What is the Sony Xperia Z3?

The Sony Xperia Z3 is the Android _phone_ follow-up to the Xperia Z2, a _phone_ that only launched six months ago. So, how much can you improve things in such a small space of time? Well, not by a great deal it seems. There’s a minor bump up in power, some improvements in the camera department and now it's all wrapped up in a slimmer, lighter body. The good news is that all of the things that made the Z2 so great, like the great screen, mammoth battery life and blistering fast performance are still intact.

It’s the best Z phone yet in spite of such an iterative update and is in great company with the One M8, Galaxy S5, LG G3 and the iPhone 6. When the next Xperia phone arrives, though, we expect Sony to raise the bar more.
 
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Sony Xperia Z3: Design

For looks, the Xperia Z3 is not a radical departure from the Z2. There’s still the same combination of glass and aluminium with features like front-facing speakers and the camera sensor positioned at the back. At 7.3mm thick, it’s slimmer than the Z2 but not quite as svelte as the iPhone 6. It weighs 10g less than the Z2, not that you are really going to notice. What is more evident is the narrower frame, making it better suited for one-handed use.

It’s available in black, green, white and copper, the latter of which we had the pleasure of pulling out of our pocket. It’s actually not as garish or tacky as it first seems and is a colour that kind of grows on you.

The anodised aluminium finish has a very iPhone 6-look about it until you flip it over and see the glass rear. It might look nice, but it has irritating habit of slipping off sofa arms and pretty much any soft, not totally flat surface you leave it on. The S5’s dimpled back and even the all-metallic One M8 offers a more reassuring feel.

SEE ALSO: Best Smartphones Round-up

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The corners are curvier, too, which ought to make it more comfortable to hold. It doesn't. Why? Because on every edge you your hand rests there's a button, a vanity seal or a charging dock. Buttons are at least well placed and thinner and while there’s nothing else out there like the Z3, we’d say the iPhone 6 and the One M8 have the more attractive, less fussy design.

One thing those two phones lack, however, is the Z3’s resistance to dust and water. Sony has moved up to a higher IP68 certification, which means as long as the latches covering the charging port and nano SIM card slot are closed, you can now dunk it into water for up to 1.5 metres for thirty minutes.

Those latches guarding the micro USB charging port, nano SIM and micro SD card slot feel more robust than the ones on previous Xperia Z handsets and should hopefully do a better job of keeping those vital internals protected.

SEE ALSO: Best Android Phones Round-up
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Sony Xperia Z3: Screen

Sony hasn’t budged from a 5.2-inch IPS LCD display from the Z2. That means 424 pixels per inch (ppi) and it still one of the sharpest, most pleasing phone screens around. It's also a bigger screen than the S5, the One M8 and the iPhone 6, although the G3 is still out in front with its 5.5-inch display. Some might be disappointed it’s not a 2K display like LG’s flagship, but this still a fantastic screen.

It’s not all entirely the same in terms of performance, either. One thing you instantly notice is how much brighter it is. Crank it up to the max and this is one of the brightest phones we’ve seen, especially compared to the S5 and the One M8. Coupled with the adaptive display mode where brightness is automatically adjusted depending on the environment, it’s well equipped for outdoor use.

The strategy to borrow screen technology from its Bravia TV range continues to pay off as well. Adopting Triluminous, X-Reality for Mobile and Live Colour LED display technology, images are still immensely sharp, with strong contrast and accurate colours. Unlike traditional LCD displays, Sony uses blue LED as opposed to white ones to produce the more colourful, vivid images. In the bright outdoors, you can actually see the blue LED array.

If there's a criticism it's that colours can look slightly oversaturated, but this can be addressed in the display settings. Adjust the white balance and  turn on or off the X-Reality for mobile and Super-vivid modes the image enhancement menu and you get slightly less overcooked colours.

Running a Full HD version of the Interstellar trailer on the Z3, the iPhone 6 and the Galaxy S5, the Z3 still holds up exceptionally well. Faces look natural, viewing angles are strong and whites are nice and bright. Where it lacks in comparison particularly to the S5’s AMOLED display is the deep blacks that make Samsung’s better suited for watching films. That minor gripe aside, this is still a top quality smartphone display.

