REVIEW: Can A Waterproof Phone Bring Sony Back?

Sony xperia z in a cup of waterThe Sony Xperia Z works even if it’s been submerged in water.

When you think of Sony, the first things that probably come to mind are TVs, home theatre systems, and Blu-Ray players.

Not tablets or Ultrabooks. And definitely not smartphones.

That’s Sony’s biggest challenge right now. Its major competitors like Apple and Samsung have been pushing out smartphones and tablets that people are buying by the tens of millions each quarter. But so far, Sony has failed to come up with a smartphone that resonates. 

Sony’s latest attempt is the Xperia Z, an Android phone with one key distinguishing feature: it’s water resistant, meaning it won’t get damaged even if it’s completely submerged for a few minutes. The phone was one of the darlings of the Consumer Electronics Show, where it was first announced in January, but it’s taken a good six months for Sony to finally bring it to the US.

T-Mobile is the only carrier that will sell the Xperia Z (for now), and you can get it for $100 down plus $20 per month for 24 months. The phone launches July 17.

Hardware And Design
The Xperia Z is a pretty phone. Unlike other Android manufacturers that use cheap-feeling plastic to build their devices, Sony’s new flagship is well built and fun to hold. It’s a hair thicker than the iPhone 5, but it also has a bigger 5-inch screen. And it’s all wrapped in a durable frame that makes the entire phone feel like the top-tier device Sony intends it to be. The model I tested came came in an unappealing shiny purple colour, but you can also get it in black.

But because the Xperia Z is water resistant, you’ll have to put up with some compromises with the design. Every port and opening is covered with a tiny hatch that you have to pry open with your fingernail whenever you want to access the headphone jack, USB charger, or SD card slot. The hatches may keep water out, but they also keep you from quickly getting to the ports. And when they’re open, each hatch hangs from a flimsy plastic thread, which is distracting and ugly. 

sony xperia z headphone jack port hatch openThis is what the port hatches look like when they’re open.

In short, having a water-resistant phone is nice, but I don’t think the tradeoff of having to keep all those ports covered will be worth it for most people. It certainly wasn’t for me.

The Xperia Z also demonstrates an interesting trend in smartphones looking to find their place behind Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy devices. Instead of being everything to everyone, phones like the Xperia Z put too much focus on doing one thing well. In this case, it’s water resistance, but I’ve also noticed companies like Nokia putting way too much effort in just the camera while ignoring more important features like curating a vibrant app ecosystem. Unless you really need a water-resistant phone, there’s not much incentive to buy the Xperia Z.

Software And Other Features
Sony does a pretty good job with the Android operating system. While, many manufacturers fall into the trap of customising Android beyond recognition, Sony keeps most of Google’s original designs and features. That’s a good thing, since Android is pretty darn good as is.

Beyond the basic Android goodies, you do get a few Sony-specific software features like apps for watching videos or listening to music. Sony also redesigned the camera software so that it can automatically adjust shooting modes based on the lighting and subjects you’re trying to shoot. For example, if the camera detects motion, it’ll switch to a mode that’ll reduce blur.

For the most part, the camera software did a good job at detecting what I was shooting, and photos turned out pretty well. I don’t normally switch shooting modes on my smartphone camera, so it’s nice to have a device that did the thinking for me.

sony xperia z phone home screenThe Xperia Z’s home screen.

Another interesting feature is a battery manager that keeps certain apps from sucking up power when your phone’s display is off. You’ll still get incoming texts and phone calls, but the tool will keep other apps from connecting to the Internet and delivering notifications, theoretically saving your battery life. In reality, I didn’t notice much of a difference when I had the power manager switched on. Most phones already use minimal power when asleep, and Sony’s solution didn’t seem to add much.

And that’s really about all the distinguishing features worth going over in the Xperia Z. Everything else is your typical Android experience.

The Xperia Z is a good Android phone. However, it’s not the knock-your-socks-off revolution that Sony probably hoped it would be, and it’s only going to really stand out to a niche group of people who desire a waterproof phone above everything else. 

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