Sony isn’t short of fantastic smartphones right now, with the Xperia Z2 appearing just six months after its predecessor, the Z1, and only a few months after the excellent Xperia Z1 Compact.
It comes with a bigger screen size, upgraded specs and plenty of techy tricks, so we’re not complaining.
But now that Samsung has matched Sony’s trick of making good-looking smartphones waterproof, Sony has had to dig deep to craft its best smartphone yet – and it’s all there: screen technology, camera smarts and digital noise cancelling.
In many ways, this is a rebooted Xperia Z1 – so if you’re an owner of Sony’s last flagship, you may want to give the upgrade a miss.
But for anyone deciding between this years’ big smartphone launches thus far, the Z2 should definitely be a consideration.
The Xperia Z2 has a striking build – similar to the Z1, but unlike any other smartphone on the market.
This is a large, quite heavy 5.2in device, weighing 163g and coming with an all-glass back and blocky shape; it’s a phone you will feel in your pocket unlike, say, an iPhone 5s.
It’s clearly a premium handset, putting the similarly-priced Galaxy S5’s faux-metal sides to shame.
Rounded corners and smooth aluminium edges are finished beautifully with that familiar prominent power button placed halfway up the right hand side.
The only interruptions are the neat flaps covering the microSIM slot and other ports around the phone: there to keep it waterproof in up to one-metre of water.
The headphone jack – as on the Samsung – is sealed internally, so needs no protection.
The Z2 is sturdily built, but thin too at 8.2mm. It can also be an uncompromising design, with no friendly curves; even picking it up from a table can be tricky, despite the slightly raised edges giving your hands something to grip, as does the exposed dock connector on the left hand edge
One further niggle of the Z2: the volume rocker is both shallow and not quite long enough for stubby fingers to hit the correct half, which can get annoying.
Sony might be pushing its 4K TVs, but like the rest of the smartphone manufacturers in 2014, it’s sticking to Full HD for the moment.
What has increased is the size of the Xperia’s screen – from 5in on the Xperia Z1 to 5.2in on the Xperia Z2.
It’s impressive considering it’s a similarly-sized handset that is slimmer than its predecessor, despite a bigger battery to power the larger screen.
Sony has also introduced its Live Color LCD tech to the Xperia Z2 – it uses blue backlight LEDs instead of white.
The X-Reality engine returns too to boost contrast and saturation levels, but as before we’d leave this switched off, otherwise photos and videos look unnaturally vibrant on the phone.
When playing with apps and scrolling through webpages, everything looks very crisp, with good contrast.
Those appalling viewing angles on the Z1 have improved too – they’re still not the best, but now it’s no longer an issue.
The colours might not be as eye-popping as the Galaxy S5, but even on the Sony’s homescreens, fonts look lusciously rich and it’s an eye-catching display.
The Z2 is fairly easy to read outside too, but we wish Sony would crank brightness up a notch – rivals like the S5 are much better when reading emails and composing messages outside on sunny days.
The Z2’s all black, all glass front catches all types of reflections too, which can make using the screen outdoors a chore.
Loading up Full HD movies and TV shows is where the Sony really shines, as ever. This is one of the most refined and accurate smartphone screens you can find.
Like the Xperia Z1, it excels at fine detail; producing lush, detailed textures where rivals fall just short. Watch Planet Earth and you can see every last strand of fur on sleeping leopards.
In The Amazing Spiderman, colours are punchy without being overdone – as long as X-Reality is switched off, and motion is handled beautifully.
The S5’s Super AMOLED tech is capable of producing deeper blacks and cleaner whites than the Z2 – but that’s not to say the Z2 isn’t good here too.
It’s only from side-by-side comparisons that the Samsung and the HTC One M8 have the slight edge over the Sony in this respect.
If you’re impressed by the Sony’s picture, just wait until you hear its sound. Alongside the iPhone, this excels as an on-the-go music playback device.
As with past Xperia smartphones, the Z2 makes Android rivals sound pedestrian with its punchy, engaging sound. Strong dynamics, solid bass, plenty of detail – the Z2 has it all.
Listening to Bastille’s The Rip Tide through our B&W P7 reference headphones, timing is precise, vocals are clear and instruments have room to breathe.
The listening experience is as immersive as you can get on a smartphone.
