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Hands on: Sony Xperia XZ

Sony strikes out with the Xperia XZ, a phone that should be great

Sony’s Xperia XZ is a collection of good ideas that fail in execution.

To say Sony has a long and troubled smartphone history is the understatement of the century. Ever since the electronics behemoth retired its Sony Ericsson brand in 2013, it’s struggled to make headway against burgeoning competition in Asia like Huawei, Xioami, and ZTE. But that’s not for lack of trying. In 2013, it launched the PlayStation-branded Xperia Play, a handset tipped with blockbuster games and an innovative slide-out controller. It launched the Xperia Z series on T-Mobile soon after, but neither effort made a measurable dent against juggernauts like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy lineup, and today, not much has changed.

But Sony is nothing if not stubborn. Company chief Kaz Hirai told reporters that 2016 was a “make or break” year for the Xperia division: if the division couldn’t break even, “alternative options” would have to be considered, he said. And so Sony’s smartphone division, at a crossroads, sought to rejigger its approach with a smartphone different than what it’s produced before. It’s called the Xperia XZ, a flagship that the company considers a “spin-off” in every sense of the word: free of the mainstream Xperia brand’s paradigms, but built upon its strengths.

The strategy paid off in some ways. Unfortunately, it didn’t in many others.

A blend of designs

In terms of design, the Xperia XZ is unlike any Xperia phone that’s come before it. That’s no exaggeration — Sony has started from scratch with the XZ. The result is what the company calls “unified design,” or materials — in this case metal and glass — that blend seamlessly together. The seamless design is most evident in what Sony calls the “loop surface,” the XZ’s rounded, sloping sides that extend from the phone’s flat-faced front to its flat rear panel. And it’s attractive.

In terms of design, the Xperia XZ is unlike any Xperia phone that’s come before it.

The juxtaposition of smooth edges with aggressive, angular ones work generally to the XZ’s aesthetic advantage. The XZ’s front, which sports a front-facing camera, two nondescript speaker grates (one above the display and one below), a proximity sensor, and a panel shielded by raised 2.5D Gorilla Glass 4, is utilitarian. So, too, are the plastic volume rocker and dedicated camera key that launch the camera app when pressed. They contrast dazzlingly with the power button, a rounded, elongated brushed silver button that sits flush against the XZ’s side.

The left, top, bottom, and rear panels, meanwhile, carry on the XZ’s overarching minimalism. The left side houses a combination SIM card tray and MicroSD card slot. A single 3.5mm headphone jack and noise-canceling microphone sit at the top of the device. Along the bottom, there’s a USB Type-C port. The camera, autofocus, and LED flash are relegated to the very farthest reaches of the upper-left corner  on the back of the device. The simple design is attractive for the most part.

Related: Get more out of your stylish Sony with these Xperia tips and tricks

All that said, there’s a frustratingly unfinished quality to the XZ. Exposed seams around the front and rear panel give it a modular, slapdash appearance — an oversight for a phone that’s ostensibly a celebration of seamlessness. The XZ’s material, a blend of metal and polymer called Alkaleido, feels plastic, slippery, and hollow against the palm. The XZ is water resistant, but not waterproofed like its predecessor. And there’s an unwieldy heft to the thing, a weight concentrated toward the XZ’s top that, as you might expect, almost invites one-handed fumbling.

Solid specs

Sony’s Xperia XZ sports the same specs you see on most high-end phones these days, but with a few exceptions. The new flagship sports a 5.2-inch 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) screen in a market where Quad HD (2,560 x 1,920 pixels) resolutions are fast becoming the norm.

Although the XZ’s display resolution may not measure up to some of the high-end competition, but it bests them in other areas. It achieves an impressive level of brightness and minimal amount of reflectivity, even in the sunny outdoors.

Sony Xperia XZ_01
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Colors, especially on the warmer end of the spectrum, are vivid and punchy, a richness that they retain even at very wide viewing angles. While black levels don’t reach the richness of AMOLED-sporting flagships like the Galaxy Note 7, they provide a level of depth that’s satisfying counterpoint to the XZ’s searing whites.

It is sporting the powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor — the same silicon that powers the Samsung Galaxy S7, the HTC 10, and LG’s G5. However, it’s got 3GB of RAM rather than the 6GB some competitive devices like the OnePlus 3 pack.

Otherwise, the XZ packs the array of sensors you’d expect in a high-end smartphone… mostly. It has an accelerometer, gyroscope, dual-band Wi-Fi, Cat. 9 LTE radios, and support for the near-field communication (NFC) tech leveraged by Android Pay and other contactless payment platforms. The one major thing it doesn’t have, at least on the U.S. model, is a fingerprint sensor, which Sony blamed on a “business decision.” In this day and age, it’s a bizarre omission.

The XZ sports stereo speakers, but not particularly impressive ones. The sound they produce is generally hollow and tinny, especially at the low end. They lack the sort of bass that phones like the HTC 10 is capable of delivering. Voices in movies and TV clips sound muffled and muted, and while higher frequencies sound better. In one test, they reproduced the string and woodwind section of an orchestra surprisingly crisply. Compared to flagships like ZTE’s Axon 7, the XZ’s audio is disappointing.

