And It’s Something New
Just last September at IFA Germany, Sony announced the release of two new Xperia smartphones: the Xperia XZ and the X Compact. Compared to previous Xperia models, these two phones featured newly updated designs, and a clearer physical distinction in sizes. In terms of hardware, differences are minimal, with the Snapdragon 820 for the XZ and X Performance, and the Snapdragon 650 for the X and X Compact. There is also the new RGBC color sensor for the camera and laser autofocus for improved lowlight performance.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The design of these two phones is uniquely Sony. It is not hard to see that it looks very different from most other smartphones out there, from the placement of the buttons to the iconic rectangular design. Frankly speaking, I’ve never really liked this rectangular design. However, the implementation through the XZ and X Compact is simply stunning as far as looks go. My main gripe about the original design is the ergonomics, and the stiff edges aren’t exactly the most comfortable thing to rest on your palms. But the loop design introduced in these two phones, where the front glass and back cover are curved and tapered, makes them significantly more ergonomic and generally more comfortable to hold.
The XZ and X compact are two very handsome phones, and aesthetically, they are one of my favorites. Sony’s Xperia phones were never uni-body, but rather were made of segments. In the case of these two phones, they have a plastic frame along with their own unique back plate. The X compact has a high gloss plastic back while the XZ has the more premium Alkaleido Metal back that looks really nice. The XZ also has a small additional plastic cover at the bottom of the backside of the phone, where the antenna bands reside. The whole concept of the design is perhaps, rather ironic. Given Sony’s long historical involvement in making water-resistant smartphones, this multi-piece design has far more openings and seams than a regular uni-body design. That said, the current design negates the needs for screws, making the whole aesthetic of the phone seem very cohesive and uniform. This is also very reminiscent of the famous Japanese woodworking techniques used to craft the temples that are still standing today, even after many centuries. Such temples are made purely out of wood, without a single nail in them. The idea stems from the belief that you should be gentle and respectful towards the materials that you have and this is replicated here with the Xperia phones. Rather than tightening the phone up with screws, Sony engineers carefully piece the individual segments together with proper and expert craftsmanship. The iconic rectangular look and flat base also gives a sense of rigidity and stability that is very much representative of Japanese design. My only concern lies in the plastic frame, which is naturally less durable than its metal counterparts.
As for utility, the design is a bit of a mixed bag. The NFC is oddly located at the front of the phone, which is a compromised result of the metal backplate. Sony has also been insistent on the fingerprint scanner being on the power button. Putting the unlocking mechanism (scanner) on the locking mechanism (power) is conceptually awkward, and the practical result is a slightly unfortunate mix of contradictory physical functions. For example, pressing the power button to take a brief look at notifications also triggers the fingerprint scanner at times, resulting in a silly redundancy that feels quite out of place. I could use another finger or double tap the screen to circumvent this issue but they aren’t as fast or as reliable. I would prefer Sony to have a separate location for the fingerprint scanner. Also, other than my right thumb, the only other finger I’ve registered with the fingerprint scanner is my left middle finger, because it kinds of rests on it when I’m using my left hand, but the accuracy is not very good when I do that.
The volume buttons perhaps raise the most eyebrows, but I think this is where Sony puts heavy focus on the camera. Whilst not being ergonomic for use as volume buttons, it doubles up as a very useful zoom/shutter speed controls when in camera mode. Other than this, there is the famous dedicated camera button, which is further proof of Sony’s dedication to the camera.
I do wish these phones used capacitive buttons, since the on-screen buttons reduces the available display area on these phones. However, in its stead are the front-facing stereo speakers, and it is without a doubt great that Sony continues to integrate this into their design. The speakers aren’t very loud, but they do sound better than most smartphone speakers and plus, its fired towards you. Also, the XZ is rated IPX68 water and dust resistant, which is a huge boon for me, but sadly the X compact cannot boast of such a feature. This is in a sense a bit disappointing, since the older Z5 Compact was in fact, water resistant. Sony also never had a physical notification toggle on their phones but it is something I wish they had. Overall, the design of the XZ and X compact are absolutely beautiful and I am glad that Sony paid such careful attention to the aesthetics. Some foibles in terms of utility but nothing really deal breaking.
Both the Xperia XZ and the X compact perform admirably for their respective category of smartphones. Starting with the X compact, it utilizes the Snapdragon 650 hexa-core processor. Some might be disappointed to see this make its way into a $648 SGD or $499 USD phone, as there are many phones offering more powerful SoC’s than a Snapdragon 650. While this is true, I believe Sony’s main focus for these two smartphones is the camera. In any case, the performance for the X compact is still very good for daily usage. App launches when compared to its bigger brother are still snappy and the resulting delays only slightly more noticeable on larger apps such as mobile games.
