What is the Sony Xperia Z2?
First reviewed: April 2014Sony seems to be reducing its _phone_ refresh cycle to crazy-low levels. The Sony Xperia Z2 is it's latest offering and it has a lot to prove, especially since its predecessor the Xperia Z1 was only released six months earlier, and it's little brother the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact just a few short months before.
As Sony's flagship Android _phone_ for 2014 it has to compete with the like of the Galaxy S5, the HTC One M8, LG G3 and the iPhone 5S.
This new model is what you can only call a very iterative upgrade, and we have some issues with the design and hardware. However, great battery life, a strong screen and solid camera make it a good choice for those on top-end contracts, or with deep pockets.
Watch our Sony Xperia Z2 video:
Sony Xperia Z2 – Design The Sony Xperia Z2 looks almost exactly like last year's Xperia Z1. Its front and back are flat layers of glass, the core of the phone is aluminium and the three parts are joined with thin buffers of black plastic.
It's a pretty strong, assured look, and one Sony's top end-phones have used since the original Xperia Z arrived back in 2012. We think the phone looks better – more stylish – than the Galaxy S5, but it is not quite as great a visual design as the HTC One M8 or the LG G3.
What holds the Xperia Z2 back is that its body is laden with seams, flaps and an obvious dock connector that detract from an otherwise simple style.
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However, the Xperia Z2 needs most of these interruptions because it is water resistant and sealed-up. With no removable back, there is nowhere obvious for the Xperia Z2 to hide things like the microSIM and microSD card slots. This phone has both, and they sit under chunky, pretty obvious plastic flaps on the phone's sides.
As well as interrupting the look a bit, the construction of the phone does the Xperia Z2's ergonomics no favours. The tiny plastic trim around the rear glass plate sticks out a fraction of a millimetre (likely a way to protect the rear glass layer), and it only adds to what is a pretty boxy-feeling mobile.
You can really feel those seams, and a little curvaceousness can help handling with a phone this size – this is not a curvy phone. We prefer the smoother style of both the Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8 in-hand, much as we criticsed the S5 for looking and feeling a bit cheap.
The effects of a handset with a pretty severe design become all the more obvious as a phone gets bigger. The iPhone 5S has a pretty angular little body, but it is such an easy-to-handle phone that it is a non-issue. Here we'd be tempted to buy a silicone case just to give the phone a friendlier feel.
The fairly boxy design doesn't make the super-slim-ness of the 8.2mm thick body obvious either, and the slightly larger screen and generous bezels above and below the screen make this phone larger than either of its key rivals from HTC and Samsung.
However, the size is nothing like as much of an issue as it is in something like the Xperia Z Ultra. This is a phone, not a phablet. You'll just need to get two hands involved at times.
Other parts of the hardware make intelligent concessions for the phone's size, too. The power button of the Xperia Z2 is extremely well-placed (for right-handers), sitting perfectly under most thumbs. If we had nothing else good to say about the phone, it could at least claim to have the handiest power button of this generation. Thankfully, there are other good bits.
The Xperia Z2 also offers the best water resistance of all the new top Android phones. A coated headphone jack and the two rubber-sealed ports help the phone earn its IP55 and IP58 certification. This means you can submerge the phone in water and it can take being pummeled with water jets.
Sony Xperia Z2: Water Resistance
While we don't imagine many of you will take out the high pressure hose to test this, it does mean you can put the phone under the tap and let rip if you get a bit of grime, pocket lint or chocolate stuck in the phone's various indents. Especially the somewhat-unnecessary dock connector and lanyard loop.
Water resistance is handy, but it means you have to remove and reseal a flap every time you charge the Xperia Z2. This gets annoying, and may result in the seal failing further down the line – it's only a little bit of rubber, after all.
The insides: not pretty
Sony Xperia Z2: SpeakersAnother neat feature you may not initially notice is the set of stereo-front speakers. They output from tiny little near-invisible grilles on the very top and bottom of the Xperia Z2, the top one sharing its home with the multi-colour notification LED. As with the phone design, speaker performance sits somewhere between the HTC One M8 and Galaxy S5.
Having decent stereo separation is great for playing games and watching movies, but the Xperia Z2 doesn't have quite as beefy-sounding output as the HTC One M8. The Sony phone probably has significantly smaller speaker enclosures, if you're looking for a reason why beyond using different drivers.
