Sony releases their phones on a 6 month release cycle. Everyone else does once a year, so with such a short time between devices it makes sense that the Sony Xperia Z3 is a minor evolution over the Z2. Having said that, the Xperia Z3 is the best smartphone Sony has ever made. It’s a beautiful successor and has… almost everything that I want in a smartphone.
The Sony Xperia Z3 is a 5.2 inch smartphone, and Sony’s attempt to win the top spot in the pocket of every smartphone wielding citizen out there. Sony has dropped it’s laptop division, and they are all in on smartphones and the Z3 makes it clear that they really do know how to make a great phone.
The display is gorgeous and competes with anything currently on the market. It’s even more vibrant with around 700 nits of brightness. To give you a point of reference: the LG G3 and Galaxy S5 are both around 450 nits.
It’s waterproof yet as thin as other devices with out this rugged feature. If you listen to music on your phone, the Z3 adds support for high resolution audio, it also up-scales songs without such quality standards. That’s on top of the ability to provide noise canceling (if you have the right headset).
Where the Xperia Z3 stays the same is in the spec race, which is where most phones aim to compete more fiercely. It still sports a 5.2” 1080p display with a Snapdragon 801. The processor is clocked a little higher at 2.5GHz (as opposed to the Z2’s 2.3 GHz processor). It also has the same 3GB of RAM and 20.7MP rear facing camera.
Let’s just get one thing clear – these are still bomb specs. The only thing they really could have done better was to put in a Snapdragon 805 like on the Note 4 to completely future-proof the device. Even then, the difference between these two processors isn’t massive, so this as well would have only been an incremental upgrade.
As a long time Sony fangirl, it might be easy to think that I would be blind to the flaws, but in reality my love of the series makes me harder on it since I have been waiting patiently for some features to get upgraded. The Z3 still sports some ‘features’ that I have been begging Sony to fix. I deal with my issues as we go along and of course sum them all up at the end since your average reader just scroll past the meat of the review anyways.
Sony Xperia Z3 Specifications
The Sony Xperia Z3 has a 5.2” full HD display with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor running at 2.5GHz. It also sports 3GB of RAM, 16GB of storage and weighs in at only 152 grams. Sony has done an impressive job making this 4G-capable smartphone very thin (146 x 72 x 7.3mm), while increasing the waterproof rating to IP68. This allows you to go for a swim in fresh water as deep as 1.5 meters for 30 minutes.
Connectivity wise, the Z3 has everything a flagship should offer: aGPS, Bluetooth 4.0, DLNA, NFC, GLONASS, Native USB tethering, High Speed USB and ANT+ wireless technology, which promises to raise connectivity while drawing less power.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a region with LTE Cat4, you’ll be able to enjoy download speeds of up to 150 Mbit/s, and upload speeds of up to 50 Mbit/s. If HSPA+ is what you’ve got access to, you can expect up to 42.2 Mbit/s down and 5.76 Mbit/s up.
There is also a microSD card slot, allowing you to expand the 16GB (12GB usable thanks to the space the OS takes up) up to 128 GB.
Here’s a table comparing the entire Xperia Z series, just so you can really feel that sense of evolution:
Sony Xperia Series: Specifications Comparison Table
|Sony Xperia Z3||Sony Xperia Z2||Sony Xperia Z1||Sony Xperia Z|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 801||Qualcomm Snapdragon 801||Qualcomm Snapdragon 800||Qualcomm Snapdragon S4|
|RAM||3GB DDR3l||3GB DDR3l||2GB DDR3l||2GB DDR3l|
|Storage||16GB / 32GB||16GB||16GB||16GB|
|microSD||Up to 128GB||Up to 128GB||Up to 64GB||Up to 64GB|
|Cameras||20.7MP & 2.2MP||20.7MP & 2.2MP||20.7MP & 2MP||13.1MP & 2.2MP|
|Weight||152 grams||163 grams||170 grams||146 grams|
|OS||Android 4.4.4 KitKat||Android 4.4 KitKat||Android 4.3 Jelly Bean||Android 4.2 Jelly Bean|
Before we get into the hardcore review, I thought I would throw in my epic video, it might be long, but it will really give you the whole picture about what is going on with the Xperia Z3.
