives my 2 1/2 year old throwing my phone into the bath tub again.

So, wireless charging onboard?

What the Stig CA said. If it has Qi, not a problem at all and looks damn sweet, a competitor to my N4 even.
Without that, the stupid flaps are far too annoying on a device that likely will need to be (or will be even if not "needed") charged every night.

Did anybody else laugh their ass off when Alex started that video by shouting like he's trying to desperately hail a cab?

I love this site.. but every time I see someone write "piece of kit" I want to punch a baby in the fucking throat.

Just answered my question, thank you Alex. The phone has 32gb of on board int storage with expandable sd card. That is a rarity in most of the new phones. This phone has beautiful hardware, great specs and some new software that shuts off certain parts of the phone to keep the battery well charged. Love the design. This phone better make it to the US market very quick. Sony needs to push this phone to as many of the US Carriers as fast as they can. I like the power button set up, seperate camera button, very impressed by this entire package by Sony. I really want this bad boy, just take my money and give me that phone.

My thoughts exactly. Great specs, and I love the 32gb on board PLUS the SD card slot. I've been waiting for Sony to make a decent smartphone and they've exceeded my expectations. As a Sony aficionado I will definitely get this.

5" screen my ass. those onscreen nav keys takes up valuable screen space.
you're getting a 4.7" screen like 90% of the time. I dont why ppl prefer them.

In case of five inch screen, I absolutely prefer it on screen. The soft keys go away when you're watching video anyways which is when it really counts.

Not only do the keys go away when they're not in use, it keeps the bezel smaller because the extra space for a physical button down at the bottom just isn't needed. However with Qualcomm's new chips coming, I'd rather wait for a phone with them in it.

look at 1:06 of the video with the DNA next to it.
DNA has physical keys but with the same size bezel on the bottom as the Z.

I would be curious to try the DNA for a week or two. Before I about the Nexus 7, I thought the bezels were too big, but the more I use it, the more I find myself touching the bezel and loving the fact that they're there preventing accidental taps! Would this be the same for smartphone? I would love to know =D

I like the design overall and the fact that it's waterproof. However, I've seen The Verge complain about viewing angles and washed out colors and also of the design being typical of Sony. I for one think that Sony designs are good at least in terms of looks; although, the back sort of seems similar to the Optimus G. Also, from what I see Sony happens to mess up the camera on the software and processing side of things even with good sensors. This situation is similar to Nokia Lumia, however, Nokia happens to fix the camera with firmware updates, IDK if Sony does that.

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to see the HDR video playback and Kudos to Sony for putting the effort.

Keep in mind that Sony has a battery stamina mode that they report can help extend battery life upwards of 4 times.

Not sure how well this works, or if when in place it makes the device lag so much that it is a completely different experience.

But if the software and battery are in tune, such as the way Motorola does with their Razr series, then this size could work out for the majority of users.

Time will tell though.

I think the core community will warm up to Sony and I hope they become a big player in the mobile market. I remember the "never again Samsung" comments in regards to their software updates etc..

I predict (well, more like hope) the next Nexus will either be Sony or Motorola!

I really like the look of this phone and will seriously think about getting one if it support Qi charging (if a phone has a sealed battery I'm only buying it if it has wireless charging from now on).

Sony has a lot of great products, seriously how many older LCDs can never get dusted out, are on 16 hours a day, and are close to a fireplace in the winter. They do well in what they're meant to do. They do make some bad products though, like every company. Btw I don't own any Sony anything but have respect for the things they create.