Sony is quitting the PC business to get its mobile product line-up up to speed and the Japanese giant has stuck with its commitment to releasing a flagship smartphone every six months with the Sony Xperia Z2.
The aggressive biannual release schedule reveals the depth of Sony’s ambitions but it also puts extra pressure on it to iterate and differentiate between short product cycles. So does the Sony Xperia Z2 do enough to stay ahead of the competition?
A laundry list of improvements
It’s clear from the outset that Sony set out to improve upon the Xperia Z1 in almost every department, though some areas are obviously more incremental than others.
The Z2 looks almost identical to the previous model, with the same metal and glass industrial design. The glass panels on the front and back along with the aluminium banding around the sides give the impression of a premium feeling device but they are still a magnet for fingerprints.
The design changes are more subtle, such as, the thinner profile (8.2mm), the addition of slender speaker grills on the top and bottom of the device and reduced bezels to accommodate the larger 5.2-inch Full HD display.
It’s an impressively built phone but the square profile and slightly larger footprint of the Z2 means that it is less comfortable to hold in the hand than the curved back design of the HTC One M8.
It’s worth noting that while the glass back isn’t as prone to scratching as the Z1, we did still manage to accumulate some light scratches after just a few days of use.
The most noticeable upgrade is the display. Sony has finally switched to an IPS panel which means that the weak viewing angles and muted colours that plagued previous models are not an issue on the Z2.
Sony has also brought across a lot of the display technologies that power the company’s Bravia line of televisions. Most notable is the introduction of “Live Colour LED” which expands the colour gamut and provides greater vibrancy.
Colours pop from the screen without feeling over-saturated, maintaing a natural accurate tone throughout. Watching movies and viewing images also look impressive with strong contrast and noticeably deep blacks.
In fact, this just might be one of the best mobile displays on the market. Our only gripe is that we found it a bit too dim and reflective in bright sunlight, making it less usable than the HTC One M8 or Samsung Galaxy S5.
The Z2’s display also supports stylus input from regular pencils, pens and other metallic objects, which was one of the main selling points of last year’s 6.44-inch monster, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra.
The pen/pencil input may lack pressure sensitivity and the feature set pales in comparison to Samsung’s stylus centric Galaxy Note 3, but the ability to jot down notes directly on the handset using an everyday pencil or pen is a handy bonus for business users.
Stereo sound and built-in noise cancellation
One of the features unique to the Z2 is the built-in noise cancellation that Sony claims can reduce up to 98 per cent of all ambient sounds. The issue with noise cancelling headphones is that they tend to be on the bulky side and require charging. The Z2 does away with all that by building the noise-free tech inside the smartphone and allowing you to use a sleek pair of headphones that won’t require a separate charge.
However, the built-in noise cancellation only works with a specific set of Sony branded noise cancelling headphones (MDR-NC31EM), which are not included with the unit itself, at least in Australia. Sony has included the MDR headphones with the Z2 in other markets such as the UK and Asia but Australians will need to fork out an extra $99 for the privilege. Telstra is, however, bundling the headphones for free on contract with the Z2 so it might be worth shopping around.
We tested the Z2 with the requisite MDR headphones and found the sound quality to be far superior than the headphones normally bundled with handsets such as the Galaxy S5, but about on-par with Apple’s EarPods on the iPhone.
Unfortunately, the noise cancellation capabilities were fairly weak. With the in-ear headphones on and the noise cancellation set to maximum effect on the Z2, we could still hear cars passing by and other nearby noises. The headphones also picked up a lot of background noise, making it unusable for calls. The reason for the excessive background noise is due to Sony’s decision to integrate the microphone on the earbuds instead of the headphone wire placed near your mouth. The handsfree bundled with the Z2 for example, didn’t share the same problem due to the more traditional placement of the microphone.
That said, the call quality on the Z2 without the use of any handsfree was excellent, with callers on the other end specifically highlighting the clarity of my voice and lack of background noise.
