As the race continues to pack in bigger and more exciting tech in every new smartphone, Sony has entered 2013 with a flagship it hopes will get Sony to number three in the world.

Sony has the name, but has seemingly lost its way in recent years owing to problems with its TV business and disappointment over the Vita and PlayStation Mobile being slow to gain traction.

But, despite this glitch, Sony has a huge repertoire of brands within its empire to call upon, and Sony's new Xperia Z makes use of many of them.

The Xperia Z comes with a 5-inch full-HD screen with Sony's Mobile BRAVIA Engine to improve contrast and saturation, a Walkman-branded player, Music and Video Unlimited apps, and the latest Exmor RS image sensor with 13-megapixels. It's also Sony PlayStation Mobile compliant.

A powerful quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, support for LTE (4G), a large battery, and Android Jelly Bean OS complete the package nicely.

The phone also comes with NFC to easily connect to speakers and headphones, plus a range of ways to connect to a TV, from the MHL wired connector to wireless transmission to the latest generation Bravia TVs going on sale in May.

It's also the first high-end phone outside of Japan to be water and dust resistant, making it perfect if you're the outdoor type or just rather clumsy around water.

In other words, the Xperia Z ticks all the boxes - but at the same time Sony has competition from the HTC One and the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S4, not to mention whatever Apple has for us this summer.

Design and build

Despite having to fit in a 5-inch display, the Xperia Z is remarkably thin at just 7.9mm, and at 145g, it's pretty lightweight too. It's very comfortable and easy to slip into a pocket without weighing you down, although it can be a little tricky to reach the top-left hand corner with your thumb (or top-right for left handers).


All nicely covered; the memory card slot and the USB/MHL port - next to the pogo pins that allow easy charging in the optional dock

The whole front and rear is covered in toughened Gorilla Glass and the phone can be submerged in a metre of water for half an hour.

This does mean all of the ports must be covered, which makes the sides of the phone very smooth, except for the subtle volume rocker and a new trademark silver power button that will make an appearance on all of its 2013 smartphones and tablets.


The edges are pretty plain, bar that rather obvious power button - a new 'signature' feature on Sony devices in 2013

The power button is about the only standout feature of the phone design, which is rather understated - just like many previous Sony designs. Despite that, the glossy rear does add to the feeling of it being a premium device.


The back of the phone is a fingerprint magnet, but that was probably to be expected. However, it's one of the few phones you can just run under the tap to clean!

Key features

With its quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, running at 1.5GHz and accompanied by the latest Adreno 320 GPU, the benchmarks for the Xperia Z are rather impressive - it achieves a score on AnTuTu of 20,253.

This phone is seriously fast, and it comes with a 2,330mAH battery and a memory card slot to allow you to expand beyone the 16GB of internal storage space. 64GB memory cards work just fine, and 128GB cards are on their way.

The phone also has two pins on the side to let you charge the phone in a dock without opening the cover to the USB port. There's also a third-party 'Made for Xperia' casing that adds wireless (Qi) charging support to the phone.

In the box, you'll find a high-spec pair of earphones with microphone, a fast charger, and - with some retail packages - you might also get the dock in the box and / or some NFC tags that can be used to trigger actions when touched against the NFC reader at the rear of the handset.

With a staggering 441 pixels-per-inch density, the 1080x1920 pixel screen does appear to be overkill, but it's inevitable as the industry fights to find reasons for people to upgrade. It does have a benefit for those who want to connect the phone to a HD TV, though, as there's no need for scaling.

Apps and games can take full advantage of the extra pixels, and you can play back movies - either bought or recorded yourself - at full resolution. Perhaps it isn't such a bad idea after all.

I was slightly concerned that the extra pixels would result in a lower performance, but this fear has proved unfounded - the Xperia Z outperforms the Nexus 4, which only has a 720x1280 pixel display. Consider me converted.

The display itself has been attracting some negative attention online, owing to its viewing angle. Most of the time you'll be looking directly at the screen, so the 'washed out' colours when you tilt the screen in any direction probably won't bother yout.

Could Sony have used a better screen? Possibly, but when you let the Mobile BRAVIA Engine do its stuff, you can't fail to be impressed. The bigger issue to me is that you may want a higher brightness level to fully enjoy the display, which will impact on the battery.

Camera

The 13-megapixel camera matches that of the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S4, with both companies ignoring the move by HTC to reduce pixels to increase quality. While it's commendable that HTC has decided to stop playing the megapixel numbers game, in good conditions you still get better images by having more pixels.

As such, the Xperia Z has the edge as long as you take into account a problem with the current camera application, based on the software loaded on the first batch of retail devices.

