Sony Xperia XZ2 Review: Revamped Design & Improved Camera, Same Steep Price
Sony's New Flagship Corrects Past Issues and Brings Top Performance at an Inexplicable Price
Sony’s Android smartphone endeavors stretch back quite some time, starting with the Sony Ericsson, X10 series in 2010. Since then, Sony has struggled with the typical highs and lows of the industry that led them to what most people know Sony smartphones by: the redesigned Z series with a designed dubbed “OmniBalance”. This flat glass and aluminum sandwich defined the brand for nearly five years. Known by their massive top and bottom bezels – the chin and forehead – dedicated camera buttons, and candy-bar design, Sony phones were set apart from the rest of the market; for better or worse. Now, the new Sony Xperia XZ2 looks to change things up for the first time in many years.
Fast forward to 2018 and Sony is ready to reinvent itself with a brand-new design that both brings some of the Sony of old, and also borrows from where the rest of the market finds itself today — or in some cases, yesterday. While Sony’s mid-range lineup is quite a mess of letters and numbers confounding which device is the better one, their flagships for the past few years have settled on the simple XZ branding. There is the flagship, the compact, and the alternating uber-flagship usually defined by the Premium moniker. Today I have the primary Sony flagship, the Xperia XZ2 (US version), so let’s see how it stacks up.
In this review, we’ll take an in-depth dive into the Sony Xperia XZ2. Rather than listing specs and talking about how the experience felt, this feature attempts to provide a thorough look with contents relevant to our reader base. At XDA, our reviews are not meant to tell a user whether a phone is worth buying or not — instead, we try to lend you the phone through our words and help you come to the decision by yourself. Before getting started, let’s get the index and specification sheet out of the way:
|Device Name:||Sony Xperia XZ2 (US Version)||Price||USD 800|
|Android Version||Sony Xperia UI w/Android 8.0 Oreo (May 2018 patch)||Display||5.7″ 18:9 Full HD+ (1080×2160) HDR Display, TRILUMINOS Display, X-Reality Engine, SDR>HDR Upconverting, Dynamic Vibration System, Gorilla Glass 5|
|Chipset||Snapdragon 845 4x 2.8Ghz Kryo 835 & 4x 1.8Ghz Kryo 835; Adreno 630 GPU||Sensors||Fingerprint, Accelerometer, G-sensor, Electronic Compass, Gyroscope, Proximity, Ambient Light Sensor, RGB|
|RAM||4GB LPDDR4X||Battery||3,180mAh; Qualcomm QC3.0, USB-PD; Wireless Fast Charging|
|Storage||64GB Internal + Expandable Micro SD||Connectivity||USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C; Bluetooth 5.0 (aptX and AptX HD); NFC; GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo; Dual nano-SIM slot|
|Rear Camera||19MP Sony IMX400 Exmor RS 1/2.3″, f/2.0, 25mm G Lens, 1.22 µm pixel size, EIS, Sony Steady Shot Intellgent Active; 4K 30FPS / 1080p 960FPS video / 1080p & 4k HDR rec.2020||Front Camera||5MP Exmor R, f/2.2, EIS, 1080p 30FPS video|
|153mm x 72mm x 11.1mm
7.0 ounces (198g)
Sony Xperia XZ2 Design & Display
Sony’s new design language has caused quite the controversy (yet also some excitement) when it was announced, as it is a clear departure from that old but beloved design. Gone is the old flat sandwich, now replaced by a portly and rounded body. Sony claims this design was more fluid and is better-suited to fit in your hand, and while I am usually one to dismiss claims made by manufacturers like this, it is actually an incredibly comfortable phone to use, even if some feel its looks are a little boring.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Design
The Sony Xperia XZ2’s largest departure – its curved back – comes to a peak just below the fingerprint sensor, dead center on the back. Above the not-quite-indented-enough fingerprint sensor is Sony’s familiar 19MP camera sensor, laser auto focus module, flash, and what I can only determine is the dedicated white balance sensor. Thanks to their new placement near the middle of the back of the phone, the camera array no longer is easily interfered with by fingers while taking photos, something people with long fingers like myself have to deal with on poorly-mounted housings. However, this is offset by the fact that the fingerprint sensor is placed too low and is not easily distinguished leading to a slightly-worse setup than what the Galaxy S9 has. During the first day I tried to unlock my phone quite often with the camera, but you quickly get accustomed to the setup and it becomes second nature. The scanner is a very nice glass-topped sensor that is large, unlike the new pill-shaped trend others are going with. Lastly there is both Xperia and NFC branding on the back, but neither stick out as distractions, and are actually attractive and distinctive branding. Overall, I am personally in love with this design. Sony’s ergonomics are excellent, and despite the phone being very heavy (198g) and quite large falling between the Galaxy S9 and S9+ (despite its smaller 5.7” display), holding it feels like a mix of the old and the new and if you were a fan of the way phones used to feel before they all went slim and edgy, you might find solace in the Xperia XZ2’s design. It is also of note that the back and front are both encased with Gorilla Glass 5, but mine already has a pretty bad scratch along the back despite its advertised scratch resistance, and due to the design of the back, you are likely to amass more scratches under the fingerprint scanner.
