Having fallen slightly by the wayside in the recent smartphone stakes, Sony is back with its biggest and best handset to date, the 5-inch Sony Xperia Z.

Sony Xperia Z Video Review

Want to save time and see the _phone_ up close in the process? Watch our video review below, which shows the Xperia Z's waterproofing in action.

On paper a true rival to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S3, Google Nexus 4 and iPhone 5, the Sony Xperia Z runs Google’s Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean OS from the box – although a 4.2 update is already on the cards. Pairing a selection of premium innards with a raft of new, consumer appeasing features, the handset plays host to the likes of an IP57 waterproof coating.

Officially unveiled back at CES 2013 ahead of a late February launch, the ‘Z’ hits the high notes on all fronts, with the Sony Xperia Z specs sheet boasting a veritable what’s-what of high-end innards.

Kicking things off with a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm processor, the Xperia Z’s zippy CPU is matched up with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, creating a base setup to rival any Android device on the market. Adding a 13.1-megapixel rear-mounted camera, a 2330mAh Lithium-Ion battery and integrated NFC connectivity options, and the Sony Xperia Z quickly stands out as a leader of the smartphone scene.

Despite the handset measuring in at a superbly svelte 7.9mm thick, the Sony Xperia Z screen is an expansive and vibrant 5-inch 1080p Full HD affair, one which benefits from a shatter and scratch resistant coating, 10 finger multitouch compatibility and an inbuilt light sensor.

With a premium price tag to match the premium components, the Sony Xperia Z is available from a selection of leading UK network providers and smartphone retailers, including the likes of Vodafone who are offering the device for free when tied to a £42 per month, 24 month contract. For those not wanting to tether themselves to a two year deal, one that will set them back a hefty £1,008 during that time, the Sony Xperia Z is also available on a SIM-free or PAYG basis from £549.99.

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia Z Design

Highlighting Sony’s renewed efforts on the smartphone scene, the Sony Xperia Z is one of the most visually impressive handsets on the market today, with the device’s expansive 5-inch Full HD display encased by a sleek, narrow bezelled design that screams of quality. Making the handset more appealing to all manner of personal tastes, the device is available in black, white and purple colour schemes.

With a glass backed finish, similar to that of the iPhone 4S or Google Nexus 4, the Sony Xperia Z design sees the high-end manufacturing components held together by a minimalist, soft-touch rubber edging, a feature that, whilst maintaining a compact classy appeal, also helps protect the device from inevitable knocks, drops and bumps.

However, as attractive as the Sony Xperia Z design might be out of the box, within minutes of use the device looks like a scruffy smearing pot of greasy fingerprints and unappealing grime marks. Dramatically exaggerated by the glass rear and expansive 5-inch touchscreen display, the handset is hard to keep in an aesthetically pleasing manner, quickly reverting to excessively smeared after frequent wipe downs. What’s more, thanks to its glass-backed design, the Sony Xperia Z is prone to sliding of all but the flattest of surfaces, an issue only marginally rectified by the slight overhang of the rubberised edging.

Despite its IP57 certification, a rating that sees the handset capable of being submerged in up to 1 metre of water for 30 minutes at a time with no damaging effects, the Sony Xperia Z, like many self-titled ‘rugged’ or ‘lifeproof’ phones, does not suffer from the same aesthetics depleting design issues.

Having run the device under a tap, plunged it into a washing-up bowl and even made a call from the shower, we can safely say that the Sony Xperia Z waterproof credentials live up to their billing, leaving the handset in need of just a simple wipe down before going about its day-to-day tasks. Aiding this IP57 rating, all the handset’s ports are covered by hinged protective caps, tethered to the handset by sturdy plastic connections, components which offer more reassurance and a longer expected lifespan than those featured on some rival devices. Helping further ensure against water damage, the handset alerts you if these ports are left open.

Although the 5-inch form factor feels sizeable within the hand, thanks to the device’s slim line design, it is by no means overpowering, presenting a largely comfortable user experience when grasped in either a left or right handed manner.

