If you're the leftist and want to save a ear while going about your average day, let me call your attention to an almost unheeded choice, Sony. Yes, the brand has had its tryst with the Xperia XA, Xperia Ultra and the Xperia X, but now it's time for the big daddy, the Sony Xperia XZ.
Ok, let's get something straight. This is a new Sony flagship phone not for any headlining specs, but because of its D-SLR chasing antics. Yes, when one of the world's biggest (well, erstwhile) consumer electronics brand starts the presentation of a new super smartphone with a slide of the optics, you know they aren't fooling around. So, off we go on the virtues of Sony's mastery of the sensory arts and by that, I don't mean that they have patented mind control, but that they are the biggest image sensor suppliers to even the professional camera brands. So, obviously, their engineers thought it would only befit the flagship smartphone to imitate some of those tasty recipes. And it's quite a dish to look at too!
Sony Xperia XZ Design: More of the same, but better
Available in three finishes with fancy names and even more obscure references, basically they are black, silver and a dark, matte, sinister hue of blue. My review sample for this test. It's beautifully crafted from subtly curved glass in the front and a solid-feeling metal back. Sony has adopted what it's calling the ‘Loop Surface’ design, and it refers to the rounded, continuous end plates at the top and bottom, making for what feels like the most comfortable phone to rest in your palm since you last used a cordless landline!
Sony has also eradicated the ugly plastic flaps and the palm-piercing-sharp corners of the previous Xperia flagships, making the XZ feel sufficiently premium and a contender for the top spot when it comes to aesthetics and design. The 5.2in screen may not be the plus size we are all getting used to but after a day of using it, it does feel like a better sweet spot. And, you might have zero face-palm moments while checking your emails in bed. It is also IP68 water-resistant but doesn't show it off by any special contraption. It's an incredibly clean, zen-like design that is a stark reminder of how great Sony can be when it's pushed against the wall.
Sony Xperia XZ Hardware: Subtle and effective
Here's the good news first - Sony hasn't gone scrambling after gigabytes of RAM and terabytes of storage. Instead, what you get is a hardware engine that is proven and effective - Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 64-Bit with 3GB RAM and 64GB of on-board storage. Sony isn't bothering to launch the single-SIM 32GB version in the Indian market, so what you get is the beefed up, dual-SIM 64GB version that also holds a MicroSD card slot in the same waterproofed tray.
Even the screen might seem like a downgrade to 1080p from its previous 4K-toting flagship device, but Sony claims for this screen size vis-a-vis battery life optimisation, this is ideal. I don't have any qualms with the resolution, but the enhanced saturation does throw you off when taking pictures, viewing them on the devices and transferring them to a laptop. Even in the X-reality screen mode, the reds and greens seem bumped up and almost like an OLED screen. But this is an IPS-LCD screen and as much as it would like, it can't hide the occasional burn on certain images. It is incredibly sharp and responsive though, and the subtly curved edges on the screen just make all the difference in usability. Outdoors, its brightness can keep up with the brightest of the Rajasthan suns, but don't expect it to win any accuracy contests.
Again, it's the camera that gets the most love with a triple-image sensing technology now. This includes an image sensor (duh), laser autofocus sensor and an RGB-IR sensor. They all culminate into a 23MP (4:3) image that could change your world (or not, but more about that later). Sony has even shoehorned its acclaimed SteadyShot image stabilisation technology into this system and it works on a 5-axis platform, making it the world's first smartphone to do so. It compensates for yaw, pitch, roll and maybe even your grandma's rattling dentures, I don't know for sure yet. 4K video recording is on offer as is a manual mode for the camera if you're adept with the relationship status of exposure and shutter speed. It's always "complicated".
Sony Xperia XZ: Fingerprint scanner
In a word - brilliant! Sony had the power button position cracked long before anyone else and it still feels like the most natural way of switching on a device. You pick it up and it just magically switches on. The fingerprint scanner, embedded under the metal power button is so quick, even the iPhone's Touch ID needs to blink twice to see it in action. Not once did I have to try it twice and it worked flawlessly every single time. There is a dedicated camera button as with most Sony high-end phones, but the fingerprint scanner is so fast, you could potentially get to the home screen and open the camera app faster. It's addictive and makes you want to pick up the phone just to feel that feeling again. Weird, but true.
Sony Xperia XZ: Audio for the well heeled
Almost as a footnote, the Sony officials mentioned that the XZ can also play Hi-Res Audio files and while this may not excite the inner Saavn-er in you, it is great news if you own a lot of FLAC or even higher quality 96/24 audio files. Sony has a bunch of headphones (wired and wireless/with Noise Cancellation) on sale in India that are compatible with Hi-Res Audio and if you do spend a lot of time commuting, you should give it a listen and bump up your listening experience. On the device itself, the stereo speakers do a reasonable job of making speech intelligible and is loud enough for most occasions. They're also supremely well integrated into the design of the phone and almost stealth-like.
