Hands on: Sony Xperia XZs review

Not a flagship, but not mid-range - this is a confusing phone to place.

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

The smaller of Sony's new flagship phones does lack on specs in some respects, but that's not necessarily a bad thing... it all depends on whether it comes with a correspondingly low price.

For

  • Strong camera

Against

  • Last year's chipset

Update: While the Sony Xperia XZs looks to be a minor update over last year's Sony Xperia XZ, one key area where it has received an overhaul is the camera.

Equipped with the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, Gareth Beavis tried out the excellent 960 frames per second slo-mo feature. Most high-end phones cap out at 120 or 240 frames per second, but you'll find this capability in both the XZ Premium and XZs. The results are stunning. Check them out below.

The Xperia XZs will be available soon in the US, so stay tuned for a full review in the coming weeks.

Original review follows below.

The Sony Xperia XZs is the smaller half of the new XZ duo from Sony. It's slightly lower in spec and much more compact – it's essentially the Sony Xperia X sequel from last year with a different name.

(It's best not to question the workings of Sony when it comes to the naming of the phones – it's a bit confusing at the moment).

In terms of the difference between the XZs and XZ Premium, it's mostly the screen, chipset, design and battery size. 

That sounds like a lot, but in side-by-side testing the user interface and functionality is pretty similar – so for a lot of this hands-on review we'll be referring to the more in-depth hands on: Sony Xperia XZ Premium review we've done to give you a flavor of what to expect.

Sony Xperia XZs release date and price

We've not been given a direct price for this phone from Sony as yet, apart from 'late spring' for the XZ Premium. There's a chance that we could see the XZs a little earlier given it's not using a current chipset, (the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 rather than the new Snapdragon 835) but we're not certain as yet.

In terms of price, we'd expect the Xperia XZs to be about the same cost as 2016's flagships on the shop shelves, competing with the older technology at about 25% less than the full price last year. Again, we've not been given guidance from retailers as yet, so we'll update as and when we get that.

Design

The Xperia XZs is the compact phone many will be wanting – except, it's not really that small. The Full HD 5.2-inch screen isn't exactly the same size as an iPhone 4S, which is the palm-friendly design many still hanker after.

It's very much the standard size of smartphone at the moment, and the design is pleasant, with the curved glass at the sides rolling nicely into the chassis. It's easy to hold in the hand and interact with a single thumb for most tasks.

Placed side by side with the 4K display of the XZ Premium, you can't see that much of a difference in terms of screen quality. There's a definite drop in sharpness when compared directly, and the color reproduction isn't as stunning, but Sony has still tuned this screen rather nicely.

Where the XZ Premium has a mirrored finish, the Xperia XZs is a frosted design, looking far more matte and not absorbing fingerprints like a fiendish identity thief. The headphone jack on the top and USB-C on the bottom tick the right buttons – this is basically another evolved Sony phone.

If you've had such a handset from the brand before, you'll be in familiar territory here. The power button on the right-hand side houses the fingerprint scanner (although not in the US, for some reason) and the squarer frame is very much Sony.

The rolling sides are nicer than before, giving a more refined look – but it's nothing ground-breaking for Sony.

Camera and Slo-Mo 

Here's one of the confusing things about the Sony Xperia XZ Premium and XZs: they've both got the same 19MP sensor, with a f/2.0 aperture and the ability to capture photos before you press the shutter.

They can also both record in super-slow-motion, bringing in 960 frames per second to offer really slick slo-mo footage. 

As with the Xperia XZ Premium (read that piece to get a fuller look at the camera), the quality is a little lower at the slower speeds, but we need to really test it in brighter outdoor conditions to work out if it’s really a great selling point.

The camera upgrades, which include the Motion Eye sensor to take photos whenever movement is detected and a bunch of pictorial options to choose from at the end, are decent, but need to be complemented by a strong day-to-day snapper.

Once again we’ve got all of Sony’s camera smarts in this sensor, which is larger, can let in more light and should be better in darker situations – so here’s hoping the Japanese brand has focused on the basics well.

There are other Sony hallmarks rippling through the XZs too – while it’s no longer headline news, the audio performance with good-quality upscaling sounds great, and while the rest of the competition from HTC, Apple and Samsung is good too, Sony has used its in-house capabilities well here.

Battery life

Sony’s phones can go one of two ways at times: they’ve either got excellent battery life or it's oddly poor.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the flagship devices crave more usage which sucks out the power, but some of the our previous tests have found the two-day battery claim to be almost fictional.

But then on other phones we’ll easily fly past the evening without a thought for the charger – and the XZs could be in that latter camp.

A Full HD display can be easily handled by Qualcomm’s 2016 chip (although it’s confusing that the 820 is used, rather than the more modern 821… you’d have thought the speed and efficiency boosts used would have been appealing), so battery life could be extended.

We didn’t notice any slowdown in use with the XZs, with the 4GB of RAM more than adequate to handle most tasks. 

So here’s hoping that battery life – both daily and over the lifetime, which Sony believes can be improved through its onboard intelligence – will be strong enough to bring another key player to the mid-to-upper-range of the smartphone market.

Early verdict

The Sony Xperia XZs doesn’t make a lot of sense initially, and will live and die by its price. It’s not the compact phone many would like to see, but at the same time it skimps on some specs that many could live without for a lower price.

The key questions – as ever – are around the battery life and the camera’s day to day performance, but this is an attractive phone that brings enough spec to the table to make it a contender for your daily phone.

If it’s cheap enough, this could be a stable performer for Sony – but that price needs to be competitive in a massively congested space that phones from HTC, OnePlus and Motorola are adequately filling at the moment.

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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.