One area where the Sony Xperia Z design could be improved, however, is in its button placement. Featuring just two physical controls – the customary power/sleep button and a volume rocker – both buttons are located in the middle of the device’s right hand side, a positioning that saw a stray finger accidentally toggle the volume setting on all too frequent a basis.

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia Z Screen

One of the handset’s key selling points, the Sony Xperia Z screen is a bright, vibrant and expansive delight, offering pin-sharp detail to images whilst making video playback an immersive joy.

A 5-inch TFT capacitive touchscreen offering that boasts 10-finger multitouch capabilities, the Sony Xperia Z screen benefits from a staggering 441 pixels-per-inch image density for ultra-sharp, detailed images, as well as featuring a 16 million colour contrast ratio. What’s more, with a 1920 x 1080p resolution, Sony’s latest flagship offering is capable of supporting Full HD video playback, perfect for those keen on on-the-go movie and TV consumption.

With fluid, fuss-free screen transitions, the display found on the Sony Xperia Z helps create a more natural and engaging user experience, with tasks such as skipping between homescreens, scrolling through menus and browsing across web pages all handled with aplomb and not even the slightest hint of trouble.

Dwarfing the likes of the 4-inch iPhone 5 and seemingly set to line up parallel to the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4, the 5-inch nature of the Sony Xperia Z screen sees the handset further blurring the lines between smartphone and tablet devices, just about fitting in a trouser pocket whilst still offering copious amounts of on-screen real estate.

Sony Xperia Z

Although the handset’s viewing angles are strong, they are not quite the best on the market, dulling brightness and muting colours when viewed from an extremely acute angle. In truth, however, this is an issue which will have little effect on day-to-day usage of the device.

Standing up to performance depleting glare quite well, the Sony Xperia Z screen is coated it a protective shatter proof and scratch-resistant coating, a feature that stood up well to being placed in a pockets with loose change for a couple of days. With an inbuilt light sensor, the Z’s display coped well with jumping between areas of shade and direct sunlight, quickly attuning the handset’s brightness levels to best handle the surrounding elements.

Perfect for movie playback and app-based gaming, the full HD display brings content to life with movies downloaded from the Google Play Store packing more visual punch than on rival handsets. On top of this, games such as Real Racing 3 are accompanied by virtually no motion blur or degrading faults and stutters.

As impressive as the 5-inch Full HD Sony Xperia Z screen is, it does have one major drawback, the monumental drain it has on the handset’s 2330mAh battery reserves, an issue that we will fully address later.

Sony Xperia Z Interface and Usability

Simple, fluid and, for the large part efficient, the Sony Xperia Z interface is much of what you would expect from Google’s Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean OS, with a few additional Sony UI features thrown into the mix for good measure.

With seven fully customisable homescreens available, the Sony Xperia Z interface benefits from the usual Android furniture such as app shortcuts and widgets, all easily changed simply by holding down on the screen and dragging items at will into desired locations. As well as the usual email and calendar widgets, both of which integrate seamlessly to offer stunningly simple business benefits, the handset also offers interactive homescreen access to the MP3 loving Walkman features, photo galleries and video content, all welcome additions that improve the handset’s entertainment capabilities.

Although the Sony Xperia Z keyboard benefits from Swype style input options, the handset is less naturally instinctive to use than some rival offerings, including many which run the same Android OS. Creating a slightly stilted experience, the handset’s keyboard fails to naturally integrate key punctuation on the base input option, such as full stops and commas. As a result, typing an email, message or note is broken up by repeated jumping between input menus, a needless irritant that could so simply have been avoided.

Sony Xperia Z

As has become the case with high-end Android handsets of late, multitasking on the Z is a breeze with fast, single touch access bringing up instant shortcuts to all currently opened and recently used apps and services. Further enhancing the user experience, a tap of the multitasking button, one of the trio of touch-based controls found on all Android devices alongside ‘Home’ and ‘Back’, offers shortcut access to a number of handy features such as note pad.

