Sony Xperia Z2 Review: Is This The Droid You’ve Been Looking For?

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Sony released its Xperia Z1 to some pretty high praise back in September 2013. The Japanese manufacturer has now revealed it’s planning on a rapid turn around with its flagship devices and aims to release a new one every six months. So by the time Mobile World Congress rolled around at the end of February 2014 Sony was all prepped to unveil the follow up.

A six month turnaround is a tricky subject though. Sony’s argument is that the pace of change in mobile tech that a six month turnaround is necessary to properly leverage new features, but there runs the risk of each handset needs to failing to be a serious step up from the one before it. 

I bought the Sony Xperia Z1 back in October 2013 and have been using it heavily since then, so was excited to get my hands on the Xperia Z2 handset. In this review I plan to compare both the handsets and judge whether Sony has done the right thing by rushing this handset out the door with only six months in between. By this logic we should be seeing the Sony Xperia Z3 announced in September 2014, so is it worth you parting with your cash just yet? Let’s take a look.

Design and Build

Sony has created its own iconic and individual style with the Xperia Z series. Before this many of the handset designs had been questionable, but Sony has now decided on a particular design style and rolled with it making slight improvements here and there with each passing version.

Not much has drastically changed here so if you’ve used a Sony Xperia Z device before you’ll know what you’re getting into. It’s a nice touch that both the Xperia tablet and smartphone range are designed in a similar way but with a few fundamental differences.

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If you’ve never picked up a Sony Xperia range device though, here’s what the design is like. There’s a large display on the front (which we’ll get stuck into later on) with two thick bezels at the bottom and the top of the handset.

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The edges of the device are squared off to make a rectangular handset with slightly curved corners. Whilst the sides of the phone have panelled edging with metal sides. There’s a headphone jack on the top left, and on the right edge there’s a flap which you can open to reveal the USB slot and SIM card slot. On the opposite side there’s the microSD slot underneath another flap, with the power button just below it, followed by a thin volume rocker.

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It’s the perfect position to unlock the phone with your thumb when the handset is held in your right hand, I can imagine it is a bit of a pain for left-handed users though. At the bottom of the right hand side there’s a small camera button which opens up the app or takes snaps when you need them.

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Then there’s the back of the handset, it’s glass backed which keeps the design looking classy but it can be terrible for picking up fingerprints. If you’ve got the white edition like we did for our review it isn’t much of a problem, but on darker editions like the black or purple it’s a magnet for fingerprints, which ruins the look sometimes. On the top left of the back panel there’s the fantastically powerful camera, which we’ll talk about later.

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Those flaps I spoke about earlier are there for a reason; to keep the device water and dust proof. The handset is IP58 certified for water and dust resistance, meaning you can run it under water and it can survive up to 30 minutes at depths of just over one metre. Or, as one user did in Europe: drop it in the ocean and leave it there for SIX WEEKS! Unbelievably the handset still functioned once it had been fished out – and to be super clear: the Xperia Z2 in question wasn’t just in a pond or sink, it was submerged in 10 meters of seawater for SIX ENTIRE WEEKS.   

Here’s an extract from the incident, which was published by The Xperia Blog: “Once they got back to land, they were able to call the phone, which to their surprise still had reception. Six weeks later, his friend who lives in the region went scuba diving and managed to recover the phone.”

Impressive stuff, indeed!

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On the previous version of the phone and on the tablet devices those flaps can feel really flimsy, but the build on this latest version makes them feel much stronger.

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There are a couple of changes from the Xperia Z1 here though. First off, you’ll notice when you first pick up the device it’s a lot lighter than the previous handset. It’s still a pretty heavy device mainly down to the glass panelling on the back which most other smartphones don’t have. The Xperia Z2 is only 7g lighter than the Z1 at 163g but the weight feels more evenly balanced out around the phone.

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This new version is also a touch bigger than the Xperia Z1. The display has been bumped up ever so slightly but the new dimensions come in at 146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2 mm. The Z1 however has dimensions of 144 x 74 x 8.5 mm, so whilst it’s a little taller than its predecessor it’s both thinner and narrower.

Display

One of the most impressive aspects of the Xperia Z1 was that beautiful 5-inch display packed full of detail, making for a great user experience as long as you’re a fan of larger touchscreen phones. The Xperia Z2 doesn’t let you down here either. This time it’s been upped even further to 5.2-inches at the same full HD 1080p resolution.

That offers a pixel density of 424 pixels-per-inch (ppi), which is a step down from the Xperia Z1’s 441ppi but it’s barely noticeable.

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The display is an IPS LCD touchscreen with 16 million colours. Sharpness is a real boast on the handset and the brightness allows for a fantastic display even in bright sunlight, no more squinting to see whilst you’re out and about.

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Xperia displays are at their best when displaying media though. Watching 1080p video is a treat as the display offers a great experience. Just remember though, if you’ve got that display on full brightness it’s not going to last all day if you’re a really active user. The best bet is to put it into “adapt to lighting conditions” mode which will save you a little bit of extra juice by varying the power throughout the day.

