Sony Xperia Z2 review: worth every penny
At first glance, you could be forgiven for mistaking Sony’s new flagship smartphone for its old flagship smartphone.
That’s partly because of the company’s pronounced design aesthetic, and partially thanks to its tendency to fire out new products at a faster pace than its competition. But for all the resemblance the new Xperia bears to its forerunner, there’s a world of difference beneath the toughened glass. The Z2’s vibrant display puts the elder model’s to shame, its innards throb with the power of the best hardware around, and its high-resolution camera is finally a Sony shooter to be proud of.
Whether that smorgasbord of seductive specs makes the Z2 the phone for you is a question we’ll do our best to answer in the review below. If afterward you find yourself with a powerful thirst for an Xperia Z2 of your very own, do what we did: visit GSM Nation, one of the first US retailers to stock the device.
Video Review · Specs/Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Xperia Z2 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
8.2mm thick. 163g in mass. A 5.2-inch display. A Snapdragon 801 processor at 2.3GHz. That’s not the most outlandish spec list of the year – in fact it’s par for the course in 2014. But toss in a 20.7MP camera, a 3200 mAh battery, 3GB of RAM, and pour it all into a water- and dust-resistant glass casing, and you’ve got a formula for something special indeed. That’s clear from the first time you pick up the Xperia Z2, which leverages the same glass-sandwich construction of the Z1 and Z1 Compact to effect a premium look and feel that’s tough to find elsewhere in the Android world.
That premium feel comes at a cost: the Z2 is a little big for our average-sized hands, and we nearly dropped it more than once. That’s especially concerning given how easy to scratch the casing is; considering the hate-hate relationship between glass and concrete, clumsy buyers will want to invest in a case for this one. Also, we wish Sony could find some way of toning down all the greeblies on the phone edges. This phone would look better without all the panel lines, ports covers, and wristlet holes that dot its sides.
Thankfully, that aesthetic sacrifice does make possible some cool stuff: the dual-pronged port along the left-hand spine is necessary for Sony’s desktop charging dock (an easier way to juice up the device than fiddling with the port covers on the sides). Other hidden gems include the status light built into the earpiece, active noise cancellation technology behind the headphone jack, and Sony’s dedicated camera shutter button, which should be standard on all smartphones.
Waking up the device is as simple as rapping twice on its face (usually, that is: like many modern smartphones, the Z2 has a bit of trouble waking up on the first try using this method). When the backlight flares to life, you’re treated to a 5.2-inch, 1080p display at 424ppi, with viewing angles much wider than most of Sony’s past offerings. This screen is at its best when called upon to show rich colors: it’s here that the TRILUMINOS display technology combines with the X-Reality engine to deliver some of the more vibrant colors around (and to remind you of Sony’s never-ending obsession with brand names).
It’s not the best display we’ve seen; in the sun, its graphics tend to fade away behind the super-reflective top layer, and its blacks aren’t quite as inky as on other devices. But there’s a pretty solid set of customizations available in the software for tweaking its warmth and balance, and Sony’s done its best to leverage the UI to its advantage here: almost every corner brings some colorful touch that seems to pop right through the glass, which is a real treat.
Less of a treat is the software running beneath that glass. Our problem isn’t with the underlying foundation of Android 4.4.2, which is just as capable as ever; rather, it’s Sony’s third-party UI that’s causing us some heartache.
That’s nothing new: reviewers loving Android but hating Android skins is one of this industry’s most enduring tropes. And compared to some of its competitors, Sony’s skin has some real beauty to it. We’re more willing to forgive the company’s skeuomorphic impulses because its jewel-like icons are a pleasing blend of playfulness and elegance, while the predominantly dark palette gives the rest of the skin an air of modernism.
