Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sony Xperia Z Review

Boy, it's good to be back.

For several months nothing interesting happened in the world of Android - but come 2013, and I can barely keep up.

Today I present my review of Sony Xperia Z, the latest flagship from, you guessed it, Sony. This phone has elicited a polarising opinion from the internet. Unfortunately, while most tech sites I visit have apparently come out of their contracts with Apple, now they seem fixated upon HTC and Samsung. In turn, Xperia Z is receiving very, very unfair coverage from the internet. I am here to set that straight.

See, I've had the Z for a few weeks now, and I know how it is to use every day. You won't find such a review elsewhere on the net. Try it.

So, at the start of 2013, what do you expect from a flagship Android phone? High quality build, stunning design, reasonable battery, card slot, high-falutin' camera, and top notch software, right? Well, Z delivers on every one of those counts.


The phone is gorgeous. Made of gorilla glass (glorified plastic, make no mistake) front and back, it is one square slab which is also very thin. While the Net is busy singing praises of HTC One's curved back, aluminum construction, and fancy strips, it ignores several ergonomic nightmares going on with that device: a power button placed on top, and two capacitive keys below the display mapped to perform FIVE functions meant to be performed there : home, back, multitasking, menu and Google Now.

The Zs power button alone is a masterpiece. Big, round, it nestles squarely in the middle of the right side, it is placed so that when you hold the phone, your index finger ALWAYS strikes it. That means you can use the power switch without moving the phone an iota. Beat that, HTC.

Being waterproof (I know, I tested it), all the phone's orifices are covered with flaps. It's a mild irritant, but it pay off when the phone will have smudges and you will be able to place it under the tap without a care in the world. The phone also seems to be remarkably, remarkably resistant to scratches. Despite dropping it thrice on the floor, I have yet to see a single scratch or mark. Trawling the forums, I learnt that Sony have placed protective plastic sheets over both the front and back. That is in addition to the 'normal' protection.

A 5-inch screen device will always have some inconvenience to it. That is the case here, too - forget about being able to reach all corners of the screen with your thumb. However, the placement of the power button, and the solid (if a little painful) grip provided by the squared off sides mean that chances of the phone slipping away from your grip are minimal. The text, pictures and other stuff on it are gorgeous. The only slight problem is that it's not as bright as others in the competition, and its viewing angles are not ideal. Being a TFT LCD, it's said to be a bigger battery hog than super AMOLEDs and super LCDs used by Samsung and HTC.

That said, this 'problem' fades away while using the phone. You don't really miss the extra brightness of SLCDs or saturated colours of SAMOLEDs. All you are aware of is the pixel-perfect text, accentuated by the thin fonts used by Sony.


For me, this is the area where the Z shines most. While it launched with only Android 4.1, the best thing about it is that it sticks close to stock Android. The soft keys at the bottom are present and correct, and so are Google's swipes, slides and pinches that form the core of stock Android experience. Sony's skin is gorgeous, understated and elegant - at no point in time does it get in the way. The apps you fire up behave the exact same way as stock Android - no big fonts, ugly icons and swathes of black space on top (TouchWiz), or a wide strip at the bottom sporting the lone menu shortcut (Sense). The UI doesn't have to content with a lack of keys (HTC One), or an awkward placement of capacitive keys (both One and S3). It is Android, pure and simple.

Sony's media apps (Albums, Walkman, and Movies) are surprisingly capable. Not only are they better looking than stock Android counterparts, but they are functional in most surprising and pleasant ways. Downloading album art, or information about movies on your device, is a click away. Streaming to or from a network PC or PS3 is also just a click away. No need to install separate apps.

Watching movies on the Z is a revelation - I honestly enjoyed it more than our HDTV. The clarity is unsurpassed - this is where the 1080p resolution shines. The sound through the single speaker is pathetic though - the sound through headphones is again, outstanding.

The Z's camera should be great on paper - what with the Exmor R sensor and the much-touted 13 mp resolution. However, I will caution the readers: think of it as your routine cameraphone. It's nothing more than that. It also takes ages to launch - that's maybe the one biggest complaint I have against the Z. That said, I am very, very confident that both its speed and quality will improve drastically . The gallery app itself ("Album") is amazing in its simplicity and functionality. You can pinch in and out to alter the size of the thumbnails. All the online accounts - FB, Google +, Flickr - everything is seamlessly integrated. You almost forget they're there.

