Sony launched the Xperia Z, its new flagship smartphone in the Indian market in the first week of March. The USP of the phone is its 5-inch 1080p HD display, in addition to its water and dust resistant build, and a 13.1-megapixel camera. It's the second phone after the HTC Butterfly, to feature a full-HD display. However, it's priced about Rs.7,000 cheaper than the Butterfly at Rs. 38,990. Sony is also trying its best foot forward in promoting the phone in the Indian market with a star-studded marketing campaign. But does the phone stand out among other phones of the top strata of the high-end smartphone segment? We try to find out.
Similar to the LG Optimus G that we reviewed a few days back, the first thing that you notice about the phone is its industrial design. It looks like a big rectangular glass slab with clean lines that give the phone a no nonsense persona, and there are no chrome frames or other embellishments barring the power button which stands out a little.
If you look at the phone from the sides you'll see a frame with fiberglass inserts. We had the white coloured version of the phone as our review unit but the front is all black. The phone's design is somewhat minimalistic and Sony likes to refer to this design philosophy as 'OmniBalance'. The rounded edges on the phone are very subtle, and are hard to notice at first glance.
As we mentioned, the phone sports a 5-inch screen, which essentially dominates the front of the phone while the rest is tempered glass with a reflective coating. The display is seamless with the rest of the front and Sony says that they've brought the touch panel closer to the display. The bezel is really thin and there are no hardware controls. The phone doesn't have separate capacitive buttons for navigation and instead has onscreen buttons similar to Nexus devices. This is a welcome change and we'd like all phone makers to keep navigation consistent.
The front camera lens, sensors and a notification LED are placed above the screen along with Sony branding. The glass cuts at the top to reveal the earpiece grill. The back of the phone reminds us of the iPhone 4/4S as it's also completely made of glass. A camera lens, LED flash and a noise cancellation microphone are seen here, along with the XPERIA logo. We like the fact that the camera is flush with the body of the phone and does not protrude out.
The phone is water-resistant and all ports and slots are covered with flaps made from some kind of glass fibre material to protect the phone. The same material also extends to the other part of the sides.
On the right side you'd see a big round aluminum power/screen-lock button towards the middle, and a volume rocker, also made of metal. The power button protrudes out and some might draw parallels with the crown of a watch, but we feel that it could have been done in a more subtle manner. But the positioning of this button makes one hand operation a breeze, and we're glad Sony didn't place it on the top. A flap (which doesn't feature a marking/label) hides a plastic SIM card tray that has to be pulled with the help of a fingernail by the user. To be honest, it took us a while to figure out how the mechanism worked as most phones offer a pin-hole SIM tray eject mechanism. The phone supports micro-SIMs. A small speaker grill is also located on the right side, towards the bottom.
The left side houses a microSD card slot and a Micro-USB port, with the company choosing to not mark the latter's flap. This side also has two contacts for docking the phone.
The top features a 3.5mm headphone jack, and is also covered with a flap. We felt that the plastic that held together the flaps were a little flimsy and we fear that with rough use one might end up breaking one or more of them.
The bottom doesn't have any ports but it does have a lanyard hole in case you'd like to put one around.
Overall, we feel that the Xperia Z has been designed tastefully and is looker for sure, especially considering the fact that it's designed to be water and dust proof. Usually, rugged phones are anything but aesthetically appealing.Display
After the HTC Butterfly, the Xperia Z is the second phone in the Indian market to sport a 1080p display. The phone sports a 5-inch TFT display that has a resolution of 1080x1920 pixels and a pixel density of 441ppi. The screen is bright and vivid, and text looks extremely crisp while app icons and images look sharp. Images and videos look spectacular thanks to the addition of Sony's BRAVIA Engine 2.
The Xperia Z's display is one of the best displays we've come across. However, we had some minor gripes with the viewing angles. We feel that the viewing angles could have been better. Also, while navigating through the phone's interface, the screen appears a little washed out at certain times. Sunlight legibility was good only when we pumped up the brightness as the screen is pretty reflective. Camera
The Sony Xperia Z sports a 13-megapixel Exmor RS rear camera with auto focus, Burst Mode, and LED flash. The phone's camera app is feature rich featuring, Superior auto, Normal, Video, Burst, Picture Effects, Sweep Panorama and different Scene selection modes.
The Superior auto mode doesn't let you customise granular settings barring that of Flash, Resolution, and Timer with the default resolution set to 3920x2940. The normal mode allows you to tinker with settings like Exposure value, White balance, ISO, and others. The camera also includes image and video stabilisation.
The pictures taken during daylight were pretty good with good colour rendering, contrast and detail. Photos taken indoors with sufficient amount of light, also looked good. However, pictures clicked in low-light were a bit grainy though the camera tried to process these to offer more details. This made the pictures a little artificial compared to those taken with the iPhone 5.
The Xperia Z can capture 1080p video at a frame rate of 30fps. Interestingly, the phone also offers an HDR mode for video recording, which is not usually seen. You can also take still shots of 1-megapixel resolution while recording video. In our tests, the phone took great videos and the stabilisation mode worked as promised. Low light shot
The Xperia Z features a 2-megapixel Exmor R front facing camera. The front camera is also capable of recording 1080p videos. We were able to click decent quality pictures, indoors. The videos shot using the front camera also turned out to be good.Software/ User Interface
The Sony Xperia Z ships with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. It's not the most recent version, but that's consistent with other Android phones in the market. On its part, Sony has promised
that the phone will shortly receive the Android 4.2 update. Sony has included its own UI skin on top of the software but it's not as deep as HTC's Sense UI or LG's Optimus UI, and is rather more close to the stock build. Sony says that the unified UI will bring the same user experience to tablets and phones, and include its media apps.