Sony Xperia Z3 Design
If you’re a fan of the Xperia Z line-up, then you’ll love the Z3. It has maintained the aesthetics, but the in-hand feeling is completely different. It has new rounded aluminum frame and nylon corners that are designed to take a beating. Not to mention, these edges feel so much nicer than the sharp ones in the Z2.
Looking at the frame of the Z2 and the Z3, there is actually quite a departure. The aluminum frame goes straight to the glass, where the Z2 had nylon acting as a buffer between the gorilla glass back and the aluminum.
Another stark difference, and one of the easiest ways to tell these two handsets apart, is the decision to drop the all-black front on the Z2 for a colored boarder on the Z3.
The ports have also been re-arranged slightly, for the better. On the Z2 we had a microUSB port in the same area as the micro SIM card slot, both under a removable cover. The SIM card slot has been moved to the other side along side the Micro SD card, which makes sense since there is no need to expose this slot unnecessarily.
The result is a very small and slim Micro USB flap which seems less likely to get damaged over time. This was an issue with some Xperia Z2 devices: the port flaps would fall off. This smaller flap seems less intrusive and less likely to get jostled and pulled around like its larger predecessor. It’s also easier to open and close than the Z2.
A pro tip for Xperia owners is to get the magnetic charging dock. Just do it… it saves your device wear and tear, and once you have it you’ll realize that you’d be willing to pay double or triple the cost just to not have to f*!k around with those flaps.
To sum it up, I’d take the Z3 design over the Z2 design any day. Looking across the ecosystem: I’m not a fan of the Galaxy S5’s plastic back, the HTC M8 and Xiaomi Mi3 would be a solid contenders looks-wise and the iPhone 6 does have the everyone beat on height. The length of a phone is a definite concern for many people, as it affects ease of single-hand usage and pocket-ability.
The Z3 is a little long at 146mm. The Galaxy S5 is 142mm tall and around the same width at 142mm. The iPhone 6 is the shortest at 138mm. If one-handed use is at the top of your list, the Xperia Z3 Compact might be the device for you.
Sony Xperia Z3 Display
The Sony Xperia Z3 has a 5.2” full HD 1920x1080p IPS LCD display sporting a pixel density of 424 pixels per inch. This competes well with all other flagship phones on the market. To be honest, we’re ecstatic that Sony resisted plugging in a QHD like LG did with the LG G3’s battery-hogging display. It’s impressive to play the pixel-pornographic video that’s preloaded on the LG G3, but we’d take an hour of extra battery life over being the cool kid with the killer phone display. (Wait what? Is that really a thing or am I justifying carrying around this phone for the summer?)
The Xperia Z3’s display comes with the same quality as the Z2 which sports a screen that is widely regarded as fabulous. The kicker is that the Z3 comes with the ability to crank up the brightness. It’s capable of reaching up to 600 nits of brightness; the Z2 was only capable of about 460 nits, which is pretty average. The added brightness will make it easier to view the display when you’re using it in direct sunlight.
The one concern we had was regarding the device heating up when playing videos for a prolonged period of time. We’ve been playing continuous video for three hours and its no warmer than any other device gets. This paranoia comes from the QHD display on the LG G3 that would restrict brightness when the phone got too hot (during Taiwan’s summer it happens to be all the time). So far so good, we’ll update the article if after extended usage raises concerns.
Sony Xperia Z3 Performance
Smartphones at the high-end of the spectrum all pretty much have the same internals. A big part of the experience is how well the company has implemented their version of Android, which in this case is the latest version, Kit Kat 4.4.4. Under the hood there is a powerful quad-core Snapdragon 801 MSM8974-AC processor, which is the fastest in the 801 family and clocked at 2.5 GHz.
The device has 3GB of RAM, a slightly faster processor than what we had with the Z2, plenty enough to keep it all running smoothly. This is the same SoC as what you will find on the Galaxy S5, but it lacks the lag that we often found with that handset. In hand, the menu transitions feel snappier and there is no sign of stuttering. We are also fans of the Xperia UI which is very clean, smooth and intuitive.