The XZ, with a Snapdragon 820, has extremely commendable performance and presents itself as a strong opponent when compared with other flagship smartphones. I like to use the PCMark and 3DMark benchmark tools as it tests the real-world situations such as web browsing or handling large amounts of data. The short list below provides a general of how the XZ compares to high performance phones such as the OnePlus 3T (Snapdragon 821), which I own, and also shows the performance difference between the Xperia models.
|Sony Xperia XZ||5534|
|Motorola Moto Z||5335|
|Samsung Galaxy S7||4908|
|Sony Xperia X performance||4886|
|Sony Xperia X Compact||4726|
After the Nougat update, the XZ completes the Work 2.0 benchmark with flying colors, pulling in with an overall score of 5534. The XZ actually surprised me with how well it performed, and I even did multiple re-tests and the scoring was very consistent. The score for Xperia XZ located on the Futuremark website is only 5101 and I believe the disparity can be attributed to recent update to Android Nougat, which has improved optimizations. The X Compact does not fall too far behind too, and has a respectable score in the overall CPU performance. It is also important to note that the Nougat update for the X Compact is not yet released, so we can expect to see even further improvement in scores here. The optimizations done by Sony are outstanding and both phones are quite responsive as a result of this.
|Samsung Galaxy S7||2492|
|Sony Xperia XZ||2371|
|Sony Xperia X performance||2322|
|Motorola Moto Z||2155|
|Sony Xperia X compact||877|
In the graphics benchmark app, the X Compact is noticeably weaker, falling quite far from the high-end smartphones. When playing more graphics intensive games such as Gangster 4, the graphics are noticeably toned down and not as smooth as when compared to the XZ. So definitely some compromises to be had with the X Compact, but other than playing big mobile games, the phone is generally quite capable. The XZ’s graphics performance is as to be expected from a flagship device, very decent performance and able to play most games with absolute ease.
The 3GB RAM is on paper unimpressive, but the phone does not struggle with app launches and multitasking. Perhaps the OnePlus 3T I was using before could keep apps longer in the background but the XZ and X compact work more than well enough. The only time the difference is really noticeable is when you launch a large app, like a big title mobile game for example, the Xperia phones will be more aggressive in clearing out background tasks but in general, I don’t think the RAM size is particularly prohibitive.
The Xperia XZ has a 2900mAh battery while the X compact has a 2700mAh battery. Generally, the X compact lasts longer because there are fewer pixels to power on the screen and can comfortably last through the day. With the XZ, I find that towards the end of the day I’m looking for a charger. It would be nice to have a larger battery but Sony includes the famed stamina mode, but we will discuss about that that later in the Operating System section.
The eMMC storage used by these two phones is something that is somewhat unexpected. I’d really prefer the superior UFS 2.0 storage used in many other flagship phones, although application launch times are still fast. Compared to the OnePlus 3T, which uses UFS 2.0 storage, it would be unfair to say that the XZ is slower. When compared side by side, the 3T edges out by a tad in some cases but overall its quite equal, and I’ve not noticed much of a difference after switching to the XZ from the OnePlus 3T. As mentioned, the X Compact also is by no means sluggish when compared to the XZ, although large application launch times are noticeably slower. It just would be nice to guarantee the longevity of the speed of the smartphone with a newer storage technology.
Sony is proud to say that they have adapted technologies from their gorgeous Bravia displays unto these two phones. The resolution for the XZ and X compact are 1080p and 720p, with a 5.2in and 4.6in display respectively; while they aren’t the highest PPI around, the screen is plenty crisp. Perhaps only in Virtual Reality usage would the resolution pose a problem, but other than that, it works very well. Anyways, Sony has implemented a lot of technology into making the display capable of very vibrant colors and high contrast ratios. In practice, I think the execution is quite well done. Colors are very bright and vivid. Brightness is of absolutely no problem for these two phones. Outdoor use is simply splendid and the phone is quite usable even under direct sunlight, although the XZ is capable of higher brightness than the X Compact. I do think Sony may have boosted the color saturation a bit. When I transferred photos from the Xperia phones to my laptop and to the iPhone, the images looked very different. Colors are noticeably more vivid, even enhanced in a sense, when displayed on the XZ and X Compact. I wouldn’t say the colors are very accurate, but the display certainly does look nice.
