Calling and Data
Though some have expressed doubts that call quality via the built-in earpiece and mic could be good when you've got a waterproof membrane in the way, the Sony Xperia Z has excellent voice quality. Both incoming and outgoing voice were clear and full and we had no trouble understanding what was said. We found it an excellent phone for calls overall. Of course, you can use it with Bluetooth headsets and car kits as well, and it played nicely with our Motorola Bluetooth headsets.
Data speeds on AT&T's network were good by HSPA+ standards, with speeds averaging 6.5Mbps down and 1.1Mbps up according to Ookla's Speedtest.net app. That's plenty fast enough for quick web page load times, email downloads and streaming mobile video at HQ in the YouTube app. However, it pales compared to LTE 4G data speeds that average 2 to 3x faster in our area. If you intend to use the mobile hotspot feature to provide a high speed Internet connection for your laptop or tablet, the Xperia Z will perform decently but not nearly as well as an LTE phone.
Performance and Horsepower
The smartphone runs Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2 on a fast quad core Snapdragon S4 Pro "Krait" CPU clocked at 1.5GHz. It has 2 gigs of RAM and 16 gigs of storage plus an SDXC microSD card slot. It benchmarks well, with a Quadrant score of 7851 and an AnTuTu score of 20,403. Sony has done a nice job of lightly skinning Android, and of course their various service offerings are here including PlayStation Mobile games, their streaming music service and video services. None of these bogs down the phone, and the UI customization sits between the Samsung Galaxy S4's heavily skinned TouchWiz software and the extremely light touch of HTC Sense 5 on the HTC One.
Sony still feels one step behind on CPU specs, though the divide isn't as great between the Xperia Z and its top competitors as it was between previous high end Sony smartphones and the competition. That quad core S4 Pro CPU was hot stuff in the fourth quarter of 2012, but in Q2 of 2013, the world has already moved on to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 that's clocked a bit higher and benchmarks even faster. Honestly, the Xperia Z's 1.5GHz quad core CPU with Adreno 320 graphics is still extremely fast, and smartphone CPUs are advancing much more quickly than software (including the OS) demands. If you like the Xperia Z, don't obsess on the CPU difference; it's plenty fast enough to play the latest challenging 3D games and it handles 1080p high quality video perfectly.
This is a tough one: the Sony Xperia Z has a truly pleasing 5" full HD display that's quite bright. At 1920 x 1080, it competes with the top smartphones on the market and it's extremely sharp. Colors are vibrant and pop, yet they're more natural than Samsung's Super AMOLED displays. Sony's Mobile Bravia 2 software engine tweaks colors and brightness to achieve a near perfect experience whether you're reading an ebook or watching a movie. Still, clarity and contrast aren't as good as the HTC One (our favorite smartphone display), and outdoor visibility is decent but not as good as the HTC One and iPhone 5. But the real problems are the TFT panel's tendency to wash out when viewed off angle and blacks that aren't as rich and inky black as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One's displays. Move it 30 degrees off center and it dims and colors turn pale. You can argue that a phone is small enough to hold at a direct angle in front of your face, but the reality is we often pull our mobile companions out of pockets for a quick glance or cast a sidelong look at the phone on a table when we're trying to pretend we're not ignoring our dinner companion. Viewing angles do matter here, especially when they degrade with a relatively small change of position. On a positive note, the phone supports HDMI out via MHL adapter.
Camera: 13MP with Exmor RS Sensor
The 13 megapixel rear camera with LED flash and EXMOR RS sensor takes superb photos and has HDR for both photos and 1080p video. The intelligent auto mode really is smart, and we rarely had to use manual settings to get the best shot. Even if you're a photo buff, it's nice to not have to fiddle with settings to achieve a great photo. The Sony Xperia Z has sweep panorama, image stabilization, 16x digital zoom and burst mode. The f/2.5 lens isn't the fastest we've seen, but it lets in enough light for a decent night shot at a club. The Sony focuses faster than the Samsung Galaxy S4, but not as quickly as the surreally fast HTC One. Image quality, for those who need lots of pixels, far exceeds the 4MP (err, UltraPixel) camera on the HTC One, but you probably won't notice the difference unless you're zooming in or viewing the image at 100% on your computer's screen. The Samsung Galaxy S4 and even the HTC One win for offering more photo modes vs. the Xperia Z.
There's plenty of detail in photos and that's perfect for print or places where larger images are needed (vertical market, photo sharing sites). Sony avoids over-sharpening, instead leaving that to you and Photoshop. Photo buffs will appreciate this, but novices may prefer that the phone do the doctoring for them. 1080p video capture is sharp, bright and image stabilization works well.
LG and Sony have a little trouble with battery life on their high end Android smartphones. There's no reason the Xperia Z's battery life should be weak, but it is. Even with LTE turned off, the Xperia Z's 2330 mAh Lithium Ion battery lasted a few hours less than our iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One and Nokia Lumia 920. With moderate use, the phone went from 9am to 6pm before hitting the 10% charge mark. Our other phones made it until 10pm before dropping to 10%. In terms of actual usage time with the screen on, the Sony Xperia Z falls two hours short of the listed competitors.
The battery is sealed inside, so you'll need an external micro USB battery pack to top up in the field.
Sony's top smartphones get better with every generation, and the Xperia Z is a worthy contender to fight the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4. Fans of the Xperia line and Sony's software will no doubt love the phone, with the possible exception of battery life, but those who aren't loyal to the brand may find the durable metal casing and better display on the HTC One and the myriad features and replaceable battery on the Samsung Galaxy S4 more captivating.
Price: Starting at $629 (unlocked, no contract required)
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