Sony Xperia XZ Premium hands-on: Do you need a 4K phone?

  • Sony Xperia XZ Premium price: TBA
  • Sony Xperia XZ Premium release date: TBA

If you thought the rather tepid response to the Xperia Z5 Premium would make Sony think twice about releasing another "4K" phone, you’d be wrong.

Barely six months on from the release of its last flagship, the Japanese giant is back. Sony certainly doesn’t like waiting around – and it's throwing everything at the Xperia XZ Premium. Let’s just hope some of it sticks.

The biggest headline feature here is that display, a 4K panel measuring 5.5 inches and featuring the same HDR smarts as the LG G6 and Galaxy Note 7. It’s the first time any manufacturer has attempted to cram all this TV tech into a phone, and I’m yet to be convinced it’s necessary.

Still, it’s an impressive feat of engineering. Like the Z5 Premium, the XZ Premium doesn’t output 4K all the time, however – that would be a battery killer. Instead, in normal use it’s 1080p and it switches to 4K when a compatible app is opened. The Z5 Premium failed as a result of precisely zero 4K content, but this time Sony has teamed up with Amazon – and that could make all the difference.

An updated Amazon Video app will ship with the phone, providing access to 4K HDR shows such as The Grand Tour and The Man in the High Castle. However, it doesn’t look as if you’ll be able to stream Netflix or YouTube in 4K.

Related: All the news from MWC

So we know there's some 4K content this time around, but how does it look? To be honest, I don’t know. During our demo I was shown looped 4K HDR footage on the XZ Premium next to the previous version – and yes, it does look great. Colours are far brighter, blacks are deeper, and there’s a much better contrast between the dark points and the light. It’s more difficult to notice an increase in resolution, though, because pixels are hard to spot even on 1080p phones.

As always, Sony has used a stunning panel on the Xperia XZ Premium. Viewing angles are among the best, and even the menus and apps displayed at 1080p look fantastic. But 4K on phones won’t really be vital until it’s used for virtual reality.

jamon 17

Sony is focusing on more than the screen here, however, and it isn't a surprise to see that the company appears to have included some exciting camera tech on this device. Considering its imaging pedigree, then, it’s always a little disappointing that Sony’s _phone_ cameras have suffered with poor optimisation and too many features.

For the Xperia XZ Premium, Sony has drawn from both its hugely successful Alpha and Cyber-Shot lines to offer what on the surface appears to be a super-impressive camera.

A new "Motion Eye" capture system is the first mobile stacked sensor to have dedicated DRAM and Sony says it's 5x faster than the competition. This should help with everything from general shooting to processing, and should alleviate the long shutter lag I've experience with previous Sony _phone_ cameras.

jamon 1

A completely new 19-megapixel sensor replaces the 23-megapixel version used in the regular XZ, but the pixels themselves are now 19% bigger, which should make all the difference to improving low-light shots.The samples I was shown looked excellent, with exceptionally strong detail – even in near-pitch-black conditions.

A "Predictive Capture" mode starts shooting when the sensor detects movements and is supposed to help you get the perfect sports shot, while the updated BIONZ engine helps reduce noise.

However, easily the coolest feature on this camera is the new super-slo-mo 960fps mode. Considering other phones top out at 240fps, that’s remarkable. Again, I was shown some carefully curated demos and the results were seriously cool. It’s quite finicky to do, though: you'll have to be ultra-precise when you start shooting, or you’ll completely miss the shot. Note that you can’t edit your slow-mos as you can on the Pixel and iPhone.

Powering the phone is Qualcomm’s brand-new Snapdragon 835 CPU, and that makes the Xperia XZ Premium the first phone to be officially announced with the new chip. Considering Sony seemed coy about release dates, it might not see a public release until after the Samsung Galaxy S8 (another phone rumoured to use the CPU).

I can’t comment too much on performance, since engineers and PR representatives were trying to pry the only working XZ model from my hands as soon as I tried to exit the preinstalled demos. But I'm sure it will be fast – that’s the least I expect.

jamon 15

Other non-specific specifications include a supposed "all-day battery", which sounds slightly ominous considering previous Sony phones have promised two days only to deliver barely one. There’s 4GB of RAM, too, and 32GB of internal storage expandable via microSD.

Android 7.0 ships as standard, coated in Sony’s ever-improving Android skin, but I couldn’t get confirmation as to whether or not Assistant or Daydream support would be coming too. There’s Cat 6 LTE, with super-fast download speeds on carriers that will support it in the future.

I’ve left talking about design to the end, because it’s one of the least interesting parts of the phone. It looks very much like the Xperia XZ from 2016, which is to say it's pretty attractive. The rounded sides are comfy to hold, but the huge bezel on either side of the display makes the device feel like a very big phone.

In addition, the mirrored back is a magnet for fingerprints. After only 20 seconds of holding the device and it was a mess of smudges and greasy prints. The XZ Premium is IP68 rated for water-resistance, though.

First impressions

As usual, Sony appears to have all the right ingredients for a great phone. A 4K HDR screen, an awesome (in theory) camera with 960fps slow-mo video, the latest Qualcomm CPU and a design that reflects the handset's likely high price tag.

The big question, however, is whether the company can bring it all together into a cohesive unit – something it hasn’t quite managed before.