The sound dispersal isn't great, either. For a comfortable stereo image, you want the output of the speakers to cross over before it reaches your ears. Here, there's a bit of a dead-zone in-between, making it sound as if each speaker is directed right at each ear. This is not how stereo is meant to work. Still, it's better than using a single rear speaker as on the S5.
The Sony Xperia Z2 has a 5.2-inch screen. That's a bit bigger than its predecessor the Xperia Z1, and both of its top rivals this year, the One M8 and Galaxy S5.
It's an LCD-type display, but offers a bunch of upgrades over last year's model. Both phones are branded with Sony's Triluminous display badge – something initially used to describe Sony's TVs – but this new model also has the Live Color LED tag.
This means it uses blue backlight LEDs rather than white ones, with the aim of being able to produce richer colours. We weren't that impressed with the Live Color tech in the Z2 Tablet, but it's a fair bit better here. Colours are rich and vivid, making the interface look very lively and vital.
Live Color LED is sold in some quarters as a way for LCD tech to offer the wide colour gamut of OLED screens. However, this is a somewhat strange aim, in our view. LCDs should try to emulate the black levels and contrast of OLED, not its colours, which are prone to oversaturation if not controlled very carefully.
Still, expert calibration sees the Xperia Z2 offer better colour accuracy than the HTC One M8, with better colour gradation giving a slightly more natural look to people's faces when wathcing video. It's not as good as the truly impressive accuracy as the Movie/Cinema mode of the Galaxy S5, though. For watching films, the S5 still wins.
Pixel density takes a slight hit this year, but that's only because the Z2 has a slightly larger screen than its predecessors while keeping the same 1080p resolution. The Xperia Z2 still has a seriously sharp screen. We will see higher resolution phones appear over the next 12 months, but the benefit will be minimal at this 5-inch size.
Contrast and viewing angles are also excellent, better than both the Xperia Z1 and the HTC One M8. The latter in particular is a big win for Sony.
However, the Galaxy S5 proves stiffer competition. Its top-notch Super AMOLED screen brings black levels the Xperia Z2 still can't match. In daylight you won't notice the difference, but put the phones in a slightly dim room and you can see where LCD tech still has some room to improve. To demonstrate:
You can't beat OLED blacks, but the Xperia Z2 does a bit better than the One M8
Bringing things back down to earth a little, the Xperia Z2 has an excellent screen we'd be happy to watch a movie on. It's high-quality, it's big and it's bright.
There are also a few image-customising modes on offer. The optional X-reality Engine mode jazzes up your videos and photos by increasing colour saturation and contrast. However, in use it only serves to reduce accuracy. It introduces the radioactive reds we were afraid the Live Color LED tech would introduce when watching video. And while it makes photos pop that bit more, this means they'll only look duller should you view them on another screen or print them out.
Sony also lets you tweak the white balance of the display. The Z2's settings menu offers RGB sliders, letting you give the display a warm or cool hue if that's what you prefer. Dealing with actual red green and blue sliders is nowhere near as accessible as the sort of 'cool' and 'warm' slider offered by rivals like Nokia. But most of you should be perfect happy with the screen fresh out of the box anyway. This one is for the tinkerers out there.
As is the norm, the Xperia Z2 has an adaptive brightness setting that ramps up the backlight's intensity when you're out in the sun. It works well, and while the screen is pretty reflective, there's enough brightness on tap to deal with outdoors use.
Sony Xperia Z2 – Software, Interface and AppsThe Xperia Z2 runs Android 4.4 with a new version of the custom Sony interface used in other Xperia phones. It doesn't feel all that much different to standard Android, as its approach has a lighter touch than either HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz interface.
It does provide its own look, though, and it's all sharp edges and simple lines. Of course, these only show through in things like the design of the virtual nav buttons, the included clock widgets and some of the app icons.
The Xperia Z2 doesn't have a live-in home screen news feed like the BlinkFeed screen of the One M8 or the My Magazine feature of the Galaxy S5, but that's because the interface is out to push Sony's media services rather than anything else.
There are a bunch of them, including Video Unlimited, PlayStation Mobile, the Xperia Lounge, TrackID and Sony Select. The Z2's interface doesn't give you any way to hide app icons, and you can only uninstall a few of the bundled apps.
