This is the Sony Xperia Z3, the second flagship smartphone from Sony in 2014 having replaced the barely half-year-old Sony Xperia Z2. It has a baby brother in the Xperia Z3 Compact, and a tablet in the Xperia Tablet Z3 Compact that share similar hardware features, making Sony the only Android manufacturer to have copied the successful model that Apple created with its iPhones and iPads – similar hardware, just different sizes for different needs.
It’s part of Sony’s mission to regain its title as alpha dog of the consumer electronics world. It’s far from an easy task with the two juggernauts of Apple and Samsung looming large in any conversation about smartphones but Sony have chosen a different strategy to anyone else to gain market share, rapid innovation and product replacement.
That having been said, replacing a flagship after just six months seems to most observers as an unnecessary move by Sony but from what we’ve heard there is method to this madness.
Is the Sony Xperia Z3 the best Android phone we’ve ever reviewed? Is it a pointless product to have launched with the Xperia Z2 still so fresh? Is it better than the iPhones 6? All these questions and more are answered if you read on.
Sony has outdone itself with the Xperia Z3’s new design. From the moment you first pick it up you get a feeling that it’s something special in the world of cheap, plastic smartphones that have flooded the market.
It’s once again an all glass affair with large tempered glass panels both front and back sitting inside a much improved aluminium frame over its predecessor. The frame is now rounded making it much more forgiving to your soft, fleshy paws when you hold it and the microUSB charging port has been moved to its own location under a water and dustproof door away from the nano SIM and microSD card slots on the other side, something that was an irritation in the Xperia Z2.
The bezels around the sides of the display feel smaller than in previous Xperia smartphones which have tended to feel much larger than their display sizes would suggest.
The corners of the frame have all been removed and replaced with polycarbonate inserts to help prevent total screen destruction if you should drop the Xperia Z3 on one of its four pointy bits. It also helps soften the feel of the phone in pocket where the sharper edges of the Xperia Z2 could sometimes dig in rather uncomfortably.
All in all this is not only the best designed Xperia smartphone Sony have ever made, it’s flat out one of the best looking phones we’ve ever had the pleasure of using. Sure it’s not as aluminium clad as the HTC One (M8) but it exudes class and is as beautiful now as the first time we saw one and it’s still as resistant to moisture and dust as ever with an IP68 rating.
Sony has thrown almost every piece of high end hardware it can into the Xperia Z3 and it shows. Its quad core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM combine for blisteringly fast performance on everything from web browsing to gaming.
The 16GB of storage in our review unit could easily be filled with 4k video and high resolution pictures from the 20.7 megapixel camera but because of the microSD card slot now accepting 128GB cards there were never really any worries about running out.
Wireless data is handled by the trifecta of 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and LTE while a 3 100mAh battery, which is slightly smaller than that of the Xperia Z2, keeps the Z3 running for longer, but more on that later..
The latest version 4.4.4 of Android is loaded onto the Sony Xperia Z3 when you get it but the company has already committed to upgrading the Xperia Z3 the new version 5.0 otherwise known as Lollipop sometime early next year.
Sony’s take on the Android experience continues to have very few changes to what you would normally see straight from Google and it’s rather pleasing to the eye for the most part. The one thing that has stuck around to irritate us is the ‘What’s New’ app shortcut which still lives next to the Google Search app when you swipe up from the Home button. I understand why Sony thinks it needs to help users discover new content like apps and games for their smartphones but it’s not very helpful when it comes to that due to the limited amount of recommendations in there and an inability to filter it by categories as in the Google Play Store.
Owners of a PlayStation 4 console will also have a handy treat with PS4 Remote Play, formerly just a feature for the PlayStation Vita portable console, now a part of the Xperia experience. It allows you to pair a PS4 controller to the phone via Bluetooth and pair your phone via WiFi to your PS4 console to stream games from the console to your Xperia Z3’s display while using your controller to play the game. It works brilliantly with almost no latency or lag (we played a demo at the Xperia Z3’s launch on a Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact) but unfortunately requires a place to mount your phone using either a suction cup adapter or a handy shelf.
