Friday, December 16, 2016

So, my Xperia Z3 Compact had a bit of an episode.  Being in a position where I can’t afford to not have a phone for an extended period, I promptly looked for a replacement.  Perhaps weirdly, the fact that my Z3c essentially died on me didn’t really stop me from looking once again at Sony first for my new phone.  The reason is that despite this incident, the Z3c really was a kickass phone.

Truth be told, I was getting ready to enter the market for a new phone anyway.  I loved my Z3c, but it was starting to show its age, and my finances were reaching a point where I expected I’d be able to replace it soon.  One of the potential successors I was already looking at was the Xperia XZ.  For the most part, it looked like a proper continuation of the Xperia Z-series, and not to mention was simply gorgeous.  But I had some reservations.  There were some things here and there that I felt Sony could improve on, and so my plan had been to wait until Fall 2017 and see what they had in store.  If their next phone hit all the bullet points, I would probably be able to afford it day one.  Otherwise, the XZ would have certainly dropped in price by then, and I would buy that instead.  This little incident forced my hand, and so here we are with a brand new Xperia XZ.  I’ve now been using it for a couple of weeks, and felt like writing some impressions of it, compared to my darling Z3 Compact.

Body and Display
I bought the Mineral Black model of the XZ.  Everyone has their own idea of what makes a good-looking phone, but personally among 2016’s flagship phones I think the XZ is hands-down the most attractive, and that really does matter in my book.  I’m more than willing to spend a few hundred dollars for a premium unlocked phone, but if I’m dropping that kind of cash I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a product that not only works well but looks great doing it.  The front is all glass, even curving a bit onto the sides, while the back is mostly metal, with a thin plastic strip running along the bottom.  The top and bottom are capped with what looks like brushed metal, while the frame uses what I’m guessing is glossy plastic.  It’s a very understated design, but what really gives it a luxurious feel is the paint finish.  I don’t know about the other color models, but unlike every other black phone I’ve ever owned and/or seen, the Mineral Black one has a subtle gradient that gives it an almost dark chocolate color in certain lights.  Somehow it reminds me of satin, the way the colors shift.

Anyone who’s had a previous Xperia phone will be right at home with the display side.  You’ve got a notification LED on the top left, a camera, Sony label, some sensors, and stereo front-facing speakers.  I think the speakers sound a little better than the ones on my Z3c did, and they can get loud enough, too.  I’m no audiophile though.  The right side has the power button, the volume rocker and the camera button.  I’ve fallen in love with having a camera button on my phones, and the fact that XZ continues to have one (it’s two-stage, just like before) was a factor in my choosing it over others.  The volume rocker is situated lower down than it is on the Z3.  I’ve read reviews that complained about this, and I agree that the positioning is worse.  But it’s such a minor thing, overall.  New to me is the fingerprint sensor embedded in the power button, which works like a charm.  It’s ridiculously fast, such that it’s hard to avoid unlocking the phone if I just want to check the time.

On the left, you have access to the SIM+microSD card tray.  This leads to one of my first quibbles about the XZ, and why I would have preferred to wait on it.  This is technically a dual-SIM phone, but the second SIM card slot is actually a combo SIM/microSD card slot.  So, if you’re going to put 2 SIM cards in, you’ll have to sacrifice your microSD storage.  Likewise, using an SD card essentially makes this a single-SIM phone.  As another note, taking out the SIM/SD card tray while the phone is on will cause the phone to promptly reboot.  This isn’t unheard of among smartphones, but it’s a minor inconvenience compared to my Z3c not doing that.

What is nice is not having to fuss with flaps anymore.  On the bottom, you have the XZ’s USB Type C port.  Type C is the new hotness in 2016, and both smartphones and computers have slowly begun their shift towards it.  This time Sony only took a half-step, though.  This is USB Type C in form, but only USB2 in terms of spec.  It doesn’t support USB3 transfer speeds, or any of Type C’s up and coming capabilities, like Thunderbolt.  In fact, MHL is gone, which means no cable-based video out.  This is another thing that I felt Sony could have gone further with.

Like I said, there’s not much on the back to catch your attention.  But the camera has received an upgrade in the form of additional sensors.  The XZ’s rear camera has a laser autofocus sensor and phase detection, which I think is basically supposed to help with focusing more quickly and accurately.  I’m not very knowledgeable about camera tech, so this doesn’t mean a lot to me.  I’ll talk a bit more about the camera later.

The display is pretty nice, in my opinion.  I’m just going by the eyeballs here, but I have seen my fair share of screens in all shapes and sizes and I think the one Sony put in the XZ is both vivid and reasonably sharp.  It’s only 1080p in a world where flagships are moving on to 1440p screens, but to be honest on a screen this size I’m not sure how much of a selling point a 2K+ screen really is to me.
Coming from the 4.6” Z3c, the 5.2” display on the XZ is roomy, but a bit unwieldy.  I’m really not into this trend of huge 5.5”+ phablets, and some of the XZ’s competitors are definitely too big for my taste.  Even the XZ is a little bigger than I would have liked, to be honest.

