Smartphone enthusiasts who start messing around with the bootloader on their phones know that they’re running the risk of seriously mucking things up; that’s just one of many reasons why bootloaders tend to come locked-down to the extent that they are. But if you’re careful and follow the advice of users who have gone before you, unlocking the bootloader and getting ready for some custom ROM action can be a pretty safe process. Every once in a while, though, we learn of an unexpected consequence to taking such actions, and a new one is coming to our attention this week, with reports of noticeably downgraded Sony Xperia Z3 camera performance following the unlocking of the phone’s bootloader.
Sony’s been offering its customers an online tool for bootloader unlocks since back when it was still making phones under the Sony Ericsson name. All along, it warned users of voided warranties and possible hardware damage, but neither of those is the issue with the Z3 (and reportedly, Z3 Compact).
The problem is with DRM keys. A locked-down bootloader prevents you from directly accessing this data, used to control how you can view media purchases (among other things), so when you unlock the phone, Sony wipes the keys – it’s always done this.
If you lost your movies, that would be one thing – and an understandable consequence. But with the Z3 (and Compact), those DRM keys aren’t just protecting media, and Sony also uses them to lock down its proprietary image-processing algorithms – presumably to prevent users from porting them to other manufacturers’ phones.
As a result, pictures taken with a bootloader-unlocked Xperia Z3 are quite a bit less sharp than with the DRM keys present. As if the difference wasn’t obvious, an original, locked-down, DRM-present Sony phone (an old Z1 Compact) took the picture up top on the left, while the shot on the right comes from a Z3 Compact, after it was unlocked – both models using Sony’s 20.7MP sensor.
Sony clearly informs Z3 owners of this issue on its bootloader unlock page, so we can’t really say it’s misleading anyone, but that doesn’t make this problem any less of a weird (in a bad sense), unintuitive way for DRM to further get in the way of us fully enjoying our phones.