Sick of the same old smartphone brands? Sony's XZ1 can compete with Apple and Samsung
Among all the hoopla over face-scanning iPhones and edge-to-edge Samsungs, it's easy to overlook some of the other flagship smartphones currently on the Irish market.
Sony has always had a solid line of powerful handsets that excel in camera and screen technology. It's a shame that some of this gets lost in a helter-skelter branding strategy that results in confusion over which model (X versus XZ versus XA1 versus XZ1 and more) is which.
However, the newly-launched XZ1 sits just below the top tier and can be seen as a main competitor to upper-mid phones like Samsung's S7 and Apple's iPhone 6S.
Against these rivals, it generally competes very well.
Its 19-megapixel rear camera on the XZ1 is very good, though a shade behind those now on the iPhone 8 and Samsung S8.
For years, Sony's phone cameras were either the best, or up with the best, on the market. Indeed, it still makes the actual camera components for many rival handset manufacturers.
But a lot of the innovation in phone camera technology is now happening in the devices' software and processor research and development departments. So there are no depth of field effects, for example, on offer here.
Mind you, the XZ1 does keep up on most of the metrics, even offering some advanced options. It shoots video in 4K and has a 'super slow motion mode' of 960 frames per second. You can only activate it for a very short period (and you need bright lighting conditions) but the results are pretty impressive.
It also has some very nice under-the-hood camera features which aren't immediately obvious.
The best of these is probably its phase detection autofocus. In simple English, this makes the camera readjust its autofocusing in both video mode and burst-photo mode (when you press the button and leave your finger there, letting the camera take dozens of quick-fire photos).
It's a very handy feature if you find yourself taking a photo of someone walking towards you, such as a toddler staggering with their first steps or a bride walking down the aisle. So kudos to Sony for adding this relatively advanced camera feature into the phone.
Also, Sony phones are just about the only handsets that let you choose to take photos (and shoot video) with manual controls (aperture, ISO, shutter speed, white balance, even manual focusing). For photos, this will be limited to niche appeal. But for video, it's actually really useful, especially as you get control over how bright the scene is.
Sony usually has an extra feature on its upper tier models and for the XZ1, it's '3D Creator'. This allows you to 'scan' something with the rear camera with the result being a 3D-printable image stored on your phone.
The idea is that you can then print this object out on either your own 3D printer or send it to a 3D printing service online for delivery. Freakishly, this also extends to people's faces. The results are not flattering: if you're lucky, you'll get a frozen Han Solo effect.
One area where the XZ1 scales down compared to the flagship XZ Premium is in the resolution of its 5.2-inch display. It's a 'full HD' screen rather than a 4K display. Of all the compromises to make, this is one that won't affect most people, especially as Sony has added HDR to the screen quality which, in may view, makes a bigger difference than 4K. It provides for better colour contrast and blacks.
In terms of battery life, it's a familiar story with the XZ1. You should get a full day's use out of it unless you really hammer it during the day. The addition of a smart stamina mode is genuinely helpful, though - it will give you an extra 20pc or so by minimising app usage in the background.
Other good points worth mentioning about the XZ1 include 64GB of storage as standard. I'd argue that this is the minimum anyone paying more than €500 for a phone should get, especially a handset that records 4K and super slow-motion videos. You can also add a MicroSD memory card into the side of the phone, although I wonder how many people actually use this facility.
Otherwise, there's no shortage of power under the hood, with 4GB of Ram (which is more than the iPhone 8) and a top-level Snapdragon 835 processor. Like almost all new Android phones, the XZ1 powers up via USB-C cord. It does so pretty quickly, at around 50pc in 30 minutes.
Sony puts its fingerprint-scanning button on the side of the phone, which I think is a better position than both the front lower position (iPhones and some Android models) or the rear upper casing (Samsung S8 and Note 8). It's quick and ergonomically easy to access. This phone isn't waterproof (IP67), like top Apple phones. But it is water 'resistant' (IP68) which basically means it can withstand rain and the odd splash.
Another area that Sony traditionally does well in is audio. Here, the XZ1 keeps up appearances. The phone's audio speakers are better than most other phones on the market at present, while it also included a 3.5mm headphone jack, giving people a choice between wireless or wired headphones.The XZ1 is essentially a stripped-down version of the flagship XZ Premium smartphone that it announced earlier this year. It costs around €200 less than the XZ Premium but looks and feels very similar.
From a design perspective, its strongest feature is its metal casing, which makes it very nice to hold. It also has Sony's distinctive circular edges on each corner. One one level, this is nice to look at. Some may not appreciate the corner-effect it creates, though; in a jeans pocket, I found that it frayed and cut the denim much more quickly than other smartphones with their less-sharp corners.
This may also be viewed as one of the last semi-premium smartphones to come with full, thick bezels. Samsung has now had edge-to-edge screens on its top phones for almost two years, while Apple is just about to get into the bezel-less trend with its iPhone X. Against this, phones with traditional bezels (including the iPhone 8), are starting to look like last year's design.
So is it worth getting?
This phone faces some formidable competition in the form of the iPhone 6S, and Samsung S7. Technically, it's more advanced in some of the above-mentioned ways than either device. It doesn't have the full ecosystem enjoyed by either Apple or Samsung. If you're sick of using the same old premium smartphone brands, the XZ1 is a decent alternative.