Hardware, Storage and Connectivity

Let’s pop the hood to see what’s inside the Sony Xperia Z2. There’s a Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor clocked at 2.3GHz. It’s a top of the range processor which offers a fluid interface experience with no noticeable lag. At moments I had dozens of apps open at once with no problem at all.

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Now it’s time to test out that Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor and see what it can really do, so we ran a few levels on one of the most demanding games available on the Android marketplace, Asphalt 8. All of the levels loaded quickly and there was absolutely no lag on any of the levels. It’s a seriously fast paced game which needs big levels to load and render quickly, but graphically it looked impressive.

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Inevitably after a few games the handset began to heat up but it was only toward the top of the handset and it wasn’t distracting from the gameplay at all.

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There’s also 3GB of RAM inside here to help the processor out, which is a noticeable upgrade compared to the Xperia Z1’s 2GB.

Your storage options are much the same here as they were before on the Z1. You get 16GB of storage onboard and then there’s microSD support all the way up to 128GB. Not all the manufacturers offer microSD support that high but of course it’s an extra expense on what you’ve already spent on the handset itself.

We’d still like to have seen a 32GB version here, but it seems like Sony has largely abandonedthat route, at least for now.

Much like every other manufacturer though you don’t actually get the amount of space Sony puts on the box, you get 11.6GB of space after all the Android and UI software takes its share. That’ll be sure to shrink once you get a few Android updates on top. There’s still plenty of room for apps, games, films, music and the rest, but investing in a microSD card is probably a sensible idea.

Connectivity wise you’ve got your standard microUSB cable to charge and connect to your desktop computer when necessary. All the usual options are here including Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11 and 4G LTE Cat4 for mobile data. One of the handsets we’ve been testing out was courtesy of O2 and use of O2’s 4G network was an enjoyable experience when in London. Obviously coverage wasn’t as good outside but you can’t expect it  to be flawless everywhere just yet.

User Interface

Once you take the Sony Xperia Z2 out of the box and set it all up you’ll be running on Android 4.4.2 straight away. On top of that you’ll also get Sony’s own special user interface overlay.

Chances are you know the deal with Android 4.4 KitKat, if not check out this piece here, so I’ll focus on the differences with the Sony overlay. First up you’ll notice is an entirely different design, much more colourful and vibrant thumbnails represent each individual application.

There’s also a very different lock screen which offers a variety of different options including swipe, pin numbers, pattern unlocking or even facial recognition. The facial recognition can play up a little, especially depending on how you look each day, but there’s a back up security code to open it up when it’s not playing ball.

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On the lock screen you also get a bunch of different widgets to play with up top, which can come in useful when checking the time, or for playing music using the included Walkman app.

Sony has included mini apps inside the UI as well, which are smaller applications you can drag around the screen and sit on top of everything else you’re working with. You can resize them at will and it can come in useful to have the calculator right there, but you might as well just use the multitasking window.

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Everything is fully customisable if you hold your finger down on the home screen. There’s a homscreen preview carousel you can use to switch which panel you want to be the home screen, you can also drag in apps or widgets and change the themes at will. Themes change the entire design of the UI including the background.

The keyboard itself can feel a little clunky at times, especially when you’ve got larger fingers like me. The tip here is to try it out for a couple of days once you’ve got the phone and if you’re not getting along well try another custom keyboard such as Swype.

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Personally I think Sony’s UI offers a full and worthwhile overhaul of the entire stock Android look. It’s obviously not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but there are launchers available just for that. The added functionality which Sony offers though does add value, with so much customisation available you can really make the interface look and feel your own.

Battery

New Update Brings Better Call Quality

Sony is rolling out a new update for the Xperia Z2, which should bring with it a few major feature tweaks. First up it improves the call quality of the phone, it was criticised for not being up to scratch on initial release.

Sony has listed another change as “improved charging while battery is low” but not much else is said. How this feature will work isn’t exactly clear just yet, the idea of charging your phone up nice and quick when its low is exciting though.

Improved touch functions are also included as well as the usual performance and bug fixes. Those improved touch functions are said to be improving the tap to wake function of the phone a load more. You’ll find it under the name 17.1.2.A.0.314 and it should be rolling out around the world from July 21 but will take a few days to reach some places.

With a humongous, 5.2-inch, gorgeous-looking 1080p display, you need some powerful battery life to keep it going. The Xperia Z1 had a 3,000 mAh battery and now Sony has topped it up to a 3,200 mAh cell for the Z2. Those numbers never really mean much until you get into testing though.

Here at Know Your Mobile we always test our batteries out by turning up the brightness to full, turning Wi-Fi and mobile data on and running a long film to see how far we can run the battery down. It’s the perfect test for the Xperia Z2 considering it’s designed to play video and look great whilst doing it.

