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Sony Xperia XZ Premium Phone – First Look

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KEY FEATURES

  • 5.5-inch 4K HDR display
  • Snapdragon 835
  • 4GB RAM, 64GB storage
  • USB Type-C
  • 19-megapixel camera
  • 960fps slow-mo video
  • Android 7.1.1
  • Manufacturer: Sony
  • Review Price: £649.00

Sony Xperia XZ Premium review in progress: Sony hopes slow and steady will win the race

Sony Xperia XZ Premium Release Date: June 2, 2017 (UK)

Sony Xperia XZ Premium Price: £649.99

Note: I’ve been using the Sony Xperia XZ Premium for well over a week as my main phone. However, the review sample sent in by Sony was pre-production and running, what I assume is, unfinished software. It also doesn’t allow our usual suite of benchmarking apps to be installed. As such, it would be unfair to attribute a final score. I should be receiving a final UK version imminently, after which I’ll update this review with a final verdict and rating.

WHAT IS THE SONY XPERIA XZ PREMIUM?

This is Sony’s headline phone for 2017 and it comes with the all the top specifications you’d expect. Like Sony’s previous flagship, the Z5 Premium, there’s a 5.5-inch screen with 4K resolution and HDR – with certain caveats, mind – and a Snapdragon 835 processor that can give rival handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy S8, HTC U11 and LG G6 a run for their money.

But where Sony really wants to stand out is with its camera. The headline feature is its 960fps slow-motion capabilities for dramatic videos. This by far eclipses the slow-motion available on other handsets, which typically top out at 240fps. Unfortunately, this alone isn’t enough to make the Xperia XZ Premium stand out in a competitive crowd.

SONY XPERIA XZ PREMIUM – DISPLAY

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Alright, to that caveat I mentioned earlier. While the screen is technically 3840 x 2160 resolution, the vast majority of the time you’ll be looking at an upscaled 1080p version of the Android operating system.

You might rightly be asking why that’s the case – and the answer would be battery life. Rendering 4K resolution every waking minute would absolutely decimate battery life, so instead you’ll see only native 4K resolution in certain instances – when watching native 4K resolution videos in the pre-installed Sony app, for example.

Support for 4K resolution alongside HDR (10-bit, to boot) is also meant to be available through Amazon Prime Video, but during testing I wasn’t served any suitable content. Still, the almost ridiculous 807ppi pixel density of the screen made light work of showing off my own 4K, non-HDR content shot on a GoPro Hero 5 Black.

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Wistfully watching back old holiday videos, the colours popped from the IPS Triluminos 5.5-inch display and videos looked sharp. As a phone that supports the HDR standard that means a high top-level brightness, which, even when not displaying HDR content, is still useful for visibility on a bright day outdoors.

Since Sony hasn’t departed from a more conventional 16:9 aspect ratio, the Xperia XZ Premium’s display doesn’t need to use black bars to display apps and videos properly, which is the case on the LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S8.

SONY XPERIA XZ PREMIUM – DESIGN

While other manufacturers have long moved on to curved edges and rounded corners, Sony has long stuck with the same industrial design for its Xperia phones. Put this phone next to the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6 or newly revealed HTC U11, and it feels like a relic of the past.

The thick bezels – top and bottom – look so dated now, especially next to the bezel-less Galaxy S8, and leave the Xperia XZ Premium feeling just plain boring. You’d be forgiven for not even realising that this is Sony’s latest flagship from 2017.

There’s a choice of Deepsea Black, which is the model I was sent in for review, and Luminous Chrome, which is super-shiny and reflective.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

The Sony Xperia XZ Premium is probably one of the most uncomfortable phones I’ve held in some time, exacerbated by its large physical size. Attempt to use it one-handed, and you’ll find the corners dig into your palm awkwardly and the top of the screen will be unreachable for anyone without the largest of hands. Every time I reach into my pocket to grab the phone, my hand is met by a sharp corner.

The actual construction of the phone is fine – suitably premium materials have been used here such as glass on the front and back, with Gorilla Glass 5 adding some robustness to the screen. It is, however, an extreme fingerprint magnet that looks smudged and greasy practically all the time, unless you obsessively wipe it down.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

The edge of the phone is plastic, which is a sensible move. You’ll find a volume rocker along the right-hand side along with a recessed power button that houses a discreet fingerprint scanner in the style of Sony’s previous flagship phones.

It was generally quick to respond, although not quite as snappy as the fastest standard front or rear fingerprint scanners, perhaps due to having a much smaller surface area on which to take a reading. There isn’t much in it, though, and I didn’t experience any problems unlocking the phone – plus it does make for a more elegant approach.

If you like viewing at-a-glance information from your lockscreen, you might have to get used to pressing the volume button to wake the screen because pressing the power button with a registered finger will just unlock the phone, bypassing the lockscreen.

Look to the bottom of the phone and you’ll find a USB-C port for charging with a 3.5mm jack on the top. There are two schools of thought here, and I’m of those who believe a headphone jack is better placed on the bottom of a handset, but at least wired headphones are an option here without an adapter.

SONY XPERIA XZ PREMIUM – PERFORMANCE AND SOFTWARE

As mentioned, I’ve been using a non-final unit, which has completely blocked installing any of our benchmarking apps. For those who love numbers, you’ll have to wait for the final review to see how it stacks up.

Still, in day-to-day use, performance was as good as you’d expect from a phone packed with the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (expandable through microSD).