With a calculator, voice recorder and timer also featuring on this shortcut list, the quick access tools handily sit as an overlay on any content currently being viewed, perfect for quick note taking or on-the-fly business needs. What’s more, these self-titled ‘small apps’ can be added to through the Google Play Store.

In terms of usability, the Sony Xperia Z has one major drawback attributed more to the handset’s hardware than software offerings, during continued use it gets very, very uncomfortably hot.

Concentrating its excessive heat to the top of the handset’s rear (presumably where the 2330mAh battery is located), this handset becomes noticeably warm following just five minutes of use, becoming uncomfortable to hold around 20 minutes into continued use. As well as becoming uncomfortable to hold, if required to make or receive call, this excess heat quickly transfers to your ear, making for an extremely unpleasant user experience.

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia Z Contacts, Calling and Browser

Once again featuring slight enhancements of the already strong Android Jelly Bean base, the Sony Xperia Z is brimmed with simple, user appeasing features that make creating and syncing contacts a breeze.

Allowing you to sync contacts with the likes of Gmail and Facebook, the contacts list quickly becomes filled with all manner of communication methods, as well as adding Facebook images to contacts for the added personal touch that brings the otherwise stoic list of names to life.

In terms of call quality, the Sony Xperia Z is a strong, albeit far from ground-breaking performer. Whilst calls are without excessive distortion and dropped calls were a non-existent concern, during our time we the device at least, we still felt slightly distanced from those we were talking to.

In reducing excessive background noise, the Sony Xperia Z allows you to focus on the voice of the person you are talking to. However, in doing this it gives an almost tunnelling effect to the audio, with the hollow sounds feeling slightly distant and without much substance.
On the browser front and the device is classic Android fodder with Google’s Chrome browser running the show, although alternatives can be downloaded via the Google Play Store.

Brimmed with handy, easy to use features, the Sony Xperia Z browser, is beautifully simple to use although, like when crafting messages, the handset’s text input methods are lacking slightly in intuitive options. Missing a dedicated ‘.com’ button, the handset’s keyboards forces unnecessarily laborious URL entry, an issue that although slightly irritating at first quickly becomes increasingly annoying.

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia Z Camera

Kicking the smartphone camera scene into a higher gear, the Sony Xperia Z is one of the first devices to come boasting a 13-megapixel sensor, and, what’s more, one that is capable of producing largely impressive shots in all manner of shooting conditions.

Although the Sony Xperia Z camera can, at times, be a little slow to kick into action, images produced are, for the large part relatively impressive. That said, in settings of poor, middling lighting, the handset can quickly become unstuck, failing to swiftly and accurately meter the light sources to produce well balanced images. Instead, whilst the flash works well in indoor environments, shooting outside in dull, shaded conditions, pictures can frequently be downcast and lacking any form of detail or clarity.

Sony Xperia Z

The overall impressive nature of the Sony Xperia Z, however, is highlighted when shooting in areas of good light. Testament to the snapper’s prowess, a number of manufacturers have acquired the same camera optics for use in their own high-end handset, including the likes of Huawei for the newly unveiled Huawei Ascend P2.

An area of shooting where the Sony Xperia Z camera produces surprisingly strong results, is when utilising the snapper’s digital zoom capabilities. Although usually a sure fire way to secure yourself terrible images of blocked pixelisation, on the Z, the zoom is surprisingly inoffensive. Although still some way off the benefits of an optical zoom, the digital offering allowed us to narrow in on targeted subject matter with only minor degrading of the end results.

Sony Xperia Z

Playing host to a raft of additional, performance enhancing features, the Sony Xperia Z benefits from the likes of ‘smile shutter’, ‘quick launch’ and a bevy of effects and filters. Although these do not improve the image quality of captured images in any way, they are a welcome addition that provides a pleasing selection of options for fussy users.

With the Xperia Z capable of capturing 1080p Full HD videos, the handset further enhances its camera credentials by allowing users to take stills shots whilst recording video. Although these mid-recording shots are limited to 1-megapixel, in practise the results are not without merit and offering a welcome addition to the handset’s features list.

