SONY HAS TAKEN SOME TIME bringing its new flagship, the Xperia XZ Premium to the market. Announced at Mobile World Congress in February, it’s only just landing in June. It’s still the only phone on the scene with 960fps slow-mo video, a 4K HDR screen, and 1GB download speeds, though, ensuring that even in June, it’s cutting-edge.
But are these accolades enough to make the XZ Premium stand out in a crowd of excellent flagship smartphones?
Boy does this phone look familiar. With a combination metal and glass body, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium looks like a shinier, blown-up Xperia XZ. Thanks to Gorilla Glass 5 around the back and front, it’s high-gloss and well protected, and with IP68 water and dust resistance, it can be submerged for up to 30 minutes in depths up to 1.5 meters.
Interestingly, those are, for the most part, accolades shared by HTC, LG, and Samsung’s latest flagships, and the iPhone 8 leaks are leaning in that direction too.
Unlike the new Galaxy S8 and LG G6, though, Sony has opted for the more traditional screen aspect ratio of 16:9. This means that the phone isn’t overly long, is plenty wide, and will require you to have, at least fairly sizeable hands to use it comfortably.
Getting specific, the XZ Premium measures 156mm tall, 77mm wide, and 7.9mm thick. It has a fair amount of bezel going on above and below the screen. These bezels house the front speakers and a high-resolution, 13MP selfie camera.
The power button on the right side of the phone also doubles up as a fingerprint scanner and, there’s a physical camera button too, with two-stage input.
In isolation, the Xperia XZ Premium looks and feels just that – premium. It’s well-weighted, high-quality and good-looking. Next to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6, it looks a little dated – but don’t discount the in-hand comfort a bit of bezel adds to day-to-day use. Oh, and one last thing, keep a cleaning cloth with you at all times, or, use a case. Fingerprints are the name of the game on this flagship.
With a world-first 4K HDR mobile screen, you really would expect this phone to blow all others out of the water. Not only does it have more pixels than any other, but it also supports the new TV tech, HDR video.
Let’s start with the specs: IPS LCD technology, 5.46in, and a resolution of 3840×2160 pixels. This resolution results in a pixel density of 807 pixels per inch (PPI). To put it into context, an iPhone 7 Plus has a pixel density of 400ppi, the Huawei P10 Plus clocks in at 540ppi and a Samsung Galaxy S8+ has 531ppi.
Anything above 400ppi delivers sharpness imperceptible pixels to a human eye, so you have to wonder, is doubling it just overkill? For the most part, yes it is. Most apps are drawn at a resolution of Full HD or Quad HD. The bulk of what you’re experiencing is therefore likely upscaled. I also couldn’t see a benefit in terms of clarity over a Samsung Galaxy S8 or an HTC U11, phones packing Quad HD displays. Finally, the XZ Premium isn’t pushed by Sony as a VR phone, VR being one of the only areas that would benefit from 800+ PPI displays.
If the 4K screen on the XZ Premium contributes to additional battery drain, therefore, I for one could have done without it.
In defense of Sony’s decision though, the fact it does show off 4K footage captured on the device in its native resolution means there’s no down-sampling. It’s also futureproofed, with Netflix and Amazon Prime video expected to be rolling out streaming 4K movies and TV shows to smartphones imminently.
Now we’ve talked about resolution, let’s move onto screen tech, and the XZ Premium’s display is a Triluminous IPS panel with Sony’s X-Reality Engine giving it a bit of extra oomph. In addition, the HDR video accolade comes into play when watching supported content. It really does make a difference, with HDR content looking punchier, having a more discernible range of darks through to lights, and therefore delivering an even more immersive experience. As good as it is, HDR video is currently limited to a handful of streaming titles, making this feature a nice to have, rather than a primary buying motivator.
The picture quality on the XZ Premium is also exceptional. In a turn for the books for IPS devices, it doesn’t fall short when watched side-by-side with the AMOLED Samsung Galaxy S8+. Specifically, it handles detailed footage and color gradients noticeably better than Samsung’s flagships. While the S8+ introduces color banding, the pin-sharp XZ Premium retains smooth color transitions better and also looks a bit more realistically muted. That said, it does look less vibrant and deep, especially when watched in the dark, so there is a trade-off.
