Hands on: Sony Xperia XZ Premium review

A phablet with a big heart and an out-of-this-world amount of screen tech

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Our Early Verdict

A strong phone from Sony with excellent innovation in the screen. However, it all depends on how much this monster of a phone will cost, and whether the streamed 4K footage actually looks good on here at all.

For

  • Amazing screen tech
  • Snapdragon 835

Against

  • Smaller than expected battery
  • Likely expensive

This new phone from Sony is a surprise – many would have thought that 4K screens on phones were dead, such was the lack of purpose of such tech on the Xperia Z5 Premium, but it’s back… and it’s rather impressive.

Sony has long been a confusing brand in the world of phones, packing some brilliant tech into a package that never seems to add up to the sum of its parts – but with the Xperia XZ Premium it might have finally solved some of those issues.

The Xperia XZ Premium got all the bits needed to create a world-beating phone: the latest Snapdragon 835 chipset, the big 5.5-inch 4K display with HDR, Android 7.1.1 and top-end water resistance.

That’s combined with all the best tech from Sony’s camera, TV and audio departments – meaning you’ve got a camera that promises to be genuinely usable, and a high-res screen that actually has content that makes use of it.

The audio performance isn’t something Sony made a massive point about showing off at the press launch, but it’s still got a great suite of sonic enhancers on board, so you’ll be getting good performance over wired or wireless headphones.

But we’ve been burned before by Sony – getting our hopes up for phones that, it turns out, don’t quite match up to the best on the market – so does the XZ Premium offer any reason to think things might be different this time?

Sony Xperia XZ Premium release date and price 

We’ve not been given either of the above pieces of information as yet, other than being told to expect the phone in ‘late spring’. In terms of price, don’t be surprised if it heads well over the £600 / $600 / AU$800 level.

Design

The Sony Xperia XZ Premium tiptoes into phablet territory, but by modern smartphone standards it’s relatively compact, and easy to hold in one hand.

The fingerprint scanner remains built into the power key on the right-hand side of the device (unless you’re in the US, where it’s still inexplicably missing) and you finger falls right on the spot to open the phone.

However, when it comes to design you’re going to notice one thing with the XZ Premium: it’s very glossy. The mirrored finish is most noticeable in the chrome variant, although you’ll still be able to check out your reflection in the black/dark blue version too.

As such, this is one of the smudgiest, most fingerprint-sucking phones we’ve ever used – but that’s to be expected given the mirrored finish, and the handset polishes up easily enough.

As is the way of phones in 2017, the connector on the bottom of the phone is USB Type-C, and thankfully there’s a headphone jack on the top. Thanks to Apple, Sony felt the need to highlight this fact in its presentation, such is the ripple effect the iPhone 7 has had on smartphone design.

As mentioned, the XZ Premium sits fairly comfortably in the hand – there’s a fair degree of palm-stretching, but the curved glass and ‘flattened tube’ design are pleasant to hold, and minimize the effort.

Screen 

One of the main reasons most will pick up this phone is the fact it’s got a 4K screen, complete with HDR, making it one of the most advanced on any smartphone.

Sony has partnered with Amazon (in the same way LG has for the G6) to allow the XZ Premium to show off HDR content – although Sony is one-upping its Korean counterpart, with its phone able to stream in 4K as well.

The sharpness, color and clarity of the XZ Premium was excellent in the demo we saw, but it should be very much noted that previous Sony phones have impressed in demo mode but not quite carried that performance through to day-to-day video watching.

However, with the strides being made on streamed content at the moment, as Netflix and friends compete to fill our massive TVs with pin-sharp content, there are a few reasons to believe that Sony can replicate the feat on a mobile phone.

Camera and Slo-mo 

Sony has also confused us in the past when it comes to the cameras it’s bolted onto the back of its phones. They’ve been technically among the best, but have paled in comparison to efforts from Samsung and Apple in real-world tests.

The XZ Premium actually scales back the megapixel count, which is a good start; we don’t need 23MP in our phone, and even the 19MP on offer here feels like overkill.

However, Sony has heritage in this area thanks to its camera division, and with the weight of its camera division behind the XZ Premium, combined with a larger sensor to allow more light in, this should be a big step forward.

One of the big changes Sony has made is to the Motion Eye sensor, which has been improved to process images five times faster. This is designed to capture pictures just before you shoot, predicting the best snap for you.

It works pretty well in testing – we couldn’t shoot a snowboarder, as Sony showed off in its demos – but we did get some clear shots out of the four the mode captures; not perfect, but enough to get a much better snap than in the ‘standard’ way.

What really matters though is whether Sony has sorted the basic ‘point and shoot’ element of the camera. 

All these features it showed off are great, and Sony should be proud of the innovation, but if you can't get great results when whipping out your phone and taking a photo of a friend in a bar, then it’s all for nothing – let’s see what we get when we have longer to test the camera in our full review.

The slow-motion camera is excellent though, and it's something we can see people pulling out from time to time.

Being able to shoot at 960 frames per second is pretty much unheard of on a smartphone, and is still a relatively neat trick in the world of point and shoot, and the video we were able to capture looked better than we’ve seen from any smartphone.

There are some caveats though: it’s only 720p, rather noisy if you’re in any kind of low light (we were in studio-lit conditions and it was still grainy), and the camera is fairly zoomed in, so you’ll only really be able to capture long shots.

But in terms of slow-motion capture on a phone, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium is up there with the best. It’s not, however, one of the most sought-after features – rather it's a nice addition, so here’s hoping the general performance of the camera is good enough to let the rest of the features shine.

Battery life 

While it’s obviously not possible to test battery life on a phone when only handling it for half an hour, there are question marks here. 

That 4K HDR screen will likely be drawing a lot of power from the battery, and at 3230mAh it’s a lot smaller than expected behind that large screen.

Sony has clearly made the decision to keep the phone slimmer, which makes it easier to hold for something in phablet-esque territory.

We’re also not sure whether the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset is going to be kinder or more demanding on the battery pack – the hope is for the former, but some of the higher-power functions on the Xperia XZ Premium may require a bit more grunt.

Early verdict 

Every time we pick up a new Sony phone it practically oozes potential. This is a brand that’s got so many great departments working on the individual components that make up a phone, and yet can’t seem to put something together which can dethrone the iPhone or Galaxy handsets.

That’s obviously partly down to not being able to match the marketing spend of those two brands, but also because Sony has typically leant too hard on technological advancement (which is obviously key in its home territory), rather than on making a complete phone.

However, the Xperia XZ Premium does seem to be a competent phone underneath the glitzy headline features. A strong processor, great screen and helpful camera are must-haves for consumers, and they seem to be present and correct here.

Will Sony be able to sell this phone at a competitive price to take on the Galaxy S8 though? Will the camera actually be usable, and not require, for example, too many taps to use the Motion Eye capabilities in day to day use? Will the battery be good enough?


If enough of these questions are answered positively, Sony could be in a good place – but it remains to be seen.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Global Phones, Tablets and Wearables Editor

Gareth (Twitter, Google+) has been in charge of phones, tablets and wearables at TechRadar for the best part of a decade. He can instantly recommend the best phone for you, or can be found running around the nearest park with the latest fitness tech strapped to his wrist, head or any other applicable body part.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.