At Berlin’s IFA 2016 trade show in Germany, Sony announced the Xperia XZ, its latest signature phone that, according to the company, offers the very best technologies it has to offer. 

At $699 unlocked, the XZ isn’t cheap — it’s right up there with the biggest names in the industry. That said, one has to wonder whether it’s actually worth the premium, or if there are other choices on the market that could be an even better fit.

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The Xperia XZ supports dual SIMs and up to 64GB of expandable storage depending on the market.

Did Sony do better than Samsung this year, better than Apple? In a word, no. The Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 remain our top choices for smartphone of the year. (Maybe Google’s Pixel will have something to say about that?)

Which is important to note because Sony badly needs a superphone to turn around its slumping mobile business. Sales are down 40 percent year-on-year for the second quarter of 2016, and Sony has reduced forecasts for the midrange segment and downsized operations in “unprofitable regions.”

Unfortunately for the Japanese electronics giant, the XZ isn’t the savior it had hoped for. But it is a solid effort.

Familiar, but improved in the right ways

Sony hasn’t always been a fan of drastic cosmetic changes, and it shows on the Xperia XZ. If you’ve seen the Xperia Z5 or Z5 Premium from the previous year, you’ve essentially seen the XZ.

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Water-resistant, not waterproof.

A thick plastic frame bonds two blocky, rectangular panels; all the physical buttons are on the right edge, exactly where you expect them to be; the SIM and microSD cards go into the left side of the phone; the top and bottom edges remain flat; there are two stereo speakers on the front — smaller, this time around, but just as nice-sounding. The XZ, like Sony’s recent smartphone efforts, likewise isn’t afraid of water. Just don’t dunk it in the pool or in a glass of water because it isn’t waterproof.

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The slippery glass back of the Z5, however, was jettisoned for the latest installment. The rear now consists of two metal parts, with the lower section painted in a darker finish. It is made of what Sony calls “alkaleido metal,” which makes it more lustrous and, in Sony’s mind at least, more visually appealing than plain Jane metal. The material also, however, makes fingerprints and smudges easier to see under the right light and angles.

This is Sony at its finest when it adopts a minimalist and unbending approach to designing the next smartphone superstar.

Subtle but welcome refinements are what separates the current Sony flagship from its predecessors. With the exception of the awkwardly positioned volume rocker, every tweak to the formula enhances the phone’s beauty, its handling, or both. The glass on the front gently spills toward the sides, and so does the metal back cover, creating a symmetrical look that compliments the overall aesthetic perfectly. The sides are contoured to make things look neater and one-handed operation, less troublesome.

This is Sony at its finest when it adopts a minimalist and unbending approach to designing the next smartphone superstar. And although some people may not like what they see, particularly the big chin below the screen that serves no purpose other than to make the front look symmetrical, we happen to like the look and feel of the Xperia XZ. A lot, to be honest. It’s a breath of fresh air in an industry full of Apple and Samsung copycats, and it’s plenty comfortable to use for anyone with smallish hands.

Loaded optics

The XZ sports a rear-facing camera with more bells and whistles than any Sony smartphone camera that preceded it. We’re talking a 23-megapixel sensor; a wide-angle lens with f/2.0 aperture; an RGB sensor for better color fidelity; advanced optical image stabilization to steady shots and footage; and laser autofocus to improve focus accuracy and speed. Throw in 4K video recording, augmented-reality effects, plus several other software tricks, and you’ve got a solid camera package, right?

Well, yes and no. On one hand, it’s fun to play around with some of the phone’s shooting modes; on the other hand, we’re not convinced its 23-megapixel camera is the best on the market. It’s not even the second-best, or even the third-best. Nor is it the fastest, which, for all its purported dazzle, is rather disappointing. Focusing, as we found out, is slow, even unreliable at times, and many of our night shots showed a purple haze, something we weren’t able to replicate with the Galaxy S7 and the iPhone 7.

The XZ is one of those phones that seems like it was specifically designed to render an HD video or a high-quality mobile game.

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The XZ has a loaded 23-megapixel rear camera.

Good, not exceptional

An unassuming home button along the right-hand side does double duty as a fingerprint reader (in non-U.S. markets, unfortunately), which we found to be surprisingly quick and accurate, despite what its size and shape may indicate. Being located on the side of the XZ rather than on the front or on the back means users can easily unlock the device no matter which way it faces. By design or accident, its location favors righties, as their thumb naturally lands on the sensor when they pick up the handset or take it out of their pocket.

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Its screen is as good as it gets for an LCD panel.

The 5.2-inch LCD display is 1080p, the bare minimum for a flagship device. But don’t let that mislead you. In typical Sony fashion, the screen is top-notch and is easily one of the best out there. Color accuracy and contrast levels are excellent; black are inky, allowing for plenty of depth to an image or video; viewing angles are absolutely super, with zero color shift even at extreme angles.

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So, what does all this translate to in terms of daily use? Viewing pleasure, that’s what this is all about. The XZ is one of those phones that seems like it was specifically designed to render an HD video or a high-quality mobile game. Had it been a tad bigger, its screen, a lot sharper (at Quad HD), it would’ve served as a compelling counter to Samsung’s “AMOLED is better than LCD” movement.

Specs-wise, the XZ sees a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 under the exterior, coupled with 3GB of memory and up to 64GB of onboard storage. For its asking price, one might expect more RAM or more storage, of which none are present here. That shouldn’t bother anyone too much, because this phone will run everything you throw at it smoothly. In the few weeks we’ve used it, our test unit never ran out of RAM, nor had issues with keeping multiple apps alive in the background.

There’s better value to be found in the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the Apple iPhone 7.

Battery life can be summed up in one word: average. It doesn’t have the same longevity as older Sony models and devices in the Xperia Compact range, but the XZ can cover a a full day of active use. A more judicial usage involving less time connected to an LTE network and more time on Sony’s Stamina (read: battery-saving) mode should push 2,900mAh battery to a day and a half, albeit obviously at the expense of a few functions.

Fast charging is supported, but you’ll need to purchase a compatible Type-C charger to utilize the feature. Sony will happily sell you one if you’re unsure of which charger to buy.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you don’t mind paying iPhone money for a premium phone that can get wet, Sony’s Xperia XZ is a decent pick. But there’s better value to be found in the Samsung Galaxy S7, which has a sharper and more vibrant display and a camera that doesn’t back down from difficult situations. If you’re a fan of iOS, or if you already own an Apple device or two, though, you’ll be better off with the iPhone 7. Either phone can withstand water splashes and spills, too.

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A closer look at the hardware.

 

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The back is made of lustrous metal.

 

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