UPDATE: Sony has now upgraded the Xperia Z1 to run on Google's Android 4.4.2 KitKat release. We've updated the review again to reflect this.
Sony was the first of the big-name manufacturers to launch a new 2013 flagship smartphone back in March of last year, with the Sony Xperia Z, a 5-inch model outwardly rather similar to the new Sony Xperia Z1.
The Xperia Z beat the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 to market, offering a quad-core processor, 1080p display, 13MP camera, 2GB of RAM, and water and dust resistance. It was awesome.
But a new Sony flagship arrvied for the autumn/winter 2013 season, in the large, glossy shape of the Xperia Z1. There's a more powerful processor inside, a higher-spec camera and a new metal chassis, but it's still recognisably related to the older Z, both in design terms and the software it runs.
It's a premium model too. The Z1 launched last year for a stonking great £599 in the UK, and even though it's just been usurped by the all-new Xperia Z2, it's still a hugely expensive phone with an unlocked price of around £479.
As with the Xperia Z, the Z1's 5-inch screen displays at full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution. The key upgrades here are hidden inside, with the Z1 powered by a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset clocked at 2.2GHz and backed up by the same 2GB of working RAM as the Z.
There's also an upgraded aluminium chassis that rounds off the sharp edges of the Z in favour of a gentler, colder, metallic feel. The headline feature is the 20.7MP camera sensor, on paper a vast upgrade over the 13MP unit inside the older Z.
The Z1 is certified to IP standards for dust and water resistance, so ought to be 100% impervious to the more mundane threat of pocket fluff.
Indeed, the phone's ports - microSD, USB and micro-SIM - are all hidden behind rubber stoppers, to keep water, dust and fluff at bay.
The Z1's 3.5mm headphone jack is open to the elements on the top-left corner of the phone, so Sony's done a bit of useful work here to waterproof that and do away with the rubber stopper.
I thought the addition of a flap over the USB connector would be a first-world problem-causing frustration on a daily basis, but thankfully I was wrong.
It pops out easily. It pops back in easily. It's a second and a half worth investing each day in return for a fully waterproof phone.
Holding the Sony Xperia Z1 is a treat to the senses too, as the Z1 features a full glass exterior as well as a smooth, featureless and button-free front.
The back's so shiny you could mistake it for a display, albeit a broken display that's stuck showing the Sony logo in the middle.
Sony's designers have ensured that the Z1's plastic sides extend by a fraction of a millimetre over the phone's glassy rear.
This acts as a shock absorber and means the glass should be protected from casual tosses onto hard surfaces - although I've scratched the back a little already. But that was probably from chucking it in the sea to check its water resistance, so I have only myself to blame.
It feels big and wide, although thanks to also being rather tall as well it manages to balance pretty nicely in the hand. It's also cool to the touch, with the aluminium sides giving your hand the odd chill when it's been out on a table for a while.
Sony's also stuck with its idea of putting the power button on the side of the phone a little above the middle, meaning it's easy to find and naturally appears where your fingers tend to sit when holding a phone of this size.
But being so slim and smooth has you worrying. Putting it in a pocket makes you stress that it's so slick it's surely only a matter of time before it somehow works itself up and out onto the floor.
But that's not happened to me yet. I am probably just worrying too much. It encourages you to worry, as it's such a large lump of a phone you're always aware of its presence.
Thanks to the positioning of the power button it is just about possible to use the Xperia Z1 in one hand. It's not entirely comfortable to hold, though, as the angular slab design and glass back has you panicking that it's a very droppable item.
Your fingers end up seeking out the docking port as the only gripping spot, as that's the only feature on the left-hand side of the Z1 that isn't completely smooth and flush.
The front... no, wait, this is the back. The back looks like the front. It's all glass and smooth, although I suspect it's not made from stuff as tough as that which covers the front, as a fair few tiny scratches have developed in a little over a week of use.
The right-hand edge features the microSIM card tray - which can be pulled out with a fingernail - power button, volume up/down toggle and the camera shutter button, the latter of which can be used to open up the camera by holding it down for a second or so.
The SIM tray is peculiar, housing an impossibly flimsy piece of plastic that's used to insert the SIM, which is so thin it's bordering on paper-like. If you're a regular SIM-swapper it'll be a nightmare, as this teeny holder is definitely one of the few weak spots in the Z1's design.