Gracing the front of the device is Sony’s first tall aspect flagship 18:9 display coming in at 5.7” on the diagonal. While many other OEMs have been going for as little bezel as possible, Sony has brought their own flair to the phone with sizable – especially for 18:9 – bezels and front-firing speakers. On first inspection the bezels are obnoxious, but in usage they have their own defined charm. However, they are not symmetrical which might bother the more OCD among us. Sony is also one of the last OEMs that’s still putting their branding on the face of the device, but while using the phone I hardly even notice it since the color does not really stick out against the black phone given it’s quite dull, unlike the bright silver branding LG and Samsung phones used to have.
On the top of the front you will find your traditional proximity and light sensors, alongside a small LED light for notifications and a solid 5MP selfie camera. If I had to make a complaint it would be that the ambient light sensor is placed near the extreme left corner, which means when you are holding the phone in landscape your hand or finger can place a shadow over that area and cause the display to dim. It is the most picky of things, but once you have it happen it does get annoying. The left side of the phone is completely barren, no AI button to be found here. The bottom houses a USB-C port with QC3.0 and USB-PD, a microphone, and no 3.5mm headphone port — yes, despite Sony’s heritage they killed the headphone jack. The right side of the phone has Sony’s dedicated 2-step hardware camera key, power button in the middle of the device and a volume rocker near the top. This arrangement might sound weird and it sure takes some getting used to, but taking photos with this setup is actually delightful. The camera button sits right where your right forefinger sits, and the volume rocker (which is setup for zoom) is at your left forefinger. This makes operating the camera without touching the display a breeze and feels more like a small dedicated point and shoot than a cell phone, I’ll discuss this further in the camera section. Buttons are a sticking point for me and Sony nailed them. They are rather small, but their action is distinct and they have the right amount of feedback and zero wiggle or movement. The top edge houses another microphone and dual-SIM tray that doubles as a SIM/SD holder depending on your particular model. Sony is still stuck in the early 2010’s though, as removing the tray causes the phone to annoyingly reboot — but at least you can remove the tray without a SIM removal tool, so there is that.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Display
In a first for Sony, the Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 compact forego their 16:9 wide displays for 18:9 tall ratios. Unlike the notched and rounded OLED displays many others are utilizing, Sony keeps things basic with a 5.7” FHD+ “squared corner” display. Basic is not always a terrible thing though, as this is one of my favorite LCD displays to date, despite its apparent lack of resolution. As they did in previous years, Sony has brought over its Triluminous display technology and X-Reality engine from the Bravia line of premium televisions, and this year they improve upon that with SDR to HDR up-converting. While I found the initial white point to be a little on the blue side, Sony includes three different display profiles – an sRGB “Professional” mode, Standard Triluminous mode, and super vibrant mode and a custom white balance adjuster available for all three modes. The SDR to HDR upconverting can also be switched on or off if it is not your preference. I like this user choice approach from Sony, as they allow you to adjust everything in any of the modes, unlike Samsung who restricts white point adjustments to the poorly calibrated and oversaturated Adaptive mode. The display gets bright, but not extremely so like a Samsung panel or the new LG G7 and it is also highly reflective adding up to a usable but poorer outdoor experience compared to its flagship competition. It is disappointing as having a good and bright display in the Florida sun is near essential and is really the displays only weaker point. As I mentioned earlier, you will not find rounded corners on this display and after a few days I honestly can say I do not miss them. Rounded corners belong on phones with notches and rounded bottoms, not slab style devices.
The Sony Xperia XZ2 display is also HDR10 certified with Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube all supporting the device, as they do others. In comparison to the iPhone X and Galaxy S9+, I personally enjoyed the Xperia display playback in HDR more as the colors felt like they were more true to life. The Samsung and Apple phones felt like they pushed a little more toward unrealistically warm tones although they do have the AMOLED benefit from the insane contrast ratios their tech affords. This though ultimately comes down to personal preference and all of the devices really do a great job with HDR content. Along that HDR display, Sony also offers to “upconvert” SDR to HDR. This is hit and miss, as it can look fantastic but only in a few scenarios. If your primary usage is watching YouTube videos and the like, then you will likely want to keep this disabled.
Something you usually will not find in the display portion of a review is the vibration motor. Sony touted a brand-new, considerably larger, vibration motor for the Xperia XZ2 and it can instantly be felt. Sony also tied this into the audio system to provide a haptic feedback of sorts for music and videos. This is probably the biggest gimmick on the entire phone, but personally I like it. It does come with some issues though. The biggest problem is a bug when you exit the media application but playback is still ongoing, which causes the vibration to just stop and then start, and then get weak, and then stop again. If you leave the application as the foreground you don’t face any issues, and it does a good job matching it to the audio being played back. The setting does have 4 settings that I call: Off – Small Sub – Large Sub – and Obnoxious. My personal favorite is Small Sub, or “mild” as it is defined in the OS, and those who I have shown it off to say it feels like a small subwoofer hooked up to a home theater system. With this new vibration motor Sony also added subtle feedback throughout the OS like when you adjust the brightness, change the hours for an alarm, and so-on much like iOS does and is very much appreciated. The quality is nowhere near that of the Taptic engine in the iPhone whose distinct taps are sharp and accurate, though it is a little better than the one found in the newer Samsung devices. I do wish there was an intensity control like that found on the Galaxy S9 as general vibration can be a little harsh, but the shorter Sony added vibrations feel amazing. It is absolutely a gimmick, but with a few revisions I could easily see it being a nice feature other OEMs implement.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Software & Performance
I feel like I need to preface this section by saying Sony utilizes what I call stock+. This is not “straight-up AOSP” nor is it like a Google Pixel‘s ROM, instead it adds a few more customization options and features like HTC or Motorola’s software. You will not find as much customization as you would on Samsung or Huawei ROMs, but Sony does add some useful software to enhance the experience.