Sony Xperia Z3: Benchmark Comparison
|Sony Xperia Z3||Sony Xperia Z2||Samsung Galaxy S5||HTC One M8|
|GFX Bench T-Rex||27.9fps||26.9fps||27.1fps||28.2fps|
|Sunspider (lower is better)||845.9||762.4||665.2||669.6|
Most of the scores above show that the Snapdragon 801 is performing as expected with some really strong results. There are some great highlights that justify the presence of the faster 2.5GHz chip; the Antutu score of over 40,000 is one of the highest we have ever seen for example. The good thing to see is that Sony has clearly found a way to eek out every ounce of performance from the Qualcomm SoC, with the Xperia Z3 beating previous scores on the Z2 in several of the tests. There are some dependencies, however with a disappointing Sunspider score of over 800, but in general the benchmarks prove the Xperia Z3 to be a real performance beast.
User Interface – Clean and Functional
Running the latest version of Android, Kit Kat 4.4.4, the Z3 sports the Xperia User interface which remains clean and minimal like previous incarnations. It has a very vanilla feeling with a few tweaks that for the most part are unobtrusive and useful. The home screen is a blank canvas upon which the apps you download can populate. This strategy (over having a pre-arranged home screen with weather and date widgets) is not standard, which in a way I found refreshing, since after a few downloads I had to consider what I was doing with these apps and what I wanted to do with my home screen. If you’re not into thinking about what you want your phone to look like, then well, this is a negative.
Sony has done a great job of offering an intuitive experience that makes setting up your screens and resizing widgets to go on them as simple as the pinch gesture that lets you edit what’s going on. When editing your screens you can easily get rid of pages and change the wall paper and themes of which there are many. What’s nice about themes is that they skin the entire UI, all the way into the settings menus.
In the ‘me too’ game of features that smartphone manufacturers are often sucked into, Sony has made sure they have the most useful ones, like double tap to wake up the display.
When looking at how app are arranged, Sony offers many ways to sort and display them, you can sort the apps manually, alphabetically, by the most used or most recently installed. The menu that swipes in from the left has never been my favorite way to organize my apps, when I’m in there I’m just reminded of exactly how much of their own software Sony has pre-loaded on my device. Some of it is great, like the movie editor which rivals some pretty pricey apps in Play, but others are just bloatware. Good thing is, that you can uninstall many of them, and uninstall mode is quick and not hidden in some submenu in the settings. This allows for quick and easy phone maintenance if your phone starts to get bogged down with too many apps a year or so down the line.
The notification panel is separate from the quick toggles which can be accessed first if you swipe down with two fingers. The toggles are customizable and you can choose between 20+ different toggles and have up to 12 of them visible at any one time.
When it comes to closing apps, the Z3 uses the stock Android task manager which provides a list where apps can be swiped to the side to close them.
Personally, I’ll use them occasionally, but apps like these never made it into my standard app rotation, you can download more Small Apps off the Play Store. Sony has also provided you with an option to turn your favorite widgets into Small Apps, which is actually totally awesome!! Just hit the Plus key at the top of the list and choose a widget.
Sony also has some ideas that the 5.2 inch display on your Xperia Z3 is big enough for multitasking and have included “small apps”. They are tiny pop up like widget applications on your homescreen. You can move them around, resize them without having to lock into one screen say to use a calculator, watch an Active Clip, look at a Chrome Bookmarks, use the Browser, Calculator, Calendar, Gmail, Timer, Notes, and Touch Lock. You can find them by clicking on the menu button, they are right there at the bottom.
Smart Connect, isn’t new but it is a detail that makes using your device more intuitive and personal. I have it set up so that every time I pug in my headset SoundCloud launches. You can also set actions for when you plug in the charger, turn off sound if its between selected nite time hours. It can even turn on your WiFi if it detects through location that you’re at home or work. These little things really add to the experience, you can get apps to do these things, but Sony has had the forethought to include them for you.
So what don’t I like about the Software?
Well, the Icons when compared to say, the LG G3 seem a little outdated. You can always download a new theme to customize them which Sony does offer. But they are for the most part paid for themes. If you look at say Huawei or Xiaomi, you get an endless selection of themes to customize your phone for free. Seems a little penny pinching of Sony to make you pay a $1 to have a nicer skin, you can of course download free launchers on Google Play. Still, when you look at the ecosystem, it’s becoming more standard to include heavy customization options on Android. I mean, Sony is already paying someone to make these themes, do they really need to try to make back their salary?
