Sony Xperia Z2 review

You’d be hard-pressed to find a company more deserving of success in the mobile space than Sony.

The company’s early Android phones were, to put it mildly, disappointing. Who can forget the Timescape/Mediascape controversy, and how, for so many years, the company always seemed to be a step or two behind its competitors in both hardware and software.

Fast forward to the Xperia Z. In January 2013, the high-resolution waterproof device launched to acclaim and broader adoption than any of its previous lines, and set a precedent for what has since become the stylistic baseline of its entire mobile ecosystem, from $150 entries to flagships.

A year and a half later, the Xperia Z2 is honing in on the ideal marriage of display, imaging, speed and software, and is by far the company’s best smartphone to date. But in an industry saturated with “best smartphones” from their respective OEMs, does the Z2 have enough going for it to set it apart?

Specs

  • Android 4.4.2
  • 5.2-inch 1920×1080 pixel IPS display
  • 2.3Ghz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor
  • 3GB RAM / 16GB internal storage (microSD slot)
  • 20.7 1/2.3″ Exmor RS sensor, F2.0 G Lens
  • 4K video recording
  • 3,200mAh battery
  • LTE 700/AWS/2600
  • 146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2 mm
  • 163 grams
  • IP58 waterproof/dust resistant
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Design & Display

If you’re not a fan of the large, boxy smartphones the Xperia Z2 is not going to change your mind. It’s imposing, in either of the black, white or purple variants, but Sony has done a decent job narrowing the bezels around the 5.2-inch screen, lessening the feeling of wasted space that was present on its predecessor, the Z1. It is, however, still slightly too big for my liking.

The combination of glass and metal has always been a Sony advantage, and the Z2 feels just as nice as the other products in the Z line. It’s also rated IP58 waterproof and dust resistant with the appropriate flaps closed, but Sony has lowered the number of tabs to two, down from three on the Z1.

Impressively, the bigger 5.2-inch screen does not translate to a bigger phone. While it is marginally taller, Sony’s biggest triumph with the Z2 is that it has upped the screen dimensions and quality without bloating the phone itself; the IPS panel used here is only the company’s second after the Z1 Compact, but it makes an enormous difference. I noted that maximum brightness is slightly lower than the 5-inch Z1, but otherwise viewing angles and colour reproduction are dramatically improved.

Still, the display quality is not quite up to snuff with competitors like HTC, Samsung and LG, but it’s a much closer race. The viewing angle run-off is severe after a certain point, and despite improved colour reproduction from the Triluminos technology, which “uses LEDs, which emit purer reds and greens,” it is outclassed by the Galaxy S5, One M8 and LG G2. Responsiveness is good, as is sunlight viewability — Sony has employed the Snapdragon 801’s double-tap to turn on, too — but the company needs to up its game next time around.

In terms of hand feel, the Z2 is still angular, and doesn’t comport itself particularly well in one-handed tests. The slippery glass back and slick metal sides may look lovely (when wiped with a cloth) but significantly lessen overall usability. Say what you will about Samsung’s egregious overuse of plastic, but I rarely worry about the Galaxy S5 slipping out of my hand and cracking on the sidewalk. With the Z2, its frailness was a constant concern.

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The irony is that the Z2, barring a fall onto concrete, is likely more durable in more situations than the Galaxy S5. It is rated IP58, making it dust resistant and waterproof, something that few devices in this category can boast. Indeed, the Galaxy S5 is water resistant, but the Z2 takes its ingress protection to another level. Capable of being immersed in water for several hours up to three metres, the Xperia Z2 is unlikely to come into contact with a substance or liquid that can do much damage.

I have to admit, the most I ever expose my phones to water is when it rains, and none have ignominiously died from a few drops from the sky. Even the idea of taking photos while swimming isn’t a check box I’ve ever wanted ticked, but many others will likely find it useful. It does, however, add a modicum of inconvenience, by covering the charging ports, to daily use, so there’s a bit of a trade-off.

I had a great time using the Xperia Z2: its screen is SO MUCH BETTER than its predecessor’s, and there are numerous usability tweaks to improve the hardware experience. Compared to the Z1, the sides aren’t quite as squared-off, there’s a distinct improvement to weight distribution that makes the device feel less dense and more ergonomic. These aren’t big changes, but the evolution is commendable.

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Software & Performance

There is a clarity to Sony’s Android overlay that I’ve always enjoyed. The design sensibility is much closer to HTC’s than Sony’s, in a good way, and in recent versions there seems to be an emphasis on first-party app UX consistency.

Basic productivity apps like the dialler and messenger don’t stray too far from their stock Android counterparts, but Sony really takes its time with the multimedia stuff: Album, Walkman and Movies are wondrous, living things, each with local and online capabilities that move far beyond anything else bundled by an Android OEM. Indeed, Sony has always delivered great music and video software, but paired with hardware that stands up to the task I found myself enveloped in warm sound and lush colours.

