Sony Xperia Z2 review: a big, powerful slab of a phone
It’s been nearly three years since I reviewed the Xperia Neo, manufactured by what was then Sony Ericsson. The Neo represented just the second generation of Xperia phones running on Android, from a period when Sony was finding its feet in the world of mobile and still chucking out plenty of duds (I’m looking at you, Tablet P). Fast-forward to today and things have changed dramatically under Kaz Hirai‘s stewardship. I’ll tell you this right now: The Z2 is an easy phone to recommend, at least for those living in countries where it’ll definitely be available (a list that includes the UK and Canada, but not yet the US). The only real caveat is the handset’s huge, monolithic construction (a far cry from puny, 126-gram Neo). As you’ll see, if you can get past its size, the Z2 addresses some of the most serious gripes we had with its predecessors, the Xperia Z and Z1, particularly with respect to its LCD display. In fact, in some respects, it’s far ahead of any other Android phone currently on the market.
Let’s deal with the size thing right away. It’s not merely a question of weight, because the Z2 is only 18 grams heavier than the Galaxy S5, which is about as light as phones in this category come nowadays. Sony has actually done an excellent job of keeping the Z2′s weight down: Somehow, magically, it’s a few grams lighter than the Z1, yet it packs a larger display and a waterproof/dustproof casing, with tough, heavy flaps around the slots and micro-USB port.
No, the problem here is with the weight distribution. The Z2 feels wider and taller than it needs to be, and its center of gravity just doesn’t feel very… centered. By contrast, the similarly heavy HTC One (M8) feels like its density is gathered around the spine of the device, so that it rests solidly in the hand. None of these handsets are especially conducive to one-handed use, but the Xperia Z2 is the worst of the bunch in this respect; I dropped it four times in the space of a week, which is a record even for me, and I found it unwieldy for reading in bed, too.
The other issue with the Z2′s design is its blockiness. Visually, I find this attractive — it’s part of Sony’s metal-and-glass design statement, which is further aided by the thinness (just 8.2mm, or one-third of an inch). In daily use, however, the absence of curvature and shaved-off corners can be annoying — even for someone who’s used to carrying something enormous like the Galaxy Note 3. Check out the video above and you’ll see a shot of our own Jamie Rigg putting the phone into his pocket. The ridges of all four corners of the phone are actually visible through the denim of his jeans. (Seriously, watch the video. I had to go through the awkwardness of filming a colleague’s crotch just to make it for you.)
Having said this, it’s worth remembering just how much technology is packed into the Z2: a 5.2-inch display, a big camera module, the extra ruggedness I’ve already mentioned, a microSD slot, a widely compatible LTE modem and all the other gubbins listed in the table below.
|Sony Xperia Z2|
|Dimensions||146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2mm|
|Screen size||5.2 inches|
|Screen resolution||1,920 x 1,080|
|Screen type||Triluminos LCD with 16.7 million colors|
|Battery||3,200mAh Li-ion (non-removable)|
|Ruggedness||IP55 and IP58 waterproof and dustproof|
|Internal storage||16GB (12GB free)|
|Rear camera||20.7MP (1/2.3-inch sensor, f/2.0 lens with 27mm equiv. focal length)|
|Front-facing cam||2MP stills, 1080p video|
|Video capture||1080p, 4K|
HSPA+ (850/900/1700/1900/2100); GSM GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20)
|Bluetooth||v4.0, aptX, A2DP|
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 (MSM8974AB)|
|CPU||2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400|
|Entertainment||MHL, USB OTG, WiFi Direct, DLNA, Miracast, FM radio|
|Operating system||Android 4.4.2 (Sony-specific UI)|
Something not mentioned in the table: The Z2 apparently has active noise-canceling, to reduce background hubbub when you’re talking to someone through a headset. This only works with specific Sony headsets, and our review sample didn’t come with one, so I didn’t test the feature. Nevertheless, you may see some retailers bundling a pair of compatible earphones (the MDR-NC31EM). And they’re worth a look, too, if only because they’re worth £30 ($50) as a standalone purchase.
More usefully, Sony has also made room for stereo speakers. These are still a bit tinny compared to HTC’s BoomSound, but they’re infinitely better than the single speaker on the Z1. The old model’s speaker was easily blocked by the palm of your hand when the device was held in landscape mode, but now, the speakers are forward-facing and very hard to block — a big tick for Sony.
