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Sony Xperia Z2 review: Sleek luxury meets lightning performance

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The Sony Xperia Z2 is the latest flagship super-phone from Sony, replacing the Xperia Z1 released last year. The new phone keeps the same aluminium-edged design, sexy glass front and back, Full HD display, quad-core processor and impressive 20.7-megapixel camera. Like its predecessor, it's completely waterproof.

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9.0

Sony Xperia Z2

The Good

The Sony Xperia Z2 has a glorious screen, tonnes of power, a great camera and a beautiful design. It's waterproof too, so it won't conk out when you drop it in the bath.

The Bad

It's expensive, its regular autofocus adjustments during shooting can spoil videos, and the camera resolution is throttled when using the full automatic mode.

The Bottom Line

Sure, it costs a bundle, but the Sony Xperia Z2 is everything you should expect from a top-end phone. Its impressive performance rivals the Samsung Galaxy S5 for smartphone top dog, but the Z2's slick glass and metal design trumps the S5's plastic body. If you're looking for both style and substance from a phone, you've come to the right place.

You might wonder, then, exactly what is new on the Z2?

Well, it has a slightly larger 5.2-inch display, a slimmer bezel around the edge, a marginally faster 2.3GHz Qualcomm processor, the latest Android 4.4.2 KitKat software and a camera capable of capturing 4K video. Although those are only marginal upgrades, the Z1 was already a smashing piece of kit, and it might be slightly too soon for a full overhaul, given that it was only released in September last year.

It's available to preorder in the UK and wider Europe now for an eye-watering price of £600 (€700). The company is yet to confirm if it will ever get a US release, but I wouldn't get your hopes up -- the Z1 never got a proper release in the States, and the Z1S was announced at CES earlier this year as a US variant of the older phone. It's listed as "coming soon" on Sony's Asia site (with no pricing given), but there's no sign of it yet for Australia.

Design

The Xperia Z2 is physically very similar to its predecessor, but that's by no means a criticism. It has the same glass front and back and aluminium band running around the edge. It looks stunning and feels extremely luxurious to hold. It certainly feels more premium than the lightweight, plastic-bodied Samsung Galaxy S5 .

Here's the sexy, 4K-shooting, waterproof Sony Xperia Z2 (photos)

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The HTC One M8 , with its all-metal body, feels similarly luxurious. It's entirely down to personal preference whether you like the smart glass and metal of the Z2 or the industrial milled metal of the M8. I personally can't pick a favourite -- I think they both look superb -- but the M8's curved back makes it more comfortable to hold in one hand.

The Z2's glass panels do make it rather more susceptible to scratches from keys in your pocket, so if you want to keep it looking pristine -- which I imagine you will, given how much you've paid for it -- you should pop it in a case. Like its siblings, the Z2 is completely waterproof, but the waterproof rating has been slightly increased. It's IP55 and IP58 rated which basically means you can completely submerse it in up to 1.5 metres of water for up to 30 minutes at a time.

Not only does that mean it won't break the first time you accidentally drop it in the toilet, it also lets you get snap-happy with the camera underwater -- that's great news for snorkelers. The screen won't register your taps when wet, but there's a dedicated camera shutter button on the edge to help with those snorkelling shots.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The screen size has been increased from 5 inches to 5.2 inches. Thanks to a slimmer bezel however, the phone's body hasn't increased too much, but it's still a big phone. If you're more used to the 4-inch iPhone 5S , it probably won't be to your taste, but the 4.3-inch Xperia Z1 Compact has a cracking lineup of specs and is much more pocketable, so may be a suitable compromise between size and performance.

Around the edges you'll find a microSD card slot and a micro-USB port hidden under a waterproof flap, a flap-free 3.5mm headphone jack and the same sticking-out power button you'll see on all of Sony's recent phones. There's also a little hole in the edging allowing you to pop in a lanyard to make it slightly more secure to hold up when you're taking pictures. Sony doesn't actually provide a lanyard in the box, so you'll have to try and find one on an old camera you're not using.

The speakers now sit on the front of the phone at the top and bottom. Like the HTC One and One M8's BoomSound speakers, they're designed to direct the sound towards you, rather than away. They're much smaller than the One's though, so don't provide as big a sound, but their position means it doesn't get muffled when you lay it flat on a surface.

Display

The 5.2-inch display packs the same 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution as the previous Z1. As the Z2 is marginally bigger, the screen has a slightly lower pixel density -- 423 pixels per inch against the Z1's 440 -- as the same number of pixels are being stretched over a larger area. In reality though, it's not a difference you're ever likely to notice.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The IPS display is extremely crisp, with small text on Web pages, icon edges and high definition photos looking pin sharp. Sony boasts that the display uses the same "Triluminous" technology as its Bravia TVs, which makes it more vivid. Whatever Sony has done, it's worked, as the Z2's display is absolutely superb. It's not only very bright, it has rich, vibrant colours with plenty of contrast and excellent viewing angles to boot.

