Back when Sony parted ways with Ericsson, the company promised they would be doubling their smartphone efforts and we caught the first glimpse of it with the launch of the Xperia S, the first Sony-branded Android. Since then, we've seen a wave of handsets being pumped out by Sony in order to plug every conceivable price segment. Most of them were slightly modified clones of the flagship with one unique feature, which differentiated them in the line-up. Cut to the present and it seems as if Sony is running out of alphabets for its phones. The Xperia Z is the latest flagship from the Sony stable, which was launched along with a smaller sibling, the ZL. In true Sony fashion, this handset too has one stand out feature that sets it apart and that’s the IP55 and IP57 certification which makes the Z, the first ever high-end Android to be dust and water proof.

Design and Build
Sony has managed to achieve this feat and still keep the width down to 7.9mm and the weight to just 146g, so you understand why we were so excited to get our hands on it. You have a choice of colours with white, purple and black options. The handset looks good in white although some of us in the office felt it resembled a bathroom tile, which in all fairness, it does from the back. The Z carries forward the block-like design of previous generation Xperias and is completely flat from all sides with the exception of the corners and the edges being rounded off. It does feel unusual in your hand at first and the sides aren’t very grippy either. It’s not the most comfortable smartphone for sure and with a 5-inch display, you’ll have some trouble adjusting if you have small hands. To counter this, Sony has placed the power and volume rocker lower down on the sides so your thumb easily reaches it when held with the right hand. Just below that is the speaker grill, which we’ll talk about more in a bit. The rest of the ports are distributed around the phone and are safely ensconced with rubber-lined flaps. There’s a microSIM, microSD, microUSB and headphone jack, all protected from dust and water. Sony even throws in a lanyard loop at the bottom, not something we see a lot these days.

Standing tall

Standing tall

Around the back, we have a second microphone for noise cancellation, the 13MP camera and an LED flash. Overall, the build and finish of the handset is very good and even a few drops left nothing more than minor scuff marks along the edge. Having said that, all’s not perfect with the Z. The phone is a huge fingerprint magnet and we’re talking about both the glass backs as well as the sides, which are a nightmare to clean. We also noticed that our test unit had developed many hairline scratches, on the display and the back, which spoiled the whole look. This was a little confusing since Sony says the glass is scratchproof.

The screen guard attracts hairline scratches easily and when removed, takes the Sony logo with it

The screen guard attracts hairline scratches easily and when removed, takes the Sony logo with it

As it turns out, the Xperia Z comes with a factory-fitted screen guard, that’s clearly not meant to be removed since the logo in the front comes off with it. This doesn’t affect the phones waterproof capabilities in anyway and neither does it help the display as it attracts scratches very easily, so why put it there? After removing it, we tried scratching the glass with pins, keys, basically anything sharp and it didn’t do any damage. Clearly, the display is capable of withstanding quite a bit of abuse and it should have been just left as is. Fingerprint smudges got a lot worse however with the screen guard removed. 

Power and volume rocker have an ergonomic placement

Power and volume rocker have an ergonomic placement

You’ll be happy to hear that the phone does just fine when dunked in water, hot or cold. The capacitive screen goes out of whack so it’s not exactly usable underwater like the Xperia Active. Other than that, we didn’t face any problems.

Features
Interface
Let’s start with the display itself. You get a 5-inch LCD panel with a 1920 x 1080p pixel density, giving you sharp text and images. While this sounds good on paper, the reality is quite different. Even with the BRAVIA Engine 2 on, the colours are washed out and aren’t very rich at all. A Rs13,000 Android with an IPS display manages better colours. Boosting the brightness only worsens the contrast. We can’t really blame the waterproofing for such muted colours since the Xperia go had the same treatment and the screen was definitely better. It’s not a terrible display but when you compare it with the HTC One or the Optimus G, the Z pales in comparison, quite literally.

The new lock screen is super cool

The new lock screen is super cool

Sony has skinned the Xperia Z similarly to their previous offerings so you’ll be at home if you’ve used a Sony droid in the past. You get onscreen buttons which work much better than the capacitive ones on the Xperia S.

We love the new lock screen animation which mimics a window’s blinds. Apart from this, there are two new exclusive Sony apps that will feature with the Z. Sony LIV is available on the Play Store and lets you stream TV shows of SAB, Sony Entertainment and Max. The app, though, refused to stream any of the videos we selected for some reason. The Sony Music app didn’t come with the phone nor is it available on the Play Store. Apart from these two, the rest of the app suite is the same as we’ve seen on previous Xperia devices.

STAMINA mode works really well

STAMINA mode works really well

For power management, Sony has added a STAMINA mode, which actually does a very good job of prolonging battery life. You can choose at what battery level the mode should kick in and when it does, it restricts apps from using packet data. However, if you want Whatsapp or GTalk to be active in sleep mode, you can add these apps to a white list of sorts so they will still work. When the ‘Low battery’ mode kicks in, a bunch of functions are automatically switched off like GPS, Auto-sync, etc. You can once again pick and choose what should be disabled and what shouldn’t. With these modes on, we actually managed to go through an entire day without having to charge the phone.

The re-designed recently closed app bar

The re-designed recently closed app bar

Sony has changed the 'Recently closed apps' interface a bit. All past apps appear on the right side of the screen along with a row of what Sony calls “Small apps”. These include the calculator, notes, voice recorder and more, which can be downloaded through the Play Store. These special apps open up in a floating window which can be moved around but can't be resized. You also have the option to go to the fully functional app if needed. This can come in handy if you need to quickly take a note or use the calculator.

