For Android fans, the Sony Xperia Z was one of the highlights of a fairly quiet CES. A 5-inch, 1080p phone with a bold new design language and fancy new camera technology, the Xperia Z was probably the most compelling phone of the show. And just a couple of months later, it's now available to buy in the UK.
Without a doubt Sony Mobile's new baby is one of the largest, specciest Android phones around, but it's soon to be joined by the formidable HTC One and Galaxy S4. So how does it shape up? Check out our first impressions after the break.
The Sony Xperia Z is a big, chunky slab of a phone -- an unashamedly hefty piece of technology. Its screen measures five inches diagonally, and its flattened sides give it the illusion of being thicker than its mere 7.9mm girth. Overall, the impression is of a far more industrial look than earlier Sony smartphones -- sharper corners, altogether less plastic and a flat front and back make for a bold transition from devices like the Xperia T and Xperia J. Even minor visual cues like the regulatory info on the back and IMEI barcode down below demonstrate a device that's sleek and functional in equal measure. It's not as hand-friendly as the rounder Droid DNA, but its buttons are more sensibly-placed -- all are within easy reach of your thumb or middle finger depending on which hand you're using.
The Xperia Z is also the best-feeling Sony phone we've used thus far. Like the Nexus 4, the back is furnished in glass, and as with that device, there's a soft-touch trim around the edge. The Xperia Z, however, makes room for glossy sections in the middle of the trim to house buttons and port protectors. Why port protectors? Because the phone is also water and dust-resistant, a feature not often seen on premium smartphones in the West. After a day of use we haven't found these plastic flaps to be as maddening as we imagined they might be -- which is a good thing -- but there's still time. For what it's worth, there are gold contacts on the left edge for use with the official Sony dock -- an alternative charging method for those averse to picking open plastic protectors on a daily basis.
The main downside to the Xperia Z's construction is that the soft-touch area tends to accumulate way more lint than the average smartphone, while the glass back is predictably a colossal fingerprint magnet.
The front is dominated by the gigantic screen -- a 1080p panel measuring 5 inches. At around 440 pixels per inch, you're going to need a microscope or a macro lens to pick out individual pixels, and we have no complaints concerning color quality, brightness or viewing angles either. (We did notice some discoloration in off-angle viewing on Xperia Z prototypes we've handled, but the final hardware seems more robust in this area.)
Coupled with Sony's Mobile Bravia Engine 2, which tweaks colors, contrast and eliminates noise in photos and videos, you're in for a fantastic viewing experience.
Inside there's a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU -- a quad-core part running at 1.5GHz, backed up by 2GB of RAM. That's more than enough horsepower to keep Android 4.1 Jelly Bean humming along, and sufficient RAM for memory-hungry apps too. Internal storage weighs in at 16GB, and there's just under 12GB left over for your own content on our device. (This is available as one big partition for media and apps, just as nature intended.) There's also a microSD slot allowing you to expand upon the built-in storage.
The glass-plated back is home to the 13-megapixel Sony Exmor RS camera, and the lens itself is slightly recessed into the chassis, presumably to avoid the kind of damage the to which Nexus 4's rear shooter is prone. The camera uses Sony's new stacked CMOS sensor technology, which allows for larger light-sensitive area, meaning clearer images and better low-light performance.
We'll go into more detail on camera performance in another article, but the based on some quick testing versus Sony's previous-generation 13MP Exmor R (that's the one fitted in the Xperia T), we've noticed improved dynamic range, less visible noise and clearer low-light shots than earlier Sony offerings. HDR video makes its debut on the Xperia Z too, and the phone supports high dynamic range recording up to 1080p at 30 frames per second.
The only real camera weakness we've found so far has to do with macro shots. The Xperia Z's camera fell somewhat short of the Xperia T's excellent macro performance, failing to focus on very small targets that the T picked up with ease. Not a huge shortcoming -- and macro performance was decent overall -- but it's something to consider if you're upgrading from an Xperia T.
The Xperia Z is running Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean along with Sony's Xperia UI. In the grand scheme of things this is fairly close to vanilla Android -- the Z, like other recent Sony phones, incorporates on-screen buttons, which lets you easily switch tasks and activate the Google Now shortcut gesture. Notable tweaks from Sony include a quick settings area in the notification bar and support for "small apps," floating windows activated from the task-switcher. The Xperia Z is also loaded up with Sony apps, including Walkman for music, and PlayStation Mobile, Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited streaming apps. Overall, Sony's UI is as minimalist as it's ever been -- a mostly grey and black affair, though a 'themes' app allows you to change this to the color of your choice.
Immediately it's clear that the Xperia Z is Sony's best handset yet. But we're left wondering whether this device will simply be too much phone for the average user. Switching between the 5-inch Z and its predecessor, the 4.6-inch Xperia T, we noticed the latter offers much the same software experience on hardware that's nearly as good, in a more hand and pocket-friendly form factor. Upscaling to a larger smartphone always takes some adjustment, though, so we're going to give the Xperia Z a fair shot before coming to our final conclusions. Look for our full review in the next week.