Thoughts on the Xperia Z2 smartphone

After exactly two years as a smartphone user, I recently traded up from a Fujitsu Arrows Z to an Xperia Z2. I did a lot of research online to discover what people liked and didn’t like about the phone before making the leap. After all… $800 is a lot of money, even if about 2/3 of it eventually comes back in the form of carrier subsidies (more on that in a future post if anyone is interested). This post is meant to return the favor so future prospective buyers can benefit from my short experience with this model.

The first thing to say is that the Z2 design does low-power right. The Arrows Z used to drain the battery literally like there was no tomorrow. If I was out all day, by evening I would inevitably have to connect an external battery just to make it back home. Heaven forbid I get caught out on the other side of town when the next big quake causes public transportation to shut down. With the Z2, I disconnect it from the charger when I wake up, leave it lying on my desk all day (not charging), and I can be out until 2am and still have at least 70~80 percent left of the original charge. And that’s with some of the radios, like WiFi and GPS, left on the whole time (with the Arrows Z I got into the habit of turning off WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, and sometimes even my data connection, lest I offend the god(s) of power consumption).

The other thing I notice is that, under normal use, the Z2 is stone cold. I had gotten used to the Arrows Z being a little warm in my pocket and considerably warmer if I actually used it for more than a few seconds. The Arrows Z was also warm in the morning when I would remove it from the charger. Some days, the it would get so hot while charging that I would find it shut down the next morning. Fortunately, I seldom relied on my smartphone alarm to wake me up… otherwise that would have been a major problem. The Z2 will heat up some if the camera is used for a long-ish period of time (maybe 10 minutes for the still camera and 5~8 minutes when recording a 4K video). It will disable the camera if the internal temperature gets too high. I can see where that might be a problem for photography buffs who don’t usually carry a real camera. For me, it’s just a slight annoyance and only became noticeable when I was testing to see how long a video I could shoot before the phone started getting warm. Compared to the Arrows Z, I’m pleased with the Z2’s power consumption and thermal performance… though there’s still some room for improvement.

The Z2 is considerably larger than the Arrows Z and the latter was considerably larger than my previous phone. There was some getting used to the feel in both cases, getting past the fear that I was about to drop the device at any moment. But… I haven’t dropped it yet (knock on wood) and it didn’t take long to get used to the feel. Both the front and back of the Z2 are made of glass so, while the phone is certainly a work of art, I’m still worried that shoving it in my pocket along with my wallet is going to eventually result in a crack. I don’t think the back is made of Gorilla glass — at least there would be no need to use such a strong (and undoubtedly expensive) material on what is just a decorative back cover. So… even though I don’t care for cases I still have a clear plastic case on the Z2 just to ease my mind for a while.

Software-wise, I’ve read that the Z2 is as close to the original Google Android experience as you can get without buying a Nexus. I tend to agree. Sony has added some of their own bloat-ware, like a Walkman audio/video player and several apps designed to keep you plugged in to the overall Sony media experience. But, unlike Fujitsu, Sony allows some of these apps to be uninstalled and others to be permanently disabled. So far, there’s only one bloat-ware app I can’t seem to get rid of and that one only shows up if you long-tap the home key — something I almost never do. So, basically, I have about as close to the vanilla Android experience as you can get from a vertical-silo device. By the way… bloat-ware was what turned me off to the Galaxy 5 when I tried it out in the store. Samsung makes nice phones but then they obscure the phone’s natural beauty in a flurry of more-or-less useless (at least to me) fluff.

Overall, I’m happy with the CPU performance and the camera (both the resolution and its handling of low-light situations). There are more comparison reviews out there than you can shake a stick at so I won’t go into details but I consider both the phone and camera performance to be a step up from the Arrows Z and comparable to other high-end devices currently on the market.

Now… to address some of my concerns…

I’m sure everyone has heard of the “Sony timer” — the odd phenomenon where Sony products tend to break right after the warranty expires. I’ve had my share of broken products from Sony and I was concerned about buying a phone that I’d have to replace every year. But I know a couple of friends who own Xperia phones and haven’t had any trouble. And I didn’t see many reports of premature death around the Internet (one trick is to search for the name of the product and the word “sucks” if you want to see the negative reviews). I have a fairly decent replacement policy with my carrier so I figured it was worth the risk. Besides, Sony’s former partner in the cellphone business was Ericsson and they seem to make fairly stable products.

Another issue that pops up on the “sucks” sites is that of a mis-match between the glass (usually the front glass) and the frame. That was simple enough to check for when I bought the phone. There are some reports of the frame warping due to heat but, given how cold this phone has been under my normal use (and that includes playing with it on-and-off during spare moments), I can’t see how that could be a problem. It’s possible early builds (or early software) might have had a problem and I don’t doubt those who say they experienced warping and the resulting cracked glass are telling the truth. But I never saw that as a design issue. And my experience over the past month or so indicates that it’s not likely to be a problem given my pattern of use. If I’m wrong, I’ll post an update.

