What defines a premium product? To my mind, it’s the added benefit or advantage of something that you wouldn’t be able to obtain at a lower price. An example might be the $4,000 Focal Utopia headphones with beryllium drivers, whose sound is hard to rival and unobtainable without that extremely rigid material. Or perhaps it’s Coach’s leather briefcases, which justify their price by aging gracefully and gorgeously. Or it could be the expert craftsmanship of Canon’s universally acclaimed L lenses. In all cases, premium means you pay more to get more.
Except with the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, you don’t. This phone costs a thoroughly premium $799.99, but offers no premium advantage that I’ve been able to discern in weeks of using it. It’s fine, a lot of it is fine, but none of it justifies the XZ Premium’s price or name.
The best way to consider this flagship Sony phone is by addressing the particular components and features of smartphone design that are presently considered premium. I’ll take each of them in turn.
- Display. The hot new thing in 2017 is the ruthless excision of bezels from around the screen. The LG G6, Samsung Galaxy S8, Essential Phone, and even a few upstart Chinese companies all now offer phones with a futuristic look that eliminates almost all the bezel. Before the year’s through, we’re going to have the Galaxy Note 8, LG V30, and very likely the Google Pixel XL 2 to add to that category. Oh, and the next iPhone. In this competitive environment, Sony’s vast bezels above and below the screen, which total up to nearly an inch, feel instantly retrograde. Sony will tell you that the XZ Premium has a 5.5-inch 4K display with HDR support, but I’ll tell you that that doesn’t make a tangible difference to everyday use — all smartphone screens are lovely to look at these days, it’s the bezels that are the differentiator now.
- Camera. Sony has a whole new camera system this year, dubbed Motion Eye, which is supposed to do fancy stuff like predictive capture (buffering images while the camera app’s open and then reacting to your tap by selecting one of those buffered pics) and super slow-mo (960fps for less than a second), but both of them are gimmicks. The camera’s focus is unreliable, and Sony’s penchant for hyper-processing images continues, with its noise reduction actively obliterating detail in shots. What’s the point of 19-megapixel shots if they’re blurry? The slow-motion trick is cute, but its novelty quickly wears off. The true premium cameras of today can be found in the Google Pixel and HTC U11, two pricey phones that I have no hesitation recommending on the strength of their imaging performance alone.
- Ergonomics. The story with the Samsung Galaxy S8’s design this year, apocryphal or not, is that Samsung Mobile chief DJ Koh would take prototypes of the phone and roll them around in his hand feeling for any hard edges or perturbations and have the design team smooth them out. The S8 wouldn’t come out of Samsung’s labs until it was a perfectly refined, ergonomic slab of technology. Compare that to the Xperia XZ Premium, which was surely the object of much care and attention too, but was obviously designed to sit on a pedestal rather than in a person’s hands. The rectangular shape, the height extended by those big bezels, the slipperiness of the glass on both front and back: nothing about the XZ Premium’s design feels especially friendly to humans.
- Battery life. Yes, the Xperia XZ Premium has the best chip of the year so far in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835, and yes, it has a Sony’s various Stamina modes, but no, it doesn’t stand out with its battery life. This is actually one of the aspects in which I find this phone does well, getting a solid day’s use out of its 3,230mAh battery, but it’s still not exceptional. If you put a premium on battery life, Motorola’s original Z Play and the 2017 Z2 Play are the two top picks to look at.
- Audio. Anyone not convinced that a smartphone could distinguish itself through its audio capabilities really needs to give LG’s V20 and quad-DAC G6 a listen. While the majority of people will eventually fall in line with the trend toward smartphones without headphone jacks, there are still many of us who enjoy using our phones as portable music players. For a true hi-fi experience, you go to LG first and last. Sony can’t compete with the G6’s excellence on wired audio, and though it touts a stereo speaker system on the Xperia ZX Premium, its sound is a little too quiet to be a point of differentiation.
- Performance. Who else has a Snapdragon 835 today? Samsung with the Galaxy S8, OnePlus with the 5, Essential with its Phone, Motorola with the Z2 Force, HTC with the U11, Xiaomi with the Mi 6… you get the idea. Sony’s specs might have been truly premium at the time of the Xperia XZ Premium’s announcement in February, but by this point in the summer, it’s practically standard across Android flagship phones. The 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage are also tantamount to table stakes at the high end. But wait, you might say, performance also depends on how well optimized the software is. For that, Sony deserves credit, as Android runs smooth and true on the XZ Premium — but not any more so than on the less-expensive HTC U11. Obviously, Sony couldn’t have given us more on the performance front, but it might have been cool to get a nice chunk of premium storage as with the 256GB Porsche Design Mate 9.
With its fancy mirror finish, eyebrow-raising price, and proud Sony pedigree, the Xperia XZ Premium flatters to deceive. On paper, it’s a behemoth, but in practice, it’s too much like the rest of the mainstream Android flagship pack. That’s been Sony’s problem almost since the very inception of the Xperia line, and the XZ Premium does nothing to rectify it.
Photography by Vlad Savov