Sony Xperia Z3 Review: X(PERIA) marks the spot

Overview

The Xperia Z3 is fourth in line of Sony’s Xperia Z-series, and it is at best an incremental upgrade to the Z2. However, that is not to say that the Z3 is a bad device. It packs quite a punch that might just be enough to knock out all of the competition.

 Pros:

  • Display can finally be considered near-perfect
  • Fantastic design
  • Extremely loud and clear front-facing speakers
  • UI looks nearly identical to stock Android
  • Waterproof
  • Camera has been even further improved
  • Battery life is out of this world

Cons:

  • Ridiculously slippery glass back
  • Device gets really hot when recording in 4K/2160p
  • Top and bottom bezels are still very large
  • Only 16 GB of internal storage

Introduction

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To say that I did not want to get the Z3 right after its IFA announcement would be an outright lie. Already very impressed with the Z2, I was curious to find out what Sony had changed in the Z3. While the upgrades are not going to be enticing to Z2 or even Z1 owners, you cannot deny the Z3 is a fantastic phone – at least on paper. So let’s see what the paper says, shall we?

  Sony Xperia Z3
Display 5.2”, 1080p IPS LCD display
Camera 20.7 MP, LED flash, 1/2.3 inch sensor
Video Recording 2160p/4K
Processor 2.5 GHz Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
GPU Adreno 330
RAM 3 GB
Storage 16 GB, micro-SD expandable
Battery 3100 mAh, removable battery
Other IP65/68 certification (water and dustproof), NFC, LTE

Unboxing, Design and Build Quality

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Opening up the Z3’s box you get the standard stuff – user manuals, earphones (we didn’t get the Active Noise Cancelling ones), micro-USB to USB cable, and the charging socket.

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I was sent the Z3 in bronze, a colour that I really liked in press shots. In reality though, it looks even better. Honestly, pictures don’t even do this phone justice – I like it so damn much. It carries over the metal chassis and twin glass panels on the front and back from the Xperia Z2, and the Z1 before that. I also love the large, rectangular design of the Z3 unlike Nicholas, for it makes the device stand out in today’s sea of iPhones and Samsungs (it is the only flagship not to have completely round edges).

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The only change in design from the Z2 is that the speakers are no longer embedded along the edges of the top and bottom, and the notification light is now at the top left instead.

Both flaps open
Both flaps open

Just like the Z2, the Z3 is also IP65/68 certified, meaning that it can survive quite the dunking underwater – albeit only for a certain duration. Also continued is the wireless charging pins at the left of the device, though it is a proprietary design and does not follow the Qi standard.

All in all, the Z3 is fantastic looking device. But how does it handle?

Handling

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Here’s where I found my first issue with the Z3 – it is way too slippery. Put it down on the table a little carelessly and it will slide a fair distance. It also dropped off the edge of a smooth wooden table once when I had received a message. If I were you, I wouldn’t trust the Z3 anywhere near an edge.

In the hand, the Z3 feels incredibly smooth, but not so much so that it makes you doubt if it’s going to find itself a shortcut to the ground. The power button is located right at where your thumb or index finger rests, with the volume keys right below it.

Display

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Both the Xperia Z and Z1 had less than stellar displays. They used the twisted nematic (TN) effect in their screens, and as a result found themselves on the end of horrible viewing angles. The Z2 changed this with an IPS display, but in so doing lost a lot of its brightness and contrast compared to the Z1.

With the Z3, however, it combines the best of both worlds. There is high contrast and brightness, although at the expense of really high black luminance. Still, it doesn’t look as bad as it did on the LG G3 for Sony doesn’t have any ridiculous software-side sharpening going on.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Sony Xperia Z3 0.65 866 1333
Sony Xperia Z2 0.41 488 1195
Nokia Lumia 930 0 149 0 347
Oppo Find 7 0.22 248 1135 0.40 448 1123
LG G3 0.14 109 763 0.72 570 789
Samsung Galaxy S5 0 274 0 529
Samsung Galaxy S4 0 201 0 404
HTC One (M8) 0.20 245 1219 0.46 577 1256
Apple iPhone 5 0.13 200 1490 0.48 640 1320

When sunlight contrast is called into question, the Z3 breezes through, although it doesn’t quite come close to the Z2 or Z1 before it.

Sunlight

Still, the Z3 is easy to use even under bright sunlight and has fantastic colours and contrast to boot. The next step for Sony to improve it is to reduce black luminance – this is the second worst we’ve seen.

All in all, you’re not going to have any complaints from the Z3’s display. Let’s find out how its software is.

User Interface, Apps and Audio

UI

The UI of the Xperia Z3 is nearly identical to the Z2 – only difference is, the Z3 follows a little more closely to stock. The icon for the app drawer is now circular like on Nexus devices, and the folders now have a white background. Furthermore, the icons are much larger now as well making them nicer to look at, and 60 FPS motion is a joy to see.