The phone does feel a little bloat-y to start with. And as the phone has just 16GB of storage this is an annoyance, but you can at least file away anything you don't need into a "Sony junk" folder.
Some of the bits are basics, though, even if they double up on apps offered by Google. There's a Sony Walkman App, a Sony image gallery and a Sony movie player. The latter is reasonably useful as these days the Google app seriously sidelines watching your own movies in favour of buying/streaming ones from Google.
General performance isn't quite flawless – we're a software update or two away from the Xperia Z2 running at full steam – but this does feel like one of the snappier custom interfaces. The way it moves is quicker than the Galaxy S5's TouchWiz interface and it seems to prove less of a load on the phone's Snapdragon 801 processor too.
The Xperia Z2 software's simple style also extends to core things like the notifications bar and lock screen. Where other phones tend to pack these with more information than a washing machine service manual, the Z2's are refreshingly simple.
The notifications bar itself features just notifications and an extremely plain weather update from Google Now, with phone settings demoted to a second tab. And the lock screen just shows you the time, date, and a camera shortcut unless you're playing music. There's no extraneous gumpfh, nothing that's clearly there to act as a bullet point for a phone seller at Carphone Warehouse to brag on about.
It makes the phone very easy to use, but many of you may miss having, for example, a screen brightness slider in the notifications drop-down.
There is a bit of flesh on the bones of the software's skeleton, though. For example, the start-up wizard lets you login to your Facebook and Twitter accounts to get social'd up without downloading the separate networks' apps.
This is one of just a few top Android phones to offer just the one browser, rather than multiple web-browsing apps. You get Chrome, and the browsing experience is pretty great in most respects.
The large, sharp screen is prefect for reading web pages and the keyboard is certainly one of the most attractive and intuivitively laid-out Android keyboards in existence. However, if you read sites on the morning commute, this is when the Z2's size and angular design show their grimmest colours. The phone feels a bit more awkward than the competition in this situation.
Finally, it's worth noting that once you factor in Sony's apps and a few of your owm, the 16GB of storage leaves you with about 8GB left to play with There's currently no 32GB or 64GB version of the phone, so we recommend investing in a memory card if you want to use the phone for locally-stored music or video.
As already noted, we did experience the odd little bit of slow-down in the Xperia Z2, but not as much as we saw in the Galaxy S5. While there are spec differences between the two phones, this basic performance change is all down to software optimisation, not specs.
Sony Xperia Z2 – Specs and Benchmarks
The Xperia Z2 is one of just a few phones to have 3GB of RAM. We're yet to see any tangible day-to-day performance benefit from this, though – especially as Sony doesn't push side-by-side app multitasking in the same manner as Samsung.
Think of it as techy futureproofing if you like, but don't let it factor in your buying decision if you're also looking at phones like the iPhone 5S and HTC One M8 too (the iPhone 5S has 1GB and is one of the most responsive phones around).
The phone scores 2,715 in the Geekbench 3 benchmark, and 18,832 in the 3DMark Unlimited. That's a little lower than its Snapdragon 801 rivals, but with so much recent talk about benchmark rigging, we're happy to conclude it's really on-par with the rest.
There is some concern surrounding the heat the Xperia Z2 runs at, with numerous reports that there is a real issue here. Like the previous Xperia Z phones, it does run a little hot. And during the early stages of our testing, it got hot enough that an error message popped up saying the phone was on the verge of shutting down.
Sony Xperia Z2: Overheating - Is there an issue?
However, in the several days following this incident, temperatures stayed within acceptable levels. This temperature graph shows that normal running stays below 40 degrees, and this included some game-playing:
Unfortunately, the phone was not recording temperature data when the phone got super-hot
Real overheating seems to occur when the phone is doing fairly heavy processing while searching for a mobile/mobile internet signal. There are also reported problems when the phone records 4K video for quite a while, but we had no problems when capturing 4K. And we were unable to recreate the overheating message. It does happen, but it's rare and only caused by an unfortunate convergence of events.
As the hot zone is up top, the extra warmth of the Z2 only becomes obtrusive when you're holding the phone in landscape. But if a hot-running phone is something you don't want to deal with, consider taking a look at the HTC One M8 or Galaxy S5 instead.
