Review: Sony’s Xperia Z Smartphone Is Waterproof and (Mostly) Winning

The most serious Sony phone in years is finally available in the U.S.

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Dazzling, high-resolution screens. Cameras capable of crisp stills and video. Zippy processors. Pleasing industrial design. Once upon a time, those were standout features that helped a smartphone rise above the crowd. Today, they’re merely a baseline. Phones have gotten so good that you can pretty much assume that every major smartphone will be an impressive piece of hardware.

That’s fabulous news for consumers, but it presents a challenge for phone makers. Especially phone makers that are underdogs in a market utterly dominated by Apple and Samsung.

Take, for instance, a certain underdog named Sony.

If you haven’t given much thought to its phones lately, you’ve got plenty of company. For years, Sony’s phone business was a joint venture with Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson, a sleepy outpost that didn’t even seem to be trying to keep up with ever-better handsets from other manufacturers. In early 2012, Sony reassumed full control of its phone division; at this year’s CES in January, it unveiled the Xperia Z, a comeback smartphone with Android Jelly Bean, a beautiful design, a 1080p HD screen, a 13.1-megapixel camera, a quad-core Qualcomm processor and one unexpected, incredibly useful feature: it’s waterproof.

It took seven months, but the Z is finally available in the U.S. Sony provided me with a unit for review. It’s not a breakthrough device, or even as noteworthy as it would have been if it had shown up earlier in the year. But in most respects that matter, it’s a darn good smartphone, credible competition for anything else on the market.

Sony isn’t all the way back, though. In this country, the phone is launching only on T-Mobile, the nation’s fourth-largest wireless company. It will be available for pre-order on July 16 and will officially go on sale a day later.

Like all T-Mobile handsets, the Xperia Z follows the carrier’s “uncarrier” pricing policy, which means that you aren’t getting a discount in return for signing a two-year contract. Instead, a Z with 16GB of storage costs $99.99 down and then $24 a month for two years, for a total of $579.99. At that point, you’re off the hook, and if you continue using the Z on T-Mobile, your monthly cost will go down by $24. Or you can choose to pay $579.99 up front without any further commitment of any sort.

If there were an award for Most Beautiful Android Phone Ever Made, the Z would be the only serious rival of HTC’s One. (Samsung’s pleasant-but-pedestrian Galaxy S4 wouldn’t be a contender.) It’s black, sleek and shiny: the backside as well as the front is made of glass, giving the phone a certain resemblance to Apple’s iPhone 4 and 4S. However, the 5″ screen, with 1080-by-1920 resolution, is a Jumbotron compared to any iPhone. It looks good — Sony says that it used Bravia technologies from its HDTV line to make the screen sharp, bright and clear — but as with every phone with a display that expansive, the Z is a bit of a handful.

The Z has a streamlined, unfussy look. It’s sealed up, without a removable battery, and the only button is the power button, conveniently located on the right-hand edge in a location that sits under a thumb or finger in either hand.

At first glance, you might think that it doesn’t have a MicroUSB connector, a headphone jack or slots for MicroSD and SIM cards. Actually, they’re all there, but they sit behind tiny doors, moored to the phone by miniature cables. That’s because of the Z’s water-resistant design.

Sony says that you can submerge the phone in up to one meter of freshwater for up to half an hour without risking damage to its screen and innards. Spilled soft drinks and other liquid-related accidents won’t turn the phone into a doorstop; you can even shoot underwater video of your kids at the pool.

In an at-home test, I dunked the Z in a bucket of water and just left it there, with the screen turned on. The exercise freaked me out — remind me to tell you some time about the time I leaned over a full bathtub with a Sony PDA in my shirt pocket — but when I retrieved the phone and toweled it down, it was just fine.

Now, water resistance is not a unique smartphone feature. Samsung’s new Galaxy S4 Active has it, as do several Kyocera models. But it’s usually built into chunky, niche-y handsets aimed at outdoorsy types. The Xperia Z — along with Sony’s new Xperia Tablet Z — offers it in a gadget that’s svelte, sexy and mainstream. The little doors are pretty easy to flick open and closed — a sharp fingernail helps — and the phone even reminds you to shut them if you forget.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Z’s waterproofing may be a factor in my least favorite thing about the phone, though: When you play music over the speaker or use the speakerphone, the audio emerges from a crevice on the lower right-hand corner of the handset, almost as if you were listening to it through a crack in a door. I found it tinny, and when I held the phone in my right hand — I’m a southpaw — my palm neatly covered the crevice, rendering the whole affair nearly inaudible. (The HTC One’s frontside speakers remain the gold standard in smartphone sound systems.)

When it comes to photography, however, the Z has nothing to apologize for. I like the pictures I’ve shot with its camera as much as any I’ve snapped on a smartphone. One of them is at the top of the story on Dropbox’s conference┬áthat I posted yesterday.

Like Samsung, Sony performed major surgery on Android’s default camera software and features, but the resulting experience is less gimmicky: It feels more like an excellent point-and-shoot camera that happens to be a phone. The modeless interface lets you capture still photos and video — or both at one time — from the same screen. And the Z is the first phone that can use HDR technology for video as well as stills, a boon in challenging lighting.

Sony Xperia Z photo

Harry McCracken / TIME

A photo taken with the Xperia Z’s top-notch camera — click it for a higher-resolution version

Elsewhere around the Z’s software, Sony, like all hardware makers, has performed a fair share of nips and tucks on Google’s standard Android experience. It hasn’t mangled most of what’s good about Android, though, and some of its alterations are welcome. For instance, a clever option called Stamina mode preserves battery life by denying background access to most apps when the phone’s screen is turned off. You can permit individual access to apps, one-by-one, and tell the Z to automatically switch from standard mode to Stamina when the battery dwindles to a level you specify. (I didn’t perform methodical tests of the Z’s battery, but with typical use and Stamina mode turned off, I got through the day on a charge.)

Sony has also pre-installed a bunch of Sony apps and services: There’s a Walkman music player, a Sony app store, Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited streaming services and a news reader called Socialife, among others. As on other Android phones, this leads to redundancy and clutter, since most of the Sony offerings overlap with Google stuff that’s also pre-installed. Still, they’re there if you want them, and you can tuck them (or Google’s counterparts) out of the way if you just don’t care.

Let’s see, anything else you should know about? More than with an iPhone or most Android phones, I encountered unexpected error messages and other quirks with the Z. They were sporadic and hardly catastrophic, but some were…well, odd. At one point, for instance, when I ratcheted the sound up to a hardly-deafening 60 percent of its maximum level, the phone warned me that I might be about to do permanent damage to my ears.

Then there’s the T-Mobile question. The carrier is far behind AT&T and Verizon in building out its 4G LTE network, although it just announced availability in 116 markets, including New York and Los Angeles. For now, most of the country is still dependent on T-Mobile’s older HSPA+ network, which it also calls 4G. Depending on coverage in the area where you live, that might not be a bad thing: When I performed tests in a few spots in the San Francisco area, using the app, the Xperia Z performed downloads over HSPA+ faster than my iPhone 5 did on Verizon’s LTE network.

The Z also supports HD Voice, a T-Mobile-only feature in the U.S. When you call other people, they should sound startlingly clear — as long as they’re also T-Mobile customers who own HD Voice phones, that is.

If you’re a T-Mobile customer or in a position to consider switching, the Xperia Z should be on your smartphone short-list. And even if you’re on AT&T, Sprint or Verizon, its arrival merits your attention. The Z is pleasing enough that I hope it’s an omen of things to come: more nice Sony phones, available on whichever carrier you want.