Disappointing performance

Its general performance isn’t much better. The XZ’s components may not exactly break new hardware ground, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t, in theory, handle most software with ease — especially considering the identically configured HTC 10 scores highly in benchmark tests. But that isn’t the case.

The XZ is inexplicably slow, sluggish, and unresponsive, often failing or taking an abnormally long time to register touches. It hesitates for seconds on end before launching lightweight apps like Gmail, Instagram, and Feedly. Webpages in Google Chrome frequently freeze and crash the browser. Even simple tasks like navigating around locales in Google Maps and pinching to zoom seem to put undue strain on XZ’s hardware.

The hiccups don’t end there, sadly. Scrolling through apps in Android’s multitasking menu is an exercise in laggy frustration, as is swiping through apps on the home screen. Waking the XZ from sleep is a painfully slow process: PINs and passwords have to be entered deliberately, so as not to overwhelm the keypad. The XZ runs unusually hot, too In one discouraging instance, snapping a handful of selfies prompted an onscreen alert warning that the phone’s internal temperature had reached dangerous levels. Needless to say, that didn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

However, we have to give Sony the benefit of the doubt, here. We tested a XZ unit running pre-release software that’s undergoing optimizations and fine-tuning ahead of an October release. Things could improve dramatically between now and then.

Battery life

The XZ also has one of the smaller batteries we’ve seen on a flagship phone this year: a 2,900mAh pack, which for the sake of comparison is smaller than the cells in the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (3,500mAh), Moto Z Force Droid Edition (3,500mAh), ZTE Axon 7 (3,250mAh), and OnePlus 3 (3,000mAh).

There’s a frustratingly unfinished quality to the XZ.

Surprisingly, the XZ’s battery performs better than might be expected of a cell its size. In the course of our testing, it surpassed Sony’s estimate of “a full day” — we frequently observed standby times that, even with bouts of light-to-moderate usage (e.g., browsing the web, checking email, and installing apps), far exceeded 24 hours. Sony attributes that impressive longevity to both the XZ’s comparatively low-resolution screen and Qnovo, background software that it said “manages battery over time.”

The XZ sports a Stamina and Ultra Stamina mode for prolonging the battery further — both disable the XZ’s hardware and apps to save power in varying degrees. And it supports Qualcomm’s quick charging standard for rapid juice-ups.

Camera

You’d expect Sony, an electronics behemoth whose sensors represent a whopping 35 percent of all cameras on the market would save the best hardware for itself. And that’s what the company claims to have done. The XZ’s rear-facing camera is a first-of-its kind model that the company hasn’t yet made available to its OEM partners. It’s an impressive specimen on paper: the 23-megapixel module features a supporting cast of accouterments that include laser autofocus, a color-sensing RGB monitor, a super bright LED flash, and built-in noise reduction. It sports a 1/2.3-inch sensor, which is bigger than your average smartphone’s shooter and therefore capable, in theory, of capturing more light.

It also packs what Sony said is a smartphone world’s first: five-axis optical image stabilization that accounts not only for pitch, yaw, horizontal, and vertical movement, but for “roll,” or the involuntary forward and backward twists of your wrist.

Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Given the sheer abundance of bleeding-edge tech under the hood, we were surprised to see the XZ generally underwhelmed in the camera department. Photos had a red-orange tinge regardless of lighting or environment, and, despite the camera app’s repeated assurances to the contrary, tended to focus on objects and subjects imprecisely.

Worse still, though, was the lack of detail that the sensor captured: compared side-by-side with Huawei’s Honor 8 and Lenovo’s Moto G4 Plus, the XZ produced photos generally grainier and noisier. The text in the nutrition label on a can of soda captured from a few feet away, for instance, was far more difficult to read in shots taken by the XZ than in comparable shots snapped by the Honor 8 and G4 Plus.

Videos were a different story, but generally in a good way. There’s more to the five-axis optical image stabilization than marketing. Indeed, it produced impressively uniform pan and zoom shots, several of which made for convincing gimbal stand-ins. Over the course of our testing, never once did the XZ exhibit the dreaded “screen tearing” effect indicative of a rolling camera shutter, even when shaken violently.

The 13-megapixel front-facing camera performed a bit better. Its wide-angle lens took acceptable, but not exceptional, photos that tended toward the warmer end of the color spectrum. Disappointingly, though, a lack of LED flash made low-light shots turn out poorly.

It’s quite possible that software, not hardware, is to blame for most of the XZ’s camera woes. There’s a good chance that the XZ’s final software will bring with it tweaks that better tap the sensor’s raw potential. Until that time comes, though, enterprising photographers will have to tinker with settings themselves.

Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Sony’s camera software makes that relatively simple, luckily. The default mode, Superior Auto, offers a no-frills menu geared toward everyday photography. You can set a timer, for instance, and adjust color and brightness levels. There’s an “auto capture” option which snaps a shot when a smile’s detected, and helpful gridlines to help guide the alignment of shots.