The area above the Sony logo gets hot
Back to gaming – thanks to its PlayStation links, the Xperia Z2 has a few more inbuilt gaming features than most phones. You can connect to a PS4 using the inbuilt PlayStation app, and PlayStation Mobile is a separate games store for certified devices. However, you can get the former for most Android phones and the latter is nothing to get excited about. It's poorly stocked and as far as we can tell you'll find all its notable games on Google Play anyway.
What is a little cooler is the Xperia Z2's integrated support for DualShock 3 controller – the PS3 gamepad. It's part of the settings menu, and lets you use the gamepad in loads of games. As Android veterans might guess, though, you can do this with other Android phones with the help of a third-party app and a bit of reading up.
You may be getting the idea by now – the Sony interface does have a few extras, but the real reason to like it is Sony leaves out a lot of the superfluous bits the LG and Samsung interfaces can feel weighed-down by.
Sony Xperia Z2: Camera App and PerformanceThe Sony Xperia Z2 has one of the most feature-packed camera apps we've seen. There's an awful lot to digest, but it avoids becoming a terrible mess by offering a Superior Auto mode that covers just about any possible shooting situation for the point and shoot crowd. Unlike normal auto modes, it can use HDR for backlit scenes, and the super low-light mode when it's needed.
The actual camera shooting screen is pretty simple too.
This the Manual mode. Auto is even simpler
The default Auto mode is much more controlling than that of most phones. It's the Manual mode that provides the 'normal' mobile shooting experience.
Let's be clear – this is not a real manual mode. It lets you choose the resolution of your photos (It's all 8MP in Auto), pick scene modes and choose whether or not to use HDR. It's not for photo pros, it just gives you a little say beyond when to press the shutter button.
The rest of the camera modes are a little more creative or frivolous (/fun). There's the AR (augmented reality) mode seen in the Xperia Z1, which plasters anything from dinosaurs to little gnome fellas on your screen – kids will love it. There's a fantastic selection of filters too, including some pretty dynamic picks like the Harris shutter, fisheye lens and kaleidoscope. Here are some examples of the sort of creative things you can do with them:
There's a filter to make shots look old. Double Instagram points
The Kaleidoscope function is good for making your own phone wallpapers
You don't get much more hipster-y than a Harris shutter shot
The Xperia Z2 also has a go at the sort of 'fake bokeh' mode that every new phone seems to have attempted this year. The HTC One M8 does it with special hardware, the Galaxy S5 and LG G Pro 2 with a normal camera and software.
This phone uses software, taking two shots – one with the subject in focus, another with the subject as out of focus as possible. An algorithm them compares the two shots to effectively separate the subject and let you blow everything else in the image further out of focus.
As with every other take on this kind of effect we've seen to date, it's not all that effective but is fun to experiment with, especially as there are three different blur types – normal, vertical motion and horizontal motion.
It is a little slow (not as slow as the Galaxy S5, though) and defocusing effect often leaves bits out or cuts into the subject. But here are the sorts of shots you can take with it:
The railings have been blurred out into the sky here, spoiling the effect a bit.
The feature has worked pretty well here. There's a weird non-smeared blip in the bottom-right and the edge of the plant has been blurred, but from a glance you could almost believe it was an optical effect.
Sometimes the blur mode goes very wrong indeed. We have no idea what happened here. Not only did the blur work horribly, the mode has also corrupted the image.
Sony Xperia Z2 – Camera Image Quality The Sony Xperia Z2 has the highest-resolution camera among its big-name peers – the Galaxy S5, the iPhone 5S and HTC One M8. It uses a 20.7-megapixel sensor. What's initially hard to get your head around, though, is that it uses this sensor primarily to take better 8-megapixel photos. Not 20-megapixel ones.
The lens positioning makes it horribly easy to get your fingers in the way
Our assumption is that Sony has been producing small pixel-pitch mobile sensors for so long that it's much easier/cheaper to develop a 20.7-megapixel sensor than an 8-megapixel one of the same size. And, of course, it sounds better on the spec list as-is.
This is a 1/2.3-inch sensor, a fair bit larger than the 1/3-inch sensor of the iPhone 5S, the 1/2.5 S5 sensor and the 1/3-inch One M8 sensor. When you shoot in the auto mode, the output from the 20-megapixel sensor is used to create a higher-fidelity 8-megapixel image than most phones of that resolution could muster.
