Sony's new flagship smart phone, the Xperia Z illustrates the latest trend in smart-phone design: top-shelf hardware wrapped in a deceptively sleek yet rugged case. According to specs, it should survive a 30-minute dunk in water up to a meter deep, and its innards should remain sand- and dirt-free if you happen to run into a windstorm. While the phone is not officially rated to withstand significant shocks, its 5-inch 1080p HD Reality display is protected by durable tempered glass.
The Xperia Z's camera functions underwater, as well. And while most high-end smart phones boast an HDR (high dynamic range) setting on their still cameras to mitigate the extreme exposure levels of photos taken in the shadows of a sunny day, the Xperia Z is one of the first smart phones to add this feature to video mode as well. It's a great idea, but the execution could use improvement. More on that in a moment.
Both the main 13-megapixel, auto focus camera and front-facing 2-megapixel camera can shoot full 1080p video. And you can take an almost unlimited stream of still photos using the Burst Shot feature. Other notable Xperia Z features include 3D surround sound, an FM radio, and a 1.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. The phone comes with 16 gigabytes of internal storage, which can be expanded by an additional 32GB via an optional microSD card.
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I took this attractive phone--all black, measuring a sleek 5.47 x 2.79 x 0.31 inches--for a spin, and even a swim. It performed quite competently both indoors and out. One of the few quibbles I had with it include the fact that the phone's external speaker is positioned on the phone's lower right-hand side, which can easily be blocked when you hold the phone with your right hand. The details:
Dive! Dive! Dive! Pushing the limit, I decided to drop the phone in not 3, but 4 feet of water, leaving the video camera on record in the process. The phone survived and, surprisingly, the microphone was able to pick up sounds under water. But you have to make sure the flaps protecting all of the phone's headphone jack, microUSB port, and other openings are all sealed tightly. Otherwise, the phone will drown. Other phones, such as Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S Active have built-in membranes to protect phone ports without any extra effort on the user's part.
Video is the only camera feature that works while the Xperia Z is underwater, but you have to press record before you dunk the phone. Under the water, no phone controls other than the power On or Off button work. Here, too, Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S Active has an advantage: You can use the volume buttons to snap a picture or start and pause a video.
Dynamic display. I found the 1080p Full HD display, which presents an impressive 443 pixels per inch, quite sharp and clear--indoors and in bright sunlight--an important capability when it has to serve as camera viewfinder. Text appeared crisp and image details popped. Colors were also vibrant.
Camera compromise. Consumer Reports imaging engineers are currently putting their expertise and advanced instruments to work assessing the Xperia Z camera. During my informal trials, I found that both stills and videos looked quite sharp in auto mode, and the colors appeared vividly natural. But the HDR feature didn't work as well. As with other smart-phone cameras, still pictures taken in HDR mode were blurry in parts--unless camera and subjects held perfectly still when the photo was taken. That's because a still photo taken in HDR mode is actually composed of two photos taken a fraction of a second apart. HDR mode didn't seem to do much for videos, which looked like they were shot through a fine gray veil.
As you can see, still images in the HDR mode looked a bit blurry.
Battery. As with other quad-core phones we've tested recently, the Xperia Z's modest 2330 mAh battery had no trouble giving me a full day of play at full throttle. In settings, you can easily view how much standby time, in days and hours, you have left. The Xperia Z also has a stamina mode designed to further extend battery life by disabling mobile data when the screen is off. I couldn't tell how well it worked, but I did notice a slight lag launching apps or the Web browser from a long-locked screen while in this mode.
Bottom line: With its big and beautiful display, hazard-resistant body, and long-lasting battery, the Sony Xperia Z seems like an excellent companion for the beach or boardroom.
Availability: Beginning today (July 10), you can purchase this T-Mobile exclusive from the Sony Store (www.Sony.com/xperiaz/tmobile) for $0 down and $25 a month for 24 months, or for $580 up front. On July 17, it will be available directly from T-Mobile for $100 down, plus $20 a month for 24 months.