Sony Xperia Z2, A Heavy Weight Smartphone Player

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Introduction

Sony seems to be reducing its phone refresh cycle to crazy-low levels. The Sony Xperia Z2 is it’s latest offering and it has a lot to prove, especially since its predecessor the Xperia Z1 was only released six months earlier, and it’s little brother the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact just a few short months before.This new model is what you can only call a very iterative upgrade, and we have some issues with the design and hardware. However, great battery life, a strong screen and solid camera make it a good choice for those on top-end contracts, or with deep pockets.

Design

The Sony Xperia Z2 looks almost exactly like last year’s Xperia Z1. Its front and back are flat layers of glass, the core of the phone is aluminum and the three parts are joined with thin buffers of black plastic.It’s a pretty strong, assured look, and one Sony’s top end-phones have used since the original Xperia Z arrived back in 2012. We think the phone looks better – more stylish – than the Galaxy S5, but it is not quite as great a visual design as the HTC One M8 or the LG G3. sony xperia z2 - designWhat holds the Xperia Z2 back is that its body is laden with seams, flaps and an obvious dock connector that detract from an otherwise simple style.However, the Xperia Z2 needs most of these interruptions because it is water resistant and sealed-up. With no removable back, there is nowhere obvious for the Xperia Z2 to hide things like the microSIM and microSD card slots. This phone has both, and they sit under chunky, pretty obvious plastic flaps on the phone’s sides. As well as interrupting the look a bit, the construction of the phone does the Xperia Z2’s ergonomics no favors. The tiny plastic trim around the rear glass plate sticks out a fraction of a millimeter (likely a way to protect the rear glass layer), and it only adds to what is a pretty boxy-feeling mobile. You can really feel those seams, and a little curvaceousness can help handling with a phone this size – this is not a curvy phone. We prefer the smoother style of both the Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8 in-hand, much as we criticized the S5 for looking and feeling a bit cheap.The effects of a handset with a pretty severe design become all the more obvious as a phone gets bigger. The iPhone 5S has a pretty angular little body, but it is such an easy-to-handle phone that it is a non-issue. Here we’d be tempted to buy a silicone case just to give the phone a friendlier feel. The fairly boxy design doesn’t make the super-slim-ness of the 8.2mm thick body obvious either, and the slightly larger screen and generous bezels above and below the screen make this phone larger than either of its key rivals from HTC and Samsung.However, the size is nothing like as much of an issue as it is in something like the Xperia Z Ultra. This is a phone, not a phablet. You’ll just need to get two hands involved at times. Other parts of the hardware make intelligent concessions for the phone’s size, too. The power button of the Xperia Z2 is extremely well-placed (for right-handers), sitting perfectly under most thumbs. If we had nothing else good to say about the phone, it could at least claim to have the handiest power button of this generation. Thankfully, there are other good bits.

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Display

The 5.2-inch display packs the same 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution as the previous Z1. As the Z2 is marginally bigger, the screen has a slightly lower pixel density — 423 pixels per inch against the Z1’s 440 — as the same number of pixels are being stretched over a larger area. In reality though, it’s not a difference you’re ever likely to notice.The IPS display is extremely crisp, with small text on Web pages, icon edges and high definition photos looking pin sharp. Sony boasts that the display uses the same “Triluminous” technology as its Bravia TVs, which makes it more vivid. Whatever Sony has done, it’s worked, as the Z2’s display is absolutely superb. It’s not only very bright, it has rich, vibrant colors with plenty of contrast and excellent viewing angles to boot.

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Water Resistance

The Xperia Z2 also offers the best water resistance of all the new top Android phones. A coated headphone jack and the two rubber-sealed ports help the phone earn its IP55 and IP58 certification. This means you can submerge the phone in water and it can take being pummeled with water jets.While we don’t imagine many of you will take out the high pressure hose to test this, it does mean you can put the phone under the tap and let rip if you get a bit of grime, pocket lint or chocolate stuck in the phone’s various indents. Especially the somewhat-unnecessary dock connector and lanyard loop.Water resistance is handy, but it means you have to remove and reseal a flap every time you charge the Xperia Z2. This gets annoying, and may result in the seal failing further down the line – it’s only a little bit of rubber, after all.