While you can shoot 20.7-megapixel and 15.5-megapixel photos in the 'manual' mode, you're heavily dissuaded from doing so. Shots higher than eight megapixels can't use any scene modes or the HDR function. For this reason, we're only going to use full 20MP resolution shots to look at the detail this phone can produce. The rest of our images are 8MP.
The Galaxy S5 is clearly the detail winner here, but note how the Xperia Z2's downscaled 8MP image is able to render very fine details clearly - such as the detailing on the top of the Gherkin.
Here we see why the Xperia Z2 reverts to 8-megapixel images as standard. The smaller details on the higher-resolution image look a lot more skittish. There are some minor detail benefits to the higher-resolution photo, but it is also noisier and shows lesser contrast.
The Xperia Z2 creates very confident, detailed-looking 8-megapixel images, right down to pixel level when shooting in good lighting. This image of a crane shows you the sort of fine detail fidelity you can get when deliberately reducing resolution instead of trying to inflate it. Check out how clearly separated the two fine cables are. And there's none of the purple chrome noise that plagues the HTC One M8's images:
However, we did find that the playing with resolution does become a limiting factor when shooting macro-style photography. At pixel level you can see that, while sharp, the actual sensor can see finer details that are represented in the final 8MP image. It limits how much you can crop into macro images a bit. But it's fundamentally a pixel peeper's problem.
Here's a 1:1 crop from the centre the above photo. There's quite a lot of fine detail, but could there be even more?
Low-light and Tricky LightingWhen dealing with poor lighting, the Xperia Z2 is pretty solid. By using multiple sensor pixels to create each pixel in an 8-megapixel image, the camera can continue with reasonably low levels of noise well past sunrise, as long as there is enough light for the autofocus system to actually lock onto.
Here's where the scene modes of the manual setting can get a little confusing, though – there are four modes designed for low-light shooting. There's night portrait, night scene, hand-held twilight and high sensitivity. The best results come from the hand-held twilight mode, and they're great for a camera without optical stabilisation that doesn't take ages over its low-light shots.
1:1 pixel crop (note how the noise reduction has not destoyed the finer detail on the sign)
1:1 pixel crop (again, detail is pretty good, even right at the edge of the frame)
Like the Xperia Z1, the Xperia Z2 has ways to deal with very low light conditions without using a flash. But you might say the phone actually goes too far.
When using Auto mode, at a certain point of ambient light dimming the Xperia Z2 reverts to an extremely aggressive system. It artificially ramps up image brightness, and seemingly supercharges sensitivity (artificially or otherwise). It does this without masses of image noise too, by smoothing out anything it can.
Xperia Z2 ultra-low light treatment:
Samsung Galaxy S5 ultra-low light treatment:
It may not look like it, but the Galaxy S5 is actually the better shot here. There is more detail in the tree and the colour representation is far more faithful.
While it makes dark scenes that would otherwise be little more dark graininess in other phones comprehensible, the shots tend to look quite unnatural. As well as having flat-out the wrong brightness level, white balance is often totally out of whack and planes of the image are flattened in order to wipe-out noise. It's quite a feat of software jiggery-pokery.
It becomes more of a substantial criticism when we compare it to the Galaxy S5. Its picture stabilisation mode merges multiple exposures to offer reasonable-fidelity images in any lighting conditions. The Z2's most extreme low-light mode is more like an auto-photoshpping of the scene that turns it into a candied confection. The Galaxy S5 is slower – much slower – in these conditions but the detail and overall image quality you get with the S5 in very low lighting is simply better, and offers more scope for editing.
You wouldn't want to save either for posterity, though, so many of you may prefer the more eye-catching Xperia Z2 shot.
Another low-light limitation is that there's no real manual control to let you choose how the Z2 copes with low light. For example, with an HTC One M8 you can slow down the shutter speed and crank down the exposure compensation to take half-decent low light shots. Here you're very much at the mercy of the Z2's own software algorithms. But they do work reasonably well, for the most part.
There's another area where the Xperia Z2 camera tends to trip up a bit, though. In shots with a fair bit of variance in light levels – a daylight indoors shot where there's a window just out of shot, for example – photos can appear rather low-contrast, giving a washed-out appearance. The Galaxy S5 copes better under these conditions.