First off, how does the XZ2 perform? While the Sony Xperia XZ2 is not quite as performant in day to day smoothness and responsiveness as the Google Pixel 2, I have found the Sony Xperia XZ2 to be above the rest of the competition especially in how regularly responsive it is. Through my nearly two weeks of testing there was no period where the device was laggy, unresponsive, or had even the smallest of delays in performing an action. That being said, the phone did have a few occasions where an animation stuttered slightly mainly while dropping the notification shade, but this was neither reproducible nor a big problem. Part of the remarkable system performance is due to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset which we have seen perform admirably in every device it has launched with. Unfortunately, Sony decided to include only 4GB of RAM for US variants and while my device never went above 3.1GB of usage with roughly 700MB free, this is a disappointment on an $800 flagship (luckily, other regions have access to a 6GB variant, and you could import one). I have strongly felt that very lightly-skinned and not-quite-feature-packed phones just don’t need 6GB or 8GB of RAM, but at this price it should at least keep up with other devices on the market especially when companies like OnePlus are offering, and have been offering up to 8GB of RAM at a significantly cheaper price.
While I did not do the entire gamut of testing Mario did on his OnePlus 6: Speed, Smoothness, and Gaming review, I did do some of the same testing on the Sony Xperia XZ2 related to application launching and UX smoothness (mainly due to popular demand!). I would highly refer to his article to catch up on exactly how we do this testing and what it reflects. I will be showing my testing in comparison to his done with the OnePlus 6 and Pixel 2 XL. It is very important to note two things, firstly any application updates and changes between testing periods could bare an impact on these results, and given that this isn’t a dedicated performance analysis, we did not minimize extraneous variables to the same extent. While they were done roughly within a week of each other, we all know the pace Google pushes out updates, even behind the scenes (in particular, the YouTube app has gotten a small but significant UI revision in that time). Secondly, my device was running fully loaded. I had 300 applications installed as indicated in the settings menu as I wanted to reflect the real world performance you would see after using the phone for a few weeks, not just best case scenario. This might not have much of an impact either, but it renders the results less commensurable with the ones obtained for previous articles.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Performance
First up is the UX speed and app launch times. As you can see in the charts below, the Sony Xperia XZ2 performs right to where I expected it to running toe to toe with the OnePlus 6. YouTube is marginally quicker, Gmail is slightly slower, and the PlayStore is quite a bit slower. The thing to really take away from this testing is not the nearly imperceptible differences you see between the OP6 and XZ2, but is instead the jump the Qualcomm 845 has over last years 835 in the Pixel 2 XL. Something I appreciated in these results is the consistency of the testing, the Sony Xperia XZ2’s consistency was sharp with very few peaks and valleys – something even the OnePlus 6 could not match. This responsiveness and reliability is something I noticed in my day-to-day usage where there was no single occasion I can recall an application hanging on the splash screen or not opening exactly when I hit the icon.
The second area of day to day performance we are going to be looking at is UI smoothness. Again, Mario’s OnePlus 6 article goes in-depth on our methodology of testing, whereas in this article we are going to focus primarily on the results compared to what I actually felt while using the phone. As I mentioned earlier, the XZ2 smoothness – while fantastic – is not the “non-chloric, silicon-based kitchen lubricant” that Google must have borrowed from Clark Griswold, and these composite app navigation tests reflect that.
The Sony Xperia XZ2 never feels quite as smooth as the Pixel 2 XL does in scrolling and application responsiveness, but it is a step above any other device I have used to date including the Galaxy S9+. Similarly, application launch times are fast and reliable rarely succumbing to hiccups, lag, or unresponsiveness and even outperform the Pixel 2 XL, but that is more due to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 than it is actual system tuning, I presume. All of that being said though there are two areas where the device does not feel quite as responsive. The first is the unlock speed with the fingerprint sensor. If you are coming from a Huawei or OnePlus device you will absolutely notice it since those phones feel like there is zero delay in unlocking. The delay is less perceptible compared to a device like the Galaxy S9 where there is a short wait after placing your finger on the sensor. The second is while taking photos. As I will discuss in the camera review further on, there is a massive delay compared to other flagships in terms of taking the shot and the shot being reviewable on the right of the display. Taking a shot side-by-side with the S9 the delay is nearly doubled. Now, this is not the actual responsiveness of the shutter, that is just as good as the rest, just the time until the phone visually tells you the photo was taken via a thumbnail. This does not affect day to day usage unless you are like me and take a shot, see how it came out, and then shoot another. Further, the camera has a burst mode which is impressive churning out 100 shots in a burst, much like the Galaxy S9, but at an insane file size of 6MB per shot compared to the S9’s 2.3MB – a difference of over 2.5x. I think the delay in the camera comes down to Sony’s application and not an actual representation of system performance.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Software
When it comes to the software I tend to enjoy much of what Sony does here. I personally tend to find AOSP bland, and while Google continues to add useful features to what most consider “stock Android”, additions like Sony’s Stamina Mode have their place on the device. Sony’s skin has a colored settings menu much like Android P and is not endless lists of settings and changes, instead it is a colorized approach to what AOSP offers with a few extra settings here and there. The dialer and contacts menus are derivatives of AOSP and missing Google specific features but includes things like a visual voicemail service. There are added haptics throughout the OS to better make use of the enhanced haptics motor, “Xperia Loops” which add a neat circular line animation while doing things like unlocking the phone, plugging in the charger, and other stuff. It is a weird but really neat addition and just adds to those things that make this phone look and feel its own. It also has a statusbar icon editor, although I had to use another application to kill the NFC icon, and my personal device in these screenshots has the “smallest width” set to 476 in Developer settings and my font is set to large.