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Software and processor

The Z2 arrives running the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android 4.4.2 KitKat. You’d be right to expect the latest version of software on new launches, but Sony does have a habit of using older Android iterations — the Z1 Compact launched only recently with the aging Jelly Bean — so it’s refreshing to find the latest software on board as standard.Sony has thrown its usual software tweaks into the mix. Although it functions in much the same way as any Android phone, with multiple home-screen panels, a multitasking carousel and an app tray, you’ll also find a customizable app menu, Sony’s own image and video galleries as well as access to its Music and Video Unlimited streaming subscription services (though these will cost you extra). Hop into settings and you can change the theme of the phone. It comes preloaded with standard color palette options, but you can download extra themes that drastically change the interface to give a nautical wood effect, for example, complete with compass icon for the home button. It’s hardly a killer feature, but if you like putting your own stamp on your technology it’s fun to play around with.It’s all powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor clocked in at 2.3GHz, backed up by a very generous 3GB of RAM. That’s a seriously potent lineup of specs so I wasn’t at all surprised that it gave a very strong performance. It achieved an impressive score of 3,822 on the Geekbench 2 benchmark test, easily rivaling both the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8.Navigation was swift and lag-free with no noticeable delays when switching between open apps, diving into menus or flicking around the notifications panel. It handled demanding gaming extremely well too. Riptide GP 2, Asphalt 8, Dead Trigger 2 and GT Racing 2 all played with high frame rates for smooth, enjoyable gameplay.

Camera

sony xperia z2 - cameraThe default Auto mode is much more controlling than that of most phones. It’s the Manual mode that provides the ‘normal’ mobile shooting experience.  Let’s be clear – this is not a real manual mode. It lets you choose the resolution of your photos (It’s all 8MP in Auto), pick scene modes and choose whether or not to use HDR. It’s not for photo pros, it just gives you a little say beyond when to press the shutter button. The rest of the camera modes are a little more creative or frivolous (/fun). There’s the AR (augmented reality) mode seen in the Xperia Z1, which plasters anything from dinosaurs to little gnome fellas on your screen – kids will love it. There’s a fantastic selection of filters too, including some pretty dynamic picks like the Harris shutter, fisheye lens and kaleidoscope.The Xperia Z2 also has a go at the sort of ‘fake bokeh’ mode that every new phone seems to have attempted this year. The HTC One M8 does it with special hardware, the Galaxy S5 and LG G Pro 2 with a normal camera and software. This phone uses software, taking two shots – one with the subject in focus, another with the subject as out of focus as possible. An algorithm them compares the two shots to effectively separate the subject and let you blow everything else in the image further out of focus.The Sony Xperia Z2 has the highest-resolution camera among its big-name peers – the Galaxy S5, the iPhone 5S and HTC One M8. It uses a 20.7-megapixel sensor. What’s initially hard to get your head around, though, is that it uses this sensor primarily to take better 8-megapixel photos. Not 20-megapixel ones.Our assumption is that Sony has been producing small pixel-pitch mobile sensors for so long that it’s much easier/cheaper to develop a 20.7-megapixel sensor than an 8-megapixel one of the same size. And, of course, it sounds better on the spec list as-is. This is a 1/2.3-inch sensor, a fair bit larger than the 1/3-inch sensor of the iPhone 5S, the 1/2.5 S5 sensor and the 1/3-inch One M8 sensor. When you shoot in the auto mode, the output from the 20-megapixel sensor is used to create a higher-fidelity 8-megapixel image than most phones of that resolution could muster.When dealing with poor lighting, the Xperia Z2 is pretty solid. By using multiple sensor pixels to create each pixel in an 8-megapixel image, the camera can continue with reasonably low levels of noise well past sunrise, as long as there is enough light for the auto-focus system to actually lock onto.Like the Xperia Z1, the Xperia Z2 has ways to deal with very low light conditions without using a flash. But you might say the phone actually goes too far.

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4K video capture

The Z2 has a trick up its sleeve in the form of 4K video capture — that’s considerably more than the resolution previously available. I put it against the S5, which can also shoot 4K, and watched the footage back on a 65-inch Panasonic 4K TV.In resolution terms, I was thoroughly impressed by both phones. The clarity of the waves and ripples on the river Thames was incredible, while small details on the brickwork of St Paul’s Cathedral and leaves on the trees outside looked extremely crisp — I was amazed that the footage was shot on a phone.Neither phone is perfect though. The Z2’s main problem is its auto-focus, which continually readjusts during filming, causing the entire image to quickly go out of focus. That might not matter to you if you’re only filming your friends in the park, but it makes the Z2 unsuitable for more professional purposes.The Z2 does have more realistic colors however, with the S5’s looking unnaturally over-saturated. Neither the Z2 or the S5 handled movement in a scene particularly well. I shot the footage on a tripod to avoid hand-shake, but cyclists, birds and cars moving across the scenes looked rather distorted. Overall though, the S5 has the edge over the Z2, with a much more stable auto-focus. Although both phones certainly captured an impressive level of detail, the question still remains as to whether 4K shooting is strictly necessary on a phone. Neither phone’s displays are able to display the footage at max resolution and 4K TVs still cost thousands of pounds.It does at least allow you to digitally zoom in to your video on your phone to get a better closeup. The quality of the footage when you’re shooting when zoomed in isn’t brilliant — it’s only digitally cropping into the sensor, rather than using much higher quality optical zooming — and the shaking from your hand will be a lot more noticeable. I found it’s much nicer to be able to pinch to zoom into video during playback, letting you pick out details that you can’t really see when viewing the whole scene.

