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Review: Water resistance stands out in Sony phone

Friday - 7/12/2013, 8:54pm  ET

This undated product image provided by Sony shows the Xperia Z, unveiled Wednesday, July 10, 2013, in the U.S. The Xperia Z, helps Sony catch up with offerings from Samsung and HTC, but one feature stands out; Its water-resistant shell means you can submerge the phone up to 3 feet deep for up to 30 minutes. (AP Photo/Sony)

ANICK JESDANUN
AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Think of a leading phone maker. Apple and Samsung might come to mind -- maybe even HTC, maker of the well-received One. But you're probably not thinking Sony, a company better known for its TVs, cameras and video game machines.

With the new Xperia Z, Sony shows it can play in the smartphone big leagues.

The Xperia Z, unveiled Wednesday in the U.S., helps Sony catch up with offerings from Samsung and HTC, but one feature stands out: Its water-resistant shell means you can submerge the phone. That's great if you're a lifeguard, or if you're prone to dropping your phone in toilets or spilling coffee near it. You can also take underwater video and use the phone during rainstorms.

Sony Corp. also enhances the Android operating system made by Google Inc., without cluttering the phone, as Samsung Electronics Co. and HTC Corp. do with their Android customizations. There's still some junk from Sony and its partner, T-Mobile, but not a lot.

I particularly like the idea behind a battery-saving feature called Stamina. It's supposed to block apps from checking for updates when your screen is off. Calls and texts will still come through, and you can add exceptions such as email and Facebook. In practice, I got a few email updates when I wasn't supposed to, but the blocking seems to work most of the time, especially after I reset the phone to its factory settings. There's also a separate feature for dimming the screen and turning off some functions automatically when the battery drops to a certain level.

The Xperia Z got attention when it was announced in January at the International CES gadget show in Las Vegas. It has been sold overseas, but hasn't been available in the U.S. until now. It's one of the first major phones that No. 4 carrier T-Mobile is getting exclusively in the United States. T-Mobile US Inc. will start selling it next week, though you can get it right away from a Sony retail store.

The phone comes with a screen that measures 5 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 443 pixels per inch -- both comparable to Samsung's Galaxy S4. The Xperia's screen is larger than the HTC One's 4.7 inches, though the One's resolution density is higher at 468 pixels per inch -- not that the eye can discern much of a difference. The Xperia has a 1.5 gigahertz quad-core processor, which is slightly slower than the S4 and the One, but the phone still feels zippy.

While the S4 has a plastic back and the One sports an aluminum finish, the Xperia has glass on both the front and the back. Plastic connects the two panes. Sony went for symmetry in designing the phone and avoided the curved backs found in the S4 and the One. The result is a phone that feels boxy and large in my hands. And having two glass panes means twice the surface capable of cracking.

The phone also has lots of plastic seals to keep water out of the ports for recharging your phone or connecting headphones. It takes a few extra seconds to get to the ports when you need them, but that beats having a dead phone after napping on a beach at high tide.

And the phone does indeed work underwater. Sony says you can submerge it at least 3 feet deep for 30 minutes, though it's possible the phone will work if it's deeper or immersed for longer. You won't be able to use any of the on-screen touch controls while the phone is submerged, however. But functions already running will continue running.

In a demo, Sony showed me video taken in a swimming pool. The recording started before entering the pool, then continued underwater. I don't have a pool and was ready to test it in the toilet -- until wisdom prevailed. Instead, I dunked the phone in a water-filled food container for a half-hour with the movie "Ice Age" playing. The video continued running normally.

The touch controls came back as soon as I took the phone out. I didn't even need to dry it first. That's quite impressive. The sound from the speakers, though, appeared muffled at first, but returned to normal once the phone dried out.

The phone also ships with a Walkman music app. For younger readers, Walkmans are iPods that play cassettes or CDs. Sony's Walkman cassette players were once ubiquitous, until MP3 digital files killed them. The brand lives on through the app.

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