We're also slightly disappointed by the HDR mode here. It's fairly low-key, and so doesn't leave you with artificial-looking photos, but it's also not all that effective. Since seriously high-performance HDR modes started appearing in mobiles around a year ago we've started using them to 'fix' photo scenes that phones would never have been able to cope with a few years ago, but here you won't get very far.
Sony Xperia Z2: HDR
Particular scenes that show up this are things like those with strong light sources in the actual shot and those dramatic sunset skies, where the bright sky and rapidly-dimming foreground make it nigh-on impossible not to under or over exposure half of the image without HDR. The Xperia Z2 isn't as great at capturing these moments as the very best.
Here's a look at how the Xperia Z2 and Galaxy S5 HDR modes compare:
However, as a whole we're most happy with the Xperia Z2 camera. Forget that it's capable of shooting 20-megapixel photos and snap away. We do hope that Sony ups its HDR game soon, though.
Flash, Video and Front Camera
The front camera is conventional too. It uses a 2.2-megapixel sensor, with a wide-angle lens.
Like some other new high-resolution sensor cameras, the Xperia Z2 can capture 4K video with its rear camera.
Sony Xperia Z2 – Call QualityThe Sony Xperia Z2 puts more effort than most phones into making its calls sound good. It's not just about providing a secondary microphone for active noise cancellation in calls – that's a given in decent phones these days – but applying processing to the voice signal to make the post of the piezo driver used as a call speaker.
The phone uses a particularly successful mix of compression/DSP to make calls sound vital, clear and crisp. While the HTC One M8 uses a beefier-sounding call speaker (it uses the top BoomSound driver), we think the dedicated call speaker of the Xperia Z2 sounds a bit better.
Sony Xperia Z2 – Battery LifeSony has also managed to make the Sony Xperia Z2 a bit of a battery outlier. This phone has a 3,200mAh battery with significantly higher capacity than either the Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8.
It's an impressive performance.
In day-to-day life, the Xperia Z2 battery means you can get very good stamina without resorting to using any special modes that cut down features. The Samsung and HTC rivals need these if you want the phone to last for two days, and they limit top brightness fairly severely.
In other words, you have to try pretty hard to make the Z2's battery drain down completely in a day. And for some people that's a massive bonus.
There are also two battery life optimisation modes to make the phone last even longer. Stamina mode switches off Wi-Fi and mobile data when the screen is off, and you can make a list of certain apps that can access data at all times.
Low-battery mode is a more invasive power-saver that kicks in when the battery is low, to stretch out the last bit of battery life. Perhaps the most unusual, though, is Location-Based Wi-Fi. This switches Wi-Fi off apart from when you're in range of your 'known' networks. We assume this works by scanning every now and then – so it's not 100 per cent off – but is a sensible extra.
Other things to ConsiderLike every other new phone at this level, the Sony Xperia Z2 is a 4G phone. Its USB ports also supports USB on the go, which lets you connect external devices like hard drives, and the supports the 802.11ac Wi-FI standard. This offers better range and speed than the previous n standard, but you'll also need an ac-compatible router to make use of it.
Should I Buy the Sony Xperia Z2?Picking between this year's top Android phones is pretty difficult. Their core specs are extremely close and this time around the Galaxy S5, HTC One M8 and Xperia Z2 all have microSD slots. There's nothing too obvious to pick between them.
The Xperia Z2's issue is that it doesn't have any key area where it beats the competition. Its impressive-sounding camera isn't really any better than the S5's, and the Samsung phone produces better-looking photos in some conditions. And while its screen offers great contrast, the slightly overenthusiastic colours won't please the more discerning among you. This is also the most problematic phone design-wise. It feels the most awkward out of the top three Androids of early 2014, and its overheating issues are worrying.
So who should buy the Xperia Z2? If you like the sound of its easy-going interface, and value its waterproofing, it's a decent choice among some evenly matched Android contenders, but only its waterproofing really sets it apart.
VerdictThe Xperia Z2 is a great phone in most respects. It has a very good camera and outlasts the competition without compromising the experience. However, it is a bit awkward to use at times and gets hotter than the other top phones when under strain.
Next, take a look at our round-up of the best mobile phones