The Xperia series isn't new to flagships, with one coming out almost like clockwork every year, failing to make it to the top of the charts. But this year is different.
Having learnt many an important lessons from previous attempts, Sony has pulled out all stops on the path to innovation. The Xperia XZ Premium then, is finally upon us after being teased by it back at MWC. It comes all guns blazing with a price tag that is in line or lesser than other flagships, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset which also makes it the first phone in India to be launched with this cutting-edge processor (eat your heart out, OnePlus), 4K HDR 5.5in display and a headline-grabbing 960fps slow-mo mode!
A dapper looker
Sony has tried to leverage its supremacy in camera sensor technology, large screen Bravia televisions and a little help from its audio division, gives the XZ Premium hi-res audio chops too, with new stereo speakers mounted top and bottom of the screen. That's also the reason why the first thing you notice about the phone is the extra forehead and chin. It's like Sonakshi Sinha and Jay Leno on a date, which is weird, but somehow yet, manage to hit it off.
Thanks to Gorilla Glass 5 wrapped front and back, and classy metal end caps, and the gently curved sides, it doesn't make its presence felt in a bad way. Comfortable in the palm, without the nasty edges that earlier Xperia phones used to wear. Two finishes are available and we would like to refer to them as chrome and dark blue as opposed to the fancier versions in the brochure. Both are fingerprint magnets, but the chrome version is a definite contender for a woman's vanity mirror and would serve well if the lady in question kept a wipe handy. The quality of fit and finish is second to none and it feels and looks every bit, and more than its asking price.
As always, the fingerprint sensor is logically located where the thumb would naturally be and Sony has got this down to the tee, with fast unlock and even a double-tap shortcut straight to the camera. There is still a dedicated shutter button to let you know that Sony does take photography very seriously on its smartphones.
Once unlocked, moving around the menus and tasks is a doddle thanks to that blazing Snapdragon 835 processor. Except certain sub-menus in Settings that took unnecessarily long to open, but that shouldn't be a bother since you'd be accessing them infrequently at best. Building on the latest Android 7.1 Nougat, Sony has done well to keep its own skin minimally unobtrusive. There's also a very handy assistant that takes you through many of the phone’s features and battery-conserving Stamina modes and of that, there are many permutations so, it's best to sit through the presentation.
What's the fuss about the camera
Of course, you want to know about the camera. The 19MP Motion Eye sensor is all-new, which is said to perform better under lowlight and also reduce distortion while capturing fast-moving objects. It might be prudent to mention that if you want 16:9 aspect ratio pictures, you will have to manually drop down the resolution to 17MP from the menu. In either case, you still get the great manual control for the exposure, ISO, white balance, shutter speed and focus. Even in the Superior Auto mode, now you get a couple of basic controls to make quick changes on the fly and are filtered down to just two settings, brightness and colour.
For the amateur photographer, this is a great tool to make fine tweaks without going into the full-blown physics lecture. Out in the open, the pictures are crisp and full of detail, more than I've ever seen on a smartphone. But it's also still temperamental when it comes allowing you to select focus points and adjust exposure automatically. More often than not, I had to resort to the manual mode to get just the right dynamic range in the shot, without burning out the brighter areas. Doing this has other benefits too, though. Sony doesn't tout any 'portrait' or 'broken' mode, but uses the focus control wisely and you too can create a professional-looking shallow depth-of-field effect with almost any subject, provided the light and distance are right.
There are loads of other tricks you can try like AR effects, predictive capture, creative filters and sound photo. They all act as a bonus to what is already an accomplished snapper. The 960fps slow-motion mode works amazingly well too, in the right conditions. It's four times slower than the 240fps some other smartphones on the market do, so you have to relearn how to use it.
You activate the video mode as normal and upon selecting the slow-mo mode, you have to start recording at normal frame rate until the moment of action is about to happen, then you tap on the slo-mo button again. It then captures a clip that's only about an eighth of a second, but slows it down so much that you view it as a five second clip. You have to use it like you would use the shutter release button in photo mode, using it at the right time to capture the moment. Butterflies, water splashes, moving car rides and even houseflies take on a whole new meaning as you can virtually see their wings in motion, not just a flutter.
It certainly stumbles in lowlight situations and indoors, but when you do have the right outdoor conditions, it makes for a compelling tool to tell a story.
Colours on the display screen and on a large screen telly look fantastic, daytime or night and the low-light performance does see a bump compared to last year’s XZ. Highlights are preserved nicely and there's always copious amounts of detail if you really want to look closer. Sadly, there is no optical zoom here, but you do get 5-axis and SteadyShot optical image stabilisation for video and stills. Resolution, especially in 4K mode is staggering and you might soon want to forget Full HD, provided you have the storage on-board.
A big improvement on the XZ Premium is on the thermal management side. No longer does it fry your palms or pull the plug on you just when the Sea World seal leaps into the air to catch a bite of the bait. I recorded non-stop for more than 5 minutes in Full HD and 2 minutes in 4K without ever roasting the innards. A newly inserted graphite plate to dissipate heat and new locations for the chipset and the camera sensor are reasons for this welcome change.
The front camera has been given a bump too and it does a great job of bringing those selfies of pearlies to life with 13MP.
Sony has done everything in its power to give the XZ Premium a long spec sheet and it has succeeded. Things like Hybrid SIM tray, PlayStation integration are the more known features, but its memory stacked image sensor and IP68 water- and dust-proofing are the things you cannot see and both make for some daring pictures if you should venture into the unknown. Audiophiles can rejoice too, it supports files up to 192kHz/24-bit and packs in most of Sony's standalone music player software as standard. You also get a free ₹8,990 Sony XB20 Bluetooth speaker as part of the pre-book offer, sweetening the deal if you're sitting on the fence.
The battery may not be the largest in the segment, but at 3230mAh, it lasted for almost a day of full use, recording and shooting, playback and social media. A 45-minute charge should have you back on the road with QuickCharge 3.0.
The screen perfectly complements the resolution of the photos and videos with its HDR support and inherently high brightness because of this specification. Shooting your own 4K videos and playing them back on a compatible HDR television should only become addictive in my opinion. Try to linger on to a frame instead of panning the phone to truly soak in the detail captured by this camera.
It is truly stunning, but eventually a little bit ironic that you will have to wait until Netflix and Amazon start rolling out 4K HDR content on a more regular basis for you to view on this device. In any case, due to the increased resolution, every kind of content benefits in terms of sharpness and detail. The colours can be tweaked from a vivid to a more professional-looking presentation, and in my two days of use, I didn't notice any abnormal battery draining due to the 4K spec.
XPERIA XZ PREMIUM VERDICT
Now, the Sony may not be the the lightest or the most groundbreaking smartphone ever, but it has features that will please many and is definitely the best phone Sony has ever made. The camera is brilliant if you can wield all its powers, including the mind blowing 960fps slow-motion. Come to think of it, even professional SLRs from Sony don't give you this sort of technology.
Pack in a 5.5in 4K HDR screen that is well calibrated to be entertaining without looking artificial and a Snapdragon 835 chipset that never makes any app or action feel slow or laggy and you have a well rounded device. Strangely, even though the new Qualcomm chip supports QuickCharge 4.0, Sony has gone with a QuickCharge 3.0 charger in the box. But perhaps the most consistent drawback of past Sony smartphones, heat, has been completely eradicated and for this, the engineers should get the applause.
Packing in this much tech in a handheld device isn't easy and while the XZ Premium isn't the most space-compact of designs, it is a standout in terms of looks and performance.