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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