Sony Xperia XZ2 Review: A Flagship That Could’ve Been So Much More

Sony’s launch of the Xperia XZ2 at MWC 2018 this year was clearly a flagship that came with a lot of “firsts” for the Japanese company, and it does bring up a lot questions; the most obvious among them the phone was its new Ambient Flow design and 18:9 ratio display (finally).

However, the Xperia XZ2 is set to square off against some very tough competitors. While it does show some improvements in certain quarters and aspects, there are still a number of issues that Sony could have – and should have – addressed.

Specifications

Sony did a good thing last year when it made a decision to become an early adopter of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 SoC and placing the processor into its XZ Premium and XZ1 series of smartphones. After all, that’s what many other phone makers did too. It’s also clear that the company intends to keep that momentum going with the XZ2 with the latest Snapdragon 845 SoC.

In addition, the phone gets a healthy 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, and an internal storage capacity of 64GB (expandable up to 400GB with a microSDXC card). Granted, 4GB isn’t as much as what the competition offer with their own flagships, but it is still a generous amount regardless.

Design

Here’s the bottom line: Sony’s employment of its new Ambient Flow design with the Xperia XZ2 (and XZ2 Compact) has been something of a sticking point for me. I’ll start by addressing the physical placement of something that actually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – the fingerprint sensor.

The new position for the fingerprint sensor feels awkward.

Starting from the Xperia Z5 series, the power button doubled as the fingerprint sensor, and it was situated at the side of every iteration of the series. The Xperia XZ2 ultimately broke that streak when Sony unilaterally decided to detach the fingerprint sensor and shift it to the back of the phone.

To be fair, I’m not miffed that the fingerprint sensor has been shifted from what was essentially the best position to have a fingerprint sensor. I do, however, take issue with the placement of said sensor.

Most rear-placed fingerprints sensor would usually be situated closer to the top half of a phone’s back. However, that position is taken up by the Xperia XZ2’s main camera array. That’s forced Sony to position the fingerprint sensor just below the camera, and right in the middle of the phone’s back. While some of you might feel this isn’t a big deal, it felt pretty awkward for me to hold the phone in a halfway position just to unlock it.

The new design is a far cry from previous Sony phones.

And then there’s the phone’s new Ambient Flow. It’s a big step away from Sony’s usual fare of the angular, clean-cut slate design, and if one didn’t know any better, you’d think you were looking at a phone made by one of its competitors. I, for one, actually adored the slate design of previous Xperia models, so seeing Sony go the route of curved back was a bit of a surprise for me.

I will say this though: the overall feeling of the phone does feel comfortable. Compared to the Xperia XZ1, there’s an obvious heft with the Xperia XZ2, which made it feel a lot more solid in my hands.

Unfortunately, the new design of the XZ2 isn’t without its set of flaws. For the first time in Sony’s history, the XZ2 is the first Xperia smartphone that does not come with a headphone jack. In all honesty, I don’t think Sony needed to do this, especially since the phone isn’t lacking the space necessary to install the 3.5mm jack.

The first Xperia without a headphone jack.

Sony has said that the XZ2 comes bundled with a USB Type-C to 3.5mm jack adapter, but in our case, that cable wasn’t present in the box when we got it. Because of that, we weren’t able to test the phone’s audio capabilities with wired headphones.

Even the XZ2’s display has been given an upgrade; gone are the days of a 16:9 display ratio. With this phone, the display measures in at 5.7-inch, supports HDR, and finally embraces the new 18:9 display ratio. And yes, it’s still using Sony’s tried and true TRILUMINOS and X-Reality display technologies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t speak about the way the phone felt (handles, even) in our hands. While the phone’s new curved glass back design makes it sit in our hands a little more comfortably, handling it was significantly more cumbersome. I can’t tell you how many near-death experiences I had with the phone almost slipping out my hands, and it was all because of the phone’s glossy back.

