There are also a few extra apps that also land on the phone right out of the box -- some good, some less so. They include Dropbox, File Commander, Sony's WiFi-connected Media Remote for compatible TVs, OfficeSuite, Sony car (think big icons for use on the move) and Socialife. That last one is Sony's latest effort to combine your favorite RSS feeds with Twitter and Facebook updates. It's less intrusive (and resource-hungry) than the widget we remember from previous Xperia phones, but there's nothing that compelled us to use it beyond some cursory testing. For now, we'll stick to Flipboard and Pulse.
A more notable addition is Sony's new Stamina battery saver mode. Located under power management in settings, the focus here is to stop rogue apps from accessing data through your phone signal (or WiFi) when the screen is turned off. We're sure you're thinking, "Makes sense, but what about your email?" Not to worry, as your mail and the likes of Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook can all be added to a whitelist, so that they can ping for updates whenever they please. The power management section also gives you a rosy estimate of how many hours left on standby you're likely to get. Flip the stamina mode off, and you'll see that slashed, sometimes halved. It took us a while to figure out how to give apps permission to access data (hint: you need to tap on the Stamina mode bar) but once you have, adding apps that just need data is no hassle.
However, perhaps due to the fact that we need to prod and poke the device during the review process, we didn't find any miraculous expansion of battery life through the new stamina mode. The screen was on a lot, meaning not only did the battery have to power that rich 5-inch display, but all apps were free to dip into data as needed. If you're a more casual phone user, the service could add a few extra hours of use, but we'd treat the phone's estimates of standby time with a pinch of salt.
We already touched on the improvements made to the Xperia Z's camera app, but highlights include HDR video capture, seamless camera and video modes, burst capture and an enhanced auto mode that made taking decent stills much easier. For this editor, Sony has a more usable interface than that found on the stock Android camera, which can sometimes feel a little too stripped down.
Performance and battery life
Qualcomm's quad-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro powers the lush 1080p screen, and is paired with 2GB of RAM, 16GB of flash memory and expansion through microSD up to 32GB. Does it sound a bit familiar? It should, as this is nearly identical to the HTC Droid DNA and (barring that microSD option and resolution boost) LG's Optimus G and Nexus 4, which at least makes for some interesting comparisons.
However, numbers are just numbers and we found the Xperia Z to be impressively swift in most use cases. If anything, it handled processor-intensive tasks better than simple ones. We had a few issues with the phone stuttering while trying to open the task manager widget -- there's a substantial lag between your tap and the widget expanding to offer access to various wireless and brightness toggles. Similarly, when launching the camera app from a freshly booted device, it took a mind-numbing three seconds on average -- something that could be a dealbreaker for shutterbugs, especially considering the lack of a physical camera key. At least once it's running, it then launches within a more bearable timeframe. Alas, even then, launching the camera from the lock-screen still took around two seconds -- not good enough.
When launching the camera app from a freshly booted device, it took a mind-numbing three seconds on average
What concerned us more, though, was that the Xperia Z didn't go beyond six hours on our battery rundown test. Looping video at 50 percent brightness, with WiFi on (but not connected), the phone managed a little over five and a half hours on our first test. That's actually longer than the Nexus 4 which also had issues going the distance at 5:18, but less than both the Droid DNA and the 720p Optimus G. Oddly, the Z model packs a 2,330mAh power cell, versus the 2,020mAh battery found on HTC's 5-incher. So what's going on here? We repeated our test twice, as it'd be a shame for an erroneous benchmark to sully the Xperia Z's name. However, the second round added only 10 minutes. It could be that Sony's screen tech is less power-efficient than HTC's IPS Super LCD 3. That's our best guess, as there's really not much else to separate the pair -- we even ran the video clip from the flash storage, not the microSD slot.
Update: We've just re-run our battery test with the Bravia Mobile Engine 2 switched off -- just in case it was running behind our third-party app. (We've been told that the Mobile Engine is attuned to the album app's video player, YouTube and the gallery viewer.) Sadly, the results are about the same, with the Xperia Z lasting 5:10.
Our UK-bound review model arrived with plenty of radio bands to share. There's quad-band GSM/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900) plus tri-band HSPA (850/900/2100) and a healthy dose of LTE on Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 20. Unfortunately, we were unable to test the phone with an EE SIM, but across Three, EE and O2's HSPA services, we saw download speeds on HSPA+ around 4 Mbps, while uploads hovered around 1.5 Mbps. AT&T customers, with their compatible HSPA bands, are the ones most likely to benefit from importing the device early -- we've still heard no word about US pricing and availability for either the Xperia Z or the Xperia ZL.
It's been five months since Sony's last phone, Xperia T, was released. During that review, we noted that while Sony had perfected the art of the press shot, the hardware really didn't live up to the fantasy. Particularly in comparison to an iPhone, Lumia or HTC's One series, it did the Sony brand a disservice. So, it's a relief to see the company now making a concerted effort to make a premium phone -- and that's what this is. If you weren't sold on the older polycarbonate look, perhaps Sony's new beauty will be more to your tastes. Exactly how much rough and tumble the Xperia Z's glossy sides will stomach remains a mystery, but after our testing period the phone is still free of scratches. We also applaud Sony for bringing water resistance to its new phone. Protection from an early watery grave often meant settling for less when it came to design or performance, but that's certainly not the case with the Xperia Z.
It's a relief to see Sony now making a concerted effort to make a premium phone -- and that's what this is
We can expect to see many, many more 1080p phones through 2013, and while the Xperia Z might not best the overall quality of HTC's 5-inch panel, the phone itself has a far more distinctive look than its competitors. While the Snapdragon S4 Pro was the best of the 2012 processor bunch, we already know what to expect from phones later this year -- maybe Sony should have waited a little longer?
Perhaps the bigger question is how to square the £300 difference (off-contract) between the Xperia Z and the Nexus 4. Both are powered by the same high-performance S4 Pro, with 2GB of RAM, but Sony's option has expandable storage, a 13-megapixel camera capable of HDR video and that 1080p display -- even if the Google phone's screen performs better outside of a pure pixel count. If the Xperia Z had trounced the Nexus in battery life, we'd have happily recommended the omnibalance smartphone, but a disappointing showing there makes it a much tougher call, and one your wallet might have to make for you.