The most intrusive software modification that Sony has made is the inclusion of quick launch to What’s Hot, a service that provides you with content and apps that Sony thinks is “Hot” and that you might like. This totally gets in the way of a clean fast swipe up to launch into search. Swiping straight up does nothing, which is better then ending up in an app store that Sony has set up with apps they think are hot in terms of apps and multimedia. It doesn’t only draw content from the Play Store but from Sony’s PlayStation store as well.
I think making you swipe right instead of straight up on quick search has crossed the line especially since it’s shameless self promotion…not even done well.
Sony Xperia Z3 Gaming
The Xperia Z3 is going to be perhaps the most attractive phone for gamers. The benchmarks are top-shelf and more than enough to handle your average game and your not-so-average titles.
The kicker really is that it supports PS4 Remote Play, which won’t be available until November. So, sadly, no demo for you today, but it’s very much like what the PS Vita offers. Essentially, what you get is a phone that acts as a remote screen for your PS4, connected over your home network. It virtually turns your PS4 into a portable gaming console.
Sony Xperia Z3 Camera
Sony’s ever-popular 20.7MP 1/2.3″ ExmorRS camera has made a return on the Xperia Z3, but this time it includes a 25mm wide-angle Sony G Lens, so you can fit more into your shots. It also makes the Xperia Z3 the first smartphone to reach ISO 12800 sensitivity, which should allow you to shoot in increased detail and capture superior low light shots.
If you don’t know a lot about ISO: the higher the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor is to light and the faster your shutter speed can be. Cameras usually have to leave the shutter open longer to get more light in, if you have a high ISO you can let more light in and take a faster photo, which results in crisper images and less blur in low light photos.
Here is an example of a little temple in the woods, and how it handled the very dark interior, I have an indoor and outdoor shot to give you some perspective.
If you thought the camera was the same as the Z2, you’d be dead wrong. The average consumer might miss the geeky details that make all the difference and just assume that 20.7MP means the camera hasn’t changed. Hey, in the hustle and bustle of the press event, I did the same at first glance.
Just like with regular cameras, sensor size will make a huge difference in photo quality. This is why photographers spend thousands of dollars on full frame, 35mm sensor cameras. The Sony Xperia Z3 sports a larger sensor compared to most high-end smartphones.
Measured at 1/2.3″ (11.05mm), Sony’s sensor is significantly bigger than the iPhone 5s’s or the HTC One M8’s 1/3″ sensor (8.46mm). The galaxy S5 gets closer with a 1/2.6″ sensor (9.78mm), but it’s not quite there yet. The best contender would be the Nokia Lumia 1020 (duh), which beats Sony with a 1/1.5″ sensor (16.93mm).
Sony’s camera app has always been one of the best in the business, with 4K, Background Defocus, AR effects, time shift burst, Panorama and Info Eye, which gives descriptions of things around you. Social Live (powered by Bambuser) lets you livestream for up to 10 minutes directly to your Facebook feed.
The camera has a few new camera modes, like ‘Face in’, which allows you to simultaneously capture an event and your reaction to it. We actually saw this first from Samsung and I’m still not sure if it’s something that anyone uses.
‘Multi-Camera’ allows you to film from multiple angles if you have more than one Xperia device. However, I couldn’t get it working with the Z2. Lucky for me I had a Sony QX10 wireless lens. Initially, I thought this was the dumbest feature ever, but there are some situations in which it could be quite fun, and you are given the ability to customize the screen. There’s also ‘Sound Photo’ which, well… adds sound to a photo.
Honestly I didn’t expect the jump in photo quality between the Z2 and Z3, Sony has a habit of bumping the saturation, which I didn’t mind so much since it’s something I would usually do a bit myself during editing. The Z3 takes natural photos that are very true-to-life, and in well lit outdoor situations you get a great amount of detail. Even on grey days the scenes are bright and not noisy.
Indoors, colors are fairly natural, images are a bit softer and there is a little bit of noise. The flash works, though its not two tone like on some other devices. Selfies indoors left me wondering if they had a beautify feature that smooths your skin tone since the photos were so soft. I found a skin softener in the settings but it didn’t really make a difference in what my skin looked like.
