- some nice software features,
- decent camera performance
- Stamina mode can be too aggressive,
- camera app is a muddled,
- battery life poor,
- confused design
With the flagship Xperia Z family abandoned, the device that everyone expected to be the Xperia Z6 launched as the Xperia XZ.
The new device is the fifth Sony smartphone to launch in 2016 – following the Xperia XA, Xperia X, Xperia X Performance and Xperia XA Ultra – and launches alongside the Xperia X Compact.
Sony’s story is that the X series runs A to Z from bottom to top, making the XZ the new head of the Xperia family. There aren’t quite 26 devices in-between (yet), but you get the (confusing) picture.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Design
The Xperia XZ offers Sony’s OmniBalance flattened design, along with large bezels at the top and bottom of the display, all of which are recognisable as typical Xperia features. The Xperia XZ is perhaps what you’d expect the Xperia Z6 to be, but it is a slightly confused design.
Sony calls it “loop” design, referring to the slightly curvier finish at the sides, a step away from the squared profile of previous Z devices. It really doesn’t fit into a pattern of Xperia X devices, because they all seem to be different.
The thing that’s striking about the Xperia XZ is the number of different finishes, panels and textures. The front is one piece of glass, with the colour sitting in the bezel beneath the surface, which on the Forest Blue version looks great (but on the Midnight Black looks rather dull).
It’s the back that’s odd, with a separate bottom panel that’s both a different colour and texture from the rest of the rear. It’s not a contrasting shade, it’s just not the same, so it looks wrong. Then there are the flattened ends, which have brushed inserts, making for five different textures across the device. The XZ is far removed from the glass sandwich of the Z5, which was overall much more consistent.
What the xz isn’t is seamless in design. Look at devices like the HTC 10 or the iPhone 7 and you’ll see a cohesive design language. Even phones like the Huawei P9 manage to take care of having a different material inserts on the back better than Sony has, which is a shame.
In terms of size, the XZ will feel no bigger to those with a Z5 or Z3. The new device has the same footprint as the Z5 (146 x 72mm), along with a similar weight (161g). It is a little thicker than the previous flagship at 8.1mm but the XZ remains comfortable to hold and it reintroduces IP68 water and dust resistance – something missing from the other Xperia X models.
What’s gone from previous Z devices is the slightly hard front edge, thanks to the so-called loop design, but it’s not a huge move from where it was before.
The right-hand side of the XZ features the oblong power button with built-in fingerprint sensor (unless you’re in the US, where it’s just a button), volume rocker and camera launcher button, while the left side sees the SIM and microSD tray.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Display
The Sony Xperia XZ features a 5.2-inch display, meaning it adopts the Z series size rather than that of the X series. The XA, X and X Performance all have 5-inch displays, while the earlier Xperia Z models had 5.2-inch screens.
In true Sony style, the Xperia XZ sticks with a Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) , meaning the new flagship has the same pixel density as the Z5, at 424ppi. At this size the lack of resolution isn’t a huge deal, as this is still a crisp looking display for when you fire up games and browse through your photos.
However, the XZ display isn’t as impactful as the best we’ve seen this year from the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7’s AMOLED display. The colour and vibrancy of the Sony is good enough, perhaps a little closer to reality than Samsung’s punchy display, but you don’t get the wow factor you do elsewhere.
The display also suffers from auto-brightness creep. In dark conditions it’s often too dark. You can bump it up using the slider, so Luke Cage on Netflix looks great, but it will creep back down into the gloom again, meaning we often had to turn off the auto-brightness and do it manually instead.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Hardware, performance and battery
The Xperia XZ has the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor on board and is supported by 3GB of RAM. That’s almost flagship spec, but launching at the end of 2016 rather than the beginning, it’s already being eclipsed by devices like the Google Pixel on the spec sheet (the Sony is cheaper, though).
It has the option of 32GB or 64GB internal memory, both of which offer microSD expansion up to 256GB.
That’s fairly typical, but we wouldn’t say the Xperia XZ is a particularly strong performer. It doesn’t feel as though it has the snap and immediacy of other devices built on this chipset – and we’ve not found it to have particular stable cellular reception either.
That can lead to a mixed performance. Fire up Fallout Shelter and the game plays smoothly enough, but sometimes there’s a hefty delay between tapping the camera app and it opening, or a stutter when showing a photo preview.
During the review period for this device we did go back and completely reset the phone as it got very jittery. That seemed to improve things, but it just doesn’t feel slick and fast and like a flagship should – it feels like there’s something holding it back.
One thing that needs careful attention is Sony’s latest iteration of Stamina mode. In the past we’ve praised this battery-saving feature, but here it has different levels. Opt for the “battery time preferred” option and the hardware throttling is so severe that you can’t do much, like scroll through Twitter, or really use the swipe entry on the SwiftKey keyboard.
Having used the Xperia XZ for over a month, Stamina now seems to walk the line between being too aggressive or too ineffective. With battery saver on “device performance” – which means you do at least have some user experience preserved – the XZ doesn’t really last that long, almost like not having it engaged at all.
Using a typical 2016 example, we’ve seen the Xperia XZ battery consumed by Pokemon Go in a timeframe that the HTC 10 would easily manage. It’s perhaps not a scientific measure, but in real-world terms, the Xperia XZ isn’t a strong performer and its Stamina mode has lost the potency it once had.
