Just a couple of months ago, I received a Sony Xperia X Performance for review. It was the first Sony phone I've used in well over a year, and I was excited to give it a try. Just a few days in, I was pained to write about it — it was a frustrating experience I hadn't endured in years. Our own Daniel Bader wrote a great review that encapsulated my thoughts perfectly. Sony's decisions throughout the phone didn't make sense, and the price made it irresponsible to justify.
Only a few months later, we have the new Sony Xperia XZ. It is legitimately a great phone — a flagship that outdoes Sony's phones that aren't even six months old — despite still having a couple head-scratching issues. And though that situation is annoying in myriad ways, the reality is that Sony has made something that actually has me excited about its phones again.
Using the Sony Xperia XZ
Hey, it turns out Sony can make a good phone! I've been using the Xperia XZ for roughly a week since I received it at IFA in Berlin, and unlike the Xperia X Performance it hasn't urged me to throw it into the ocean. Going a step further, it's even quite nice to use.
The coated metal body is sleek and understated, and in typical Sony fashion is perfectly manufactured. It's a little slippery and a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but that's something I can look past — the important part, the feel of the phone, is on point here. And even though it's a bit blockier and larger than the Galaxy S7 I appreciate the design elements that help it stand out from other phones out there. Sony still has its unique design sense. It also seems to be pretty tough — while writing this I dropped the XZ from chest height onto a solid wood chair, continuing down onto a concrete floor, and it looked no worse for it.
The Xperia XZ feels like any other flagship Android out there ... with a couple odd changes
When you're using it, the Xperia XZ feels like any other flagship Android out there. Performance is good and the software is quick and relatively unencumbered by manufacturer customizations. You still get a good number of useless bloatware apps, but interface-wise there's nothing extra to configure here if you're happy with a basic Android experience like I am. Longevity is just average from the 2900 mAh battery inside, but I made it through a typical day with a little to spare — though Stamina Mode helped near the end of some heavier days. The display is also really good; I don't care that it's "just" 1080p. It also has water resistance, USB-C, Quick Charge 3.0 and stereo speakers (though they're a bit on the quiet side).
Perhaps most importantly of all, Sony actually finally did something substantial with its camera setup. Yes, we're still looking at a 23MP sensor that we've seen before, but it has brand new five-axis stabilization that seriously improves low-light performance. Indeed, the camera takes much better photos in low light, and daylight photos are quite good — whether you shoot in full 23MP or downsampled 8MP (by default). The important thing to note here is that the camera isn't a weakness anymore — it's good, even though it's just a couple steps short of "great."
The real issue left in the camera is speed and in some ways software. It's just slower to open and capture each photo than the competition. The "Superior Auto" is more like just "auto" nowadays, as it really doesn't seem to do anything great — perfect example being that you have to switch into "Manual" mode just to get HDR. But, at least the end product is there.
Bringing it back to earth a bit, there are still a few puzzling things about the Xperia XZ.
Chief among them is the lack of a fingerprint sensor in the U.S. There is just no way to justify selling a phone of this stature without one, and you can't explain it away. Phones as inexpensive as the Moto G4 Plus and Honor 5X have great one-touch fingerprint sensors — and heck, the Xperia XZ has it in other markets. Give it to us in the U.S., Sony. Don't keep doing this.
Then you have little annoyances like the NFC antenna being located on the (completely nonstandard) front of the phone, thanks to the metal back, making Android Pay a little awkward to use. And the seemingly random decision to put the volume rocker in a super unfriendly place low on the right side of the phone. A handful of little things that are just curious decisions — you'd love to be a fly on the wall in those design meetings.
Sony's future, a little brighter
It's a good sign that the worst parts of the Xperia XZ are some of the "easy" (in the grand scheme of building a complex smartphone) things to fix. A little better battery life, a fingerprint sensor, more attractive pricing — these things don't require landslide changes to the phone or design process. They're a few key points and features that, if improved, will let potential buyers stop focusing on the small issues that turn into deal breakers and instead actually consider buying a Sony phone again.
If Sony can pull together a few small remaining parts of its smartphone experience, and combine them with its recent propensity to sell phones direct to consumers unlocked through various popular retailers, all of the components are here for a mini resurgence in the U.S. The hard parts are done — now it's time to bring the whole thing together with a few small tweaks, and Sony will start to win back some mind share, if not market share.