Xperia XZ: Sony's mainstream attempt at a flagship

What happens when you have a flagship line, end it, but still want a flagship device?
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

To understand the Xperia XZ, you need to understand the genesis of its name, and therefore the weird rollercoaster ride that has been Sony's Xperia line of phones in recent years.

In February 2016, the Japanese electronics behemoth announced that its flagship Z-line of Xperia phones had ended, and in its place would be the more mainstream X-line of devices. Essentially, this meant that Sony was going to be less bonkers with the phones it made, and focus on devices people wanted to buy.

It's the sort of language that goes down well at shareholder meetings, but it is hardly the approach to excite phone buyers -- especially when they are surrounded by Apple and Google Pixel messaging that wants them to be excited at the same time.

The last in the Z-line was the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium: A positively bonkers device that featured a totally unnecessary but wonderful 5.5-inch 4k screen, had great battery life, was bloatware infested, and had the option for the back to be covered in chrome -- meaning it could double up as a mirror if you wanted.

It didn't make much sense, but in the same way that Italian supercar makers don't need to justify design decisions, it was what it was, and you could take it or leave it.

Sony chose to leave it, and thus mainstream-friendly phones like the Xperia XA Ultra and Xperia X performance appeared.

In an effort to delineate a clear flagship in the X-line, Sony took the former flagship line's name and presumably smashed it on the end to create the XZ moniker -- that's how I like to explain the naming convention used for this device.

The XZ brings to the table a Snapdragon 820 processor, 3GB of memory, 32GB of storage expandable via microSD, a 23MP back camera and 13MP front camera, charging via USB-C port, and the 4k screen has been ditched in favour of a more sensible 5.2-inch 1920x1080 display.

There are still some purely Sony moments that continue in the Xperia line, such as the wonderfully over-engineered SIM and microSD tray, and the power button on the side that doubles up as a fingerprint reader.

On the software side of the equation, Sony has thankfully toned down the amount of bloatware it packs into the XZ compared to the Z5, and the device was among the earliest to upgrade to Android 7 Nougat. Sony sends out an email to users when a software update is available, which could be viewed as annoying spam, but at this stage anything that pushes Android users to installing updates is a good thing in my view.

The default keyboard on the device is supplied by SwiftKey, which is an interesting choice, given the capable Google keyboard is available and SwiftKey's little incident in August 2016, but Sony has never been an exemplar of security as its incidents in 2014 and 2011 showed.

The trump card for the XZ is its Style Cover Touch, a transparent phone cover that allows the user to read what is on the screen behind it, but also interact with the phone through the cover. For those peeks at your phone to answer a notification, skip to the next track of your music, or quickly return a phone call, the cover does its job brilliantly -- and it probably protects the screen quite well, too.

Not since the HTC One M8 dot cover has there been a cover for a phone that you must have. Sony has other covers for the XZ that allow it to be angled for video viewing, but the touch cover is the much better option.

The phone does have a pair of Achilles' heels though, the biggest of which is how it uses its 2900mAh battery.

Despite having software meant to intelligently extend the lifespan of the battery, the life of a single charge ranges from very average to outright terrible. The Sydney office has had a number of XZs pass through it in recent months, and there have been battery discharge graphs with gradients that would scare Olympic slalom skiers.

In its battery test, CNET recorded the phone as getting nine hours, but our device clocked in at 13 hours of battery life. If you are interested in an XZ, I would highly recommend finding one of the batch that has almost 150 percent better battery life than its standard counterparts.

The other problem with the phone is its price, which to buy outright in Australia is AU$1,000. This puts the phone in the same realm as the Samsung Galaxy S7, Google Pixel, and iPhone 7 -- all of which are more exciting and therefore more compelling purchases than Sony's new flagship.

As I wrote in December, 2016 was a year where flagship phones were skippable, and the Xperia XZ is the most incremental flagship of the lot.

Even though it brings updated silicon, the latest Android, and a nice new cover to the table, its battery life and cost hold it back enough to question why Sony went to the trouble of dismantling the Z-line for its X-line, only to create a flagship that cost the same as everyone else's flagship model.

For the outright crowd, the phone should be more around the AU$750 mark, which is currently where its predecessor is sitting. That's the year-old predecessor with the better screen, larger battery, and slightly bigger dimensions that is not lacking for computational power.

In a game of two steps forward, one step back, the Xperia XZ serves to remind those Sony followers of what disappeared when the Z-line ended -- and how you can still have it at a cheaper price than today's offerings, and not be left wanting for much.

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