The problem here is that Sony’s skin is heavier than before, its product tie-ins more aggressive … and frankly, a little sad. We’re used to companies like Samsung shamelessly plugging their own features while pushing aside the stock Android equivalents, but we’ve rarely seen a company force its own media store into the Google Now tray, as Sony has done here.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the “What’s New” app actually offered some worthwhile function, or if Sony had chosen to put a shortcut to its Socialife browser here instead. But What’s New is just a media store, a catalog of Sony products staring you in the face every time you summon Google Now.
Also ever-present but seldom useful are the Small Apps multitasking titles (while we see the utility of a floating calculator from time to time, it’s tough to use windowed apps effectively even on a 5.2-inch display) and the various Xperia-branded social-sharing plugins, which don’t seem to offer any advantages over the standard apps. And then there are the notification shortcuts, the good looks of which mask their cumbersome functionality.
Much of this can be easily overlooked, though. Day-to-day, there are many bright spots in this software: apps like Walkman, the Movies hub, and even Sony Select are gorgeous. Downloadable titles like Sony’s Lifelog are novel. Even everyday corners like the dialer have fun surprises, like allowing you to answer the phone just by putting it to your ear, or the (admittedly gimmicky) option to reject a call by shaking the phone.
There are also some smart automatic options: the Z2 can set a morning alarm when it’s plugged in at night, for example.
But while such features do contribute to the phone’s usefulness, others aren’t worth the clutter they impose on the experience. So while we think most will be satisfied, we also can’t help hoping for a Google Play Edition Xperia Z2 someday soon.
We would, however, have one demand pertaining to that hypothetical device: leave the camera alone. Because as impressed as we were with the Z1 Compact’s camera a few months back, we’re even more taken with the shooter on the Z2.
Again, the hardware shutter key brings a utility that’s tough to overstate, from its half-press-to-focus detent to the ability to launch the camera right from standby. There’s even an option to snap a photo as soon as the viewfinder loads: handy for those once-in-a-lifetime shots. The software is getting a little crowded with all those features (and you can even download more shooting modes if you want them) and we hope Sony doesn’t go down the road of ever-more-complex viewfinders that some of its competitors have taken. For now, shooting with the Z2’s camera is still a fun, and fairly simple, experience.
For everyday photography, we’re big fans of Sony’s Superior Auto mode, which does a nice job of dealing with a wide range of lighting conditions. We could stand to see a little more color and contrast in some photos, but switching to manual allows for that. Shooting in 15- or 20-megapixel resolutions mean zooming in on faraway subjects is no big deal, thanks in large part to Sony’s excellent software stabilization. The almost-liquid smoothness of the viewfinder is the first thing you’ll notice when firing up the camera, and it goes a long way toward making up for the hardware’s lack of OIS.
Low-light performance, as shown in our Z2 vs M8 comparison below, is outstanding even in automatic mode. Color reproduction isn’t as reliable or consistent here, and obviously there’s much more noise than would be the case in well-lit environments, but the amount of detail the Z2 is able to pull from an almost pitch-black scene is remarkable.
Underwater photography is even more fun; given clear water and enough time to focus, the camera is able to render very crisp images, and shooting with the hardware shutter key is just as easy beneath the surface as above.
And then there’s video. Of course 4K recording is available, but as we have yet to upgrade Pocketnow to a 4K office, we shot in 1080p for the majority of our time with the device. We’re happy with most of the video footage we captured with the Z2, but we wish focus was a little less temperamental. As it is, you need to keep a close eye on the picture while filming to make sure focus doesn’t drift during the shot.
If there’s an area we’d say the camera falls short, it’s probably in the flat tone of some images –a bit more contrast and saturation in “Superior” Auto would help it live up to its name– and we wish the full range of software features was available at resolutions higher than 8MP. Also, we’ve heard some troubling reports of overheating and force-closes in 4K recording mode, which we’re still looking into on our review unit.
Bugs aside though, we adore this camera. From the sensor’s available high resolution to the software’s ease-of-use to its versatility both above and below the waves, we think the Z2 offers the best overall camera experience you can find on an Android smartphone today.