The XZ has a Snapdragon 820, 3GB of RAM, an 64GB of storage.  The Snapdragon 820 seems to be a pretty well-liked CPU, particularly compared to the 810, which supposedly had heating issues (IIRC the Z3c has an 801 in it, so I’ve never used a device with the 810).  3GB of RAM is certainly an improvement over the 2GB that my Z3c had and it does show in the device’s improved ability to retain apps and browser tabs without reloading.  That said, it is behind other flagships, as the standard in this price range seems to have moved up to 4GB.  The 64GB of storage is a huge leap up from the 16GB on my Z3c.  Combined with the 64GB microSD card I use, I have ample space, which is great.  Regardless of how the specs compare to other phones, the XZ is a very snappy device in my experience, just as my Z3c typically was.  Incidentally, the FM Radio is gone.  I can’t pretend that I used it much on my Z3c, but I liked having it.  Funny enough, the mid-range Xperia X still has one.  NFC and GPS are still around, though the NFC sensor has been relocated to the front, near the notification light.

Sony’s software layer doesn’t seem to have changed much since Z3 days.  If anything, it’s gotten even more barebones.  Small apps are out, as is native screen recording, which is a bummer.  Small apps weren’t amazing or anything, but I did think they were a neat feature, and I did get some use out of them every now and then.  Sony’s core multimedia apps (Album, Music, Video etc.) are the same as they were before, and that’s a good thing.  Among the OEM photo viewers I’ve used, Album is definitely one of my favorites.  Other returnee Sony apps include Weather, What’s New, Xperia Lounge, TrackID, and Sketch.  The notable ones are Sketch and Weather.  The former is a neat little finger painting utility, while the latter is a pretty nice weather app with dynamic widgets included.  The only app installed that’s new to me is News, which is basically Sony’s take on Feedly.  By default, it will try to curate content for you based on categories that you give it, but it seems like you can add your own RSS feeds, too.  If I wasn’t already plugged into Feedly, I would consider using it.

Sony bundles SwiftKey with the XZ.  I don’t think I’ve ever used this particularly flavor of swipe keyboard, and the jury’s still out on it.  What I like the most about it is how customizable it is.  SwiftKey has a lot of options and features.  Some, like the keyboard heatmap and typing-related statistics, are just gimmicks, but others, like the clipboard history and ability to switch languages with one swipe are very useful.  The one area I’m not really feeling it yet though is in the actual typing experience.  It’s serviceable, but I distinctly feel like SwiftKey’s swipe prediction accuracy isn’t as good as Google Keyboard’s, which is what I was using before.  Google Keyboard is a humbler affair across the board (for one thing, as far as I can tell it only supports languages that use the alphabet, so I have to switch to another keyboard for Japanese), but it offers a good typing experience and excellent swipe accuracy.  Either way, even though SwiftKey is bundled you can just switch to another keyboard.  As a side note, the core phone apps (Phone, Messaging, Contacts) all seem to be the same, too.  No surprises there, they’re perfectly functional.

I don’t know that much about cameras and the tech behind them, so I’ll keep this brief.  On paper, both the front and rear shooters seem to be an upgrade over my Z3c, with the previously mentioned additional sensors on the back and the significantly higher-resolution cam on the front (2.2MP vs 13MP on the XZ).  Sony’s camera software is almost exactly the same as it was on the Z3.  4K shooting is available once again, but it’s still treated as a separate camera app.  One thing I’ll say about Sony’s camera software is that while it’s functional, it’s hard to get anything done fast.  The fact that you have to navigate to an in-camera app to record in 4K exemplifies this better than anything, but it feels like most of the settings take just a little longer to get to than I’d like.

As to the camera’s quality, as far as I’m concerned, the XZ takes great pictures.  The quality seems to be roughly on par with the Z3c’s camera, but it takes shots much, much faster.  Maybe part of this is the superior CPU, maybe part of it is the superior autofocus.  Either way, the XZ doesn’t bat an eyelash no matter how many times you hit the shutter, even when storing to SD card (granted, I’m using a fast card).

I think the Z3c was kind of a legendary phone in terms of battery life.  When it was brand new, I could go a few days without charging on Endurance mode, if I wasn’t playing games.  I never had to worry about it.  Sadly, the Xperia XZ is a distinct downgrade in this area.  The XZ has a larger battery than the Z3c (2600mah vs 2900), but also a larger screen and resolution.  The battery life on the XZ is good, but it falls closer in line with average figures for smartphones these days.  I typically expect to charge my phone for at least a little while once a day.

It doesn’t help that the Endurance mode, once a celebrated feature of the Xperia line, is a shadow of its former self.  Endurance mode on the XZ does add about ten hours to a full battery charge, but it does so by restricting the CPU in a very noticeable way.  With Endurance mode on, a phone that’s usually buttery smooth in operation becomes slow to respond and laggy, with jilted animations and small pauses here and there.  That’s on top of restricting background connectivity and tweaking the display engine.  I kept my Z3c on Endurance mode 24/7 and it remained both fast and a battery champion; the XZ sacrifices a lot to even approach its predecessor’s legacy in this area.

Ultra Stamina mode is back, too.  I haven’t tried it on the XZ, but I imagine it’s pretty much the same nifty feature it was back then.  For those that don’t know, Ultra Stamina mode basically turns your device into a dumbphone, blocking out all but the most central features and apps in exchange for a massive boost to battery life.

The Xperia Z3 Compact was the best phone I’ve ever owned.  It was a kickass product that checked every box, and then some.  I don’t feel the same way about the Xperia XZ that I did about the Z3 Compact when I first bought it.  There are some areas where I feel like Sony compromised more than they should have for their flagship phone.  However, I like the XZ.  On the whole it looks, feels and operates like a premium product, and I’m happy to put my Z3c to rest.

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