OS AND UI
I have updated to the Android Nougat version for the XZ but the update is not yet available for the X Compact as of the writing of this review. Still, it is very encouraging to see Sony rolling out new updates quickly. There is strong Google apps integration, though there are still a few Sony native applications and pre-installed apps such as Amazon. The default keyboard is SwiftKey, which I do use. It can be quite easily swapped for another if needed. The overall UI is simple, and straightforward, being quite close to stock android. I mean this in an impartial manner. I know that there are some people who use “how close an OS is to stock android” as a metric for how good the OS is. While I do see certain benefits to stock android, I’m all for a company trying to implement their own idea of how a smartphone should serve its user.
Sony introduced did a couple of features. For one, there is smart backlight control, which keeps the display lit while the phone is being held in use. This is useful. There is also the battery care algorithm where Xperia phone will be capped at 90% while charging overnight, and filling it till full before you wake up, thus increasing the lifespan of the battery in the long run.
I didn’t really notice much other aspects and I do wish Sony added more features of there own. In essence, the operating system is rather plain for my taste, perhaps missing a bit of flare. I’d like to draw examples from other Android phones that I’ve used; OnePlus allows you to trigger certain actions of the phone when you draw shapes on its locked display, or that Xiaomi’s MIUI allows you to install two of the same applications on the same phone. I’m not saying Sony should copy other companies, but it would be nice if they added extra attributes that can benefit the user. In this point in time when smartphone competition is very strong, a complementary balance of good hardware and software can really help draw a clear distinction. I also always believed that good hardware is only as good as the software; the XZ and X Compact are capable of very good performance and more features can be added to take advantage of their capabilities and enhance the user experience. That being said, there is nothing wrong, per se, with the operating system and is certainly capable of doing everything a user may need to do.
Although there are some aspects of the user interface that I feel could be improved. The minimum display and font size are still quite large. This really eats up a lot of screen space and in a messaging app such as telegram, it can barely even display six lines of text. Even the iPhone 6 can display more information and it has a smaller screen. I feel this is extremely important because ultimately, a smartphone’s screen is not large, and it would be nice to be able to cram more information if a phone’s screen can support it. Nougat’s dual app display would also greatly benefit from a smaller font size. It would also be appreciated if Sony would introduce night mode for the display so that it is easier on the eyes at night. One of the more annoying features is when you take out the SIM/microSD card slot, the phone will reboot. I’m not sure of the rationale behind this and its quite frustrating that it reboots whenever I want to swap out a microSD card.
Another major aspect of the operating system is Sony’s implementation of Stamina mode. There are 3 levels of Stamina mode that range from minimal restrictions of device performance to making the whole phone feel sluggish and honestly even hard to use. Although there are times when I remember thinking I’d take drastic measures to squeeze out more battery time and it is nice that Sony gives you the option to do that. Although for general purposes, if you do go out, I recommended the first level of stamina mode, it is a good compromise between performance and battery life and I can usually last a good chunk of the day with that.
Sony has some of the best hardware available for camera smartphones right here, and compared to the older models, there is the new RGBC sensor and laser autofocus for nighttime use. While Sony compromised on the SoC for the X Compact, the camera was not compromised, and it certainly has one of the best cameras around. One thing to note, the X compact cannot film 4k videos, and I think this is due to the weaker graphics capabilities, as seen in the performance section.
In any case, we need to start off with the essentials. Launch time is fast, not the fastest when you launch it from home screen, which I suspect is because of the eMMC storage technology, but it is still very fast. Plus, the dedicated camera button makes it easy for you to launch and snap and picture, thus the physical design puts it at an advantage over many other smartphones. The UI is simple and quite easy to get used to, and the built in manual mode is also easy to navigate through. The time it takes to take a picture generally is not very fast, but I think that’s Sony image processing happening in the background.
These two photos are simple demonstrations of the Xperia phones’ ability to capture and reproduce color. The whole image looks very good. Colors are a bit over saturated but nonetheless, it is really nice. The X compact also performed very well, much like the XZ, beautiful vivid colors. Moving on.
This next picture is a picture of some houses around the compound that I live in and the Xperia phones did a fantastic job here. The colors are very vivid and the XZ was able to bring out a very bright image. Detailing throughout the image is very good. However, I do want to point out that the detailing around the edges are not as good as the center. you can see around here in the leaves that it is not as clear. The X compact also takes very nice pictures, however the processing capabilities of the snapdragon 650 cannot compete with the snapdragon 820. Detail retrieval in the photos taken by the x-compact general is weaker than the XZ. The 23 MP touted by Sony here in these two cameras allows better detailing in the photos and also a larger picture overall, but down at the pixel level, it is not very good, so if you try to zoom in on the photos, it’ll look quite grainy.
