Smartphones are all about compromises. Squeezing a hi-res screen, compact-level camera and huge battery into something the size of a Kit-Kat isn’t easy. Usually, something has to give.
Unless, it seems, you’re Sony. The Xperia Z2 makes almost zero compromises - on screen, sound, camera or battery life. So it’s perfect, right? Well, it’s close. It turns out this 5.2in slab of metal and glass won’t even compromise its stunning design for something as important as the size and shape of human hands.
The Z2 oozes quality, then. It just isn’t always the most practical choice.
Why so soon?
With the Xperia Z1 just six months old, this new Sony flagship could be accused of making only incremental upgrades. However, the Z2 is more than just a made-over Z1, thanks to a new 5.2in screen which Sony has cleverly engineered into a thinner and lighter body. The 20.7MP sensor in the camera is also slightly bigger, capable of shooting 4K video and bristling with new features.
The Z2 also arrives with the latest version of Android, KitKat, out of the box too - the Z1’s still waiting for its own upgrade. But it’s in its screen and camera smarts that the Sony really shines...
A Screen to lock yourself away with
The Z1’s 1080p screen was big, colourful and pin-sharp, but it suffered from one major problem - poor viewing angles. Watched off axis, colours would fade away and text would become tricky to decipher
Not so the Z2, which has improved performance immeasurably. Viewing angles on the new 5.2in IPS display may not be quite perfect, but it’s no longer a critical flaw.
And it’s not the only way the Z2 improves on the Z1’s screen. Colours - which were already eye-popping - are now even more vivid thanks to Sony’s Live Colour LED tech. Stick on a full HD video and you’ll also notice that contrast is outstanding and detail plentiful. Apps, emails and webpages look crisp and clean and you can even geek out and tweak the white balance. The viewing experience is further enhanced by the clear and loud stereo speakers, which Sony has moved to the front of phone and which rival the HTC One (M8)’s for quality, if not volume.
For settling down at home or giving Planet Earth another viewing on the train, the Sony’s screen is simply superb. Living with it, there are a couple of niggles to consider. Firstly, the black, featureless front of the Z2 is a fiend for reflecting light and seems to delight in showing up both fingerprints and specks of dust. Secondly, it’s not quite as bright as the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S5, making its rival a better bet for outdoor use.
Then there’s Sony’s X-Reality engine - a feature which supposedly enhances the picture, but which in our time with it seemed to overdo things. It might be switched on as default, but turning it off is one of the first things we’d do. And finally, as beautiful as 1080p movies look in Sony’s own app, in every other video player app the picture looks dim even cranked up to full brightness. Which is a shame.
So it’s not perfect, then, but none of these flaws are major, and in almost every way the Z2’s screen is a stunner.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S5 versus HTC One (M8)
A Camera that'll trounce your compact
For a smartphone camera, the Z2 is capable of taking downright incredible photos.
That’s no surprise considering it’s packing a 1/2.5in, 20.7MP Exmor RS sensor with an f/2.0 lens. Stills are punchy, well exposed and have tons of detail to crop into across all the resolution options - 8MP, 15.5MP, 20.7MP. Framing and autofocus are seriously speedy, too. Point the Z2 at your subject and, combined with its processing power and brilliant screen, it’s like you’re looking straight through the smartphone. And instantly too.
As well as including tons of fun features (try background defocus for wow factor), Sony’s kept its excellent manual controls. EV, ISO, white balance, focus modes and more are on hand for the times when you want to tinker with your shots. And getting to know them all is a good idea, because you won’t always get the best shots from the Z2’s Superior Auto mode.
It’s generally very good, switching to its excellent macro or night modes quickly and flawlessly. But at other times, it seems to struggle. Point it into direct sunlight, for instance, and it won’t do such a good job with exposure. It doesn’t always have the night vision of the One (M8) in very low light, either, but then again it’s better at snapping faces without the need for the flash indoors - a much more useful talent, in our book.
Video can be shot in 1080p and 4K and in both instances footage is seriously smooth, even when walking about, thanks to Sony’s SteadyShot stabilisation. A warning for those planning to shoot a 4K movie, though: after a couple of minutes the Z2 often gets too hot, flashes up a warning, then abruptly stops shooting - we hope Sony’s working on fixing this, as the Galaxy S5 handles the rigours of 4K just fine.
All in all, the Z2 does require a bit of work to get great photos and footage, meaning that it’s not the most practical phone to go out snapping with: it’s a bit unwieldy compared to lighter or curvier phones and the rear camera is right in the top corner of the device. Hello, giant blurry fingerprint.
Still, for many it’ll be worth the effort. We’re yet to pit it against Nokia’s 1020 but there’s no question the Z2 is one of the best smartphone cameras we’ve come across, if you can use it to its full potential.
A Gallery-worthy design, but your hands might not like it
If the HTC One and One (M8) were taken out of the equation, the Z2 would comfortably be the classiest Android phone on the market - a real object of desire. It’s so beautifully finished, with smoothly rounded corners, an all-glass back and machined aluminium edges, that we’re tempted to install a rotating plinth for it in our living room.
