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Goondu review: Sony Xperia XZ1 needs a design refresh

November 20th, 2017 | by Alfred Siew
Goondu review: Sony Xperia XZ1 needs a design refresh
Cellphones
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Sony’s new Xperia XZ1 is considered a flagship, with a price to match. PHOTO: Alfred Siew

If you are looking at Sony’s recently launched Xperia XZ1, you are likely a fan of the Japanese company, or someone who somehow doesn’t like the more attractive bezel-less designs that are all the rage now.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. For a flagship phone, the Xperia XZ1 is hardly the best looking one around. In fact, it sticks out a little awkwardly with its rather outdated design.

With thick edges on top and below the modest 5.2-inch Full HD screen, the phone is almost as large as phablets with larger screens. So, you’re carrying a phone that doesn’t optimise for size as well as rivals such as Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Note 8 or LG V30+.

If you are looking the black version, as the picture above from a launch event in Singapore shows, then the black bezels aren’t as distracting. Get the “warm silver” version, like the review unit Sony sent us, and you will see the thick edges quite clearly.

Sony’s new Xperia XZ1 is competent with its hardware but needs a design refresh. PHOTO: Alfred Siew

Fortunately, the 156g frame isn’t the heaviest around. It is a easy-to-handle phone, to be fair, but it’s clear the Xperia XZ1 won’t be the most eye-catching in a shop window.

That’s a pity because the hardware underneath the four-year-old monobloc design certainly isn’t outdated. It sports the latest you’d expect from other flagships.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip is zippy, and is assisted by 4GB of memory and 64GB of internal memory, expandable with a microSD card up to 256GB.

The Android 8.0 operating system also runs smoothly with Sony’s implementation. For the longest time, I’ve liked the simple, understated interface on Xperia devices and the latest version does its job to get you through apps without any perceivable lag.

The Xperia XZ1 comes with Sony apps that you may or may not like. PHOTO: Alfred Siew

As with other Xperia devices, you get additional Sony apps pre-installed on the Xperia XZ1. Whether you like them is another thing, of course.

Chief among these is a 3D Creator app that lets you scan a 3D image of a person’s head and even create a customised figurine through a 3D print. Sony showed this off during a launch in Singapore in late September.

That’s pretty cool when you try it out the first time. It also shows how far the mobile phone has come in terms of processing and imaging prowess.

However, I doubt you’d be doing a 3D scan so often. You need someone to be sitting still while you go around him or her to capture images from all sides. It’s not something you might do at a cafe, for example.

The back of the phone has a material that smooth to touch, without attracting fingerprints. PHOTO: Alfred Siew

What the Xperia XZ1 does decently is photography. The company is the go-to source for many of today’s camera parts used in smartphones, and its own flagship isn’t that bad.

At least for casual snaps, it does produce decent contrast and detail, when given the right conditions. Sometimes, in a setting with both warm light and bright daylight, the white balance can be challenging.

In some quick tests, it still did well compared to my old Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, which offered up something pretty yellow and unattractive, thus needing edits.

PHOTO: Alfred Siew

PHOTO: Alfred Siew

PHOTO: Alfred Siew

PHOTO: Alfred Siew

Out of curiosity, I tried downloading a Suica app from a friend (installed through an APK file) to see if the Sony phone can let me tap on Japan’s commonly-used stored value card system.

Too bad, it requires another NFC (near-field communication) system that’s different, I found when I got an error from the app. So you still need a “local” Japanese version of the Xperia XZ1 if you’re thinking of tapping your phone at the subway gates in Tokyo.

The monobloc design is still appealing but it needs a refresh. PHOTO: Alfred Siew

One thing that you might miss from the Xperia XZ1 is its use of artificial intelligence. Though Sony doesn’t promote this as hard as Huawei, for example, the Xperia XZ1 also promises to be smooth running over time, as it analyses how you use your apps over time.

You can also customise the phone to suit your day. The Xperia Actions option lets you select, say, a Good Night mode, that automatically keeps notification lights off and optimises the battery for low usage.

Conversely, in Gaming mode, you can set the brightness higher, have the display always-on when you hold the phone and block interruptions.

These are the mundane, less headline-grabbing features that make sense for users. Unfortunately, you have to make use of them every day to find them useful – something that a potential buyer won’t discover when he is simply looking at a lineup of phones at a store.

Chances are, he will have seen the Xperia XZ1’s rather dated design and quickly look past it. That’s not to mention the price of S$898, which places the phone in the flagship category where competition is cut-throat.

You can buy Samsung’s Galaxy S8 on the street at the same price. Though launched earlier this year, it is arguably better looking with a screen taking up almost the entire front of the phone. And the display is sharper and bigger too.

If you only go for the latest, add S$200 to the Xperia XZ1’s price and you can have LG’s new V30+. It comes with a larger, sharper screen and better audio as well.

Much as I have loved the Xperia Z design over the years, it’s hard to recommend the Xperia XZ1 over other more compelling options today. It’s telling that Sony is looking to overhaul its phone designs after this latest batch.

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