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Xperia Z2 and Z2 Tablet review: One Sony, two devices

Sony is learning from past missteps, but has it learned enough?

After years of extensive testing, I have determined the perfect screen size for watching YouTube videos in bed. It's just over 5 inches. Anything larger and you have to hold the device too far from that ideal chest-perching point, anything smaller and you might as well not bother. Obligingly, Sony has released a new phone designed specifically for my needs. The Xperia Z2 has a 5.2-inch screen, a fast processor, a long-lasting battery, and front-facing stereo speakers.

That is, of course, hardly unique in the highly specced world of Android smartphones, and Sony itself will sell you a 10-inch version with the Z2 Tablet — should your screen-size needs be bigger than mine. So why should I make the Z2 my new go-to device for kicking back with Dota 2 VODs? And can a 10-inch Android tablet finally match the usability of smaller devices? The challenge that Sony is tackling with its new products is twofold: it wants to close one gap, that between smartphone and tablet, while opening up another, between its own hardware and the plethora of alternatives you can buy today.

Display

Looking good, under the right light

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Sony starts its quest to be the best with the most important component on any device: the display. Muted and lifeless LCDs were a chronic weakness of the company’s previous Xperia devices, so the new Live Color LED screens on the Z2 and Z2 Tablet make for an incredibly gratifying upgrade. Colors stay true and vibrant, contrast is strong enough to make blacks appear truly black, and viewing angles are almost (but not quite) as good as on the excellent HTC One and iPhone 5S. At long last, the flagship Sony smartphone can stand alongside its direct competitors. Still, even with the widest color gamut of any mobile device and 1080p resolution, Sony’s new IPS screens only bring it up to the same level as the rest — they are not tangibly better than the industry’s standard setters. And in one important respect, they are markedly worse.

Awesome in the bedroom, but a liability outdoors

Take the Z2 outside and you’ll be confronted by its biggest shortcoming: it’s practically unusable on a sunny day. Even with brightness maxed out, half of my sample photos for this review were composed through guesswork due to the screen being too dim and reflective to provide any useful information outdoors. This vampiric aversion to sunlight is somewhat forgivable on the Z2 Tablet — which is less likely to be used on the move — but is basically a deal-breaker on the Z2. While I appreciate everything Sony has done to make my YouTube experience better, a mobile phone is meant to be mobile. I should be able to see who's calling me even if I'm not in a dark room.

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Design

Is this the new one?

Coming just six months after the Xperia Z1, the Z2 can be easily confused for its predecessor. Its screen is larger at 5.2 inches instead of 5 and it now has a second front speaker, but those changes have been accommodated by a reduction in the bezel. You’re basically looking at the same device. Glass covers both the front and the back, a single-piece aluminum frame provides rigidity, and waterproofing flaps cover up the microSD and USB ports.

Sony-330-blackWithout a significant change in design, the Xperia Z2 carries over both the strengths and weaknesses of the Z1 Sony-et-al

It's still awkwardly large and lacks the ergonomically curved back of something like the HTC One. The uncompromisingly blocky shape that Sony prefers for its phones is attractive and masculine, but it doesn’t make for a comfortable feel in the hand. Then again, now that the One and Samsung's Galaxy S5 have both grown in size — to the detriment of their own usability — Sony is essentially moving forward by just standing still.

The Xperia Z2 occupies the middle ground between the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S5, with the front-facing stereo speakers and premium materials of the former and the water resistance and hardiness of the latter. In fact, Sony’s phone is certified to the higher IP58 standard, making it waterproof rather than just splash-proof (and no, you still can’t use the touchscreen underwater). From among the three phones, the Z2 is the one I'd trust to last longest and look best after a few months of intensive use. The glass back may pick up a few scratches over that time, but those tend to be imperceptible and Sony’s OmniBalance design has now proven its durability over multiple generations.

The Z2’s angular shape actually works much better on the larger Z2 Tablet, which isn’t meant to nestle into the palm in the same way. I also prefer the tablet’s soft-touch plastic back to the colder feel of the phone’s glass. What’s truly noteworthy about the Z2 Tablet, however, is how astonishingly thin and light it is. At 6.4 millimeters, it’s nearly 15 percent thinner than the iPad Air and it weighs a tiny bit less too. Everything that's good about the Air's ergonomics — the casual ease of use that comes from an aggressively svelte device — is present in Sony's Z2 Tablet. You can pick it up by just one corner, hold it up for long periods of time without fatiguing, and use it in most of the same ways you would a much smaller device. One-handed operation may still be unfeasible, but the Z2 Tablet crosses that intangible threshold where its larger screen size no longer demands a compromise in ergonomics.

With a set of front-facing speakers and the same waterproof protection as the Z2, The Z2 Tablet also adds some things that Apple's tablet can't offer. Devices like the Nexus 7, Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX, and even Nokia's underrated Lumia 2520 offer a diversity of choice, but in terms of pure industrial design, the Z2 Tablet is the best one so far.

