Sony Xperia XZ2 review: The nearly man of modern smartphones

£699
Price when reviewed

The smartphone has all-but killed off compact cameras and camcorders out of existence in the past few years. But, far from resting on their laurels, smartphone cameras are getting better and better and better. The Sony Xperia XZ2 is but one example and, on paper, it’s one of the most impressive efforts we’ve seen so far, offering a camera that can not only shoot excellent still images, but also 4K footage in 10-bit HDR and 960fps slow-motion footage at a full 1080p resolution.

Now, I’ll get onto whether this is a worthy addition later in the review, or whether you should consider plumping for a phone that can shoot better quality low-light images like the Samsung Galaxy S9 or S9 Plus. Or, even, if you should instead opt for the over-the-top triple camera setup on the Huawei P20 Pro.

For now, though, all you need to know is that, for video capture, the Xperia XZ2 is unrivalled for features.

READ NEXT: Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact review

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Sony Xperia XZ2 review: Design, key features and first impressions

The rest of the phone is a good deal less exciting, but that’s not to say Sony hasn’t been taking it easy. In fact, in terms of the design, there’s been a dramatic volte-face here from the Japanese electronics giant. At last, the slab-like squared-off design of the XZ2’s forebears has been ditched in favour of a more hand- and pocket-friendly design with curves in all the right places.

To be clear, a more conventional design is definitely a good thing. Good, because the Xperia XZ2 is now less likely to tear a hole in your pocket, and good because the screen fills more of the front panel.

Some may bemoan this because the new XZ2 now looks less like an Xperia phone and more like every other handset flooding the market. They might also point to the fact that the phone is quite chunky at its thickest point. But I think the Xperia looks great. The Xperia XZ2’s 5.7in FHD+ display (1,080 x 2,160) is coated in Gorilla Glass 5, while the phone’s rear employs glass that gently curves across its entire expanse.

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The fingerprint reader is easy to reach for both left- and right-handers as it’s set in the middle and with the camera, fingerprint reader, sensors and flash all arranged in a vertical line, it looks rather neat.

The only red flag here is that the fingerprint reader is positioned a little low and is flush with the phone’s rear surface which means that, quite frequently, I found I wasn’t able to locate it at the first attempt. I’m also none too keen on the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack, although there is a USB-C adapter in the box.

Otherwise, the Xperia XZ2 is eminently practical and looks great. It’s available in black, silver, blue and pink and is IP67 and IP68 dust and water-resistant. It has retained its microSD storage expansion capability and I have no issues as to the positioning of any of the buttons, with everything arranged sensibly on the right-hand edge of the handset.

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Sony Xperia XZ2 review: Camera

The one unique and defining element Sony has retained is its two-stage camera button. The firm clearly still wants to be known for its camera tech and the Xperia XZ2 follows through on that in style. Although the hardware itself is no different to last year’s Sony Xperia XZ and Xperia XZ Premium, the phone’s new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip enables a number of breakthrough features.

The first of these Sony is calling “true” 4K HDR recording and it claims the XZ2 is the first phone to do this. What this actually means is that the XZ2 can record 4K footage in full 10-bit HDR in HLG format, which should lead to much better dynamic range, richer colours and more detail in dark and bright areas of a scene.

READ NEXT: What is 4K?

In practice, it certainly does that. Scenes recorded with HDR enabled take on a more richly coloured look with little of the over-exposure of bright areas that afflicts regular smartphone video camera footage.

The image quality of this HDR video is unsurpassed among smartphones and it looks amazing in freeze frame. However, it’s a long way from being perfect. The issue is frame rate. Enable 4K and HDR and then pan slowly across a scene and the result is a horrible judder that cannot be ignored. And this effect gets even worse if you enable the SteadyShot stabilisation; in fact, Sony advised me after I received the review unit not to enable stabilisation in HDR mode for this very reason.

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Even if you turn off HDR entirely, video footage doesn’t look all that impressive and, oddly, there’s no support for 4K at 60fps, either, where rivals such as the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9 do offer the feature.

Overall, it’s a pretty shocking showing. A marquee feature that doesn’t work properly is not a good start for Sony’s new camera. One thing I will say in the phone’s favour is that in 1080p the software stabilisation is excellent.

The second step forward is a smaller one but it’s another feature that’s compromised. The Sony Xperia XZ2’s snapper can now capture 960fps super slow motion footage at a resolution of 1080p, up from the 720p of the previous model. That’s better on paper than the Samsung Galaxy S9’s 960fps at 720p.

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Switch to 1080p slow-motion mode, though, and you’ll quickly see that, although impressive to witness when you get it right, it’s less practical to shoot than slow motion in 720p. That’s because, in order to reach 1080p at 960fps, Sony is halving the time the clip is recorded for.

If it was pretty tricky before to capture the desired moment, it’s nigh on impossible in 1080p. Still, when you get it right, it looks pretty darned cool.

And stills quality is good, too, though the specifications aren’t the very best you can get. It’s a 19-megapixel camera with an f/2 aperture and a sensor size of  1/2.3in with OIS and a hybrid phase detect/laser autofocus system.