The left-hand side has the microSD slot and USB connectors, which sit above the docking station pins, while the bottom edge is all speaker grill.
It's not the best place for a speaker as, what with this being such a huge phone, you often end up supporting it with a finger or thumb while using it - blocking or at least changing the level of the audio when simply adjusting your grip. Not a massive flaw, but a minor annoyance all the same.
The bottom of the display is allocated for Android's software buttons, which are presented here in standard Back, Home and the Recent Apps multitasking button.
There's enough chin beneath the display to ensure these software buttons aren't too low down the Z1's body, again helping to make one-handed use a little easier. No mean feat when dealing with a 5-inch monster.
Current page: Introduction and designNext PageInterface
In this post we’re pitching the Sony Xperia Z2 against its predecessor, the Xperia Z1. So if you want to find out how these two fare against each other and what’s new on the Z2, stay with me for the next few minutes.
On a first look, not much was modified from one generation to the other. The Z2 retains the familiar shape of the previous Zs: the same Glass sandwich design with slightly rounded metallic edges. I have the Purple version of the Z2 here, and when compared to the Purple Z1, it does look like Sony slightly tweaked the colors used on the edges, adding some Silver into the mix. Aside from that though, it’s almost impossible to set the two Zs apart.
Digging a bit deeper though, you’ll quickly find out that some aspects have actually changed. For starters, you’ll notice that there’s a slightly larger screen on the Z2, with a narrower bezel. And while we’re here, you’ll notice that the earpiece has been redesigned. The upper earpiece is longer and narrower on the new unit, and there’s a similar cut at the bottom of the front-face as well, below the screen. And that’s because these cuts now hide the speakers.
Sony Xperia Z2 vs Z1 video comparison
Yes, we have a set of front-facing stereo speakers on the Xperia Z2, firing decent quality sound. They’re not incredibly punchy or loud, but they are definitely a step forward from that bottom-edge speaker on the Xperia Z. And they are a lot more difficult to cover and muffle with your hand. Hear for yourselves.
That top speaker-cut also houses a new notification LED BTW, longer and brighter than before. Again, a nice addition, as the LED on the Z1 was quite dim.
And there are a few other minor exterior tweaks. For instance, the secondary microphone is no longer on the back of the phone, but has been moved on the top edge of the Z2, and the lanyard hole is still on the bottom edge, but on the left, not on the right like on the Z1.
Of course, the new Xperia is still IP certified, which means that all the ports are covered by plastic caps. Higher quality caps than on the previous Xperia though. And since we’re here, you will notice that while on the Z1 we had two separate caps protecting the slots on the left edge, on the Z2 there’s only one.
All in all, the Z2 feels similar to the Z1 in hand: rock solid, premium, but a bit too massive and too heavy for my liking. It’s true that the Z2 has lost a few grams over the older version, but not really enough to make a noticeable difference. And since we’re here, I should also mention that the new Z is milimetrically longer than the Z1, but pretty much the same in terms of width and thickness.
Anyway, let’s move on and have a look at the screens. There’s a 5.2 inch one on the Xperia Z2 and a 5 incher on the Xperia Z1, both sporting similar panels and the same 1920 x 1080 px resolution. In other words, again, not much has changed, at least on a first look.
It’s nearly impossible to set these two apart in terms of brightness, sharpness and contrast. However, the display on the Z2 offers larger viewing angles, which is great, but paints more over saturated colors, which you might not appreciate that much. All in all, the Z2’s screen takes a close win here. It’s a step forward, but not a breakthrough.
Oh, and let’s not forget the two new functions offered by the Z2: the ability to use the display with Gloves ON and the ability to double-tap the screen to wake up the device.
