Sony Xperia XZ2 Review: Two steps forward, one step back

Sony is one of those Android smartphone manufacturers that have underperformed in recent years; much like LG and HTC, it promises so much and then somehow snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. With uncertain mobile strategies that often appear a step or two behind the times, a tendency to use the same design language for too many generations of handsets, and seemingly unable to make the most of the camera sensors it produces, Sony’s mobile division is under pressure to keep up with the likes of the Galaxy S9.

The launch of the Xperia XZ2 at MWC 2018 marked a change for Sony in that it finally moved on from its dated OmniBalance design language, changed to a display using the trendy 18:9 aspect ratio, and coaxed better results from its cameras. It even managed to ship a handset in the US with a functioning fingerprint reader, although it’s a case of two steps forward, one step backward on that count. As a bonus, there isn’t a single notch in sight. Join us after the break for our review of Sony’s Xperia XZ2.

Design

First things first, Sony has to be commended for finally moving on from the dated Omnibalance design language which has held it back for so long. The Xperia XZ2’s Ambient Flow design results in bezels that are smaller all round although perhaps not a slim as on other 2018 flagships, particularly on the left and right of the display. That being said, the side bezels are still smaller than what is found on the Pixel 2. The all-glass design definitely modernizes the appearance of the XZ2 although it is slippery to hold and a fingerprint magnet, so you’ll need to slap a case on it if you don’t want it sliding off whichever surface you placed it on, just like pretty much every other phone with a rear glass panel. If you have the phone set to vibrate, you’ll need to keep a very close eye on the naked XZ2 when it’s placed it on a flat surface because if the phone vibrates with a notification or an incoming call, it thinks that it’s a sign to head for the exit. On the whole, build quality is excellent, which is something you take for granted with Sony’s high-end smartphones.

Unlike most other 2018 flagships, Sony has managed to avoid endowing the Xperia XZ2 with a notch, which means that notifications line up exactly how they should. This is an important thing to consider if the notch is something that makes your blood boil. The bad news, depending on your viewpoint, is that Sony has followed another, similarly polarizing trend by removing the 3.5mm audio jack. It’s gone, so if you insist on using wired headphones, you’ll have to use a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter to do so.

The XZ2 is the first Sony smartphone to make it to the US with a functioning fingerprint reader, which is now on the rear panel below the camera as opposed to being on the side like it was on the XZ1. As with many changes of this nature, it’s going to depend on your personal preference whether it’s a good or bad move. Something that is more clear-cut is the unfortunate location of the camera and fingerprint reader on the rear panel. Both sensors are set far too low down on the rear panel, which results in the camera lens sitting where your index finger would naturally find the fingerprint reader, which is almost an inch further down. It’s disappointing because even after weeks of use, I still ended up smudging the camera lens more times than not. In a nutshell, the new design language is a definite step up from the XZ2’s predecessor but is badly let down by the sloppy location of the camera and fingerprint locations.

Hardware

 Sony Xperia XZ2
AnnouncedFebruary 2018
ReleaseApril 2018
Display5.7-inch IPS LCD, 2160x1080,
18:9 aspect ratio, 424ppi, Gorilla Glass 5
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 845
RAM4GB
Storage64GB of internal storage, expandable up to 400GB with MicroSD card
Rear Camera19MP Exmor RS sensor, 1.22μm, f/2.0, Hybrid AutoFocus, 960 fps FHD slow-mo, 4K HDR video
Front Camera5MP, 22mm wide-angle lens, F/2.2
Battery3,180mAh
ChargingUSB Type-C, Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, Qi Wireless Charging
SoundStereo front speakers
SoftwareAndroid 8.0 Oreo
ConnectivityWi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, USB 3.1, GPS
SensorsRear fingerprint reader
Measurements153 x 72 x 11.1mm
Weight198g
ColorsLiquid Black, Liquid Silver, Deep Green, Ash Pink

Performance

The Xperia XZ2 flies; a result that is likely as much the result of the lack of pixels its Adreno 630 GPU has to push as it is the power of the Snapdragon 845. The 5.7-inch IPS LCD isn’t the absolute best display we’ve seen on a phone, but it does have 424ppi and upscales standard definition content to HDR (High Dynamic Range) which gives an improved range of colors and darker blacks. This also means that the XZ2 can take advantage of HDR content from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime video. If you like your colors on the over-saturated side, you’ll need to head to Settings, Display and then toggle the Super-Vivid Mode because the Standard Mode leaves the colors a little washed out. As a flagship smartphone, I would have liked to see the Xperia XZ2 sport a higher-resolution display, especially considering its price.

The Xperia XZ2 features something called the Dynamic Vibration System that Sony says will enhance haptic feedback when viewing content, listening to music, or playing games with users being able to choose from ‘mild,’ ‘normal.’ or ‘powerful’ levels of vibration. In reality, it’s a gimmick for anything other than playing games because when you are watching a video, the system doesn’t activate when there are explosions on-screen, seemingly only coming into play when the explosion is off-screen, which is just plain weird. When listening to music, the phone will vibrate in your hand rhythmically, and switch off when the phone is locked, which was my preferred option.

Battery

With a 3,180mAh battery, the Xperia XZ2 will get you through the day with a little bit to spare, but not much more than that. Streaming content will discharge between 8-10% per hour while gaming will use between 15-20% charge per hour. Getting the second day of usage out of it isn’t an option with anything close to normal usage, so you will have to charge the handset every night. However, unlike the OnePlus 6 and Huawei P20 Pro, it does make the most of having an all-glass design with its ability to charge wirelessly. This means that provided you have a wireless charger handy, you can top up almost anytime, anywhere, especially so if you have a wireless power bank. If you find that you are getting close to the bottom of the tank, regular Stamina Mode will give you an extra couple of hours while Ultra Stamina Mode will stretch it out even further, albeit with by resorting to a basic monochrome display and basic functionality.