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As usual with Sony phones, there’s a little more grain and noise obscuring fine detail than with the best phones, especially in low light. That’s likely due to the dimmer aperture. However, HDR works well and if you leave the phone in Intelligent Auto mode, you’ll generally be pleased with the results.

I’ve directly compared it with the iPhone X in my test shots above, but you can see that there’s slightly less fine detail and shots are ever-so-slightly underexposed compared with Apple’s standard-bearer in both examples. The Sony beats the iPhone X when it comes to the backlit HDR sample, though, retaining more detail in the brightly lit window.

The XZ2’s biggest problem is that there’s no second camera to add extra light, depth data or optical zoom, so it lags here behind phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and the Huawei P20 Pro on pure features. And there are plenty of cheaper smartphones with dual cameras, including the superb OnePlus 5T.

Sony Xperia XZ2 review: Other features

Other improvements are less exciting but mostly positive. The phone’s stereo speakers are now 20% louder than they were before and support Dolby Atmos.

Both upgrades make a significant difference, particularly the Atmos support. In a side-by-side test – the Atmos-enabled playback versus regular audio – the Atmos audio sounded richer, broader and more immersive.

There’s a larger, more powerful vibration motor – a good thing if you tend to miss your notifications – however, I’m unconvinced by the new “dynamic” vibration feature part. This enables the phones haptic system to analyse and respond with variable degrees of haptic feedback to audio “events” that occur as you watch TV, movies or play games.

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I tested this on a quick Angry Birds session and found that the vibrations lagged hugely behind the onscreen action and didn’t feel particularly sharp or progressive in terms of feedback, either. On YouTube videos, it adds nothing but irritation and had me reaching to turn it off after a few seconds.

I’m not entirely sure what Sony was thinking here because I can’t envisage any circumstance that would encourage me to use dynamic feedback although, it’s good to know dynamic vibration isn’t enabled by default. Instead, the first time you launch an app the phone thinks can be “enhanced” in this way, it will ask you if you want to turn it on. I’d decline on this evidence. It’s an utterly redundant feature.

Likewise, the 3D scanning capability first seen on last year’s Xperia smartphones (and now extended to the front-facing shutter), is little more than a gimmick. Yes, you can now post your face scan to your Facebook feed and, yes, it is more effective than it was the last time I tried the system. You can also produce a 3D-scanned selfie but, once you’ve done it the first time, I suspect the novelty will wear off quite quickly.

Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Performance and display quality

At least there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to the phone’s software and internal components. The Xperia XZ2 runs Sony’s launcher on top of Android 8 Oreo and inside there’s a 2.7GHz octa-core Qualcomm 845 processor plus 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot that will take cards up to 400GB in capacity. There’s also dual-SIM capability although you sacrifice the microSD expansion if you use it.

In fact, it might surprise you to discover that this is the first handset running Qualcomm’s top-end 845 chip we’ve tested. What probably won’t surprise you is that it’s very, very quick. You’ll be able to hurl pretty much anything you fancy at the Xperia XZ2 without it slowing down or stuttering at all. Here are the CPU and graphics benchmarks numbers to prove it:

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Overall, it’s slower than the iPhone X but about the same level as the Exynos 9810-equipped Samsung Galaxy S9.

Battery life is pretty good, too. In our video rundown test, it outlasted all its key rivals, including the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.

I haven’t quite been using enough to gauge day to day with any kind of accuracy but, so far, I’ve been getting a full day out of the Xperia XZ2, but not much more.

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Sony Xperia XZ2 review: Software and ease of use

The Sony Xperia XZ2, as with previous Sony phones, runs a slightly tweaked version of Android 8.0 Oreo. It’s different from stock but not annoyingly so, and if you’ve had Sony phones previously you’ll be right at home.

The biggest difference between Sony’s software and regular Android is the way the app drawer is organised. It scrolls sideways instead of vertically and you can sort it and organise in whatever way you like. The default order is custom, or “own order” as Sony calls it. In this mode the phone adds newly installed apps to the end of the list a bit like on iOS and users can then drag icons around to wherever they like. You can change this if it gets on your nerves, though, sorting by “most used”, alphabetically by name, and by date. 

Swipe to the left of the App drawer and you’ll find another of the differences: a screen where recent app searches are displayed and recommendations of other apps you might want to try.

All this is great. Once I’d set the app drawer to sort alphabetically it’s not a feature I found myself tinkering with again, but it’s good to know the feature to change things up is there if you need it.

Sony Xperia XZ2 review: Verdict

On paper, there’s plenty to like about the Sony Xperia XZ2; in the flesh, alas, it’s a good deal less inspiring. The 4K HDR recording gives unsatisfactory motion capture, the 1080p slow-motion feature records clips that are too short to be practical and for a flagship phone, one camera isn’t enough these days.

Solid battery life and a nice new design are solid plus points but even here there are problems, with the fingerprint reader placement and the thickness of the thing.

At £699, the price is the one thing that might save it, but even taking that into consideration it doesn’t do enough for me to unseat the S9 or the S9+ at the top of the smartphone pecking order. Plus, if you’re in the market for a new phone, you’d probably be best advised to wait for our full review of the £599 Huawei P20 and the £799 P20 Pro, as those phones are shaping up to be to be very impressive indeed.

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