The Z2, to the right in the picture above, paints quite over-saturated colors
Software and everyday performances
Of course, there’s more than meets the eye with these phones. Internally though, they are again fairly close. Both are powered by Snapdragon 800 chips, with a slight frequency bump for the new unit, and an extra 1 GB of RAM, for a total of 3. In benchmarks, these don’t make a big difference.
|Sony Xperia Z2||Sony Xperia Z1|
|Screen||5.2 inch, 1920 x 1080 px, TFT Triluminos panel||5.0 inch, 1920 x 1080 px, TFT Triluminos panel|
|Hardware||Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 2.3 GHz + Adreno 330 graphics||Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 2.2 GHz + Adreno 330 graphics|
|Memory||3 GB RAM||2 GB RAM|
|Storage||16 GB||16 GB|
|Connectivity||4G/LTE, Wireless AC, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, NFC||4G/LTE, Wireless AC, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, NFC|
|Ports||microUSB, microSD||microUSB, microSD|
|Cameras||20.7 MPx back camera, 2.1 MPx front camera||20.7 MPx back camera, 2.1 MPx front camera|
|Battery||3200 mAh||3000 mAh|
|OS||Android 4.4 KitKat||Android 4.2 JellyBean|
|Size||147 x 74 x 8.4 mm||144 x 74 x 8.5 mm|
|Weight||162 g||170 g|
|Others||available in several different colors, front-facing stereo speakers, 4K video recording||available in several different colors|
In everyday use though, the Xperia Z2 feels smoother and snappier than the Z1. But that’s more due to the software, than the hardware. The Z2 comes with Android 4.4 by default, while on this version of the Z1 I’m only running Android 4.2 , and that’s what causes the slight performance gap between them..
Android 4.4 brings some extra features, we’re not going to talk about them in here though, see my video review for the Xperia Z2 for more details. I will say however that Sony kept the UI clean, with only a few tweaks, while adding their own apps and services, which are also available on the Z1. And one more thing: KitKat looks so much sexier than Jellybean, don’t you think?
There’s Android 4.4 KitKat on the Xperia Z2, and it’s both faster and more appealing than JellyBean
Bottom point, both these phones are powerful and more than capable of dealing with everything you might throw at them, from daily tasks to games and multimedia. However, there’s a newer version of Android on the Xperia Z2, with a bunch of benefits, while the Z1 might only receive this update sometime in the future.
Let’s move on for now and turn our attention on the cameras. On paper, very little has changed. The two devices pack the same 2 MPx front shooters and 20.7 MPx rear cameras with large sensors. The Z2 however benefits from a few extra shooting modes: 4K video, TimeShift Video, Background Defocus and so on. So when it comes to taking videos, the Z2 clearly steps in front.
The two Zs pack a similar main-shooter
But how about pics? Well, the Z2 is a powerful shooter in good light, but still struggles in dim conditions. It fails to focus more often than you’d want and the software still mushes out the details if you actually manage to capture a focused still. And that’s with and without Flash, both when using the Smart Auto or the Manual modes.
However, I do have to admit that the Z2’s camera does a better job than the one on the Z1 in the given conditions, but there’s still room for improvement.
Studio Lights – 20 MPx resized to 8 Mpx, manual
Indoors – low light – Flash
Indoor test – low light – no flash
These aside, there’s one more important aspect to cover: battery life. Again, on paper, not much has changed, but the Z2 is really outlasting the Z1 in everyday use. While I haven’t conducted detailed tests, the Z2 was able to go through the day with medium to heavy use, which translates in 4-5 hours of active screen time, while the Z1 cannot. Of course, both devices offer some Power management options, so if you want to, you can squeeze more out of them. Either way, the Z2 is the winner here.
Alright, all these being said, it’s time to draw the line on this comparison.
The Z2 is the definition of incremental upgrade. And it’s the proof that Sony are listening to our complaints and working on improving their devices. With this one, they addressed the speakers, the screen, the cameras and the battery life, while they buffed up the specs and brought the software up-to-date. Some aspects of it still require further tweaking, but when pitched against the only 6 months old Z1, the Z2 is clearly the better device. It is more expensive as well though, since it’s brand new, and that’s something else you’ll have to keep in mind.
The Xperia Z2 improves many of the Z1’s issues
This concludes our comparison, but before you go, I’d love to know what do you think about these two devices and whether or not you’re happy with the new Xperia Z2. So make sure to leave your replies below.
And if you’re interested in more details about Sony’s new Z, I’ve also reviewed it here on the site, and compared it to the iPhone 5S and the Samsung Galaxy S4, so you might want to check out these posts as well.
Andrei Girbea, aka "Mike", Editor-in-Chief at TLBHD.com. I absolutely hate carrying around heavy stuff, that's why I'm fond of mini-laptops and portable computers. I'm primarily using such devices and have been testing them for many years now. Get in touch in the comments section below.