Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: $799 of lust ... and disappointment

Sony's march of alphabet soup phone names continues on with the Xperia XZ Premium, and as you'd expect from such a name this one's all-out high-end. It has the specs and features to match the flagship competition released in 2017, plus undeniably unique hardware design and a few extra tricks up its sleeve.

And despite Sony's continued floundering in the U.S. high-end market — relying on its mid-rangers to provide any glimmer of hope in sales growth — the Xperia XZ Premium is launching here with an ever-so-Sony price of $799. With a price tag like that, the Sony has to nail everything if it's going to win over buyers who rarely break the $700 point — particularly for a brand they haven't likely bought a phone from in some time.

See how it all comes together in our complete Sony Xperia XZ Premium review.

About this review

I (Andrew Martonik) have been using a U.S. unlocked Xperia XZ Premium for one week in the greater Seattle, WA area on T-Mobile. The phone arrived on Android 7.1.1 (45.0.A.1.219) with the April 1, 2017 security patch and was not updated during the course of review. The phone was provided to Android Central for review by Sony.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Polarizing

Sony Xperia XZ Premium Hardware

Sony's phones really are something else. It has gone well beyond the several iterative takes on "Omni-Balance" to a fresh design that feels new while clearly still having those deep Sony design roots that make it unmistakably a Sony phone. At 156 x 77 x 7.9 mm it's large considering its 5.5-inch display, and at 195g it's downright heavy. For a sense of scale, it's a couple millimeters larger than the HTC U11, and a hair smaller than the LG V20 — that's big.

You don't need to read the dimensions to know it's a big phone.

You didn't need to read the dimensions to know it's big — just look at a photo or pick it up. Sony's longstanding "don't really care about ergonomics" attitude toward design is still here, and that starts with large bezels on both ends of the display and barely-rounded corners. The sides are comfortably curved and the buttons are in just the right places, but the perfectly flat back mixes with the tall frame and heavy weight to give you a phone that's a literal handful.

It's not rational, but I adore the overall design of the Xperia XZ Premium.

But for all of those illogically large dimensions and hand-unfriendly details, I adore the overall design of the Xperia XZ Premium. It's not rational, I know, but Sony's designs are so iconic, so unique that I am just drawn to them. The blocky corners, the symmetry and balance of the design, and the perfect fit-and-finish all appeal to me. It feels perfectly built ... almost hand-made in a way. The heft and feel of the phone absolutely match the price tag. Yes the Gorilla Glass 5 back is "reflective af," as Daniel Bader originally put it back at MWC 2017 (especially the "chrome" model), but it looks great to me — particularly in this handsome "Deepsea Black" color with hints of blue and green in it.

At the same time, I know Sony's designs are also polarizing: I feel like everyone I show a Sony phone to is either enamored with it or appalled. I'm in the former camp, and Sony's mobile designers are obviously proud of what they do — but this doesn't seem to be a design that appeals to a wide enough audience.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Now, the main attraction: that nice 4K resolution 5.5-inch display. It's Sony's second 4K display, but this time around it also includes HDR support — but in general day-to-day use, the important thing is the screen looks great. It still exhibits some of the generic LCD downsides like increased glare in sunlight and less-than-perfect blacks compared to AMOLED, but that aside I'm super happy with its overall tuning. The resolution makes everything look pristine, and the colors, brightness and viewing angles are great as well.

Audio experience

Sony is one of the last manufacturers offering straight-up dual front-facing speakers in what it calls "S-Force Front Surround." The benefits are simple: the speakers are facing toward you, therefore you get a better sound experience. The speakers do indeed sound good, and there's a far lower chance you'll inadvertently block them like bottom-firing speakers, but they don't get quite as loud as I would like — falling beneath the HTC U11's new BoomSound setup. Thankfully the dual openings haven't compromised its waterproof rating, which stands at IP68.

With Sony's heritage in sound quality there's of course a 3.5 mm headphone jack here, too, which sadly is becoming something I actually have to point out in a review as a positive. Sony talks a lot about its audio tuning on its website, including its high-res output, automatic headphone adjustments and compatibility with its Digital Noise Cancelling headphones. But I'm hardly an audiophile — it all sounds just fine to me with any headphones I've plugged in.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Clean and fast

Sony Xperia XZ Premium Software and experience

I quite enjoy Sony's take on Android, mostly because the company seems to be a good steward of Google's vision for the platform and doesn't want to mess about with its underpinnings. In the past couple of generations Sony's software additions have boiled down to a different lock screen, a few icon changes and some pre-installed apps — everything else is pretty much what you get from Google in Android 7.1 Nougat.