Rest of the apps work equally well. Contacts app behaves largely like stock Android one, with changed color pallete and added features. Most importantly, it supports swipes to switch between tabs.

This is the running philosophy behind Z's UI. Everything is there, provided for, in the most understated, unobtrusive manner. Take a look at these screenshots to know what I mean:


The phone runs on Qualcomm S4 Pro chipset, which, coupled with 2GB of RAM, means that it SHOULD fly. However, there are two problems: that 1080p screen and Sony's skin. Those two combine to ensure that the phone is not as smooth and fluid as Nexus 4. That said, it's no slouch, and I see nothing that cannot be fixed with some software optimization. Specifically, change the Sony launcher and you will instantly feel Nexus-4 levels of perceived performance.

Games play well - some of them stutter, but that is because devs simply haven't optimized them for double the resolution. With 1080p phones becoming increasingly common, it's a shame that hasn't happened.

The only blemish on the performance is of course, the camera app. It can take upto 5 seconds to fire up. That is unforgiveable under any circumstances and Sony should fix that ASAP.

Battery life is meagre. That is to be expected given the 2300 maAh unit and the power-hungry screen. However, Sony have included a Stamina Mode - and I am pleased to say that it works amazingly. Stamina mode allows you to specify which apps can keep operating even when the phone is in deep sleep. In real life, that means at least a doubling of battery life, which means that the phone can last through a whole day (at least). It is really, really commendable that Sony thought to enable this feature, previously only accessible through apps like Greenify for rooted phones.

So. 1080p screen, card slot, speedy chipset, Android 4.1, waterproofing, 13 mp camera, and top notch media software, glass construction. That's the stuff of dreams, and the Xperia Z  delivers. There are shortcomings, but most of them can be mitigated by a software update, which is rumored to be coming during March (to Android 4.2). Being a Sony flagship, fast updates and hackability are a given.

If you are too obsessed with the screen brightness, better wait for the crippled HTC One or inelegant S4 - otherwise, there is absolutely no reason to consider any other phone.

Also, look out for my comparison between HTC One, Galaxy S4, and Xperia Z once the S4 is released.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Nexus 4 Review: Is it the perfect phone?

So, I am back again. The last month or so was spent in a state of flux. I couldn't even bring out a December edition of 'Which Phone to Buy Right Now'. The reason was not that I didn't have the time. The reason was that the mobile market was in such a state of flux that I had a hard time recommending any phone. The month was also spent pursuing the Nexus 4.

Nexus 4, as you all know, is the latest flagship device from Google. The Nexus branding means that it will have the latest version of Android from Google (currently 4.2). Throughout the last year or so the Samsung Galaxy Nexus has won my unconditional acclaim, and it has been the phone I recommend anyone to buy if they can spare Rs30k or so (and it holds that position even now).

During December, the Galaxy Nexus mysteriously disappeared from local market. It has magically reappeared at dramatically higher prices, shooting from Rs30k to around Rs37k. Even at that price it remains the best solution on the market in absence of Nexus 4.

Ah, the Nexus 4. It is as enigmatic and elusive these days as Elvis sightings, or UFOs, or Yeti. See, Google launched Nexus 4 on its own Play Store (available in 5 countries in the world) and every batch has sold out within hours. The launch fiasco has gone down in history as maybe the worst product launch of 2012. Conventional wisdom led one to believe that LG will be throwing the set in the market through their own channels as well.

Guess what: LG's sales channels are not as wide as those of the now monolithic Samsung. Also, LG don't seem to be terribly interested in selling Nexus 4 at its very affordable price of $350k, maybe because their almost identical Optimus G (the Optimus UI and memory card slot being the only material points of difference from Nexus 4) is likely to make more margins. Whatever the scenario, it means that consumers don't have access to Nexus 4 right now.

That also means that if one owns a Nexus 4 right now, they own a rare product. Like I do. (Drumroll).


Nexus 4 in the flesh is a total knockout. Its shape is wonderfully symmetrical, harmonious and elegant, with no lumps or extrusions other than the power and volume keys. The front and back both are huge expanses of Gorilla glass. The front is dominated by the stunning IPS display of HD resolution, and the back by something even more interesting: a 3D pattern that is visible at an angle.