One of the things I found especially interesting is how Sony provides one of the best support applications I have ever seen on a phone complete with easy to use do-it yourself guides, hardware test suites, and more. On the surface it might seem useless, but it easily allows you to test components people often feel fail like the proximity sensor, light sensor, gyros, and more without having to go into any sort of testing men… other OEMs should take note and provide this. There is the Xperia backup and restore service that will backup your phone to the cloud, or even better to your SD card complete with password security. Sony Dual-Shock controller support natively as well as an extensive media casting and server service makes this phone a multimedia powerhouse. The Sony Xperia XZ2 also has Xperia actions, similar to Moto Actions, that allow you to set things to occur based on location or time. It’s a neat way to control your phone, but with the inclusion of night light modes, Do-Not-Disturb settings, and other native Android services these sorts of controllers are not as useful as they once were and are thankfully mostly out of the way.
Some of the more useful features I enjoyed were the clock options for the ambient display and lockscreen. It also gives you the ability to hide old notifications from the lockscreen after you unlock the device, it also sports the old Nexus-style ambient display that is partially interactive and lights only on new notifications or when the phone is lifted and is a welcome addition for those like myself who hate the battery drain always-on display modes bring. This is not an Always-On-Display mode like many other phones have, but since this is an LCD panel it is a nice compromise allowing you to easily and quickly see notifications and even dismiss them on a simple black and white screen.
What doesn’t have its place on this phone are the significant number of applications Sony added from Amazon and their own junk. The Xperia Lounge? Why is this here, and why do I get notifications from it? There are two applications – Videos and Video & TV Sideshow – that are actually one application but has two entries in the app drawer. The Sideshow application, which is pretty awesome as a remote if you also have a Bravia TV, appears to be an add-on to that Videos app because changing a setting in one is reflected in the other and vice-versa. Regardless of its usefulness seeing a number of Amazon applications like the Amazon Photos app, which is also attainable through the Album application, and AVG security are just annoying especially on an “unlocked” phone. There is a “Themes app” that is totally useless as the themes just link to the Play Store or are plain broken on this phone and a few other oddities that just don’t belong. Most of the applications are removable or can be hidden and can be worked around with little to no effort, but you should not need to do that on an $800 phone.
On a much better note though, Sony follows my preference for software updates. While the phone is still regrettably on Android Oreo 8.0, they have released security patches reliably for the XZ, XZ1, and XZ2 – my XZ2 was on the May update for this review. Sony is a major contributor to AOSP and has been involved in the community with their developer portals and bootloader unlocking programs, so seeing Sony flagships being maintained with security patches is par for the course for them, but is absolutely something that other should be following. Of note, the Sony Xperia XZ2 can have its bootloader unlocked but you will lose the DRM keys, an essential part of the camera experience, it is annoying that they are still doing this, but at least we have the option and hopefully it will not be an issue in the future. The Sony Xperia XZ2 is also part of the Google P Developer beta and should hopefully get P soon after it launches. You can see an overview of that in this video I made below. While Android P is neat, this Beta is absolutely not daily driver material.
The software is not perfect though. As I noted in the performance section the phone does have the rare smoothness issue or oddity. I also have had a reoccurring camera bug that causes the camera to throw an error that closes the application. Oddly though, accessing the camera through another method actually fixes this, so if I get the error long pressing the camera key, double pressing power fixes it and vice versa. It is a weird and annoying bug but one I expect fixed in short time.
Outside of the small hiccups I mentioned, Sony has a polished Android experience that is modified in all the right places but suffers from bloat overload. I appreciate what Sony does here with their stock+ approach to Android and I think the only complaint Samsung or Huawei users could have would be that it is a little boring, but all stock Android versions are.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Camera
Sony has been the major supplier of camera sensors for the entire industry for a long time now and chances are if you look at a spec sheet you will find the familiar Sony IMX branded sensor. This is for good reason, Sony makes good sensors and they are found in nearly every single phone on the market. However, much like Samsung’s display and smartphone companies are separate, Sony’s smartphone and camera sensor divisions are separate and although they can get access to the latest and greatest sensors, Sony phones have never been the best performers. However, the Xperia line does benefit from their camera history with the “BIONZ for Mobile” processing chip and “G” branded glass – both derivatives of tech from Sony’s full form cameras. So how does the XZ2 stack up against the best of the rest? Quite well, but ultimately it all comes down to your personal preference as I believe none of the current flagships have objectively bad cameras anymore, they just have individual traits that might or might not suit your needs.
