This post is about a surprise; it’s about a comeback, and about how a determined company can listen, learn, and make something beautiful once again. It’s about the Sony Xperia Z, a premium, powerful, and waterproof Android smartphone that made me rethink what’s important to me about a phone. And if I sound enamored, well, you can read on to see what made a longtime Samsung user ditch the South Korean powerhouse for a Japanese giant.
Sony’s flagship device, the Xperia Z currently retails for $532, directly undercutting Samsung’s terrific Galaxy S4 by over $90. It’s also significantly cheaper than the HTC One, which retails for $615. In terms of design, it leans more towards the HTC One, with a unibody aesthetic and a non-user-replaceable battery. But really, it is its own thing, with a distinctly Sony presence.
We’re giving away a brand new Sony Xperia Z to one lucky reader. Continue reading our review, then join the giveaway at the end of this post.
Very few companies get things right on the first try, and indeed, the Xperia Z is the latest in a line that started way back in 2008; back when Sony’s mobile division was still allied with Ericsson. The first Xperia devices actually ran the atrocious Windows Phone 6.5, before switching to Android with the Xperia X10 in March 2010. If you don’t remember the X10, I can’t blame you: The device didn’t exactly make a splash, initially shipping with already-outdated Android 1.6. Sony didn’t give up on the line, though, and things gradually got better. The Xperia S, released in early 2012, was a respectable phone, followed by the lovely Xperia T, which was Sony’s first to use the Snapdragon S4 platform. The Xperia Z followed the T, using the S4 platform as well, and it shows that Sony has been listening, learning, and figuring out how to truly differentiate itself and capitalize on its premium brand in a crowded market.
Let’s get the nitty gritty numbers out of the way first. The Xperia Z measures 139 by 71 mm, and is 7.9 mm thick. That’s the exact same thickness as the Galaxy S4, while being just a tad wider and taller. It feels somewhat larger, though, due to its rectangular shape. It weighs in at 146 g, which is 16 grams heavier than the Galaxy S4. That extra heft, along with its glass back and sturdy build, translates into a device that feels solid in your hand.
The Xperia Z packs a 5-inch full-HD 1920×1080 pixel display, at a very respectable 443 pixels-per-inch, just a skosh higher than the Galaxy S4. The screen is a TFT LCD, rather than an AMOLED, and is boosted by Sony’s proprietary BRAVIA technology — the same display engine Sony uses on its large-screen TVs.
The phone comes with 2 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of storage, which can be extended with a Micro SD card of up to 32 GB (something the Nexus 4 doesn’t let you do, but the ever-modular Galaxy S4 does). The rear camera of the device packs 13.1 megapixels, while the front one has 2.2 megapixels. All of this is powered by a 2,330 mAh battery which you won’t be able to replace on your own — a major drawback, especially when compared to how easy it is to pop a new battery into the Galaxy S4 when the existing one goes flat.
Last, but certainly not least, the Xperia Z is completely waterproof, up to IP55 and IP57 levels. Each of its ports is covered by a small flap that’s connected to the body of the phone with a sturdy length of rubber. To plug into the phone’s Micro USB port, just lift the flap and stick a cable in. The same goes for its headphones jack. With all the flaps closed, you can fully immerse the phone in water, beer, molten chocolate, or any other liquid, and it’ll stand up to it just fine. In fact, here’s the Xperia Z taking a dip in chocolate:
True, you won’t dip the phone in chocolate on an everyday basis (I hope not, at least), but having a waterproof device has proven surprisingly useful in the month or so I’ve been toting the Z around. For one thing, it makes cooking with the phone a much nicer experience: There’s no need to keep it fastidiously clean. Go ahead and touch the screen with your grimy fingers; once you’re done, just rinse it under the sink, give it a quick scrub and a wipe, and it’ll be like new again. I’ve done this a number of times and it was… liberating.
What’s In The Box
While the Xperia Z itself is a potentially exciting device, the same cannot be said about the bundled accessories. The Z ships with the stock package we’ve come to expect of any decent Android device in recent memory: A wired headset with interchangeable rubber earplugs in three sizes, a Micro USB cable, and a travel charger. The wired headset, while nice, feels noticeably less premium than the one Samsung bundles with the Galaxy S4. It has just a single button, as opposed to three buttons on the S4 headset (volume up, down, and “answer”).
Interestingly, close inspection of the bundled travel charger revealed an embossed Sony Ericsson logo — possibly a holdover from the time before Sony fully took over its joint venture with Swedish Ericsson. Needless to say, the phone itself doesn’t have a trace of Ericsson, and is purely Sony.
Design & Hardware: Premium and Rugged Can Go Hand In Hand
Just like the LG-manufactured Google Nexus 4, the Xperia Z has a glass back. To me, this is a somewhat dubious design choice, because it puts looks over utility: The Nexus 4’s back is famously brittle, and cracks even on relatively light impact. I cannot say the same about the Xperia Z’s back, though it did make me concerned enough that I felt compelled to get a case for the phone.
Once you’re done marveling at the shiny, shiny glass back, you will soon spot the Xperia Z’s other striking design feature: Its round, protruding, metal power button. Designed to evoke memories of the crown on the side of fancy men’s watches, the power button is conveniently placed for ambidextrous use. I’m a southpaw, so when I hold the Z in my right hand, the power button falls right under my thumb. When holding the phone in your left hand, the power button falls under the index finger, making it just as easy to use.