You can use the volume keys to adjust zoom or shutter, tap on the viewfinder to fine-tune focus, and even switch image storage between the XZ’s internal memory and a plugged-in SD card. For more adept photographers, there’s a manual mode that exposes focus, shutter speed, exposure, and white balance. And functions which aren’t present in the app, meanwhile, can be added with “camera apps” — Sony’s term for downloadable modules that add functions like 360-degree panoramas, 4K and timeshift video, and background defocusing.

Software

The Xperia XZ runs Sony’s flavor of the second-latest version of Android, 6.0 Marshmallow. Sony wouldn’t tell us when to expect an upgrade to Google’s absolute newest, Nougat.

For the most part, it’s tough to tell where the boundaries of vanilla Android end and Sony’s tweaks begin. You swipe left to unlock the Xperia XZ rather than up, as is typically the case. The traditionally flat, monochromatic icons for each subcategory in the device settings menu  have been swapped for colorized alternatives.

There’s a Themes menu that lets you select from a preinstalled collection of looks and styles, or, if you feel so inclined, peruse and buy new ones. There’s a Device Connection menu with options for mirroring the XZ’s screen to a Micracast-compliant device. And predictive keyboard SwiftKey replaces the default Android keyboard.

A bevy of proprietary apps round out the fray. The most conspicuous is Xperia Home, Sony’s answer to Android’s launcher. The differences are skin deep, for the most part: you reorganize apps by pressing and holding on an app shortcut and dragging it to the desired location; create folders by dropping one app icon atop another; and summon a list of ploppable widgets by pressing and holding on any home screen.

Related: Why the hell can’t you buy a Sony phone in the U.S.?

There are notable changes here and there. The app drawer has a transluscent background, paginates horizontally, and features a rotating selection of app installation suggestions. It sports shortcuts to Android’s apps management screen where you can uninstall, close, and reset games and programs.

Xperia Home’s a fairly conscripted experience, besides, but Sony’s exposed a few functions to toggling. There’s an optional “Double-tap to sleep” setting that, when enabled, switches off the XZ’s screen after it detects two taps in rapid succession; an option to switch off the “Google Now” pane, a dedicated screen to the far-left of the primary home screen that features Google’s intelligent assistant; and a small library of screen transition animations from which to choose.

Sony Xperia XZ_07
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Beyond Xperia Home, Lifelog is perhaps Sony’s most holistic pack-in. It, as the name hints, serves as a sort of all-in-one wellness hub, providing tools to track your daily physical activity and, subsequently, your progress toward fitness goals. Proffer your weight, age, and birth year and you’ll be presented with an array of grids that show the number of calories you expended, steps you walked, and maximum heart rate you reached on any given day.

Tracked activities are broken into categories like jogging, biking, and walking, a geographic map of which is a tap away. And insights and challenges — e.g., “Take 5,000 steps in 6 hours” and “Run 5 km in 24 hours” — gamify the experience. Somewhat amusingly, Lifelog tracks your inactivity, too. Grant it permission and it’ll record how much time you devote to messsaging friends, taking photos, listening to music, gaming, reading, and browsing the web. It’s good negative reinforcement.

Review: Sony Xperia X

A melange of disparate apps round out Sony’s suite. Xperia Lounge acts as a sort of hub for the Xperia’s corporate parent — you’ll find the latest about new games on the company’s PlayStation console, Sony Music album and singles releases; and Sony Pictures movies. The PlayStation app lets you manage your game console account and, if you’re on the same wireless network as a PlayStation 4 and happen to have a controller handy, play games remotely. And Movie Creator automatically creates clips from videos and pics you’ve captured.

Warranty information

Sony offers a normal one-year limited warranty that covers manufacturer defects, but not issues caused by dropping damaging the phone yourself.

The XZ comes in three colors: black, white, and blue. It begins shipping on October 23.

Conclusion

It’s clear that Sony took gambles with the XZ. The design represents a departure from Xperia’s familiar cues, for better or worse. The camera’s five-axis stabilization is an impressive feat of mobile engineering. And the display, while lower in resolution than some of the competition, is bright and vivid.

It’s a shame, then, that collective weight of all the XZ’s little shortcomings ultimately drag it down. The design is unrefined. The software is strangely unresponsive. The camera is a disappointment, as are the speakers. And the handset lacks basics practically ubiquitous in its category — namely the lack of fingerprint sensor on the U.S.-bound model.

A lot could change between now and October, but it’s safe to say Sony has its work cut out for it.

Highs

  • Innovative design
  • Impressive image stabilization
  • Vivid display

Lows

  • Disappointing camera
  • Sluggish performance
  • Weak speakers
  • No fingerprint sensor on the U.S. variant

Updated on 9/1/2016 by Kyle Wiggers: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the XZ lacked a water-resistant coating. In fact, the ZX is IP65/IP68 certified as dust and water proof up to 1.5 meters and 30 minutes. We regret the error.