In true Sony fashion CES 2013's biggest mobile announcement came in the form of the company’s new flagship  - the Sony Xperia Z. We were a little underwhelmed with the previous flag bearer, the Sony Xperia T which followed on a mere six months from the still wholly capable Sony Xperia S. One year on the company has gone back to the drawing board to produce something really special - the Sony Xperia Z.

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Sony Xperia Z: A Full HD flagship with a lot of promise

The Xperia Z represents a number of firsts for Sony. It's the first handset with a Full HD display, OmniBalance design language, Android Jelly Bean out-the-box and a quad-core processor to name but a few, but it's the cumulative effect of all of these exciting new elements that is going work towards swaying consumers away from the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Apple iPhone 5.

Sony Xperia Z: Design

Before you switch the Xperia Z on, it's hard not to draw a comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many smartphones are criticised for looking like 'yet another black slab' and although a black slab is essentially what the Xperia Z appears to be, it's far more elegant, powerful and beautiful than we would have ever expected.

The OmniBalance design aims to draw as many lines of symmetry into the layout of the phone as possible. For starters, every side of the Z is swathed in highly reflective black glass (or plastic on the port covers), which is then edged by a matt black metal frame. It feels true to Sony's broader product line as well as feeling amazingly strong and well built in the hand. The front of the Xperia Z accommodates two identical notches at the top and bottom, one for the earpiece, the other for the microphone.

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Indeed the symmetry concept means that every face of the Xperia Z is unbroken save for the rear camera, volume rocker, dock terminal and an extremely prominent power/lock key, which although a little jarring, has a nice feel to it. All the handset’s ports -  including headphone jack, microUSB, microSD card and SIM - reside under unobtrusive mirrored ports. From a practicality standpoint, the port covers can be fiddly to plug and replug when, for instance, adding headphones to the handset, but beyond their look, each features a rubberised seal which goes towards helping the handset maintain its IP55 and IP57 water and dust resistance, so it’s worth the minor hassle.

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The biggest shortcoming with regards to the Sony Xperia Z's styling comes as a result of that vast screen. Even though the bezel on the 5-inch display is beautifully thin, this phone itself is still huge in the hand and doesn't lend itself well to tighter jean pockets. What's more, those users who like to keep their handset looking sharp might not appreciate all those reflective sides, as fingerprints are unavoidable unless the handset is handled with gloves. 

Sony Xperia Z: Screen

On first seeing and exploring the Xperia Z's display, we struggled to not exclaim "wow" out loud. Sony's own widgets and wallpapers help highlight the clarity and fine detail the screen is capable of producing and it really proves to be a joy in general use as well. The panel at work is a 5-inch Full HD (1080x1920) LCD complete with Sony's Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2 technology in place to boost colours and contrast automatically, depending on the content being viewed and the conditions the phone may be in (indoors, outdoors etc.)

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Brightness and sunlight aren’t of any particular concern although the highly reflective finish of the display does mean more extreme viewing angles are likely to be obscured by reflection rather than lack brightness.

Pairing a pixel density of 441ppi, with such a large screen means the Xperia Z is one of the best handsets for media viewing and all that screen real estate lends itself well to gaming too.  Sure the physical proportions can almost be considered more 'phablet' (like the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note) than phone, but those who enjoy watching a movie on-the-go will love the screen size.

Sony Xperia Z: Performance

The Xperia Z’s spec sheet is pretty impressive - with a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chip, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage (expandable by up to 32GB using microSD), Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, 4G (LTE) and a 2330mAh battery. 

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For the most part, UI navigation is wholly fluid and fast, app switching, toggling the various radios on and off as well as full 3D gaming are wonderfully responsive and the phone has zero trouble jumping between Full HD videos and other resource heavy content. One of the shortcomings of packing so much hardware into such a thin package is that heat buildup around components is far more noticeable. Processor intensive tasks sometimes bring the back of the Xperia Z to a uncomfortably hot temperature near the camera surround, which would usually drive us to stop any of those more demanding processes earlier than we might have done otherwise.

One aspect which the dual-core Sony Xperia T was scalded for was its poor battery performance, but with the Xperia Z things have improved. Despite having to manage a quad-core processor, large HD screen and an 4G (LTE) radio, with typical use you'll be charging the Xperia Z once a day. Sure things quickly slip once, HD movies, extensive web browsing or gaming are thrown into the mix, but dipping in and out for a brief jaunt on Grand Theft Auto, won’t automatically send you to a plug point. Even though the Xperia Z might not be top of its class in this field, it’s great to know that Sony has started to prioritise power efficiency improvements in its handsets going forward.

Sony Xperia Z: OS

The new experience on the Xperia Z is inherently Sony, but feels tighter than ever and appears to work more fluidly. Small details like the new key press tones and the wonderfully playful lockscreen shutter effect, paired with subtle screen (left pic) transitions really help push the UI to the head of the pack. Much like the firsts the handset represents overall, it’s the little touches which accumulate to make a big overall impression. Less crowded than TouchWiz with more customisation than stock Jelly Bean, the Xperia Z brings a refined experience in spades. Much like the phone's physical design, the default UI might not be to everyone's taste, but there are enough elements to tweak and change to keep things interesting, with predefined themes, wallpapers and other tools to keep things interesting. 

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The base user experience is also augmented by Sony’s services, which include Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, the PlayStation Mobile Store and Sony Select, each of which creates a streamlined method of bringing extra content onto the phone. 

Sony Xperia Z: Camera

The 13-megapixel sensor on the Xperia Z’s back is a veritable beast. Picture quality at full resolution is stunning with great colour reproduction and strong contrast levels which leave shots looking punchy, if a little inaccurate. Along with a range of shooting modes, manual controls as well as an advanced automatic setting (which takes out a ton of the leg work) give shutterbugs a lot to play with.

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The party piece of the camera is that it can throw out HDR (high dynamic range) stills and video at the drop of a hat: a first in the mobile space with regards to the video. As you can see below, the HDR stills balance the overtly dark and overtly light parts of an image by compositing a high contrast and low contrast shot together to preserve detail that would usually be lost.

Click the images below to view HDR on and off.

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The same applies for video footage although the effect is far less prominent. HDR stills require that the camera drops from 13 down to 12-megapixels, but HDR video remains in Full HD throughout. On a side note, the 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera can pull in HD video too.

Sony Xperia Z: Verdict

Will its distinctive design, incredible power, great screen and great camera, it’s a winning combination, the small niggle is that the size will put potential consumers off and that’s a shame because it’s hard to fault the Android flagship otherwise.

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Fans of the Sony brand with the cash to spare (PAYG= approx. £500, Pay monthly = free handset on £37 a month 24 month contracts) shouldn’t think twice about grabbing the Xperia Z and it's even worth considering over the older Galaxy S3. Right now it’s biggest challenge looks to be the HTC One handset, but until that arrives mid-March, it’s pretty unmatched as it stands.