In this night shot here outside my home, the XZ and X compact shows off its night time prowess, completely outshining the iPhone 6s. The Xperia phones achieve good low light performance by having the ultra-high 12800 ISO option. The problem with having such high light sensitivity is increase in noise throughout the photo. So it all boils down to how Sony’s imaging software performs noise reduction. The result is good. Smartphones typically have bad low light performance because the camera is just tiny but the XZ and X compact perform admirably. Sony has done well in reducing the noise and I think overall the XZ and X compact achieved a very decent compromise and is able to provide quite a nice picture.
If I want to compare to some of the best smartphone cameras out there, such as the Google Pixel and Mate 9, would I say the XZ is better. Well I don’t think its better. But it is hard to generalize hardware and capabilities with such a statement. Its detail retrieval is very good, comparable to the Mate 9, which has a dedicated black and white camera just for detail retrieval. Google has HDR perpetually on, leading to very good contrast control, which is definitely not the strong suit of the Xperia phones. Honestly, it all boils down to what you want in a camera. In general, I find that Sony tries to vivify the pictures, and if I may say so myself, to the point of being more vivid than in real life. You can see here in this picture vs the Mate 9, while the Mate 9 brings out a deeper yellow in the flower, the overall greenery and image by the XZ is more lush and seemingly more picturesque. Accurate? Not really. Does it look nice? I would say so. I think more or less we can kind of tell the direction Sony is headed with this camera. If you are a casual user and Instagram is a big reason why you use your camera, the XZ is your best bet right now, for taking those seemingly glamorous pictures. I mean, I did enjoy using this camera, all the food pictures I took looked great.
Both these phones do not have OIS, but instead has DIS. Standard 1080p video utilizes 3-axis image stabilization and only macro videos have the 5axis image stabilization. Nevertheless, the DIS works quite well. A good thing about DIS is that it can be used for both front and rear cameras, so those selfie videos will also look more stable. Sony software processing tends to brighten up both the image and videos and in many cases this is a good thing, although there are times when it looks a bit unnatural. As aforementioned, you can easily tone down the brightness so that you can find the right amount of exposure.
While the main rear cameras on both phones are quite similar, the X Compact’s front camera is a step down from its bigger brother. And it just isn’t as sharp. That being said, both works quite well. The X compact again, a bit less detail but it is still a very good selfie camera.
AMONGST OTHER THINGS
After covering the major aspects of the phone, there are always minor things that should be mentioned. Sony touts a high-res audio headphone output, and I’ve been listening to it with my handy Audio Technica IM-02, which are very easy to drive. The output sounds clear for sure, whether it is a definite step up from the iPhone’s output, which is frankly quite good, I am unable to say for certain. The phones are capable of quick charge but Sony does not include quick chargers, so that’s a bit of a bummer there.
Sony certainly puts forth a very unique approach towards the design of these two smartphones. The end product is finally a design from Sony that I like, and not only that, it also became one of my favorites; the embodiment of the qualities of Japan exudes beauty and elegance. Overall, the unique design introduced has a mix of pros and cons, but kudos to Sony for sticking to what they believe in. Front facing speaker, waterproofing (XZ only) and microSD card slot are all also a joy to have. Perhaps the volume button and fingerprint scanner location takes a bit of getting used to. For my personal preference, the Operating System and User Interface is a bit plain, but it still works well and are very snappy. XZ’s system performance is simply fantastic after the Nougat update, while the X compact’s graphics side is a bit weak but overall still a very capable phone. The camera on these two, as expected, are very good. It is not the most accurate but it does take beautiful pictures. If you are coming from the Xperia X and X performance, the improvements are nothing more than incremental. However, for those who have been eyeing an Xperia phone, or are just looking out for a new smartphone in general, the updated overall design and clearer distinction in sizes make the XZ and X Compact a more compatible fit in the world of smartphones.
The X compact is perhaps not very straightforward as a device, since its price to performance ratio is rather steep. It is also a small phone in a market largely dominated by larger phones, with a rather large focus on the camera; it is not the most well-rounded phone, but it fills a niche without compromising on the camera. In the case of the XZ, it brings very strong competition to other flagship smartphones out there, being well-rounded with plenty of good hardware features such as strong device performance, water-resistance and a very good camera. Overall, excellent job by Sony, pushing through with a stunning design that it sets itself apart from its competitors, with the XZ and X Compact being two very handsome and capable smartphones.