Firstly lets go over the specs. On paper the Sony Xperia XZ2 has a rather conservative f2.0 22mm Sony G lens, which lets in considerably less light than competitors f1.7 or even the f1.5 the Galaxy S9 is capable of. The sensor is a 19MP “Motion Eye” 1/2.3” Exmor RS model that is lacking both the dual-pixel autofocus system and OIS the S9 offers — and although the 19MP sensor offers more resolution and that resolution is on an overall larger physical sensor, its micron pixel size of 1.22µm comes in lower further hindering low light capabilities. Sony does take a step above the Galaxy S9 when it comes to video recording though as its sensor is capable of BT.2020 HDR recording at both 1080p and 4K resolutions – but only at 30fps – and maintains its 1080p resolution at a blistering 960fps ultra slo-mo for .02 seconds. Ultimately, when it comes to the raw hardware and capabilities the Sony is the underdog in most areas as many other Qualcomm 845 devices are offering 240fps slo-mo and [email protected]
I have all the original resolution (they are compressed on this site) photos and videos used for this review plus a lot more stored in a shared album on Google Photos so feel free to check those out.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Still Photos
Probably the biggest stand out feature of the camera experience on a Sony is the camera button. As I mentioned earlier, the Sony Xperia XZ2 has Sony’s dedicated camera two stage button that works like any other dedicated camera, press it half way for focus and all the way to take a photo. Long pressing the button will also open the camera application as will double pressing the power button. You can also have it set to capture a burst photo when the button is held down which the system will allow you to select your favorite from, a neat aspect to this is that Google Photos also works with this meaning you really never have to use the built in gallery. This burst can shoot up to 100 frame bursts at full resolution with no perceptible slowdowns.
What I don’t like is that the dedicated shutter button can do burst or single shot whereas the on-screen button can do both, single press for single fire, and hold for burst. The camera UI is simple and very easy to get used to. Your primary mode is “Superior Auto” which was determining photo scenarios long before the popularization of “AI” branding on all the things. It will quickly adapt automatically to landscapes, portraits, macro, and more adjusting things like detail, sharpness, and more as it is needed for whatever your shooting. You can swipe to the right to swap between selfie and rear camera and swiping up and down adjusts modes. In typical Sony fashion the flash also has multiple uses outside of On and Off, featuring Auto, Fill Flash, Red-eye reduction, and flashlight modes – something professional users will enjoy.
Speaking of professional controls, the Xperia XZ2 has a manual mode – sans RAW capture – that brings with it your typical fare of shutter speed, ISO, focus, and white balance controls. A special addition that I especially appreciate is the metering mode adjustments complete with Face, Multi, Center, Spot, and Touch options. I have never been one who uses Manual mode on a smartphone, mainly because smartphone photos always have that “taken on a smartphone” look to them which is something the Sony does not suffer from quite as much which we will discuss later. Sony’s Manual mode is not the best in terms of features or layout, but it’s settings, options, and final product more reflect those of their dedicated cameras which I like. Despite Sony providing excellent software, they are not fully using the Camera2 API which is rather bizarre. This means most versions of the GCam Mod do not function at all, or are limited as to what the hardware is actually capable of and also causes the lack of RAW capture. None of this really impacts the phone in any large way, but it may affect some users adversely.
The settings menu is barren if coming from a Samsung or Huawei device and feels straight out of Android 4.0, but it is functional. I am talking about this here as the settings menu is different in the camera mode from video mode offering different options and so-on. Default the camera sets to 17MP 16:9 but you can, and should, toggle that to the full sensor readout of 19MP at 4:3. Below that are features like Predictive Capture and Auto Capture. These features, while useful, have found themselves to be a little annoying in my personal use, causing lag in the camera application while trying to shoot because the phone is also taking photos when you are preparing for yours. It’s one of those features that has a time and a place but can get in the way otherwise. There is also object tracking for autofocus and the standard subset of options like grid lines, touch capture, location saving, and more. My personal favorite option is the lens correction setting allowing you to adjust between Image Quality and Lens Distortion corrections. This is a setting that few if any will ever know what to actually do with, as it is traditionally handled in the camera and normally affects RAW photography, something the Sony Xperia XZ2 is not currently capable of, and is not usually something you find as a user facing option. I believe this is something that actually affects all smartphones on the market today, but their software compensates for it automatically since they are already retouching photos to such a high degree. The Xperia does not really mess with your photos as we are about to discuss so it provides this option for those who want even less adjustments to their photos.
As I mentioned earlier, no flagship today really has a bad camera and the Xperia XZ2 follows the current crop of great to excellent smartphones. Photos taken with the phone are bright, colorful, well exposed, but that is what we have come to expect from the rest of the market. I found in my time with the phone that the photos were usually more life-like with shadows that had the proper brightness, textures maintaining their finer details, and the colors being nearly identical to what I perceived with my eyes. This is in sharp contrast to what I see with the S9+ – whose camera is vastly toned down from prior Samsung devices – that still tends to ‘enhance’ the extreme blues, reds, and greens like flowers, grass, and sky.
However, what really sets the Sony Xperia XZ2 apart from the rest is that it lacks much of the post processing other devices are known for, especially with the onset of image stacking a process most OEMs are using to add multiple exposures and enhanced noise reduction to their photos. This is true for every single photo mode and video as well, and the front camera. While this can make more lively, punchy photos with smooth textures, it also can cause a photo to lose the nuance and the finer grain that photography has had since its inception. Neither approach is wrong, but if you are like me and you find yourself kind of lost in the search of smooth pixel perfection and appreciate an appropriate amount of grain and texture, you will absolutely appreciate the Xperia XZ2. I have noticed that the Xperia XZ2 is very fast at capturing the white balance of a scene – usually warmer in the Florida sun – likely due to its dedicated sensor, avoiding that overly cool almost sterile white balance phones like the Pixel is known for. Also of note is that the file sizes are nearly double or more what you get out of the S9+, while some of that is due to the higher MP count, I also believe they are applying less compression to their JPEG’s providing more detail and information in the photos.