The IPS LCD display of the Xperia Z2 has been again upgraded for use in the Xperia Z3 boasting drastically improved brightness levels which made reading anything in bright light, even outdoors under the full ferocity of a South African summer’s day a pleasure.
Sony has resisted the urge to go to a QHD 1 440×2 560 resolutions like Samsung has with its Galaxy Note 4 and LG has with the G3. Instead the Z3 sticks with the 424 pixel per inch, 5.2 inch full HD display which ensure that Sony hasn’t lost much in the way of functionality while still managing to preserve the Xperia Z3’s battery life.
Text is beautifully rendered as are images and video whether in browsers, apps or locally hosted. It’s an area we would have expected Sony to have mastered a long time ago because of its TV making prowess but it’s taking them until now to create a panel that matches the best in the industry.
Sony has always made fantastic cameras in fact the company supplies camera modules to other smartphone manufacturers as well – case in point the Huawei Ascend P7 – but as you would expect Sony does seem to keep the best ones for its own smartphones.
The 20.7 megapixel camera is the same size sensor as the last two Xperia Z flagships but Sony tells us that it’s done some work to the lenses and the light sensitivity allowing it to go up to an incredible 12 800 ISO which helps make low light photography even better.
The Superior Auto mode works fantastically well at setting things up for the average photographer with the manual mode giving a host of settings to tinker with for the more advanced user out there.
Sony is continuing with the strategy of offering downloadable camera apps similar to the lenses used in Windows Phone and, as with everything, there are some great ones and some that are particularly useless. By far the most interesting is the ‘Live on YouTube’ app which lets you stream 15 minutes the video straight to YouTube to show off something particularly awesome to your friends and family.
A strange error popped up during our testing of the camera stating “Recording in progress in another app. Cannot record”. From what we found out it has to with the Xperia Z3 worrying about the always-on ‘Okay Google’ voice command that activates Google voice search preventing the Camera from recording sound. From our tests everything still worked as it should once the error was dismissed but that didn’t stop it from annoying us every single time we opened the camera.
While the battery capacity has shrunk from 3 200mAh in the Xperia Z2 down to 3 100mAh in the Xperia Z3 it manages to eke out some of the most impressive battery life we’ve ever had in a smartphone.
Sony’s impressive suite of battery saving features has been expanded to give even more granular control over how the Xperia Z3 sips power letting you choose which apps are exempt from STAMINA Mode’s watchful eye and giving you the option of going to Ultra STAMINA Mode which transforms it into a feature phone like state to drastically conserve the last few percentage point of battery life.
Only the heaviest of smartphone users will be able to drain the Xperia Z3 of a full charge in a day and more than likely if brightness is set unnaturally high with a constantly open data connection. For the rest, the joy of all-day battery life, perhaps even a day and a half or more, should be easily within reach.
If there’s one company that I tend to be hyper-critical of it’s definitely Sony. I’ve been a fan, and an owner, of Sony products for as long as I can remember, spending money on everything from PlayStation to TVs and phones.
The Xperia Z3 has me struggling to find something that I can pinpoint as the major reason you should not buy one. The display, battery life and camera are all fantastic and there is more than enough hardware to keep it chugging along nicely for the next two years until an inevitable upgrade is due.
It’s the best smartphone Sony have made in years and it represents enough of an enhancement over the Xperia Z2 in aesthetics along to justify its existence. It’s not enough of an improvement for Xperia Z2 owners to start worrying about obsolescence just yet but it may hurt the pride of many who were happy at having the best turn to naught in just six months.
If you’re stuck between the two sizes of the iPhones 6 then the Xperia Z3 may just be the salve to your ache for something in the Goldilocks region between the two. It’s not just good enough to lay down a challenge for your money, the Xperia Z3 is good enough to win out over every other phone we’ve seen.
Price: R8 055
Display: 5.2 inch, 1 080×1 920 resolution IPS LCD display (441ppi)
Operating System: Android 4.4.4
Processor: 2.5GHz quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor
Memory: 3GB of RAM
Storage: 16GB expandable by up to 128GB with a microSD card
Battery: 3 100mAh non-replaceable battery
Camera: 20.7 megapixel camera
Networking: 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE
Other: IP68 certified dust proof and water-resistant at depths over 1 meter for 30 minutes