Sony unveiled the Xperia Z during the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, where we were promptly impressed and awarded it one of our Best of CES awards. The phone sports everything that a high-end smartphone on today's market should offer on paper, including a quad-core processor, Android Jelly Bean, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of expandable storage and, of course, a large 5-inch display with a full HD resolution.
Sony even boasts that the Xperia Z is water resistant to the point that you can literally drop it in a puddle without worry. It sounds like this should be a clear-cut winner, especially since we loved it after our unboxing right? Let's find out.
Sony Xperia Z Video Review
The Xperia Z is no doubt a great looking phone, and it's available in both black and white. The front face features that aforementioned 5-inch 1080p screen, but there's a lot of unnecessary bezel around it. It would make sense to have that space if there were touch buttons, but there aren't. There's just a lot of wasted space on the front of the phone, and we would have liked to see Sony either take advantage of it or get rid of that space entirely.
Speaking of the screen, we can tell there's a high-quality screen in the Xperia Z somewhere, but unfortunately there's a problem with form over function. The device's waterproofing takes away from the nice screen, which instead looks like it's covered with a really bad screen protector. The difference between the clarity of the screen on the Xperia Z and on the HTC One side-by-side is immediately noticeable. So while you're getting the bragging rights of a 1080p screen, the user experience is much nicer on phones from Sony's competitors.
The Xperia Z has plenty of beefy first-class hardware under the hood though, which means it performed really well during our testing period. Everything was nice a fluid, no doubt thanks to the quad-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor paired with 2GB of RAM. We also like that you can expand the 16GB of onboard storage through a microSD card slot that sits on the left side of the phone. The waterproofing comes with a small setback again, though: all of the ports are protected by hatches. That's not a bad thing, but it means you have to open a port to plug your headphones in and open another one to charge the phone. Again, it's not a deal breaker, but our gut reaction is that port covers are a pain in the butt. Thankfully they do their job just fine, because the phone held up when we hovered it under a running faucet.
Sony placed the power button on the right side of the phone and it looks a bit like an ugly wort, although we have to admit it's always in easy reach. Five inch screens can make it hard to reach the power button with a single hand, so we see where the designers were going with the idea. The volume buttons are also in easy reach on the right side of the phone, just below the power button.
The back of the Xperia Z is covered in a clear plastic coating that is always covered in finger prints. There's also a 13-megapixel camera and a single LED flash, which we'll discuss in the camera section. That camera complements a front-facing 2-megapixel shooter for video chat, too.
We haven't been big fans of Sony's TimeScape and MediaScape user interfaces in the past, and the experience is much less intrusive on the Xperia Z. There are little secrets that make the experience more user friendly. If you hold the multitask button, for example, a menu of widgets pops up for easily accessing notes, your calendar, a voice recorder and a timer. Those are there by default, and you can add additional "small apps" from the Play Store.
Sony's Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited software suites come installed, too, and both provide full access to Sony's music and video libraries. We tested an international unit, so we were blessed without having to deal with any carrier bloatware. The experience doesn't look like stock Android, but Sony didn't take too much away from the bare bones OS. You can hold the home button to access Google Search, for example, and the on-screen buttons are all in-line with Google's Android standards.
Call Quality / Data
We tested the Xperia Z on AT&T's network and found that, during our 20-call test, it performed very well. Again, this is an international device so we didn't have access to AT&T's 4G LTE network and it wasn't specifically tested by AT&T to run on it. Still, we're glad to report there weren't any issues. The speaker volume was also loud enough to use during brief phone calls, and we didn't have any complaints from other callers. We did not test the data due to the lack of LTE, although we will re-address this if we get a unit with full support for LTE here on a carrier in the United States.
The 13-megapixel camera on the Xperia Z took rather nice photos. We compared them to the HTC One, which is trying to "bust" the megapixel myth by offering ultra pixels instead, and found that the Xperia Z's photos didn't quite stack up. There was a lot more grain in most of the 100% crop shots and Sony's colors weren't as accurate as the colors in the photos snapped by the HTC One. Still, it's not necessarily a bad camera and we were generally pleased with the photos and videos that it produced. It's just not the best camera out there – if that's your requirement.
The Xperia Z has a 2,330mAh battery that easily provided us with enough juice to get through a full day checking social networks, email and listening to a few tunes here and there while surfing the web. Battery life should not be a concern under moderate usage, but as with most of today's smartphone powerhouses, you'll want to keep a charger nearby if you're planning to use the phone frequently – screens are notorious for sucking battery life and you're dealing with a 5-incher here.
Sony absolutely deserved its award for launching the best smartphone at CES 2013. But now it's a few months after that. The HTC One exists, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is on its way and who knows what else will pop up in the next few months. Its hardware stacks up with the best of them, but the screen really let us down and we aren't overly pleased with the phone's industrial design. It's not a bad phone with any means, but it's hard to justify buying an Xperia Z when you can get a better device from Samsung or HTC instead.