If any of the above paragraphs left you glum, it’s OK — things mostly get more positive from here on out, and this section is perhaps the most glowing of the lot. The dodgy display that prevented me from wholeheartedly recommending the Z1 has been replaced by something infinitely better: an entirely new, enlarged 1080p panel that has much better brightness, contrast and viewing angles. The difference is obvious and totally welcome, but as a result the Z2′s “Triluminos” display is also a bit less Sony-ish.
This is a manufacturer that has historically trodden its own path with respect to displays, to the point where Sony TVs and, to some extent, Sony phones, have forsaken deep black levels and vivid colors preferred by the likes of Samsung in favor of more detail and more natural color reproduction. With the Z2, however, it looks like Sony has seen a commercial need to deliver something more akin to its rivals and more familiar to potential buyers. I know a couple of people (just one, actually) who really liked the Z1′s display and who might be annoyed by this change of heart, but to my eyes it’s all good. We’re now looking at a display that is at least on a par with other top-end LCD panels.
A couple of notes about setting up the display: Colors tend to be a bit warm, but you can adjust white balance and add a touch of blue in the settings — a tweak that I tried and then decided to keep. I also permanently disabled Sony’s “X-Reality for mobile” engine, because this post-processing effect has gone too far: It makes things look unnaturally saturated, and it also makes 1080p movies look pixelated due to over-zealous edge sharpening.
When you first boot up the phone, you’ll be confronted by Sony’s typical array of media and social feed widgets, which I reckon many users will remove as they begin to personalize the device. By the time you’re done tailoring (perhaps by switching out the stock keyboard for something better, and losing the swirly PlayStation-style animated wallpaper), Sony’s skin and various additions shouldn’t get in your way.
Nevertheless, the manufacturer does leave some residue on your Android experience, and it has to be said that this lingering aesthetic feels dated. Whereas HTC and even Samsung have recently tarted up their skins, and Apple has made the stark shift to iOS 7, Sony’s icons, fonts and layouts feel like they’re stuck in 2012.
Accessing settings is also a bit old-fashioned: You have to open the notifications pulldown, select “quick settings” and then make do with basic toggles, which means most settings (like brightness or selecting a WiFi network) then take a couple more taps before you actually make the desired change. Stock Android, HTC Sense and TouchWiz all handle these mundane things with fewer presses.
One bit of software that’s unnecessarily obnoxious is called “What’s New,” which promotes recent (and mostly paid-for) content from Sony’s music, video and gaming empire. It might be of occasional interest in its app form, but it’s an unnecessary widget and — more seriously — it’s an encumbrance to those who make regular use of Google Now. Instead of just swiping up from the onscreen home button to get into Google’s special card-based interface, which was all that was required on the Z1, you now have to sweep up and to the right, so as to avoid accidentally launching “What’s New” instead.
Having said all this, if you’re a Sony fan, it could be nice to have Sony’s ecosystem readily at hand on the Z2. This is especially true if you already have a Music Unlimited or Video Unlimited subscription, or if you want to play a few Android games using your PS3 controller, or quickly mirror your phone on your Sony smart TV using NFC. The PlayStation Mobile store, however, is still lackluster and short on compelling games.
The Xperia Z2′s 20-megapixel camera is carried over from the Z1, and that’s a good thing. You can check out our Z1 review for an in-depth look at picture quality, including comparisons to the current king of mobile imaging, the Lumia 1020. Suffice to say, this is still the closest you can get to the image quality of a traditional point-and-shoot on a standard-shaped Android phone (i.e., not a Galaxy “Zoom” phone). That means you’ll be able to capture decent snaps even if you decide to leave the house without a dedicated camera.
The Z2′s meaty images don’t result solely from the high resolution, but also from the size of the sensor: at 1/2.3 inches, the chip can suck in significantly more light than any of its Android rivals. Coupled with large JPEG sizes of up to 9MB (albeit, unfortunately, with no RAW option), this yields photographs with less noise and less of the flat “digital” feel that you’d normally expect from a phone camera.
With this sort of optical strength, the camera app almost doesn’t need its plethora of effects and gimmicks, but it supplies them anyway. This extends to the now-obligatory “background defocus” effect, which is a hollow imitation of what the HTC One M8 can do with its depth sensor.
On the whole, I wish Sony had concentrated more on making its camera app more flexible and more suitable to manual photography, the way Nokia has done in recent years. There’s no easy way to control ISO or shutter speed in order to get creative using the stock app; the only quick adjustments that can be made are white balance and exposure compensation. It could have also helped us out with better post-production tools, as the one supplied is extremely basic. As things stand, we’ll just have to go elsewhere for our photography tools.
