The Xperia Z2 runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat and Sony's refreshed Xperia UI. Though there’s a lot here that you’ll recognize from the Z1, there are a few new changes. On the whole, the visual style is uncluttered and follows closely in line with Google’s sensibilities. We haven’t had any performance hiccups as we had with the Z2’s predecessor, so that’s progress. Getting around the Z2 is generally snappy and responsive.
First and foremost is a “What’s New” app which jams itself somewhat awkwardly right into the Google Now menu accessed by holding down the home button. What’s New amalgamates content across all of Sony’s various entertainment hubs and the Android app ecosystem. The navigation bar provides access to the latest music, movies, PlayStation games, and Android apps. Items are displayed in a sharp-looking grid and tapping through on them lets you see a description, screenshots and download links. As a broad overview of curated content, there might be some value here, but certainly not enough to compromise the native Google Now navigation. For the most part, the dedicated apps already handle content discovery amply.
Naturally, the Xperia Z2 comes loaded up with apps for Sony's content ecosystems.
These apps include Walkman for music, Video Unlimited for movies, and Sony Select for apps and themes. Digging into the services here can become a bit of a rabbit hole. For example, Sony Select highlights the Xperia Lounge app which offers free promotional games, but only after you download the pass from the Play Store (in addition to the Lounge app), then get the code from there, and redeem it on the web after logging in with your Sony Entertainment Network account. Even after all of that, we had trouble figuring out exactly where or how to download those games. Despite Sony’s strong position in entertainment content, its methods of delivery could still use some work. Video Unlimited and Movies apps could be folded together like they did for Walkman and Music Unlimited, for example.
The video player can access content stored on the device or shared on media servers on your local network. Like the music app, you can “throw” your videos out to enabled devices. There’s also a filmstrip view to help you find a specific spot in a video with minimal hassle. A Movie Creator app is included, though the name’s pretty exaggerated. All you can really do is trim a video, slow it down, or speed it up. For a phone with such a high-quality camera, the built-in software should let you stitch clips together, add transitions and titles, and background music. A podcast reader is built right in, with automatic downloads for your favorite shows and a catalog for a discovering new ones. Meanwhile the Video Unlimited app has a full store of TV shows and movies to buy or rent
For a phone with such a high-quality camera, the built-in software should let you do more to edit videos.
The native music app handles your locally-stored collection just fine with the usual notification tray and pause/play control with in-line earbud controls. The Walkman app also has shortcuts to music in Sony’s online store and what your friends on Facebook are listening to. There’s a quick setting to flip on something called ClearAudio+, which equalizes your music for improved clarity through the already-solid front stereo speakers of the Z2 or your headphones. There’s also a shortcut to “throw” your tunes out to home media sources, like Sonos speakers, DLNA-enabled TVs, or Bluetooth stereo systems. Sony also continues to offer their TrackID service for figuring out what music is playing nearby.
The PlayStation Mobile app sells a handful of certified Android games, though the selection isn’t great. Odds are gamers will be better served by the PlayStation app which connects to your PS4 and use your Z2 as an on-screen keyboard, not to mention see what your friends are playing while you’re out, and grab new games as they become available.
The Simple Sketch app returns on the Z2 with a range of pens, opacities, colors, templates, and text input. Images saved on the device can be dropped into Sketch which can be useful for marking up documents, or getting a little silly with pictures of friends. Clipart dropped into a Sketch has layer support, so you can get just the look you’re going for.
Smart Connect continues to help automated certain actions, depending on events and device connections. All sorts of local home network devices can be added for quick access, and events can be attached to them allowing Z2 owners to initiate actions like opening web pages, playing music, changing audio volume, adjusting screen brightness, or otherwise tweaking the device based on personal preferences.
The last of the notable preloaded apps is Socialife News, which is a sharply-designed reader app that taps into popular sites and networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Every excerpt in the feed mixes up the visual format, which keeps things interesting. Social tie-ins let you easily share interesting reads, and an embedded browser lets you get the full story without being booted out to Chrome or the default internet browser.
Small apps are tiny windowed applications that can run on top of whatever you already have open.
As for more general navigation, users can designate whichever home screen they like as a primary and delete whole panes to cut down on clutter. Like on other devices, the top home screen indicator bar can be used to jump between them easily, though there’s no exploded view to see all home screens at once. Themes are available to change the system color, icons and wallpapers, with plenty more available through the Play Store. From the full app grid, a sidebar is on the left side to change sorting options and otherwise manage your collection.
For the multitasking view, you have the usual options of closing running apps individually or en masse, but the fun stuff is in small apps. These are tiny windowed applications that can run on top of whatever you already have open. This can be as functional as checking your e-mail or punching in some numbers on a calculator, to something simple like checking your hair a mini mirror app. There are a handful included on the device with a decent collection of more small apps available in the Play Store.
The notification tray in the Xperia Z2 is uncluttered, though it offers a customizable quick settings tab. Stamina mode is a welcome option here, which turns off a bunch of battery-hungry system functions while your screen is off. Screen mirroring can also be enabled in the quick settings menu, which lets you project your phone’s display onto a bigger screen, so long as your TV supports Miracast.
The default system keyboard on the Xperia Z2 isn’t anything special. The most noteworthy thing about it, in fact, is how little is going on. There’s no settings or language icon taking up precious room, no second letter on every key showing what the alt text is. Gesture-based typing is enabled, but on the whole, it’s a very clean experience. Long-presses on the keyboard bring up a smoothly-animated contextual menu. A few additional skins are available, and cloud data can be used to back up your personalization data, as well as learn your language habits through Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail plug-ins.
On the whole, you're looking at a software experience fairly close to vanilla Android, but stylized in a way that matches the rest of Sony's ecosystem. It might not look quite as ultra-modern as HTC Sense or stock Android, but it's fast, functional and attractive, with an app loadout that's full of features without being overbearing.