REVIEW: Sony Xperia Z2

Sony hopes to provide the public with an alternative to Samsung and Apple smartphones with its flagship Xperia Z2. Does the device provide a user with a “jack of all trades” smartphone, or is it just another iteration?

Bandwidth Blog’s Theunis Jansen van Rensburg takes us through the good and the bad of Sony’s latest smartphone offering.

The Sony Xperia Z1 launched only about nine months after the original Xperia Z and a little more than six months later we have this – the Sony Xperia Z2. Some critics of Sony are saying that bringing new versions so regularly will alienate customers who have just bought the top-of-the-line Sony, but six months down the road it will be obsolete.

While we do get what they are saying, we have to disagree. You’ll notice that not much is changing from one version to the next. In fact, all Sony is doing is addressing some of the problems from each iteration. So why should we be excited about a new Sony that is about to hit the market?

Before we give you the answer to this question, check out some of the key features of this device:

  • Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE support; 3G with 42Mbps HSPA; 150Mbps LTE
  • 5.2″ 16M-color 1080p IPS capacitive touchscreen Triluminos display
  • Android OS v4.4.2 KitKat with custom UI
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset: Quad-core 2.3GHz Krait 400 CPU, 3 GB of RAM, Adreno 330 GPU
  • 20.7MP autofocus camera with a 1/2.3″ Exmor RS sensor and F/2.0 Sony G Lens
  • 2.2MP front camera, 1080p video recording
  • IP 58 certification – dust- and waterproof
  • 16GB of built-in storage; microSD card slot up to 128GB
  • NFC
  • 3,200mAh battery

The Xperia Z2 is another iterative upgrade, but how much of an upgrade is it? This time Sony is focusing on improved display and sound quality, while addressing the handful of build issues that affected the Z1. Sony hopes this is a true rival to current flagships from HTC, Samsung and even Apple.

Design and Build

It took Sony about a year of deliberating over the design of their new “omnibalance” design philosophy which they debuted with the Xperia Z. All that time and effort is now starting to pay dividends with even more refinement of an understated, yet classy design. Granted, the Xperia Z2 looks almost identical to its predecessors from a distance, but up close the improvements in build quality are easy to see.

Its front and back are flat layers of glass, the core of the phone is aluminium and the three parts are joined with thin parts of plastic. We still have all the flaps and covers you can expect from a phone that has such high durability ratings – IP58 means that it is water- and dustproof. Notice that this is different than the IP67 rating you find on theGalaxy S5, which is only water and dust resistant (an important difference).

The glass panels are extremely strong and rigid, but they are a fingerprint and dust magnet. I was constantly wiping the Sony Xperia Z2 to clear the smudges off the screen, but within minutes I would have to do it again. While this is a minor issue, some may find it a major frustration.

On a much more positive note, the body is even more robust than on its predecessors (including theXperia Z1 Compact) and doesn’t scratch and scuff easily.

Handling the Xperia Z2 is a pleasure – it is big and the flat sides don’t have the best grip, but the feel of glass on the hand combined with this kind of heft can’t be found with anything else on market. We have to mention, though, it might be a bit of a stretch for people with small hands to try using it with one hand. Because of the slightly larger display (even though bezel size has been reduced) it is slightly larger than the Xperia Z1, which was no dwarf.

Other parts of the hardware have been intelligently designed to make such a large brute usable, too. Button placement on the right side of the phone is perfect – if you’re right-handed, admittedly.

One of the larger changes of the Xperia Z2’s design when compared to its older brother is the speaker grills. No longer do you have one speaker grill at the bottom, but now two front-firing ones at the top and bottom of the panel. Sure, Sony has used some design-cues out of HTC’s book, but it makes a huge difference. The speakers aren’t as loud as the Boomsound speakers on the HTC One, but they are definitely a close second. Nothing else really comes close – it actually makes watching videos much more enjoyable on this 5.2-inch screen.

