Our full Sony Xperia Z2 phone review: coming just a few months after Sony's Xperia Z1 flagship, can a screen wipe and a host of new camera features make the Xperia Z2 an essential purchase?

Damn, it’s been a good month for smartphones. First we bagged an exclusive review of the Samsung Galaxy S5, with its smart fingerprint scanner and health-conscious features to keep you from keeling over during fitness sessions. Then we fondled the sleek silver HTC One M8, boasting a dual-lens camera and incredible battery life.

And now, with the Sony Xperia Z2 hitting our desks looking all sexy and shiny, the triforce of flagship phones is complete. This 5.2-inch Sony smartphone is the gorgeous follow-up to the Sony Xperia Z1 (which hit the UK just seven short months ago), this time rocking a revamped screen and all-new camera features. Does it stack up against the Galaxy and the One? Let three-way battle commence!

Sony Xperia Z2 design: a flutter of flaps

Stick the Sony Xperia Z1 next to the Z2 and only a couple of tiny details help to set them apart - the slightly enlarged screen, the rearranged flaps, the tweaked speaker. Actually, with the possible exception of the Samsung Galaxy S5, all of the recent flagship phones have stuck real close to their predecessors’ design. And in Sony’s case, this is definitely no bad thing.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

Some people didn’t get on with the original Z1, complaining that it was too boxy and uncomfortable to hold. We never personally found it a problem, but if you weren’t a Z1 fan, you won’t like this one much either. Check out the fantastic Xperia Z1 Compact instead, which at 4.5-inches feels even better in the hand, or the HTC One M8 with its beautifully curved body, which fits perfectly in your palm.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

Us though, we still love the rectangular slab-like construction, which is actually a little lighter despite the bigger screen. That distinctive circular power button still sits snugly under your finger or thumb, depending on which hand you clutch it with. And best of all, the glass front and back, separated by a solid one-piece aluminium frame, gives the Xperia Z2 a world-class premium feel. This is one smartphone we love to fondle.

As before, the Sony Xperia Z2 is fully water-resistant (IP58 to be exact), so you can chuck it in your pint to impress your mates, or drop it down the bogs without frying the circuits. Sony bigs up how you can use the phone in the pouring rain, but we’ve found that even a few drops of water on the screen makes the phone go - for want of a better word - completely bat-s**t mental. It’s as if a million tiny fingers are pounding the display at once, opening random apps and performing all manner of mischief.

The Xperia Z2 might go a little nuts in the rain, but you can comfortably use it in the snow thanks to the glove mode. This makes the display sensitive enough to use with gloves, so you can still swipe and prod while rocking your woolly mittens.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

The only part of the design we’re not massive fans of is the new SIM card flap on the left edge. The problem is, the micro USB slot is also hidden beneath that flap, which means that every time you charge your phone, you leave the SIM card exposed. The SIM card is housed in a sliding drawer beneath the flap, and being massively paranoid, we were constantly nervous about the drawer slipping out and losing our card. Thankfully this never happened, but we’re surprised the micro USB slot didn’t simply get its own flap again.

Once again a narrow light positioned above the Sony logo blinks on and off if you’ve got a notification waiting. While it’s just enough of a signal to attract your attention if the phone’s sat on your desk, it’s not so bright or intrusive that it keeps you awake when it flashes overnight. You can quickly turn it off if needed.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

Sony Xperia Z2 screen and media: The sweetest thing

So design-wise not much has changed, but as soon as you turn on the Sony Xperia Z2 and check out that fresh new 5.2-inch IPS display, you’ll be sold. Colours are now gorgeously vibrant, a definite step up from the slightly disappointing Xperia Z1 screen, and more akin to Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays. The difference is most noticeable with reds and oranges, which are a lot richer and really pop from the screen.

Colour gradation is also the best of the recent flagships, with no sudden transition between hues, while Sony’s custom Triluminos technology is hard at work behind the scenes to bring images to life. Contrast levels are as strong as you’d expect and it’s a bright panel too, thwarted only by the strongest of sunlight.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

So what does all that gubbins mean? Basically, your movies will look bloody marvellous, especially thanks to the 1920x1080 Full HD resolution. We’d happily watch full-length movies on tediously long journeys, and indeed we did. You can carry a fair whack around too, thanks to the microSD memory card slot hidden on the right edge.

The Sony Xperia Z2 also has built-in noise cancellation, an essential feature for anyone who endures a daily commute in London. This sadly only works with Sony’s earphones, but thankfully a pair are included in the Xperia’s box. It’s impressively effective, neatly blocking out external buzz when turned on, and because the digital trickery happens on the phone instead of in the headphones themselves, you don’t need to plug batteries into your headset.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

If you want to ditch the headphones, you’ll be more than satisfied with Sony’s built-in speakers. These are positioned at the top and bottom of the phone, and blast out some powerful audio that’s surprisingly hard to accidentally muffle with your palms. In fact, crank up the volume to max and you’ll feel the phone tremble slightly in your hands. But even when the Xperia Z2 is throwing out music and explosions at top volume, the quality remains crisp and clean.

Sony Xperia Z2 performance and battery life: Long and smooth

Packed away inside the Xperia Z2’s gorgeous body is a quad-core 2.3GHz SnapDragon 801 processor (also found in the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8) and a mighty 3GB of RAM.