Next to the Z1, it fits more screen into a lighter body, and with all the port flaps closed it has the same water resistance rating (IP55/58) as its predecessor, so it’s safe from splashes and can even take underwater swimming pool pics. We haven’t dunked this unit yet but we’ll update the review when we have.
However, a gorgeous design isn’t the same as a thoughtful design, and it’s here that the Z2 falls down. Although it's a heavy smartphone, it's not the weight that's the issue; rather, it's that the Z2's toughened glass build would work better scaled down. When you're dealing with a 5.2in diagonal span of glass, ergonomics really count. Z2 Compact, anyone?
Even the massive Galaxy Note 3 can feel easier to manage than the Z2, and our love for the Z2's brilliant camera and screen have been dampened by practicality problems; just picking it up from a flat desk can be awkward.
There’s a happy middle ground between form and function, and the Z2 doesn't quite find it. Put simply, this is a phone you need to pick up before you pre-order. If its shape works for you, you can get back to appreciating everything it does brilliantly.
READ MORE: HTC One (M8) review
More after the break...
An Android skin that's (mainly) clutter-free
Sony’s customised Android interface does a much better job at compromising in the right places. Now layered on top of the latest version of the OS - Andoid 4.4, KitKat - it’s one of the smartest and cleanest you can get, up there with HTC’s grown-up, uncluttered Sense 6.0.
Sony hasn’t messed around too much with the standard Android menus, contacts, email or messages and its Walkman, Movies and Music Unlimited apps are equally as user-friendly as Google's best, whether you’re loading your own files or looking for an impulse media buy. It can even run small windowed apps (including widgets) on top of another running app, getting good use out of that spacious 5.2in screen.
Sony has also picked up the best gesture-based tricks of its rivals and quietly added them to the Z2. So, raising the phone to your ear answers a call, and tapping the screen wakes the device up. One handy time-saver is better than five half-baked features, and the Z2 knows it.
Just one thing: Sony's now on the slippery bloatware slope that Samsung is finally managing to crawl back up. Unwanted software additions don’t take up too much space on the Z2's interface for now, but there's danger of it creeping in all over the place. When we swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access Google Now, we’re not looking for Sony's What’s New suggestions, already present as a elsewhere as a standalone homescreen widget. No more bloatware, Sony. That way is folly.
Plenty of Power
The Sony absolutely flies in use, a fact that can be put down to its speedy 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 processor and rival-besting 3GB of RAM. The relatively uncluttered Android experience probably helps to keep running smooth, too.
In fact, the only stutters we’ve encountered in days of putting the Z2 through its multi-tasking, gaming and downloading paces are the occasional lag when scrolling through the calendar or browser, running as small apps on top of others. Once or twice. That’s it.
The benchmarks agree. AnTuTu gives our Z2 a score of 32,504, which is slightly below the One (M8) but which still puts it in the upper echelons of high-performing 2014 smartphones. Then there’s Geekbench 3, which gives 2489 to the Sony, with the Galaxy S5 scoring 2551. (Higher is better in both cases.)
As with the Z1, the only worry here is that whenever the Z2’s Snapdragon is overworked - shooting 4K video or heavy gaming - the handset heats up and, as we mentioned, with 4K video the Z2 will actually stop shooting if it gets too hot.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
A Stamina mode to save the day
If there’s one thing super-powered smartphones compromise on, it’s battery life - if you want the best handset, you usually end up with a microUSB cable next to your pillow. The Z2’s battery isn’t game-changingly good but it is reliably excellent and will always last the day.
With a 5.2in screen to power, that reliable battery life is partly down to it having a bigger 3200mAh battery than the Z1’s 3000mAh unit, and also thanks to its Stamina mode. We’ve been fans of this Sony-specific feature for a while, as it does a cracking job of conserving juice by powering down the phone's data connection when the screen's turned off.
If the brightness is cranked up (and you’ll need it to be when you’re outdoors), battery does suffer. On our 1 hour 15 minute commute of hammering the Xperia hard, it dropped by 29%. On balance this is no better or worse than most rivals, but our reigning battery champ, the LG G2, will still wipe the floor with it.
Sony Xperia Z2 Verdict
Of the 2014 flagships we’ve seen so far, the Xperia Z2 is the connoisseur’s choice. This is a true converged gadget that’s capable of taking brilliant photos and playing videos at cinephile quality, but also one where practicality has taken a backseat.
So, while it might not be for the Reddit-obsessed, constantly connected, live-to-social-network geek, it’s ideal for the person for whom quality is the only measure that counts. If you have the time and inclination to show this Sony some love, it will return it in spades.
One thing’s for certain - if Sony can stay true to its ‘better not bigger’ tagline, the rumoured Sony Z2 Compact is going to be one seriously impressive smartphone.
READ MORE: Sony Xperia Z1 Compact review
Sony Xperia Z2
Classy, clever and with talent in spades, if the Z2 was easier to live with it would be unstoppable