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Specifically, X-Reality for mobile still plugs away in the background to make colours pop — think of it as a sound equalizer for video — but in this version we also have a more powerful audio amplifier and a new set of distortion-minimizing algorithms called ClearAudio+. Coupled with front-facing stereo speakers for times when headphones aren’t necessary, you have a pretty fantastic little entertainment suite.

I found the audio output from the headphones to be on par in clarity and quality to the iPhone 5s and HTC One M8, while the stereo speakers excelled against the former and paled against the latter. The M8 boasts both louder and richer sound than the Z2, but the improvements over Sony’s previous smartphones are dramatic. Improvement to video quality is even more distinct, and Sony throws in six movies, including Captain Phillips and Total Recall (the new, bad one) for your perusal.

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Sony’s software design must be praised, too. HTC makes apps that look good, but Sony’s look good and work really well. The only issue, of course, is that you’re going through Sony’s content networks to stream music, download movies and backup photos, and unless you’re already invested in the ecosystem you’re likely to take the six movies and 30 days of Music Unlimited and run straight to Rdio or Google Play. If there’s one company that can challenge the incumbents like Google and Apple in the content game, it’s Sony, but the OEM is required to bundle Google’s own services alongside its own, potentially confusing the user base.

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Then, of course, Bell’s own bloatware is pre-installed for good measure. Unlike on the HTC One M8, these half-baked apps cannot be removed, only disabled. Bell still insists on pushing its TeleNav-powered Navigator app, though instead of a preload it’s just a stub; and Self Serve, the app that tells you how many minutes, messages and megabytes you’ve used, still looks like it’s from 2010.

On the other hand, Bell TV is a great little app, and most two-year plans come with 10 hours of basic mobile viewing. It’s worth perusing just to revisit the idea of “mobile television” in a world of 5.2-inch smartphone screens and excellent stereo speakers, because when Bell began promoting the product phones were half the size and much lower-resolution.

Finally, Bell pre-installed a stub to an app called My Wallet, which we haven’t heard much about, but it’s ostensibly a competitor to Rogers’s suretap mobile wallet that launched early last month. At last, mobile wallets have a home in the trustworthy arms of our national telcos.

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Sony’s contributions to the Android experience don’t end with well-designed multimedia apps. The company has slowly been tweaking the basic Android experience with thoughtful widgets and Small Apps, a series of windowed apps that collapse into movable icons. While little more than windowed versions of existing apps — Chrome, Gmail and Calendar are available alongside Sony’s own Calculator, Timer and Screen Capture tools — they work out to be more useful than you’d initially think.

Then there is Xperia Lounge which, alongside separate app What’s New, bombard you with free premium content, offers, music and video previews, and more. This is a slick marketing machine at its best, proving that Sony is primed to offer premium content in addition to great hardware and software. It’s not a stretch to say that, substantively, the hardware and software features on the Z2 make it, on paper, one of the best Android devices on the market. But Sony is floundering, and it’s because their phones just don’t look or feel as modern as their Samsung, HTC or LG counterparts.

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In terms of performance, the Xperia Z2 has plenty of it and room to spare. The 2.3Ghz Snapdragon 801 processor is specifically the 8974AB variant, which puts it even with the One M8 and 200Mhz slower than the Galaxy S5. Subjectively, I noticed no substantive difference in performance between the three devices, which is a result of most Android apps not taking advantage of the ample processing power.

Three performance improvements were immediately apparent over the Snapdragon 800-powered Z1: the device boots around 25% faster; the camera opens around 40% faster; and the bits and pieces of slowdown that haunted previous Xperia devices is absent here.

Android 4.4 isn’t a huge update over its predecessor, but the fact that apps can expand to use the full screen is a nice touch. The device is still hampered by only having 11.5GB of internal space available for apps, but the microSD slot is good for external content, even if apps can no longer take advantage of it.

Down the road, the extra gigabyte of memory inside the Xperia Z2 may prolong its life somewhat, but right now it feels superfluous. Where it does help, as we’ll see in the next section, is with camera performance.

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Camera

The Xperia Z2 sports the same camera array as its predecessor, and but for the ability to shoot 4K video you’d be hard-pressed to tell the two experiences apart.

Dig a bit deeper and you’ll notice that the much-faster image signal processors inside the Snapdragon 801 SoC result in faster focusing, more accurate colours, and better overall photos. The 20.7MP shooter sports a fairly large 1/2.3″ sensor and a fast F2.0 G lens, resulting in great photo potential.

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But Sony devices have always had great camera potential; they often failed, though, in the execution. Here, things aren’t quite as dire, but the Xperia Z2 is still not a perfect replacement for a point-and-shoot. By default, the camera shoots 8MP widescreen shots in a mode called Superior Auto, which gauges a number of external factors like lighting and subject distance to determine how best to shoot. Most of the time, the Z2 takes a decent photo in this mode, but occasionally struggles with dynamic range — a bright sky against a darker foreground object, for example — and results in washed-out or underexposed shots.