As you’d expect, Android KitKat with Sony’s custom interface runs beautifully about 99.9% of the time, although we did notice the occasional surprising little stutter when flicking through widgets menus or loading an app. Nothing troublesome, but it was unexpected and pulled us out of the otherwise slick experience.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

These occasional stammers aside, the Xperia Z2 is a powerhouse. Games such as Smash It, Asphalt 8 and GTA run with buttery smooth frame rates, and the touchscreen is perfectly responsive for even blisteringly fast action games. It’s fast in other regards too - we found that webpages loaded faster over the same Wi-Fi network compared with most other premium smartphones.

A mighty 3,200mAh battery is packed away inside the phone, marginally bigger than the Xperia Z1’s 3,000mAh effort. With regular use, this battery still kept us going for a full day and change. We were especially impressed when we went to bed with 53 percent charge remaining, and woke with the exact same 53 percent waiting for us.

If you’re wondering how that compares with the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8, we found the S5 produced a similar performance, but the HTC One M8 is still the winner with almost two days of use on a single charge. However, if you really pound the Xperia Z2 with non-stop movie streaming on top screen brightness, you’ll still get an impressive six and a half hours of life before the screen fades to black.

Sony Xperia Z2 review

And if you do find yourself running low miles from the nearest power socket, you get plenty of power-saving options and features to drag out a bit of extra life. There’s a STAMINA mode as well as a Low-battery mode, rather confusingly, both of which disable certain power-sucking features when they’re not needed. We like how you can keep Wi-Fi off unless a pre-saved network comes into range, and there’s a huge range of options so you only need to sacrifice your least-used tools. The Xperia Z2’s only missing an extreme Samsung-style Ultra Power Saving Mode, which knocks you down to a super-basic black and white desktop.

 

Sony Xperia Z2 camera: Dinosaurs and vines

Sony’s Xperia Z2 may rock a 20.7-megapixel Exmos camera just like the Xperia Z1, but don’t think nothing’s changed. In fact, Sony has added a fair few new features to its flagship camera.

Our favourite mode is still Superior Auto, one of the best auto camera efforts on any smartphone. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking photos of your cat killing wildlife out in the garden, or your best mate vomming in a dingy club, you’ll get quality results almost every single time. Low light shots work well without the flash, and you get an incredible amount of detail packed into everyday shots, with bold colours really popping off the screen. The excellent auto-focus also helps to keep your subject or subjects pin-sharp.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

Delve into the other features and you’ll find an intriguing mixture of tools, some of them useful, some of them bats**t insane. Old favourites such as Creative effect, Social live (live streaming to Facebook), AR effect (add dinos and creepy gnomes to your snaps) and Info-eye (get information - occasionally - on stuff you take photos of) make a return, but we get some good new stuff too.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

This year’s camera gimmick of choice seems to be background focus twiddling, and Sony hasn’t disappointed with its Background Defocus mode. Sadly, like the Samsung Galaxy S5’s focus blurring tool, it’s a little bit shonky. Sometimes it works great, other times not so much. The winner in the defocusing wars is still HTC’s One M8, thanks to its excellent dual-lens setup.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

Background defocus working well (right) and not so well (left)

As for video, the Xperia Z2 holds up well against the competition. The lens can handle sudden transition from near-to-far focus, and after a couple of seconds also adjusts between shooting indoors and out. Our videos were packed with detail, with clear audio, although filming in bright sunlight resulted in washed out images.

It’s good to see a 4k video mode in place, something the Samsung Galaxy S5 also rocked but the HTC One M8 missed out on. We doubt many people own a 4k TV just yet, but it’s worth filming in 4k for now as you can actually zoom in on your videos when playing back on a normal TV, and at least your footage is future-proofed.

Vine lovers’ lives just got easier with a dedicated Vine mode, which limits you to easily-shareable six-second clips. You film a Vine by holding down on the shutter button, releasing at any point to pause and pushing again to resume - a neat mechanic that works really well.

Timeshift Video mode acts exactly like Apple’s iPhone 5s slow motion mode, allowing you to shoot a 120 frames-per-second video and then add slow-motion effects to certain sections afterwards. It’s a simple gimmick but once again works well for action movies - highly recommended for the aforementioned club vomming.

Sony Xperia Z2 phone review

Sony fans will recognise the ‘SteadyShot’ monicker, which returns to the Xperia Z2 as a shake-quashing feature. Turn it on in the video menu and it helps to reduce shakiness in your movies, for example any vomit-inducing juddering caused by shooting and walking at the same time. SteadyShot does this using some clever edge trimming and a bunch of algorithm trickery, and it works well when you’re moving around, providing you hold the phone reasonably steady. Don’t try jogging, though, as not even SteadyShot can fix the resulting shakefest.

Sony Xperia Z2 verdict: One sleek machine

Sony’s Xperia Z2 smartphone isn’t a massive leap over the Xperia Z1, unsurprising given the short length of time between them, but it does iron out the creases. The 5.2-inch screen is only a mite larger, but it’s also beautifully vibrant, while the extra camera features are well worth having. Put it simply, the Sony Xperia Z2 is a bloody gorgeous blend of tech and sexy design that combines to form our favourite smartphone of 2014 so far.