Sony Xperia XZ hands-on – A step in the right direction for Sony Mobile?

After the disappointment of both the Sony Xperia X and its smaller brother, the Sony Xperia XA, the Japanese brand's _phone_ division needed to do something different. So what's it done? Created a flagship _phone_ that already feels dated. And it's not even out yet.

Sitting atop the X line, the confusingly named Xperia XZ is an odd phone. It's big, chunky and doesn't have a particularly attractive design – an area in which Sony usually impresses. It's also not overly well specced, with 3GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 820 CPU and a 1080p display.

If you were hoping Sony would revitalise its flagging mobile brand here, I think you're going to be disappointed.

Watch our Xperia XZ hands-on video:

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As with every phone Sony makes, a lot of the hype is surrounding the camera. While others love them, I've always found the Xperia line to have nothing more than competent photography skills. The tech is undoubtedly there – Sony builds the sensors for most of the best mobile cameras – but it's the execution that it lacks. For the Xperia XZ you've got a 23-megapixeel IMX 300 sensor, so it's offering a much higher pixel count than most of the competition.

It's a fancy tri-image sensor that should, in theory, improve picture quality. One sensor measures the distance, another the colour. It also combines hybrid and laser-assisted autofocus, and it’s the first phone to come with 5-axis stabilisation for reducing blur.

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Taking a page out of HTC's book, there's image stabilisation on the 13-megapixel front-facing selfie camera, too. 4K recording makes a reappearance, after it was cut from the Xperia X and X Performance, and there's a huge selection of manual modes to give your shooting some extra depth.

It's an impressive package, no doubt, but I'm worried the old issues might still be lingering. During my time with the phone the camera app was slow to both open and focus, struggling to correctly alter the exposure when I moved it quickly from shooting the sky to something darker. The shutter also seemed really slow, often taking a few seconds to catch up when I tried shooting using the burst mode.

I would've liked to have seen Sony widen the aperture to either f/1.7 or f/1.8, but again it's stuck at f/2.0. A wider aperture gives you shallower depth of field with close-ups and a more professional result, and it's one of the reasons why the Samsung Galaxy S7 continues to impress me so much. You can get that lovely bokeh blur in the background, with the foreground remaining in sharp focus, but I didn't manage to achieve anything like that with the Xperia XZ.

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There also doesn't look to be a huge jump in actual picture quality over the outgoing Xperia Z5. The sample shots I was shown did look a tad brighter, but they didn't really make me stand up and take note. Obviously I'll have to fully test the Xperia XZ before I know for sure, but the signs aren't great so far.

There's also not much to get excited about in other parts of the phone. It's been nearly a year since a 'flagship' shipped with 3GB of RAM, although that doesn't bother me too much.

The Snapdragon 820 is still the de-facto CPU of 2016 and it's plenty fast enough, though maybe going with the 821 would've helped Sony stand out from the smartphone crowd. Still, scrolling through menus and flicking through apps didn’t cause the Xperia XZ to chug. Sony's also decided not to update the display, sticking with a 5.2-inch 1080p LCD panel that's more suited to the mid-range than the high-end.

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It's one of the better FHD screens on the market – I'm not doubting that – and features Sony's Triluminous tech for bright colours and accurate saturation. But put it next to a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and it pales in comparison. I'd have loved to see what Sony could do with a quad-HD display on a phone, but I've got a feeling it's struggling to make it last the distance. Incidentally, the 2,900mAh battery is on the small side.

A new software tweak will apparently cleverly learn your regime and spread the charge out overnight to try and extend the life of the battery, but I'm still concerned about having to reach for the USB-C charger before the end of the day.

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Having a small battery is even more odd when you consider this is far from a small phone. In fact, I’d make a guess and say it's the biggest device with a 5.2-inch display on the market. It dwarfs the Samsung Galaxy S7 and is more on-par with the fantastic Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Most of this size comes from a hefty bezel, which gives the phone a large chin and head. The curved sides do make it comfortable to hold, and Sony's used a material called ALKALEIDO to give it an extra shimmer. It’s nice, but not remarkable. It does come in a fancy blue, which of course has a stupid marketing name that I can't remember, but that's little consolation.

I do have to give Sony credit for a couple of things, though. The minimal skin atop Android Marshmallow is slick and adds some handy apps for streaming your PS4 games and listening to Hi-Res Audio files. There should also be a fairly speedy update to Android Nougat in the coming months, too. The IP68 water-resistance is also nice to see.

First Impressions

Maybe it's because Sony is such an iconic brand that I expect its phones to be better than they are, but the fact is that the Xperia XZ will feel outdated even before it's available.

There's nothing here to worry the likes of Samsung and Apple, while there are better options in the mid-range that have more to offer for less cash than the Xperia XZ will cost. Of course, these things could change when I get to spend more time with the phone – and I really hope they do. But that doesn’t seem likely judging on past experience.