After a couple of missteps, Sony's made a premium smartphone that feels premium again.
Outright Cost: $899
What Is It?
The Xperia XZ is Sony's second flagship smartphone from 2016, following up the Xperia X Performance. The etymology is all a bit confusing, but the XZ is technically Sony's new premium device, and after a couple of missteps, Sony has managed to get a high-end phone right.
While all the standard smartphone features are there, the XZ has a few unique inclusions. These include the ability to remote play PlayStation 4 games on your phone (with a paired controller), support for Hi-Res audio, and a side-facing fingerprint reader. Notably, the XZ is also water-resistant.
With the Xperia XZ, Sony's finally iterated on the smartphone design it's been leaning on since the first Xperia Z smartphone. The brutalist overtones are still there, but the XZ is almost more reminiscent of Nokia's polycarbonate heavy Lumia 920 - in the best way possible. Built from a blend of aluminium and polymer that Sony calls Alkaleido, the XZ's ever so slightly rounded body feels quite unlike most other smartphones currently on the market.
Alkaleido isn't cold to touch like aluminium, isn't cheap like plastic, or slippery like glass. The back can smudge quickly, but otherwise, the XZ's feel is as unique as it is lovely. Simply put, it's a phone I love to hold. And there's no camera bump, which is an increasingly rare plus.
Notably, you're able to grab the XZ in "forest blue", which is a nice change from the black, whites, and greys you normally see flagship smartphones manufactured in.
As great as it is that Sony's finally iterated on design, it’s a shame that the XZ doesn't have an edge-to-edge display as found in the far cheaper Xperia XA. In terms of screen quality, the XZ has a bright, vibrant display that handles direct sunlight well. For me, the colours looked a bit off out of the box, but Sony's included a setting that lets you personalise the white balance. Dialling in just a little bit more blue made the XZ's colour profile feel far more natural.
The screen itself runs at 1080p, and while other flagships are now packing Quad HD displays, I'm of the opinion that the XZ's resolution is more than adequate for a 5.2-inch display. You're not going to have any issues with sharpness unless you're literally holding the phone up against your eye.
Once again, Sony's plonked a fingerprint reader in the XZ's side-facing power button. While this means the XZ is a hair thicker than the likes of the iPhone or the Galaxy S7, the phone's right side is a natural place for biometric authentication. Provided you're using the right finger, one click wakes your phone up and unlocks it.
Oddly, Sony decided to cram the volume rocker right under the power button, and it feels anything but ergonomic - especially when you're want to lower the volume. A much more natural position for the volume rocker would have been on the other side of the XZ.
The XZ is also one of the few phones with a physical shutter button, tucked away on the bottom right corner. Given the positioning, the only time using it feels natural is when shooting in landscape.
Sony was one of the first smartphone manufacturers to make water-resistance a regular inclusion on flagship smartphones, and the XZ continues the trend. It's rated both IP65 and IP68, which means its protected from low-pressure water jet spray for at least three minutes, can be submerged as deep as 1.5 metres for half an hour, and is dust tight.
Powered by a Snapdragon 820 processor, the XZ's performance is as fast as you'd expect from a flagship for the most part. I did encounter a weird stutter from time to time, but nothing that overly affected my day-to-day usage.
In terms of battery life, you should expect to be recharging the XZ on a nightly basis, but I typically had a comfortable buffer of around 20 to 30% charge left. For a phone of the XZ's size, this is roughly in line with the norm.
What's Not So Good?
The Xperia XZ's camera is fine, but as a flagship smartphone, it leaves a little to be desired.
There's good things about it: it loads up quickly regardless of whether you're double tapping the power button or launching the app, you've got a physical shutter button if you need one, it shoots fast, excels in strong light, and still does an okay job in lowlight.
But these are counteracted by issues that Sony smartphone cameras have been struggling with for years now. Photos taken by the XZ look stunning. Until you look at them at their actual size or on a computer monitor. Zooming in reveals a lack of fine detail, artefacts, and jagged edges. The XZ can also struggle with dynamic range, which in turn results in flatter looking images. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the XZ camera defaults to 8MP by default, rather than using the entirety of the phone's 23MP sensor. Using the entire 23MP sensor helps in getting more detail in images, but can increase distortion in the corners of your photo.
For best results in lowlight, it can help swapping into manual mode. Using the XZ's "intelligent focus" can result in a brighter picture overall, but result in a blown-out image.
All that being said, the XZ doesn't take bad photos - far from it, in fact. The camera just isn't quite as good at what you'd find in a competing flagship from Apple, Samsung, Google, or Huawei.
Historically, it's worth noting that Sony hasn't always been the fastest manufacturer role out Google's monthly security patches for Android. Back in October, the XZ was still running on the July update. Thanks to a recent update to Nougat, the XZ is now on the February release.
Who's It For?
In some ways, the Xperia XZ isn't quite premium enough to easily win out over the likes of the iPhone 7, Galaxy S7, and Google Pixel, but not affordable to the point where it's more compelling than midrange options. It's stuck in a weird limbo, where it's going to appeal to you if you want the cheapest true "flagship" possible or are just a Sony fan. Especially if you've also got a PlayStation 4 and want to take advantage of Remote Play.
And that's a bit of a shame, because the Xperia XZ has a lot of things going for it. It's the best smartphone Sony's made in a long time, and a look and feel that I've really come to love.
What Else Can You Buy?
If regular software updates are a priority for you, it's worth considering Google's Pixel or Pixel XL. Since the phones come direct from Google, you'll be first in line for Android security and operating system updates. The Pixel devices aren't water-resistant, cost a little more, but do win out on camera.
If you'd prefer iOS to Android, the iPhone 7 is the go-to choice. Much like the Xperia XZ, you get water-resistance, but you do miss out on a good old fashioned headphone jack.
If you're happy to take a step down from flagship, the OPPO R9s is one of the best midrange phones on the market. You lose out on water-resistance, but it's also $300 cheaper.