Continuing on Sony’s audio odyssey, there is the inclusion of front firing stereo speakers which are much louder and clearer than the mono speaker found on other smartphones like the Galaxy S5 and Nokia Lumia line. However, the Z2’s speakers can’t match the decibel levels and rich sounds of the BoomSound speakers found on the HTC One M8.
The Z2 also offers USB support for portable DACs, a feature that is sure to please audiophiles.
The original Sony Xperia Z1 debuted with an impressive 20.7 megapixel camera but, as we highlighted in our review, it was far from perfect.
The large 1/2.3” Exmor RS sensor that powers the 20.7 megapixel camera along with the wide angle F2.0 lens is back in the Z2, but this time around Sony has improved the image processing.
Regardless of whether we were shooting outdoors in broad daylight or in more challenging low light conditions, the Z2 was able to produce better looking shots than both the HTC One M8 and Galaxy S5.While there are still some signs of excessive softening when zooming in on captured shots, it is less of an issue here than it was on the Z1.
Sony has upped the video recording capabilities of the Z2 with 4K video recording support in addition to software-based stabilisation called ‘SteadyShot’ and a slow-motion mode when shooting video in 720p. However, 4K video recording is limited by overheating issues that prevented us from capturing video beyond the 4:00 minute mark.
A boon for regular smartphone snappers is the onboard physical camera shutter button which goes a long way in making the Z2 feel like a proper point-and-shoot camera. The dedicated two-step camera button which initiates focus when lightly pressed and executes a shot when completely depressed worked well and is certainly preferred over the touchscreen implementation of its competitors.
Snappy OS and class-leading battery life
As you would expect, Sony has packed the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chip inside the Z2 (2.3GHz quad-core), bringing it in line with other Android flagships on the market. Outside of raw performance, the power efficient 801 processor offers substantially improved battery life. But the Z2 goes a step further by employing a larger 3,200mAh battery. As a result, the Z2 edged out the Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8 while comfortably beating the iPhone 5S with almost two days of heavy usage that included a few hours of GPS navigation, regular web browsing, video watching and some camera action.
The Z2 also edges out the competition when it comes to raw specs with 3GB of RAM onboard. Although you are unlikely to notice the extra RAM in practical day-to-day use, we did find that larger applications and files loaded up a bit quicker than the Galaxy S5 or HTC One M8.
On the software front, you will find the latest version of Android 4.4.2 KitKat onboard with a custom Sony overlay. Aside from some icon changes and UI tweaks, it feels like the pure Android experience for the most part with some notable additions to the feature set that provides a more integrated approach to the Sony ecosystem.
The default Video and Audio apps have been replaced with ‘Movies’ and ‘Walkman’ which provides a more visual way of navigating your own content complete with album and movie covers and content descriptors. Sony’s Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited streaming services have also been integrated into the respective apps, offering up a wide selection of content. Videos and music played through the apps are also easy enough to display wirelessly to your home theatre with the integrated ‘Throw’ feature that lets you stream content to any DLNA enabled television.
‘SmartConnect’ automates a lot of everyday processes by allowing you to nominate an action every time you plug in your headphones or plug in the USB charger. As an example, you can set the Z2 to automatically start playing music from your favourite app every time you plug in headphones. Similarly, plugging in a charger will automatically start the Alarm application and switch the phone to silent.
The Z2 also offers integrated support for the DualShock 3 controller, allowing you to play any controller enabled Android game wirelessly with a Sony PlayStation controller.
The Sony Xperia Z2 is the best Android smartphone to date. The display, camera and battery life of the Z2 is the best out there and the performance is on par with other flagship Android smartphones currently on the market. With an IP55 and IP58 certification, the Z2 also offers the best water resistance of all new top Android phones including the water resistant Galaxy S5. This means that it can be submerged deeper in freshwater than the Galaxy S5 at up to 1.5 metres.
It also offers the best value with Sony stores offering the handset for a list price of $759, making it $140 cheaper than the HTC One M8 and substantially cheaper than the $929 Galaxy S5.
While the incremental adjustments may not be compelling enough for existing Z1 owners to upgrade, the Z2 does deliver in the areas that matter the most and warrants the tag as the best Android all-rounder on the market.