The Sony Xperia Z2 doesn’t do anything outlandish in terms of style, but it is a well built, waterproof, premium-feeling device which certainly trumps the design of theGalaxy S5. In terms of overall quality of design and durability, it is probably the best smartphone out there, but for something seriously stylish you’re probably better off with the iPhone 5S or HTC One.

Screen

The Sony Xperia Z2 comes with a 5.2″ 1080p Triluminos IPS display, backed up by the company’s X-Reality engine. We were very anxious when we first switch on the device, because the screen was probably the most disappointing part of theXperia Z1. The pixel density on this screen hits 424 ppi, slightly down from theXperia Z1 because of larger screen size. No matter how closely you look, you won’t be able to tell pixels apart and images will always look tack sharp.

The biggest change when we compare this panel to the one on the predecessor is the fact that the LCD display on theXperia Z1 has been replace with IPS LCD technology. The lack of IPS on the original Z and Z1 meant the screens looked washed out, and their viewing angles were far from inspiring. In fact, I may have even said that “of any high-end phone currently available that you can name, the Xperia Z1 will have the worst viewing angles by far.”

The issue was luckily sorted out when they released theXperia Z1 Compact, and we are extremely happy to report that is has been rectified on the flagship as well. The inclusion of IPS on the Xperia Z2 makes this one of the best smartphone screens around, and with Sony’s Live Colour LED technology colours pop on the screen.

Of course, it won’t pop as much as on an AMOLED display (read Galaxy S5), but the trade-off is that colours appear much more natural and “true-to-life.”

The Sony Xperia Z2 has an excellent screen, as do the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S5. Whichever you choose, you won’t be disappointed here.

User Interface

The Sony Xperia Z2 is the company’s first smartphone to come with Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box. It doesn’t feel all that much different to standard Android, as its approach has a lighter touch than either HTC’s Sense or Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. As we’ve said before, we’re big fans of this approach and Sony are starting to do a great job of optimising this understated software experience without adding too much bloat or unneeded ‘features’.

Having said that, they do add their own touches and nuances throughout the entire operating system environment. Their icons and overall look, for example, isn’t completely dissimilar to stock Android, but have some sharper edges and simpler lines.

The Xperia Z2 doesn’t have a live-in home screen news feed like the BlinkFeed screen of the One M8 or the My Magazine feature of the Galaxy S5, but that’s because the interface is out to push Sony’s media services more than anything else.

The device lets you add or remove homescreen panes (you start with five) and set any of them as default. You can’t have more than seven panes at any given time though, nor can you change their order, which is something we really liked about LG’s additions to the software.

The quick toggles on the notification tray has been removed, but fear not – their solution works much better than on LG’s and Samsung’s skins. You can gain quick access to the Quick Settings tab with a two-finger swipe from the top. The toggles are customisable and you can choose between at least 20 different toggles. You can even have up to 12 of them visible in their dedicated page.

Nothing has really changed with the app drawer, the biggest difference to stock Android still being that the settings are on the far left most part of the tray. It is probably the biggest shift from what Google deliver in stock Android, but it only takes 5 seconds to get used to and you can also search and even uninstall apps from there.

The so-called “small apps” are also available in the Xperia Z2 and are accessible via the task manager. They are similar to Samsung’s Mini Apps. We don’t feel the need to talk about them in any length (we’ve done it in our recent Sony reviews), because they are still just as cumbersome and useless as on any other device.

Sony have ramped up Google Now integration and it can access your daily routine, internet searches, email, etc. and give you information relevant to your interests and daily needs.

While this is more an improvement of Google Now, Sony still had to tweak some of its own apps to work in accordance with Google’s usage terms. It’s actually quite handy to use your phone’s calendar in conjunction with Google’s (you’ll see there are two Calendar apps in the screenshot below) for different purposes and both appear in Google Now.

It’s worth noting that once you factor in Sony’s apps and a few of your own, the 16GB of storage leaves you with about 8GB left to play with, meaning little space for movies and photos. The problem is nowhere near as pronounced as on the Galaxy S5, though.

On the whole, you’re looking at a software experience fairly close to vanilla Android, but stylized in a way that matches the rest of Sony’s ecosystem. It may not look as futuristic as HTC One Sense, but it’s fast, functional and attractive. The app additions are also more optimised than on the competition’s offerings – full of features without being overbearing.

Performance and Battery Life

On the inside, the Xperia Z2′s specs closely match the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8. There’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU clocked at 2.3GHz, a whopping 3GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. As we’d expect from a Snapdragon 801 phone, the Z2 delivers consistently fantastic performance. Never did we see a stutter or lag in our two week review period.

The big questions Sony fans will have here is if the performance boost is worth upgrading. Well, if you are coming from an Xperia Z, then definitely. If you are currently using the Xperia Z1, though, you can probably hold out for the Xperia Z3 (still no word on it, though).

The Xperia Z2 is powered by a 3,200mAh Li-Ion battery – sealed under the sheet of glass, it’s not user-replaceable as usual. It is slightly larger than the one on its predecessor. Even with heavy LTE usage, it is really difficult to deplete the battery in under a day. Sony’s excellent power saving software can easily push usage to a couple of days, as well.

On our heavy stress test, we would have a day’s heavy use on WiFi, HSPA and LTE. We managed to get 16 hours out of the Xperia Z2, with four hours of screen-on time, and still have around a third of a charge remaining. We did that with usage patterns consisting of browsing and social app use over WiFi and LTE, music streaming, and taking photos regularly.

Camera

 

The Xperia Z2 sports a 20.7-megapixel 1/2.3-inch Sony Exmor RS sensor behind a Sony G lens. It is actually the same camera module from both the Xperia Z1 and Xperia Z1 Compact. You will notice a difference in the imaging quality, however. That is mostly to do with software changes and implementation thereof.

Actually, the camera experience is similar to that of other Sony phones using this module. You can shoot at the full 20.7 megapixels if you want, but most of the time you’ll be taking pics at 8 megapixels.

The Sony Xperia Z2 has one of the most feature-packed camera apps we’ve seen. There’s a lot to get used to, but it’s not overbearing or confusing. Most people will just be using the Superior Auto mode, anyway. Sometimes the camera app can be quite slow (although not as slow as on theLG G2 or Galaxy S5), but this mostly happens when you open the camera from the lock screen.

In daylight, the camera is more than acceptable, but it won’t blow your mind. Colours can be a little dull sometimes, even under saturated. The autofocus was also a bit disappointing, especially considering Sony’s camera credentials. It serves as another reminder that the megapixel battle doesn’t matter in the slightest. Samsung’s camera on theGalaxy S5 certainly has the upper hand in daylight. In low light conditions, however, things are a bit different.

When dealing with poor lighting, the Xperia Z2 is very good– much better than on the Galaxy S5. Both the former fall flat on their face when you compare it to the LG G2’s low light performance, though.

There’s plenty going on in the camera app of the Sony Xperia Z2, and coupled with Sony’s capable sensor on the rear it’s more capable than the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 in this department.

Conclusion

Picking between this year’s top Android phones is pretty difficult. The Xperia Z2 has all the core components of a flagship smartphone, but the overall package is just as inspired as we wanted it to be. This year, personal tastes will decide what people buy more than ever before as devices are now so closely matched. Sure, Sony sorted out the major problems of previous phones which stopped it from being a world beater, but it has also added nothing that really stands out (unless you count the waterproofing).

The screen on the Sony Xperia Z2 is excellent. If you like watching movies or playing games on the go you’ll love the display, providing vivid colours and high levels of detail. The battery life is also a great positive, and the fact that it’s completely dust- and waterproof is a massive positive for some people. The camera experience is great, just not as great as two competitors.

Its premium design nudges it ahead of the Galaxy S5, while its highly capable camera beats the One M8 hands down. If you’re looking for an all-round winner, the Xperia Z2 is a great jack of all trades. Just don’t expect it to knock your socks off.

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