Sony Xperia Z (T-Mobile) review

The Sony Xperia Z is a powerful, sleek new smartphone for splash-prone T-Mobile customers.
Photo of Sony Xperia Z (T-Mobile)

Sure, the Apple iPhone 5 may have a gazillion apps, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 may have countless cool features, and the HTC One may be built out of a block of aluminum, but one dip into the pool, one slip into the kitchen sink, or one drop into the toilet (gross) and they’re history. So for some people, Sony’s latest smartphone for T-Mobile, the $99.99 Xperia Z, has the ultimate killer feature: water resistance. It also happens to be an all-around great phone, with a large, gorgeous display, fast performance, and a good camera… that you can use to record video underwater. It isn’t quite as powerful as the HTC One or the Galaxy S 4, but if you’ve been known to keep a bag of rice around to revive waterlogged devices, the Sony Xperia Z may be just the phone for you.

Design
Next to the HTC One, the Xperia Z is one of the sleekest Android phones we’ve ever seen. Framed out by a polyamide skeleton, the Xperia Z is covered in scratch-resistant, tempered glass on all sides and protected by a shatterproof film. I wouldn’t suggest dropping this phone on the ground and expecting it to be no worse for the wear, but it has a very solid feel in the hand. It measures 5.47 by 2.79 by 0.31 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.15 ounces, which makes it just slightly larger than the Galaxy S 4, but it also feels a lot more premium. And while this isn’t a good phone if you’ve got small hands, it is a nice, manageable size considering the large 5-inch screen.

In addition to the striking, primarily glass design, the Xperia Z meets military specifications IP55 and IP57. That means the phone is dust resistant and submersible in up to three feet of water for up to 30 minutes. For this to work, you need to make sure that all of the external ports are properly sealed, but the phone is programmed by default to let you know when they aren’t (you can turn these popup notifications off if you wish to live dangerously). We tested the Xperia Z’s water resistance by submerging it in a pitcher filled with water for 30 minutes at a time, and never once did it falter. In fact, you can even turn on the video camera and film underwater, which I’ll discuss in more detail later.

First let’s talk about the display. The Xperia Z’s 5-inch, 1080p screen is powered by Sony’s Mobile Bravia 2 engine, and it looks fantastic. Every inch of the display is comprised of 443 pixels, which makes text, images, and video all look remarkably sharp. Compared with the Galaxy S 4, the Xperia Z looks more crisp, while colors on the GS 4 are more saturated. Which display looks better is really a matter of preference, but my vote is for the Xperia. Still, the HTC One bests them both, though it’s a little smaller, at 4.7 inches.

The Xperia Z has a notification light in the upper right corner, a la BlackBerry. A flashing blue light, for instance, means you have a new message or a missed call. This is a useful feature I’m surprised hasn’t made its way to more phones yet.

Your two physical controls can be found on the right side of the phone. There’s Sony’s trademark aluminum Power button in the middle, and a volume rocker right below. There’s also a tiny cutout for the phone’s speaker at the bottom, which I found a little too easy to inadvertently cover with my hand. There’s a covered 3.5mm headphone jack on the top right edge, covered microSD and power ports on the left, and a covered SIM card port on the right. It took me a minute to find the power port the first time around because it blends into the phone’s design so seamlessly. I reviewed the all-black model, but T-Mobile is also offering it up in a rather striking shade of purple.

The phone’s sleek unibody design means the 2,330mAh battery is sealed inside. Sony includes a suite of power management software, which this phone definitely needs. Without any power-saving tools turned on, the Xperia Z lasted for 7 hours and 47 minutes of talk time, which is okay, but a few hours short of the Galaxy S 4.

Network and Call Quality
The Xperia Z supports both HSPA+ 42 and LTE on T-Mobile’s network. If you pay the $579.99 to buy the phone outright, you can also use it on low-cost carriers like Simple Mobile, which also uses T-Mobile’s network. It also supports 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, as well as Wi-Fi calling.

T-Mobile is in the midst of expanding its LTE coverage and plans to cover 200 million by the end of the year. We’ve seen LTE signals pop up in New York City from time to time, but it wasn’t available when I tested the Xperia Z, so my tests were conducted over HSPA+ 42. The thing is, even T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 42 network is still very good. I saw average speeds of 12Mbps down and 2Mbps up, which is an excellent fallback if you aren’t covered by LTE.

Reception was average, and unfortunately, call quality is lacking. Voices sound harsh in the earpiece, with lots of fuzz in the background, and the phone itself vibrates at top volume. Calls made with it can be somewhat hard to hear as noise reduction is poor. The speakerphone sounds okay, but it isn’t loud enough to hear outdoors. The phone had no trouble pairing with a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset and standard Android voice dialing worked fine.

T-Mobile’s new contract-free plans start at $50 per month, and that gets you all the talk and texts you want, along with 500MB of high-speed data per month, after which your speeds are slowed to 2G. $60 gets you 2GB of high-speed data, and $70 gets you unlimited high-speed data. These are excellent rates compared with competitors like AT&T and Verizon.

