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Sony smartphones have sat just below the top tier for a while now, so the new Xperia XZ2 has a lot to prove. At £699 (inc. VAT) it's more affordable than the £730 Samsung Galaxy S9, but is pipped by the Huawei P20 which is £100 less at £599 (the P20 Pro comes in at £799).
With its emphasis on camera capability, including 4K HDR video recording, and strong audio-visual performance this is arguably a handset aimed more at entertainment than productivity.
Sony's industrial design has never really appealed to me: the blocky, monolithic appearance of the company's handsets seemed a bit awkward and characterless, although of course that's a matter of personal taste and there are doubtless many fans of the traditional Xperia look and feel.
Whatever your own view, that design aesthetic has been shelved, and the Sony Xperia XZ2 is a curvy, shiny, slippery thing. Its glass back is extremely reflective and very smooth to the touch. It isn't my preferred look -- but again, others will like it. The glass feels good in the hand but it attracts finger smears very easily, and I found it slippy to grip, accidentally dropping it back into my bag on a few occasions. Still, if this handset gets dropped in more perilous conditions, its IP68 rating for dust and water resistance should be a comfort.
My blue review sample looked relatively demure -- the black variant will share that characteristic, while the silver and pink versions are rather brasher in appearance.
I had a problem locating the fingerprint sensor on the back of the handset: it's closer to the midway point of the chassis than usual, so that I had to crook my forefinger to find it; it's also almost flush to the backplate rather than recessed. No doubt I'd get used to the sensor's position in time, but for something that's supposed to be intuitive the hassle was a little irritating.
The Xperia XZ2's glass back gives it a propensity to slip and slide on smoother surfaces. The back is also curved, which means its long edges are raised quite significantly from a desk's flat surface. These two factors mean that prodding and poking at the screen can make the phone tip and twist on a desk. It's the devil's own job keeping it stationary, and I found this most annoying -- in fact, it would be a deal-breaker for me.
Overall this is quite a thick phone too, measuring 11mm down its central spine, tapering to 6mm at the edges. It's 72mm wide and 153mm tall, and weighs 198g.
Sony uses the USB-C slot for audio output rather than providing a 3.5mm jack, but an adapter is provided in the box. One design feature I rather like is access to the SIM tray, which uses a small fingernail-accessible notch in the tray rather than a separate tool. Well done Sony for finding a design solution that's obviously more ergonomic than the incumbent option.
The SIM tray has room for either two SIMs or one SIM and a MicroSD card. In general, I'm not in favour of having to sacrifice memory expansion for a second SIM. The Xperia XZ2 has 64GB of internal storage, so users who like to store a lot of content on their handsets may well need to use the MicroSD slot.
The 5.7-inch 1,080-by-2,160 screen has the popular 18:9 format. It extends almost to the very edges on the long sides of the handset, although there's a bezel of around 10mm at the top and 12mm at the bottom. These are thinner than past Sony bezels, but still look like landing strips in comparison to minimal-bezel handsets like Samsung's Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus.
The screen's 424ppi pixel density isn't the highest and it lacks the brilliance of AMOLED displays, but it's still very good. Video content automatically pops into HDR, which makes for very satisfying viewing. You can tweak the white balance and contrast, selecting presets and making granular adjustments, so there's scope to get things just how you like them.
The 'smart backlight' control keeps the backlight on while you're looking at the handset, regardless of the sleep settings. There's also a 'night light' mode with reduced blue light. This can come on automatically at a set time, or you can configure it manually. It's great for late-night ebook readers like me. Neither features are new, but they are both nice to have.
The other side to a great audio visual experience is the audio, and here things are superb: the front-facing stereo speakers deliver good-quality sound, with comparatively rich bass tones for a handset.
Sony adds a third element to the enjoyment of 'content' in the shape of its Dynamic Vibration System (DVS). Basically an enhancement of the standard vibration system, DVS can be brought into use when playing games or listening to anything with an audio component. It's quite weird. Providing feedback by trying to mimic the beat of a tune didn't work very well: it simply didn't match the beat of tunes I listened to. The random haptics delivered while I watched a movie were frankly off-putting. I had better luck with gaming, but even there it's not really a must-have new feature.
Fortunately the volume control provides a slider to change the intensity of DVS -- or turn it off completely.
And so we come to the cameras. A dedicated camera button is a rarity on handsets these days, but is something long championed by Sony. It works best when you're shooting in landscape mode; its location towards the bottom of the right edge in portrait mode is a bit awkward to reach.
Pressing the button starts the camera app, whereupon it becomes the focus and shoot controller -- depress it a little way to focus, then all the way to shoot. Annoyingly, the focus point is set in software and you can't touch the screen to tell the camera where you want to focus.
The single 19MP rear-facing camera uses Sony's Superior Auto system to identify what kind of scene is being shot, and make settings accordingly. It throws a little icon on-screen towards the bottom left of the framing window, which you can tap to alter white balance and colour saturation if you don't like the automatic settings. It's extremely simple to work with, and the end results are pretty good.
The Bokeh effect lets you adjust blurring after shooting, and there's an AR effect that lets you throw dinosaurs, fairies and facial adornments onto photos; SoundPhoto adds captured sound to a still, plus there's a panorama shooting mode and an effects mode that offers kaleidoscopic, hand-drawn, fisheye and other imaging distortions.
The ability to record 4K video is welcome, but you'll need something 4K-capable to review it on and there may be some juddering if you move the camera lens about too much. When you select 4K mode, there's a warning that the camera will shut down if the device temperature rises -- a sure sign that this shooting mode really hammers the processor.
Super slow-motion is arguably more fun, capturing Full HD (1080p) resolution at 960fps. The resulting video is smooth and impressive, but clips are very short and I struggle to see how this would be a real boon in any practical situation. Still, this is arguably the bigger win here, not least because it takes just a single screen tap to throw a slow motion episode into a standard-speed recording.
To power all this camera capability, and the rest of what's on offer here, Sony uses Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 845 chipset with 4GB of RAM. I had no complaints at all regarding this setup: the Xperia XZ2 is very responsive. There's 64GB of internal storage, as noted earlier, of which 15.54GB was used right out of the box.
Sony adds its own software on top of Android 8 Oreo. Sony is a bit heavy-handed with its extras, adding things like its own PlayStation app, music player and image viewing app, as well as a range of third-party apps that, frankly, should be left for the user to install. These include AVG, Kobo, and no fewer than four from Amazon -- Shopping, Prime Video, Kindle and Prime Photos. None of these can be uninstalled.
The Xperia XZ2 has a 3,180mAh battery, and it could probably do with something a bit larger. I did manage a day's usage off a full charge, but on other occasions -- when using the camera a lot and that Dynamic Vibration System with some audio and video content -- the battery barely got me past the middle of the afternoon.
The handset supports Quick Charge 3.0, which at least means you can boost the battery quickly, and if you invest in the £58 accessory you can take advantage of Qi wireless charging.
The redesigned shape and styling of Sony's flagship Xperia XZ2 handset will appeal to some, but I found it slippy to hold and prone to wriggling around on the desk. The camera promises much, but it's tricky to get the most out of 4K video or the super slow-motion mode. The Dynamic Vibration System is something of a mystery to me, and I found it uninspiring. Sony's insistence on including non-removable third-party apps is irritating. Finally, battery life is underwhelming.
All these factors add up to a handset that seems to promise more than it delivers. Sony won't be challenging the market leaders with this outing.
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