Review: Sony Xperia Z with LTE for T-Mobile keeps pace with Android flagships

T-Mobile(s tmus) and Sony(s sne) announced on Wednesday the latest LTE smartphone for the carrier’s growing LTE network: The Sony Xperia Z. On the outside, the water-resistant Xperia Z looks on par with other current flagship Android(s goog) phones. But on the inside is a slightly older chip powering the 5-inch handset.
Does that matter? I spent a few days with the Xperia Z to find out.

Well designed and water-resistant

With a very rectangular shape and the large power button on the side of the phone, the Xperia Z is easy to recognize as Sony’s product. And that’s not a bad thing if you like straight lines all around.

Xperia Z power

The edges of the phone can feel a little sharp but the corners are slightly rounded. A skeleton frame made from glass fiber polyamide, a metal substitute, keeps the phone thin (7.9 millimeters) while giving the handset rigidity. It’s a well built phone in both look and feel. The handset also meets Ingress Protection ratings of IP55 and IP57 for resistance to dust and water. Sony says the phone can be submerged in 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes without any issues; all of the ports have covers and these need to be closed for water resistance.

Xperia Z ports

Although the phone is capable, I didn’t take any underwater photos or videos. However, I often stream music wirelessly to a Bluetooth speaker when I’m in the pool and I always fear dropping my handset in water. So of course, I tested that very scenario with the Xperia Z and it passed with flying colors.

Mostly cutting-edge hardware

In nearly every aspect, the Xperia Z’s components match up with with Samsung’s Galaxy S 4, the HTC One, and LG’s Optimus G Pro. The beautiful 1920 x 1080 resolution display is featured a 5-inch screen and includes Sony’s Mobile Bravia 2 Engine, which can adjust contrast in real time. It’s very easy on the eye.

Xperia Z home

Sony includes 2 GB of memory and 16 GB of storage capacity with the ability to add more via a micro SD card. Connectivity comes from 802.11 b/g/n/ac and the phone worked well with my 802.11 ac router. The handset supports HD Voice, Wi-Fi calling and, of course, works on T-Mobile’s LTE network with HSPA+ fallback. (Note: I don’t live in a T-Mobile LTE network AREA so couldn’t test it.)
Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, FM and NFC radios are all inside as well. Sony is touting the NFC feature as an easy way to pair the phone with its wide range of NFC-equipped Bluetooth accessories such as headphones, speakers and even televisions. A 13 megapixel Sony Exmor RS sensor with HDR video capture and a flash are on the back of the device; there’s a 2 megapixel front facing camera as well.
Of course, the chip that powers the phone is often the crown jewel for those seeking out hardware specifications. And because of hardware cycles and product timing, the Xperia Z uses a Qualcomm(s qcom) chip that was found in phones during the second half of 2012: A quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked at 1.5 GHz.
Hardware junkies will immediately be turned off by this, but in my daily use, the handset performance was quite good. Sure, the phone is a step slower than current flagships in some activities however, the speed difference isn’t vast. Put another way: I’m currently enamored with the speed of the HTC One Google Edition that has newer silicon. Yet when using the Xperia Z, I don’t feel like it’s that much slower for most apps, browsing and photos.

A focus on the camera

Even as someone that prefers pure Android software, I’m very impressed with the camera app on Sony’s Xperia Z. Using the camera software is akin to using a traditional point-and-shoot or low-end DSLR. In particular, I like the Superior Auto function. It determines the best scene mode combined with HDR capture to get the best possible picture. You can see it in action in real time: Panning the camera causes the Superior Auto to constantly change modes as needed. The software pops up little indicators to show the mode it’s going to use.
The HDR mode worked really well in still images, less so in video. The software helps balance both high and low light areas in video a little better than I’ve seen from standard video capture on other handsets, but it’s still not perfect. Burst mode is impressive, however, and speaks to the point I made earlier about the processor. Unlike other handsets, you can hold down the shutter button in burst mode for an unlimited amount of pictures. I rolled off 50 images and the Xperia Z easily kept up.

Software and battery life

Android 4.1.2 is pre-installed on the Xperia Z, so it’s not quite the latest version of Google’s software. I asked Sony about an update and it sounds like the company plans to push Android 4.2 out to the phone but no definitive plans were specified. I don’t expect it to be a very difficult process for Sony to update the software though, mainly because the user interface is lightly skinned. It has a distinctive Sony look, which I actually like, but not as overpowering as Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’S Sense.
There aren’t a lot of pre-installed programs, but there are some; both from Sony and T-Mobile. And some of the Sony-built apps are as nice, if not nicer, than Google’s own. The Albums app, replacing the standard Gallery app, has a nice pinch/zoom feature and geo-tag searching, for example.
Sony also has a useful utility called Stamina that helps save battery life. There are plenty of power management apps on the market but this is native and simple to use. When activated, Stamina mode turns off mobile data while the screen is off. You can configure it, however, so that apps of your choice still send and receive data even when in Stamina mode. That’s useful if you want constant email updates but do not want social networking services draining your battery. When toggling Stamina mode the Xperia Z instantly calculates your remaining battery life.

Xperia Z stamina

I like the feature, mainly because it’s easy to customize as need on a per-app basis. And with it, I had no problems getting through full days of usage on a single charge. It’s possible that if I lived in an LTE coverage area and used that network, the battery life could be different.

Availability, pricing and is it for you?

Like other recent handset launches, T-Mobile separating the purchase price of the phone from its service plans and is offering the Sony Xperia Z with a down payment and no-interest payments. Starting July 17 online and in T-Mobile stores the Xperia Z will cost $99.99 down with 24 equal monthly device payments of $20. Pre-ordering one day early nabs you a free Sony Wireless Bluetooth Speaker. The phone comes in black, either in-store or online, but a purple edition can be ordered online.
Xperia Z frame
If you can’t wait until then, the online Sony Store and Sony retail locations will offer the phone starting today, July 10, for $579.99. The handset can also be financed for $0 down and $25 a month for 24 months, with qualifying credit on a Sony Financial Services card.
Surely, the Xperia Z is competing for sales against the current crop of flagship devices that have similar features, a heavier dose of manufacturer software and newer processors. In my time with the Xperia Z, however, I found it to be a very comparable contender that will keep most people happy. As a result, I think it’s definitely worth a look.