Sony XZ Premium hands-on – Who needs a TV for 4K HDR video?

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You’ve got to hand it to Sony – there’s no other phone maker out there that can keep up with its constant flow of flagship smartphones.

The Xperia XZ only rocked up in September, but a successor is already hot on its heels.

Only it’s not quite that simple. Think of the XZ Premium as a high-tech half brother, upping the ante on specs (and probably on price, too) but otherwise sticking with Sony’s tried-and-tested phone formula.

That might not sound exhilarating, but underneath the shiny, mirror-like surface, the XZ Premium is as exciting as phones get right now.

SCREEN: OOH, AH, HDR

Back in 2015, Sony was the world’s first company to cram a 4K display into a phone. Two years later, and the XZ Premium is the first to do both 4K and HDR.

That’s quite the achievement, squeezing significantly richer colours, much brighter whites and deeper contrast from Sony’s 5.5in display in a way that really makes videos spring to life. To see this tech in a smartphone is seriously impressive.

Combined with the ridiculously high resolution, there’s simply no other smartphone screen out there that’s as detailed as the XZ Premium’s. Everything looks impeccably sharp, and images have undeniable clarity.

You’ve got to get close to spot all that detail, though, begging the question of whether you actually need a 4K screen in a phone. Maybe not – there’s not a dramatic difference in most cases. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Sony for making it happen.

Plus, the XZ Premium at least has a better chance of actually putting all those pixels to use then the Z5 Premium did, given that both Amazon and Netflix will be bringing 4K support to their mobile apps later in the year. Both are getting on board with HDR as well, so there should be plenty to watch once you get one of these in your hands.

CAMERA: SPEED DEMON

That 4K, HDR screen isn’t the XZ Premium’s only world’s first, either. It’s also packing Sony’s fastest camera sensor yet, a 19MP unit that can record slow motion videos at a staggering 960 frames per second.

Let’s put that number in perspective. Watch a blockbuster at the cinema and it’s probably showing at 24fps. Play a game on your PS4 or Xbox One and it’ll top out at 60fps. Most smartphones can manage 120fps recording now, and a few have managed to hit 240fps, but Sony’s new setup is on a whole other level.

It lets you record video at a staggeringly smooth rate, turning everyday things like rain hitting a puddle into artistic clips that wouldn’t look out of place in a Lars Von Trier rollercoaster of the mundane.

Sony stuck some dedicated, high speed memory directly beneath the sensor to let the phone capture such high frame rates in the blink of an eye. It looks mighty impressive in action, and matches the speeds you’d find in a dedicated DSLR camera.

Not bad at all for something that slides into your pocket.

The rest of the spec ain’t half bad, either. 19 megapixels over a 1/2.3” sensor should be able to capture huge amounts of detail in each shot, and Sony reckons a 19% bump in the size of each pixel will give the XZ Premium an edge in low-light shooting too. Throw in some improvements to noise reduction and motion detection, for even faster focusing when snapping fast-moving subjects, and it should be able to hold its own against the rest of the smartphone world.

We say “should”, because right now the XZ Premium isn’t ready. The software on the sample we tried was buggy, and we were not allowed to use its camera functions. We’ll have to wait until a more in-depth hands on (or a full review) to see how it performs away from Sony’s controlled setups.

PERFORMANCE: HERE BE DRAGONS

With so many pixels to push, you’d better believe the XZ Premium has the hardware to back up that stunning screen.

Sony has managed to bag Qualcomm’s brand new Snapdragon 835 CPU, which pretty much makes it the powerful phone around right now. Rumours suggest Samsung had secured the entire first run of chips for the upcoming Galaxy S8, but somehow Sony managed to get an order in too.

We weren’t given the chance to properly see how quick the chip could be, but it had no problem running 4K HDR video, and Sony’s take on Android felt silky smooth. It doesn’t change things too dramatically from Google’s stock version, but anyone that’s used a Sony phone before will recognise the trademark icon pack.

Sony is promising a reliable, all-day battery life, with the familiar Stamina mode making a reappearance to keep rogue apps from sapping your juice. Just don’t expect to watch HDR video all day without a trip to the mains – the demo units set up at our hands-on session were looping a 4K video, but had hit 25% charge after barely an hour.

It’s still early days, of course, and Sony has plenty of time to optimise the software before launch.

DESIGN: SEEN IT ALL BEFORE

Once you get beyond the headline specs, though, the Xperia XZ Premium feels a little too familiar.

Sure, it’s got a mirror finish, chamfered corners (that double as antennas) and 2.5D glass that curves slightly at the edges, but the overall design hasn’t really changed from the Xperia XZ. That phone looked a lot like Sony’s previous efforts, and the overall look hasn’t changed massively since the original Xperia Z.

That does mean you get Sony’s signature side-mounted power button, which doubles as a very quick fingerprint scanner, and a dedicated shutter button for the camera, but only true phone geeks will notice you’re rocking one if you pull it out in public.

Waterproofing makes a welcome return, which shouldn’t be too surprising. Sony pretty much kicked off the trend for phones that can take a dunking, and it’s all the rage for 2017 – it would be criminal if the XZ Premium didn’t do the same.

You’re also going to need to pack a cleaning cloth, unless you like the look of fingerprints. Seriously, this thing is an absolute magnet for ‘em.

INITIAL VERDICT

Sony has struggled to make a big impact on the phone world recently, with the Xperia XZ failing to truly wow us back in 2016. This Premium upgrade feels like an antidote to that.

Sure, it’s got a design we’ve seen before, but if you want the absolute latest and greatest screen and camera tech, plus undeniably swift performance, there’s little else out there that can compete.

LG might have found a way to get HDR onto the G6, but it’s doing it at 1440p – not 4K, like the XZ Premium. The Google Pixel has a fast camera, but not 960fps fast. And with Samsung still not ready to reveal the Galaxy S8, this should be a performance champ – if Sony can get it on sale early enough.

Hopefully the price is right, too, although we’ve got a feeling that 4K screen won’t come cheap.

We weren’t expecting much from Sony going into Mobile World Congress, but now we’re genuinely excited to get hold of one of these and take 4K, HDR video with us on the move.

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