Sony Xperia Z3 review: Xperia Z2 v. 1.1, but still worth every penny
We’ve had the pleasure of reviewing all of Sony’s modern “Z” flagships here at Pocketnow, and, if you’ve been following our reviews and scores, you’ve probably noticed that Sony has managed to continuously improve these smartphones. Starting with the Sony Xperia Z in 2013 – which scored 8.5 – followed by the Sony Xperia Z1 in the same year – we rated it 9.1 – to the Sony Xperia Z2 more recently in early 2014 – that got a 9.2 – we’ve come to the Sony Xperia Z3 review which you’re currently reading (and, as you can see above, rates 9.3).
Not only that, but you’ve probably also noticed Sony’s business model here, of releasing a flagship every six months or so; or, to put it differently, prepare to see two flagships from Sony every year. 2013 was the year of the Z and Z1, this year is the year of the Z2 and Z3, and, if there’s any consistency, next year we’re expecting to see the Z4 in Q1/Q2 (probably MWC), and the Z5 in Q3/Q4 (possibly at IFA).
If you’re a fan of the smaller sibling, the “Compact,” you’ve probably seen our Xperia Z1 Compact review. Make sure not to miss our Xperia Z3 Compact review either (yes, Sony skipped a number), if you think the Xperia Z3 got everything right, but it’s too big for your taste (or if you’re looking for – finally – a flagship mini phone).
But let’s get back to the Xperia Z3, which we’re currently reviewing. It’s not easy to justify its existence, with a predecessor ao good as the Xperia Z2 is. We’re sure Sony can convince you, and, if you don’t come from an Xperia Z2, the Xperia Z3’s situation and position is clear: right there at the top of the food chain. Is it a worthy successor to the Xperia Z2? Is it one of the best Android phones on the market today? We’ll try to answer that while we look at the device from every angle, in our full Sony Xperia Z3 review below.
Specs & Hardware
It’s easy to wow the world if your update is a major one. Incremental updates tend to be overlooked, waved off, especially if the predecessor was already a powerhouse (and if you don’t take the newcomer into consideration on its own). That is the case of any incremental update, and it is definitely the case with the Xperia Z3 as well. As we’ve noted in our video review, embedded above, there are many similarities between the Z2 and the Z3, but there are just as many differences as well.
You’ll feel both at home and a sense of novelty with the Xperia Z3, which looks like the Xperia Z2 went on a diet. The Xperia Z3 is shorter, thinner, and lighter, while being just a hair wider than the Z2. It measures 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm, and weighs 152g, which is very lightweight considering an aluminum and glass construction. However, the Xperia Z3 doesn’t feel inconsistent at all!
The entire front and backplate are made out of “durable tempered glass panels”, which look pretty elegant, and premium, but have two major downsides: first, and this is general, if you drop the phone, it will most likely not survive the fall without cracked glass on the front, back, or both sides, depending on your luck. Second, and this mostly applies to dark colors, like the black unit we’ve got right here: it’s a fingerprint magnet. While it is relatively easy to clean (even under the sink), your phone will look “clean” only until the first time you hold it. Don’t expect the cold-to-the-touch feel in the hand, which aluminum phones (like the HTC One M8 or the iPhone 6) offer, but do expect a premium sensation when grabbing the handset.
The rounded corners add to the cozy in-hand feel. It’s easy to hold on to the device, and it looks and feels very solid, with no noticeable gaps, holes, squeaks, or moving parts. You can also rest assured your phone will do just fine when submerged, thanks to its dust- and water-proof construction. While you won’t be able to put it in your pocket before a swim in the ocean or sea, you will however be able to take some great underwater stills at the pool.
The button layout has been kept consistent, as has the overall design of the device. On the front you’ll find the earpiece, front-facing 2.2MP camera, all of your sensors, the screen, and the bottom, secondary speaker. The notification LED has been moved from behind the earpiece on the Z2, to the top left corner on the Z3. The earpiece itself, as well as the bottom speaker, have been redesigned: the units sound louder with a wider acoustic range, and their cutouts are now narrower. Stereo front-firing sound for multimedia and speakerphone calls is excellent, comparable to the experience you’re getting on the HTC One M8’s BoomSound speakers.
The display is still a 5.2-inch Triluminos IPS LCD, with the same full HD resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. However, Sony claims that this is one of the brightest panels out there, and with X-Reality for mobile, your pictures or general content really looks good. The screen is indeed very bright, and it helps in direct sunlight visibility, though not as much as we expected.
Color reproduction, brightness, and contrast have all been improved, and software optimization plays an important role. It is definitely one of the best IPS LCD displays we’ve seen. And, you can always tweak your white balance to suit your own needs by using Sony’s own white balance setting. Side angle visibility has been now finally fixed, so you won’t have any issues like on the original models (and we’re not referring to the Z2, but the Z1 and the original Z).