Making attractive hardware has always been one of Sony's strengths

Not since the current MacBook Air design was introduced in 2010 have I felt this disarmed of ammunition for criticism. Sure, you can quibble about the USB port being covered up and the large screen bezel (about the same size as on a 27-inch iMac), but Sony has gotten almost everything right here. Like a racing car engineered for pure speed, the Z2 Tablet is stripped down to its barest essentials, and instead of feeling like a compromise, that approach actually makes for much greater comfort and usability. The literal burden of technology has been reduced to the point where it really is just the user and the user experience.

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Aside from their differing cameras and batteries, the Z2 and Z2 Tablet share a common hardware platform. There's a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, and of course Sony's favorite neglected wireless standard, NFC. That basic spec sheet is becoming the norm this year and doesn't materially improve on what the Z1 (or the dramatically cheaper Nexus 5, for that matter) offered months ago. A quad-core smartphone with a 1080p display no longer sells itself; now it's just a good foundation on which to try and build a compelling experience.

More power than you'll know what to do with

Sony's hardware engineering team still makes an effort to set itself apart with a pair of improvements. The switch to stereo speakers really pays off on the Z2, and moving them from the side to the front is equally advantageous on the Z2 Tablet. HTC's One handsets are still far in the lead in terms of smartphone audio, but the Z2 also produces very good, natural sound. Call quality is similarly high, underlining Sony's consistency with getting the fundamentals right.

The other highlight is the battery capacity. The Z2 Tablet retains the same size battery as on its predecessor Tablet Z, but fits it into a smaller device that actually lasts longer. Scoring 10 hours and 39 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, the Z2 Tablet reaches the same heights of endurance as the iPad Air. The Xperia Z2 is also among the leaders in its category, with a time of eight hours and six minutes (before the 10 percent battery warning kicked in) ranking just behind the LG G2 and Sony's own Z1 Compact. The Z2 will chew through YouTube streams and 4K video recording without jeopardizing your chances of getting through the day on a single charge. More casual use could easily stretch into two days and beyond, and Sony's Stamina mode can extend that even further.

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Camera

Don't look too closely

Other than Nokia, Sony is the only major phone maker to tread beyond the 20 megapixel mark with its cameras. The 20.7-megapixel sensor from the Xperia Z1 and Z1 Compact returns in the Z2, reprising its role at the heart of a uniquely frustrating camera system. It's physically large, at 1/2.3 inch, and thus capable of capturing photos most other phones aren't, but Sony's software still handicaps it severely. Focusing is neither particularly fast nor accurate, leaving pictures looking a touch soft. Sony's Bionz image processing doesn't help matters, as it adds artificial saturation and edge sharpening while blurring areas of consistent color to disguise image noise. As with the Z1 Compact, I felt compelled to try the Z2 with a different camera app — downloading the recently released Google Camera from the Play Store — but that only seems to affect the focus and shutter speed. You'll still get the same unnatural-looking results.

I wouldn't mind if the Z2's camera was simply bad. The problem is that every time I'm ready to give up on it, it sneaks up on me and takes a stunning, perfectly balanced shot. It's the Ben Gordon of smartphone cameras.

Sony's biggest changes come on the video front, where the Z2 adds 4K recording at 30fps, new SteadyShot stabilization, and a slow-motion mode when shooting in 720p. 4K video shot with the Xperia Z2 takes up roughly 400MB per minute, meaning a half hour's footage will take up 12GB of storage. The Z2 processes video in the same way it does images, too, so you'll still find unpleasant blotches of color in low-contrast areas of the frame. Focus also tends to hunt around when shooting moving subjects, so even though it's fast, it can sometimes ruin an otherwise good video.

Plagued by inconsistency

Of course, I'm yet to find a smartphone that I can truly rely on for recording meaningful memories. The primary purpose of video recording on phones these days is for sharing small snippets on apps like Vine and Instagram, for which the Xperia Z2 is perfectly competent.

The SteadyShot addition, even though it's not mechanical optical stabilization as with LG's G2 or Nokia's high-end range, works really well and does make for noticeably steadier results. I'm also a huge fan of the 120fps 720p video option — Sony is again not the first to offer it, but it's seriously good fun. Built-in software will let you slow down segments to a regular 30fps, making for smoothly animated slow motion.

The Xperia Z2 Tablet eschews all of this fanciness with a nondescript 8-megapixel camera. Its images and video are universally poor and grainy, to the point where I'd have to work hard to produce something worthy of even a casual picture tweet. I wouldn't accept this kind of compromise on a smartphone, but am perfectly content with it on a 6.4 millimeter-thick tablet. There are more important things this device can do.

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Software

From spec wars to feature skirmishes

Sony can rest comfortable in the knowledge that nobody is beating it on specs. Then again, in spite of a few unique design traits, it's not really standing out in pure hardware terms, either. Our choice today really comes down to who's making the wisest use of roughly equivalent components.