Sony Xperia Z3: Software

The Z3 runs on Android 4.4.4 KitKat with Sony’s user interface laid on top. While it’s not a clunky or cumbersome take on Google’s mobile operating system, Sony does packs it with its own software.

On our count there’s over fifteen Sony-related apps to go with Google’s collection, plus extras like OfficeSuite, Kobo, Sketch and NeoReader. These are littered across the multiple homescreens, so you might want to do a clear up job and get them into folders to make life easier. They take up lots of space, too. With 32GB of on-board storage, just under 12GB is actually free for you to see. Much of the Sony bloatware can be deleted, but there’s a lot to take in for first-time users.

Aside from that, the look and feel of the Z3’s software has hardly changed. You can still open the app drawer and swipe right to organize apps, the dropdown notification bar lets you switch between quick settings and notifications. You’ll find the usual suspects here like some comprehensive audio and power management settings.

One of the features that still works well is the default keyboard. Keys are nicely spaced out and unlike rival phones, it’s more difficult to make mistakes here even at full typing speed.

SEE ALSO: Android 4.4 tips, tricks and secrets

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Sony Xperia Z3: Performance

If you want power then the Z3 has plenty of it, not that the Z2 was short of it mind you. It uses the same Snapdragon 801 processor, but this time clocked at a higher 2.5GHz in comparison to 2.3GHz on the Z2. There’s still 3GB of RAM, giving it an identical profile to the Samsung Galaxy S5. The 801 processors are not top of the class with the soon to be released Note 4 and Note Edge packing the newer Snapdragon 805 processors, but you won't notice.

It’s still a blistering quick phone and the best way to illustrate is that our usual go-to game for testing, Real Racing 3. It installed in less than five minutes when it usually takes much longer than that. For general navigation it’s a similar story. There’s no signs of lag and apps launch nice and swiftly.

SEE ALSO: Snapdragon 805 vs 801 vs 800 comparison
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The benchmark tests back this up as well. In the Geekbench 3 tests, it managed a 2,772 multi-core score so it’s no surprise to see that it’s in the same ballpark as the S5 (2,908) and the One M8 (2,840), both of which run on the same architecture.

For gaming, things run beautifully. This is the CPU set up designed for more graphically demanding gaming. You get the added reflections on cars and more luscious-looking landscapes, which the Z2 handles with relative ease.

But One problem which appears to persist is the overheating issue that seems to have plagued the Xperia phones since the first Z handset. Clock in half an hour on a game like Real Racing 3 and the back will begin to warm up. Glass isn’t renowned for dealing with heat well and while the glass might look pretty, maybe it's time for Sony to change things here.

Sony Xperia Z3: Camera

The Z3 has pretty much the same camera as the Z2, but for some small changes that should in theory help improve its all-round shooting credentials. At the heart is a 20.7-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch sensor with a single LED flash and faster 25mm lens that’s wider than the one on the Z2.

The ISO sensitivity now maxes out at slightly ridiculous 12,800 to aid low-light shooting. There's still a dedicated camera button, which should help shooting underwater as well.

While image quality it's not in the same league as the Lumia 1020, you can still capture good quality images.

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The camera app is once again brimming with modes and settings with the usual Superior and Automatic modes. The former does the thinking for you, picking the right mode depending on the conditions. There are also features included for taking Bokeh-style background defocus shots and more frivolous options like putting dinosaurs on your images with the AR effect mode.

You can still shoot 4K video as well and there’s new additions like multi-camera to record the same scene from multiple angles using additional Xperia devices, time lapse videos and to broadcast video live to YouTube.

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A dedicated camera button makes shooting underwater with the Xperia Z3 possible

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The background defocus mode can be brilliant one time and rubbish the next. This shot looks good until you notice the weird blurred of the table and plant pot on the right.

Despite packing more megapixels than rival flagships, settings and modes are largely built around shooting in the lower 8-megapixel resolution. That’s the same megapixel count as what the iPhone 6. To shoot in the maximum resolution you’ll need to switch to manual mode in the camera app and adjust it in settings. It does mean you lose modes like the HDR, the high sensitivity shooting and the ability to shoot better photos at a fireworks display.

The camera app is not the easiest to operate in one hand, especially when you are trying to keep your grip on the glass back. You need to jump in and out of settings in a very unintuitive way, especially when compared to the Galaxy S5 or the One M8 camera apps.