The phone, despite weighing just 140g, feels substantially heavier. Everything about it screams quality. It has been a long time since a phone has fascinated me with its physical attributes. The last phone I recall as being bowled over by was the somewhat controversial Nokia N82.

Hold it in your hand and you will get the sensation of holding a much bigger and more substantial iPhone 4. Android fans have long ridiculed iPhone 4 and 4S for having glass backs - before learning that the flagship droid of 2012 would have one too.

The display of the phone has also attracted much controversy. I will summarize it thus: not as good as that of One X/One X+, better than anything else. Colours are somewhat washed out, but accurate, text is pin sharp and most importantly, whites are brilliant whites.

As for internals, the phone sports the fastest commercially available mobile processor on the market, Snapdragon S4 Pro. Coupled with 2 GB of RAM and vanilla Android, the phone just flies through anything you throw at it.

All in all, Nexus 4 may just be the best Android phone EVER in terms of hardware.


Given my professed unconditional love for pure AOSP Android, it may be a foregone conclusion that I will see this phone as having the best software bar none.

It's a little more complicated than that.

See, Nexus 4 ships with Android 4.2.1. The main points of difference with 4.1.1 are the revised lockscreen, photosphere camera, new camera software and...and...maybe some things under the hood. Out of those three things, I absolutely hate the first two. I can't believe what Google did to Android lockscreen. The 4.1.1 lock screen was an epitome of simplicity and cool. You unlocked the phone, below the clock at the bottom of the screen, you had a glowing circle. Slide it to the top, you get Google Now. Slide it to the left, phone, and for right, you got the camera.

Now, with 4.2.1 lock screen, if you slide the circle anywhere you unlock the screen. Slide to the right, and you see a screenshot of the camera app which transforms into actual camera. For Google Now, there is a SEPARATE, smaller circle at the bottom. And it has widgets. Now, if you are putting widgets on 4 or 5 panes of the lock screen, is it a lock screen anymore? Isn't the lock screen about having one pane so that you can glance at relevant info and proceed into the phone?

The Camera UI, meanwhile, is vastly more complicated. See, you get one circle to focus in the middle of the viewfinder, while there is one circle to the right for click, and one smaller one on the top. On clicking that, you 'activate' the middle ring, which now sports 4-5 settings such as HDR, white balance etc. Suffice it to say that this UI is hard to understand even for experienced Nexus users, let alone someone coming from another phone.

That said, the rest of the UI is simply spectacular. You won't find such a blend of elegance and sheer cool anywhere else. The colours, the fonts, the slide-based navigation convention within system apps - everything is just so refined. You can use this phone for years without the UI even once getting in your way. The navigation is smooth, the phone never misses a beat no matter how many apps you open. Everything glides in and out with a smooth animation.

The pure Android keyboard, while now much close to the commercial solution, cannot beat SwiftKey in terms of predictions and general accuracy. So you'd be well advised to invest in that.

Google Now remains amazing. I can simply say to my phone, 'locate the nearest Italian Restaurant' and it wil give me all the options in my city, along with reviews and ways to get there. It's still mind-boggling, and you never tire of it.

The camera itself is reasonable if not top of the class. The gallery app, as always, is a picture of understated elegance that has every feature imaginable, just not screaming in your face.

The power, flexibility and, if I say so myself, nerd appeal provided by AOSP Android is not paralleled by any of the manufacturer skins such as Samsung's TouchWiz and HTC's Sense. Most of the additional features they provide can now be easily duplicated via apps available on Play Store, albeit without the cumbersome UI of those skins.

Other than that, it's a blank canvas. You are free to build on it and even modify it. It's your playground, and Google won't get in your way. Even if you leave it as-is, you are still getting full-featured OS that caters to your every need, while being faster than anything else.


So. Availability issues, 16 GB limited and slightly irritating lock screen and camera app. Go ahead and blow these foibles into gamebreakers if you like, the truth is, Nexus 4 might be the best Android phone available at the moment. Forget your Galaxy S3's, Notes, or One X's - this is the real deal. Do look out for the exorbitant prices some retailers are charging for this, you might be able to get it in the neighborhood of Rs50k if you are patient. So wait a few weeks and get this without any hesitation