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Sony Xperia Z review - Waterproof wonder

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Ever since Sony completed the buyout of Ericsson's half of the Sony Ericsson mobile handset joint venture in 2011, the Japanese firm has been trying to create a smartphone that really gives Apple's iPhone a run for its money. Well, the Xperia Z is by far its best effort yet.

The new Xperia flagship bears none of the drawbacks of its predecessor, the Xperia T, and brings many welcome new hardware and software features - particularly with the camera - in a beautiful, functional and even waterproof package.

Sony's Xperia Z flagship Android smartphone.



Should I buy the Xperia Z?

If you are in the market for a premium Android phone, you would be remiss not to consider it. Some people may find this whopping handset rather too large for comfortable use, and the lack of the latest Android 4.2 at launch is a shame. But this is without doubt Sony's best phone to date, and also one of the best Android phones produced so far.

Design/display

Just like previous flagship, the Xperia T, the Xperia Z is a rather huge phone. When you pick up the device, it at first feels huge in the hand, close to a tablet in scale. Certainly, people who looked at the Samsung Galaxy S3 and thought it was too large, are likely to feel the same and possibly more about the Xperia Z.

But equally, this is a phone that carries size with good grace. Unlike its predecessor, the Xperia Z marries size with elegance, style and also superior build quality. Gone are the curved edges and rounded corners of past Sony phones, and instead you get a very thin, rectangular block, with shatterproof glass adorning both sides, giving it a glossy and sophisticated feel.

The Xperia Z features a large 5-inch HD display.

Xperia Z matches size with style and substance.



At only 7.9mm thick, the Xperia Z is waif-like compared to many other phones on the market (apart from the iPhone 5). The phone weighs in at a hefty 146g, but is not too heavy or large to put in the pocket or carry. Strips of glossy plastic run around the edges and the switches are finished in finely machined metal. It's all rather nice to look at and use.

There are white plastic flaps covering the micro-SD card, USB charing port and the SIM card slot that ensure the phone can resist dust and also water. You can take the Xperia Z underwater to a depth of 1m and keep it there for 30 minutes, great for listening to music while swimming.

The phone can also be dropped in other liquid and as long as it is retrieved reasonably quickly, there will be no damage done. In the interest of rigorous testing, we used the phone while in the shower and also dunked it in a pint of beer, and it kept on trucking. Our only slight concern is what happens if those protective flaps start to get loose, but hopefully the build quality will hold out over longer usage.

Sony has fitted the Xperia Z with a 5-inch, 1920x1080-pixel 'HD Reality Display' display that really does justice to bright colours, and offers great contrasts. The screen boasts a pixel density of 443 pixels per inch, which is well ahead of the iPhone 5's 326ppi. This really is an excellent screen that makes photos pop and videos a joy to watch.

Phil Molyneux, President and CEO of Sony Electronics, introduces the new Xperia Z smartphone during a news conference at the International Consumer Electronics Show

© PA Images / Jae C. Hong/AP



Processor/battery life/connectivity

Sony has finally caught up with its Android rivals and joined the quad-core crew. The flagship Xperia Z runs a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chip, backed by an impressive 2GB of RAM.

The phone certainly competes with other premium Android devices. AnTuTu gives the Xperia Z a benchmark score of 20,829, way ahead of the Galaxy S3's 12,467. Downloading and running any apps from Google Play is no sweat for the Xperia Z and while there are some stutters and slowdowns, the overall performance is impressive.

But what is equally pleasing is that Sony has sorted out the battery life. The Xperia T tended to drain battery very quickly over just a few hours, but the Xperia Z fares better.

Sure, if you have that 5-inch screen running on high brightness and are seriously motoring the quad-core processor, you are only likely to get five-six hours' juice on a full charge. But we found that the phone lasted most of the day on average use. And what Sony has done well is made it easier to conserve power.

Stamina Mode completely disables mobile data when the screen powers down, a really good feature for saving power overnight. There are options to refine this during the day, such as allowing just certain apps to maintain data connection when they are active in standby. Overall, it's much easier to last close to a full day with the Xperia Z than the T.

The new phone comes in 3G and also 4G connectivity, offering options for superfast mobile internet in the UK on EE.

Sony Xperia Z smartphone

© Sony



Operating system/unique apps

Somewhat disappointingly, the Xperia Z does not launch with the latest Android 4.2 Jelly Bean on-board, instead getting 4.1.2 - although Sony insists that the handset will be updated soon.

The Japanese firm has once more attempted to bring additional value to Android with its own unique apps and services. Thankfully, though, it has scaled that back to just the ones that are worth having.

There is less of a feeling of 'Sony clutter' on the Xperia Z's overlay compared to the T, although the firm still has a habit of ramming its services in your face. This would be fine if things like Music Unlimited music streaming were free, but they require a subscription (and offering a free trial doesn't change that).

There are also some maddening design decisions, such as the PlayStation Mobile app coming pre-loaded, but the shortcut doesn't actually work unless you permit the phone to allow 'non-authorised apps'. Even then, you have to go to Google Play and upload it manually. Come on, Sony.

The camera app is also pretty slow to boot up, which is a little annoying after a while. But things get much better with NFC, as Sony has done a great job of integrating the Xperia Z with its newer TVs, enabling users to sync the screen onto a TV. If you have the right kit, this is pretty cool to do.

Xperia Z goes big screen.



Camera

Apart of the design and water-proofing, the camera is probably the Xperia Z's most valuable feature. Barring the whopping 41-megapixel sensor in the Nokia 808 Pureview, this 13.1-megapixel snapper captures some of the best images we have seen on a smartphone.

The Xperia Z is able to really reflect the bright colours and contrasts of real life in images, and the high pixel count means a great deal of detail, even when zooming in close. You can access all the now-expected features of a smartphone camera, such as HDR and Burst, but there is also a Superior Auto system that can detect low-light and react accordingly.

You also get a sweep panorama and various picture effects, such as fisheye, sketch, harris shutter and kaleidoscope, for when you are feeling creative (or silly). The front-facing camera is not bad either, either for video calling or those all important vanity shots.

Image taken on Xperia Z's 13.1-megapixel camera.



The Verdict

Sony has learnt its lessons with past smartphones and ploughed all that knowledge into the Xperia Z. The design, the hardware, the camera and additional features of this Android flagship all excel against the competition.

While the phone and its 5-inch display are mammoth compared to the iPhone, the success of Samsung's Galaxy S3 suggests people are comfortable with phones knocking on the door of tablets in terms of size.

With Samsung's much-anticipated Galaxy S4 just around the corner, it will be interesting to see how it compares to the Xperia Z. But Sony has at least given itself a handset that is worthy to carry the flag.



The Sony Xperia Z is available on mobile contracts starting at around £26 per month (EE is also currently offering it on 4G price plans). The handset can also be picked up SIM-free for around £450.

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