Under the power button you’ll find the volume rocker, which is just a tad stiff, but does work. Continuing down the right side of the phone, you’ll find one of the Z’s few design gaffes: The phone’s single speaker, which Sony decided to place in the bottom-right side. This unfortunate location is decidedly unfriendly to anyone who needs to hold the phone in their right hand, since you’ll be muffling the speaker with your palm whenever you hold the device in its default, portrait orientation. The speaker isn’t all that loud to begin with, and when you muffle it with your palm, it becomes completely inaudible.
The left side of the phone features a flap covering the Micro USB port, and its top edge has a flap covering a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The bottom of the phone is free of any ports, flaps, and buttons.
Camera: Your Mileage May Vary
Sony is known for its cameras, so I had high hopes for the Xperia Z’s camera. Unfortunately, it didn’t really deliver exceptional image quality, at least for me. Below is a photo I took with the phone:
And a 100% crop of the same photo:
It is important to note that these photos were taken using an alternative third-party ROM for the Xperia Z, and so do not represent the camera’s peak performance using Sony’s bundled software and original ROM. Even with the original ROM, the phone failed to impress me with image quality — photos were noticeably less sharp and pleasing than those I took with the Galaxy S4.
However, this is just one man’s opinion, and it’s not based on even semi-scientific testing. I could write an entire post analyzing the Xperia Z’s camera and comparing it with the Galaxy S4’s, so you shouldn’t attach too much significance to the lackluster impression I got. To get a better idea of the Z’s imaging chops, head over to this XDA Developers thread where Xperia Z users (most using the stock firmware) share their photos. Many of these users are happy with the results they are getting. If you own an Xperia Z, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the camera in the comments.
Software: The Xperia Z’s Big Surprise
Prior to the Xperia Z, I’ve used the Samsung Galaxy S, S II, S III, and S4. On all of these devices, Samsung’s atrocious bloatware and offensive design sense made for a far worse experience than stock Android. It was so bad, I’d be unable to stay with the stock Samsung ROM for more than a few days — I’d always find a third-party ROM and switch over to it. This worked well up until I got the Galaxy S4, I9500: This device runs on the Exynos chipset, which Samsung did not release sources for. As a result, that particular model is sorely lacking in the alternative firmware department, leaving me stuck with Samsung’s maddening interpretation of what Android should look and feel like. This is a subjective thing, but I personally disliked it so much, I ended up ditching this particular device, even though I loved the hardware.
And so it was that when I came to the Xperia Z, I had a very clear idea about vendor customizations: To me, they were heavy-handed ways for phone makers to “differentiate” their devices while obliterating everything that’s nice about Android and adding a ton of bloat and confusion to Google’s elegant OS. So, imagine my surprise when I realized Sony’s bundled ROM is actually… good.
Yes, you’ve read that right: The ROM that ships with the Xperia Z is actually kind of great. Sony added things that really do add value to Android. The bundled camera app is very nice; there’s also a lovely Smart Connect app that is like a simple version of Tasker that can put the phone into quiet mode when you plug it in at night, and do all sorts of clever things when you plug in various accessories. There’s also a Stamina mode for extending the battery life by shutting down various radios and sync options. Last but not least, the original ROM also includes Sony’s BRAVIA engine for enhancing image quality when viewing videos and photos. To me, the results seemed a bit over-saturated, but just like when it comes to the camera, this is a matter of personal taste. Below you can see the same image on the Xperia Z (top) and the Nexus 4 (bottom):
Okay, so that’s surprise number one: The included ROM is actually good. Had this been it, I would have been content. But now came surprise number two: Sony actually likes third-party developers! What do you know.
Unlike Samsung, which makes developers’ lives difficult by not releasing the Exynos sources, Sony openly embraces the Android developer community. It has an official page on the Sony Mobile website for unlocking your phone’s bootloader, and XDA developers is positively brimming with custom ROMs for the device. The community is thriving, and the phone is a joy to modify and customize.
Living With the Xperia Z
All in all, I could not be happier with my Xperia Z. Going with a non-Samsung device was a bit of a gamble for me, but after using it for over a month, I can say that for my needs, the Xperia Z is just about perfect.
I do wish Sony would help third-party developers to better support the device’s camera, and I wish the device came with a user-replaceable battery. After growing used to the ease of replacing the battery on Samsung’s devices, having to remember to keep the device charged before I go on a long outing is a bit of a drag. I know I could get a battery pack for it, but that’s one more thing to carry around — and those battery packs are often non-replaceable, which means they, too, lose effectiveness as time goes by. There is no real substitute for being able to replace your phone’s battery when out in about.
That said, every sophisticated device is a collection of trade-offs. So I gave up being able to replace the battery, and got a waterproof device with a decent original ROM, plenty of custom ROMs, and a developer-friendly maker. To me, that is a fair trade. In daily use I don’t feel the need to replace the battery, and I enjoy my custom PAC ROM very much.
Should You Buy The Sony Xperia Z?
If you’re in the market for a new high-end smartphone, and find Samsung’s Galaxy S4 a bit pricey and bloated, the Xperia Z will definitely make you happy.
How do I win the Sony Xperia Z?
You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.
This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, September 13. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email.
Congratulations, Naomi Shapiro! You would have received an email from email@example.com. Please respond before October 28 to claim your prize. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.