Software

Running Android 8.0 Oreo with Sony’s light custom overlay, the Xperia XZ2 has a stock Android feel to it. An unusual feature is the horizontal scrolling app drawer which feels a little dated after using other 2018 flagships that use vertical scrolling, although swiping left to access the recommended apps (based on usage) is a nice touch. You can organize the app drawer by “most used,” “alphabetically,” “date,” or by Sony’s “own order” that adds recently installed apps to the bottom of the list with users able to re-sort by dragging the icons around. Most users will choose to sort the app drawer alphabetically, but its good to know that there are options available. Sony is known for its light touch which is something that Samsung, LG, and Huawei would do well to take note of.

Camera

Despite producing camera sensors that feature heavily in the smartphones of its competitors, Sony is often accused of failing to reach the same heights. While it’s easy to say that the Xperia XZ2 is Sony’s best phone in years, and it is, it is still a step behind the current trend. Endowed with a single 19MP rear camera with f/2.0 aperture and OIS that we’ve seen before on the Xperia XZ Premium, the XZ2 boasts some impressive features such as improved 960fps slow-mo mode as well as the ability to record 4K 10-bit video in full HDR in HLG format. The dedicated camera button on the lower right side of the phone can be set to open up the camera with two presses and aids in using the Xperia XZ2 like a regular point-and-shoot camera.

It’s a camera that would be good enough for almost anyone that is capable of ignoring phones such as the excellent Galaxy S9 Plus and OnePlus 6 that boast dual rear cameras, or Huawei’s P20 Pro with its trio of rear cameras. The Xperia XZ2 is capable of taking stunning shots in normal conditions, albeit with a little extra grain and noise than you might see on other smartphones with dual camera setups. When the light dims, however, the lack of a secondary sensor means there is no way to bring additional light or depth to the image, resulting in added noise and decreased clarity.

It’s time to talk about the camera app. It’s slow, it takes ages to save an image, and it’s clunky. It badly needs an overhaul. Accessing the various modes and options is time-consuming, and by the time you’ve got the shot set up, the moment has gone. This perhaps is where the AI features found on the Huawei P20 Pro, and LG V30+ come in to play by detecting which camera mode suits the current scenario.

Accessing Bokeh mode is done by swiping to the right and then tapping on the Bokeh app icon on a page that also includes Google Lens, AR Effect, Sound photo, Creative Effect, and Panorama. Bokeh mode is hampered by the lack of a secondary sensor to add extra depth which means you need to hold the phone steady as it takes two photographs. It’s a mixed bag regarding results with the camera seeming unable to distinguish which areas to blur at times and often saying that it’s unable to blur the background.

I’ve included a sample of the slow-motion v@960fps video below; as you can see you can slow the action down on multiple occasions. The user is in control of when the slow-motion begins with a dedicated button next to the record button which means you don’t have to dig through the options to access it. Credit where credit is due, this is something that Sony did right with the camera app.

Closing

In some ways, the Xperia XZ2 reminds me of the LG G6 from 2017, in that Sony has stepped things up by changing the design and improving the camera experience but ultimately falling short because of a short-sighted decision or two. One such choice is the placement of the rear camera which is precisely where the fingerprint reader should be. It spoils the experience of unlocking the phone and often results in either a greasy camera lens or your finger blocking the lens. It’s almost as if the designer never attempted to take a photo with the XZ2 before signing off. The clunky camera app badly needs an overhaul; there is no reason on earth that a smartphone with a Snapdragon 845 under the hood should lag when saving a photo regardless of whether it’s in HDR mode or attempting Bokeh.

It’s a shame because the rest of the phone is very, very good. The fact that Sony hasn’t jumped onboard the notch bandwagon is praiseworthy, the bezels have been slimmed down from previous models (although they could be slimmer still), the user experience is slick and satisfying. But, with a price tag of $799/£699, the Xperia XZ2 lives and dies by how it compares to its flagship competitors such as the Galaxy S9, the Pixel 2, Huawei P20 Pro, and even the OnePlus 6. None are perfect, but each has a killer feature that you can point to and say “That’s why I bought it”. Unless wireless charging is the most important thing in your life, the Xperia XZ2 is a solid performer that lacks that special something.

It isn’t all bad news; the Xperia XZ2 is Sony’s best flagship smartphone since the much-lauded Xperia Z2. Sony will hopefully build on the XZ2’s foundations with the launch of the Xperia XZ3 during IFA 2018 in Berlin which is widely rumored to feature a whopping 48MP sensor.

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About the Author: Peter Holden

He's been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being his first phablet. He currently carries a Pixel 2 XL, Huawei P20 Pro, and a Galaxy Tab S2 8.0 around in his pockets. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, he's an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, he loves a good Braai (BBQ).


  • pda96

    When you are struggling in the mobile phone market, you don’t want to adopt anything controversial. In this case, leaving out the headphone jack is a deal killer for most of people. Kudos for not having a notch though.

  • Draken Blackknight

    Did they at least get rid of the root-unfriendly DRM?

    • Peter Holden

      It’s isn’t something I can test on a review unit unfortunately, but from a quick glance at the developer forums, I’d say no.