Sony is, perhaps, one of the most quiet players in the smartphone market. Their Xperia Z line gets a semesterly refresh, and the incremental improvements have proved to make consumers happy. The Xperia Z2 featured, in particular, great battery life, and the Z1 compact, Z3 and Z3 Compact all had or improved upon that too. In fact, that’s been one of Sony’s biggest strengths these past two years and thus we expect the same – or better – from their next handset.
Sony phones also have a particularly efficient user experience, with a skin that is not too intrusive and is rather speedy in comparison to the clunkiest of the bunch. Sensible features like Stamina mode or the pop-up windows make for great little additions, too. When it comes to XDA modding, Xperia phones see vast and varied individual and cross-device development – arguably a stronger point of the lines, and Sony has been really helpful to independent developments with their AOSP builds.
Just yesterday we saw a surprisingly quiet unveiling for the Xperia Z4 take place without prior notice nor post awe, and we now know a lot about the next Sony flagship, which has been the source of endless rumors for the past 6 months. The design is a little shocking for a company that had claimed to be changing its business model, and it does not resemble plenty of the leaks we had from independent sources or the huge Sony hack. So what are Xperia fans getting, and is it worth getting excited for? You probably know the specs, but here we’ll take a look at what the totality of the device means for Sony.
The Xperia line has one of the most iconic design language on Android – you can spot one from a mile away. What you certainly won’t make out from that distance is which device it is that you are looking at. The “Omni-balance” approach has seen incremental refinements iteration after iteration, with better build quality, superior waterproofing and somewhat smaller dimensions and bezels. This last bit is perhaps the most important bit for Xperia phones: the Z1 had immense bezels resulting in a 64.7% screen-to-body ratio, but the Z2 bumped that percentage to around 69.3% and the Z3 did so once more, pushing it to a respectable 70.9%. The Z4, however, maintains that ratio as the dimensions and screen size are identical. Luckily, the device did get thinner (7.3mm to 6.9mm), but in a world where bezels get smaller, we wish we saw another trim.
Other than that, it’s pretty much same-old Sony, with amazing P6X dustproof rating, and IPX5 and IPX8 certification for waterproofing. It also comes with a waterproof micro USB port, so it no longer has any covering flaps like other waterproof phones do. All of these ultimately mean that you can take a swim with this phone and it’ll survive the splash, but other than that there’s not much else that this device can tout.
The design stagnated, but what about the display? Well, from what we know, it did too. It sports the same 1080p resolution, at the same size, with the same X-reality Engine and Triluminos LCD panel. In the past, we applauded Sony for keeping the Z3 and Z3 Compact behind the (unnecessary) curve of 1440p phones. Why? Simply because both phones featured excellent battery life. There were rumors of two Z4 variants a few months ago, one with a 1440p panel and one with the conservative 1080p resolution. We discussed this in a feature where we argued for both sides of the 1440p craze, but the conclusion was that the 1080p panel did help Sony tremendously in claiming the battery king crown. Sony displays have come a long way in terms of technology, but with people praising the newer Samsung panels, we hope that Sony really improves this screen when it comes to calibration and the like.
The battery size of the Z4 has diminished in size, something that already raises our skepticism given that the latest Xperia flagships are famous due to their longevity. The capacity went from to 3,100 mAh to 2,930 mAh, which is a little over 5% of a differential – hardly enough to make a difference in real world use, with all other things reamining equal. And so far, all things are astonishly equal. Except for the elephant in the room…
Snapdragon 810. That’s really all we have to say to begin having concerns regarding this device. The M9 and the G Flex 2 both heavily throttle in presence of heat (not much at that), and on the M9, performance caps had to be put in place to keep the device from getting too hot. We discussed this a lot during the weeks leading up to the M9, and concluded that the Snapdragon 810 leads to actual issues. At this point, we believe there’s no question about it, and manufacturers like LG are said to be moving away from it altogether.
So, we have talked plenty on the theoretical performance of the Snapdragon 810, but in the real world and with a 1080p panel, it’s not bad at all. In fact, due to the 1080p display and lack of optimization for the Exynos in the S6, the M9 can run some games better than Samsung’s powehouse and it fares pretty well in most on-screen benchmarks as well (the Adreno 430 GPU is still a big step forwards in graphics performance). There might be some stutters, but Sony’s Lollipop update is reportedly great in terms of performance, and this phone will be running Lollipop too. The real concern is battery life:
The G Flex 2 and M9 feature abnormally lower battery results than what their screen resolution and battery capacities would otherwise suggest, and it is clear that much of this regression is due to the Snapdragon 810 they hold. Sony was one of the manufacturers that refused to step into 1440p territory due to battery concerns, and it paid off. Now, the Z4 features the same screen technology (as far as we know), lower battery capacity and a processor that does not have the best track record nor reputation for power efficiency. Moreover, we have seen tests of the Snapdragon 801 (found inside the Z3) outperforming the Snapdragon 810 in certain 3D games, and if they go with the global frequency cap put forth by HTC, we would once again see Qualcomm’s greatest under-deliver in both battery and performance.
We still don’t know many details about the camera, but the Z4 packs the same 20.7MP count in the rear and a bump from 2.2MP to 5.1MP at the front. The Z3 didn’t have a bad camera, by any means, and Sony loves to tout that they have “the best camera (*on a waterproof smartphone)”. We can’t judge a camera just by its image resolution, but Sony’s tendency to use modules that end up worse than those using Sony sensors in other manufacturers’ phones is embarrassingly worrying. And to top things off, the camera does not feature OIS which should be a standard at this point. Again, we’ll hold on this until we know more or see some results, but in a space where Samsung and LG are fiercely competing for the best smartphone camera (*on any smartphone), Sony should try their best and not lose to their own sensors. Let’s also hope that there’s a way around the DRM keys loss when doing what we do best.
To sum up:
Design: Stagnating Evolution
Display: Apparent Stagnation
Chipset: Apparent Regression
Battery Life: Worrying
Camera: Apparent Stagnation
I am a big fan of what Sony does for the developer community and all the improvements they throw at Android as a whole. Their Xperia Z line has a great track-record with a recently found strength in battery life. The Z4 does not seem to be advancing (at least not notably) on key fronts, and the M9 and S6 confrontation showed that consumers are getting tired of iterative upgrades. The evolution in the Xperia Z line has always been slow-paced but strong in all the right places, and the progressive refinement culminated in the fan-acclaimed Z3. With this phone, Sony does not seem to be impressing anyone.
Sony is adamant at staying in the smartphone industry, despite their (to put it lightly) less-than-stellar current situation. There were lots we were expecting from the Z4, with rumors of an all-metal body and provoking possibilities shown in each and every leak. It turns out that this Japan-based phone is not at all what we were hoping it to be, and certainly not what we asked for. That being said, we can’t judge a phone simply by its hardware, and the UX might be substantially better than these specs suggest. We just have to wait an see for now, and we wish the best for the Xperia line as it is a source of great developments on XDA. Sony’s mobile division is a personal favorite (and this is saying a lot, considering that my views on Sony are rather negative after reading through some leaked e-mails), and with another flagship rumored to be unveiled in May, they may be able to finally redeem their brand.
What do you think of the Xperia Z4? Discuss below!