We’ve tested the Xperia Z2 on AT&T’s HSPA and LTE networks for about six days between Greater Boston and New York City, and we’re happy to report that data speeds and reception seem up to snuff in both cellular and WiFi modes. We don’t put much stock in synthetic benchmark scores, but as you can see above, they’re well within expected limits. That Snapdragon 801 ain’t no joke.
Where the Z2 stumbles is in voice quality … at least on our side. While callers say we sound natural on their end (even in the presence of intense background noise) our side is less enjoyable – the Z2’s earpiece renders a thin, tinny sound, and its location at the device’s sharp upper edge makes extended talking an uncomfortable experience. Speakerphone calls are also very quiet despite Sony having relocated speakers to the front of the device – a move for which we nonetheless applaud the company. In a quiet room, the Z2’s speakers will serve just fine, but they won’t blow anyone away in terms of either amplitude or sound quality (no matter how many boxes are checked in Sony’s audio settings).
But plug in some earphones -specifically, the beefy MDR-NC31EMs that came in the box with our review unit- and it’s a whole new ballgame. Whether you use them on the train, in the office, or alongside a busy street, the effect of the noise canceling technology is immediate, and profound. While a tight enough fit with some gel-topped generic earbuds will keep out most spurious noise, it’s nothing like the sense of total isolation that this combination delivers. Taken together with the Xperia Z2’s outstanding media suite, the available 128GB of microSD storage space, Sony’s wide range of audio-boosting customizations, and the sentimental value of the Walkman brand, and it’s tough to see ourselves having as much fun listening to music on any other device (with the possible exception of the special Harman Kardon variant of HTC’s One M8).
You should be able to jam out for quite a while, too: Sony quotes up to 120 hours of music listening on the embedded 3200 mAh battery, but that figure obviously isn’t realistic outside of Airplane Mode. For our part, we were able to squeeze about 25 hours of light-to-moderate use out of the device on a single charge, eking out almost 4.5 hours of screen-on time during that period. That endurance is fine, but it’s frankly a bit less impressive than we expected, given the Z2’s sizable power pack. You’ll be able to go longer if you use Sony’s STAMINA and other power-saving options, of course – and longer still if you manage to avoid running the CPU hard on high-demand games or videos.
The Xperia Z2 doesn’t have anything to worry about in that department –as mentioned above, that new Snapdragon keeps up just fine– but it also heats up faster and hotter than any other 801-powered phone we’ve tested. Heat being the enemy of efficiency where electricity is concerned, you’ll want to keep a charger handy if you’re planning to use the Z2 as a media hub. And maybe also a fan.
+ IP55/58 ingress protection
+ Stylish industrial design
+ Best overall camera experience on an Android phone
+ Top-tier specs
– Software inconsistent, somewhat bloaty
– Endurance doesn’t quite live up to battery capacity
– Middling voice, speaker quality
Pricing and Availability
The Xperia Z2 is available across Europe either through wireless carriers or directly from Sony. Direct US availability is expected this summer, possibly on Verizon Wireless (though this has yet to see official confirmation). US residents interested in preordering can do so here, or they can order an unlocked D6503 (the model number of our review unit) from GSM Nation here.
Unboxing and Direct Comparisons
Since it’s not yet available from a national carrier here in the States, grabbing an unlocked Xperia Z2 is guaranteed to take a hefty bite out of your wallet. But if you have the means (including the added cost of a protective case made of something more sturdy than glass), we think this product delivers excellent value.
It may only be a small step forward in design over the Z1, its software is definitely in need of some trimming, and if you’re in the US you might want to wait until summer to see if a national carrier can help bring down that price tag with a contract subsidy. But for a phone with these specs to be crammed into a water-resistant casing this attractive, with a camera and personal-media suite this capable … well, as the saying goes: you get what you pay for. And if you ask us, the Xperia Z2 is worth every penny.