As interesting as the new Xperia X lineup was in rebranding Sony’s flagship efforts, none of them could touch the Xperia Z series of years past in terms of prestige. Adding that “Z” to the Xperia XZ sort of, kinda, brought back that old flame, but it just wasn’t there for me. And that was the issue at hand.
The Xperia XZ came at a time when smartphones were already rocking up to 6GB of memory (the XZ had half of that), Quad HD displays (the XZ, again, settled for nearly half that), and slightly better processors. But that wasn’t the point of buying into the XZ experience; you buy one because of its fans-first approach, which we talked about a while back. At the same time, I just couldn’t recommend it over the more affordable, yet more feature-loaded flagships out there.
That changes with the Xperia XZ Premium, which aims to rectify what the non-Premium XZ couldn’t accomplish.
An evolution of a familiar aesthetic
Once again, this is practically the same design language we’ve been seeing from Sony since the original Xperia Z launched in 2013. That’s ages ago! Sure, there were refinements every now and then — such as the use of ALKALEIDO metal and a more ergonomic power button infused with the best-placed fingerprint scanner in the business — but it’s the same old look we’ve grown accustomed to.
Don’t get me wrong; while the XZ Premium is definitely gorgeous, its smudge-loving, hyper-reflective glass back can only bring it as far as my unsightly fingerprints do. It’s reminiscent of Sony’s previous excessively high-end smartphone, the Xperia Z5 Premium, which we reviewed in all its glory back in 2015.
And yet, the best design cues are all here. The volume buttons are now rightfully positioned above the power button; its 5.5-inch display (with the balanced top and bottom bezels) feels so perfectly sized in my somewhat large hands; the front-facing stereo speakers and IP68-rated water and dust resistance made a return; and the rear camera is still flush with the back panel — no wobbles on tables!
What you actually come for
But seriously, what you should really be after is the 4K resolution of its display. It’s only the second time Sony implemented such a monstrous pixel count on one of its phones, with the Z5 Premium being the last one. The difference here is it comes with an HDR (High Dynamic Range) panel this time, leading to deeper blacks and brighter highlights simultaneously.
As you can guess, you’d need content optimized for the resolution and HDR capability to truly get the most out of it. That’s a tall order with 4K HDR videos still in the early stages of breaking into the mainstream market — heck, finding such content on YouTube is considered special, and that’s if your internet connection is fast enough to stream without buffering every few seconds.
From my own tests, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between videos shown in 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels) and Quad HD (2560 x 1440 pixels). The 5.5-inch screen is simply to small and the pixels are already densely packed enough at Quad HD. Like on the Z5 Premium, it feels like Sony is just showing off, rather than implementing a functional feature everyone can appreciate from the get-go.
Slower than slow, faster when it counts
The other highly touted feature is the super-slow-motion video recording, something we already enjoyed back in MWC last February:
It’s such a novelty feature, but we can’t get enough of the 960fps slow-mo video recording. Yes, that’s 960 frames per second! It’s the result of combining a super-fast processor in the Snapdragon 835, and a stronger focus on making a single camera great, instead of adding another one for optical zoom or background blur effects.
As for the still photo quality, we can’t give the same amount of praise. Although focus tracking and locking on to a subject is speedy, the final products (especially at night) sometimes left a lot to be desired. The issue seems to lie in the post-processing, which didn’t know how to optimize each photo’s colors or noise reduction, leaving us with mushy parts in some images. These are our best shots from a recent trip to Taipei, Taiwan:
Not bad really, as long as you take several shots and pick the best one. Our experience with the front-facing 13-megapixel camera was much more pleasant. Thanks to its own autofocusing system, which is still surprisingly rare in modern smartphones, selfies were sharp no matter how close or far our faces were from the lens.
Something new, something older
As mentioned earlier, a high point for the XZ Premium is its use of Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 835 SoC (System on a Chip). This processor is no joke; it’s the tiniest, most efficient, and most powerful of its kind. It’s the same chip that handles Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and OnePlus’ upcoming flagship handset. Partnered with 4GB of memory, up to 64GB of storage with microSD expansion, and the choice of owning a dual-SIM version, this is the definition of a premium Xperia device.
My only qualm lies in the actual video-watching experience. With a 3230mAh battery capacity, the XZ Premium doesn’t exactly last long for movie marathons. The battery percentage reaches near 10 percent after watching two full movies (about two hours each), and the average screen-on time with mixed usage hovers around five hours in a single day. In addition, despite having two separate speakers blasting audio towards your face, the maximum volume is inadequate. I ended up connecting my Sony MDR-1A headphones whenever I wasn’t too lazy to reach for them.
And now we have to talk about an ongoing legacy: the Xperia UI. Being a user since the first Xperia Z smartphone, I must say there hasn’t been much change since 2013, and that’s disappointing. Having been spoiled by the advancements of several Android Nougat-based interfaces and even Android O on our Pixel, going back to the Xperia UI feels like a trip down memory lane. The notifications and quick settings panel takes up a lot of space; the settings menu chooses to spread out several categories without simplification; and the side-scrolling app drawer doesn’t feel that fluid anymore.
Is this your GadgetMatch?
I have to look at this from three different perspectives to get a proper answer: a hardcore multimedia consumer, myself, and an Xperia fan.
For users heavily reliant on their smartphone to get things done, the XZ Premium is an excellent choice. As one of the few handsets to have a Snapdragon 835 chipset, there is no going around how fast and efficient this phone is. Not once did it overheat during intense use, and the overall audio-visual treat of its display, speakers, and camera — despite their shortcomings — rarely failed me. Again, its Xperia interface is a little behind the competition, but all the Android 7.1 Nougat optimization is still there.
As for myself, I have a hard time stomaching the price tag. At INR 61,990 in India and PhP 45,490 in the Philippines, it’s up there with the Galaxy S8 in pricing, and this is for a phone that hasn’t evolved much in design, features, or interface. If Sony somehow managed to trim down the bezels, overhaul the UI, or add another class-defining feature, I’d be more inclined to spend for such a premium.
And for Xperia fans, this should be classified as a maybe. Do you really need a 4K display and super-slow-mo video recording over whatever Xperia you have now? If not, I’d recommend looking for a discounted Xperia XZ instead or the more recent Xperia XZs, which has slightly better specifications over its older counterpart.