If Samsung’s Galaxy range of smartphones are anything to go by, you don’t really need premium hardware or insane features to taste runaway Android smartphone success. All you need is smart pricing and billions of advertising dollars. Sony, much like HTC, tries to buck the trend with the Xperia Z that boasts premium design, top-of-the-line hardware specifications and some water resistance for added measure. A price tag of approximately Rs 39,000 doesn’t feel steep either, especially with its chief competitor – the HTC Butterfly – priced at Rs 46,000. But will it be enough for Sony to make people believe in the Japanese brand once again? It is about time we find out.
At a time when every phone looks alike with some kind of plastic body with rounded corners and curved back, the Xperia Z is a big departure. Like the iPhone 4/4S and the Nexus 4, the Xperia Z features a tempered glass back that looks premium and different. The black version looks better than the white one, but both variants stand out and won’t leave people guessing which phone you are holding. It is very much like the iPhone – it has a distinct persona of its own and screams trademark Sony (not Sony Ericsson) design language of straight lines.
The edges also have a lining of tempered glass and all ports are hidden with flaps that provide the much advertised water resistance. In fact, it took me a while to find out the micro USB charging port, which doesn’t have any marking, unlike other ports. The phone feels extremely solid and as expected it doesn’t creak or rattle when held in a tight grip.
While the combination of straight lines and flat back looks good, holding the phone is a different matter altogether. Despite shaving off the bezel, any phone with a 5-inch display is difficult to maneuver with one hand and in this case the lack of curvature doesn’t help. I found the edges to be a bit too sharp for my comfort, though the corners have been subtly rounded off. Apple can have an iPhone with a flat back solely because of its smaller footprint, which certainly isn’t the case with the Xperia Z. Ironically, it was Sony Ericsson that introduced the “human curvature” with its Xperia smartphones, something that probably got lost in translation somewhere.
Another gripe I have with the design is the placement of the speaker on the lower right edge, which ensures that it is muffled every time you hold the phone in your right hand. You just cannot miss covering the speaker with the fleshy part of the palm.
Android smartphones in the last couple of years have entered a specification arms race with brands trying to strike a fine balance between having the latest and greatest specifications possible while forgetting about the user experience. That reflects in the marketing as well, which is focused on hardware specifications like processor, display size, internal memory and megapixels without really thinking about whether they would really make a difference in the user’s life.
That’s not to blame Sony for putting the best possible specifications on its flagship smartphone but somewhere they seem to have lost the message of why one needs top-notch hardware. Take the 5-inch full HD 1080p display with Bravia engine enhancement, for instance. The Xperia Z has the best display I have encountered on a smartphone when viewed front-on but the viewing angles are terrible – an issue that has plagued Xperia smartphones in the past and I hoped Sony would fix it by investing in better quality displays especially when it attempts a comeback. Despite having the Bravia Engine at work, I find the HTC Butterfly to have a better display. Considering that the display is what you’d end up interacting with all the time, this is bit of a let down.
Display aside, rest of the specs are top-of-the-line, especially the combination of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz combined with 2GB of RAM. It essentially chews and spits everything thrown at it with no lag. Some might find it an overkill but this firepower is required for some processor intensive tasks like HDR video recording among others.
Talking about the camera, the 13.1-megapixel camera churns out good shots provided you have optimum lighting condition. Daytime shots are comparable with any other high-end smartphone but it is the indoor and low-light shots that leave much to be desired. Photos taken outdoors at night and indoors in low-light are average at best, which can’t be compared with even the iPhone 5, forget the Lumia 920. If you were looking for a bigger proof that megapixel count isn’t everything, look no further. Image stabilization mostly worked and I even tried shooting video in HDR mode, which works in certain extreme conditions (shooting under direct sunlight, for instance). I believe this will soon become a common feature in most high-end smartphones.
The Xperia Z runs on Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2, which isn’t the latest version but that is par for the course. Sony has promised to update it to 4.2 soon and the company has been pretty prompt with its updates in the past. I like the fact that the UI on top of stock Android is minimal and that Sony has gone with onscreen navigation controls than having three buttons below the display.
There is a bit of bloatware in form of Sony’s own web apps apart from McAfee antivirus. Sony has said that the Xperia Z will come with some music store offering but my review unit didn’t have it.
Sony has also added a “Stamina Mode” as a software feature, which the company claims could potentially quadruple the battery performance of the phone. The feature essentially kills all background updates while the display is turned off and saves battery during standby mode. It is a nice addition for non-power users and it is customizable too to add apps to the whitelist that can access the Internet during that time.
During my testing that lasted for a week I could barely pass through 15 hours with my heavy usage with two email ids, a Twitter account, about two hours of calls and about four hours of Internet usage. I had both 3G and Wi-Fi turned on and had switched off the Stamina Mode. With similar usage, the HTC Butterfly lasted me for slightly almost 22 hours. Having said that, switching on the stamina mode improves the performance drastically. The Xperia Z should easily see through a day of medium usage.
I did not experience any lag whatsoever and the phone essentially would take on any app or game currently available on Android Play Store with no difficulties. I did not face any problem with the call quality and neither did I face any call drops. It performs its job as a phone.
The Xperia Z is really a mixed bag kind of device. The design is pretty but has its own set of flaws. The camera has the highest resolution sensor available in the market on an Android smartphone today but its performance is average. The battery performs above par if you are willing to sacrifice being online at all times. The display has the highest pixel density on a smartphone (for now) but suffers from poor viewing angles.
The only thing that really works for the Xperia Z is its pricing but that is more about HTC failing to price the Butterfly sensibly. It is water resistant too but it remains to be seen whether that is a killer feature for which buyers would choose the Xperia Z.
And let’s not forget the elephant in the room – the Samsung Galaxy S IV, which will be unveiled on March 14 and should be available in India sometime in April, if the Galaxy S III roll-out from last year is taken as a precedence. Add to it the HTC One that is also getting launched in India in April and the Xperia Z starts looking a generation old already.
Photographs: Rohit Sharma