Additional image controls are also available in the settings, enabling control over white balance and offering a range of modes, from ‘professional’, for realistic colors through to ‘Super-vivid mode’ for a bit more punch.
Android 7 is paired with Sony’s custom UI on the XZ Premium and it’s all very familiar. The home screens are the focal point, with an applications tray, notification, and quick-toggle pane and Google Now screen being secondary elements. There are also app discovery features dotted throughout the UI for newbie Android users, and a universal search, a la iOS, accessible by swiping down on any home screen.
Android means loads of apps, while Android 7 means native split-screen multitasking and the latest security enhancements.
There is a fair bit of software pre-installed, from Kobo Reader and AVG Security, through to Sony’s own proprietary apps like TV SideView and Xperia Lounge. Most of these can, however, be uninstalled or at the very least, disabled, so needn’t stress yourself out too much.
The interface is very zippy and stability is on-point, with only one app crash in the week we spent reviewing the phone.
The new 19MP sensor inside the Xperia XZ Premium is definitely a welcome refresh for Sony’s flagships, given the fact the 23MP snapper on the XZ stuck around for three flagships – the Z5, X Performance, and the XZ. We were hoping for better low-light performance and in part, we got it which is great. The camera also boasts the world’s fastest slow-motion video too, as well as video recording up to 4K resolution.
The default shooting mode is Superior Auto, so it’s easy to fire up the phone and take your picture. There is also a manual mode, giving you control over ISO, shutter speed, white balance, and focus. While nice to have, it isn’t as extensive as the Huawei or Samsung manual modes, for example, offering a maximum shutter speed of just one second. The video mode is where you’ll find the 960fps slow motion, and there are also a host of camera apps for AR photos and videos, creative effects, sound photos, panoramas, and 4K video.
The phone’s default shooting resolution is 17-megapixels, with an aspect ratio of 16:9. Despite bringing more pixels to the table than the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the HTC U11 however, the detail levels just can’t stack up. Zoom right into small typographic elements of pictures and it becomes very evident that pixels really aren’t everything.
If you aren’t much of a picture cropper though, you will unlikely be put off by the XZ Premium’s camera. Overall detail is fair, contrast levels look good, dynamic range is on-point and pictures are nice and vibrant. The camera does have a predilection to over-expose, brightening up darker scenes. While this can be useful, even if it isn’t accurate, it can also result in unnecessary grain, creating noise when there needn’t have been any.
Taken on the Sony Xperia XZ Premium
It’s a similar story when talking about video, with picture quality looking excellent in good light and the digital image stabilization counteracting handshake beautifully. In lower light, focusing speed and grain are about on-par with an iPhone 7 Plus and Huawei P10 Plus, however, can’t stack up to the truly excellent Galaxy S8+ and HTC U11.
It isn’t just the front camera that beats the competition when it comes to megapixels, oh no. The rear camera packs 13-megapixels resolution and autofocus, as well as an f/2.0 lens. Performing fairly well across lighting conditions, and supporting a video resolution up to Full HD, this new selfie snapper is a welcome enhancement over the XZ’s mediocre offering, resulting in comparable selfies to most modern-day flagships.
Super slow motion
Super slow motion, 960fps video deserves its own separate section as it’s pretty incredible when done right, and terrible when done wrong.
Let’s start with doing it right – this mode needs a lot of light. Shoot your slow-motion video outdoors or in a studio, making no exceptions. That might sound extreme, but strobe light flickering and image noise rear their heads indoors quicker than you can say Sony if you ignore this tip.
Next up, practice your timing. The slow-motion isn’t consistently shot the entire time you’re recording, just in a single burst at 960fps when you hit the slow-mo button. As a result, miss the action and you get a very slow shot of nothing. If you want to use the XZ Premium as a party trick, therefore, practice practice practice, so you hit slow-mo at just the right time. If you do, you can get some mind-blowingly good video.
Finally, get close to the action. Slow-mo video is shot at 720p. This can comfortably be upscaled if you’re shooting in good light to 1080p, but cropping in on video any more than that and it crumbles.
