Before I begin this review, I’d like to start off by saying that this review will not be written in the signature Twenty First Tech fashion, partly because the Z3+ is so similar to the Z3, but mostly because compartmentalisation will not do the Z3+ justice. To understand the Z3+ fully you’ll have to read this article in continuous prose.
To be honest, this wasn’t an easy review to write. Sony makes great phones: industrial OmniBalance design, waterproofing, and one of the best iterations of custom Android I’ve seen. But Sony is a firm believer in the axiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and that’s where this review gets complicated. The average consumer would probably be extremely contented with a brand new Z3+, and he has every right to be: it’s a great phone! But anyone who is even remotely familiar with the Xperia lineup will realise that the Z3+, while an excellent phone in its own right, is hard to recommend over its predecessors.
The Z3+, known only in Japanese markets as the Z4, is Sony’s 2015 flagship, and the last to enter the game where Samsung, LG and HTC have already left a mark. Flagship smartphones are typically released in waves: one in March and another in September. So the Z3+’s entry in July is somewhat of an anomaly, perhaps to capture the attention of a crowd undistracted by competitor phones.
I used the Z3+ for a span of 2 weeks as my daily driver. Hardware wise, it looks pretty much identical to the Z3, the only major physical differences being the shinier edges, arrangement of the speakers, and exposed ports. Sony kept to its OmniBalance design language, refining it to the point of near perfection, even managing to make it thinner and lighter than the Z3. And this is a real feat considering that this device is still just as waterproof and dust resistant as before.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Z3+ when you pick it up is its metallic sides. Sony had replaced the matte brushed metal finish found on the Z3 with an entirely glossy, reflective metal edge. The four corners of the phone are so reflective that you can literally use them as mirrors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on whether or not you like your phone to look like a piece of jewellery. But chances are, you don’t. Don’t let this tick you off though. It’s not anything too jarring, and you’ll get used to it after a couple of weeks. Plus, if you prefer something less prominent you can always opt for the black model.
I could go on and on about the screen, software and camera, but really, there’s no need to. The screen is still the same 1080p panel as before, and the camera is pretty much identical to the one we saw 3 generations ago in the Xperia Z1. And this is a good thing: The Z3+ is an excellent performer in all of these departments. If you want full in-depth coverage of these, refer to our review of the Sony Xperia Z3. But here are some camera and video samples from the Z3+ for your perusal:
So what has changed? The front facing camera is now a 5MP one, so selfies will be more detailed. The micro USB port is now uncovered so you don’t have to fiddle with flaps to open it. The device ships with Android 5.0 Lollipop right out-of-the-box. The duo of front-firing speakers have now been reverted back to Z2-style speakers, making them more concealed and giving the front of the phone a cleaner look.
But the most significant change is the inclusion of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 processor. Being Qualcomm’s latest chip, it performs excellently: there’s little to no lag, intensive apps and games run smoothly, and overall the Lollipop experience just flies on the device. There is one glaring issue with the processor though: it gets hot, like really hot. On the first day of use I got so fed up with the phone heating up all the time that I dunked it in cold water no less than five times throughout the day. I guess that’s the advantage of picking up a Z3+ instead of the HTC One M9: you can’t toss the M9 in water unless you want it cooled down for good.
Of course it would be understandable if the phone started heating up after playing intensive games, or doing a ton of multitasking, but the heat issues with the S810 chip are seemingly random and spontaneous (the A level student in me would point out that these are the same characteristics of radioactive decay). And the phone might as well be radioactive: sometimes I can just leave the phone lying on the table, connected to WiFi, and it would start to get really hot for no apparent reason. On other days, when the phone is in a more relaxed mood it would lie quietly on the table without any sign of flaring up. Whether it’s a software issue or an issue with the chip, I’m not certain, but my hunch is that both play a factor. Sony is pushing out an Android 5.1 update to the Z series as I type, so hopefully some of these issues will be addressed soon enough.
The battery life also took a hit with the Xperia Z3+. On normal usage it couldn’t even get me past a full day of use, much less the purported two days’ worth of battery life. I can never hit 3 hours of screen-on time before the battery dies, even on days when I hardly use the phone for anything.
So I decided to do a more elaborate battery test. One day I removed the SIM card, turned the phone on at 100%, used it for a few minutes on WiFi (which drained the battery down to 90%), and just left it in my room, connected to WiFi, for several hours. Within 6 hours the battery was down to 68%. Clearly there are some standby time issues that need to be addressed. A quick look at the autopsy reveals the culprits: cell standby, “phone idle”, “Android OS” and “Android system” are draining tons of battery in the background, ironically, even when there’s no SIM card inserted.
Do note that this is a pre-production unit, probably with pre-release software. So the actual retail model might be better in both the heat and battery departments (GSMarena hasn’t found this to be true though).
To add to the conflagration, the user experience does get compromised when the phone gets too hot: the camera shuts down when the device starts to overheat. But this has been an issue with 4k video recording on the Z3 as well, so I guess we’ll just have to live with it until a software update arrives.
And that’s the issue with the Z3+. It’s a brilliantly-designed, wonderful piece of hardware with a processor that overheats spontaneously and a mediocre battery life. The really sad thing is that none of these is Sony’s fault. The overheating issues are purely a problem with Qualcomm and the poor battery life is purely an issue with Android Lollipop (and maybe some blame goes to Qualcomm as well). A software update in the future might solve these issues, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s a risk worth taking.
The Z3+ is by no means a poor phone. But if you want to purchase a phone now and you’re set on getting a Sony, you should probably look to the older Xperia Z3, or wait for the Xperia Z5 launch later this year. If you want to get a phone now and you want the best, you should probably set your eyes elsewhere, slightly towards the west of Japan, to the chaebols in Korea.