Hands on: Sony Xperia XZ2 review

A bold, redesigned flagship... but is it too little, too late?

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Our Early Verdict

The Sony Xperia XZ2 has many elements we've wanted to see for years: a bold new design, powerful innards and innovation inside. However, it's still got a bezel-heavy front, despite packing the new 18:9 screen, and some of the design choices are a touch questionable. There's a lot to be impressed by here – but the question is whether it's enough to help rekindle the brand's fortunes.

For

  • Impressive new design
  • Stunning 4K HDR video capture
  • Powerful performance

Against

  • Still bezel-heavy
  • Terrible fingerprint scanner placement
  • Camera not working yet

It's time to talk about another Sony flagship phone – but this time you should actually pay attention, as the Sony Xperia XZ2 is righting some of the wrongs of previous devices.

The new handset comes with a new design language, wireless charging, improved screen technology and a focus on features that will actually have a material effect on the way you use the phone.

Read more: Sony MHC V81D

If you've been nostalgically thinking about getting back into the Sony brand, the early signs are that the new XZ2 could be the handset that finally convinces you to make the leap – as long as a few niggles get ironed out before launch.

Sony Xperia XZ2 price and release date

In terms of a Sony Xperia XZ2 price, it's going to be on the higher end. Sony is looking to price it at AED 2,899 when it goes on sale towards the end of March in the UAE. That puts it in the same price range as the Samsung Galaxy S9 which will retail for AED 2,999. Expect similar pricing and release dates in KSA.

Design and screen

The changes to the design of the Sony Xperia XZ2 are probably the most intriguing thing about this handset. We've spent years chastising Sony for sticking with the same bezel-heavy, tired design, and thankfully that's changed.

The new design language is called 'Ambient Flow', which is just flowery design-speak to highlight the fact that this is a more curved handset, with fewer of the sharp edges that characterized previous devices. What it translates to is a phone that's part iPhone concept from 2015 and part HTC U11.

Sony Xperia XZ2

Encased in Gorilla Glass 5 front and back, the Sony Xperia XZ2 is a shiny, curved handset with far less bezel. It sits more comfortably in the hand, and recalls the outwardly-curved design of the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 from 2009. It definitely feels like Sony has dipped into the archives for this one.

Pretty much identical, mate

Pretty much identical, mate

The way the light plays off the Xperia XZ2 is attractive, with all sides having a pleasant shine when the phone's in your hand. However, the all-glass exterior is a fingerprint magnet – we'd have hoped Sony would have developed a stronger oleophobic coating.

Speaking of fingerprints, Sony has put the now-circular fingerprint scanner on the rear of the phone this time, right in the middle… which is just below where it's placed the camera sensor… which is also a circle.

Can you see the issue here? All we did was smear our finger over the camera, because it’s placed precisely where you'd place your digit on the back of the phone to unlock it. The scanner itself is too far down to be hit organically, and it’s an odd choice from Sony. Sure, you’ll get used to it, but other brands have managed the placement issue far more elegantly.

We're still not sold on phones that are encased in glass (although the XZ2 does have an aluminum frame underneath to give it extra strength), because they have a plastic-like feeling, not the premium feel that comes with a metal chassis.

Sony Xperia XZ2 review

But the main thing that hits you when seeing the Xperia XZ2 for the first time is that it feels like a concept phone from a few years ago. It has an attractive shape that feels futuristic when combined with the 18:9 larger display, with the rounded edges and bulging back sitting nicely in the hand.

Thanks to the longer screen aspect ratio, Sony has managed to create a phone that’s not a lot larger than last year’s Xperia XZ but with a much bigger 5.8-inch screen – the reduction in bezel makes everything just seem visually more appealing.

That said, Sony has always been a bezel-loving brand, and somehow it’s managed to still stick with a fair amount of bezel above and below the screen. It doesn’t look as attractive as the iPhone X or Galaxy S9 – it's not terrible, but it's not the flowing, glossy screen/chassis meld we could have had.

In terms of effect though, Sony’s screen technology is often underrated, losing out in the popularity stakes to the powerful images shown on the Samsung Galaxy range or iPhone X. But Sony's efforts are far from second-rate – in fact, the Xperia XZ Premium had one of the top displays we’d seen on a phone when it came out.

Sony Xperia XZ2 review

That handset from the Japanese brand offered a 4K resolution, which makes it all the more perplexing that Sony has decided the XZ2 should stick with a Full HD offering. The debate over whether 2K / QHD screens are worth the extra power required to drive them rages on, but there is a definite difference in clarity.

Given that Sony is striving to make its flagship phones the very best, it’s an odd choice to not plump for that spec here.

What it does do is upscale from standard-definition content to HDR, which is the new buzzword on mobile phones – we couldn’t test a wide range of content to see if it worked on these phones, as it’ll need some decent side-by-side comparison, but if true it’ll be awesome to have Netflix content upgraded in front of your eyes.

Dynamic Vibration System

Sony Xperia XZ2 review

The new heavier vibration module

Another big feature from Sony is its Dynamic Vibration System, which is a take on the haptic engine Apple has put into its phones. Where recent iPhones have the ability to vibrate in different ways depending on what’s on screen (think tiny ‘knocks’ when you’re firing a machine gun in a game, for instance), other major brands hadn’t followed suit.

Sony has taken this idea to the next level by embedding it within music, games and movies, with the phone vibrating at varying strengths (which can be altered from the volume controls) to suit your preference.

