Sony Xperia XZ review: The best of Sony, but not the best phone

Sony needs to get it together. I’ve reviewed its phones – from the top of the line down to the most basic – for several years now, and I hate to see the Xperia family decline. Hard truth: It just can’t keep up with its competitors. Take this “flagship” Xperia XZ, for example. It looks good, the screen is great and the Xperia line was water-resistant before IP68 was a glimmer in Samsung’s eye.

But that’s not enough of a reason to buy it. It costs a lot: $687, £540 or AU$999. Google’s Pixel and Samsung’s Galaxy S7 phones have much better cameras and longer battery life, for the same price or less. And their fingerprint readers work all over the world – for some insane reason, Sony turns it off for the US. While there’s little that’s seriously wrong with the Xperia XZ, there isn’t much to grab my attention, and that’s a big contrast from even a year ago when Sony was an undersung brand just waiting for its time in the sun.

The Xperia XZ is a decent Android phone, but you’ll probably feel more connected with the Google Pixel, OnePlus 3 or Galaxy S7. This one will get the job done; it just won’t dazzle you while it does it.

It’s Sony’s signature black block. That’s metal this time, not glass.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Refined design

  • 161 grams (5.67 ounces)
  • 146x72x8.1mm (5.7×2.8×0.3 inches)
  • Fingerprint scanner on right edge – but not in the US
  • Water resistant
  • 32GB built-in storage

If you’ve seen last year’s Xperia Z5 , you’ve basically seen the XZ. The newly rounded edges make the XZ a smidge more comfortable to hold, while also making it look less boxy. The back panel is metal, not glass, and while there’s a seam separating it from a plastic strip at the bottom, it’s smooth and feels good to hold.

The changes aren’t huge and it still bears the unmistakably monolithic Sony design, but XZ looks and feels like more of a refined, luxurious option than its predecessor.

The phone is water and dust resistant (IP68 rated, if you’re wondering), but that doesn’t mean you can take it in the swimming pool. The protection it has is designed to keep it safe from accidental drink spills or rain, but it’s not an underwater camera. Sony’s official advice states, “You should not put the device completely underwater; or expose it to seawater, salt water, chlorinated water, or liquids such as drinks. Abuse and improper use of device will invalidate warranty.” Yikes.

Just a power button? Yes, but only in the US. Elsewhere it pulls double duty.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There’s a fingerprint scanner on the right-hand edge, built into the power button. Its position means the scanner is right beneath your thumb when you hold it in your right hand, or under your index finger when you hold it in your left. It’s quick to register your fingerprint, and I found it to be fast and accurate in granting access.

Those of you in the US should note that the fingerprint scanner is disabled in the model sold there. In America, it’s just a dumb power button. It’s an odd move and it does put the XZ a step down against rivals like the Galaxy S7, which have the scanners built in wherever you buy them.

There’s 32GB of built-in storage as standard, but you can pop in a microSD card to expand that to your heart’s content. The XZ uses the new USB type-C, so prepare to replace your stash of old Micro-USB cables.

Bold display

  • 5.2 inches
  • Full HD (1,920×1,080-pixel resolution)

Colours really pop on this screen, making it a good option if you like playing vibrant games like Candy Crush or watch colourful TV shows like “Power Rangers.” Although maybe that’s just me.

It’s a bright screen too, easily countering the overhead lights in CNET’s London office, and being easily readable under Britain’s grey, autumnal clouds. How it fares under midday summer sun remains to be seen, but I’m comfortable saying it’ll be at least as good as most of its main rivals.

It has a full HD (1,920×1,080-pixel) resolution, which is sufficient to make apps and games look crisp, but it’s not as high as you’d expect from a top-end flagship. Phones such as the Galaxy S7, LG G5 and HTC 10 all pack ultra high resolution displays, so the XZ feels like it’s coming up short here. For everyday use this won’t make much difference, but if you want to use a phone with a VR headset – where the phone will be displayed close up in front of your eyes – that lower resolution will be noticeable.

The Xperia XZ runs Android Marshmallow.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Android Marshmallow, with additions

  • Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow software
  • Sony custom interface
  • Too much preinstalled software
  • 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor
  • 3GB RAM

The phone arrives with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow on board, which isn’t the absolute latest version – that honour goes to Android Nougat – but it’s the most recent version you’ll find on most phones at the moment. Sony has confirmed that the XZ will get the update, but hasn’t yet set a firm date.