The left side no longer hosts the SIM card slot, like on the Xperia Z2. This has been now repositioned. You will only find the USB port, magnetic dock connector, and a lanyard hole on the left. As mentioned previously, the SIM and microSD card slots are now sharing a flap on the right side, where the power button, volume rockers, and camera button are also found. And, since we’re talking about the SIM card, the Xperia Z3 will now require a nano SIM, instead of a micro SIM on the Z2. The top is where your headphone jack (without a flap or cover), and microphone are found.
The bottom is boring with absolutely no action going on, while the back is where the improved camera (more on that in our camera section) with flash and NFC antenna are residing.
Behind the screen, glass, and plastic, an improved Qualcomm Snapdragon processor powers everything. It’s a quad-core Snapdragon 801 chip clocking at 2.5GHz, a tad faster on paper than the one inside the Z2.
Internal storage – 16GB, expandable to up to 128GB via microSD card – and RAM – at 3GB – are the same as on the previous iteration of the phone. However, battery size has been reduced to 3,100mAh, 100mAh less than on the Z2. That, coupled with the brighter screen and faster processor should offer shorter battery life on paper, but, in reality, Sony has managed to actually increase it. More on that in our Performance section below.
All the other specs are identical to those found on the Z2. This means you have your NFC on the back, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, most of your sensors*, and so on.
* all sensors include: accelerometer, ambient light sensor, barometer sensor, game rotation vector, geomagnetic rotation vector, gyroscope, magnetometer, step counter, step detector, significant motion detector, proximity sensor
In terms of network operation, there are five versions of the device: D6603, D6633, D6643, D6653, and D6616. Each model has its own frequency compatibility, but our unit right here is the D6603, and it supports UMTS HSPA+ 850 (Band V), 900 (Band VIII), 1700 (Band IV), 1900 (Band II), 2100 (Band I) MHz, GSM GPRS/EDGE 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz, and LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20). For the complete list of frequencies, check out Sony’s Xperia Z3 white paper.
The construction is still water- and dust-proof, but Sony has managed to increase its ingress protection ratings on the Z3 from IP55 and IP58 on the Z2 previously, to IP65 and IP68 on the Z3 today.
The phone is powered by Android 4.4.4, with Sony’s own user interface on top of it. We look at all that in the Software section below.
Opinions are split when it comes to Sony’s own user interface. There are those who claim that it looks close to stock Android, and there are those, like us, who think it’s far from that. It’s interesting how looking at, and using the same software, can generate such contrary opinions and conclusions.
Do we still feel the skin is heavy, like we felt with the occasion of our Xperia Z2 review? Yes! It’s not ugly, it’s heavy, and Sony does its best to bring its own offerings in your day-to-day usage scenario. You can, of course, dismiss all of those, if you like. The user interface is not ugly: it’s a combination of colored skeuomorphic icons and dark backgrounds, and there are some apps, like Album and Walkman, which are beautifully executed, and a pleasure to use. There are deep tie-ins with the operating system that we sometimes wish weren’t there, like for instance Sony’s What’s New offering, that shares the swipe from the bottom with Google Now. You can’t, sadly, get rid of this; instead, you need to learn to live with it.
Then there are the so-called small apps, or windowed apps, which should, and they do, run on top of everything else. Active clip, bookmarks, browser, calculator, calendar, timer, touch block, and downloadable extra clips are available. The implementation is sadly far from Samsung’s Multi-Window, but if you need to do a real quick calculation on top of an email with a bunch of numbers, it can do the job.
Waking up the device is just a double tap away. The notification tray expands from the top, as usual, but swiping with two fingers brings you straight to the settings tab within the shade, where you can customize your icons and shortcuts to our liking.
The app drawer is easy to navigate, but, in general, you either like or dislike Sony’s own UI. There’s no middle ground here. You’ll definitely get used to it, but if candy-like colored icons are not your thing, you’ll probably switch to another launcher. We would really like to be able to place some shortcuts on the lock screen, but the only way to customize it is by enabling widgets. And, talking about customization, you can change the overall look and feel of your device by choosing one of the seven themes available on the phone, or you can download a new one at any time.
The user experience isn’t bad at all, at the end of the day, and, if you’re not a “vanilla-freak” you will definitely be able to use the Xperia Z3 stock. However, we wish there would be, sometime in the near future, a Google Play edition Sony Xperia Z3, something we wished for when reviewing the Xperia Z2 as well.
Now, when it comes to the camera, we’re extremely satisfied of both the user experience and the results. The hardware focus/shutter button is not only a necessity for underwater photo snapping (where the touchscreen is basically useless), but it makes your life a lot easier. We just wish it were present on all smartphones. The key itself can not only wake the device and launch the camera, but there’s also an option which allows you to snap a picture right after doing that, should you ever find yourself in a hurry, or in need of capturing a moment real fast.
