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Snap Happy (Z2)

Following on from my previous post about the Z2, this little write-up is going to look at some of the results you can achieve with a phone these days. A colleague in Test Lab is fortunate to live by the sea and was able to capture some truly stunning and atmospheric shots over the weekend. They were taken in manual mode at full resolution then edited with Snapseed using “HDR scape,” and took four screen taps to achieve:

Full resolution here:

Full resolution here:

Full resolution here:


No bull these were taken with a phone and edited with an app on the same phone. Impressive, no?




Back in the Saddle

A year is a long time in the technology world. This time last year I was the proud user of a brand-new Xperia Z, the very latest phone bequethed to me from Sony. Shortly after receiving this phone Sony changed their digital agency and it seemed Test Lab was forgotten about….Cue several months in the wilderness, nursing my Xperia Z and watching forlonly as the Z1 and the Z1 Compact came and went. All was quiet until just about Easter time, when the wheels of Test Lab slowly started grinding again and abruptly span to life just 10 short days ago with the delivery of the Z2 handset. Huzzah! Back in business!

Using everything they’ve learned from previous iterations of the Z series, the Z2 comes out guns blazing; 5.2″ 1080p screen, 2.3GHz quad-core processing, 20MP camera, 3200mAh battery, IP527 waterproofing and a slew of new software improvements. The Z2 has it all.

It follows a similar design aesthetic to handsets from the previous 18 months and is another glassy slab, this time offset with some silvery side panels. It feels a lot less boxy in the hand compared to the Z with smooth corners and a slick feel to the front and rear. This could generate issues with the handset flying from your hand but provided you’ve got a steely grip (or a non-slip case) it shouldn’t be a problem.

In terms of memory, anyone expecting the 32GB onboard storage offered by the Xperia S will be a bit disappointed as Sony have fallen back to the seemingly industry-standard 16GB. But eschewing industry standards Sony have yet again included microSD support making them still one of the only manufacturers to offer this. And it’s a good job too, as the 4K video recording offered by this handset takes up a tremendous amount of storage even when shooting very short clips.

Speaking of the camera, the Z2 is packing a 20MP that eclipses anything previously offered on a Sony Mobile and takes some glorious photos in practically every mode. Another blog post will show off some stunning photography taken with the phone. In short, it’s an impressive camera package that’s sure to please.

Following up the hardware is an equally impressive software packge – the Z2 launched on Android 4.4.2. Yes, 4.4.3 was released a few short days ago but for Sony to be practically neck and neck with releases of Android is something to behold. Long may it continue.

There’s not really a lot to complain about with this handset; I could grumble about the magnetic charging port and Sony not including an attachment to make the most of this and keep the waterproof integrity of the phone intact, but for £7 you can pick up an attachment on Amazon that does the same thing. And I could grumble about my demo box missing the much-touted noise-cancelling heaphones from Sony but I’ve got an SBH-20 that perfectly suits my musical needs – and lets me hear imminent and impending doom from the outside as well!

It’s an impressive handset on every level and to have been given the opportunity to put it through its paces is certainly a very pleasant turn up for the books. Those looking for a state-of-the-art handset that offers pretty much everything you could want in a phone would be very hard pressed to find something better.

Pocket Rocket

Samsung has the Galaxy Mini, HTC has the One Mini and now Sony have entered into the mini market as well with the Z1 Compact. Eschewing the ‘mini’ moniker the Z1C brings together all the lessons learned from a years’ worth of handsets and shoehorns in the best features of the Z1 from last autumn, which itself learned a few lessons from the Xperia Z, and represents probably the finest handset the company have released to date.

Having finally gotten a hands on with device today it straight away feels a lot sturdier in the hand than the Z1 or the Z before it and packs in a 4.3-inch, 720p screen, a 2300mAh, a 2.2GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM and the same excellent 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor that graced the Z1. As if that wasn’t enough the Z1C also retains dust and waterproofing ratings and….a dedicated camera button. It’s a very, very nice handset that thoroughly earns its premium feel and price.

Software-wise the phone is launching on Android 4.3 though an update to 4.4 is right around the corner, if the rumour mill is to be believed. Continuing on the software theme, for those of you worried about how much space the operating system will take up on the built-in 16GB of storage, Sony continue to be one of the few manufacturers to provide micro-SD expansion. Drop in a 32GB card, back your photos up to cloud-based services and you’ll barely encroach on the onboard storage.

The Xperia Z1 Compact excels where other ‘mini’ phones fail — bringing the same hardware, features and user experience into a smaller handset, only sacrificing 0.7 inches of screen space. The best things come in small packages and with this device, Sony are effortlessly claiming that statement for their own.