The Z3 also comes with a 25mm lens, I took a photo with the Z3 & Z2 to give you an idea of the difference, just look at how much more you get at the top of the picture.
Here are some sample photos to give you an idea of what you’re going to get…apparently I spent most of my time walking through the greenery of Taiwan.
Video recording – CAUTION, Rant Ahead…
When it comes to recording video, I actually arranged a meeting with the camera team at Sony to complain that their app didn’t give you the ability to control the focus manually. If you don’t have manual focus your videos pulse as the camera searches for something to lock-on to. This is STILL an issue with the Z3.
Honestly, this surprises me. The whole reason Sony even offers 4K on their smartphones is so that you have 4K content to watch on your new Sony 4K TV. Sony is all about creating ecosystems of content with Sony Music and Movies. So why they would add software image stabilization that is a bigger problem than your video constantly changing shape around the edges, I’ll never know!!
Perhaps Sony is confused and thinks that their videos should twerk too!
If you can get past the fact that your videos will, on occasion, pulse, the quality is amazing. The colors are bright and vivid, the detail (in the center of the video) is clear and detailed. You can shoot in 4K, though the device does heat up. You can also shoot a bit longer from a cool phone. During testing, at 5:19 I got a warning that my phone was getting hot, and at 12:11 seconds it shut down.
The Z2 shut down after about 5 minutes and felt much hotter, so this is a pretty wicked improvement. Though I must warn you that this is a space-intensive activity, as just one minute of 4K footage takes up just over 400MB.
The software image stabilization, as much as I gave it a hard time above, is actually great! Walking shots have the smoothness of a much heavier device, as there are no small tremors apparent in the footage. It’s called Sony Steady Shot and it’s on by default while shooting 1080p footage at 30fps. It’s still a poor 2nd to being able to select focus, but if you want to walk and talk while shooting videos this is going to really increase your production quality.
1080p video recording is offered in 30fps, or a smoother 60fps count. Slow motion is a true 120fps meaning that when you pull the raw footage it actually has 120fps. The Galaxy S5 offers 120fps on the handset, but when you pull the raw file off, it comes in much lower.
The video itself has very natural colors a good amount of detail and the exposure adjusts quickly when panning around.
To ease my distaste for Sony’s lack of real improvements (I need more then a refreshed stabilization algorithm to make me happy), Sony makes Highlight videos for you. I approve. It’s great, different music each time, I could do with choosing which media is included…maybe they are waiting for the Z4 to let you choose.
Here is a highlights video to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:
Sony Xperia Z3 – A Phone Designed For an Audio Snob
This is one of the high points of the Z3. I spend a fair amount of time listening to my smartphone while in transit. Sometimes I just drop it on my kitchen counter or bring it into the bathroom with me while getting ready in the morning. In short, audio playback using the devices’ in-built speakers is important to me
The Z3 comes with 2 front facing speakers that have a surprising amount of punch. I was in the studio taking photos of a tablet with the music at 75%, the door was open, the guys across the hall actually closed their door because it was so loud. Now I don’t want to give the impression that you have a party with your phone, but you could easily put it down on the grass outside and chill in the park with a friend or two and be ok with that. If you’re not a huge audiophile…then you’ll need to put in the headset which is actually for audiophiles. The sound is adequate enough that in the mornings, I was not motivated to take the extra few seconds to pair it with my Bluetooth speaker while making my morning coffee.
The Z3 includes Sony’s DSEE HX (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) technology for the first time, which allows it to upscale tracks (MP3, AAC) that aren’t in Hi-Res quality. It’s analyzes and enhancing the files’ frequency range to reduce noise and distortion. It’s not magic, it can’t remaster tracks, but there is an audible difference when you play low-quality tracks.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world where the Z3 ships with a noise-canceling headset, you’ll be impressed. Noise canceling won’t work with all headsets unfortunately, and will need to be paired with a headset with some extra processing power on board. The MH310 is the noise-canceling version that use the smartphones processing power to negate ambient noise. They also have fantastic sound!
Battery Life – Wait. You Charge Every Other Day?