Media

music

sony xperia z2 - musicThe Walkman app is fairly straightforward, providing access to all the songs stored on the handset and microSD card, with all your usual play controls available. You will also find shortcut controls make their way into the notification bar and onto the lockscreen, giving you easier access to your tunes and saving you from having to fire up the app every time. Sony has built in a couple of sound effects into the Xperia Z2, with ClearAudio+ automatically adjusting the sound settings for each song you listen to.You can always disable this in favor of the more traditional graphic equalizer, but I found it worked well.The Xperia Z2 also has a “dynamic normalizer” which sounds pretty space age, but all it really means it that it will monitor the volume of all your tracks and ensure they all stay at a similar level.This saves you from getting deafened when your shuffled playlist moves from a heart felt ballad to some intense death metal.Sound quality through the front facing speakers is very good, and you’ll be able to enjoy all your favorite tunes without issue.While there is a noticeable difference, the noise cancelling isn’t as good as some over the ear headphones I’ve used, but considering you’re getting these free in the box it’s a nice touch.Sound quality through the earphones is very good throughout the dynamic range, and they’ll satisfy any casual listener.They aren’t the most attractive earphones I’ve seen, and the additional bulk around the buds means they protrude from the ears somewhat. It’s not a huge issue, but for the fashion conscious among you they may be a no go.

Video

Start playing a movie on the Sony Xperia Z2 and you’ll feel like this is what the handset was built for.The front facing speakers and beautiful full HD display give you an excellent movie watching experience. Colors are bright and movement well defined, pulling you into your film.I’ve already mentioned the IPS screen technology that Sony has included in the Xperia Z2, and that makes a big difference when you compare it with video playback on the Xperia Z1.Video Unlimited is Sony’s own movie store where you can buy and rent films, although you’ll have to leave the Movies app to browse the store in the Video Unlimited application.Any purchased films will show up in the Movies app however, keeping all your videos in one place.Of course Google Play also offers up its own movie library too, so you’re pretty much spoilt for choice on the Xperia Z2.

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Battery life

sony xperia z2 - batteryIt has a 3200mAh power pack on-board, which is bigger than the Samsung and HTC, although it doesn’t provide superior performance.With moderate usage (email, messaging, calls, web browsing, social networking and some camera action) I was easily able to eek out a day and a half of battery life on the Xperia Z2.If you’re slightly more careful the Z2 will go pretty much two full days on a single charge, and that’s partly thanks to the Snapdragon 801 processor under the hood which delivers superior power efficiency over the 800 which featured in the Xperia Z1 and LG G2.Running the battery test of a 90 minute video at full brightness (230 lux in the Xperia Z2’s case) with various accounts syncing in the background saw a drop on 20% on the Z2.That’s a slightly poorer performance than the Galaxy S5 which lost 16%, but better than the One M8 which saw a 23% drop in the same test.It’s not a disastrous result, but if you have a serious mobile movie or gaming addiction you’ll want to keep a charger close by as chances are the Xperia Z2 won’t make it to the end of the day.Sony does provide a range of power management options, the main one being Stamina mode which disables mobile data and Wi-Fi connectivity when not in use in a bid to save as much juice as possible.Stamina mode can also restrict hardware performance (if you chose it to), and while you’ll still be able to do everything on the Xperia Z2, load times are noticeably slower and I’d advise against loading up the likes of Real Racing 3.To be fair though, if you’re running that low on battery, gaming should be out of the question anyway.If you’re not desperately trying to eek out every last drop of juice there are some less aggressive power saving modes available. One of which is low-battery mode where you can hand pick functions to disable if the battery drops below a certain percentage.Another is location based Wi-Fi which I’ve briefly touched on already in this review. This switches off Wi-Fi when you leave the location of a saved network, and turns it back on when you re enter the area.

Summary

The water and dust-resistant Xperia Z2 comes only six months after the previous Xperia Z1 flagship was released. Although it’s quick update, the Xperia Z2 features a larger, 5.2-inch IPS display that boasts a new imaging technology, called Live Color LED. Of course, the screen is not the only improvement over its predecessor. Although it’s even thinner and lighter, the Xperia Z2 runs on the brand new 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 chipset, paired with a fantastic 3 GB of RAM. The 20.7MP camera on its back is capable of 4K recording, slow-motion video, and adding real-time effects. Stereo speakers are now available, as well as noise cancellation and many more software and hardware extras. The Xperia Z2 is powered by a 3200mAh battery, which considerably improves talk time. It runs the latest Android version, 4.4 KitKat. All things considered, the Z2 is an improvement in every way.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z2 combines blistering performance, a stunning display, an excellent camera and cutting-edge Android software into a body that’s gorgeous to look at and waterproof too. It’s a superb all-round performer, but it will set you back a hefty wodge of cash. It’s so similar to the previous Z1 that I don’t think it’s worth upgrading, but if you’re on an older Android handset and keen to get something new, the Z2 provides everything you should expect from a top-of-the-line smartphone.