Android and Apps
The Xperia Z is powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 processor. On the one hand, that makes it one of the fastest smartphones you can get. But on the other, that processor is a whole generation behind the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chip in the HTC One or the Galaxy S 4. Don’t get me wrong—the Xperia Z will remain a solid performer for some time to come, but this isn’t cutting-edge technology. The Xperia Z performed admirably in our benchmark tests, but cannot match the scores set by those faster devices. Still, performance feels smooth across the board, and you won’t have trouble running any of the 800,000+ apps in the Google Play store, including graphically intensive games.

(Next page: Comera, Multimedia, and Conclusions)

The phone is running Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean). That isn’t the newest version of Android, like you’ll get with the Galaxy S 4. But it contains most of the important features and tweaks you’ll find in 4.2.2, and Sony pledges to upgrade the phone to newer versions of Android in the future. Sony has made some pretty extensive modifications to the operating system, though these are mostly cosmetic. For instance, you get Sony’s own Album (picture gallery), Movies, and Walkman apps, which are sleek, attractive alternatives to the standard Android versions. You won’t find anything like the Flipboard-style home screen on the HTC One.

You get five customizable home screens here that come preloaded with some apps and widgets. Unfortunately, this phone has been loaded with bloatware from Sony and T-Mobile. From a Sony app store to T-Mobile TV, there’s a lot of space taken up here by apps you’re probably never going to use.

The Z has NFC support, which doesn’t have a ton of real-world applications yet, but Sony is trying to remedy that. For starters, the phone comes preloaded with Sony’s Smart Connect app. Smart Connect allows your phone to follow a specific set of rules when you tap it to a programmable NFC Smart Tag. If you want to go for a run, for instance, you can program a tag to automatically open your music player and set the volume to a specific level. You can also program to it turn on alarms, direct calls, or even send text messages.

Even better is how Sony uses NFC to connect the Xperia Z to your TV. If you have a compatible Bravia HDTV, all you have to do is touch your phone to your remote control to see and hear content on your phone on your television.

Finally, Sony has added a Power Management menu to the phone’s settings. It claims Stamina Mode can improve standby by four times or more by automatically shutting down battery-draining apps when the screen is off and starting them up again when it comes back on. Other options, like Location-based Wi-Fi, automatically activate the phone’s Wi-Fi setting when in range of a saved network.

Camera, Multimedia, and Conclusions
The Xperia Z’s camera has one really cool feature, but otherwise average performance given the 13-megapixel sensor rating. The camera snaps photos quickly, in less than half a second. Photos deliver more detail than your average 8-megapixel camera phone, but tend not to preserve detail as well as the Galaxy S 4 when you zoom in. Colors are also a little less rich. That isn’t to say photos look bad. They actually look quite good. But compared to top performers like the Galaxy S 4, Apple iPhone 5, and Nokia Lumia 928, the Xperia Z is just a slight step behind.

On the other hand, none of those cameras can record underwater like the Xperia Z can. Fire up the video camera, press record, and the phone will continue to shoot video seamlessly above and below water. Of course, sound gets muffled once submerged, but it comes back instantly the second you pull the phone above water again. So if you’re looking to capture some pool time on your summer vacation, the Xperia Z is the phone to get. Regular video performance is solid as well. Videos look sharp and play back at a smooth 30 frames per second. There’s also a 2-megapixel camera on the front of the phone for video chat.

For media and apps, you get 11.47GB of free internal storage, and my 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards worked fine in the side-mounted microSD card slot. I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, and WAV music files, but not FLAC or WMA. Audio sounded great through both wired and Bluetooth headphones. All of our test videos played back at resolutions up to 1080p, and looked wonderful on the sharp screen, but audio over Bluetooth was slightly out of sync.

The Xperia Z is Sony’s best smartphone to date, and one of the nicest looking phones we’ve seen all year. Combine that with a beautiful display, some hefty horsepower, and a water-resistant design, and you’ve got the number one smartphone for clumsy people that are often near water. For everyone else it’s more of a toss-up. The HTC One is smaller and more comfortable to hold, with an even sharper screen, a faster processor, and better call quality. The Galaxy S 4, meanwhile, is the fastest smartphone available, with some of the best call quality we’ve ever heard, not to mention tons of unique and compelling features. The iPhone 5 is another top offering, and trades Google’s Android for Apple’s simpler iOS, not to mention its superior app store.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, LTE
Screen Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
NFC Yes
Dimensions 5.47 x 2.79 x 0.31 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n/ac
Video Camera Resolution 1080p Rear
1080p Front-Facing
Battery Life (As Tested) 7 hours 47 minutes
Available Integrated Storage 11.47 GB
Processor Speed 1.5 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 Quad-Core
GPS Yes
Service Provider T-Mobile
Total Integrated Storage 16 GB
Weight 5.15 oz
Screen Type Mobile Bravia Engine 2
Operating System as Tested Android 4.1.2
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 13 MP Rear
2 MP Front-Facing
Colors Available Black, Purple
Screen Pixels Per Inch 443 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 5 inches
Bluetooth Version 4

Verdict
The Sony Xperia Z is a powerful, sleek new smartphone for splash-prone T-Mobile customers.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc