Sony’s Xperia range of smartphones and tablets should really be the jewel in its crown. With great specs, solid software (especially for Sony fans), impressive hardware and progressive design, it’s a shame that the devices haven’t been met with great sales and increasing consumer demand.
Although the reviews have been solid (including our 9.5/10 rating for the Z1 compact), that hasn’t materialised in to sales that can compete with market power players such as Samsung and Apple.
Now, less than a year after the release of the Xperia Z1 – we have the long-rumoured Z2. At this stage it would be impossible for Sony to mess up the spectacular features that have come to be associated with its Xperia range – which combine many of Sony’s strong points as an electronics manufacturer, including a powerful camera, great processor for gaming and bright user interface – but is the Xperia Z2 a step up from its predecessor? And with rumours abound that a Z3 could also be released this year, is this a genuine flagship follow-up or a stop gap between the new devices?
Although we would prefer to keep the Z1 comparisons at bay and judge the Z2 purely on its own terms, the fact of the matter is that these two handsets have a lot in common. Even in terms of design, the only noticeable difference is the slightly larger display on the Z2, which alongside the large bezel located on the front makes this a large phone. At 163 grams, however, it does not feel particularly heavy and that 5.2inch screen makes all the difference when taking photos, playing games and watching videos. Put it next to a smaller high-end device such as an iPhone 5S (which comes with a 4 inch screen) and the difference in size is immediately noticeable.
Like the recently released Xperia Z2 tablet, Sony’s latest flagship smartphone also comes with an IP55 and IP58 rating, meaning it’s dust and water resistant. Although the semi-detachable port holes weren’t as noticeable on a larger device such as the Z2 tablet, and are also present here for a reason (namely durability), they ultimately detract from the Z2’s sleek look and require fiddling – in particular when charging – where there shouldn’t be any.
The only physical buttons on the handset are the three metallic buttons on right-hand side, these include the small, circular power button, and the larger volume controls and camera quick-shot button. The latter is a good addition, which makes it feel like you’re handling an actual camera (this is especially relevant here, as the 20.7 megapixel camera on the Z2 can rival many standalone digital snappers). It would however, have been handy if the button actually opened the camera function from the lock screen.
In terms of materials, the Z2 retains its predecessor’s premium aluminium frame and comes in the same colours, including black, purple and white. One particularly useful design feature is the inconspicuous LED notification light located at the top of the device. This becomes immediately noticeable by flashing red when the phone is low on battery and is eye-catching enough to get your attention if, of course, your phone is visible and not tucked away in your pocket.
As you would expect from a superior flagship range, the latest Xperia smartphone performs well across the board. It is here, however, that the comparisons to its predecessor often come back to haunt it.
The 2.3 GHz quad core processor is a slight improvement on the Z1 and certainly helps when browsing the web, using powerful apps (such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and playing games – the latter we couldn’t get enough of on the Z2.
So, whereas watching 1080p HD video clips on YouTube offers crisp and clear playback, the fact that the 1080 x 1920 resolution is not a step up from the Z1 means that owners of the previous version won’t notice a difference. Meanwhile, the slight jump in screen size (5.2 inches as compared to 5 inches on the Z1) equals lower ppi pixel density (424 ppi on the Z2 as compared to 441 ppi on the Z1).
Nonetheless, these are very slight differences and the larger screen definitely comes in handy when gaming and browsing the web, so we’re certainly not complaining. We must also point out that 1080 x 1920 pixels is also the standard display for most new flagship devices, including two of this year’s big guns; the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8.
Returning to the subject of apps, all of the most popular suspects run smoothly. We extensively tested the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram apps on the device – using them to browse through image-heavy timelines with ease. It should be noted, however, that these days you can do the same with affordable smartphones – such as the Motorola Moto E – so this is no longer an area that makes high-end devices stand out.
One thing the Z1 didn’t have in comparison to the Z2 is 4G LTE connectivity. Faster mobile broadband means access to all of the above features at fast speeds whilst on the go. Although 3G was adequate enough to handle simple web browsing tasks, and text-centric social networking and communication apps, 4G means you can now upload images and videos to those same apps quicker and watch HD videos and play more powerful games online – all while commuting to work or lazing in the park during the summer months. Now that’s what you call a real upgrade.
Like the Z2 tablet, Sony’s newest flagship also comes with a host of in-built apps, some of which can help customise your phone and others that you may end up ignoring altogether.
These include a range of productivity apps, such as OfficeSuite Pro (basically a simplistic imitation of Microsoft Office, which is hardly ideal in this context, as creating large-scale documents on a smartphone is a painstaking task) and a number of Sony apps that offer connectivity with the manufacturer’s other products including its Playstation Network and TVs.
A news aggregator entitled Socialife is also included as part of the built-in apps lineup on the Z2 and is rendered redundant when compared to similar third-party apps such as Flipboard. This is mainly due to its horribly designed interface (we say ‘designed’, despite the fact that its minimal appearance looks like no effort was made whatsoever in the creative department), which is a mish-mash of random news headlines and social network timelines.
Luckily, there are better features to be found elsewhere.The Xperia Lounge and Sony Select apps are brighter and more attractive examples that offer plenty of personalised audio-visual content. The latter offers a variety of unique themes for the handset – we downloaded the contemporary and colourful tri-flat theme, which customised everything from the background to the virtual control buttons.
Where the Xperia Z2 really excels, both in comparison to its predecessor and most of its rivals, is its camera. Although the 20.7 megapixel snapper located on the back isn’t a step-up specs-wise when it comes to image-capturing, it also includes a 4K video recording function. That means, recorded images look incredibly detailed, especially when capturing moving objects.
4K is a godsend for video enthusiasts and tech nerds alike, offering four times the detail compared to Full HD 1080p image quality with footage delivered in ultra high definition. In terms of pixel resolution. 4K equals the equivalent of 3840 x 2160 pixels. Additionally, anyone lucky enough to own a 4K television set can playback their recorded videos on their television set or via a projector using the latest MHL 3.0 connector.
On top of the powerful camera, the Z2 also offers a host of in-built imaging features that are great for editing, playing around with, or simply taking a variety of photos. These include the time shift video function (that allows for slow-motion effects to be added to recorded videos, background defocus (meaning you can blur the backdrop in your images), time shift burst (which lets you take multiple burst shots of the same image), a panoramic mode and AR effect (a playful effect that lets you superimpose virtual characters on to your images).
Although some of the image settings may not warrant repeated use, there is no denying that the camera on the Z2 is one of the best out there. In terms of power it can only be rivalled by the 41MP snapper on the Nokia Lumia 1020. The additional imaging functions may also be available elsewhere – panoramic modes in particular are finding their way on to many new handsets – but overall, the total package offers an unrivalled experience. Plus the unique 4K video recording is the icing on the cake.
It may not have evolved much, but the Xperia Z2 is still a powerful smartphone that can match its rivals in terms of power and usability. The lack of design innovation and similar specs may put off owners of the Z1and the large size may not appeal to fans of smaller devices, but ultimately this is still a crowd-pleaser. Add to that its superior imaging features, powerful processor and GPU and you have a device that excels in all the right places.
Although not quite the step up from the Z1 that we were expecting, the Z2 is still an immaculate high-end smartphone. Like its predecessor, it may hold more appeal for Sony fans, but its impressive camera, processor and GPU should help sway the sceptics.