Sony's launcher is effectively a lightly themed stock Android launcher, even going so far as to integrate the Google Now feed on the leftmost pane, though it hasn't quite jumped up to speed with the more modern Pixel-style app drawer or long-press shortcuts for apps — I would expect that to come soon enough. Sony subtly themes many of its own apps — contacts, phone, etc. — and also includes a handful of bloat-ish ones — News, AVG protect, Xperia Lounge, etc. — that you can disable or uninstall. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

The place Sony has most substantially changed the phone is in the settings, where it has peppered in quite a few extra options, tweaks and intelligent controls for things like storage, battery and system management. None of it is in your face or gets in your way, though, and this is nowhere near the piles of settings you'd see on a Galaxy S8. It's all thoughtfully sorted and slots right into the typical Android settings framework.

Performance is great, and consistent as well.

The Xperia XZ Premium gives you industry matching specs, with a Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. It all adds up to superlative performance, which is extra impressive considering that 4K resolution it's pushing around. Much like its software isn't far removed from stock, its performance isn't far off from a Nexus or Pixel.

Everything I did on the phone absolutely flew without any slowdown or hiccup, with great app performance and consistency. Subtle things like touch response and scrolling speed were also spot-on. That's great to see because coming in I was worried that the 4K display resolution was going to be a drain here — but it doesn't seem to be. Now I'm not entirely sure, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if Sony was doing some sort of scaling down to a lower resolution in some instances to both make things look good and keep fluidity up. But for what it's worth, I could never tell when that was happening.

Battery life

Sony continues to emphasize battery life, and with a 3230mAh battery, a power-efficient Snapdragon 835 processor and some optimization the XZ Premium is a great performer. I wasn't worried about my battery running out a single time on the phone, and ranged from ending lazy weekend days with over 50% battery to more hectic weekdays with still 25% left in the tank. That means I never got anywhere near needing the "stamina" mode to extend it artificially, nor did I ever have anxiety about remaining battery in the evening with outings planned for the night.

Sony continues to make battery life a priority — the XZ Premium lasts a long time.

I think the most impressive part about the XZ Premium's battery performance is just how consistent it was throughout the day. There were no deep drop-offs during heavy use — it pretty consistently drained so matter what I did with it. Sony gives you a bit of a humblebrag meter under the battery icon with the notification quick settings expanded that estimates hours of life remaining — it so frequently estimates over 10 hours left, even when at something like 30% battery, that it seems like it's lying ... but it's actually true.

Clever charging technology inside the phone — branded "Qnovo" for whatever reason — also aims to prolong the life of the battery cell inside by keeping the phone from sitting on a charger at 100% overnight. Instead, it watches when you typically charge your phone and keeps it around 90% charge, only to bring it up to 100% before you normally unplug. Little things like that are really nice to see implemented seamlessly and smartly.

That fingerprint sensor situation

Yup, we know Sony still can't sell a phone in the U.S. with a fingerprint sensor. It has to do with some sort of contractual obligation it made (or backed out on) that legally prevents it from shipping the feature. And yes, the Xperia XZ Premium sold everywhere else in the world has a fingerprint sensor built into that side-mounted home button.

It sucks, really bad, to not have such a standard feature on this $799 phone — particularly when you can get it on a $199 phone — but there's nothing Sony can do right now. It's probably a deal breaker for most of us, and it was surely a pain point in reviewing the XZ Premium — more so for securely accessing my password vault and banking apps than necessarily unlocking the phone. We all hope that this ends soon, but right now we're stuck.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Short of flagship quality

Sony Xperia XZ Premium Camera

In 2017, Sony's actually made the decision to lower its camera sensor resolution to 19MP, which has increased pixel size to 1.22-microns for improved low-light performance; the lens remains a relatively standard f/2.0 aperture. Sony continues to go on about its "5 axis" image stabilization, but this is still all-digital stabilization and not hardware-based stabilization (OIS).

Sony has finally got the camera speed up to a flagship level.

This new camera arrangement does have some tricks up its sleeve including a hybrid auto focus system, predictive photo capture and and anti-distortion shutter. They're all focused on trying to capture photos as quickly as possible, but also give you the shot you wanted rather than the exact frame you captured when the shutter was pressed.

Sony has finally, absolutely, consistently figured out the speed aspect of its camera app. The Xperia XZ Premium camera opens in a flash, focuses quickly and captures immediately every single time. It's finally a camera experience that doesn't feel like it's laboring every time you use it, which is something other companies figured out a couple generations ago. The camera app itself is still fine, though not perfect: it still wants to separate functions out oddly into different modes (like 3 shooting modes for different video types, why?), and lock everything down if you shoot in "superior auto" mode, leaving you to go to Manual to tweak something as small as toggling on HDR.