Call quality is also good on the Z2, with the Sony speakers sounding clear.
The stereo ‘S Surround’ speakers have been repositioned on the front of the Z2 to compete with HTC’s best-in-class BoomSound speakers on the One M8.
The Sony’s smaller speakers are relatively powerful but can’t compete with the loud, direct and warm HTC sound just yet though.
There’s some nifty audio tech to try out too. Sony offers digital noise cancelling on the Z2, which works with Sony’s own MDR-NC31EM headset that uses tiny microphones to measure and cancel out exterior chatter.
These noise-cancelling headphones will cost £50, though some retailers may bundle them with the phone. We weren't so lucky with our review sample.
The Z2 also offers USB support for portable DACs if you want to splash out on a smartphone sound-boosting accessory.
Sony’s 20.7-megapixel camera returns with a slightly bigger sensor, new features like background defocus and the ability to shoot 4K video. Finally, something to watch on that 4K TV.
It’s a very capable main camera on the Z2, but its Superior Auto mode leaves something to be desired.
This isn’t a quick-fire snapper that takes great pictures every time, compared with the iPhone.
You’re limited to 8MP on auto for a start, and though it’s quick to recognise a scene is low-lit, it sometimes has trouble getting the correct exposure and white balance too.
Things are much better in manual mode – the Sony captures natural colours, lots of detail and is particularly good at shooting faces in dim light, so it’s a good choice for indoor snaps.
There are plenty of controls to play around with too for photographers who want to treat their smartphone more like a DSLR.
4K video is smooth and detailed, plus it looks great on the smartphone itself – autofocus does jump around a little, but hopefully Sony software can improve this.
You will be limited to a couple of minutes shooting, as the Z2 heats up a fair bit when shooting footage at this resolution and quits when it has reached its limit.
We’d mainly stick to 1080p, which will take up less space.
OS, music, video
Sony’s sparse Android skin returns; this time, over the latest version of the OS, KitKat.
It offers its own music player, Walkman, Gallery, Album and also its Movies app, which stores your own files, as well as providing quick access to its own excellent Movies Unlimited store.
Its Spotify-rival Music Unlimited is also here and can be found in the Walkman app if you subscribe, but Sony’s attempts to get you to sign up can grate a little.
So does its What’s New curation of content and apps, which is a homescreen widget as default and also an option when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen.
Usually on Android this brings you to Google Now notifications, weather and location-based information – but Sony’s added its own app to this gesture.
Still, with 16GB of storage, none of Sony’s additions take up too much space on the Z2 and they are easily deleted or moved.
A few additions borrowed from rivals enhance the OS experience: you can now tap to wake the Z2’s enormous 5.2in screen, as on the LG G2, rather than using the power button.
Smart Backlight will also keep the screen on when you’re looking at it – a trick borrowed from Samsung Galaxy smartphones.
There’s far fewer of the gimmicks and tricks than seen on Samsung and HTC phones here though.
The one main addition is small apps, which can run as windows on top of what you’re doing: calculator, calendar, browser and so on. It’s a relaxed approach to Android and one we’re fans of.
Notifications, app drawers, email and contacts all have a clean and clear design that will appeal to fans of stock Android.
Power and battery life
The Z2 does, of course, have plenty of power with a quad-core Qualcomm processor and 3GB of RAM inside.
Everything from multi-tasking to playing back 4K video is handled well, only the occasional use of multiple small apps on top of browsers runs a little slowly.
But it’s mostly smooth sailing.
One area for concern: the Z2 can run hotter than most flagships powered by the Snapdragon 801 processor; you will feel the heat through the back of the smartphone when filming 4K video or playing intensive Android games.
Battery life is equally impressive. The Z2 will last a day’s heavy use thanks to its beefed up 3200mAh battery.
The screen does drain a lot of the battery and you will no doubt have brightness set fairly high throughout the day. So we recommend switching on the Z2’s Stamina mode when you can.
This kills data when the screen is off, with some apps immune if checked in the settings, and is a lifesaver if you’re below 20 per cent and need to make it last.
The Z2 is one of the best Android phones money can buy. Is it the best Android? Possibly.
With that bigger screen, improved performance, enhanced camera, excellent stereo sound and noise-cancelling, it's outstanding.
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