Wednesday 22 August 2018

Tech Review: Sony's Xperia XZ2 fails to keep pace with rivals' flagship devices

Sony Xperia XZ2, €799

Sony Xperia XZ2
Sony Xperia XZ2
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Sony has always made decent smartphones with great cameras. Of late, however, it has been falling behind the competition.

Its latest flagship model, the Xperia XZ2, has a lot of good features and is a very solid device. But it's now significantly behind on some of the features that are likely to attract you to a top-end phone.

I'll start with its optics. For some reason, Sony has opted not to include a second camera on this device. I can't understate how puzzled I am by this: the second lens on the likes of the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy 'Plus' ranges, as well as on strong newcomer brands such as Huawei (which is now putting three lenses on the back) and OnePlus, makes a big difference to a phone camera.

The absence of a second lens is all the more important as Sony has opted for a wider lens (25mm) than competitors such as the iPhone (28mm) on this primary camera, meaning that you lose even more detail when you zoom in to a portrait-friendly 40mm or 50mm photo of family or friends.

And while Sony is probably the world's biggest camera sensor manufacturer, the one it has placed in this phone is a lot smaller than the likes of the new Huawei P20 Plus (1/2.3 versus 1/1.7) and darker (f2) than almost every other high-end phone on the market.

I don't mean to suggest that the XZ2's camera isn't good, because it is. In fact, it's excellent when you have the right light around you. But its flexibility and range is significantly more limited than a camera on a rival phone. And I think this will really hurt its chances.

The camera is not the only sign of last-generation-itis. Where once Sony led the world in smartphone screens, it now feels like it has slipped behind its rivals. There's no Oled option, for a start, meaning the screen is an eentsy bit harsher on your eyes than top-end displays from Apple or Huawei.

And Sony still has old-fashioned, space-wasting bezels at the top and bottom, which Samsung phones have been rid of for two years, followed by Apple, Huawei and others.

Again, the actual 5.7-inch screen on this device is very bright and accurate. Its 18:9 ratio follows the general trend of facilitating a larger screen in a form factor that's still convenient to hold in the hand. And it supports HDR content, which is technically a step above most rivals, even if there isn't really any mobile HDR content on the likes of Netflix (but there is on YouTube).

So the XZ2's display is very good, but it doesn't feel as premium as what you're getting from other marques' flagship handsets.

To be fair, Sony has put in one or two unique features, but not all of them feel very useful. For example, the XZ2 has something called a 'dynamic vibration system' that basically lets you 'feel' videos and music as they're playing. I can't honestly say that this added much of anything to the experience of consuming videos or songs (though maybe some people will).

Other unique upgrades include enhanced 4K video recording (which now incorporates HDR) and an upscaled super-slow motion ability, where the 960 frames per second are now captured in 'full HD' (1080p) rather than just 'HD' (720p), which rivals such as Samsung's new S9 are confined to.

And the 3D creator selfie images from its front-facing 5-megapixel camera, first seen in the XZ1, can now be upscaled with more detail and shared instantly to Facebook.

While these emphasise that Sony is still very much at the top tier when it comes to video recording and photo creativity with a phone, for the vast majority of users they are very marginal upgrades.

As to the phone's physical design, it's a mixed story. On the upside, Sony has finally given up its penchant for sharp edges on the corners of its flagship phones, an event to be celebrated. This reporter has at least one pair of jeans whose pockets had prematurely been cut to shreds by the XZ1's piercing edges.

On the other hand, the XZ2 is significantly fatter and heavier than the XZ1 or almost any other top-end smartphone. Sony also says that the rounded (fat) rear is a design feature, which seems a little odd. To my mind, fat phones are rarely a thing to be desired.

Otherwise, it's a slick, pleasing form factor.

Like Apple, Huawei and a phalanx of other brands, Sony has done away with the headphone jack that the XZ1 had. While the company says that this is in line with sales of wireless headphones, some major rival companies (especially Samsung on its new Galaxy S9) aren't convinced and are retaining their headphone jacks. (You do get a USB-C to 3.5mm adaptor in the XZ2 box.)

As for the XZ2's battery life, I must say it's pretty decent, generally lasting the day without needing an extra charge. It easily matches an iPhone X in this regard and is comparable to a Samsung S9, though it doesn't reach the lofty heights of Huawei's top-end models, which beat all comers on battery life.

Storage memory of 64GB is a reasonable amount for a smartphone, although it's a shame that there isn't a higher memory option. Otherwise, the muscle power under the hood is on par with most flagship rivals.

In summary, the XZ2 is actually a pretty good smartphone with a very good camera and plenty of capabilities.

But on the key features that attract people to spend that little bit more on a top-end handset, it's just not on par with the flagship devices from its biggest rivals.

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