Grabbing some samples shots in 8-megapixel and 20.7-megapixel resolution you'll notice first of all that the Z3 can fit more in the frame. Detail and sharpness is good in both images, although the colours in the 8-megapixel image look more stable and vibrant.

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Photo taken in 20.7-megapixel resolution

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Photo taken in 8-megapixel resolution

For close-ups images or macro-style images, the 20.7-megapixel image clearly shows signs of a struggle to stay focused in the foreground. Drop down to 8-megapixels and as the second image below suggests, you can shoot sharp, colourful photos with the Z3.
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Close-up photo sample at 20.7-megapixel resolution

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Dropping down to 8-megapixels show big improvement for close-up shooting

In theory, one of the biggest improvements is for low-light shooting. The Z2 is already an accomplished performer so we were interested to see how the Z3 fares. Like its predecessor, there are several modes dedicated to night-time photos. If you want to take advantage of the ISO 12,800 sensitivity, you need to be shooting in 8-megapixels. Sadly, there’s no optical image stabilization as Sony sticks to its digital equivalent and it would have no doubt improved its low-light shooting credentials.

ISO sensitivity is basically to do with the way the sensor, which is quite big on the Z3, handles the light available to the camera. The lower the number, the less sensitive it is to light. With such a high number, we expected improved results, though noise is normally a problem at such high levels.

The first image below is shot at a lower ISO sensitivity and as you can see it isn't especially sharp. The second photo with the maximum ISO sensitivity mode turned on does tighten up some of the aspects of the image, like the building on the left, the people walking by and the light reflections on the water.

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8-megapixel photo sample shot with ISO 200 sensitivity

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8-megapixel photo sample shot with high sensitivity mode turned on

In completely blacked out conditions, you'll need to to turn to the single LED flash to pick up anything you have lined up to shoot. When conditions are more stable, like the image below, the flash copes well and while there's some noise it does a good job for colour accuracy and detail.

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8-megapixel photo sample taken indoors in pitch black with flash turned on

HDR is increasingly becoming a key feature for top-end phones. The one on the S5 is brilliant and the iPhone 6 one is not bad either. In the case of the Z3, its HDR mode is good but not the best you can get.

As the image below show, switching HDR on doesn't have a dramatic impact on quality. It's definitely brighter but it also looks a little grainier and the reds in the badge are not as punchy.

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HDR mode turned off

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HDR mode turned on

If you need to revert to shooting images with the front-facing camera, it’s the same 2.2-megapixel resolution sensor that’s also capable of shooting Full HD 1080p video. HDR is supported, as is digital image stabilization, and the Steadycam mode will also help keep footage free from judder.

For video, like the S5, the Z3 can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second, which is the same as the Samsung phone. Interestingly, after reports of the overheating with the Z2 when shooting Ultra HD video, the app now flashes up a warning to notify users that extended use can cause the app to shut down.

While it's nice for Sony to admit there's a problem, it’s not exactly addressing the issue here and we'd hope in the next handset it sorts this out properly.

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Shooting this mode much like the Z2 means settings are greatly reduced. Features like SteadyShot and turning on the torch mode are pretty much what you have to play with. We didn’t have a suitable device to review the 4K video so we also shot footage in 1080p HD. Here you can do much more and quality is still good, sharp and detailed in the suitably bright conditions. 4K video is a nice thing to talk about, but it's not that useful to most people right now.

Sony Xperia Z3: Battery Life

Sony has included a 3,100mAh battery, which is actually slightly smaller than the 3,200mAh one in the Z2, but that’s still bigger than what the Samsung Galaxy S5, the HTC One M8 and the LG G3 are packing. The drop down shouldn’t be a concern though as the Z3 still delivers huge battery life.

You can comfortably get a couple of days use out of this and that’s without tapping into the battery saving power management modes Sony still includes, which we go into more detail in our Xperia Z2 review. It will push on further if you don’t have that brightness cranked up to the max as well.

In our more extreme testing running a SD video on loop, the Z3 manages on average around the 13 hour mark, which is a couple of hours less than the Z2 manages but still more than the One M8, iPhone 6, S5 and the LG G3.

