Friday, 25 November 2016 15:13

Sony is tantalisingly close to right – Xperia XZ (review)


Sony has finally got tantalisingly close to right with its new Xperia X series – the Xperia range starts with the entry-level XA, then X, then X Performance and the new XZ.

I have been using the XZ for a few weeks, and it is a great all-round performer that has eliminated most of the foibles I experienced with the older Z series and the new X Performance that I reviewed in July 2016. In both cases I suspect the firmware and software updates in late October made a real difference.

The XZ is squarely positioned to take on the other “flagships” like Samsung’s Galaxy S7/Edge, LG’s G5, or more recently Google’s Pixel/XL, all of which have niche specialities that make it hard to choose between them. The XZ almost succeeds and deserves to be strongly considered in the flagship space, especially if the words “It’s a Sony” mean anything to you.

Is it better? To use an old idiom, “There is barely a cigarette paper between them (the top flagships).” Sony’s XZ deserves to be judged on its strengths as there is a lot going for it. Whether you buy, it will depend on whether it has the feature set you want.

Let’s start with the specifications

Sony Xperia XZ, model F8331

  • Screen: 5.2”; 1920 x 1080; 424ppi; Triluminous/X-Reality; IPS display, Gorilla Glass 4;
  • 70.9% screen to body ratio (there are largish bars top and bottom);
  • Qualcomm, quad-core, 820 – 2 x 2.15GHz and 2 x 1.6GHz;
  • 3GB RAM; 32GB; micro-SD slot up to 256GB;
  • Rear camera: 23MP; f/2.0; IMX300; predictive hybrid laser/phase-detection/contrast autofocus; five-axis digital image stabilisation (X and Y direction and yaw, pitch, and roll shake); HDR; RGBC-IR white balance sensor; single LED flash; 4K record; hardware shutter key;
  • Front camera: 13MP; f/2.0; HD record;
  • Wi-Fi AC dual band, 2 x 2 MIMO; Bluetooth 4.2 LE - A2DP, aptX; Hi-Res audio; NFC (near front camera); GPS, fingerprint reader; 3.5mm audio; ANC mic; stereo speakers;
  • LTE Cat 9 450/50Mbps (not sure of number of bands – assume most); Single SIM
  • 2900mAh battery; Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 charge compatible; Qnovo battery care; 72-hour endurance rating; Stamina and Ultra Stamina modes; USB-C (older USB 2.0 spec lacking Thunderbolt);
  • Android 6.x – update to 7.x soon. Sony’s UI is a light touch over stock Android with most mods supplied as apps;
  • IP65/68 rating – dust and water resistant, not waterproof;
  • 46 x 72 x 8.1mm x 161g ALKALEIDO alloy construction;
  • Colours: Mineral Black or Forest Blue;
  • PS4 Dual Shock controller connectivity and PS4 remote play; and
  • Sony Assist – a machine learning app that monitors how you use it over a four-week period and adjusts parameters accordingly.

To position this – where the X Performance was just below the Samsung GS7 or LG G5, this is up there with the best.

What it does not have: Samsung’s Quad HD OLED screen, bigger battery and 4GB RAM, LG’s dual camera and removable battery, or Pixel’s 4GB RAM and OLED screen.

Out of the box

The review unit was shipped bare – at a minimum, it should come with a standard charger, USB-C to USB-A cable and inline mic/buds.

There are also several optional accessories, namely:

  • Style Cover Touch SCTF10
  • Style Cover Stand SCSF10
  • Quick Charger UCH12W
  • USB Type-C Charging Dock DK60
  • High-Resolution Audio Headset MDR-NC750
  • Game Control Mount GCM10 for a Sony Dualshock4 controller to PS4 using Remote Play

Sony XZ FlipThe Style Cover Touch is most interesting as it places a full touch compatible transparent flip cover over the phone. My only niggling issue was that it added 50g to an already meaty 161g – not a big deal for the convenience.

The Stand cover allows you so “stand” the phone up in landscape mode. Why, oh why, could they not have combined it with the Style?

Initial impressions are typical rounded fluid edges, flat top and bottom – call it Sony style. Its aluminium alloy back made of ALKELEDIO is a fingerprint and grease magnet.

As is typical with most Android devices the back/home/recent keys are soft keys on the bottom of the screen and eat into the real estate. It also has a relatively low 70.9% screen to body ratio that makes this feel like a larger phone than it needs to be – it is 5.2” screen/body is slightly bigger than a 5.5” GS7 Edge

Set-up was a breeze, you could avoid Google entirely if you wish (and that has always been a test criterion – nothing against Google), and its Sony developed email/contacts/calendar client flawlessly picked up Microsoft Office 365/Exchange cloud settings. It was a very different experience to the Google Pixel where Gmail is the mail client, and despite several resets and retries I still cannot get it to sync with Office 365 calendar.

The screen

Booting up revealed a very good 5.2”, HD, IPS LCD screen with some of the richest colours I have ever seen courtesy of its Adaptive Backlit and Image enhancement – it looks great for an HD screen. Some reviews have said the colour is a little over saturated — to the extent it has been called juicy — I guess that is more about personal preference but I like it.

Tests show its black is at .37 cd/m2 (OLED is 0) and white (at 502 cd/m2) – all very good for an IPS. Sunlight readability on an automatic setting is fine.

Where it won’t be as good is in HD resolution for VR applications.

