Date:25 August 2017
The Xperia XZ Premium is the best phone Sony has ever made and that’s its biggest problem. That’s not saying there’s something intrinsically wrong with the hardware. Qualcomm’s 2017 flagship-grade Snapdragon 835 makes its debut on South African soil here, backed by 4 GB of RAM. There’s also a 4K screen with HDR support. But if you came for the future of smartphones, you’re in the wrong place. Korea is this way.
Testing the Xperia XZ Premium:
My first instinct was to pit this device against the Kirin 960 and 6 GB RAM stylings of Huawei’s P10 Plus, or Samsung’s Galaxy S8 for a three-way fight for the title of SA’s most powerful phone. But that won’t end well for Sony, or Samsung for that matter. I mean the device gets about the business of being smart just as quickly as its aforementioned competitors. It just suffers from design fatigue.
Yes, the guy who regularly professes his love for the iPhone SE is talking about dated design. Apple at least served up a classic that makes sense for those of us who prefer operating a smartphone with one hand. Sony is out here recycling 2012 and 2013 designs that make even less ergonomic sense now than ever before. At least it can stand upright, so there’s one point from me.
The XZ Premium is a huge, slippery glass sandwich.
That’s enough of the negatives, though. XZ Premium brings a lot to the table as a smartphone. There’s the super-speedy LTE courtesy of Qualcomm’s X16 modem (ready for Vodacom’s VoLTE network upgrades alongside Galaxies S8 and Note 8). We see a return of various Stamina modes to squeeze more life out of the 3 230 mAh battery that can easily last to the end of the day. And, of course, there’s a party trick: 960 frames per second slow-mo video achieved by slapping RAM on to the camera sensor to buffer frames. That same buffering tweak allows the phone to predict which picture you wanted to snap by buffering images an serving up what it thinks is the best one around the time that you pressed the shutter. While you get to choose from the set, what the algorithm spits out is hardly ever what you want.
That super slow-mo is quite a treat once you get the timing of the 1 second bursts right, but I got bored with it after a couple of days (literally three days).
The rest of the camera is a 19 MP image sensor that Sony dubbed “Motion Eye”. Focus is still a mixed bag and the camera app’s Superior Auto mode still doesn’t grant the user basic exposure compensation control. Colours are accurate, but details and highlights are butchered by over-processing for the sake of it. With that many pixels to play with this camera should be wiping the floor with the competition, but alas.
Huawei P10 Plus:
So if you’re not paying R16 000 for the best design or camera, surely that 4K HDR screen is something special? Again no. If you don’t have Amazon Prime Video or a UHD Netflix account with strong internet, then you’ll probably never get to appreciate the quality. I cycled through all the screen presets and still found it to be quite lifeless when compared to the 1440p of Samsung’s Infinity AMOLED Display and Huawei’s 2K panel which lacks the HDR.
Then its the audio quality that must be boss? Nope. Those front-facing stereo speakers are pointing in the right direction, but not nearly loud enough to stand out. Even the headphone jack is underwhelming in its mediocrity.
At least the AR effects work faster now, thanks to that beefy Snapdragon 835.
In a nutshell:
This is the best phone Sony has ever produced and it didn’t fail on me like the previous models I’ve tested. No spontaneous glass cracking, no unresponsive screen touch digitiser and, importantly, no SIM tray or network signal failures. It’s firmly in third place in this country for raw computing power until the Note 8 hits shelves, but its lacking something unique. A smartphone with 4K screen and a good camera with a neat gimmick can’t hang in a world where data is too expensive to waste on a handheld display and your competitors served up excellent optics. Bucking the trend towards minimal screen bezels and dual cameras was a massive mistake. A bigger misstep was the long wait from MWC announcement in March to July release.
Judging from what’s in the pipeline for the Xperia range, design will be more of the same for the end of the year too. Sony has lost touch with the demands of a mature smartphone market. All I want is for Sony to go back to being the crazy Android cousin that’s cooking up the future of smartphone features. Either that or the company should double down on camera sensor development and stop trying to compete with its own hardware.