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia Z Multimedia

A handset that has multimedia routes at its core, the Sony Xperia Z builds around strong handset capabilities with fully ingrained video, audio and gameplay capabilities.

Capable of producing strong audio output from the unit’s inbuilt speaker, Sony’s latest flagship Android handset ticks all the required multimedia boxes required to set it out as a true smartphone leader yet is not without its faults.

Pumping out crisp, clear tones across a broad, perhaps slightly shallow and bass-weak sound stage, the handset’s integrated speaker is infuriatingly located in prime hand real-estate when holding the device in a conventional landscape or portrait manner. Muffling the device’s output, app-based gaming is severely diminished by audio that is clouded by stray fingers.

On mobile gaming, the Sony Xperia Z is a strong performer, utilising its hefty 1.5GHz quad-core processor to launch even taxing applications such as Real Racing 3 in suitably prompt time. What’s more, pairing this powerful CPU offering with an Adreno 320 GPU and 5-inch 1080p Full HD display, and the visual results are stunning. The days of comparing mobile gaming to a PS1 title are long gone, with the Sony Xperia Z, we are well into PS2 territory.

Sony Xperia Z

Although the pair of in-ear headphones boxes with the Sony Xperia Z play host to a low quality, extremely cheap plastic construction, in terms of audio performance, they are far from the worst to come bundled with a high-end handset.

Arching back to the handset’s screen and the device’s movie playback options are superb. As previously mentioned, viewing angles are not the best but overall image quality is certainly up there. Vibrant, sharp and with little depleting distortion of blur, for video consumption the Sony Xperia Z is one of the best.

Satisfying all your needs, with simple drag and drop transfer methods, the Sony Xperia Z supports all the usual file types including the obvious MP3, WAV and MP4 options.

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia Z Battery Life and Connectivity

As impressive as the Sony Xperia Z might be in other areas, in terms of battery life, the handset is a bit of a dog, churning through the power reserves of a sizable 2330mAh Lithium-Ion battery in well under a day based on moderate usage.

Further compounding these battery concerns, the sleek, seamless design of the Xperia Z means that the battery cannot be changed, ruling out the possibility of carrying a spare and pushing users to alternative options such as battery boosters like the mophie Juice Pack Universal PowerStation Pro.

An area not usually associated with build quality issues, the power plug that comes boxed with the Sony Xperia Z is a rickety plastic affair, with a retractable centralised top prong that feels unnervingly loose. Wobbling at the slightest touch, the plug’s prong feels dangerously fragile when inserting or removing from a socket, a task that is made even harder by the accessory’s lengthy form, meaning plugging in behind furniture or in hard to access areas is out of the question.

On a connectivity front, the Sony Xperia Z ticks all the relevant, expected boxes and a few less developed ones. Playing host to usual collection of integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, HSDPA and GPRS connectivity options, the latest Sony handset also benefits from the 4G ready compatibilities and integrated NFC technologies.

Although these two more advanced connection methods might not be relevant to many users right now, their inclusion helps future proof the _phone_ for the impending tech rollouts set to hit early into the two year contract.

Sony Xperia Z

Sony Xperia Z Verdict

A mixture of high-end handset supremacy and a few small niggling issues, the Sony Xperia Z takes the Japanese manufacturer so close to smartphone superstardom, only to fall at the final hurdles.

Overall, the Sony Xperia Z is a device that impresses on first use, continues to please over time and which, thanks to its high-end specs collection, will remain future proof well into your two year contract. That said, the battery concerns surrounding the device are hard to overlook.

With the IP57 waterproof coating lining up as an inspired addition that we now covert on all future handsets, the quad-core CPU and 5-inch Full HD display of the Sony Xperia Z take it so close to becoming the next must-have handset. However, struggling to achieve close to a day’s standard use severely knocks the Xperia Z’s footing in our eyes and is an issue that could well be its downfall.