Sony Xperia Z (T-Mobile) review: Good looks only take this phone so far

Performance
The Sony Xperia Z comes equipped with a potent 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor backed up by 2GB of RAM. That's enough horsepower to drive the phone's Android software at a quick clip; I didn't run into any serious hiccups, whether flipping through home screens or launching apps. Still, the Xperia lacks the pep and verve I've come to expect from competing flagship handsets such as the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4.

The Xperia Z's Quadrant score wasn't all that. Brian Bennett/CNET

Subjecting the Xperia Z to synthetic benchmarks confirmed that the device lacks the speed of elite superphones powered by Qualcomm's fresh silicon, namely the Snapdragon 600. The Xperia Z's Quadrant score of 7,976 isn't too shabby but it's nowhere near as high as what the HTC One (12,194) and Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381) can muster.

Performance: Sony Xperia Z (T-Mobile)
Average LTE download speeds 11.37Mbps
Average LTE upload speed 6.9Mbps
App download (CNET) 3.72MB in 7.1 seconds
CNET mobile site load 5.6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 12.22 seconds
Boot time 29.8 seconds
Camera boot time 1.49 seconds

Call quality
I tested the Xperia Z on T-Mobile's GSM network in New York and came away very impressed with its call quality. As with my experience with the unlocked Xperia ZL (AT&T GSM), callers said my voice was warm and lifelike with no distracting static, pops, or digital artifacts. I also thought that the words people spoke came through the earpiece clearly and with plenty of volume.

Sony Xperia Z (T-Mobile) call quality sample Listen now:

Data speeds
Since the Xperia Z connects to T-Mobile's new 4G LTE network where available, I was able to enjoy swift data access. While testing the phone in New York I clocked an average download speed of 11.37Mbps, while the average upload came in at a respectable 6.9Mbps.

The Xperia Z on T-Mobile's 4G LTE network delivered fast data speeds. Brian Bennett/CNET

Battery life
I'm sorry to say that the Xperia Z's battery life was disappointingly brief. The handset persevered for only 5 hours and 41 minutes during the CNET Labs video drain benchmark. While that's beyond the claimed video playback time Sony touts for the device (5 hours, 30 minutes), it's much less than both the HTC One (8 hours, 43 minutes) and the Samsung Galaxy S4 (10 hours, 30 minutes).

Camera
If you own or have ever operated a Sony Cyber-shot point-and-shoot camera, you'll find the Xperia Z's camera app a trusty friend. Like the company's dedicated imaging gadgets, the software offers a wide range of features, scene modes, and settings, all wrapped up in an interface pulled directly from Sony's compact cameras. With a 13-megapixel sensor and resolution options starting at VGA and topping out at 12 megapixels, the Xperia Z's camera shoots images of superb quality for a smartphone.

Images indoors were clear and sharp. Brian Bennett/CNET

Indoors, shots taken within the studio were clear, exhibited lifelike color, and had crisp detail. White balance was also impressively executed and images were correctly exposed.

Once outdoors, the Xperia Z further flaunted its imaging chops. Details were sharp, and colors in flowers, trees, grass, and the attire of pedestrians were vibrant but not oversaturated. In this way it was similar to the Xperia ZL (which uses the same imaging system). Note that Sony's draconian image processing often gives pictures an almost cartoonlike flatness, especially noticeable when you crop in for a closer look.

Fast-moving kids were prone to blur. Brian Bennett/CNET

When kids stopped moving, the Xperia Z shot memorable photos. Brian Bennett/CNET

The camera app's many features, however, including modes for panorama and HDR, add extra and welcome flair. The Xperia Z really performs well when shooting macro photos up close. Those of you out there into snapping tight shots of nature will find a good friend in this device. Images of flowers I took had particularly engaging colors and detail that rivaled what I typically see from more capable point-and-shoot cameras.

The HDR mode kicks in to add detail in shadows. Brian Bennett/CNET

Of course the Xperia Z's camera isn't without its flaws, a few of which are rather large. Sony sets the phone to use what it calls a "Superior auto" mode by default. While it's smart enough to automatically detect and select appropriate scene modes depending on environmental conditions, it seems to require a lot of processing power. So, if Superior decides HDR or other scene modes are called for, especially while snapping multiple shots in succession, you're likely to see double images of moving subjects. Choosing the phone's Normal mode helped fix the problem, but not completely.

Also frustrating is the camera's slow shot-to-shot time, which makes grabbing photos of energetic and unpredictable subjects (like kids and pets) a challenge. Usually I had to wait about a second between each shot I tried to take.

Up-close nature shots are the Xperia Z's specialty. Brian Bennett/CNET

Conclusion
Let me spell this out right up front. The Xperia Z is the best mobile handset Sony has ever built. Unfortunately, in today's cutthroat mobile world populated with two mighty titans locked in a struggle to the death for mobile phone supremacy, Samsung and HTC (three, if you count Apple), Sony's efforts are not quite enough.

At the same price, $99.99 down on T-Mobile, both the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4 offer faster processors, better screens, and way longer battery life than the Xperia Z. The Xperia's camera, while it snaps superb photos, can't match the agility of the GS4's or One's imaging system.

That's why the clear Android choice on T-Mobile remains the Galaxy S4 if you want every feature under the sun in a smartphone, while the HTC One will appeal to shoppers craving luxurious build quality. I suggest buying the Xperia Z only if a water- and dust-resistant phone is your main objective or you are particularly loyal to the Sony brand and entertainment ecosystem.

What you'll pay

    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Don't Miss

     

    Join the discussion

    Conversation powered by Livefyre

    Where to Buy

    Sony Xperia Z

    Part Number: XZC6602PL
    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Quick Specifications See All

    • Regional specs shown for US. UK specs are unavailable.

    • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
    • Service Provider not specified
    • Weight 5.1 oz
    • Diagonal Size 5 in
    • Sensor Resolution 13.1 pixels
    Hot Products