There’s a 2,900mAh on-board battery and USB Type-C for fast charging and data transfer is good to see. To try and prolong the life of your battery, there’s a new smart charging feature called Battery Care. This aims to predict when you’ll unplug your phone, so it can charge you up to 90 per cent and top off the last 10 per cent at the last minute. The theory is that this is better for your battery as it’s not running it to full charge and holding it there for an extra 5 hours.
If you’re a creature of habit, like regimented habit, this might work. It takes about 10 days to learn your routine, but for us, it typically meant we unplugged a phone that wasn’t fully charged. You can turn the feature off if you experience the same, but for us, the battery focus on the Xperia XZ seems to be wrong.
All in all, we’ve seen a number of devices in 2016 at flagship level that are more satisfying in terms of battery and performance.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Starstruck camera
The camera is always an area that Sony places a heavy focus – and the Xperia XZ is no different. However, the main sensor resolutions are the same as the Xperia X and X Performance, meaning 23-megapixel rear and 13-megapixel front cameras.
It’s not all about megapixels though, as we all know. The Xperia XZ has made a few changes and software enhancements to its camera experience. It comes with five-axis image stabilisation, which is said to help those of you with shaky hands, and the new device will also offer manual control of shutter speed and ISO sensitivity should you want it.
Additionally, the Xperia XZ has another two supporting sensors on top of the main 23-megapixel Sony sensor. One is to help deliver more vivid colours, while the other is to help with depth of vision. That’s where that grey circle above the LED flash comes into play.
The Xperia XZ offers great performance in good conditions, but tends to lose grip on colour as the lighting levels dip and the ISO sensitivity rises. You can take control of some of this stuff if you’re more enthusiastic, but there’s a feeling around the whole of Sony’s camera app that it expects you to use the intelligent auto options instead.
The manual mode, for example, offers shutter speed, white balance, exposure compensation and focus with easy access – but doesn’t offer control of the biggest thing that’s likely to ruin your photos: ISO sensitivity. It does exist though, albeit in another menu, which makes it fiddly to use, or more fiddly than it should be.
The same applies to HDR (high dynamic range). This HDR is commonplace on phones these days, but Sony eschews it in the auto mode, hoping its detection will take care of things. To turn on HDR, you have to head into manual, then a menu, then toggle the slider to get HDR. That’s far too fussy.
Now the Xperia XZ camera isn’t bad, but it’s presented in a way that’s too convoluted and fiddly, especially for something that’s so prominently featured – and that undermines the experience. Sony has a technologically great camera, but as a user experience it’s poor.
The same applies to video. Video capture is offered up to Full HD in the regular app, but 4K is available in a separate menu, so some might never find it.
When you do get into video capture, the XZ offers class-leading stabilisation, which is really good, but the general quality isn’t great, especially focusing, which pulses in and out just a little too often, picking apart the good work done elsewhere.
Sony Xperia XZ review: Software
Sony’s Xperia software has slowly stripped out some of bloat that once plagued it, for a result that’s much cleaner. There’s still some bulk from Sony apps, but you’ll probably have mixed opinions based on how you want to use your phone. We’re not sure that the What’s New app really earns its place, and we’re not fans of Video and TV Sideview either.
There is a separate Music app, Album, as well as Video app – all of which have their merits.
There’s support for Hi-Res Audio which has been a strength of Sony for some time. We found that the XZ’s speakers are pretty good for ad hoc listening, although they’re not quite up to HTC’s BoomSound standards. Connected to a pair of compatible Hi-Res headphones, like Sony’s MDR-1000X, and you’ll get some excellent performance.
Sony’s launcher is actually pretty nice these days, offering up options to do sensible things like give you Google Now with a swipe, avoid duplicating icons, as well as the option to turn off app recommendations.
The apps tray has a nice feature, not only offering search, but giving you suggested apps with a swipe. If you have lots of apps installed, but always use the same apps, you’ll see them in suggested, just a swipe to the right, meaning you don’t have to flip through pages of apps to get to them.
Things are smooth enough when moving around the device, but as we’ve said before, the experience is very much dictated by whether you’re using the Stamina settings. Unless you’re on “device performance”, you’ll find things suffer.
The good thing is that, for the most part, Sony’s software has been getting lighter and with a few tweaks, things could be improved to make it great.
The Sony Xperia XZ feels like a device that lacks a strong point and that perhaps reflects its positioning, replacing a flagship as part of a mixed family of devices.
The design offers great things like waterproofing, but it isn’t a head turner. It’s a mixed design that doesn’t stand up to some of its rivals and we feel it misses the mark in this regard.
It’s slightly cheaper than some flagships at £549 – the HTC 10 is £569 as is the Samsung Galaxy S7, the iPhone 7 is £599 – but it doesn’t have the strength to go head-to-head with those phones. It falls down on design, the camera interface and battery life – never really raising its game.
Certainly the Xperia XZ could be better and that’s within the grasp of software improvements. With a tweak to Stamina mode, a reworking of the screen brightness, a cleaning up of the camera app for a slicker experience, the XZ could have its day.