Both new Xperia devices are shipping with Android 4.4 on board — the latest software version is always a good start — and don't tweak too much about the inherently strong operating system. The good things Sony adds include the ability to double-tap the screen to wake the device and the company's custom Stamina mode for extending the battery life. Once I’ve customized it to allow Gmail and Twitter notifications through, Stamina becomes basically my default operating mode, and it does a lot to bridge the gap between Android and its more efficient nemesis of iOS.

There's two of them, but they're not a pair

In setting up the two new Xperias, I longed for an option that would allow me to customize my home screen, tweak settings, and choose which apps to install only once, and then have both devices behave accordingly. Google will let me back those things up on a per-device basis, and Sony has its Xperia Transfer app that kind of does that, but neither really nails it. Think of how Windows 8 remembers user settings across machines for an idea of what I'm after. This feels like a missed opportunity for Sony, which offers little compelling reason to consider the Z2 and Z2 Tablet as a real pair of Android devices rather than just two new ones.

Sony-540Still waiting for the PlayStation branding to mean something

Also rich on unfulfilled potential are Sony's tie-ins to its PlayStation ecosystem. The PlayStation app is still very limited in what it allows you to do and it'll take time for in-game support to proliferate — it will be most useful if you have a wide circle of friends on PSN and want to keep up with their glorious feats. The PlayStation Mobile store continues to be a bad joke at the user’s expense, with most of its content being terrible, tacky games like Pinky Spots Leg Massage. Worse, both applications appear to have been designed by Sony's console team; prepare to be shuttled off to the web browser on a regular basis. Meaningless Walkman branding on the music app and a grating PlayMemories ad every time you open up your photo albums add to the sense of misplaced design priorities.

One thing we really enjoyed about the Tablet Z when we reviewed it last July was its ability to function as a universal remote control. While IR blasters in smartphones may be a little dubious, they make total sense for tablets, which can fit more controls and information on screen and can provide the best "second-screen" experience for TV viewers. That's all still very much present, but with its newer, lighter chassis, the Z2 Tablet is even better suited to playing the role of a casual context provider. There's an effortlessness about handling this tablet that makes its users more likely to try out features they might have neglected in the past.

Overall, I feel underwhelmed by Sony's present software efforts. The company's never been short on potential, but it's not succeeding in consistently adding useful functionality like the remote control utility. The PlayStation apps are much more representative of the quality you can expect. They're also a good illustration of the unescapable issue that Android lacks the refined tablet apps that the iPad benefits from. Things keep getting better, but slowly.

In an ironic twist, Sony's biggest upgrade is also the strongest reason not to buy its new phone. The Japanese company's new IPS screen rectifies a longstanding weaknesses in display quality, but then replaces it with absolutely terrible outdoor performance. Design improvements have been only incremental, such as the reduced bezel, and software advances are few and far between. If you own an Xperia Z1 or even the earlier Xperia Z, you'll be fine sticking with what you have rather than jumping to the latest model.

Along with most other smartphone makers, Sony is starting to stagnate. 2014 has so far been characterized by such gimmicky additions as the Galaxy S5's heart rate monitor and the HTC One's depth camera sensor. With meaningful hardware distinctions almost gone, the choice between the leading Android phones comes down to your preferred combination of user experience and look. I find HTC's latest version of Sense the most mature and smartly restrained of all Android skins, followed by Sony's UI, and trailed by a distant and befuddled Samsung. At the same time, the original Android 4.4 phone, Google's Nexus 5, is no less appealing and it's significantly cheaper than any one of the new year's crop of contenders.

Notwithstanding its lack of substantial differentiation, the Xperia Z2 is still a very good phone. Those stereo speakers and the large battery really are handy things to have during marathon runs through YouTube's library of Noam Chomsky lectures. The Xperia Z2 is far from a failure, but Sony's self-appointed mission to stand out and be substantively different hasn't been accomplished.

Is the $499.99 Z2 Tablet better than an iPad? It can be. You can give it pride of place on your coffee table, throw away a few remotes, and make it the ultimate sidekick to your TV. Just don't take it outside or try to take photos of anything more ambitious than expense receipts. The iPad justifies its price with its chameleonic versatility, which is underpinned in no small part by the diversity of high-quality apps available. That's where the Z2 Tablet can't compete, in spite of Sony's best efforts.

The Z2 Tablet is an engineering marvel. 10-inch tablets shouldn't be this light and easy to handle. The sumptuous feel of the back cover, the waterproofing, the long battery life — Sony's ticked off every possible checkbox on the list of desirable hardware features. But the fact remains that there are better alternatives out there, whether in the form of the iPad itself or the much more affordable (if less stunning) Nexus 7. Until Android finally catches up with iOS in terms of apps and user experience, premium 10-inch tablets will continue to struggle to find their niche.

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