Sony has made it a habit to introduce new smartphones at CES each year, and this year's announcement of the new Xperia Z continues that trend. The Xperia Z — and the very similar Xperia ZL — is Sony's flagship mobile device for the year, bringing high-end specs and a refined design. The Z features a 5-inch, 1080p HD display — a feature that increasingly becoming the norm among high-end Android smartphones — and powerful quad-core processor in addition to a sharp looking exterior.
Upon first glance, the Xperia Z looks like a standard slab-style touchscreen smartphone, but once you get it in your hands, you notice how square and rectangular the phone actually is. Instead of featuring rounded corners as seen on many smartphones, the Z is distinctly sharp and blocky, which can make it a little awkward to hold in your hand. Though it is by no means a small phone, the Z weighs only about 140g and is only 7.9mm thick, which helps mask the phone's large footprint. Like the LG Nexus 4, the Z features Gorilla Glass on both the front and the back panels, which is certainly an attractive look. We're not so sure it will be able to withstand many falls or tumbles however, which is always the problem with phones made of glass. The edges of the Z are mostly spartan, save for precisely machined aluminum power button located just about halfway down the right side of the phone. The button's silver color makes it stand out from the deep black color of the rest of the device. The one take-away that we had from the Z's design was that it was unmistakably Sony and evoked the high-end consumer electronics that the company designed back in its heyday.
The Xperia Z is unmistakably Sony in its design
What you won't find so easily are the ports on the Z. It's Micro USB, micro-SD, and SIM card slot are hidden under panels and flap doors. Sony says that it had to hide the ports in such a manner because the Z is IP55 and IP57 dust and water resistant, and can be submerged in up to a meter of water for up to 30 minutes at a time. The display also features Sony's wet finger tracking technology, so you can still use it when the display is wet. Water resistant phones are par for the course in Sony's home market of Japan, but elsewhere they are few and far between, and it may be a feature that helps separate the Z from the rest of the pack.
The Xperia Z's display may match competitors for resolution and pixel density, but when it came to viewing angles and saturation, it wasn't as impressive as the other 1080p screens we have seen recently. As is commonly the case with Sony displays, the Z's screen looks washed out and quickly fades as you begin to view it off-angle. Sony has equipped the Z with its new Mobile Bravia Engine 2 enhancement technology, which is designed to enhance contrast, color, and clarity when watching videos or viewing photos on the device. The company showed us a side-by-side demo of a video with and without the Bravia enhancements turned on, and while there was a noticeable difference between the two, it wasn't enough to say that the Xperia Z's display was the best we had ever seen.
In addition to the high-resolution screen and sharp design, Sony has also outfitted the Z with a new 13-megapixel camera. The camera features the company's new Exmor RS sensor, which enables HDR video recording in addition to HDR stills. The camera also has an impressive burst mode — it can rattle off 9-megapixel images at 10 frames per second continuously until the battery dies or there is no more room in the phone's storage or microSD card.
The Z is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz — the same chip we've seen in LG's Optimus G and Nexus 4 and HTC's Droid DNA. Performance during our short time with the Z was impressive, but that's not entirely unexpected given our prior experience with this processor. The interface didn't present any lag or hesitation that jumped out at us, and apps opened swiftly and performed well. Battery life has been a concern of ours on other phones with this processor and similar high-resolution displays, but Sony says that its new Battery Stamina software mode alleviates that. The software will disable all background apps every time the screen is turned off, which Sony says can extend the standby time of the 2,330mAh battery by up to four times. We instantly were concerned that this would prevent notifications for email, social networks, and other apps from coming through, but Sony has provided the option for users to whitelist specific apps that the Stamina mode will ignore and allow to run in the background when the display is off. We'll reserve judgement on the Stamina feature until we are able to fully review the Xperia Z.
Sony's other phone announced today, the ZL, is very similar to the Z, but is not as tall or wide — despite having the same 5-inch 1080p display. At 9.8mm, the ZL is a bit thicker than the Z, and eschews the all-glass back panel for a more traditional textured plastic rear cover. The ZL has the same processor, camera, and software features as the Z, but it doesn't have the Z's water resistant abilities.
Sony will have plenty of competition in the near future
Sony is launching the Z and the ZL with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and its custom user interface that features a modified launcher, home screen, and lock screen, but the company says that the phones will be upgradeable to Android 4.2 shortly after they hit the market. Unfortunately, Sony isn't divulging how much its new flagship will cost when it arrives in global markets at the end of Q1, but it did tell us that it will priced at the premium end of the smartphone spectrum. Both the Z and the ZL feature support for LTE networks, but the ZL will be limited to select markets that will be announced closer to the phone's launch. Likewise, Sony isn't announcing any US carrier partners for the phones here at CES 2013, but it did say that it planned to offer the Z across the world.
It's too soon to say whether or not Sony's latest effort will be the smartphone to get this year — next month we expect to see major phone announcements from Sony's competitors at MWC in Barcelona, plus whatever Samsung and Apple decide to do later this year — but the Xperia Z is one of the strongest efforts we've seen from Sony since it separated its mobile division from Sony Ericsson a year ago.