Sony User Interface UI

It runs Android 6.0.1 and its slated for a free Nougat upgrade soon. The UI changes are mainly limited to non-material Android icons, its mail/calendar/contacts apps (that work brilliantly), camera/gallery, Lifelog (health), Xperia Lounge, and music/video player. It is best described as a lightly tweaked Pure Android.

The fingerprint reader is part of the on button on the right side, and it is very fast and accurate.

The Phone/speakers

It has LTE Cat 9 (450/50 Mbps) – not as high as some, but more than adequate for Australian carriers.

I could not find the LTE bands supported, but the X Performance supports the following and I suspect it is the same. B1(2100), B2(1900 PCS), B3(1800 +), B4(1700/2100 AWS 1), B5(850), B7 (2600), B8(900), B12(700 ac), B13(700 c), B17(700 bc), B19(800 Upper), B20(800 DD), B26 (850 +), B28(700 APT), B29(700 de), B38(TD 2600), B39(TD 1900 +), B40(TD 2300), B41(TD 2500).

I tested it around Sydney on Telstra and typically got at least 100/20Mbps – where is 4GX when you want it?

The handsfree function was good – not great. A few callers asked me to speak up, and speaker volume was average – still, it is more than competent.

By plugging in a pair of digital headphones like the High-Resolution Audio Headset MDR-NC750, you can take advantage of its support for Hi-Res audio files like FLAC, ALAC, DSD, and LPCM, and it can also upscale a compressed music file to give it more of a Hi-Res sound.


It has a 2900mAh battery earning it a 72-hour endurance rating. In my tests, I easily got a full day and over time that seemed to stretch to two courtesy of the Qnovo Battery Care adaptive charging that monitors charging. It recognises when you charge and mixes up slow and fast charge and extends the life of the battery by hundreds of charge cycles. You can also select Stamina (OK) and Ultra Stamina (too aggressive) modes for maximum battery life.

It supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 (and earlier) with 5V/2700mA, 9V/1800mA, and 12V/1350mA. It will also charge from any standard USB-C Power Delivery charger – just not as quickly.


It uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset and 3GB RAM. The latter is the main thing holding it back in comparison to other 820/4GB handsets – in GeekBench 3 is was about 10% slower all round.

Still, in three weeks of use, I never found it laggy or slow to load apps or swap screens. I wonder if this will be the case with Nougat.


Sony claim to make the best cameras and to be fair its sensors are used by many of the best smartphones. It is the same Sony Exmor RS IMX300 sensor as in the X Performance that rated 88 in the DxOMark tests.

The XZ is slightly better performer than the X Performance I tested (and I think that is with the benefit of later firmware). I particularly like the use of a dedicated shutter key, but my pet hate about camera placement and getting fingers in the lens path remains – the top left as per Apple iPhone is the worst place to locate a camera.

It uses a six element, F/2.0, 24mm lens – there is no mention of pixel size in marketing material, but Wikipedia says the IMX300 has 1.1 μm and that accounts for low light performance issues. For comparison, the Samsung GS7/Edge uses a Sony Exmor RS IMX260 sensor, F/1.7, 26mm lens, dual pixel 1.4 μm and blitzed the XZ in low light.

It comes with gyro image stabilisation (called electronic image stabilisation or EIS). EIS worked well on video but shake was obvious on stills – optical image stabilisation (OIS) is still better there. I found the laser autofocus hybrid with contrast/phase detection very quick but a little overaggressive on the foreground – depth of field focus was an issue if you were not careful. But it worked well, especially the predictive autofocus which tracks movement.

I took all shots in Superior Auto, 4:3 ratio, 23MP (care that it defaults to 8MP unless you select 23MP) and did some experiments in 20MP 16:9. HDR is only available in manual mode and Sony need to look closer at this – it needs to be the default even if it slows the shot down slightly!

Outdoors good daylight – excellent detail (23MP is amazing when you blow the image up), natural colours, good shadow detail. One of the best daylight cameras.

Outdoors low light dusk – colours were a little off, the focus seemed softer and loss of details in shadows. With manual settings and HDR engaged this gave a much better result.

Indoor, no flash, good mix of natural light and overhead light – Again a very good performer but as expected the images had more noise in them when blown up. I suspect the dedicated RGBC-IR while balance detector does wonders on indoor shots.

Indoors flash – average results with the single LED flash, a little too much noise for my liking and you need to hold it very still.

Panorama – don’t go there. It is barely adequate.

Selfie 13MP – good, detailed images in good light, not so good in lower light. Needs to use the display as a fill light!

Video: 4K at 30 fps was good but uses EIS that was a little jerky in fast pans. It cut out after about 5 minutes of 4K recording – I later found that is a thermal cut-out, not a memory issue and it was a hot day – still. This issue did not appear to affect HD recording.

My take: Sony should have the best camera, and this is certainly a step above the X Performance with very good autofocus. But it is not the best camera in current flagships – Samsung GS7/Edge, LG G5 and Google Pixel will beat it. It will not disappoint the average user. Sony could get there if it put more into its camera app, made HDR a default, and get some bigger pixels!


It gets a seven and a half out of ten – nothing is perfect, but this could be so much more as the hardware is there to tweak. Depending on your preference you are going to like or love the design, display, user interface, camera, battery life and more.

I like:

  • The Sony quality, design cues and IP68
  • The HD IPS Screen is good (it is not 4K AMOLED)
  • The fingerprint power button is fast
  • Good battery life and Qnovo Battery care show potential
  • Light UI and added value Sony apps

The camera is capable of so much more, and owners will work out how to get more from using the manual settings.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!





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