Ignore the above, and you’ll end up with tonnes of ugly, pointless footage of not very much happening extremely slowly. Use it to full effect however and enthusiast videographers and geeks alike will have a seriously impressive video creation tool at their disposal.
Multimedia and gaming
Other forms of multimedia look and sound great on the XZ Premium. For starters, it has a headphone jack, so you needn’t fret about adapters and charging your Bluetooth headphones. On top of that, its speakers are front-firing, making it nigh-on impossible to cover them up. With Hi-Res Audio support thrown in for good measure, the audio features of the XZ Premium are looking good.
Unfortunately, there’s one key shortcoming for anyone who likes to listen to their phone’s speakers out loud – Sony phones have historically been comparatively weak when it comes to volume, and compared to the iPhone 7 Plus and HTC U11, the XZ Premium follows suit and whispers while others roar.
Still, for solo gaming, there’s a good amount of oomph there to get you going. Paired with the Google Play Store’s ample selection of titles, 64GBonboardd storage, Sony’s PS4 remote play, not to mention the ample power under the hood, and the Sony Xperia XZ Premium fast becomes the best gaming phone around, especially if you’ve got a PS4.
As we covered when talking about the screen, video content also looks excellent, whether streaming in Full HD or playing back 4K HDR video, and thanks to the screen being so incredibly sharp, reading eBooks and websites on the XZ Premium is a crystal clear experience.
Inside, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 powers everything along. Paired with 4GB RAM, this is a very competent package, on-par with the HTC U11 and Samsung Galaxy S8, and beating out the LG G6. Benchmarks reflect this, with an Antutu score of 166,503 aka – a score that blows almost all other phones out of the water. While Antutu pertains more to graphics than general performance, the Geekbench score of 6468 corroborates this excellence when it comes to processing power, and bodes well for real-world use.
Storage and battery
Pairing 64GB storage with microSD expansion, the XZ Premium gives you plenty of space for your files, videos, and applications. In addition, the connections are extensive, from NFC, Bluetooth, GPS through to Cat 16 download speeds – a rate that isn’t even supported yet here in the UK.
The phone also has a USB-C at the base for speedy file transfers and fast charging. With official support for Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, this means you should technically get 42 percent battery in 30 minutes, however, our unit didn’t ship with a fast charger. Instead, we got a much less impressive 23 percent in 30 minutes, and a full charge in 3 hours.
Don’t be put off just yet! This is partly owing to ‘Battery Care’, a feature hidden within the battery settings. This limits charging speed to improve the lifetime longevity of your device, perfect for anyone who plans on keeping their XZ Premium for more than 12 months.
Once charged, the 3,230mAh battery also left me impressed. For starters, it lasts a full day – something I wasn’t expecting given its relatively small capacity for a 5.5-inch device. In addition, there is a range of Battery Stamina modes on the XZ Premium to eek even more hours out of it.
When the XZ Premium was announced, I thought: ‘oh no, Sony’s gone and done it again. Big £649 price tag, unnecessarily high-resolution screen, pointless world-first accolades just to stand out, the same design we’ve seen before… I don’t think this can get them back in the race.’ The reality is, however, I’m wrapping up my review and moving onto another phone wishing I wasn’t.
I really enjoy the XZ Premium’s design for day-to-day use. As the name suggests, it looks and feels extremely premium. I also, dare I say, like the flat top, bottom, and heavy bezels. Even if it looks less sexy than the S8 or G6 – and it does. In-hand though, it feels more comfortable, especially when gaming. I also used the physical camera button all the time.
This being the first Sony flagship to launch in the UK with 64GB storage, cutting edge power and a comparable amount of RAM to the competition also means that most of my pet peeves when it came to older Sony flagships haven’t reared their heads this time around.
Finally, the flat sides, a powerhouse of a processor, and front speakers, paired with that storage, mean it’s the best gaming phone around now. So despite not having the very best flagship camera on the scene, with its decent connections, stellar performance, and day-long battery, the XZ Premium manages to defy my expectations and be a brilliant, unique flagship.