It’s fine for gaming, but when it comes to movies it feels entirely like a gimmick. We get how it’s an enhancement on a PS4 controller to have this ‘Dual-Shock’ functionality, but on a phone while watching a movie it just irks.

However, the more nuanced haptic engine will be useful for notifications, so you can set different patterns depending on your preference. And the stereo speakers remain, pumping out louder and less-distorted sound than ever before – the effect is indeed impressive, and as good as anything we’ve heard.

In terms of the general user interface it’s hard to recommend Sony’s method of doing things, and yet it’s hard to castigate it too.

The visual innovation is lacking, but one could also say that about the offerings from LG, HTC or Samsung. All brands are improving with small tweaks, and Sony has a new ‘Assist’ feature that gives you a chat bot to help with key tasks – this appears to be its early attempts at artificial intelligence in its phones, something all the brands are trying to dabble with these days.

Camera

The Sony Xperia XZ2 camera is, predictably, a strong snapper, in theory at least. Testing the 19MP sensor on the demo handsets we were given wasn’t really possible, as the app kept crashing, or was missing on some devices.

It’s only a single sensor as well, meaning you won’t be able to get some of the fancier bokeh effects you’ll see on other dual-holed phones on the market. In fact, Sony’s making almost no noise about the XZ2's stills capability, instead focusing on the video performance.

And there’s actually a good reason to do that – the fact that this is the first smartphone on the market to shoot in 4K HDR is a pretty big deal, because it could lead to some stunning footage from a phone.

Sony Xperia XZ2 review

We say 'could' because we’ve not tested it ourselves, but the side-by-side footage from the Xperia XZ was so amazingly different.

The colors were so much better represented, the contrast ratio improved – in fact, we had to check that the XZ footage had definitely been shot in 4K, as the sharpness from the XZ2 just looked incredible in comparison.

The Sony Xperia XZ2 is able to do this in real time too, so you can see what the HDR footage looks like through the viewfinder – a massive feature if you’re wondering on which angle to take.

The HDR recording is turned off by default, as you’ll not be able to play back this footage on non-HDR TVs… that’s a real issue if you’re a fan of showing off your images.

Many people only share their footage online or on the phone’s screen itself, but even they would have liked the option.

Last year’s headline feature from Sony was the ability to capture super slow-motion footage – 960 frames per second with a single tap. That’s been upgraded this year from 720p to 1080p resolution, which is an important leap when you’re looking at slow-mo footage which can highlight details such as facial expressions.

Sony Xperia XZ2 review

The Assist chatbot is a little odd, but useful

It’s still not great in low light, which is a shame, and it’s limited to only three seconds of ultra-slow footage (rather than the six last year) in order to save space on the phone… but the effect is still impressive. Not a huge boost, but a step in the right direction.

The front-facing camera has been dropped to 5MP to make space for the larger screen, which may be an issue for those who love to have a high-spec camera with which to get narcissistic.

However, the quality doesn’t seem to have diminished too much, and you can now use this camera to 3D-scan your head, so you’ll be able to see the effect in real time, and use this scanning to upload directly to Facebook too.

Sony has such an opportunity in the camera space, and it’s never got it quite right –an issue that's highlighted by the fact that it’ll be showing off the next generation of its sensor at MWC 2018… a dual-sensor that’s incredibly capable, but not on this flagship phone for some reason.

Battery

We don’t know a lot about the battery power of the Sony Xperia XZ2, because it’s one of those things that needs to be checked out in a proper, in-depth review, which we will of course be doing.

However, what we do know bodes pretty well: there’s a 3180mAh power pack in the XZ2, larger than the Samsung Galaxy S9's and with the same level of processor on board… and with fewer pixels to power.

Sony Xperia XZ2 review

Scanning your face is, well, weird

The Xperia XZ2 also imbued with wireless charging capabilities, a first for a Sony phone. It uses the Qi standard, as seen on the iPhone X.

That combination of the efficient processor, larger power pack and lower screen resolution means you’ll probably easily get a day’s life out of the Sony Xperia XZ2. 

Sony has often talked about its efforts to improve the longevity of the batteries in its phones, with smarter charging capabilities that don’t stress the power pack too hard, and presumably those abilities are still present and correct here.

Early verdict

The most frustrating thing about the Sony Xperia XZ2 is that it didn’t appear last year. If we’d had this handset instead of the XZ Premium, we’d have talked about Sony in the same breath as the Galaxy S8 and iPhone X – that’s how technically impressive this handset is.

It’s got nearly everything we want: an eyecatching design that’s genuinely attractive, a larger screen with user-friendly improvements, technological innovation in 4K HDR recording, wireless charging and a superb processor.

But these things, while making for a phone that we enjoyed using, aren’t headline-grabbing, and that’s what Sony needs. The experience remains rough around the edges, with a lack of polish still sneaking through in the interface. And the price Sony is asking puts it in direct competition with some of the best handsets out there.

We urge you to have a look at the Sony Xperia XZ2, as it’s a brilliant smartphone in many ways – but we'll need to see if Sony has ironed out the kinks when we get this phone in for a full review.

MWC (Mobile World Congress) is the world's largest exhibition for the mobile industry, stuffed full of the newest phones, tablets, wearables and more. TechRadar is reporting live from Barcelona all week to bring you the very latest from the show floor. Head to our dedicated MWC 2018 hub to see all the new releases, along with TechRadar's world-class analysis and buying advice about your next phone.

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.