Stumping Up

I’ve always to been reticent to pay for apps from the Google Play Store, not because I’m tight, but because there’s always been another app that has the same features and is free. Or there’s a ‘lite’ version of the paid app that might be missing a couple features here and there but by and large performed the same. All that changed a couple months ago when I invested in DeskSMS from Clockword Mod and Helium (formerly known as Carbon). Both apps have been talked about by me on here and the reviews are hyperlinked above.

Three months on from paying for apps, I’ve stumped up a few quid for some more apps; largely because Google implemented a clause in their T&C’s which removed ad blockers from the market place, rendering AdAway on my devices completely useless and suddenly filling my phone with all manner of crappy ads and banners.

Titanium Backup is something I’ve used for over two years in it’s free version, but the Pro version is far more useful than I’d previously thought. AnTuTu CPU Master is also something I’d used for ages in the ‘lite’ version, but the Pro version again is more useful than the freebie, so I invested in that.

Poweramp is something I’d used a couple times in previous years, but had always been put off by the 15-day time limit. Downloading it again to experiment with the balance features after getting a blocked-up ear due to a cold, I found the app to be superlative in almost every way when compared to other music apps.

Play Music is good enough, but a bit simple. The Sony Walkman has a great EQ but can be a bit buggy on the Z. MediaMonkey for Android is still in a beta version and is also buggy at times – though the WiFi sync does work really well.

Poweramp jettisons the bugs from the afore-mentioned apps and, with the exception of WiFi sync, brings all their good points together:
* The library always pulls through artwork from ID tags, or downloads it for you.
* The companion Smart App for the SmartWatch works incredibly well and looks great.
* The EQ facility is way better than anything else I’ve ever used and has a pre-amp so you can boost your sound beyond the standard volume limits and is endlessly adjustable to compensate for any potential distortion issues that may occur.

In short, and for some of the peanuts being charged for some of the above apps, it’s really worth investing in the Pro versions to get value for money.

Z-Day +one month

The Xperia Z plopped onto my doormat roughly a month ago and it’s been an interesting and enjoyable ride since then.

Regular readers will be aware of my criticisms regarding the WiFi issue with the handset, which I won’t dwell on too much here, but experimentations with various custom ROMs have yielded positive results; though not without some protests from some quarters of the social universe.

My first foray into custom ROMs for the Z was with FXP214 from the FreeXperia team. An AOSP rom based on sources from stock 4.2.2 and some Cyanogen bits and pieces, the phone performed very well on this firmware, though it should be noted the WiFi issue wasn’t quite fixed.

I moved back to the stock Sony ROM shortly afterwards, to test out the HDR capabilities of the camera and was pleased with the results, though it should be noted that to take really great photos with the HDR facility the phone does need to be still. Very still. Extremely still.

Looking for an answer to the ongoing WiFi concern but to maintain some of the feature of the Sony ROM I actually do like, I found the KA Xperia Revolution ROM from krabappel over at XDA. I’d used these ROM’s with my Xperia S last year and found them a great firmware to use. Stripped of bloatware and running like a dream, the KA ROM’s are the best of both worlds when comparing Sony stock to AOSP stock. The KA7.1 ROM was released on the 1st of May and it’s been something of a revelation – the WiFi issue had been fixed in a previous release – it’s fast and it’s light, which lends itself to great performance – exactly what I need.

Experiments with ROM’s aside, the last month has been a great experience. The phone itself is getting a lot of admiring glances from friends and colleagues and it’s always hilarious to leave the phone in a workmate’s glass of water, then ring it when they wander back to their desk! I’ve also managed to convince a couple people of the merits of the phone and they’ve since upgraded to the Z or are in the process of upgrading. A great result all around.

A week with the Z

The CES 2013 event certainly raised some eyebrows in the mobile phone world and fuelled the expectations of consumers with Sony’s announcement of the Xperia Z. Having had a patchy first year with their foray into mobiles, Sony came out with guns blazing – the Z is a statement of intent.

Launching on Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean) software. The key feature of the phone is its Ingress Protection Rating, making it dust protected, water-jet protected, and waterproof in up to one meter of water for up to thirty minutes. Not to mention a 5-inch, full HD 1080p screen, a 1.5GHz quad-core processor AND a 13.1MP Exmor RS camera sensor. It’s safe to say the Z crams a lot into its frame and is completely handy come bath time if you want to watch telly but are ham-handed!

I finally managed to get my hands on a Z on April 12th and although my first post about the handset was a scathing grumble about the WiFi issues I and countless other users have been facing, the week with the phone has been more pleasing.

For starters, it’s easy on the eye. For a phone this size you would expect it to be bulky, maybe even bordering on cumbersome. But as Sony have proved countless times before, they are the masters of miniaturising components. The phone fits in the hand well and if you’ve got reasonable size hands you should be able to use it, though you may find your thumbs getting a workout as the screen does cover some  impressive acreage. Think of early man in the film 2001, gazing at the monolith – that’s the sort of impression you get when opening the box!

