You have to hand it to Sony – no matter what the competition has come up with in recent years, it has stuck to it design guns. While Samsung has gone all glass and added curved edges to its phones, and HTC has veered from composite to stark metal and is now producing curvaceous all-glass handsets, Sony’s “Omni-Balance” design and squared-off shape is alive and kicking in the firm’s 2017 flagship – the Sony Xperia XZ Premium.
Sure, it’s slightly different to previous Xperia flagships – the edges have a curved rather than softly squared profile, and the corners are severely chopped off and sharp instead of being softly sculpted – but it’s as recognisable as any smartphone on the market, and that’s a great credit to Sony’s design department.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: Tl;dr
The Sony XZ Premium is Sony’s flagship device for 2017. It’s an Android phone with a 5.5in 4K display, a 19-megapixel camera that lets you shoot slow-motion video at a stunning 960 frames per second (although only in short bursts) and it’s as beautifully designed as you’d expect a 2017 flagship to be.
While the internals are as up to date as you’d expect, however, the XZ Premium isn’t the last word in cutting-edge smartphone design. It’s heavier and chunkier even than the 6.2in Samsung Galaxy S8+ Plus and other manufacturers have overtaken it for thinness and lightness.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: Price and competition
Despite the slightly outdated appearance, one thing Sony has not fallen behind on is price. The Sony Xperia XZ Premium is £649 SIM-free, which is in line with the Samsung Galaxy S8 at £689, and a little more expensive than both the HTC U11 and the LG G6, both priced at £650. It’s much pricier than the 5in Google Pixel (£599) and a touch cheaper than the 5.7in Pixel XL, which costs a frankly ludicrous £719.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: Design and key features
At that sort of price, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium needs to keep up with the Joneses in all departments. In terms of its design, however, it does lag behind. Yes, the build quality is of extremely high calibre, as you’d expect from Sony and, yes, the attention to detail is all there.
The glass panels on the front and rear have both been treated with oleophobic coating, so there’s no problem with fingerprints as there is with the HTC U11, and it looks a picture with chamfered edges at the top and bottom of the phone, softly rounded sides and attractive colour choices. I was sent the “Deepsea Black” model, which looks great, but it’s also available in “Luminous Chrome” for those who like their phones shiny.
Compared with the Samsung Galaxy S8’s narrow-bezel, curved-edge design, however, the Sony just looks a little old hat. And there are practical problems with the way this phone has been designed as well. Its sharp corners are ready and raring to tear a hole in your pocket if you get your angles wrong when pocketing it, and they dig uncomfortably into your palms and fingers when the phone is held horizontally.
That’s a great shame, because there’s very little missing here when it comes to checklist features. The phone is weather-proofed to IP68, just like the Samsung Galaxy S8; you can add a microSD card to expand on its 64GB of built-in storage; there’s a fingerprint reader positioned sensibly on the right-hand side of the phone; and there’s a dedicated two-stage shutter button for the camera.
On the top edge is a 3.5mm headphone jack (HALLELUJAH!) and on the bottom is a USB Type-C port for charging and data transfer. Oddly, despite the fact that the Sony Xperia XZ Premium has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, it doesn’t support the latest Quick Charge 4 standard, only Quick Charge 3, but there is at least Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and rear, so it should resist scratching and scuffing, though it’ll most probably break if you drop it directly onto concrete.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: Camera
Still, it’s not the design that Sony is selling the XZ Premium on: it’s the camera and its ability to capture ultra-slow-motion video footage at 960 frames per second. It can only do this in short bursts, and your subject needs to be well lit so your clips aren’t ruined by noise, but if you have the imagination to make your clips work, it works brilliantly. Just select the slow-motion mode, start recording and when you get to a bit you want to slow down, hit the slow-motion button.
The results are stunning and if you’re a fan of the Slow Mo Guys’ work, you’ll love the feature. Here’s a clip I recorded of a fidget spinner going hell for leather, then slowed down using the XZ Premium’s 960fps mode. It’s a shame it only lasts for a few moments, but any longer and even short video clips would end up lasting hours.
Beyond this slightly gimmicky mode, though, the XZ Premium’s rear camera is excellent. It’s a 19-megapixel snapper with an aperture of f/2.0, “predictive” phase detect and laser autofocus for quick lock-on in both well-lit and low-light conditions. The sensor is 1/2.3in in size, too, so the same as all its major rivals. As for the front-facing camera, that’s a 13-megapixel, f/2.0 camera with a 1/3in sensor.
