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Sony Xperia XZ Premium Review: The First 4K HDR Smartphone

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Sony Xperia XZ Premium Review: The First 4K HDR Smartphone

Sony has had plenty of hits in the mobile tech world, but none of them have been recent. In the US, Sony has struggled to recapture the glory of the 70s and 80s when its industrial design was seen as second to none.

As long as Sony has been making Android smartphones, it just hasn’t managed to stand out from the crowd—at least, not in terms of flagship phones here in the US. Sony doesn’t seem to follow the trends that come out of China and South Korea, but instead walks by the beat of its own drum—for good or bad.

The Xperia XZ Premium is the latest in Sony’s flagship phones, a line that has always been premium. But with the XZ Premium, the company really wants us to know that it’s a “premium” device, built with the most advanced technology. So is that really true? We take a look below to see how it holds up:

Hardware: An outdated design with a brilliant display

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In some ways, it’s strange to call the design of the XZ Premium “outdated.” When you see it in person or hold it in your hand, it’s not that there is one element in particular that makes it feel like a phone from a couple years ago. After all, it’s got that extremely shiny, “mirror” finish, which is all kinds of glamorous.

Speaking of which, it’s hard not to give Sony props for trying something new. Just when you thought everything had been tried in terms of materials, textures, and finishes, you get something like this is which is completely unique. However, unless you’re someone who loves the idea of having a mirror on the back of your phone at all times, the finish is a distraction. It’s obviously a massive fingerprint magnet—more than any phone I’ve ever used. However, it definitely attracts looks in public in the same way an expensive piece of jewelry or clothing would. Perhaps for a certain demographic, that kind of thing is an attractive premise.

But even if having a mirror for a phone sounds cool to you, there are a number of design choices here that combine to make it feel outdated. The most noticeable ones are the harsh edges, the large bezels, the lack of a fingerprint scanner, and the wide shoulders of this thing. It’s the heaviest flagship smartphone you’ll find on the market and the lack of a home button or fingerprint scanner make the bezels feel even larger.

Speaking of the fingerprint scanner, it’s a real shame that this device doesn’t have one. Sony has been doing this for years now in the US, but this core piece of technology really has become standard in most smartphones, especially if you’re going to call yourself a premium device. In the rest of the world, you’ll get a fingerprint scanner on the front of the device, but in the US, it seems as if Sony locked itself up in how it sells unlocked phones in American markets. We don’t know the specifics of the details, but whatever deal Sony made or didn’t make with US carriers is still haunting them.

A lot of these elements have been a part of what Sony has done with the Xperia smartphone line for years and years, which make them feel more like an intentional choice rather than laziness or stubbornness. Some people will refer to the design as a “classic” Sony design, but sitting next to phones like the Galaxy S8 and the iPhone 7, it seems downright old-school.

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Even next to something like the Google Pixel or the OnePlus 5, which feel pretty standard at this point, the Xperia XZ Premium is a large, bulky device—especially considering its display is only 5.5 inches. It’s even slightly thicker and heavier than the company’s previous effort, the Xperia Z5 Premium.

That being said, it does come with that great-looking IPS LCD display with its insane 3840 × 2160 resolution and eye-popping color reproduction. That’s right—it’s a 4K HDR smartphone with a ridiculous 807 ppi (pixels per inch). It ties the company’s 2015 Xperia Z5 Premium, which was highest resolution smartphone ever made, by a long shot. This is what we mean when we say Sony operates on its own playing field: it’s pushing way ahead in certain areas and completely lagging behind in others.

Before we give Sony too much credit though, it should be noted that you may not notice the difference between a 4K smartphone, a 2K smartphone (such as the Galaxy S8 or the LG G6), or even an HD smartphone (such as the Google Pixel or the OnePlus 5). There are a couple of situations where you might notice the difference, such as when using a VR headset or when watching Amazon’s HDR video content, which does look really sharp. As for VR content, you’re not getting true 4K graphics since many of the apps and games don’t render in 4K, but the super-high pixel density does make Daydream VR experiences sharper and more immersive.

The XZ Premium actually only switches to true 4K when it’s applicable to ensure that it’s not wasting precious battery life when it doesn’t matter. It has a fairly large 3230 mAh battery to power all of those pixels, though it’s smaller than what was on the Xperia Z5 Premium. If you’re coming from something like the Galaxy S8, the 3230 mAh battery is a number that will please many. From my time with the phone, I consistently got a full day’s worth of heavy usage, topped off with the phone’s own Stamina Mode when needed.