Otherwise, the UI and audio is identical to the Xperia Z2 – the review of which you can read here.

Battery Life

The Z3 features a large 3100 mAh battery, which is actually 100 mAh less than what was in the Xperia Z2. What’s more surprising is that the Z3 actually beats the Z2 in terms of battery life.

We let loose our daily usage test on the Z3, and it finished with an amazing showing. We used the device in the following situations:

  • 1 hour LTE web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi YouTube video streaming (720p)
  • 30 minutes gaming (Asphalt 8)
  • 2 hour 1080p movie
  • Standby idling under STAMINA mode

Battery Life

Sony really wasn’t kidding when they said they’d improved on the battery life, for this is absolutely monstrous. The Z3 managed to impress, beating out the Z2 by achieving 41 hours off-charger, with a 6 and a half hour screen-on time.

With this kind of battery life, one doesn’t even need to charge the phone for nearly two days – and in today’s race for 1440p, this is a huge achievement. We need stable, long-lasting battery life before we start draining it away.

Performance and Benchmarks

There isn’t really much point to this section anymore – flagship performance has reached the level where one can be scoring much higher than the other in synthetic benchmarks, but both will be equally as smooth in operation.

The Z3 features a 2.5 GHz Snapdragon 801 inside, with 3 GB of RAM. Here’s how it handled the benchmarks:

AnTuTu

As expected, the Z3 was top of the pack in AnTuTu, a comprehensive benchmark that tests everything from CPU to RAM.

BrowserMark 2

It once again claimed top spot in BrowserMark 2.1, beating out its smaller brother the Z3 Compact by a small margin, with the Galaxy S5 close behind.

Vellamo

In Vellamo, the Z3 fell slightly behind the Z3 Compact, but both were far ahead of their competitors.

At the end of the day though, synthetic benchmarks are just that – synthetic. In real world usage, no matter what benchmarks might say, all flagship devices will simply fly through all the tasks.

Camera Interface

The Z3 has an identical camera interface to the Z2, and the number of camera modes have remained the same as well. As was with the Z2, the default mode for the camera is the Superior Auto mode, which shoots in down-sampled 8 MP resolution and produces better images than the 20.7 MP ones.

You can change the image resolution in Manual mode, going up to 15.5 and 20.7 MP. There are also the other modes, namely, 4K video, Timeshift video (120 FPS), Background Defocus, AR effect, Creative effect, Vine, Info-Eye, Timeshift Burst, Social Live, Panorama and Evernote.

Camera Performance

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As is the norm with Sony’s Xperia Z-series, the camera module is a 1/2.3 inch sensor that can output up to 20.7 MP of resolution. Thankfully, Sony has finally got the processing algorithm right. Gone are the oscillations we saw in the Z2 and Z1 – this is the real deal.

Let’s have a look at the sample images (credit The Verge).

Still Image Quality:

Day Samples:

Night Samples:

In both day and night, the images produced are fantastic with ample detail and colour accuracy. There is also great dynamic range, which Sony has demonstrated very well with their A7 mirrorless line.

Video Quality:

Just like the Z2, the Z3 can also record 4K resolution video. Framerate was a constant 30 FPS but there is the option for smoother 1080p videos at 60 FPS.

Focus is lightning fast and was continuously adjusting in line with the many moving objects in the frame. If you prefer it locked during shooting the video, you can always deselect the Continuous autofocus.

Day (2160p/4K):

Day (1080p):

Night (2160p/4K):

Video quality is absolutely stunning, already so in the day, and especially so in the night. At 4K resolution (and at 1080p), all that is in frame is sharp and colours are very accurately reproduced.

All in all, the Z3 looks to continue the mantle of fantastic video and still imagery from the Z2.

Conclusion

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In conclusion, the Sony Xperia Z3 is in my eyes the best smartphone you can buy today. What’s more, it is finally being released in the U.S. not long after its international launch, which will further drive up sales of this very good smartphone.

Again, the star of the show is the 20.7 MP camera which is simply superb and is far better than any competitor right now. Sony’s decision to continue with the 1/2.3 inch sensor is great news, and we’re impressed with their processing software as well.

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The Z3 also features the longest battery life we’ve seen in any smartphone, and this is even with the battery capacity going down to 3100 mAh. If nothing else, it speaks volumes about how well Sony have optimised the UI.

Talking about the UI, it is also brilliant and looks very much like stock Android – another plus point in our book. It gels very well with the equally fantastic design of the exterior with its metal body.

All in all, there is no way the Z3 will disappoint you – even Fabian, who is a staunch Nexus fan came away hugely impressed with the Z3’s capabilities. After all, it is the best Android phone yet.

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