Firing up the phone and browsing through the Sony-skinned JB ROM was something of a revelation, largely thanks to the processing power of quad-core and (finally!) 2GB of RAM this phone eagerly embraces. Even such simple acts like skipping through the app tray are done with such speed – I thought my dual-core S was fast, but this is something else entirely. It’s quicker than quick.

The extra speed comes in handy when using other features of the phone; the camera is now 13MP and has a HDR mode which generates some quite impressive photos. Something Sony have done well with their handsets (apart from the NXT series) is to include a microSD slot. For me, this is where the Nexus series stumbles slightly; with its semi-reliance on cloud services, one can quickly fill the internal memory of a 16GB Nexus 4 and soon find yourself in a quandary, especially if you’re out and about having fun and taking photos and the memory is full. Fail.

Hurrah for Sony then, as the Z has a microSD slot which supports cards up to 64GB in size. The phone already has 16GB of on-board storage, so throw in a 32GB microSD card like I have and suddenly your concerns about storage, unless you’re planning to shoot hours of 1080 video footage, are largely unfounded!

Battery life with a 5-inch, 1080p screen was always going to be something of a concern, though I’m pleased to report the Z handles itself quite well, even without stamina mode activated. I can get through a full 14 hours away from a charger and the phone remains above 60%. I took the phone off charge the other morning and it was 2 hours before the battery ticked down from fully charged – and that was with WiFi active, Advanced WiFi Lock running and listening to about half an hours worth of music, along with some browsing on Chrome.

Make no mistake the Xperia Z has its flaws, the aforementioned WiFi/Netgear conundrum being one of them, but this will be fixed in a future firmware update. Taking that problem out of the equation – especially if you DON’T own a Netgear router – the Xperia Z has a lot going for it and is a serious statement of intent from Sony. If they can continue to produce handsets of this calibre, they should find themselves creeping back up the market share listings in no time.

Woe is Sony

It seems Sony’s string of bad luck with flagship releases continues. It would appear there’s a massive issue with the WiFi on the Xperia Z. Suffering from drop-outs of signal within mere inches of the router, WiFi turning itself off and presenting users with ‘authentication errors’. Not to mention associated problems like DLNA streaming failures from and to the handset and interferences between Bluetooth and WiFi. Forums on XDA and Sony Mobile are flooded with posts about this issue.

Today I’ve left a lengthy post on the Sony Mobile GB Facebook wall which I think reflects my disappointment with this situation:

I’d like some answers please as to why the latest Sony flagship mobile, the Xperia Z, is plagued with problems? I’ve had my Z for little more than 12 hours and have been experiencing severe problems with WiFi dropping out and failing to see media servers linked to my network.

My router is a Netgear DGN1000 and up until yesterday was serving my Xperia S and a Nexus 7 in all manner of WiFi-related matters, including allowing me to access the Sony Homestream media server your parent company has recommended consumers to use.

I understand the latest firmware release .434 is meant to address these issues but after installing this update and doing a complete wipe/factory reset, the problem still prevails.

I am not going to replace my router just accommodate using your phone, when it’s working perfectly well with all other connected devices in my home, so I’d to know what exactly you as a company are planning to do to rectify this appalling situation – and I’d like an answer with some expediency please.

In order to use the phone without any WiFi drop-outs  I’ve been forced to change from the stock Sony firmware to CM10.1, release FXP214. This is at the cost of the camera on the handset, though it should be noted I’ve not completely shot myself in the foot with this change as 10.1 brings Jelly Bean 4.2.2 and an update to the software, FXP215 will be released just a couple hours after writing this post.

At the time of writing, FXP214 has been active on the phone for a couple hours and I’ve also taken the step of installing Advanced WiFi Lock for two main reasons:

1) It forces handsets to keep WiFi active, even in sleep mode. This was an issue that affected early ICS releases and I used it to great extent on the Sony Tablet S, now sadly abandoned to development hell by its makers.

2) It also keeps an eye on WiFi and if there are any drops in WiFi signal – either the phone loses signal or the router drops out – the app automatically switches WiFi off. Two hours in and I’ve not experienced any problems, though the phone still fails to see network media servers. Almost there, but still some work to be done. You win some, you lose some, though on stock Sony the WiFi dropped out within 2 minutes of a full reset and restore. Two. Minutes.

It’s quite the scandal although if I’m going to be truthfully honest, I’d class it as yet another woeful PR nightmare that’s once again incurring the wrath of consumers paying a Sony premium price for a premium Sony product and getting a less than satisfactory experience. Very, very disappointing, especially when the phone has a tremendous amount of potential.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll be spending some time with the stock Sony firmware so I can review the better features of the handset! Stay tuned!