Compared with the Google Pixel, which I still think is the best overall camera on a smartphone, the specifications are very similar. However, with a higher pixel count, the XZ Premium’s camera promises and delivers visibly crisper details in good light. In the comparison shots below, you’ll also see that the Sony’s images are more vibrant than the Pixel’s, although a touch oversaturated in my view.
Take a close look, though, and you’ll start to see problems. The Sony is seriously over-sharpening things, with the result that some fine details are lost. It’s a small difference, but a noticeable one. And Sony’s HDR mode simply can’t match the Pixel’s when it comes to balancing out tricky exposures.
^ The Sony Xperia XZ (left) produces crisp, sharp images in good light, but they tend to look less natural than the Pixel’s shots (right)
Where the Xperia XZ falls even shorter is in low light. The software’s tendency to over-sharpen everything grabs hold of the noise and makes it worse, obscuring detail and introducing heavy grain in shadowy areas, despite using the same shutter speed and ISO settings.
^ In low light, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium (left) produces noisier, less natural-looking images than the Google Pixel (right)
Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: Display
So the camera is good, although not quite up to the standards set by the Google Pixel – how about the display? Well, just as with the Xperia Z5 Premium last year, the XZ Premium has a 4K display; that’s 3,840 x 2,160 pixels to you, more than the Samsung Galaxy S8, the LG G6 and the Google Pixel.
The trouble is for everyday use it’s just as pointless. Quite apart from the fact that the eye can’t resolve that level of detail, most of the time the phone isn’t rendering true 4K but simply upscaled 1080p.
That’s not a huge problem: the screen looks perfectly sharp – as sharp as on any other 2017 flagship, in fact – it’s just that 99% of the time you simply won’t see the benefit. Only VR fans will see a real difference, and VR games still aren’t rendered in 4K.
The display is HDR-enabled, which should be a bigger deal, but there’s a problem here, too, in that there simply isn’t much HDR content about for mobile phones yet. Although Amazon and Netflix both offer 4K HDR content via their smart TV apps, the mobile equivalents support neither standard as yet.
Still, the screen does look stunning, and that’s really all the matters. Despite the fact that it’s LCD rather than AMOLED, the Xperia XZ’s screen is bright at 524cd/m2 and vibrant. Its contrast ratio is superb, too, at 1,116:1. In fact, everything from movies to photos look stunning on this screen. I still prefer the Samsung Galaxy S8’s display, but there’s very little wrong here.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: Battery life and performance
Perhaps the biggest negative thing to be said about the display is that it is power-hungry. That’s reflected clearly in our video-playback battery test, where we calibrate the screen to a set brightness level (170cd/m2), engage flight mode and play a video until the battery dies. The XZ Premium lasted a mere 10hrs 1min – a long way behind the Samsung Galaxy S8, the Pixel XL and the HTC U11.
However, in everyday use, the XZ Premium performed much better. Monitored with the excellent GSAM battery-monitor app over a week of use, I recorded an average of one day and 6.6 hours of use. That’s enough to last me comfortably from rising to bedtime every day with moderate use; it’s still not as good as the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus’ average of one day and 11.2 hours, but it’s not quite as far behind.
Performance-wise, there’s more good news. With a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 throbbing under the hood, 4GB of RAM, an Adreno 540 GPU and 64GB of storage, this phone is ready for anything you can throw at it.
Simply put, in everyday use the Xperia XZ Premium’s Sony-enhanced version of Android 7 withstood anything I was able to throw at it, from demanding games to intense multitasking. The camera app, in particular, I found to be highly responsive, and this is an area that manufacturers often neglect. Good work, all round.
Sony Xperia XZ Premium review: Verdict
Comparing flagship smartphones in 2017 is a task based on small margins. Every phone I’ve looked at this year has had its merits, and that holds true for the Sony Xperia XZ Premium. The screen is great, it’s fast, its camera superb – with that rather cool slow-motion feature – and it has a 3.5mm headphone jack.
But with the Samsung Galaxy S8 now available for nearly £50 less, there is, unfortunately, nothing the Sony Xperia XZ Premium can muster to justify the higher price. If you really, desperately, have to have the ultra-slow-motion video recording, then maybe; on every other count, the S8 is just a fraction better.