To some extent, Sony’s unnecessary gimmicks also stretch to video recording, since we now have a 4K recording option that only a few people with 4K displays might be able to appreciate. (If you’re reading this on a 4K display, make sure you choose the full-res setting on the YouTube video above and, unlike the rest of us, you’ll be able to see what these clips really look like).
The good news with 4K is that Sony hasn’t crushed the frame rate as much as I feared, so the footage isn’t ruined by compression artifacts. The camera stores about 450MB of data for each minute of 3,840 x 2,160 footage, which equates to 7.5 MB/s — that’s nearly four times higher than the data rate of video recording on the Z1, befitting the quadrupling of the resolution. This is a roundabout way of saying that 4K clips from the Z2 should at least look similar to the 1080p clips we’re already used to, with the bonus of higher resolution if and when it’s needed.
Unfortunately, my sample footage was let down by the Z2′s microphone, which couldn’t really handle a windy day by the river, as well as by its lack of optical image stabilization (there’s only digital stabilization on offer here) and the fact that it’s almost impossible to keep your left index finger away from the lens. If you intend to use the Z2 for serious videography, consider investing in a decent mount, along with Sony’s new stereo microphone accessory, the STM10 (£30/$50).
Battery life and performance
|Sony Xperia Z2||Xperia Z1||HTC One (M8)|
|SunSpider 1.0 (Chrome browser)||935||762||772|
|GFX Bench T-Rex Offscreen (fps)||27.2||23||28.2|
|GFX Bench Manhattan Offscreen (fps)||11.8||N/A||11.1|
Minion Rush median frame rate*
|Minion Rush battery drain (% per hour)*||22||24||22|
|Battery rundown test||13.5||12.5||11.5|
|*Measured using GameBench Beta.|
Our usual battery of benchmarks largely confirmed my expectations: The Z2 benefits hugely from its upgraded processor, the Snapdragon 801. There are a couple of freak numbers in the table — especially the poor Quadrant and SunSpider scores. However, a number of the other disparities between the Z2 and the HTC One M8 could potentially be explained by the fact that the M8 has been programmed to run benchmarks in a so-called High Performance Mode — so it could simply be that Sony doesn’t mess with clock speeds to the extent that its rival does. On the whole, the performance scores are strong, with gaming benchmarks being broadly on par with the M8.
Moreover, due to the inclusion of a larger 3,200mAh battery, the stamina has increased greatly and is now probably the best of the recent batch of flagships. I say “probably” because these things depend largely on how often it’s under load and how much use you make of the various battery-saving features. From our experience with the Z2, it has great longevity when it’s mostly in standby, but it gets hot and can occasionally be inefficient when asked to handle more taxing activities. This led to a couple of instances where the battery depleted faster than I expected, but on the whole, I never had less than a third of the battery left by late evening. Our standard looped video corroborates (and perhaps slightly exaggerates) this advantage: The phone lasted a full 13 hours and 30 minutes — three and half hours longer than the Galaxy S5.
LTE and HSPA+ performance was solid, with connection strength and data speeds being consistent with other phones we’ve tested on O2′s network in London. The phone didn’t drop its data connection even when, during a couple of instances, the reception indicator showed zero bars. With a couple of bars of signal strength, I got up and down speeds of around 7 Mbps, which is what I expected. Call quality and reliability held no nasty surprises either. I tried calls with and without background-noise suppression and “speaker voice enhancement,” and neither I nor the other party noticed much difference, but in all cases, the audio quality was good.
I’ve had a bit of a roller coaster ride with the Xperia Z2, but I can at least summarize it all with one last trough, and one crest.
The downer is that, personally, I wouldn’t buy this phone. If I wanted the Z2′s camera, coupled with its high-quality display and fast processor, I’d wait to buy it in a smaller version of the handset — which hasn’t been confirmed yet, but must surely be on the horizon given the level of interest in the Z1 Compact. If I wanted a phablet, I’d get a Galaxy Note 3 or hold out for a Note 4. And if I wanted a big, premium non-phablet, I’d probably go for the HTC One M8 — it has a more enticing, more comfortable design, along with a nicer UI and better stock apps (especially in the camera department).
More objectively, though, I can see what Sony was trying to create with the Z2, and it has arguably succeeded in the areas that matter most. There’ll be people out there who appreciate its gorgeous display, solid battery life and granite-like charm, and these attributes are inextricably linked to the phone’s size. If you think that might be you, go ahead. This is a safe purchase, the best Sony phone that has ever been, and definitely among the top three Android phones currently on the market.