We’re not sure what voodoo Sony has worked out to get an extra half day of battery life out of a smaller battery, but they seem to have done it. The Z3 comes with a smaller 3100mAh battery (versus the Z2’s 3200mAh) along with a brighter display. Sony claims you’ll get 2 days, and you will if you’re a moderate user, light social networking, occasional photo taking, angry birds now and again, in fact if you don’t use it much I’d venture you’d even make it through 3 days. But the Z3 is aimed at power users and as a Z2 user, I could get a day and a half of moderate to heavy use. When I woke up in the morning I’d have enough juice to make it to the office to plug in.
Just so you’re clear on where we stand, this is the best battery life we’ve seen on a Smartphone under 5.5 inches. It’s the best battery life we’ve seen on any smartphone in a long time.
During the review process we haven’t had the time to gauge just how long it will last in everyday use, since we’re obessed with poking its display, jacking up the brightness and hammering it with benchmarks right after taking 12 minutes of 4K video just to see how much it slowed down when hot. (FYI, about 2000 points on Quadrant). This isn’t your average usage case, having said all that, when we plugged it in to charge it at night, it still had 34%.
So what is the magic potion Sony has slipped the Z3? Well it comes with Stamina and battery saving modes that will turn off some connectivity or down clock your performance. But during our chats with Sony reps at IFA back in September, they told me that they really spending a lot of time and effort pulling down the power consumption in Stand-by. So get this, I left the phone unplugged last night with the battery at 44%. Affter a solid 7 hours sleep, it was still at 44%..I’m sorry, what? I rubbed my eyes and took a double take on that one. To give you a bit of perspective the LG G3 went from 100% to 64% in 8 hours on me once, just to give you a comparison of what can happen on other devices.
So let’s talk numbers. 13 hours 42 minutes to be exact on our 720p video loop with Wi-Fi on and half brightness. Now, it’s worth noting that the Xperia Z2 managed 11 and a half hours in the same rundown so it’s not a huge difference on playback alone, but in regular use it’s certainly enough to get you five or six extra hours on top of an already excellent battery life. The LG G3, in comparison, lasted for 6 hours 47 on the same test. And the S5 got 9hr 36min.
The Verdict – There are No Compromises
There Sony Xperia Z3 is the best phone Sony has ever made, it clearly demonstrates that Sony has been listening to its users. The list of minor improvements is solid and give the handset a more refined and polished feeling.
It tops the list on Battery Life, has a bright vibrant display, it’s waterproof (because we’ve all had a phone almost fall into a toilet at least once) and it all comes in a thin stylish design that feels great in your hand.
The camera is among the best you can get on a smartphone and it even comes with 4K video and slow motion at 120fps. The SD card slot really helps with these features since they can eat up your phones memory pretty quick.
The display is beautiful, it’s bright with great colors and you have the ability to adjust the warmth to get it just the way you want it. Bumping up the brightness to over 600nits really helps with using your phone outdoors.
If you’re an audiophile this is the phone for you, with active noise canceling and the ability to upscale music. In the same vein of niche needs, if you’re a gamer Sony’s PlayStation Streaming will be a huge bonus.
The downside of the Xperia Z3 mainly lies in the software. What’s Next is intrusive when trying to launch Google Now, theme options are limited and the icons seem outdated. All of these things are easy to fix with a launcher, so you can’t by any stretch of the imagination call this a deal breaker.
What might have you turning your nose up is the length, it is a little long compared to other phones of similar size. If one handed use is a must have perhaps you should check out the Xperia Z3 Compact.
My main issue with the hardware is that Sony did not include a manual focus, they did improve the auto-focus and stabilization algorithm, but I have it on my Nokia Lumia’ devices so if Sony is serious about it’s camera then they should have it too. It’s amazing how much it improves the quality of your home videos to be able to set the focus on a scene.
The question a lot of people reading this will be asking is, if you have a Z2 should you upgrade? Sony is all in on Smartphones, they gave up their notebook division and see the phone as a hub for their massive ecosystem of content. So Sony will keep pumping out phones every 6 months until they gain market share. So if you have a Z2, it will be worth the upgrade when the Z4 comes out. Which incidentally would be the 1 year mark and when other manufacturers would be releasing their next handsets.
I like that Sony doesn’t make you wait, other manufacturers are for the most part releasing minor iterations too, at least Sony isn’t holding back and they’ll keep releasing phones until they get it right.