Once a force to be reckoned with, Sony’s mobile division has been consolidating its product lines to focus on just the Xperia X series, which debuted at last year’s MWC. The new series caters mainly to the upper mid-range to high-end smartphone segment, which Sony is trying to capture once again.
Enter the Sony Xperia XZs, a refreshed version the Xperia XZ (Review) for 2017, which promises a much better photography experience. Priced at Rs. 49,990, it takes the top spot in Sony's lineup, with last year's model recently getting a price cut to make way for it. The biggest change in this year’s offering is Sony's new Motion Eye camera system, which essentially shrinks the technology found in its digital cameras such as the Cyber-shot RX10 III to fit inside a smartphone.
While this all sounds terribly exciting, what we’re really keen to see is whether Sony has managed to deal with the problem of overheating that has affected some of its flagship devices over the past couple of years. If that is taken care of, perhaps Sony can become a serious contender again.
It has been less than six months since Sony launched the Xperia XZ, so understandably, the design is pretty much identical to what we’ve already seen. The phone feels great to hold and there aren’t any sharp edges anywhere. It does have a pretty big chin below the screen, which gets in the way of one-handed use at times. There is a speaker at the bottom of the front, which, when coupled with the earpiece, produces a nice stereo effect when you're looking at the phone.
The 5.2-inch full-HD display on the Sony Xperia XZs looks great and has good viewing angles as well as colour saturation. Sony offers various colour profiles including a mode called X-Reality for Mobile, and you even get the option to adjust the white balance of the screen. The display is protected by Gorilla Glass. Oddly, thumbnails of photos in the Gallery app appear highly oversaturated. When you tap to expand them, it takes a few moments for the phone to load the actual photo, where the colours look much more realistic.
There’s a USB Type-C port on the bottom of the phone, and a 3.5mm headphones socket on the top. All the buttons are on the right. The volume rocker is placed well and we also have a dedicated camera shutter button, something that has been a constant on Sony phones for a long time.
The blockish design of the Sony Xperia XZs feels a little uncomfortable in the pockets of some jeans, but other than this, it’s not bad. It offers a very reassuring grip and isn’t slippery despite the smooth texture to the metal. Sony is still sticking to its idea of having a fingerprint sensor integrated into the power button on the side, and it can be a little inconvenient to reach if you’re holding the phone in any way other than with a thumb or forefinger near the button.
The hybrid dual-SIM tray is on the left side of the Sony Xperia XZs, covered by a flap that seals the phone against dust and water ingress. We’re glad to see the SIM tray attached to the flap, making it quite easy to swap out a second SIM for a microSD card (up to 256GB) if needed. One annoyance here though is that every time you open the tray or even switch from one SIM to the other for data, the phone needs to reboot itself.
Overall, the Xperia XZs is well built and feels solid in your hand. The design is pretty identifiable as a Sony smartphone, but there isn't anything innovative unlike Samsung and LG’s distinctive new 2017 flagships. Given how quickly Sony got this phone out the factory door, it’s safe to assume that the next generation of XZ smartphones is also in the works. We didn’t get a full retail box with our review unit, but you can expect a power adapter with Quick Charge compatibility, a Type-C cable, a stereo headset, and manuals.
When it comes to the choice of SoC, we were expecting to see the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 since that would have been a logical step up for a refresh of a 2016 smartphone. Sadly, the XZs still uses the Snapdragon 820. It's still a strong processor, but it doesn't look good against the competition. The quad-core CPU puts on a good show in benchmarks - we managed to record 128,267 points in AnTuTu, and we maxed out GFXBench’s T-Rex test at 60fps.
The Xperia XZs has 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, Bluetooth 4.2, dual-band Wi-Fi, NFC, and GPS but misses out on FM radio. Sony has also added native support for high-resolution audio files like LPCM, ALAC and DSD, and FLAC.
It’s good to see a smartphone launch with the current version of Android. The XZs ships with Android Nougat 7.1.1 with the latest security patches and the company’s Xperia UI running on top. You can customise the look and feel of the interface with some pretty cool themes from the Play Store. Sony’s Assistant app gives you one-stop access to features for extending battery life, cleaning up junk files and Xperia Actions, which are ways to automatically trigger certain actions or settings based on time and location.
The layout will be very familiar if you’ve used an Xperia smartphone in the recent past. You get a standard app drawer and the ability to add widgets to the home screen. Swiping right takes you to the Google Now page. Google Assistant is yet to arrive on the XZs so you’ll have to use Now on Tap till then. There are a couple of Sony apps including PlayStation, SonyLIV, Movie Creator, Lifelog, News, Sketch, and Lounge – all of which can be removed if needed. Preinstalled third-party apps include AVG Protection, Facebook and a few Gameloft games.