It's a brilliant screen for watching glossy Netflix shows like "Breaking Bad" or even for just flicking through your sunny holiday snaps -- my shots from Tuscany looked glorious on the Z2. You're also able to tweak the colour balance in the settings if you prefer things to look a little warmer, but I personally found the automatic mode to look the most natural.

Software and processor

The Z2 arrives running the latest version of Google's mobile operating system, Android 4.4.2 KitKat. You'd be right to expect the latest version of software on new launches, but Sony does have a habit of using older Android iterations -- the Z1 Compact launched only recently with the ageing Jelly Bean -- so it's refreshing to find the latest software on board as standard.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Sony has thrown its usual software tweaks into the mix. Although it functions in much the same way as any Android phone, with multiple homescreen panels, a multitasking carousel and an app tray, you'll also find a customisable app menu, Sony's own image and video galleries as well as access to its Music and Video Unlimited streaming subscription services (though these will cost you extra).

Hop into settings and you can change the theme of the phone. It comes preloaded with standard colour palette options, but you can download extra themes that drastically change the interface to give a nautical wood effect, for example, complete with compass icon for the home button. It's hardly a killer feature, but if you like putting your own stamp on your technology it's fun to play around with.

It's all powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor clocked in at 2.3GHz, backed up by a very generous 3GB of RAM. That's a seriously potent lineup of specs so I wasn't at all surprised that it gave a very strong performance. It achieved an impressive score of 3,822 on the Geekbench 2 benchmark test, easily rivalling both the Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Navigation was swift and lag-free with no noticeable delays when switching between open apps, diving into menus or flicking around the notifications panel. It handled demanding gaming extremely well too. Riptide GP 2, Asphalt 8, Dead Trigger 2 and GT Racing 2 all played with high frame rates for smooth, enjoyable gameplay.

Camera

Around the back of the phone is the same 20.7-megapixel camera you'll find on both the Z1 and the Z1 Compact. It's an impressive amount of megapixels, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee better pictures. To see what it's capable of, I took it for a spin around an unusually sunny London.

Immediately I hit a snag. You aren't able to shoot in intelligent auto mode -- or use any of the scene modes or HDR modes in manual -- when at the full 20-megapixel resolution. You'll need to knock it down to 8 megapixels in order to use those modes. Luckily then, the settings it chooses when shooting at full resolution can still be superb.

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At full resolution, the Sony Xperia Z2 exposed this scene very well (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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The Galaxy S5's shot is equally impressive, but has marginally better clarity in the fine details (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My first shot (above) was taken at full resolution. It's extremely well exposed with loads of detail in the shadowy areas and a rich blue sky above. Its resolution means it's a big image, but there's still not much clarity when you zoom in to the fine details. The Galaxy S5's 16 megapixels managed to provide crisper edges, particularly along the handrail of this lock.

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In automatic mode, this pine cone looks rather cold (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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Taking manual control of white balance allowed me to snap a much warmer picture (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As was the case with the Z1 and Z1 Compact, I found the automatic mode to be a little hit and miss. I regularly found it to slightly overexpose the scene and to opt for a rather cold-looking white balance. My shot of this pine cone (above) is a little drab in automatic mode, but a quick tweak of the white balance (the second picture) brought a much more satisfying colour tone.

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Again, the automatic mode resulted in rather cold image tones (click image to see full-size version) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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A warmer white balance setting really helped this scene (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I found the same results on this flower bed. The auto photo was cold, but I fixed it with a warmer white balance choice.

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Loads of detail here, but again it's too cold (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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The warmer white balance is a little strong here, leading to an overly warm hue (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This tree stump was similarly cold before, although the white balance tweaks were a slightly strong, making the warm tones a bit unnatural.

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The Xperia Z2 did a great job exposing for this pond (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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The Galaxy S5 did a great job too, but the Z2 has a slight edge in clarity (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This shot of a pond in west London was exposed very well by the Z2 and there's a load of detail at full screen. There's little to choose between the Z2 and S5 in terms of exposure and colour balance, but the Z2 seems to have a slight edge for clarity.

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Excellent exposure and loads of detail in this full-resolution shot from the Z2 (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Z2 exposed for this sunny riverside scene extremely well too. The bright blue sky and white clouds are kept under control and there's still plenty of detail in the shadowy areas and tonnes of clarity in the rippling water. A very impressive shot all round.

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At full resolution without intelligent auto help, the Z2 did an adequate job with this challenging scene (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In manual mode, the Z2 struggled slightly with this bridge scene, with the bright sky being slightly overexposed.

