Speaking with one of Sony Mobile’s product planners ahead of today’s launch, I was told that in 2016, Sony just didn’t have much innovation in its smartphones. That candid admission is corrected in a big way today with the introduction of the mighty and shiny Xperia XZ Premium, which is a 5.5-inch smartphone with a number of world firsts.
The XZ Premium has the world’s first 4K HDR (2,160 x 3,840, High Dynamic Range) display in a smartphone — it’s the most desirable new tech combo for TVs, and Sony’s crammed it into a mobile device. I previously saw nothing revolutionary about 4K on the Xperia Z5 Premium in 2015, but Sony now has a partnership with Amazon for 4K HDR content, and the HDR element truly does wonderful things for colour reproduction. In one of Sony’s demos against the Z5 Premium, the XZ showed off warmer, more natural yellows and a broadly more realistic and inviting reproduction of the streets of Lisbon. A Portuguese Sony rep was on hand to confirm, effusively, that the XZ Premium display was more faithful to the real Lisbon.
Beside the (very) nice display, Sony’s new flagship phone also has a new camera system called Motion Eye. The curious thing with this setup is that Sony has embedded fast memory right into the camera stack, allowing it to produce another world first for phones: super-slow motion of 960fps at 720p resolution. This rapid burst lasts for only 0.18 seconds, so technically you’re only capturing something closer to 180 frames, but the effect is still quite compelling when stretched out to a regular 30fps. I can imagine myself capturing water splashes and other blink-of-an-eye moments just for fun. And fun is, after all, what modern cameras are primarily about.
The addition of the extra memory also helps Sony to start buffering shots as soon as the camera detects motion in the frame — so that when you press the shutter button, there’s absolutely no lag, the camera will just pull the image it was already taking at that moment. This is the sort of system that will rely heavily on good autofocus, and Sony is bringing back the triple-sensor system from the Xperia XZ: there’s laser AF, an RGBC infrared sensor for adjusting white balance on the fly, and an updated ExmorRS image sensor. The latter now has 19 percent larger pixels, stepping down resolution to 19 megapixels. Sony’s Bionz image processing engine has also been upgraded with better motion detection and noise reduction.
While Sony’s camera updates all sound fantastic, in practice I wasn’t too wowed by them. I tried the new camera system on the Xperia XZs — a smaller, slightly less super-specced device Sony’s launching at MWC as well — and it didn’t leave me too impressed. Sony’s habit of over-processing the images seems to still be around, with excess sharpening and noise-reducing blur leading to results that looked too digital and not particularly pleasing to the eye. There’s still time for this to improve before the Xperia XZ Premium is released, but I fear that what I’m seeing is already Sony’s idea of a good photo.
Another thing I didn’t like about the XZ Premium was its external finish. The flagship Luminous Chrome color isn’t so much a color as a straight up mirror: much like the Z5 Premium before it, it’s incredibly reflective and picks up fingerprints with incredible ease. It’s almost like Sony designed this thing to sit in a museum rather than a person’s hand. The darker option, Deepsea Black, has a subtle hint of blue, but it too is an extremely glossy fingerprint magnet. Both handsets come with Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back, with metal antennas at the top and bottom of the device. I’d have preferred to see the metal back of the Xperia XZ making a return (which it does in the Xperia XZs).
As far as specs go, we might not have expected Sony to tout the latest Snapdragon 835 processor in its new flagship, as it does, but there is a catch here. Yes, Sony has the latest and best Qualcomm chip while others are still offering the Snapdragon 820 and 821, but the Xperia XZ Premium won’t be out until late spring or just ahead of the summer. Hell, the demo units shown off ahead of MWC weren’t running anywhere close to final software, which is why I was testing the camera system on the smaller Xperia XZs. So Sony is pre-announcing its new flagship device by a long margin.
Other notable features include water resistance, rated to IP65 and IP68, a thinner profile at 7.9mm, and MicroSD storage expandability. The phone’s battery is a reasonable 3,230mAh, and there’s a fingerprint sensor integrated into the side-mounted power button as usual. But the Xperia XZ Premium is really all about that camera, display, and processor combo. Each of those three components promises a great deal, and if Sony can finally strike the right balance and deliver an uncompromised device that makes the most of its various parts, the wait — however long — for the XZ Premium might just be worth it.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge