Sony Xperia Z3 Review: A Great Phone With INSANE Battery Performance

Reviews Paul Briden 13:28, 28 May 2015

Sony's third-gen Xperia flagship is here, and its called Xperia Z3? Any good? We find out

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£549.00
Pros: 
Sleek design, Solid build quality - very durable with a premium feel, Waterproof, Good battery life, Excellent camera, Gorgeous display, Fast performance
Cons: 
Fingerprint-y back panel, Flimsy port covers, Horrid UI
Verdict: 
A really fantastic Android smartphone, the best Xperia Sony has produced...but probably not an advisable upgrade for existing Xperia Z flagship owners

Sony has now launched an Xperia Z3+ rather than the expected Xperia Z4 handset. It's still a successor model and does make a few noteworthy changes, particularly when it comes to the processing power. However, it's not a huge leap forward and you might, quite rightly, be wondering why you'd want to pay extra for what seems a very similar device. The Xperia Z3 still has a lot going for it, with the same stylish and svelte industrial design; a metal and glass outer shell with plenty of angular snazziness. On top of this you've got some excellent display, audio, and camera technology, coupled with good battery life and decent all-round performance.

So that's the summary, but let's dive in and take a look at the details shall we?

Sony Xperia Z3 Design

If you’re familiar with Sony’s existing Xperia flagships – the relatively recent Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z1 – then you’ll likely not be surprised by the Xperia Z3. The overall basis for the design is the same “One Sony” approach with the now easily recognisable metallic edging, surrounding glass panels on both front and back. It’s probably fair to say that Sony’s rapid six-month development cycle doesn’t leave much room for massive design overhauls, and with that said it could be considered at least somewhat impressive that over three generations of the device things have changed as much as they have.

Unquestionably, Sony continues to aim to cater for a specific consumer group which sees premium qualities in a certain design and build style – striking shapes fashioned from glass and metal. This has much in common with Sony’s other device arms; stereos, TVs, and so on. This approach can be divisive though, there seems to be a definite love or loathe reaction to Sony handsets if you show them around to people. Rarely is there simply indifference. Team KYM is a prime example, Editor Rich just can’t stand the design, while Staff Writer James actually forked out his own money for an Xperia Z1 when it launched. Personally, I quite like what Sony is producing here.

While much may be similar to the last two models, there are noticeable changes and improvements with the Xperia Z3. For one thing, it’s incredibly thin and lightweight – Sony has managed to shave roughly 10 grams off each successive flagship (the Xperia Z1 was 170g, the Xperia Z2 was 163g, and the Xperia Z3 a mere 152g). Shedding weight is one thing, but the balance is also nice and evenly weighted in the hand.

The aluminium surround fits more closely than before, making the device look much more svelte; previous models seemed a little chunky. Another visual tweak is the edges and corners being more rounded – the overall shape is still quite a stark rectangle – but the corners are smoothed and covered with protective caps designed to survive knocks. As well as being visually pleasing, the rounded edges provides a satisfying grip, though it’s not necessarily secure. The aluminium and glass are reassuringly premium to hold and the build quality is top notch – it’s a very solid handset – but the build materials mean its prone to drops and slips. Regardless, it seems the durability is decent, as like the previous models the Dragontrail glass and solid aluminium frame seem determined to survive any number of bashes, plummets, and scrapes. Being a cack-handed idiot, I’ve dropped every Xperia Z flagship so far way too many times, including the Xperia Z3, and they simply don’t break in my experience.

Once again, the back panel looks pretty nice, but on some colour variants the fingerprints show up pretty quickly and ruin the premium look. Additionally, it means the handset has a tendency to throw itself off plenty of surfaces you place it on. Sony’s colour options are nice and include white, black, copper, and green.

On top of that you’ve got the weatherproofing – IP68 certification for dust and water resistance. This means it’ll survive a dunk in up to two metres of the wet stuff, officially for up to 30 mins. Unofficially you can expect it to be even better at surviving this sort of thing – reports claim people have left this handset in the sea for a week with no problems - though if it doesn’t survive, the warranty won’t cover it, so proceed at your own risk.

In order to enable these aquatic features, the Xperia Z3 once again sports a series of flaps covering most of its ports (except the 3.5mm audio jack), they’ve received a re-design, and are easier to use than before, but the flimsy “tape” holding these panels in place still inspires no confidence with regard to their longevity. And if they snap off (which we’ve seen happen on the Xperia Z2 Tablet), you can kiss the waterproofing goodbye.

Sony Xperia Z3 Display

Sony doesn’t seem to have modified its display tech much this time around, and indeed, why should it? After a few issues with the first-gen Xperia Z1 being more-or-less resolved with the Xperia Z1 Compact and Xperia Z2, the Xperia Z3 packs the same IPS LCD display layered with Sony’s Triluminos technology and X-Reality Engine. This is a 5.2in display with a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution resulting in a pixel density of 424ppi.

Sony’s tech layers mean the colour is suitably vibrant with good contrast, and although blacks and dark tones aren’t perfect they’re a good deal better than most non-AMOLED competitors. Brightness is capable and whites are nice and vivid, meanwhile viewing angles are fairly wide.

Sony has rejected the rush to QHD on the grounds of 1080p being good enough for typical phone use, and more souped-up display panels draining the battery too much. There’s definitely something in this ethos – I can’t say I ever glanced at the Xperia Z3 screen and thought, “this really isn’t sharp enough, needs more pixels”. Likewise so little content is optimised for ultra-high resolutions it seems somewhat superfluous.

The Xperia Z3 offers a pretty stunning visual experience and is great for highly aesthetic apps, enjoyable web browsing, gaming, and watching films is a veritable hand-held cinematic experience. As usual, very impressive stuff from Sony – the display is fantastic.

Sony Xperia Z3 Processor & Performance

How much power do you want? The Xperia Z3 might not have changed much in the engine bay from its predecessors, and there’s no Snapdragon 805 to be found, but still, there’s way more grunt than you’re likely to need here. The Xperia Z3 packs an MSM8974AC Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor running four cores which use the Krait 400 architecture clocked at 2.5GHz. This comes with an Adreno 330 graphics processor onboard (GPU) and a rather handsome 3GB of RAM. Playing some pretty graphically intensive games proved no problem for the Xperia Z3 and there’s no noticeable judder or hiccupping in general operation either, it’s all nice and silky smooth. I did notice the back panel becoming uncomfortably hot during longer gaming sessions though, something to be aware of if you’re not a fan of sweaty palms.

Sony Xperia Z3 Software & UI

The Xperia Z3 runs Android 4.4.4 KitKat with its own UI layered on top. Several months ago reviewing the Xperia Z1 I was relatively content with the Sony UI, but the Android environment has changed quite a bit in that time. More and more phone makers are embracing Google’s increasingly minimalist and streamlined approach, and this looks set to continue with Android L.

Sony’s UI has changed very little over the same period, and now looks quite dated to say the very least. It’s little nuanced elements which are quite telling of the whole awkwardly archaic feeling affair, a prime example being the Settings icon – a crossed spanner and screwdriver. GROSS. This just comes across as passé and more than a little cringe worthy. This is 2014, we’re not using Windows 95 anymore.

Likewise the Settings menu looks pretty horrible, as does the re-jigged multitasking screen with the addition of a mini-apps tab, and the homescreen customisation menu also seems dated. I’m also not too keen on Sony’s sub-division of the drop-down menu with separate tabs for the notifications and quick settings  - it feels clunky where other UIs seamlessly integrate the two functions, indeed; there’s tons of screen real-estate, why not use it?

Essentially there are tons of UIs out there which look a lot better than Sony’s and feel far less cumbersome to use.

Android’s solid functionality shines through of course, the multitasking is great and the platform is really nicely optimised to deliver slick performance. Then there’s Google’s highly capable app suite and a massive range of third party applications and content on Google Play.

Personally, I would stick a launcher app on this phone and forget the Sony UI.

Android Lollipop 5.0 Coming To Sony Xperia Z3

Sony has confirmed Android 5.0 Lollipop will be coming to the Xperia Z3. Sony will begin updating its handsets from January 2015 and the latest flagship is set to be first to receive the update. At the time of writing there has been no confirmed release date but you’ll find the latest news here in our Android 5.0 round-up.

A video has emerged showcasing what Android Lollipop will look like running aboard the Xperia Z3 with Sony's UI on top. The video was posted by Italian YouTube channel Spazio iTech - the footage was captured from the floor of MWC 2015 in Barcelona. As you can see below, the updated UI is not hugely different with only a few apparently reluctant nods to Google's Material Design in what is broadly very similar to Sony's existing fussy and overly archaic style. Most of the changes will be in terms of Lollipop's behind-the-scenes features and support changes, but we can see the drop-down notifications and quick settings panels have been given a bit of an overhaul, so at least that's something.

Sony Xperia Z3 Camera

Sony is well established as a company that knows what it is doing when it comes to camera tech. However, so far with the Xperia range there have been a few issues; the sensor technology on offer is top notch and capable of producing fantastic images and video, but Sony’s software implementation has, for the Xperia Z1, Xperia Z Ultra, Xperia Z2, and Xperia Z1 Compact, made operation of the camera somewhat temperamental. This has relegated the setup from being something easy to recommend to all comers, to a highly capable yet fiddly bit of kit better suited to true photography buffs who know what settings to tweak to get the best results.

But forget all about that with the Xperia Z3, because Sony has got its imaging software in check this time around and it lines up beautifully with the hardware we already knew was extremely robust. It’s the same 20.7MP Exmor RS CMOS 1/2.3” back-illuminated sensor (BSI) as before, with a Sony G Lens, f/2.0 aperture, 25mm focal length, and LED flash. It also features the same Sony BIONZ image processor, Sony’s Cyber-shot and Handycam technologies, an ISO of 12800, 4K video recording, HDR, and the usual run of face detection and the like. And there’s a dedicated camera shutter button on the side of the phone.

Crucially though, again, the software has been ironed out. Where once Sony’s Superior Auto mode made last minute decisions to pick something you didn’t want to focus on, or generally offered poor low light performance, it is now a splendid and adaptable setup which performs well all round. It’s very easy to sum up the camera in one enthusiastic word, although you can choose from several; stunning, incredible, or excellent, all spring to mind. Take your pick.

I only hope Sony does the honourable thing and rolls out whatever software tweaks it implemented on the Xperia Z3 to its existing catalogue of devices. Microsoft should be worried as the Xperia Z3 now makes an adequate rival to its 20MP PureView devices such as the Lumia 930 and Lumia 1520.

Pro Photographers Show How It's Done With Xperia Z3

If you'd been a bit of a doubting Thomas with regard to us praising the Xperia Z3's camera performance (and who could blame you, our camera skills are hardly anything to write home about), then you may be interested in a recent Sony stunt showing off the 21MP snapper's full potential. We've seen Apple use professional photographers to showcase its imaging capabilities before (and actually, those are based on Sony sensors too!), but now Sony has followed suit by putting the Xperia Z3 in the hands of not one, but three pro photographers.

Sony sent Greg Funnel from London, Ben Thomas from Melbourne, and J N Silva from New York out into their local stomping grounds with an Xperia Z3 (or Z3 Compact - it's the same imaging hardware) in hand, and the results are pretty impressive to say the least.

Amongst the highlights the three pros producing some interesting effects with "tilt shift" and varying the exposure on night shooting with atmospheric lights.

Sony Xperia Z3 Battery

The onboard battery is non-removable due to the phone’s sealed bodywork, but it’s a large 3,100mAh unit offering decent performance. I ran our usual video test, playing Django Unchained’s 2 hour 45 minute runtime from 100% charge, with Wi-Fi on and brightness set to full. At the end of the film the battery remained at 64%, which is really quite good and not far behind the BlackBerry Passport and Nokia Lumia 930. You can likely expect to get about six hours of video playback from a single charge, or a film or two plus the rest of the day’s usage if it’s fairly light-to-moderate. I found with my typical light-to-moderate daily use I could get a full day and sometimes a day-and-a-bit out of a single charge.

As usual, gaming is one of the most battery intensive things you can do on a smartphone and here the battery drops off rapidly even during shorter play sessions – this is pretty much the same on any flagship phone with a decent display and processor though, so this can hardly be considered a particular failing point for Sony. Quite simply, as with all such devices, you can’t expect to play Asphalt 8 all day long without being near a charger.

Sony Xperia Z3 Storage, Connectivity & Other Hardware

Sony hasn’t changed the storage setup from previous iterations – it’s still 16GB of onboard space as your only option, however, you do get microSD support for cards up to 128GB. These days 16GB is not a massive amount as content gets produced to a higher quality and takes up more room as a result. While I personally haven’t filled up a 16GB phone I can understand that for some people it simply isn’t enough and a 32GB option might have been a sensible offering for Sony to make. For music and video collections, however, the microSD capability should be more than adequate.

It’s not unusual for Sony, or indeed any other Android manufacturer, to pack its high-end devices with a veritable smorgasbord of connectivity capabilities, and the Xperia Z3 is no exception. Naturally it has 4G LTE and 3G mobile data support, as well as dual-band Wi-Fi (with Hotspot), Wi-Fi Direct, and DLNA. There’s also Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, A-GPS/GLONASS, microUSB and MHL TV-Out. In other words it covers pretty much everything you might want.

On top of all this, the Xperia Z3 packs stereo front-facing speakers which provide excellent audio quality – it’s loud and clear with no noticeable tininess. Sony’s also loaded in some pretty good noise cancellation hardware and high quality microphone tech, meaning call quality is nice and crisp.

Sony Xperia Z3 Conclusion

The Xperia Z3 is a great device, no question about it, it makes noticeable improvements on its predecessors primarily from a build and design standpoint. Previous Xperia flagships, despite a decent design ethos, were a little too chunky and cumbersome for my liking, where the Xperia Z3 is truly a sleek and stylish machine that is effortless to operate and absurdly lightweight.

It’s not without its flaws, but in the grand scheme of things these are minor gripes – things like the fingerprint-magnet glass back panel and flimsy port covers. The UI is a bit of an eyesore, but being Android you can tweak it however you wish. The camera is insanely powerful and if you’re after the best Android cameraphone on the market this is most definitely it – Sony has ironed out all the kinks from previous iterations and it’s now just as good as Nokia’s Lumia 930/1530 20MP PureView setup.

In many ways the Xperia Z3 strikes me as a true tech enthusiast's and Android power user’s phone, for people who want something that’s visually stunning, practical (waterproof), and very capable hardware wise, with the latest Android software, but which will require a bit of fettling, persistence, and patience to get it just how you like it. Like a tuning car... or something. You get the idea.

If you’re looking for a new phone and coming across from another brand, or a much lower-end device, the Xpeira Z3 is an excellent choice, by far the best the company has ever produced and the best of the Xperia flagship set so far – I would pick this phone over the HTC One M8 any day, and it’s more premium feeling than the Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G3, but on a par in other respects – meaning it’s really very good indeed.

However, if you’re an Xperia Z1 or Xperia Z2 owner, it is tough to recommend, as the changes are not substantial enough to warrant a switch – you are unlikely to notice a performance difference aside from the camera, which appears to be a software-side issue and one I suspect Sony will patch on the older models. The screen is better than the Xperia Z1’s setup but much the same as the Xperia Z2’s, and again, the main difference is to do with aesthetics and handling. In other words, unless your contract has expired* (or you poop money), wait for the next model.

*Which it won't have because the Xperia Z1 is only a year old and the Xperia Z2 only six months

Specifications

Length 146mm
Thickness 72mm
Weight 152g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 5.2-inches
Phone Style Touchscreen
Typical Price £549
Designer Lens Sony G Lens
Camera Resolution 20.7MP
Video Resolution 4K
Flash LED
Zoom Yes
Music Formats MP3/eAAC+/WAV/Flac
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Stereo, Front-Facing
Radio Yes

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