User Experience

I’ll begin by addressing the phone’s new display. In particular, I noticed that colours in Full HD videos on YouTube had a tendency looking slightly more saturated than usual (even at the highest video quality), but that’s likely due to the aforementioned HDR feature at work. Speaking of HDR, the feature really earns its keep on Netflix. Thanks to this, colours look extremely vivid and lifelike, and black levels are really deep too.

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On an off-note; I like that Sony decided to give the XZ2 a quick glance feature that turns on the screen momentarily, allowing me to check the time and my notifications without having to unlock the phone. Sure, it’s a minor feature, but it’s a welcome feature nonetheless.

Sony jumps on the 18:9 display bandwagon.

It’s nice to see that Sony has finally jumped on to the 18:9 display bandwagon, as well as reducing the size of the display’s bezel at the top and bottom of the phone. In my personal opinion, however, I think they could’ve gone a step further by shaving off a little bit more of the side bezels and rounding off the corners.

Bezel thickness notwithstanding, the image quality of the Xperia XZ2 is more or less what you’d expect of a Full HD+ display. Images come out looking clear and crisp, while colours are bright, vibrant, and just seem to pop out of the screen. On the other hand, the video quality of the Xperia XZ2 varies depending on the app you use to view content.

No change in the software department.

Software-wise, the Xperia UI remains largely unchanged, save for the new spherical-shaped app icons, and the new sounds bytes that it makes during interaction. Beyond that, the phone still uses the same fuss-free, near-vanilla Android UI experience that many Sony Xperia users would be familiar with.

Audio has always been a primary focus with the Xperia series, and the XZ2 is no exception to that rule. To that end, the phone is still loaded with Sony’s premium LDAC and Clear Audio+ technology. It’s the one feature that I’ve always adored about the phone, and I’m actually glad that Sony retained it with the XZ2.

By its lonesome self (read: the phone’s built-in speakers), the Xperia XZ2 is comparatively louder than even the XZ1 and XZ Premium. The same story carries forward into Bluetooth headphones, thanks of course to the on-board Qualcomm aptX Bluetooth audio technology.

Performance is what you’d expect of a Snapdragon 845.

Frankly, there’s really not much to be said about the phone’s performance here. Considering that it’s running on the latest Snapdragon 845 SoC, achieving the listed scores below for 3DMark and AnTuTu was practically a no-brainer.

Battery life on the Xperia XZ2 is actually pretty decent, but that has pretty much been the case since the XZ Premium. For full disclosure, I’m a pretty heavy smartphone user: I watch a ton of movies and videos, but I do have to note that I don’t play a lot of mobile games.

Despite its meagre 3,180mAh battery, the XZ2 was pretty impressive in the battery life department, giving a little more than five hours of binge watching my favourite shows on Netflix and YouTube. It should be noted that I did not fiddle the brightness, and simply let the phone automatically adjust it at all times.

Regarding the XZ2’s Dynamic Vibration Engine, the feature did add a minor level of depth to shows I watched, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a little gimmicky. A word of warning: using the new on-board Dynamic Vibration Engine does consume a fair bit of battery when in use, and during our testing we simply just turned it off.

Charging the phone is a breeze.

Thanks to Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, charging up the XZ2 is…well, not too bad. Plugged in, the phone charged up about 5% for just 10 minutes of charging time. With 30 minutes of charging, the phone was able to regain 40% of its battery. Definitely not class-leading charging rate, but decent nonetheless.

Battery Care is yet another mainstay with the XZ2, and by default, the feature is turned on to protect your phone from overcharging when the battery is nearing its maximum capacity. It’s Sony’s method to ensure that your phone’s battery health is kept in check.

Camera

Sony seems to follow a certain pattern with the cameras on its flagship phones. Rather than develop a new camera sensor, the company chooses to reuse a main camera array across several generations of its premium models. The XZ2 is no exception.

The phone uses the same 19MP Motion Eye camera that was first introduced on the Xperia XZs and XZ Premium, and frankly speaking, I’m actually a little disappointed. Many of the rumours (leaked images included) leading up to the phone’s official announcement had many of us believing that the phone would come fitted with a new dual-camera setup. Alas, that honour was given to the recently announced Xperia XZ2 Premium.

