With devices like the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4 – successors to last year’s most notable devices, the One X and Galaxy S III, respectively – just over the horizon, it’s easy to dismiss other flagship models either currently available or approaching release.
Sony’s pair of flagships, for example, turned a lot of heads at CES this year. And the timely launch kept helped keep most potential users interested. But now that HTC’s and Samsung’s flagship devices are officially official and nearing retail shelves, it’s becoming easier and easier for those very consumer to dismiss Sony and its high-end smartphones.
Make no mistake, however. The Xperia Z and Xperia ZL are fantastic devices – easily the best work we’ve seen from Sony in the mobile sector to date. But why should you care? Why should you want the Xperia Z over, say, the HTC One? Galaxy S 4?
Great build quality
The hardware of the Xperia Z is one of the most notable aspects of the phone. It features hard edges and a completely flat front and back. While this makes the device feel larger than similar-sized devices with a tapered back, it also makes the phone feel much more sturdy and premium. The accented trim around the edges, matte finish plastic and expansive glass slabs put the Xperia Z right up there with the iPhone 4 and 4S in terms of design.
The only disadvantages to the actual design are in the placement of the buttons and its physical size, which make the device difficult to use one-handed.
Of course, it’s water-proof and dust-proof
One area the Xperia Z has a leg-up on its counterparts is with its resistance to the elements. The Xperia Z comes with IP55 and IP57 dust- and water-proofing. Assuming the gaskets are all sealed on the ports, it can stay water-tight at a depth of one meter for up to 30 minutes.
Dust-proofing helps keep the inside of the device nice and clean, too.
So if you spend a lot of time in dusty or wet areas, or if you have the tendency to drop your phone in water, the Xperia Z has a clear advantage over virtually every other Android flagship model around.
Expandable storage … if that’s your sort of thing
As graphics and capabilities of pocket computers grow, storage continues to get more and more tight. Inbuilt storage notably more expensive that microSD card slots, making devices with more on-board storage cost more. The cheapest iPhone 5, for example, is the 16GB model at $649. The 32GB and 64GB models are $100 more and $200 more, respectively. This is the same metric most other manufacturers use for pricing, as well.
The Xperia Z, on the other hand, comes in one capacity. Although it’s an unfortunate 16GB, it comes with an expandable storage slot for microSD cards. While microSD cards are only useful for storing your own content (personally owned music, digital movies, photos, etc.), no longer for application storage unless you root, they are a great way to conserve your on-board storage for more important things, such as apps and games.
The display isn’t all bad
With so many 5-inch 1080p displays, the stakes are fairly high for newcomer in the 1080p sector. The Xperia Z, unfortunately, has one of the more disappointing 1080p displays to date. Its contrast level is noticeably low and viewing angles are quite poor. If you hold the device at practically any angle other than straight-on, the display immediately becomes washed-out.
But not everything about the display is bad. No, blacks aren’t inky. They’re instead a medium gray. But colors are quite vivid and pop with saturation similar to the Super AMOLED panels on Samsung’s devices. This is due to the Mobile Bravia Engine 2 that Sony uses, which ramps up saturation for photos and videos.
And if super-saturation isn’t your thing, you can easily disable the saturation for more level and true to life colors. In other words, the display is somewhat versatile, despite its low contrast and poor viewing angles.
One of the best smartphone cameras around
Its 13.1-megapixel camera was quite impressive all around. The color reproduction, contrast, detail and white balance nearly matched the iPhone 5′s camera point for point. There were slight differences, but the quality of pictures from the Xperia Z is among the best you can expect from any smartphone with a pinhole-sized sensor.
During our review, I was able to take some impressive shots with the Xperia Z, and hated to send it off. Not only were its optics capable of producing fine shots, its software was packed to the brim with useful features. In fact, its camera software may offer more features, out of the box, than any other Android smartphone.
The HDR video wasn’t as impressive as we had hoped, but video quality and audio are decent, as well.
Sony’s UI maintains many of the best features of stock Android
The UI was immediately disappointing when I had the Xperia Z. It was neither stock Android nor a heavily customized version, such as Sense or TouchWiz. And I thought, “Why make a haphazard Android skin? Why not just leave it stock, since Jelly Bean is by and large the best looking and performing version of Android yet?”
I still stand by those questions – the latter is the mantra I wish more Android manufacturers would implement. “If Google’s version is better than ours, we should leave it to them.”
Alas, that is, for the most part, a pipe dream. But Sony did follow this mantra to some extent. It left the Recent Apps menu mostly stock, as well as the home screen, app drawer and Settings menu. The entire experience is very stock-like. The only upsetting part is that Sony did kill one of the best features of Jelly Bean and home screen setup. Dragging a widget over icons, folders and other widgets does not rearrange the home screen elements, which is unfortunate.
But after a week with the Xperia Z, I had no major complaints about the software, which is a rarity when it comes to third-party customizations.