Once the light level goes down things change in favor of the competition who leverage their photography on image stacking and wider apertures. In a vacuum the Xperia takes fine photos in low light. However, devices like the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9 exist so the Xperia ultimately underperforms. Thanks to limited post processing you don’t generally find the over-smearing that plagues many phones, but due to its small sensor with high resolution, no binning options, no OIS, and smaller f2.0 lens, you just can’t easily get the same great photos in low light handheld. However, despite the cards being stacked against the XZ2 even in low light, it is capable of some really great shots. The weather has been fairly terrible and rainy down here in Florida with two washout weekends back to back, I will be trying to get some night comparison shots for another article in the future!
Overall the Sony Xperia XZ2 appeals to the photographer in me. I enjoy the finer settings and adjustments in the camera application, the complete lack of the over-processing that has run rampant in the market, and the final results that the XZ2 puts out. It is not the best camera on the market in every scenario but it is fairly well rounded and bucks the trend and is mostly successful in doing so.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Video
Video is more of the same great experience I found in the stills (not overly processed) and consistently delivers a realistic representation of what was actually there. The XZ2 offers a few HD and better recording options including FHD (1080p), [email protected], UHD (4k). I am a little disappointed that it does not offer [email protected] or [email protected] especially since the phone brings the same Snapdragon 845 and dedicated video memory that the S9 has, but in its place it does have HDR recording in both 1080p and 4K. It is important to note that the HDR that Sony brings to the table is not the same faux-HDR’eque video that Samsung offers with its “HDR Tone” video. HDR Tone is simply widened color ranges but conforms to no specified color profile, HDR on the Xperia XZ2 is true HDR recording in the rec.2020 color space.
There are positive and negatives to this though as Samsung’s boosted colors can be played back on any device whereas Sony’s should only be played back on compatible HDR devices. Playing back HDR video on non-HDR devices can cause the video to appear a little more lifeless so it is not something you want to have enabled all the time, especially if you are planning on sharing your content. If you were worried about the lack of OIS on the Sony Xperia XZ2 for video, it is not something you need to worry about as nearly all video captured looks fluid and smooth, but especially if you record in 1080p30 with Sony’s excellent Steady Shot Intelligent image stabilization. Traditionally, I am not a fan of EIS only solutions like the one employed by the first Google Pixel. While impressive, it suffered from jarring ‘reactions’ to movement instead of a fluid continuous shot. The Steady Shot on the Xperia XZ2 trades that poor experience for an excellent 5-axis stabilized result. The XZ2 is also capable of super slo-mo at 960fps building on the 720p option on the XZ Premium with a 1080p setting. In doing so they did drop the captured time in half. I also feel that this is not true 1080p, and I am not alone. Overall, it is a neat party trick but outside of ideal scenarios and showing it off, you won’t have much if any use for it in day to day life and 1080p 120fps & 240fps would have been better options.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Selfie
I personally am not a selfie lover. Getting shots for this review was actually the first time I had used my S9+ front camera and I quickly realized how bad it was compared to the XZ2 despite having more pixels and autofocus. That being said, the Sony Xperia XZ2 does not have the world’s greatest selfie camera either, but I did find it produced better photos than other phones I have available like my iPhone X. Much like the rear camera, the front shooter applies nearly no smoothing or effects and produces a photo that feels far more realistic than those others are putting out. That comes at the same price as the rear camera though, as more noise is introduced into the shots. My wife and I went to the movies the other night, and I came away fairly impressed with the XZ2 selfie camera in dim lighting, especially next to the iPhone X shot I have from the same seats in the same theater in December which looks terrible in comparison. In the outdoor shots the XZ2 also captured the most true to life colors and didn’t try to smooth out my skin, for better or worse, and make me look artificial. Selfie video also benefits from the Intelligent Active Steady Shot tech and looks excellent. Every photo I have taken with the Sony Xperia XZ2 has a raw unfooled around with feel to them and I love it.
Overall the Sony Xperia XZ2 camera is a large improvement over prior Xperia phones, which was to be fair a rather low bar to pass. I know I have said a lot of good things in this part of the review, but the XZ2 deserves it. On first glance one would think that aside from megapixel count, the phone would fall far below its competition due to its hardware but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Sony Xperia XZ2 not only holds its own to the competition, but is superior to them in many aspects. Sony didn’t follow the trend with image stacking multiple exposures, heavy handed noise removal, or artificial smoothing and the XZ2 stands out from the crowd in that regard, offering photos you would expect out of a small camera instead of a camera phone. One thing I did want to mention is that outside in the hot sun the device did get to the point of showing a “device temperature is too hot, some features might be disabled” warning whereas the S9+ did not despite having its screen in max overdrive mode. All I noticed as a side-effect was that the screen was in normal brightness instead of maxed out, but 4K HDR recording was still working.