The 'intelligent auto' mode sounds great on paper. As a feature imported from far more expensive Sony cameras, it's even coloured differently to the other modes in the menu to stand out and say, in effect, 'use me'.

But it doesn't work very well.

It correctly identifies most scenes in a way that can't fail to impress, but the hard work is undone in an instant when the phone processes the photograph afterwards.

To counter noise at low light levels, Sony runs the picture through a series of filters that remove noise and just about all the detail at the same time. Worse still, it does this even on pictures taken in good lighting conditions.


Tempting as the intelligent auto function is, the best results come from a bit of manual intervention

Fortunately, there are manual modes available that give far better results and it's your job to use them to get the most from the camera until such time as Sony can update the software to be a little less extreme on noise reduction.

Other great features include support for HDR in video recording, a Burst mode with the only limit being available storage, and a number of visual effects that can be applied to photos.

Nine different effects can be previewed in a grid before you choose a mode, with many settings letting you make further adjustments. Modes include partial colour, Harris shutter, Fisheye, Sketch, and Miniature for making your own 'tilt-shift' photos.

Gaming

With such a large display and loads of extra pixels that you can barely make out, not all games even take full advantage of the bigger screen as yet. Wannabe Vegas gamblers playing Slot City will have to make do with a 1280x720 pixel version of the game running with huge borders.

Fortunately, most titles look just fine, and any that don't will be updated simply because full-HD screens are going to become more common from now on.

And let's not forget that the phone's water resistance means you can happily play with it in the bath, or even outdoors in the rain, without worrying about the consequences.

If the screen itself gets too wet, you might find the responsiveness of the touchscreen diminishes or the phone begins to select things by itself, so don't expect to play games underwater or in the shower.

The good

Sony's minimal customisation of the Xperia Z follows a policy it has had in place for some time, which means there's no heavy styling as you'd find on a Samsung or HTC handset.

Sony has added a few of its own applications (many that can be removed), along with a power-management tool that can offer up to four times the battery life by turning off background data in standby mode, disabling wi-fi when away from the locations of known routers, and shutting down features when the battery drops below a chosen percentage.

While the power-management tool can't perform miracles (the biggest savings come from reducing power consumption when you're not using the phone, rather than when you are), it can make a huge difference. The app will even show the change in estimated standby time when you change settings.

Similar to HTC's BlinkFeed, Sony's Socialife app brings you social networking updates, news feeds, and items of interest based on what your friends are sharing

Timescape, Sony's app to combine social networking updates in a single location, has now been ditched and replaced with Socialife. This continues to pull in updates from Facebook and Twitter, but now includes RSS feeds to produce a feed not too dissimilar to Flipboard or HTC's BlinkFeed.

Besides the Walkman player, the Movies app uses content recognition to add cover art and other information about movies and TV shows, while the Album app mixes your photos with albums from Facebook and Picasa.


Sony's Movie app is excellent, automatically getting information about the cast, a detailed synopsis, and more

Finally, a mention for the loudspeaker. In view of the huge stereo speakers on the HTC One, a single speaker might sound like a recipe for disaster, but the sound is still loud and clear, making it perfectly usable for watching films, listening to music, gaming, or hands-free phone calling.


Just next to the surprisingly loud loudspeaker is a space to attach a lanyard

The Bad

A water resistant phone might have an obvious benefit, but the downside is having to remove covers whenever you want to charge it, connect to a TV, or plug in headphones.


Having to remove a cover to connect the headphones is a bit of a faff, but it's necessary to keep water out

There are alternatives to all of the above, including the dock (or Qi charger), wireless mirroring of the screen to a compatible TV, and Bluetooth headphones, but all of these will come at an extra cost.

A bigger disappointment is the removal of the camera button, which forced Sony to sacrifice the 'quick launch' feature that launched the camera on earlier models in about a second in favour of pressing the power button and sliding the 'camera' icon to the left.

My final concern is that the use of glass on the front and back leaves this phone open to easy damage if dropped onto a hard surface. You would be wise - as Nexus 4 and iPhone 4 / 4S owners will probably agree - to invest in some sort of protective case.

Summary

The Xperia Z is a fantastic phone, helping to take Android on its journey towards global domination. The screen is amazing, the phone is incredibly thin, and the water resistance feature makes me wonder why all phones aren't like this.

The camera, once you skip the automatic mode, really does lessen the divide between mobile phone cameras and digital cameras, while the battery benefits greatly from a range of power-management tools.

With a large screen and an incredibly powerful processor, this phone gives you plenty of ways to kill the battery in just a few hours, but when you need the phone to last a whole day as a humble mobile phone the Xperia Z won't let you down.