The XZ Premium runs the latest Android version 7.1.1 and it feels snappy and responsive. Sony hasn’t done much to the usual Android experience, save for pre-installing some apps, such as its PlayStation and media apps. The app launcher scrolls horizontally, which takes some getting used to, but otherwise everything is as it should be.

SONY XPERIA XZ PREMIUM – CAMERA

The XZ Premium is the first phone to utilise Sony’s own ‘Motion Eye’ capture system, which draws on the company’s digital imaging know-how. Essentially, this equates to the first mobile stacked memory sensor to have dedicated DRAM, which should help with image processing speeds.

The stacked memory has other benefits, too, such as Predictive Capture, which buffers images when the sensor detects motion, capturing images immediately before and after you actually press the shutter button. You can then choose the best shot or save all of them.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

I’m not entirely sure why Predictive Capture kicked in on this shot…

The new 1/2.3-inch sensor sees the megapixel count reduced to 19 megapixels from the 23-megapixel version used in the regular Xperia XZ, but the pixels themselves are now 19% bigger, improving low-light performance.

In keeping with the XZ Premium’s photography and video focus, there’s a dedicated shutter button, which also acts as a shortcut to the Camera app when long pressed. For a company known for some truly wonderful cameras, the shutter button is a slight disappointment.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Talk to any photographer and a satisfying actuation of a shutter button is an unappreciated element but rather important. The shutter button here is tiny and there’s little travel to it, so the usual half-press for focus feels undefined.

The Camera app can also feel a little slow on occasion, and the autofocus from half-pressing the shutter button uses only the centre of the frame, rather than something more intelligent. Then there’s the lack of optical image stabilisation, instead making do with electronic image stabilisation.

In the end, the still image capture performance isn’t a patch on rivals and isn’t far beyond phones that cost less, such as the OnePlus 3T or Honor 8 Pro.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Colours are respectable with good sharpness

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Noise is decently controlled

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

I did find highlights could occasionally be blown out due to over-exposure, however

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Sometimes images can also look a little flat and underwhelming

However, it’s the slow-motion video that’s the headline feature. To manage such high frame rate video – which by far eclipses rival handsets and even Sony’s own flagship 4K action camera the FDR-X3000 – it’s once again about the benefits of that memory-stacked sensor enabling it to capture images more rapidly.

But again, there are caveats. Jump into the slow-motion mode and the image is immediately cropped, putting you in a very tight field of view that can be difficult to manage, unless you have the space to back yourself up. There’s a loss of resolution as the Xperia XZ Premium can’t pull off its party trick at 4K resolution (quite understandably) and instead records at 720p.

The on-screen tutorial will tell you that once you begin recording at 30fps, you’ll need to press the shutter button again at the right time to begin capturing in super-slow motion. Since there’s no pre-buffer on the slow motion, you’ll need to be very precise when you begin slow-motion capture. You’ll naturally be inclined to go a little too soon for the first few attempts.

The other issue is that ample lighting is necessary for the camera to be able to achieve such a high frame rate without introducing noticeable noise and image degradation. Most videos I shot indoors were both extremely noisy and soft. One scenario Sony is pushing for slow-motion is capturing people’s pets, but there’s a reason why the example videos are all shot under studio lighting or outdoors.

Any footage I shot of my cats indoors was poor when it came to image quality. Outdoor footage fared far better. You’re going to have to plan your slow-motion shots ahead of time and make sure you have sufficient lighting, removing some of the appeal.

Nail both the timing and the lighting and there’s no doubting the dramatic impact of a good slow-motion video, though. But how often people will want to do this remains to be seen; it doesn’t feel like something worth buying a specific phone for.

SONY XPERIA XZ PREMIUM – BATTERY LIFE AND SOUND

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Sony promises ‘all-day battery life’ from the XZ Premium and, thankfully, that seems to be the case from the 3230mAh battery. Picking up the phone off charge around 7.30am, I typically saw about 10% of battery remaining by 11pm.

I’ll hold off benchmarking properly until I receive a final unit, in case any of the hardware or software tweaks make a tangible difference to battery performance. However, one neat thing I encountered was Sony’s ‘Battery Care’ mode.

This intentionally reduces the amount of time it takes your phone to top up beyond 90%. The Xperia XZ Premium takes note of when you normally plug in your phone and then slows the charge rate until the time you usually take the phone off charge. This allows it to more intelligently manage the battery life, slowing down its eventual degradation. It took a week of use before the phone decided it had my routine down and automatically turned on its Battery Care mode.

The loudspeaker on the XZ Premium is probably one of the better examples I’ve heard for a while by virtue of the fact that the pair of front-facing speakers push out a decent amount of volume. Crank up the volume and you can feel the phone reverberate.

INITIAL VERDICT

The delay between announcing the Xperia XZ Premium at MWC and its eventual release in June hasn’t done the XZ Premium any favours. There’s an easy joke about Sony’s release schedule going in slow motion to be made.

In light of rival flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6 and HTC U11, it’s difficult to feel particularly excited by the Sony Xperia XZ Premium. It banks on the slow-motion video to draw people’s attention away from rivals – but for me, the feature isn’t compelling enough, with too many limitations in its implementation beyond the initial ‘wow factor’.

In addition, the design of the Xperia phones appears to be trapped in time; it looks drab next to other phones, and is made worse by how uncomfortable it is to hold. At least the Xperia XZ Premium won’t leave you wanting when it comes to performance, with specifications befitting its flagship status but beyond that, I’ve struggled to feel enamoured by it.

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