In video and daylight photography I found the photos I took with it to be superior to my S9+ with less processing, better exposure, more true to life colors, and better white balance. Those leads do diminish once you go into tricky lighting scenarios where the XZ2 can disappoint simply due to its inferior hardware with a small sensor packed with a high megapixel count, no OIS, and an f2.0 aperture. Sony seems to know this, as they quickly announced their XZ2 Premium, which on top of the 4K display also features a dual camera setup which uses a monochrome sensor to enhance all photography, but specifically low-light allowing an ISO of up to 51,200 for photos, up from 12,800 on the XZ2. While one might think Sony is going to trend away from exactly what I love about the XZ2 by using dual cameras, it actually is a lot more than that. The dual camera setup Sony is going to use is a lot like Huawei’s setup where the secondary camera provides enhanced lighting information – since it is BW there is zero color filter and far greater dynamic range – and the main camera uses this information with the color information captured to produce a better shot. We should be able to get better shots, with less noise and none of the noise removal smearing that was enjoyably absent from the XZ2. They also replaced the front facing camera with a 13mp wider angle sensor they are claiming to be one of the best in the industry. It is unfortunate Sony couldn’t have placed these features into their primary $800 flagship, but in August I hope to get my hands on the Premium to see how it stacks up.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Battery
If there are two things Sony is known for it is amazing battery life and poor performing cameras. We just saw they flipped the table with the camera, so is the battery life terrible now? Absolutely not! For specifications, the Sony Xperia XZ2 is packed with a 3180mAh battery, Qualcomm QC3.0 & USB PD (I have not been able to confirm voltages on USB PD support), wireless fast charge support (up to 9W) and is called Qnovo Adaptive Charging – a tech that a few other Sony and LG devices use. It is hard to find a phone with more charging and fast charging support than Samsung, but somehow they have found a way to do it. The short of the story is that the Xperia XZ2 delivers fantastic battery performance. During my two week testing period I had only one day my XZ2 went into battery savings mode while I was using it, and that was the day after I flashed back to Oreo after Android P, restored all my applications, logged into everything, and did about 30 minutes of camera testing in the hot Florida sun with 4K recording and the screen brightness maxed. Otherwise the XZ2 consistently delivered battery life I could easily depend on if I needed to go hard on the phone and not worry it would be dead in the evening, something I could never say about the S9+. Giving screen on time figures is pointless as I use my phone in different scenarios and in different situations than you might find yourself using. But if I were to place its longevity in terms of devices I would say it is a solid 15-20% ahead of the Galaxy S9+, but 5-10% behind the Pixel 2 XL experience I had, yes my S9+ battery experience has been dreadful.
Almost as interesting as the actual battery life is the battery tech Sony has built into this phone with some of the coolest features I have seen in a long time. Charging has gotten stale lately. You have OnePlus Dash (Fast?) Charging, Huawei and Samsung Adaptive Charging, Qualcomm QC4 which nearly no one is actually using, and USB-PD. All of these pretty much do the same thing, stuff as much charge into the battery in as short a period of time as possible. While Fast Charging is togglable on most phones to improve longevity on overnight charges, it is something I never do so I do not forget to enable it when I actually need a quick top off. Sony fixes this completely though and it is something I hope all manufacturers adopt. The tech is called Battery Care – likely powered by Qnovo – and what it does, without calling it AI or machine learning, is track when and how you charge your phone and essentially trickle charge it through the night until just before you wake up and then top it off. It also notices when your routine is different, or you are using a different charging method and fast charges like normal. What this means is when you place your phone down to charge overnight, you might grab it 3 hours later to check something and only gotten a 20 or so percent charge. But when you wake up 5 or so hours later the battery is fully charged. This does have a downside though as in the case of an emergency you could wind up with a vastly undercharged phone, but that is why you can turn the setting off. The positive aspects of this are twofold. Firstly you do not have that issue of your phone staying 100% charged for hours which some claim reduces battery life in the long run, secondly it drastically reduces heat. Even sitting on my wireless fast charger for 2 hours I can pick my phone off it and it is nearly room temperature. I also tested tricking the system by plugging it into its wired fast charger in the evening near bedtime (I always sleep with the phone wireless charging) and it did not enable this mode and went from 8% to 40% charge in 24 minutes.
Sony also bundles its typical Stamina modes into the phone which have 3 main modes. The base mode is the Stamina that runs in the background that keeps unused applications sleeping when they aren’t needed and delivers the amazing standby time Sony’s are known for. Stamina mode and Ultra Stamina mode are two settings that work like every other battery saving modes most other OEMs employ with the former leaving your device fairly untouched but with some items disabled and the latter basically making your smartphone a dumbphone. One thing I really hate about Stamina mode is that enabling it without changing settings makes your device really terrible to use by cutting performance and animation frames. Scrolling and whatnot basically feel like your phone is running at 15fps, and it is jarring to say the least. Thankfully you can adjust what severity Stamina mode you are up for. Sony is well known for delivering outstanding battery life and the Xperia XZ2 is no exception.
Odds and Ends
So that brings us to other things about the phone that don’t really have a category. Firstly let’s talk about audio. Like many other Sony phones the Xperia XZ2 offers dual front firing speakers. The top is located in the earpiece while the bottom is cleverly hidden along the frame much like the Essential PH-1. The speakers are great, but won’t blow your mind. They cannot achieve the raw volume of the S9+ or G7 ThinQ but in my personal experience they do sound a little better with deeper sound instead of simply going for volume. Much like the rest of the industry, the XZ2 dumps the 3.5mm headphone port in favor of a USB-C approach, but Sony does bundle headphones in the box for most areas – except they oddly are 3.5mm which requires the adapter. Personally, I also think that they sound pretty terrible while being horrible to wear. Sony also brings their audio chops to the Xperia XZ2 with DSEE HX which improves the quality of compressed audio for wired headphones, ClearAudio+, and a normalizer. The front speakers also get S-Force Front Surround but this menu is oddly confusing in that turning one setting on blocks access to others and so-on. They do make quite a difference and playing with the settings for your personal headphones is something you should take a moment to do for the best experience. In short, I found the Sony Xperia XZ2 audio experience to be excellent.