We found the Xperia XZs to be very likeable despite its slightly bland looks. It’s a real workhorse of a device for daily tasks. Call quality is good and VoLTE also works well. Just like the Xperia XZ before it, the XZs is also dust- and water-resistant, with IP68 certification.
Video playback is handled very well with the phone being able to support resolutions up to 4K. We liked the stereo speakers, but we just wish the volume level had been a bit higher because we couldn't truly enjoy our content. Sound through the headphones socket isn’t particularly loud either, and even with Sony’s enhancements like Clear Audio+ and an Auto Optimisation feature, we often found ourselves maxing out the volume level.
Our biggest issue with the Sony Xperia XZ was that it got quite hot when the camera was in use, and disappointingly, this issue persists with the Xperia XZs. With general use, the phone runs pretty cool and even when gaming, the back doesn't get warm enough to hamper what you’re doing. However, we were bombarded with high temperature warnings within a minute after we started recording videos, at full-HD as well as at 4K.
The functionality of the camera app is also limited when the phone detects too much heat. If you ignore the warnings, the camera app will be shut down automatically. System performance gets really sluggish as the processor tries to recover, and your only choice is to wait till the phone cools down. This is a real shame as it prevents you from taking advantage of some really good camera hardware.
Sony has traded in some resolution for bigger pixels, so instead of the usual 23-megapixel sensor, we get a 19-megapixel Exmor RS sensor with stacked memory for faster data transfers. This allows the Xperia XZs to record really slow-motion videos at 960fps, albeit only for very brief durations. Sony’s Cyber-shot cameras can record for longer at this high framerate because they have larger memory buffers. On a smartphone, this is the best we have for now.
While some might see it as a gimmick, we really liked this feature. When timed right, you can achieve some incredibly dramatic shots. The slow-motion icon next to the record button lets you switch to this mode. Super slow-motion can be applied for a single shot, which creates a five-second HD video clip, or you can trigger the super-slow motion effect while shooting a standard HD video. Lastly, you can also record HD video at 120fps and slow down parts of it in the editor afterwards. It’s important to note that we didn’t have to deal with any overheating warnings in this mode.
The rear sensor gets predictive hybrid autofocus, 5-axis stabilisation, an f/2.0 aperture and a companion RGBC-IR sensor for capturing more accurate colours. Landscapes and macros exhibit excellent details with vivid colours and good depth. Close up shots are also incredibly sharp with no sign of JPEG compression artefacts around the edges of subjects. The shutter button lets you quickly fire up the camera app even when the phone is in standby, and you can set the phone to automatically take a picture or start recording a video when launching the app this way.
Swapping resolution for larger pixels has paid off, as low-light shots have very little noise and still exhibit good detail. Focusing speed doesn’t dip very much, and there’s little shutter lag. Other shooting options include a manual mode, panorama, filters, AR effects, 4K video, and sound photo. HDR mode is present but that’s buried in the settings. However, in auto mode, the sensor is clever enough to make the adjustments accordingly.
Burst mode is still missing but this is compensated for by a feature called Predictive Capture. When the camera detects motion in a scene you’re about to capture, it will automatically take up to four images for you to choose from. The front 13-megapixel camera captures very good selfies in daylight and passable ones in low light. You get 5-axis stabilisation with the front camera as well.
The 2900mAh battery ran for 9 hours and 6 minutes in our HD video loop test, which is alright but could have been better. With regular use, we easily managed to get a full day’s worth of life out of this phone, mostly thanks to Android Nougat’s battery optimisations. Sony offers its own Stamina battery modes which could be useful in emergencies. The phone supports Qnovo adaptive charging and Qualcomm’s Chick Charge 3.0. We tried it with a Quick Charge 2.0 adapter and manged to get up to a 30 percent charge in half an hour.
We’re glad to see Sony bring its amazing camera technology from its Cyber-shot cameras to the realm of smartphones. Shooting 960fps slow-motion video can get addictive really fast, and we hope to see it on other phones too. This is the sort of unique feature that was missing from the Xperia XZ, and now, coupled with better low-light performance, the package feels complete.
There’s one big thing holding us back from recommending the Xperia XZs, and it isn't the price. Yes, Rs. 49,990 is a lot of money for what is quite frankly a minor refresh of last year’s model, but the main issue here is overheating. The best part of the Xperia XZs is its camera, but we couldn't take full advantage of it, and that's a big deal-breaker for us. In our experience with the phone, shooting videos above full-HD for more than a few minutes rendered the phone unable to do pretty much anything for a while afterwards. Sony needed a more drastic hardware change compared to its previous flagship, and the Xperia XZs doesn't delivery that.
As well as this phone performs all-round, you are better off looking at something like the Samsung Galaxy S7.