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The on-board camera software is more or less the same as before; the phone still employs a two-phase shutter button to help the phone better focus on a subject. Also, it still has that one-second lag in between each shot.

There’s also a new brightness level slider that you can manually adjust upon tapping on any part on the phone’s display. There is a problem with this feature: it seems to automatically bump up the phone’s ISO level to such a point, anything bright in front of the lens will look overexposed. To that end, a little tweaking and adjustment with the slider was required on my part.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the main camera array is terrible. The phone still takes some pretty impressive pictures in the day, and a lot of detail still gets retained. Bokeh shots were definitely possible on the XZ2, but you really need to keep your hands steady (or use a tripod).

The front-facing camera of the XZ2 has been downgraded to a 5MP shooter (from a 13MP on the XZ1), but it still manages to retain a surprising amount of detail. Colours and contrast in pictures taken with it are an improvement over the XZ Premium, and look less washed out. Sadly, the camera still doesn’t come with any touch-up or beautifying software like the competition, save for a single “soft skin effect” option.

Top – Selfie taken with Xperia XZ2; Bottom – Selfie taken with Xperia XZ Premium.

Night shots are, unsurprisingly, not this phone’s greatest strength. Even in well-lit areas, the colours tend to look more subdued, and in most cases, the noise levels can be quite harsh. Of course, there were some exceptions to the rule: in places with a proper amount of light, some of the picture actually turned out quite nicely, with subjects in the photos retaining most of its details, and with noise levels kept to a minimum.

Sample Images

Click to view full resolution

Competition

At RM3,299, the Xperia XZ2 is by no means the cheapest flagship smartphone on the market, nor is it a phone with a lot of new features to offer. To provide some context, we’ll take a look at two of its closest competitors: the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Huawei P20 Pro.

Samsung Galaxy S9

Retailing at the same price point – though it has been discounted quite a bit since launch – the Samsung Galaxy S9 comes with the same amount of RAM and storage capacity as the XZ2. It also has a way more visually appealing design, and a sharper 5.8-inch 1440p Super AMOLED Infinity Display.

It doesn’t end there either. By comparison, the Galaxy S9’s new variable aperture main camera both outranks and outperforms the XZ2’s own system by leaps and bounds, even in low-light environments. The Galaxy S9 also captures video footage at 960fps, but only at 720p as opposed to the XZ2’s 1080p.

Huawei P20 Pro

At the same price as the Galaxy S9, the Huawei P20 Pro is a formidable contender that also falls within the RM3,000 price range. For that price, you get a phone powered by Huawei’s own Kirin 970 SoC, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage capacity (non-expandable), and a gorgeous 6.1″ Full HD+ (2240 x 1080) OLED display with a ratio of 18.7:9.

The P20 Pro also comes with an insanely good main camera array, and it’s currently the only phone on the market that comes with three (count that, three!) camera sensors – a 40MP RGB sensor, a 20MP monochrome shooter, and an 8MP telephoto lens. Honestly, the only problem with the P20 Pro is the dreaded notch at the top, but even that comes with a software solution courtesy of Huawei.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia XZ2 is a phone with both a lot to love and dislike, all at the same time. While Sony equipped the XZ2 with the latest mobile processor and display, we also think that the company’s decision to not implement its new dual camera sensor setup into the phone is a missed opportunity.

As mentioned earlier, that sensor was installed into the newly announced Xperia XZ2 Premium: a phone which Sony should’ve led the charge with first at the beginning of the year. Having said that, the XZ2 is still a pretty capable shooter, as you can see from the sample images above.

The Xperia XZ2 is still a good option to consider.

If you currently own the XZ Premium or XZ1, getting the XZ2 isn’t that big a leap forward in the performance department. But, if you’re looking to be a part of the Snapdragon 845 and 18:9 display crowd, and you’re also not particular about owning a dual camera setup, the XZ2 is as good a consideration as any other premium smartphone that’s currently on the market.

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