The problems I did experience were mostly minor annoyances. For example, the home screen won’t rotate into landscape mode unless the phone is being charged. In Japan, the Z2 comes with a docking charger that holds it vertically in landscape mode — presumably so you can use it as a desk clock. Someone decided that it would make sense, when so docked, to rotate the home screen. But it never occured to them that someone might just want to hold the phone that way even when it’s not bring charged. Also, the lock screen won’t rotate to landscape mode, whether on the charger or off. Screen rotation is a solved problem these days — this is just a small example of the developers not thinking things all the way through.

Speaking of that docking charger… the concept is sound. I know a lot of people whose micro-USB ports have suffered damage because of inserting and removing the charging cable multiple times every day. The Z2 has a physical charging connector on the edge of the phone that can be used without opening any of the waterproof covers. Kudos for that. But sometimes it takes multiple attempts to drop it in the dock before the connector will engage. Just a minor annoyance. And, to be fair, I’ve never owned a phone with an external charging connector that actually worked 100% of the time without any fiddling. Time will tell whether those exposed pins collect enough grime to eventually stop working. I must say, though… Sony’s attempt is about as good as any I’ve seen. The Arrows Z had a wireless Qi charging mechanism which, while almost perfect, probably exacerbated the thermal problems while the phone was charging.

The small docking charger is also way too light. I realize that people who carry the thing with them on trips are probably glad it’s light… but it makes removing the phone from the dock with one hand very difficult (there’s a magnet in the charging connector that helps the connectors position themselves correctly — but it also makes the dock stick to the phone when you pick it up). I also don’t like the fact that the screen is enabled whenever connecting to or disconnecting from the charger. Sure… one of the first things I do in the morning is look at the notification icons on the top bar but first I need time to get my thumb off the screen after trying to disengage it from its overly-magnetic dock. Another problem with the dock is that the power cord connects to the back side of the dock itself, making it impossible to shove the phone and dock combination against a wall with the phone facing outward. A better solution would have been to recess the USB connector in the bottom and provide slots for the cord to come out the back or either side. From my point-of-view, the dock is a usless add-on that causes more problems than it solves.

One potential problem is that the battery can’t be removed. About 11 months after I bought my Arrows Z, it suddenly stopped charging. DoCoMo swapped the phone for me, as it was under warranty, but I suspect the culprit was the battery. If it had happened again, I would have tried swapping the battery first. With the Z2, I don’t have that choice. Once the battery craps out, that’s pretty much the end of the phone (although I understand Sony will replace the battery in their service centers for a fee). I guess it’s a race between the battery eventually dying (which pretty much all batteries do) and my upgrading to a new phone for some unrelated reason. Fujitsu was able to produce a waterproof phone with a removeable battery — why can’t Sony? But the real question is, are batteries reliable enough these days that it’s moot whether or not you can replace them seperately from the device itself?

One issue I have with the KitKat version of Android that comes pre-installed on the Z2 is that home screen folders are now rendered as a dark box filled with up to four nearly unreadable mini-icons instead of the previous “stacked icon” rendering. I liked the stacked icons and I wish Google had made that an optional choice. From what I can tell, all KitKat-based Android phones render folders the same way so I doubt that’s a Sony issue. I realize they can’t make everything a user option, lest the options page become unusable. But this was a pretty jarring change that, in my opinion, isn’t an obvious improvement.

I also find that the phonebook app from my provider (DoCoMo), which is also connected to their cloud storage service, interacts badly with the Google Contact app. This was a problem with the Arrows Z as well and I don’t think it has anything to do with the phone itself. But what annoys me even more is that both apps will only sort contacts in one language at a time. If I set the phone to English, it will sort the English names alphabetically and the Kanji (Japanese) names are lumped under “other”. Similarly, if the phone is set to Japanese, all the English names appear under a single tab marked “ABC”. I guess none of the software developers have ever tried to maintain contacts in more than one language. And, from what I can tell, none of the 3rd-party apps available on Google Play handle multi-language sorting, either. I’d switch to using Google exclusively except that Google doesn’t have slots for both a Kanji first/last name and their phonetic equivalents so it’s pretty much useless for storing contacts in Japanese. C’mon Google… you’re missing an opportunity here.

Anyway… like I said, the problems I’ve encountered so far have been very minor and the improvements over what I was using before are substantial. I’m satisfied with the purchase. And, while the Z2 still isn’t perfect, it’s so close that unless something goes horribly wrong in the next couple years, I’m inclined to stay with Sony as long as they’re still making phones. And apparently I’m not alone. I have one friend who’s on his third Xperia already and he’s still happy. Let’s hope the other manufacturers can take a hint.

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