Sony Xperia Z: hands-on with the new flagship at CES 2013 (video)

Sony has had over a year now to dust away any residual Ericsson branding and with a reinvigorated direction towards mobile, it's welcoming the CES crowds of Las Vegas with two new smartphones -- the Xperia Z and the Xperia ZL. Both are running Android Jelly Bean, have 5-inch 1080p screens laced with Sony's new Bravia Mobile 2 technology, quad-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro and new 13-megapixel Exmor RS camera sensors, capable of recording HDR video.

Has Sony finally crafted a flagship able to go toe-to-toe with the competition? Well, the Xperia Z exudes class -- and it's light. With about the same thickness as the iPhone, the phone is similar with all straight surfaces, barring some slightly rounded corners. Sony's calling the design language "omnibalance" and you can expect to see similar design licks in its other products in the near future. Picking it up, it feels better and more premium than any phone we've seen from Sony before and, oddly, it's even waterproof. Comparing the Xperia Z against the Xperia ZL, the oblong, broad Xperia Z felt almost too big in our hands; the ZL felt much more at home. Sony's barely unveiled them on stage at its press event, but we got the chance to play with both devices earlier today, (just about) wrapping our fingers around both the Xperia Z and the slightly smaller Xperia ZL. So what did we think? Hop on after the break for our hands-on video and full impressions.

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While Sony had a phone in each hand to greet us in Vegas, the Xperia Z is where it's focusing most of the attention -- as we've already said, it's certainly the best-looking we've seen from the growing Android phone-maker, although those square lines and glossy sides are slightly familiar. Sony "expects to succeed" and we'd like to see that happen -- there are a lot of faithful fans looking for a real competitor from a phone maker often one step behind the competition. This time, there's a quad-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and up to 16GB of built-in memory alongside microSD expansion; something that's faded away from many high-end Android phones.

There's also a thorough waterproof treatment; it's IP55 and IP57 certified like last year's Xperia acro and Xperia go, meaning the Xperia Z should rebuff direct water and immersion for up to 30 minutes at a depth of one meter. The waterproofing has had some effects on the physical design, with all ports (including the headphone socket) now covered with protective flaps. As we fiddled with them, they seemed more solid than the awkward covers seen on last year's Xperia S although we reckon the headphone socket flap could prove to be a frustrating extra step when plugging into our music. It's also a shame that making the Xperia Z waterproof has also meant bidding farewell to the physical camera button. However, the Xperia ZL (not water resistant) does come with those physical controls if needed.

Sony Xperia Z handson with the new flagship at CES 2013 video

There's also some notable new imaging tech, Sony's 13-megapixel Exmor RS sensor. We've followed the development of this new sensor for the last year and it's now ready to make its debut. Alongside improved signal processing, the main boon here is HDR video recording. Naturally, HDR stills are also possible -- and it's not the first phone that has HDR video -- but the feature should offer up improved video capture, namely less washed-out skies and improved low-light video. In short, we're itching to test those skills IRL against the current video-recording king, Nokia's Lumia 920. Sony has also reassessed its camera UI, which now closely resembles its own camera family, at least when it comes to menu options and icons.

The screen isn't cluttered by options, although a few see-through icons expand into the typically broad settings selections we've seen on Sony's other smartphones. A new "auto i+" setting promises improved performance without tweaking settings, while the camera itself can handle burst-mode photography up to 10 fps and gains the ability to grab full-resolution stills while recording video. The secondary, front-facing camera, meanwhile, has a 2-megapixel iteration of Sony's Exmor R sensor. We grabbed a few samples with the primary shooter, and they're looking pretty good -- there's low noise in the dim briefing room, although the shots (taken with the new auto mode) often lost a little bit of detail.

Sony Xperia Z handson with the new flagship at CES 2013 video

Below the Xperia Z's front-facer, you'll see a five-inch 1080p display -- that works out to a crisp 443 ppi on both phones. Colors looked sharp -- the Bravia Mobile Engine 2 works on contrast and colors for both photos and video, although it won't affect other apps or the Android 4.1 interface. Don't like your colors overdone? Then there's the simple option to turn off Sony's screen software in settings. Brightness was noticeably greater than on the preceding Xperia T; viewing angles were also good, but there's a bluish glow that often ruins dark or black tones on the device.

Another software addition is a new intelligent battery saver mode. This specific stamina mode will turn off any power-hungry apps (chosen either automatically by the phone, or by a user-made list) when the screen is switched off. This means you can let your email or Twitter continue to receive pings but can shut down pretty much everything else. Sony's making some bold claims about the improvements seen with the power management feature switched on, reckoning it'll offer four times the standby time -- although we'd prefer to put the Xperia Z's 2,330mAh battery through some more realistic tests before coming to any conclusions.

The company continues to push its various content libraries, whether we want to buy from them or not, and while the company's still working on getting all your accounts (PlayStation content?) joined up, we've been told that those gaming purchases still won't find their way to your Sony tablet or smartphone just yet -- although PlayStation Mobile was preinstalled on our preview sample. Additional NFC capability could make the idea of buying content from Sony slightly more attractive, however. On offer is the ability to pair and send content through the company's new connected HDTVs, with embedded contactless tech in your new remote offering a cable-free sharing method for pictures, videos and the rest -- something we'll be testing out when Sony's CES stall opens later.

The device is set to arrive by the end of Q1 (sometime before the end of March), although Sony hasn't yet confirmed any regional or carrier specifics. We reckon we'll be hearing some of those important details next month at Mobile World Congress.