Sony actually has a top-end smartphone now. Learning from the stumbles of the rocky six month transition between the venerable Z Series phones and the Xperia X Performance, the new Xperia XZ brings back a little bit of finesse into Sony's smartphone design.
What Is It?
The $999 Sony Xperia XZ is a flagship smartphone from the same guys responsible for Sony's consistently impressive Xperia Z line-up. In that sense, you could think of it as the Xperia Z6, and it's definitely a meeting of the old Z with the new X. It has the high-end design and waterproofing of the Z5, the new camera tech of the X Performance, the battery prestige of the prize-fighting Xperia Z3 Compact, and a few new tricks up its sleeve along the way.
- 5.2" 1920x1080 IPS LCD
- Dimensions: 146x72x8.1mm, 146g
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 quad-core
- 32GB/64GB Storage, 3GB RAM
- 23MP rear, 13MP front cameras
- Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow
Measuring in at 146x72x8.1mm and 161g, the Xperia XZ is one of the smaller flagship smartphones that should catch your eye at this end of 2016. Its sharp-cornered, rectangular body looks taller than the Galaxy S7 even if it's barely a few millimetres in difference, and there's no discernable difference in the phones' thickness — 8.1mm versus 7.9mm is really academic. In Australia, you can get it in black through Sony's partners JB and Telstra and in black and blue variants if you buy directly through Sony.
Sony has launched the Xperia XZ with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow in Australia, but says an upgrade to 7.0 Nougat, the operating system currently powering the latest and greatest of Google's Nexus family and the LG V20, is imminent. We're expecting it to pass carrier validation and testing within the next month in Australia, and that's a good sign that Sony is committed to keeping its high end smartphones updated with the latest software.
Being a top-of-the-line smartphone, the Xperia XZ has specifications that are competitive with other premium smartphones. It's rocking a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 quad-core with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot. Its 5.2-inch IPS LCD display is a 1920x1080pixel one, but makes up for that resolution impediment with a high maximum automatic brightness that makes the phone easy to read in bright outdoor conditions.
What's It Good At?
The loop design of the Xperia XZ is an evolution from the Xperia Z5 in all the ways that the Xperia X Performance's monolithic rectangular brick wasn't. The properly curved edges on the side of the XZ's chassis finally fit smoothly and comfortably into the knuckles of the user's hand, and Sony's traditionally clean and distraction-free design is even cleaner than ever. The phone is long and skinny, with the same tall forehead and big chin that we criticized on the Google Pixel and iPhone 7 but without those phones' noticeable side bezels as well.
Sony's interpretation of Android has always been to get out of the way of what works, and to only add on features that it is confident add value to the phone itself. That means you get PlayStation 4 Remote Play support through the Xperia XZ and integration with other Sony family company products (including some free movie downloads), but for the most part the Xperia XZ's skin on top of Android is unobtrusive and won't require you to re-learn a new interface, especially if you're already familiar with stock Android. This is, we think, a Good Thing.
Sony is these days a camera company as much as it's a smartphone and a TV company, and the Xperia XZ has a 23-megapixel rear camera that can capture high-res photos. It's not the best phone on the market for taking sharp and detailed photos — more on that later — but the white balance sensor and infrared focusing sensor do make it one of the most consistent phones for snapping images. You'll always get photos with white balance that looks realistic without tweaking, and it's one of the best phones for focusing on moving objects courtesy of the last-generation X Performance's autofocus algorithms. The front camera, too, is one of the most detailed I've used.
The Xperia XZ is probably one of the most appealing Android phones for enthusiasts to come out at the tail end of 2016. It's waterproof and IP68 rated, with Sony's long history of waterproofing behind it as a stamp of approval, and the single-SIM variant we get in Australia also includes a microSD card slot that'll handle another 256GB of expandable storage alongside the 32GB of internal memory. One feature that you might miss is the fact that the XZ also has support for Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0, which means you'll have to spend less time charging to get enough battery life for a few more hours on the road.
