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Originally published July 12, 2013 at 12:03 PM | Page modified July 13, 2013 at 10:50 AM

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Xperia Z helps Sony catch up with rivals

The Xperia Z enhances the Android operating system made by Google without cluttering the phone, as Samsung Electronics and HTC do with their Android customizations.

The Associated Press

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I had a Sony Ericson flip phone five years ago. It was sleeker, more intuitively... MORE

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Think of a leading phone maker. Apple and Samsung might come to mind — maybe even HTC. 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.

Sony also enhances the Android operating system made by Google without cluttering the phone, as Samsung Electronics and HTC do with their Android customizations. There’s still some junk from Sony and its partner, T-Mobile US, 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.

The Xperia Z got attention when it was announced in January at the International Consumer Electronics 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 plans to start selling it next week.

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. 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.

The phone 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 app feels redundant given that Android phones already come with an app called Play Music. The Walkman app doesn’t let you buy music. Rather, it’s for music you already own and load onto the phone.

Sony’s stores for music and video aren’t installed until you ask for it, so they won’t eat up your phone’s storage until then. But they clutter up the phone with icons, including one directing you to the installation. T-Mobile also clutters another home-screen page with four icons for its services and a MobileLife box offering news I don’t need.

Fortunately, the clutter is minimal compared with other leading Android phones, and one Walkman feature is useful — the ability to listen to songs from the lock screen. You can take photos from the lock screen, too, simply by sliding the camera icon to the left.

Speaking of the camera, the Xperia brings a lot of features from Sony’s stand-alone Cyber-shot cameras. I’m not a believer in loading camera phones with features that are better suited for stand-alone cameras, but many people don’t carry their regular cameras anymore.

Sony’s new offering is impressive for a company that hasn’t been known for its phones. The Xperia plays catch-up in many respects, but it’s out front in making water resistance a standard feature — something more phone makers should adopt as phones become companions to our active lives.

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