Hands-on Preview: Sony Xperia XZ1 smartphone


If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? That age-old question now has a 2017 equivalent: if there’s no 4K HDR content for your phone, does having a 4K HDR screen even matter?

Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium was first past the post with these two desirable bits of display tech, but Amazon and Netflix weren’t exactly in a hurry to stream content to it. Full HD HDR seems to be the way to go.

Which is where the XZ1 comes in.

It takes most of what made the XZ Premium such a killer phone, at least on paper, and swaps the 4K screen for a more sensible 1080p panel. HDR sticks around, though, so your boxset binge sessions will still look their best.

We weren’t blown away by the XZ Premium, in spite of its killer specs, so will the more restrained XZ1 make a better impression? Here’s what we thought after a hands-on session ahead of the phone’s announcement at IFA this week.

DESIGN & BUILD

Oh, would you look at that: another Xperia smartphone that barely looks different from the old one. Sony’s styling hasn’t had a significant shake-up since the original Xperia Z arrived, and that doesn’t change here.

That means you get the same angular shape, same massive top and bottom bezels surrounding the 5.2in screen, and same minimal back that looks more like Space 2001’s monolith than a smartphone. The rear camera sits flush to the phone, too, which only adds to the similarity.

Sony has stuck with an all-aluminium build this time, though, instead of copying the XZ1 Premium’s mirror-like glass finish. Whereas that was an absolute fingerprint magnet, here you don’t have to constantly polish the phone just to keep it looking clean. OCD phone owners: your prayers have been answered.

The fingerprint reader on the side is as excellent as ever, perfectly placed where your thumb naturally sits (if you’re right-handed, anyway) and quick to unlock the phone. IP65/IP68 water and dust proofing should keep it safe when you head to the beach, too, or accidentally dunk it in the toilet. Don’t lie, we’ve all done it.

My major concern here is how dated the design is starting to feel. Sit the XZ1 alongside bezel-busting flagships like Samsung’s Galaxy S8, the LG G6 or the Essential Phone, and you’ll wonder why Sony hasn’t gone down the same route.

SCREEN & SOUND

Bezels aside, the XZ1’s 5.2in screen is still very good. Sony has stuck to 1080p here, rather than chase increasingly high resolutions – if you want 4K, you’ll have to step up to the XZ1 Premium.

You do get HDR, though, making the XZ1 the first Full HD phone to get high dynamic range. That means brighter whites, more vibrant colours, and more gradation between hues that should really make HDR videos leap off the screen. And yes, HDR clips really do look a lot better than the SDR originals.

HDR from Amazon Prime was already available on the XZ1 Premium, but Netflix should be arriving alongside the XZ1 when it launches in September. That should mean a lot more content than you can find on Samsung or LG’s HDR-ready phones, which are still limited to one service.

For everything else, the 5.2in LCD has bright colours and exceptional brightness – although contrast isn’t quite as good as we’ve seen from phones with OLED panels. The 1080p resolution might not be huge, but the reduced size overall means you won’t be able to spot individual pixels without pressing your nose up to the screen.

The dual front-facing stereo speakers are a great match to the screen, too. They’re 50% louder, and push out 50% more sound pressure than last year’s phone, easily making it loud enough for playing podcasts while you’re cooking, or catching up with Netflix shows without plugging in headphones.

CAMERA

Sony’s camera smarts have diluted down from the company’s point-and-shoot compacts, so you’d be rightly expecting good things.

On paper, the XZ1 delivers, thanks to a 19MP sensor with predictive capture, smile detection and autofocus burst. Basically, it’ll make it much easier to capture the shots you want, without having to jump into the manual mode.

Predictive capture isn’t new to Xperia phones, but it is turned on by default here, so you won’t forget to enable it. Press the shutter and you’ll get a series of shots to choose from, rather than just one. So no more missed snaps.

Burst mode with tracking autofocus is the real star, though, shooting 10fps for up to 10 seconds but keeping your targets crisp and clear – even when they’re moving around the frame, or in and out of it. The system worked well when I tried it, and is a nice addition to the XZ1’s feature-set, even if it’s not exactly something you’d buy a phone just to have.

Sony’s super slow motion video makes a reappearance, too, shooting 960fps videos that make hyper-active pets and children look about as energetic as a sloth. Resolution is still limited in this mode, but the results are still impressive when you feed it enough light.

Shooting modes aside, though, picture quality is still up for debate. On the pre-launch version I tried, colours were aggressively vibrant and oversaturated, making a vase of flowers look very unnatural. Details look good on the surface, but zoom in and it was easy enough to spot the limitations of the processing.

Things could change before launch, of course, but based on previous Xperia phones, I’m betting Sony’s processing algorithms won’t be toned down very much.

SOFTWARE & 3D SCANNING

Sony is gearing up to launch the XZ1 with Android Oreo out of the box, which means you’ll be as up-to-date as can be once you get one in your pocket.

You’ll get all the same features you’ll find in vanilla Android, like improved lock screen notifications, improved battery life, and picture-in-picture support, just with a trademark Sony twist thanks to that Xperia UI.

It doesn’t feel all that different from previous iterations, with custom icons, a slightly tweaked notification tray and rearranged Settings screen. Sony has filled the app drawer with its own apps, though, many of which just do the same thing as Google’s originals.

The one major new addition is 3D Creator, a 3D scanning tool that’ll let you digitise people’s faces and heads. For some reason.

It works reasonably well, giving you digital models to share online or send off to a 3D printer to be turned into a miniature statue, but the whole concept just feels like one big gimmick. It doesn’t rely on any particular hardware, so certainly doesn’t feel like something you’d buy a phone just to have.

PERFORMANCE & BATTERY

At least the XZ1 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to hardware, keeping pace with the more expensive XZ1 Premium – and all the other big-name phones that have launched this year.

That means a Snapdragon 835 CPU and 4GB of RAM, which is enough to make Android feel particularly snappy. Sony’s minimal Xperia UI isn’t exactly demanding, so there’s nothing to slow your apps and games down. The 1080p resolution helps keep things ticking over, without pushing the GPU too hard either.

You get 64GB of storage, which is more than enough for apps, games and multimedia, plus you can add a microSD card if you do eventually run out of space.

The 2700mAh battery sounds a little small, though. It makes sense on the 4.6in XZ1 Compact, but here you’ve got a much bigger 5.2in screen to power – and that’s before you start playing with HDR.

You do at least get USB-C and fast charge support, but there’s no telling how long you’ll get between top-ups until we give the XZ1 a full review.

SONY XPERIA XZ INITIAL VERDICT

Let’s be honest: unless you’ve been paying attention very, very carefully over the past four years, you’d struggle to tell the XZ1 apart from any of the multitude of Xperia phones that came before it.

Sure, the hardware has improved. HDR video on something that slips in your pocket is very cool, and bringing the same camera tech as the top-end Xperia XZ Premium down to a more affordable price was always going to be a good move – it’s just all wrapped up in a distinctly unexciting design. Even if the metal finish is a whole lot better at hiding fingerprints than the Premium’s shiny glass.

When the rest of the smartphone world is making the jump to front-filling screens with minimal bezels and smooth, curvaceous handsets that are a joy to hold, the XZ1 feels instantly dated before it even goes on sale. Gimmicky 3D scanning tricks and colour-matched headphones are unlikely to make up the difference, too.

It’s still early days, though, and we’ll wait until we’ve given the handset a full review to see how it stacks up against the rest of the smartphone world. Check back closer to launch to see how it gets on.

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