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The device should be capable of taking far better photos than the iPhone 5s, which has a much smaller sensor, but jumping to that conclusion misses a major disadvantage of the Xperia Z2’s sensor: its individual pixels are quite a bit smaller than the iPhone’s. The Xperia Z2 has 1/2.3-inch sensor with 20.7 million pixels, each of which is 1.1 microns in size; the iPhone 5s has a 1/3-inch sensor with 8 million pixels, each of which is 1.3 microns in size. This means that iPhone will capture less detail but more light, and coupled with a very intelligent ISP inside the A7 SoC, superior low-light and colour reproduction. For comparison’s sake, the HTC One M8 has a 1/3-inch sensor with 4 million pixels, each of which is 2 micros in size.

On the other hand, Sony employs a process called oversampling in low-light situations to offset the smaller pixel size. It takes the information from a number of pixels and essentially combines them, facilitating smaller photos with better exposure.

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The compromise between pixel count and pixel size has always been an important one in mobile, but here Sony is actually at a disadvantage. The company would likely be better served by a 13MP sensor of the same 1/2.3″ size with larger individual pixels.

With a bit of tweaking, and switching to Manual Mode, which defaults to full 20.7MP at a 4:3 aspect ratio, the Xperia Z2 takes some wonderful, detailed shots. I often needed to bump up colour saturation and exposure one or two notches, but the resulting photos were rich and vibrant. On the other hand, Sony doesn’t allow users to tweak shutter speed, so the prospect of a truly “manual” mode is still out of reach.

Indoor shots tend to be usable but grainy, and the flash is not up to par with the dual-toned iPhone 5s or HTC One M8 and tends to blow out skin tones. The flash generally isn’t necessary, though, because the oversampling algorithm will ramp up exposure without increasing sensitivity too much.

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The Xperia Z2 comes with many, many ways to tweak, morph and improve your photos. Sony’s Background Defocus app, which has become a standard feature on most devices these days, works quite well, and is the only one to incorporate a slider for more granular editing.

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A few of the other modes, like Creative Effect and AR Effect, are cutesy and gimmicky, allowing for live augmented reality themes (dinosaurs! fairies!) or old-timey filters.

On the video side, though, Sony is taking things more seriously. As mentioned, the phone can capture 4K video, which takes up a lot of space and isn’t very useful, but I found the quality and frame rate to be slightly better than the Galaxy S5’s 16MP shooter. Timeshift Video combines 720p video filmed at 120fps with a slow-motion video editor, similar to the iPhone 5s, and I must say it works very well.

In all, the Xperia Z2 isn’t a huge upgrade from its predecessor, and there were still times I wished it had fewer, larger pixels, but it competes well with many of the top Android devices out there, and is more versatile than the iPhone 5s’s 8MP shooter, even if the latter usually takes better stills. The phone’s boxy, slippery chassis doesn’t lend itself easily to quick, one-handed photographs, but as with most Sony devices, the hardware shutter button alleviates many of those complaints.

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Battery Life & Connectivity

Being a Bell exclusive (for now), I was only able to test the Xperia Z2 on a single network, but the handset performed extremely well, both as a phone and data device.

The Z2 supports an outstanding number of LTE bands, including 700/AWS/2600, which encompasses every Canadian network possibility. The device lacks the software to tell me which band it is connected to, but I was consistently able to reach speeds of 40Mbps down and 10Mbps up on Bell’s network.

Call quality was good but not great, with voices seeming further away and more sibilant than its competitors. Volume, however, was near the top of the pack, both from the headpiece and the front-facing stereo speakers.

I was also very impressed with the Xperia’s battery life, which came in slightly ahead of the One M8 and Galaxy S5. The non-removable 3,200mAh cell should last most users an entire day, and it’s easy to be bullish on the device,especially if you’re comparing devices based on total cell capacity (the M8 has a 2,600mAh cell and the GS5 has a 2,800mAh cell).

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Final Thoughts

The confluence of Snapdragon 801 and Android 4.4 has been good for OEMs in general, but none have benefited so much as Sony. The Xperia Z2 is a superb piece of hardware, held back somewhat by its boxy chassis, low internal storage and inconsistent camera.

It’s easily Sony’s best smartphone to date, and the combination of an excellent screen, decent speakers, unobtrusive software, good app design and premium content makes it a compelling option, despite its carrier exclusivity. The sad part is that it will likely go relatively unnoticed next to the Galaxy S5.

At $179.95 on a 2-year term and $699.95 outright, it’s cheaper and more versatile than almost any other smartphone out there, and with Sony’s decent track record of keeping devices up to date, should stay that way for a while to come.