The camera software has been basically untouched since the Z2 (and Z1), but there are some small differences. Aside from Superior Auto and Manual, there are a lot of preloaded “camera apps”, and there’s also a tab allowing you to download more from the web. Think of it as Sony’s Android take on Windows Phone camera lens apps.
You’ll spend most of your time in Superior Auto and Manual, though.
When it comes to performance, we can easily name the Z3 one of the best cameras on an Android smartphone. The Superior Auto mode does a good job at coping with different shooting conditions. And, if you want more color or contrast, depending on the scene you’re shooting, Manual mode allows you to further improve your stills.
The everyday photographer will be extremely happy with the results. Stills are sharp, relatively noise-free, and packed with contrast. The software occasionally messes up white balance, but that can only be perceived by the person who is actually there, shooting the picture. The more demanding among you will also find themselves satisfied with the results.
When it comes to video, there’s little to complain about. Sony’s own SteadyShot software image stabilization does a great job; sometimes you really get the feeling the device has OIS. 4K recording is available, but the samples we shot were recorded in 1080p.
There are some issues though, as it’s not all perfect. Most of the effects and features are only available in 8MP picture modes. Move up to 15 or 20MP, and you will not be able to set your scenes, or tinker deeper with the settings.
There’s no way around it: we prefer the Xperia Z3’s camera over most Android cameras out there at the moment.
We’ve spent almost two weeks with the Xperia Z3, before publishing this review. We’ve tested it out on 3G and 4G networks in Europe, and we found no reception or data speed problems whatsoever.
We aren’t big fans of benchmarks here at Pocketnow. Instead, we’ll tell you this: if the Xperia Z2 was (and still is) one snappy phone, the Xperia Z3, and its quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor clocked at 2.5GHz (coupled with 3GB of RAM) make both everyday tasks, as well as multimedia and gaming, a pleasure. Everything you throw at it is buttery smooth. And, we’re happy to report that the Z3, while it does indeed get warm, doesn’t get nowhere near as warm as its predecessor.
Voice quality is good on the receiving end. People we talked to sounded good, and they said the same about us, after we disabled “microphone noise suppression.” With the setting on, we were told we sounded like a robot at the end of a 1980 landline.
Speakerphone performance is also good, and so is media playback on the front-firing speakers, which are improved over the ones on the Z2. The audio frequency range is wider, volume is higher, the phone is louder, and, while it’s no BoomSound, it’s definitely as close as it can get.
You can also enjoy multimedia with the bundled earphones. No, they’re not the noise cancelling buds the Z2 came with, but the audio quality is very good. Sony’s own software enhancements play an important role, but it’s all thanks to the hardware.
We were afraid that the smaller battery, brighter screen, and faster processor would result in shorter battery life, compared to the Z2. It’s not the case! The Z3 performs much better than the Z2, which was no slouch either. We’ve managed to go for more than two days on a charge, and still have 9% left, with a little over 3 hours of screen-on time, and moderate to heavy use. On a different attempt we managed to squeeze one and a half days out of it, with more than 4 hours of screen-on time. Software optimization, and probably some improved power efficiency features inside the newer Snapdragon processor allow the 3,100mAh battery to last long enough to satisfy everyone’s needs. Not to mention that you can also extend this further by using Sony’s Stamina mode, and the other power-related features, like location-based WiFi.
Expect these numbers to be lower if you’re heavy on games. The Z3 doesn’t get as warm as the Z2, and it can cope with any modern, demanding, game out there, but the battery will deplete faster.
+ beautifully built
+ premium feeling
+ exceptional performance
+ excellent camera
+ water and dust proof construction
+ great battery life
– software is inconsistent at times
– notifications are rather low in volume
– headphone volume could be higher
Pricing and Availability
If you live in the US, as of October 9, when Sony officially unveiled its Xperia Z3 plans for the States, you can grab the Xperia Z3, under the Z3v name, on Verizon, starting October 23, for $200 on contract. Sony and Verizon are offering shoppers the ability to save a little cash when they go with a bundle deal, giving back $200 when the Z3v is purchased alongside an old Z2 Tablet.
Also in the States, as of October 29, the Xperia Z3 will be available on T-Mobile for $630, or $26.25 a month over the course of two years.
Outside of the US, you can grab it from various carriers and online retailers, like Clove, in the UK, where it goes for £429.17 (which is £515.00 including Value Added Tax), for the SIM-free, unlocked, international unit.
So, should you buy it? It’s a small improvement over the Z2, which was a small improvement over the Z1.
We’ll say this: if you currently own a Z2, you might want to wait for the Z4, which should land early next year. If you are looking to upgrade your current Android phone, or you want to switch platforms — while not coming from the Xperia Z2 — the Xperia Z3 should definitely be on your top 3 list. It’s got a powerful camera, a good-looking water- and dust-proof build, great screen, excellent performance, and is an all around capable device. Just like its predecessor, we think the Xperia Z3 is also “worth every penny.”