CES 2013 feels like Sony Mobile’s coming out party. Though the electronics giant split from cellphone partner Ericsson in 2011, the newly single company had yet to really wow us with its handsets . . . until now. The new Sony Xperia Z combines current superphone staples like a 5-inch, 1080p screen and quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor with high end imagining and the ability to survive underwater without missing a beat.
We had a chance to go hands-on with an Xperia Z and were impressed with its gorgeous glass polymer body, Bravia-engine enhanced display and ability to survive a serious dunk. The first thing we noticed about the Xperia is its slim, lightweight chassis. Though the phone has a 5-inch display, we had to check with Sony reps to make sure that was accurate, because it really looks more like a 4.5 or 4.7-inch handset. At 0.3mm thick and just 5.2 ounces, the svelte Xperia Z is about the same size as the HTC Droid DNA and a bit larger than the 4-inch iPhone 5.
The back and sides of the Xperia Z are made from a glass polycarbonate material Sony says is commonly used on cars and planes. Indeed, the black model we saw shined like a new car that had just had a detailing.
We were pleased with the bright colors and sharp images on the 5-inch, 1080p “Reality” display. However, we noticed that, at wide viewing angles, the whites blow out a bit, making colors seem less vibrant than when we viewed it head-on.
A Sony rep explained that the built-in Mobile Bravia Engine 2 software works to make photos and videos look more vibrant. He even showed us a special split-screen demo where the right half of a video was Bravia-enhanced. On the Bravia side, colors like yellows and greens really popped in a way they didn’t on the unaltered side.
The Bravia engine is always on in the background and there’s no setting to enable or disable it. The software does not enhance the colors on Web pages, because Sony doesn’t want to make objects on online shopping sites more colorful than they are in real life.
Sony’s 13-MP rear-facing camera features 16x digital zoom and HDR for both video and photos. Once you enable it, the camera can shoot a burst mode of 7fps until it runs out of memory. Unfortunately, Sony does not include a “best shot” feature like HTC has for its phones’ burst mode, so if you shoot 200 photos of the same flower, you have to manually delete the 199 you don’t like the best. We didn’t get a chance to do any serious photography with the camera, but we noticed that the burst mode was pretty quick.
In addition to its 1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon Pro CPU, 1080p screen and 13-MP camera, the Xperia Z carries other strong specs, including 2GB of RAM, an LTE radio and 16GB of internal storage. Unlike many of its competitors, the Xperia Z has a microSD Card slot for added storage expansion. It also features a proprietary docking port you can use with an upcoming Sony dock.
Like most phones this slim, Sony’s battery is built in and, at 2350mAH, seems unlikely to dethrone the Galaxy Note II as battery life king. That said, Sony has introduced a new Stamina mode that extends standby time by disabling background services when the phone goes to sleep. We were able to enable and disable this mode by going into the power settings menu. We liked that the Stamina menu estimates how much standby time you’d get with or without the service running. We also appreciate its whitelist feature, which lets you keep Facebook or other messaging services on.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Xperia Z is one we hope we’ll never need; the device can survive up to 30 minutes submerged in up to 1 meter of water. Sony’s goal isn’t to make the phone a scuba diving or swimming accessory but to prevent the kind of phone-killing damage that occurs when you spill liquid on your handset or drop it in the toilet. You can even use the phone without drying it off, as the display has wet-finger detection.
During our hands-on, we paired the phone with a Bluetooth speaker and listened as it played a pop song. Then, with the song still playing, we dropped the phone in a fish bowl and were amazed that the music continued to play, without even so much as a pause. When we took the phone out of the water, we tapped the pause button on the screen and our stroke registered, even though there were water droplets all over the surface. Other waterproof gadgets such as the Pantech Element may shut down or freeze their screens underwater, but Sony says you can even make a Bluetooth phone call while the Xperia Z is submerged.
The Sony Xperia Z will launch globally sometime in Q1. Sony hasn’t yet disclosed specific pricing or carriers.