Sony Xperia XZ: Camera quality
The 23MP rear and the 13MP front both sport some fantastic specs, but I'm always a sceptic when it comes to bloated megapixels. So, how does the XZ cut it against the Samsung Galaxy 7 and the iPhone 6S. It may boil down to personal preference eventually, but right off the bat, you get a sense that some image boosting sorcery is going on behind your back. In fact, the default mode is 8MP and only when you dig into the settings do you get the 20MP (16:9) and 23MP (4:3) options. For 4K video, there's no tap to focus and it's actually hidden away under a "more" tab on the camera app screen.
The Superior Auto mode which is the default setting allows for brightly lit shots even during poor lighting conditions and while they look great at first, zoom in and you realise it has bumped up the ISO so much that the image is good only for the phone screen. Shift to Manual mode and things improve a lot. Fine tuning between the exposure and the shutter speeds allows you to dial in just the right amount of mood you want for the picture and the F2.0 aperture does its best to obey.
The laser autofocus is quick during daylight but struggles no better than the competition when the going gets dark. This makes it feel slower than it should be for a camera with a triple sensing system and in real-life usage, doesn't come across faster in focusing than the best out there.
Ignore that bit and the camera churns out punchy colours and a high level of detail under the right conditions. Problem is when you start zooming in, images start to get fuzzy faster than a toddler on wine. I'm writing this based on the phone screen itself since it is the first review, but a follow up will provide more insight when I plug it to a 75in HD display back at the office.
The 13MP front facing cam is quite accomplished and with its wide angle, will easily fit in 6-7 mugs for a memorable selfie. I couldn't convince that many people to get close to me so I leave it open for judgement.
1080p video is spectacular and the 5-axis SteadyShot image stabilisation is no gimmick. It really works and takes away a lot of pain from watching amateur home videos. The tap-to-focus also works much better here than on stills, allowing you to jump from subject to background in a jiffy. The white balance is questionable, but Sony has given the option to tweak the RGB colour ranges manually, should you know what you're doing and have a strong preference. What you might also find a bit slow (at least I did) is the review time of the picture you've just taken. Between 2-3 seconds is the average time taken to open and review an image...p-a-i-n-f-u-l.
Since the XZ is water-resistant, it suffers from thermal issues too. On more than one occasion, my review sample refused to open the camera app due to overheating. Sony officials claim there is intensive processing required by the 5-axis SteadyShot software and the 23MP sensor and this is to protect the device. If you have the battery stamina mode engaged, it won't even let you take pictures the moment battery charge drops below 15%. So, it's best not to go crazy with the Danny Boyle-inspired Indian landscapes.
Sony Xperia XZ Battery: Quick and painless and smart
Having tied up with Qnovo, the battery charging task gets some intelligence. Sure, it comes with a USB-C fast-charger that gives you 5.5hours of talk time with just 10 minutes of charge, but the smarties come on at night. The adaptive learning software prevents the battery cells from depleting during an overnight charge cycle by stopping the charge at 90% and finishing the rest closer to your daily wake up and unplug time. Pretty nifty and only time will tell how much battery life is extended by this voodoo although Sony claims a 2x improvement over regular battery life.
Sony Xperia XZ verdict
There's no word on getting Android Nougat on the Xperia XZ anytime soon but even in its current form, it remains one of the fastest Android phones I have ever used, if not the fastest. It's buttery smooth all around with any app and the premium feel in the hand only accentuates the quality of Sony. The camera is a mixed bag of tricks and needs an experienced hand to get the best results. Don't expect to throw it in Auto mode and do all the things it promises to do and be patient while opening a just-clicked image. The screen seems way too saturated and my doubts remain on how the pictures that i've clicked eventually look on a bigger display. More on that in an update of this review soon, along with some video footage and compare shots with the iPhone 6S Plus.
In terms of specs, it's about as full-featured as most respectable Androids get these days, including NFC, VoLte, ViLte, 4G LTE, dual-SIM, 23MP/13MP cams and a blazing Snapdragon chipset.
For it's market price, the XZ is quite a bargain for a flagship device by the Japanese brand. It's a great alternative for those who hate iOS and are jaded by Samsung. Will it become your go-to choice for an Android device? I'm not sure if that will happen until Sony sorts out the niggles in the Xperia XZ, but until then, it's a capable smartphone that is best enjoyed with a pinch of salt.