The Z3 is not alone on managing to creep up to the two-day mark. The S5 and the One M8 can offer a similarly good performance and the one thing they all have in common is the more efficient Snapdragon processors. The difference here, is that there’s a greater reliance on the power saving modes on the S5 and the One M8 to keep things chugging along. With the Z3, you don’t have to make compromises.

Despite using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip, it doesn’t support the new Quick Charge technology so plugging it in to power back up from flat for thirty minutes will still get you around the 20% mark.

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Sony Xperia Z3: Call and Sound Quality

For call quality, Sony doesn’t make any dramatic changes. It’s still offers good, clear and crisp sound with no signs of signal drop out. You still have the active noise cancellation thanks to a dedicated mic, but there’s additional modes like microphone noise suppression, the ability to enhance speaker voice and even slow down speech from the other caller with Slow talk.

While speaker quality is nowhere near as rounded as HTC’s Boomsound speakers, they are still decent and again sit between the One M8 and the S5 for quality. They are still sit up front, ideal for watching video, and are discreetly disguised within the thick black bezel.

It’s loud and there’s good clarity, but performance is better when you plug in your headphones. That’s when there’s plenty for audiophiles to get their teeth into. Jump into Audio settings and you’ll find Sony’s ClearAudio mode, which immediately cleans up the audio quality from third-party apps like Spotify and Google Play Music. If you also own a pair of Sony headphones then there’s dedicated profiles as well, but one of the most interesting inclusions is support for Hi-res Audio.

Basically, that means unlike the compressed audio formats you usually get on music streaming sites and stores like iTunes you can listen to tracks with greater detail and close to the sound when recorded. You’ll need to hook up a DAC or DAC amp to get it to work and there’s only a handful of places you can actually find high-res audio, so it's not cheap to to it, but if you're interested then the Sony is the only phone to support it.

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Other things to consider

Where’s our PS4 Remote Play, Sony? Arguably a killer feature for the Z3 and something that will no doubt attract PS4 owners who don’t already have a PS Vita, it’s not yet available to use for the Sony phone. Remote Play works in a similar way to linking up the Sony handheld to the PS4, letting you play PS4 games on your phone, as long as you are on the same Wi-Fi network.

The connection is made via the official PlayStation app, which is already pre-installed, and for anyone who has used it already is pretty limited. As long as you are on the same Wi-Fi the app should recognise the PS4 and then you’ll be prompted to go into the PS4 settings to establish a connection by typing in a code. Once completed, you will be able to use it as a second screen as well as being able to disconnect and power off the console. The one feature that doesn’t work is that all important blue PS4 icon.

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To get the best experience you’ll need the GCM10 game control mount, which costs just under £20 from Amazon. It looks a bit like the mount you’d use to keep a sat-nav in place in your car and it uses a sticky suction cup that holds the Z3 by its glass back. You then need to place your DualShock 4 controller in the lower part, which secures with a latch just below the PlayStation home button. All buttons including the touch panel are accessible.

Although we weren’t able to test it out, there are a couple of things to notice about the mount itself. The suction cup inevitably doesn’t take long to pick up dust and muck , educing its ability to keep the Z3 in place. The DualShock 4 controller is also lighter than the Z3, so the setup feels slightly top-heavy.

When the update is live, we’ll return to update the review to let you know how it works.

SEE ALSO: How to play PS4 games on the Xperia Z3


Should I buy the Sony Xperia Z3?

This is the best flagship Xperia phone Sony has come up with, but if you own the Xperia Z2 then there's clearly little reason to upgrade. If you want pretty much all the same features for less and with a smaller screen, then it's also worth considering the Z3 Compact, which costs £399 compared to the Z3's £549 price.

Next to its closest rivals, the Z3 doesn't offer any great innovation over rivals like the iPhone 6, One M8, the Galaxy S5 or the LG G3 and it isn't the most stylish, but if you value power and battery life then this is a good phone for you.

Sony will certainly have to up its game for the Z4 and address those video overheating issues instead of glossing over them if it's going to break away from the competition.

Verdict

This is the best Sony phone so far but for Z2 owners, it's worth waiting out for the Xperia Z4 or whatever Sony decides to call its next Xperia flagship smartphone where hopefully we should see something more radically different.

Next, read our round-up of the best smartphones to buy 2014