The unlocking gesture of the lock screen resembles the motion of your finger through a set of window blinds and we've not seen this on another phone as of yet. The lock screen also offers shortcuts to directly unlock and initiate the Walkman (for playing music) and the Camera app. However, unlike the Optimus G, you cannot customise the unlocking animation or change the app shortcuts.
Sony includes its own Xperia keyboard with the phone which is different from the stock Android keyboard. We're not fans of this keyboard, and wish Sony could have included the option to switch to the stock keyboard.
The Xperia Z also offers themes that change the colour scheme of the phone along with the home screen and lock screen wallpaper. You can choose to add up to seven home screens or even reduce the number to one. These can be populated with app shortcuts and widgets.
The notification tray adds toggles for sound, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, mobile data and a shortcut to the settings menu. Sony also adds some of its own widgets for social networking service updates, power toggles and others.
Sony bundles its Walkman music player app, in addition to a gallery app that it calls 'Album'. In edition to displaying pictures on the phone, the app also allows users to connect to online services like Facebook and Picasa and view their online pictures. The app also includes a built-in photo editor.
For web browsing, the Sony Xperia Z bundles the Chrome browser, and removes the stock Android browser. Since Chrome doesn't support Adobe Flash player, the phone is not capable of playing Flash videos even if the Flash plugin is side-loaded.
The phone also includes additional apps including a Back up & restore app, McAfee Security, NeoReader for reading QR codes, a Notes app, TrackID (a Shazam like music recognition app), PlayNow, Smart Connect (which lets users set an event when an accessory is connected to the phone), Xperia Link (to share Internet connectivity with Sony devices), and Wisepilot (for navigation).
The Task Switcher button gives access to previously running and current apps, displaying a list on the right side. As with the stock app switcher, you can dismiss an app by sliding it. The switcher also brings access to Sony's small apps, which can run on top of other running apps, similar to LG's QSwipe apps and Samsung Galaxy Note II's pop-up play. Sony ships four of these small apps, namely Calculator, Timer, Notes and Voice Recorder but more small apps can be installed via the Play Store. We wish Sony would have included a Video player and a web browser small app as well. It's interesting how big screen phones are featuring the ability to multitask on the same screen optimising the use of the screen real estate.
In addition to all of these, the phone brings standard Jelly Bean functionality. Overall, Sony has tried to keep the phone close to stock Android.
We also encountered a bug wherein we were not able to turn off the phone with the Power button or take screenshots. We had to reset the phone to restore this functionality.Performance/ Battery Life
The Xperia Z is powered by a 1.5GHz Qualcomm S4 Pro quad-core processor with 2GB RAM onboard, and an Adreno 320 chip for processing graphics. The HTC Butterfly and the LG Optimus G also feature the same chipset. There is 16GB of internal storage, which is expandable by another 32GB via a microSD card.
With Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the overall experience of navigation through the interface was extremely impressive, thanks largely to Project Butter and all the power under the hood. We did not experience any lag at all while launching apps, playing games, scrolling web pages or switching between apps.
However, we did notice that the phone gets a little hot even if you use it for 10 minutes at a stretch. We're not sure if it's limited to our unit or a universal issue.
We were able to play full-HD clips, and all formats including MOV and AVI were natively supported by the phone. The speaker on the phone delivers good quality sound at high volume levels but the loudness could have been better. The phone also supports ClearAudio+ which gives the sound more clarity while playing music.
The call quality was good and the phone was able to latch on to the network in weak signal areas.
The phone comes with a giant 2330mAh battery, and in our usage, it lasted us a full working day. We charged the phone in the morning (at around 9am), and with medium to heavy usage, including 1-1.5 hours of phone calls, two e-mail accounts with push notifications, playing some music (both on the phone and via internet radio), Twitter notifications and WhatsApp chats, the phone lasted a good 13-14 hours. It's worth pointing out that we had turned off Wi-Fi and auto-brightness, and the phone was hooked to a 3G network with the screen brightness at the highest level. Altering these settings might help in running the phone for a longer duration, depending on your usage pattern. Sony also offers a STAMINA mode, which as per the company can improve the standby time by automatically shutting down battery-draining apps whenever the screen is off and starting them up again when the screen is back on.
The phone comes with NFC, which can be used to beam files to other NFC enabled Android phones via Android Beam, and receive information from NFC tags. The phone also supports LTE (4G) connectivity, but the Indian LTE band of 2300MHz is not supported.Verdict
The Sony Xperia Z is one of the best Android phones we've used combining a major set of features, a great HD screen and great build quality. The phone's IP55 and 57 dust and water resistant body make it ideal for people who're always on the move and/or a little careless with handling their phones.
Compared to the HTC Butterfly, the phone's Rs. 38,990 price tag makes it better priced. But comparing it to other non-HD screen flagships, the price is a bit steep.
The phone's launch comes at a time when HTC just announced its flagship phone, the HTC One, which also sports an HD screen, albeit a little smaller in size, but excellent build quality and a new design. The Samsung Galaxy S IV is also set to debut on 14th March, and is expected to sport better specifications, HD screen and some new smart features. If you're willing to look at non-Android phones, the iPhone 5 is still the best smartphone available in this price range.
Having said that, the phone outperforms all its rivals and the full-HD display is brilliant. Sony has tweaked the software to make it user friendly and yet please the power users.
We do feel that not everyone would be comfortable putting down this big an amount for a smartphone, and such people may consider other flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S III and the LG Optimus G, which are now available at attractive discounts compared to their launch price. Large screen enthusiasts may also prefer the Galaxy Note II that comes with a stylus.
As we mentioned in our review of the HTC Butterfly, once you experience an HD screen you don't like going back to normal ones. We're waiting with bated breath for other phones that sport an HD screen to make an entry into the Indian market.
Sony Xperia Z: First look