Sony has slapped its own user interface over the top, which doesn’t make too many drastic changes to the Android experience you know and love. Android novices and experts alike won’t struggle to get to grips with it. What’s more annoying though is Sony’s continued insistence on loading the phone up with a bevy of preinstalled software.

Along with the company’s PlayStation app, an Xperia Lounge app and something called “What’s New” – all of which seem to just point you towards curated content – you’ll also find Amazon’s shopping app, AVG antivirus and Kobo’s e-book app. Frustratingly, you can only disable the apps, not uninstall them completely, so while you can hide them from view, the system files will still take up space on your phone. It’s worth spending some time clearing away all unwanted software before you start downloading your own.

Sony Xperia XZ performance chart

It’s running on a 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, backed up by 3GB RAM, which keeps things ticking over very smoothly indeed. Swiping around the interface is responsive, apps load quickly and editing your photos in Snapseed is a nippy affair. Games like Asphalt 8 are handled well too. There’s not much you can throw at the phone to slow it down.

Capable camera, but fiddly software

  • 23-megapixel rear camera
  • Range of scene modes
  • 13-megapixel front-facing camera

There’s a 23-megapixel camera on the back of the XZ, which is capable of taking some decent shots. Colours are decent, although not overwhelming, and it can achieve a good overall exposure when shooting in automatic mode. The sensor’s high resolution means there’s still detail when you zoom in on images, although fine details – grass, brickwork and so on – look a little hazy, thanks to the camera’s heavy-handed image processing.

Outdoors, the Xperia XZ can achieve a decent overall exposure (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

If you can find the manual mode, it’s a good way of getting creative with your shots (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The front-facing camera does a decent job of capturing your excitement on a train (click to see full size).

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The 13-megapixel front-facing camera has a wide-angle lens, letting you cram more friends into your picture without having to use an embarrassing selfie stick. Images from it are bright, reasonably sharp and don’t suffer too much from image noise in low-light situations. This is good, as it isn’t able to use the screen as a flash, as you can on the iPhone .

The main issue I have with the camera is the interface. High dynamic range (HDR) mode, which is just a tap away on the iPhone and Galaxy S7, is only accessible in manual mode on the XZ, and even then, you have to dive into a settings menu in order to find it. There’s a range of scene modes like landscape or night scene, but you can’t use these if you’re shooting with the full 23-megapixel resolution.

It’s fiddly to switch between shooting modes too, and although it’ll record video in ultra-HD 4K resolution, you can’t do so in the standard video mode – you have to find your way to the camera apps menu, and select a dedicated 4K video mode.

This all takes a lot of adjustment. If you’re used to the point-and-shoot simplicity of the iPhone, expect to feel frustrated by the XZ’s camera.

Battery life

  • 2,900 mAh battery
  • Non-removable battery

Sony has crammed a 2,900 mAh battery into the phone. You can’t take it out, which is pretty standard on most phones these days, so I can’t be too annoyed about that. What does disappoint me though is the battery’s performance. On our rundown tests, the phone averaged around 9 hours on a single charge, putting it way below the 16 hours achieved by the Galaxy S7.

As with all phones though, your own battery life will depend on how you use it. That vibrant screen is the biggest power drain of course, so keeping the brightness down will help, and save strenuous tasks like gaming or video streaming until you’re back at home, near a plug. With careful use you shouldn’t struggle too much to get a day of use from the phone but it’s certainly one you’ll need to charge every night.

Should I buy it?

The Sony Xperia XZ is a good phone. I like its design, it’s got power to spare and the screen is great for colourful gaming. The water-resistant body will save it from a premature watery death, which is reassuring, given its high price. It’s the best phone Sony has made to date.

But the phone arena has never been more fierce and the Xperia XZ just doesn’t cut it against its rivals. The Samsung Galaxy S7 has the XZ roundly beaten with its higher resolution screen, its better battery life and its much better camera.

When you can pick the S7 up on Amazon for less than the XZ, the numbers do the picking for you: it’s the S7 all the way.

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