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With HDR mode enabled, the bright sky is more under control, although the resolution has been throttled (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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Although perhaps a little unnatural, the Galaxy S5's HDR mode gave a great overall exposure (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Turning on the HDR mode helped somewhat in rescuing the highlights, although the Galaxy S5's HDR mode was able to capture a very balanced -- if slightly unnatural -- scene.

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Good exposure, nice colours and plenty of detail. A solid effort from the Z2's HDR mode (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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The Galaxy S5's HDR mode brightened the shadows too much, making it slightly unnatural (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In these shots over Ealing, both the Z2 and S5's HDR modes resulted in lots of detail and well-exposed skies. While the Z2's picture had darker shadows, it looked much more natural than the S5's, which had raised the brightness of the shadows to an unrealistic degree.

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The Z2 has impressive low-light skills too. This image is well-exposed with plenty of detail and bold colours (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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The S5 did a good job in low-light too, but didn't have the same clarity of the Z2 (click image to see full-size version). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Both phones performed very well in low light. The S5 and Z2 captured a well-lit scene, but the Z2 managed to give the best colours and had more clarity in its shot than the S5. Check out my gallery of test photos below to see more from the Z2's camera.

The Sony Xperia Z2's impressive camera tests

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You'll also find a whole bunch of creative shooting modes on board, including a background defocus, panorama, various image effects and the ability to use augmented reality to place a digital dinosaur (among other things) over the top of whatever you're pointing the camera at. While not always perfect in automatic mode, the Z2's camera can capture stunning photos when you take a moment to tweak the settings.

The camera interface is simple to understand and quick to choose the right settings. It's nippy too, thanks to a fast autofocus and a very small delay between taking a picture, saving it to storage and allowing you to take another.

4K video capture

The Z2 has a trick up its sleeve in the form of 4K video capture -- that's considerably more than the resolution previously available. I put it against the S5, which can also shoot 4K, and watched the footage back on a 65-inch Panasonic 4K TV .

In resolution terms, I was thoroughly impressed by both phones. The clarity of the waves and ripples on the river Thames was incredible, while small details on the brickwork of St Paul's Cathedral and leaves on the trees outside looked extremely crisp -- I was amazed that the footage was shot on a phone.

Neither phone is perfect though. The Z2's main problem is its auto-focus, which continually readjusts during filming, causing the entire image to quickly go out of focus. That might not matter to you if you're only filming your friends in the park, but it makes the Z2 unsuitable for more professional purposes.

The Z2 does have more realistic colours however, with the S5's looking unnaturally oversaturated. Neither the Z2 or the S5 handled movement in a scene particularly well. I shot the footage on a tripod to avoid hand-shake, but cyclists, birds and cars moving across the scenes looked rather distorted. Overall though, the S5 has the edge over the Z2, with a much more stable autofocus.

Although both phones certainly captured an impressive level of detail, the question still remains as to whether 4K shooting is strictly necessary on a phone. Neither phone's displays are able to display the footage at max resolution and 4K TVs still cost thousands of pounds.

It does at least allow you to digitally zoom in to your video on your phone to get a better closeup. The quality of the footage when you're shooting when zoomed in isn't brilliant -- it's only digitally cropping into the sensor, rather than using much higher quality optical zooming -- and the shaking from your hand will be a lot more noticeable. I found it's much nicer to be able to pinch to zoom into video during playback, letting you pick out details that you can't really see when viewing the whole scene.

Battery

Thanks to its slightly larger size, the Xperia Z2 has been able to cram in a marginally more capacious battery than its predecessor. Sony also reckons the Qualcomm processor is more power efficient, but I still found its battery performance to be a mixed bag.

From full, the battery was able to keep our looping test video going for 11 hours and 41 minutes. Although not quite beating the Galaxy S5's time, it's not a bad effort and I've certainly seen worse. During heavy use, however, the processor evidently ramps up the power and drains the battery much faster.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Playing demanding games like Asphalt 8 quickly drains the battery -- I lost around 10 percent after about 30 minutes of gameplay with the screen at half brightness. If you're going away for the weekend and are concerned about finding a plug, try to avoid gaming or video streaming, keep screen brightness to a minimum and turn off nonessential functions such as GPS and Bluetooth. You should still expect to charge the Z2 every night, as is the case with nearly all smartphones.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z2 combines blistering performance, a stunning display, an excellent camera and cutting-edge Android software into a body that's gorgeous to look at and waterproof too. It's a superb all-round performer, but it will set you back a hefty wodge of cash. It's so similar to the previous Z1 that I don't think it's worth upgrading, but if you're on an older Android handset and keen to get something new, the Z2 provides everything you should expect from a top-of-the-line smartphone.

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9.0

Sony Xperia Z2

Score Breakdown

Design 9.1Features 9Performance 8.9