Sony Xperia Z: still a really great phone

Xperia Z

The Sony Xperia Z. It’s a really good phone. And there is no higher praise that a smartphone can get.

It does what a smartphone should do, at the most basic level, well. It makes calls. It takes calls. You can clearly hear the caller. It sends messages. Browses the internet. Takes pictures. AND DOESN’T NEED TO BE RECHARGED TWICE A DAY! AND DOESN’T NEED TO BE COSTED LIKE A PRECIOUS PIECE OF SPUN GLASS! AND IT DOESN’T TRY GUESS WHAT I’M TRYING TO DO!

OK, settle down, settle down. Breathe, Roger, breathe.

The Xperia Z is waterproof (ish) and damn bloody strong. Which means you don’t need to plonk another US$30 down for a case, which also instantly bulks up and ruins the sleek lines of your designer smartphone hotness. The Xperia Z doesn’t watch your eyes. It doesn’t try guess what you’re reading. You can’t wave at it from across the table to make it sometimes do what you want.

It’s a 5” mostly vanilla Android phone, and I like it. A lot.

At a Sony expo event a couple of months back, the new ranges of Sony Hi-Fi, cameras, headphones, TVs, knick-knacks and gadunkedunks were shown off. Within the first half hour I was feeling morose. Sony, the company that taught the world how to design and market consumer electronics, was engaging in a cringe-worthy display of tone-deaf, tin-eared, lead-footed exposition. Imagine the scene: hugely ugly stereo systems being demoed to a group of (frankly) sniggering journos. The product manager rounds the group up in front of a home theatre display — all the component surround speakers are packed nicely on top of each other in a neat line against the wall. He cranks it up, bellowing above the ear-splitting din, “You can really hear the surround effect!”

Sony Xperia Z sample shots
left right

Xperia Z Shot 3

Macro function is admirable.

Xperia Z Shot 1

Even at night, shots are fairly clear.

Xperia Z Shot 2

The Z autodetects most scenes for the perfect shot.

A little something inside me died… I think it must have been my belief that Sony’s share price could ever return tow where it was in the halcyon days of a decade ago. Every product on display had features that clearly only stayed on the spec sheet drafts because the 15 rounds of feckless committees of feeble execs had waved them through as they were in no way challenging, interesting or even relevant. By the time I got to Sony Mobile (the erstwhile Sony Ericsson, still being borged into the Sony-Ericsson mothership), I was almost in tears at the awfulness of it all. So much iffy tech, so clumsily presented.

But then… ah ha, I thought — these Sony Mobile guys seem to be cut from another cloth. Sharper marketing, sharper people. Hmm… maybe, just maybe…

But then I mention to the one product manager that the UI of the smartphones looks a little vanilla Android, and he says, “Oh yes, that’s a feature. We keep it mostly stock Android, makes it better.” And my heart sunk again. Really? Vanilla is better?

A few weeks later, the agency sends me over an Xperia Z handset to use for a couple of weeks. You know what? He was 100% right.

It’s a slick phone

It was everything I wanted in an Android smartphone. A little big — I find a 5″ phone a little clunky, but it was a no mess, no fuss setup and operation. Mostly vanilla Jelly Bean, but with some clever — and actually useful features.

The battery management is very good, with two neat tricks. The first is that when the phone sleeps, you can set it to turn off the radios. Even neater is that you can exclude certain apps, so that you still get WhatsApps or whatever.

The second is location-based Wi-Fi power. When you’re in range of a saved network, it will turn Wi-Fi on. I’m not sure how it does it — assume it’s using cellphone base station location for a rough fix.

But together — yes, it’s a smartphone that’s not always expiring on you.

The waterproofing works as promised — drop it in the bath, take it for a shower, get tossed in the pool — no problem. Assuming the little plastic grommets over the various ports are closed properly.

The display is exceptionally sharp — 443ppi and full 1080p video, and still usable in strong sunlight. Touch is also very responsive and accurate.

The camera is very good, if not as exceptional as that on the Nokia Lumia. It has an HDR (high dynamic range) function which snaps two different exposures a split second apart, and combines them to give greater detail in bright or dark areas. Hmm. I suppose it works. But even without HDR, it has an excellent sensor — even allowing burst mode of 10 frames per second. I thought to try take some pics underwater, but a capacitive touch screen gets rather confused when it’s got water all over it. Your mileage may vary.

It has some bells and whistles in terms of home entertainment — one-touch pairing using NFC to connect to other audio and video devices, including a neat trick where you touch the phone to your Sony TV’s remote to automagically mirror your content to your TV. I don’t have a TV at home, but saw it demonstrated by a Sony bod. It is a neat trick.

Sony Mobile has done a lot of “one touch connecting to Sony stuff” — like MirrorLink to auto-connect and mirror to your Sony car stereo. Cool and all, but much of this whizz-bang requires you to have lots of other Sony consumer electronics gear. It would be better if Sony could use some of its considerable (if fading) muscle to create an ecosystem of third party manufacturers using a common standard. You’re not going to win the end-to-end market back by yourself, Sony. Not against Apple, and increasingly Samsung.

One small, but glaring omission? Sony still makes a lot of its Walkman heritage. So why such a stunningly mediocre music player? I had to download Neutron Music Player, the only app I’ll ever repeatedly pay for across multiple platforms. The internal speaker is also a bit chintzy — but I suppose making a waterproof speaker is not easy.

But getting back to the basics — a smartphone doing what a smartphone does.

It’s one of the few LTE handsets out there (hello? Samsung? It’s been months since the S4 launch, and still no LTE model!). Which is good.

The Xperia Z does everything expected, well, with few distracting “features”. It’s a phone I’d actually spend my money on. Can’t give a better vote of confidence than that.

Roger Hislop


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