Sony was the first to launch a new flagship smartphone this year. Announced at CES 2013 the Xperia Z blew us away and, despite key rivals in the Samsung Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, is still topping our chart months later. Updated on 17/06/2013. See also Group test: What's the best smartphone?
Sony has definitely upped its game with the Xperia Z after numerous Xperia smartphones throughout 2012 failed to stand up to the competition. Take a look at The Sony Xperia Z Ultra's specs and features: the newest 'phablet' on the market.
Sony Xperia Z: Design and build qaulity
The design of the Xperia Z looks a lot like last year's line-up. In other words it's very square. However, the handset looks a significant amount more stylish than the likes of the Xperia S and Xperia T. This is partly down to its clean and uninterrupted front but mostly because of its iPhone-esque tempered glass rear cover. It's a shame that the rear of the Xperia Z is spoiled slightly by the statutory information and 'do not bin' logos etc. See also: Huawei Ascend D2 hands-on review.
The Xperia Z is available in black, white and purple. Our black review sample had a slight blue tint in certain light.
Despite being a very large phone the Xperia Z doesn't feel oversized in the hand. It's very thin at and light for phone its size – just 7.9mm and 145g. Furthermore the handset is dust and waterproof which is good news for accident prone users or anyone who wants to use it in a bath or similar situation. This does mean that mean things like the headphone port must be hidden behind flaps which will, er, flap around when you have headphones plugged in.
Overall the Xperia Z has a distinctly premium and desirable nature. Build quality is excellent and the attention to detail is exemplary. Sony says there is a shatterproof coating on the glass but it's still not the kind of device you would want to drop on a hard floor.
However, there is one small element which has a big impact. There is a slight gap on the front and back of the Xperia Z, on our sample at least, between then glass and the frame of the phone which invites dirt and dust better than a ride-on street cleaner. This taints the premium feel and means you'll be forever trying to rid the handset of crud.
The HTC One is undeniably well-built in aluminium so is a big rival in this area but we weren't impressed with the plastic casing on offer from the Samsung Galaxy S4.
See also: CES Unveiled 2013 in pictures.
Sony Xperia Z: Hardware and performance
The Xperia Z has the same core specifications as the powerful Google Nexus 4. The 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM yielded a good result in the Geekbench 2 test of 1986, only narrowly short of the Nexus 4's record of 2009.
The Xperia Z with its Adreno 320 managed a very impressive 30fps in the GLBenchmark 2.5.1 graphics test.
The Sony Xperia Z might have been beaten in the benchmarks by the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One but remains a great performer.
It is the 5in Reality Display with its Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution which makes the Xperia Z stand out. The screen is nothing short of stunning and easily the best we've ever seen on a smartphone.
Content looks incredibly sharp thanks to its whopping 441ppi pixel density, the highest we've ever seen on a phone, and colours look particularly rich and vibrant. It really is like holding a TV in your hand and watching a feature length film finally makes sense on a smartphone.
The Galaxy S4 and HTC One both have Full HD screens which are also excellent. On paper the HTC has the highest pixel density but there's little to choose between them.
The Mobile Bravia Engine 2 which is designed to enhance the quality of photos and video mostly brings more saturation to colours. For some content it's a bit overkill and introduces an unrealistic tone. You can turn the engine off in the settings if it's not to your taste.
It's important to remember that this screen is big, and that's no understatement. At 5in it's difficult to reach a portion, mainly the top, of the display when using the Xperia Z with one hand. Unfortunately for those who it would suit there's no smaller version. It's interesting, though, that the Xperia Z is only marginally bigger than the HTC One X+, for example, which has a 4.7in screen.
In the modern age of smartphone, the Xperia Z is a bit limited on the storage front with only a 16GB model. There is a microSD card for up to 32GB cards, though.
It's an area where the Sony beats the Samsung and HTC in our opinion. The HTC One has no microSD card slot and we weren't impressed with the fact that the Galaxy S4 had only half its storage available out-of-the-box.
The Xperia Z is not short on connectivity, there's Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC (near-field communications), aGPS and DLNA (digital living network alliance) certifications. Beyond the usual microUSB and headphone ports, there are two metal contacts on the left hand side of the handset for use with a docking station. Furthermore, the Xperia Z comes with support for 4G LTE networks.
With NFC, the Xperia Z can connect to a range of Sony accessories with one touch including speakers, headphones and Sony's 2013 TV range.
Sony Xperia Z: Cameras
In the past we have been generally impressed with Sony's cameras found on its smartphones and the Xperia Z is no exception. The device has a 13Mp rear facing camera with Sony's Exmor RS sensor. We're very impressed with the camera software and the resulting photos and video. The Superior Auto mode always knows what's going on and adjusts the settings accordingly, although we did get a better result once or twice by switching it to normal.
There's a burst mode (10 frames per second), sweep panorama, various filter effects and the HRD mode is particularly good. The Xperia Z is the first smartphone to enable HDR in video mode. There's also a decent 2Mp front facing webcam. Like the rear camera, it can shoot Full HD 1080p video.
The main downside on the camera side of things is that Sony has ditched the dedicated shutter button which it so often uses. Below is a sample photo taken with the rear facing camera.
Sony Xperia Z: Software
The Xperia Z comes pre-loaded with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and will be upgrade to version 4.2 shortly after launch according to Sony. The interface is very similar when compared to the 2012 Xperia smartphones but there are a few changes.
The lockscreen is basic compared to others with only access to the notifications menu, camera and music player controls. It does have an awesome visual blind effect, though.
With an almost up-to-date version of Jelly Bean there are expandable notifications and importantly Google Now. There's no quick settings pull down bar but Sony has placed a few at the top of the normal notifications bar anyway.
The rest of the interface is visually attractive with plenty of wallpapers and widgets for customisation. Pinching on a homescreen panel no longer pulls all the widgets together in the unique way it used to. Instead it simply brings up the editing screen for adding app shortcuts, widgets and the like.
The recent apps part of Android displays in the usual vertical strip but like the Xperia T there are additional 'small apps' including a timer and sticky notes which float around the homescreen like a Windows gadget and can be pinned to either side of the screen as a tab.
There is, of course, access to the Google Play Store for apps, books, magazines, films and music. But Sony also provides its own such as Music Unlimited and PlayStation Mobile as part of the Sony Entertainment Network. It's a pain, though, that many of the apps in the menu open the Play Store or web browser and ask you to download them.
Sony Xperia Z: Battery life
With a 2330mAh battery providing juice for the Xperia Z's components and, most importantly, the Full HD we were apprehensive about battery life. A Sony spokesman we chatted to at CES said the handset should comfortably last a day.
We were pleased to find the Xperia Z not only lasted a day but went a good way through a second. As you can see from the screenshot we went 31 hours and still had 20 percent of the battery remaining.
It's worth noting that we achieved this with moderate usage pattern the Stamina Mode switched on.