Last year Sony kept finding itself behind the curve with Android phones. The new Xperia Z and ZL are the company's attempt to break that trend. These two phones basically check off every box a spec-hungry geek could want and then some.
Update: Xperia Z will launch in Australia in March 2013.
It's hard to say which of these phones is the flagship since their similarities vastly outweigh their differences. Both have 5-inch 1920x1080 (aka 1080p) screens built on the Mobile Bravia Engine 2. Both have 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processors and 2GB or RAM. Both have 16GB of built-in storage with micro SD card slots so you can expand at will. Both run Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) with Sony's more scaled-back Experience Flow UI. And both have 13MP cameras that use Sony's new Exmor RS image sensor, which is not only built for low-light, but it's the first chip that can shoot 1080p HDR video. All drool-worthy specs.
Both also have NFC and will work with various Wi-Fi direct devices (they couldn't say it's Miracast yet because certification is pending, but that's what it is). That means you'll be able to push video and music to Wi-Fi enabled TVs, stereos, etc. They also both have a very slick feature called Battery Stamina Mode. Essentially, when your screen is off, it turns off the stream of data your phone pulls down. But say you still wanted to get data email, or Google Voice notifications, or Facebook. You can white-list those apps so data still comes through for them. It's a really clever solution which Sony claims will extend standby time up to 400 per cent. Both are currently slated to come with a pair of Sony earbuds that feature improved drivers, but various carriers may elect to go a cheaper route.
Now let's talk about the differences.
The Xperia Z (top image and above) is the thinner of the two phones at just 0.31 inches (versus 0.39 inches for the ZL). There are no curves to speak of. It's a 3D rectangle with hard lines. There isn't even a hump for the 13MP camera. Literally every side of it is covered in a glassy surface with a plastic coating for added strength. Yes, it's a fingerprint magnet, but it has one very impressive trick: it's waterproof to three feet for up to 30 minutes. That means you could drop it in the toilet, take a shower, blow-dry your hair, and brush your teeth before you realise it's in there and it'd still be fine. And the touchscreen works when wet (but not while under water). The Xperia Z packs in a 2330 mAh battery, which, combined with the Stamina Mode, will probably do quite well by you.
The Xperia ZL may be 0.08 inches thicker than the Z, but despite having the same-sized screen, it actually has a smaller footprint (5.19 x 2.75 inches vs. 5.47 x 2.80 inches on the Z). That's because there is virtually no bezel at all — the front is basically all screen. That gives it a really nice look. The back is a curved, matte plastic similar to the HTC One or Droid DNA. Unfortunately the XL is not waterproof, but it does gain two other features we love. 1. It has a physical camera button, which we wish every phone had, and 2. It has an IR blaster, so you can use your phone as a universal remote for your home entertainment centre. It might sound weird, but there are some terrific apps that take advantage of that technology, and we wish more devices had it. The ZL also has a slightly larger battery at 2370mAh.
Playing with the two phones, the experience was essentially the same. They are fast. I didn't see any lag or stutter at all. The overhauled camera app is terrific. Sony basically borrowed it from some of its touchscreen cameras, it was very intuitive and fluid. You can shoot 10fps bursts for as long as you want until you run out of memory then pick the best shot, and while there wasn't enough backlighting to give it a good test, the HDR video looked good at first glance. Sony really scaled back the way their UI looks, letting Android Jelly Bean do the heavy-lifting, and that's a good thing. At the same time they've added some nice features, like more intuitive homescreen customisation and the aforementioned Stamina Mode. The screens are extremely sharp (440 PPI) and colours looked good, though blacks did turn a bit grey when the brightness was cranked all the way up.
In short, these are the best phones Sony has ever made, by a huge margin, and they look like credible contenders for the "Best Smartphone" crown. They will both be launching globally in Q1 of 2013 ("Probably March," we were told). No word yet on pricing or which carriers will get which phone or when exactly.
We also got to see a cool little accessory, which is currently known as the SBH 20. It's a little square with play/pause, volume up/down, track search buttons, a headphone slot, and a clip. At first glace you'd think that it's a cheap MP3 player, but it's actually a tiny Bluetooth receiver. It has an NFC chip in it that pairs it to your phone with a quick tap. You can then have your phone in a bag or pocket and stream music to it, listening via the SBH's headphone jack. Why is that cool? Because most headphones with volume up/down and track forward/back are designed to work with iOS, not Android. If you're out for a run with these, it gives you a quick way to adjust your music (or answer calls) without having to pull out your phone. They'll also be out in Q1 and will probably sell for around 50 bucks.
So a very solid showing from Sony Mobile. It seems like the company learned from past mistakes and has redoubled its efforts. We're really looking forward to giving all of these items a full review in the months to come. More photos below. [Sony Mobile]