There's one feature that Sony has been quietly working on that could be a huge point in the Xperia XZ's favour. We don't know yet. Sony has a piece of battery charging smarts — a system that only charges the phone to full power overnight just before you wake up and want to use it — that it's saying will double the phone's effective battery life. Not in a "how long you can use it before it runs out of charge" way, but in a "I get the same battery life as I did two years ago" way. We'll see how it plays out over the next couple of months, but on paper it's a great addition and one that's very forward-looking and consumer-friendly.
What's It Not Good At?
Sony has chosen a 5.2-inch screen for the Xperia XZ, and in the phone's 146x72x8.1mm long, skinny chassis it feels like the right compromise in display-to-bezel ratio. Sony has imbued the XZ with its excellent Triluminos display and backlighting tech, and the range of brightness is excellent. There's only one problem: the XZ has a 1080p panel, lower resolution than the 1440p screens in similarly sized competitors like the Samsung Galaxy S7. That means it's not quite as sharp, especially when it comes to reading text. Not a huge deal, but a clear point of differentiation between the two.
Under the proverbial hood of the Sony Xperia XZ, you'll find a perfectly adequate Qualcomm Snapdragon 820. It's a high-end quad-core processor and doesn't offer up any impediments when it comes to actually using the phone — it's consistently quick to operate — but doesn't have the same energy efficiency as the newly introduced Snapdragon 821 in the Google Pixel, its successor. It's hard to shake the sense that you're buying slightly outdated tech with the Xperia XZ, which is hard to stomach given the phone's circa-$1000 price tag.
Similarly, the battery life of the Xperia XZ was adequate rather than spectacular throughout my testing. That's surprising given the lower screen resolution of the XZ's 5.2-inch 1080p panel versus its similarly sized 1440p competitors, which need to push more pixels constantly and have higher screen drain as a result. You've got a good display in the XZ (for its resolution) and excellent battery longevity tech with the adaptive charging, but you'll have to get used to charging it every night without fail rather than skipping a day every now and then as you can do with some other late-2016 flagships.
While the Xperia XZ's camera setup is technically one of the best you can buy in late 2016 — and it has the excellent inclusions of the dedicated white balance sensor and infrared/laser autofocus sensors, both of which make a measurable positive impact on the photos you can capture — it doesn't have the processing smarts that the Google Pixel and iPhone 7. The end result is that the XZ's photos look good, but just aren't as sharp or detailed and lack the software-enhanced depth of field of Sony's competitors.
Should You Buy It?
If you want a new phone, and you have a thousand dollars to spend, Sony's Xperia XZ offers you all the features and design refinement and smarts that you'd expect for its $999 price tag. Its cameras — front and back — are technically excellent, its battery is capacious and includes longevity features that mean this is a phone you'll actually be able to use for years, its software has an upgrade path already planned out for Android's latest and greatest.
Price: from $999
- Finally, some Sony design is back
- Excellent camera hardware
- Adaptive battery tech is a dark horse
- Expensive for older hardware
- Battery life is OK rather than great
- Better cameras on other phones
All of these are minor refinements from the slightly disappointing X Performance that the XZ displaces at the top of Sony's smartphone food chain. Still, there's no one stand-out feature that makes you instantly want the Xperia XZ, not in the same way that Google's Pixel has Assistant built in and the iPhone 7 Plus has that fancy Portrait camera and nuanced haptics engine.
The biggest selling point of the Xperia XZ is its camera. And it's a good camera, the best that Sony has ever put in a smartphone. The front camera is equally impressive. But in a market where the iPhone 7 exists, the Google Pixel now (surprisingly) dominates and the Galaxy S7 offers its continued strong performance, it's hard to recommend the XZ just on the basis of its camera.
What might turn out to be a dark horse for Sony is the fact that the Xperia XZ is a very safe choice for a smartphone to buy right now. Its battery — Sony says, at least — will maintain a consistent level of performance over a longer lifespan than competitors. It has expandable memory. It has the latest version of Android planned, and hopefully the one after that. If those things are important to you, then the Xperia XZ should sell itself on its merits.