We chose The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for this experiment, a film clocking in just under 2 hours and 40 minutes long. By the end of the film we still had 72% battery left.

When reviewing the original Z1 we chose Django Unchained which is about 5 minutes longer but the battery came in at 68%. All in all Sony has upped the battery life a little more, but not by a dramatic amount. Running an entire film and still having 72% battery left to play with is still quite impressive.

Camera

Sony prides the Xperia range on one seriously impressive camera. It featured on the Xperia Z1 and has returned for the Z2 after rave reviews; a 20.7MP shooter which packs a powerful punch.

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It’s a seriously impressive set up when compared to a number of the other flagship phones and can only really be beaten by Nokia’s Lumia range. The camera is much the same as what was seen on the Xperia Z1 with the same Exmor RS sensor, an f/2.0 aperture and sensor size at 1/2.3″.

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This time around some improvements have been made to the video including some beautiful 4K recording. It’s a shame that the screen isn’t in 4K so you won’t experience the full benefit unless you rig it up to a 4K TV, but it’s useful to start filming your home movies in 4K ready to play on a 4K screen at home.

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Here are the results from the Z2’s panoramic mode.

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Directly inside the camera app there’s now the addition of a Vine mode which allows you to create those six-second clips quickly and easily. Sony has also introduced a background defocus feature which allows you to blur the background of an image. To be able to use it you need to be in the camera application when you want to take the photo, you can’t do it in post-production, which is rather annoying as you might not always know you want to blur the background beforehand.

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Unlike say the HTC One M8 though, the Sony Xperia Z2 is honest and admits it’s blurring the background of the image rather than letting you re-focus. The M8 claims to re-focus the image based on where you select, but it’s actually just blurring the rest.

The camera stood up surprisingly well in the dark as well, especially in the first shot coming up here. It struggled a little more at a recent gig with flashing strobes and huge screens though. 

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Then of course there’s the Sony AR Effect option which is more fun than it really should be. Head over to the different options and choose the thumbnail of a T-Rex. Then you’ve got a variety of different versions to choose from including dinosaurs, underwater or fairytale. Point your camera toward whatever you want to photograph and the camera will pick up different objects and transform them on the screen, depending on what you’re looking at.

It’s so much fun to take photos of your friends and family surrounded by fish or being hunted by a T-Rex. I’d hoped Sony would add in a few more in here since the Z1 and was a bit disappointed when the options were much the same. I then discovered you can download some inside the Google Play Store which all seem to be free. There’s only another six options though including Funky Disco, Celebration, Comic, Horror, Butterfly, or my personal favourite; Spider-Man. See there are perks to Sony owning the rights to that particular superhero.

Just look at this bunch of beautiful shots. KYM’s Reviews editor is Spiderman on the left, KYM mascot Christopher Walken is the one with googly eyes in the middle whilst I’m on the far right looking rather dashing. It’s all a good bit of fun; we’re still shocked it picked up Walken’s face from a piece of A4.

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Conclusion

After all of that, what do we really think of the Sony Xperia Z2? It’s a solid upgrade on an already great handset. Making it thinner, lighter and with an even bigger and better display than before, making for an even better experience.

It’s one of the best looking and fastest devices available on the market. You would be hard pressed to find a handset which looks this good, manages to handle the amount it can,  whilst also having such a large display.

The size of the handset can be a turn off for those with smaller hands but there’s the Z1 Compact and inevitable Z2 Compact to keep those people happy with only slightly downgraded specs.

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The main question still buzzing in my brain is; why Sony has rushed this handset so quickly off the production line? It’s a fairly low-key refinement of the Sony Xperia Z1 which was quite unnecessary so quickly. The upgrade in processor and trimming down the design is a great touch but waiting a couple more months would have allowed an extra powerful processor in the Snapdragon 805 – a truly mind blowing upgrade to an already impressive device.

No-one can blame Sony for adopting a six month device cycle, it’ll drive up sales which the company really needs right now. But all those who do purchase a Sony Xperia flagship will be a little disheartened to know that the next big device will be available only a couple of months down the line. It’s not exactly the most motivating reason to upgrade.

If you’ve got the money right now though, the Xperia Z2 is a worthy upgrade to the Z1 and worth investing in just for the few minor changes.

Sony Wireless Speaker Bundled-In With Xperia Z2 By Vodafone

Fancy picking up the Xperia Z2? Vodafone’s got an offer you might be interested in then. The network is bundling a free Sony Wireless Speaker (model SRS-BTV5) with every Sony Xperia Z2 purchased as part of its 3G or 4G price plans – while stocks last.

For reference, it’s this little spherical chap here:

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The wireless speaker can be paired via One Touch NFC as well as conventional Bluetooth. Your paired device can sit up to 10 metres away from the speaker.

One last thing, you have to redeem the offer online once you’ve bought your Xperia Z2 with its 3G or 4G package. Check it out here.

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