In terms of other specs, you really are getting a premium device: the latest SoC in the Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM—all waterproof IP68 certified. It’s probably not going to blow away anything you find on rival devices in terms of performance, but the XZ Premium was definitely a speedy machine in our testing with various apps and games. According to GeekBench, it doesn’t quite match the performance numbers of the Galaxy S8, but it fares well enough against other similar flagships and held up well with every task we threw at it.

Camera: Hello Slo-Mo

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Like so many smartphone manufacturers, Sony is riding quite a lot on its phone’s camera to draw interest. The XZ Premium come with 19-megapixel shooter on the back and a 13-megapixel on the front. As with most smartphone cameras, the numbers don’t mean much when it comes to actual performance.

For stills, I found the rear camera to be suitable, though nothing special. I’m sure Sony has a totally capable lens here, but the delicate balance that is image processing isn’t quite right. Especially in Auto mode, the processing seems to be doing a bit too much when in comes to exposure. On bright sunny days, the Auto mode tends to overexpose—and while in low light situations it fares a bit better, you’ll still end up with a bit of noise on your photos. The lens does a decent job of focusing in macro shots, and while it’s a little inconsistent, I was impressed by some of the macro shots I was able to take.

Sony’s camera app overall is a bit disappointing. You can’t do HDR in Auto mode for starters, so for the most part, you’ll want to do things in Manual mode, which can be really clunky. Other than that, there are a couple more missteps here that don’t make much sense, especially given the price of this phone. First is that the XZ Premium doesn’t come with optical image stabilization, which is now even featured in the 4.7-inch iPhone 7. It makes a huge difference in image quality and there’s just not really a good excuse for not including it here. Secondly, the phone has no support for RAW images. That’s not going to matter for most people, but since Android now supports the file format (and other phones like the OnePlus 5 have adopted it), it’s a bit weird that Sony has turned it off.

Despite how Sony sells the phone, if you want the best Android camera, you’ll have to look elsewhere. However, if it’s an amazing slo-mo camera that you want, look no further.

Outside of the HDR display, Sony’s Super Slo-Mo video mode is the headlining feature. We’ve had slo-mo video on the iPhone and the Galaxy phones for years now, but what Sony has done with the XZ Premium is a mile ahead of the competition. The phone shoots slow motion video in 960 frames per second, while results in some pretty amazing slo-mo moments if you can capture it. It all looks really professional, until you have to view it in 720p, which is a bit of a letdown. Overall though, if really cool slo-mo video is what you want, the XZ Premium is your best choice by far.

Software

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The Xperia XZ Premium comes with Android 7.1 Nougat, which is the freshest version of the operating system. However, Sony has done a number of things here to make it not feel like that’s what you’re getting. It’s got its own skin over the OS and while it’s nothing overly intrusive, it does make the experience feel a bit outdated.

These are going to sound nitpicky, but things like refusing to change the Home button or app drawer are just silly. Other small changes that bother me are the enlarged status bar and navigation bar, as well as the enlarged notifications. And no offense to people who like Swype, but can someone explain why you wouldn’t include the beautiful Google Keyboard as the stock keyboard? Maybe it’s just the vanilla Android fan in me talking, but these sorts of changes seem distracting and unnecessary in my eyes.

The part most people will be talking about are the host of Sony apps that come pre-installed, most of which will be ignored by most people. One thing I didn’t mind is that recommended apps page in the app drawer that is actually pretty helpful and convenient.

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Fortunately, Sony leaves the most important parts of Nougat intact, most notably notifications, the app switcher, Google Now, and Google Assistant. Unlike with Samsung, we don’t have a second assistant to make things unnecessarily confusing. There are plenty of Android skins out there that do far worse things, so the XZ Premium gets a pass here. There’s always an opportunity to add features that are actually helpful in these skins, but I have to give Sony credit for restraining itself when it comes to the software.

Most importantly, Sony has done a decent job of getting timely Android updates out to older devices. We’ll have to wait and see how Sony does getting Android O and Android P onto the XZ Premium.

Verdict

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After the delay of the follow-up to the Xperia Z5 Premium, some fans were hoping that Sony was going to reboot the line to modernize some of the design and features. Instead, the XZ Premium is a double-down on what Sony has been doing for years now. The 4K HDR display and the Super Slo-Mo camera are more than gimmicks, but they’re not quite features that will sell phones.

The real problem with the Xperia XZ Premium isn’t the phone itself, it’s the competition that it stands against. When your pricetag is $799, you better be ready to compete against phones like the Galaxy S8, the iPhone 7, and even the LG G6. If Sony really wants to do something significant in the smartphone space, it’s time the Xperia line gets a reboot—and please, no more X’s and Z’s this time.

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