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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sony Xperia Z2 review: a big, powerful slab of a phone

Sony Xperia Z2
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

Sony Xperia Z2 review

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17 Photos

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
Weight 163g
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)
External storage MicroSDXC
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
GPU Adreno 330
Entertainment MHL, USB OTG, WiFi Direct, DLNA, Miracast, FM radio
WiFi Dual-band, 802.11a/ac/b/g/n
Wireless Charging No
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.

Sony Xperia Z2 screen shots

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16 Photos

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.


Still photography

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.

Sony Xperia Z2 camera samples

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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.

Video recording

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)
Quadrant 2.0 19,100 22,145 25,548
Vellamo 2.0 1,597 2,891 1,804
AnTuTu 3.2 32,574 29,377 30,100
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
CF-Bench 36,699 31,702 38,526

Minion Rush median frame rate*

31 31 28
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

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


Xperia Z2

The Xperia Z2 is a solid purchase and easily the most impressive
Sony phone we've reviewed. It's strong in every major department, from
the display through to the camera, battery life and waterproof build. In
return, however, you'll need to offer up some muscle-power of your own,
because this handset is a whopper.

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