Media
The music player app is really slick this time around and the new lock screen widget is very convenient. Audio quality is very good thanks to the MH-EX300AP stock in-ear phones. The headphones have a snug fit and produce deep bass while providing good noise isolation. Sound enhancements are present in the form of ClearAudio+, which automatically amplifies the sound or you could fine tune the settings through a 5-band graphic equaliser along with features Clear stereo, Clear phase, xLOUD and Dynamic normaliser – all of which are designed to boost frequencies and make your audio experience more pleasurable.

Audio quality is pretty good with the bundled headphones

Audio quality is pretty good with the bundled headphones

The video player breaks down your videos into movies, TV and those that can be streamed. The player won’t read MOV files but everything else, including MKV files, work just fine. HD video playback heats up the Z rather quickly so prolonged watching could get a little uncomfortable. FM radio is also present. The Xperia Z comes with 16GB of internal memory (11.7GB is usable) and you have the option to expand it via microSD card, which is a big bonus as Sony’s previous flagship didn’t give you that option. The mono speaker is loud but not clear. Alerts are audible even in crowded areas but complex sounds like movies and music tend to get garbled at high volumes.

Connectivity
The Xperia Z is a quad-band GSM and 3G handset but no LTE support for India, at least in the current ROM. Along with this; you also get dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth v4.0, NFC, GLONASS, the works basically. The GPS works well and is quick to triangulate your position. However, the phone heats up a lot when you use GPS, to a point where it’s uncomfortable to answer a call. Couple that with our summers and you’re looking at one smoking hot phone. The stock browser has been ditched for Chrome, which is lightning quick in rendering web pages. We also really liked Sony’s new keyboard, which now comes with their own version of Swype. The word prediction works pretty well and so does the auto-correct. New words are automatically saved once manually chosen in the preview list.

The keyboard works well for quick typing

The keyboard works well for quick typing

We didn’t like the earpiece one bit since the opening for it is very narrow and if you don’t hold it to your ear in the sweet spot, you’ll have great difficulty hearing the person on the other end. Even with the earpiece volume maxed out, it was quite difficult to hear the other party with lots of ambient noise around. 

Some extra apps bundled with the phone

Some extra apps bundled with the phone

Other custom apps from Sony include Sony Select, which is essentially a mini app store with the recommended apps. The new Socialife app is neatly done and lets you view all your social feeds in one place. This is also accompanied by an equally useful widget. Smart Connect lets you automate tasks at certain time intervals, so you can make your Z switch to silent mode, turn off Wi-Fi or data from 12AM to 8AM while you sleep and so on. Other noteworthy apps include Update Center, McAfee security, Xperia Link, Sony Car, Backup and Restore, NeoReader, Wisepilot, OfficeSuite and TrackID.

Camera
The Xperia Z is the second handset in the Indian market with a 13MP camera. The sensor consists of a 28mm lens with an aperture value of f/2.2, which is decently large for low-light shots. The camera interface is a little different this time around as well. The different modes can be selected with the tap of the first icon and there’s a new Superior Auto, which automatically picks the right scene mode depending on where you point the camera. Outdoor pictures are nice and sharp with good colour reproduction and there’s a good level of detail even after zooming in. Indoor shots are just about average and it gets noticeably worse as the ambient light reduces. The flash provides good illumination if the subject is less than 2 feet away but anything more than that and the picture gets quite grainy.

Good set of camera options

Good set of camera options

Low-light photography is not the best

Low-light photography is not the best

The Xperia Z boasts of HDR video in addition to regular HDR but we aren’t too convinced by this. What this does is brighten up the dark areas in the video but in doing so, introduces a lot of noise in the video so we don’t recommend you capture any precious moments in this mode. We must say, the smile shutter works very well. The front and rear camera are both capable of 1080p video, which is good. Overall, the camera on the Z didn’t really blow us away and is pretty average at best.

Battery Life
The Z is fitted with a 2330mAh non-removable battery which managed two full loops in our video drain test and about 10-minutes into the third which racks up a grand total of 5-hours and 40-minutes. This poor performance is mainly due to the high-resolution screen. If the phone is used carefully under regular use, you can just about make it an entire day before having to charge it. Games and GPS will drain the battery very quickly, not to mention heat it up, so you have to think twice before you decide what app to use.

Verdict and Price in India
The Sony Xperia Z is available in India for a street price of Rs 38,790, which makes it the cheapest high-end phone with a Full HD display. The waterproofing feature gives it an added advantage and no doubt, many people would buy this solely for that reason alone. Let’s sum up the good points first. The Z is well-built and takes falls and bumps in its stride, comes bundled with very good earphones, has good audio and video playback, is waterproof and dust proof, the STAMINA mode is a welcome feature, has expandable memory up to 64GB and the default keyboard is not a pain to use. Now for the not-so-good points. The handset is not the easiest to use with one hand due to bad ergonomics. The flattened chassis makes it difficult to get a good grip. The use of a screen guard on the front and back comes across as tacky, not something we expected on a phone that costs almost Rs 40,000. This tends to pick up scratches very easily and will ruin the look of your brand new phone within weeks. The display is sharp but the colours appear dull and washed out. The phone also has a nasty habit of heating up a lot when using GPS. The earpiece could have been designed better as well and last but not least, we found the camera and battery life to be strictly average. 

The only reason we’ve given the Xperia Z a relatively good rating is for the IP55 and IP57 certification as we don’t see any other high-end smartphone launching in the near future that has this. Other than that and the fact that it’s aggressively priced, the Xperia Z is quite a mediocre handset that doesn’t offer anything more than an evolutionary upgrade to its previous generation.

Publish date: March 21, 2013 2:05 pm| Modified date: December 19, 2013 10:18 am

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