The haptics on the phone are some of the best I have used on an Android device, delivering precise taps and bumps. Unfortunately though, this is really only a benefit to the areas Sony added these bumps to the OS like sliding the brightness and setting a clock, as the default intensity Android uses is too powerful and just feel like a heavy thump. On areas where you can control it though, like the keyboard, it delivers a satisfying feel with every keystroke. Of note though, I have not been able to use a recent LG device to compare that with. Haptics is something I feel Android OEMs have utterly dropped the ball on while iOS has reigned supreme for years. It is a small impact to a device to add a good, solid motor, with enhancing haptics around the OS, but it can be utterly devastating to a device when they are plain bad. Google appears to be adding small distinct haptics throughout the OS on Android P and we can only hope that continues and companies move towards solutions that are more capable like those that Sony, LG, and Apple use.
Unfortunately though, for US customers there is a critical flaw. The device I have is the H8266 US Unlocked model. It works on AT&T and T-Mobile, sorta. While Verizon certification just completed for the XZ2 Compact as an LTE/VoLTE (like the U11) device – meaning no CDMA – the bigger Xperia XZ2 is not. Further neither is certified for AT&T or T-Mobile VoLTE or Wifi Calling. I reached out to both Twitter support and their North America PR contact and both provided the exact same statement that they have no plans to certify the Sony Xperia XZ2 for T-Mobile VoLTE or WiFi Calling, despite what some rumors around our forums indicated. I hope I am wrong here and they implement these as not having them on an $800 is a poor experience. You also miss out on T-Mobile band 71, which despite a very low availability at the moment, is something the $270 cheaper OnePlus 6 supports while having the same SOC. Why this is their stand is baffling. Google, Essential, and OnePlus all support VoLTE and Wifi Calling on their devices but it would appear that Sony cannot be bothered and one would think that an OEM that has a presence on exactly zero US carriers would at least make the effort to support these features on an $800 device. This is not a global model or one I imported, but a US spec device purchased in the US, Sony only stands to alienate itself from customers and is inexcusable at this price. Sony appears to know these issues exist so hopefully they can begin working on them for mass support.
Sony Xperia XZ2 Conclusion
The Sony Xperia XZ2 is yet another in a long line of Xperia Android smartphones, but it also feels like a new beginning. While some are quick to dismiss it as just another swing and miss from Sony, I believe it is something much more. The brand is aware that their focus slipped and they lost drastic market share as a result, but Sony benefits from something few aside from Apple and Samsung enjoy: mindshare. Sony is a very large and very powerful brand and has almost always been a leader in personal and home entertainment devices. Despite their year-over-year losses in share, they have not slipped into the obscurity that have plagued other brands. Some turn to the still-large bezels and camera that on paper should underperform, or the display that is not super high resolution and shy away, but those are the things that make the XZ2 so endearing. The Sony Xperia XZ2 is a phone that is moving forward with the times by including things like an enhanced haptics engine, HDR display, and a currently-popular all glass design, but they have not given up on the past — which is a Sony hallmark. Those now-reduced bezels are still great positions for your thumbs to sit without being on the display but now with a taller 18:9 screen. The 1080p display is the perfect resolution for this size device without sacrificing the panel quality or delivering poor battery life. The phone is too tall, too thick, and too heavy, but is surprisingly the most comfortable phone I have ever held. This phone was not designed to keep up with the trends where nearly every phone is adopting the same razor-thin bezels and notches, with over processed but social-network-friendly cameras; instead the Sony Xperia XZ2 was designed to stand on its own. Every decision was made with purpose – even if some like the missing 3.5mm port are dumb – and that shows through while using the phone. It is balanced, delivers incredible performance, and it is thoroughly reliable.
With the good comes some bad though as Sony has apparently sold its soul to Amazon for application pre-loads, they continuously fail to understand a US spec device should at least fully support one US network, and it feels like they held back somewhat in regards to the camera hardware. There is also the elephant in the room which is the price Sony asks. In the US the phone lists for $800, but can easily be found used for under $600 and it has only been on the market for roughly a month. The newly announced OnePlus 6 offers superior internal components including an 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage option that still comes in at $270 less than the Xperia. Sony counters this with wireless charging, dual speakers, IP65/68 water resistance, and expandable/removable storage. The Galaxy S9 offers a larger higher-resolution display, far better cellular support, a more feature-packed software, 4k60p video recording, and a 3.5mm headphone port. The XZ2 has better sounding speakers, superior battery life, actually receives updates, and true HDR video recording.
The Sony Xperia XZ2 is not the one-size fits all device some might hope it to be. But it is a charming performer that appeals to those who are purists who don’t want to follow the trends simply because they are trends. If you can look past its price – or get it on a deal – and want something different without sacrificing performance or camera quality, the Sony Xperia XZ2 is a solid choice.
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