Sony has been improving its smartphones so much that it’s impossible not to see the electronics superpower as a serious competitor to Apple and Samsung, and here we are again with another model and what may well be the perfection of its Xperia range thus far.
If it doesn’t feel like it’s been long since we saw a new Z model Xperia, you’d be right, with only a few months of space occupying the time since Sony first showed us the Z2 at Mobile World Congress earlier in the year, and then the Z3 at IFA a few months later.
Here we are, though, with another Xperia, and it’s very much a model like the Z3 Compact we checked out recently, albeit one with a bigger screen.
The Z3 is practically identical to the Compact, making the smaller version just that: a smaller handset based on its big brother, different from the other so-called “compact” or “mini” edition smartphones that share the same name and design, but compromise on features in the process.
As such, expect much of the same technology found in the Z3 Compact in the Sony Xperia Z3, including a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 clocked at 2.5GHz and paired with 3GB RAM, an increase on the 2GB found in the Z3 Compact.
Google’s Android 4.4 “KitKat” is also found here, with Sony’s own overlay provided, and 16GB storage running alongside with room to upgrade it thanks to a microSD slot found inside the unit.
Connection options are spot on identical, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication (NFC), microUSB, GPS, and 4G LTE working on a Category 4 system providing download speeds as high as 150Mbps on compatible networks and speeds as high as 50Mbps.
The camera is exactly the same also, with a 20.7 megapixel sensor with autofocus and flash on the back, also capable of recording 4K Ultra HD video if need be, while the front-facing camera is also exactly the same at 2.2 megapixels.
Water resistance is also identical, sporting IP68 certification for dust-proofing and water resistance over a metre (usually under three) for up to 30 minutes.
There have been a few changes, though, and the screen relying on a larger 5.2 inch display sporting a Full HD 1920×1080 In-Plane Switching (IPS) screen, over the Z3 Compact’s 4.6 inch HD 1280×720 IPS screen. With 1920×1080 being shown on the Xperia Z3’s display, you can expect a pixel clarity of roughly 424 pixels per inch.
Buttons are few in number on smartphones, and the Xperia Z3 keeps this trend up, with only three physical buttons on the right edge and all remaining soft buttons found as part of the screen.
As such, you can find a circular power button just above the volume rocker on the right edge, while a camera shutter and activation button is found on the bottom of that right edge. Soft buttons are all part of the display, as per what Google started using in phones from version 4.0 onwards, with back, home, and multitask found on the bottom edge as part of the operating system.
Ports are equally few in number, though you will find a microUSB port on the left edge hidden by a door, Sony’s proprietary magnetic dock connector below this, while the right edge houses a microSD slot and nanoSIM slot covered by a door, and the top features a 3.5mm headset jack on the left-most side.
The casing for the phone is made from glass and aluminium, and the battery for the Sony Xperia Z3 is rated at 3100mAh.
Sony has had a few goes with its Xperia Z flagship phones, and for its latest iteration, the smartphone design it started with in 2013 is receiving a tightening up.
In fact, if you’ve taken a look at the Z2 and then a glance at the specs of the Z3, it’d be easy to be confused at the whole thing: they look identical, or close to it.
Similar processor, similar screen, similar camera, similar design, similar water resistance, similar so much that you have to wonder how much is new, and whether it was worth Sony releasing a totally new product in time for the holiday season.
First the look and feel, and really, this is an evolution of the previous Z2 smartphone, with softened aluminium edges, glass on the front and back, and a feeling that can only be described as premium.
The overall design seems modestly improved from the Z2, which itself has been a gradual refinement from the first Sony Xperia Z from March last year, but the addition of an aluminium frame helps the Z3 feel so much better in the hands, as well as resistant to the elements, which is good seeing as this is rated for IP68, which means dust-proof with a little over a metre of water-resistance for up to half an hour. As you do.
Sony’s switch to a nanoSIM is also a welcome one, especially if you already have an iPhone 5 series phone and you’re looking at jumping ship, as it means you won’t have to cut down or convert, though you will if you have a previous generation of Xperia handset outside of the Z3 Compact, as they were once microSIM and are now sitting on the smaller version.
Switch it on and you’ll see the phone come to life, the 5.2 In-Plane Switching (IPS) screen lighting up and providing a lovely Full HD image for your eyes. While it’s not the same sort of high-resolution that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 boasts, we’re very much reminded of the excellent display Sony used in the Z2 smartphone, with great colours, excellent angles, and a crispness that your eyes will love.
With 424 pixels per inch, Sony’s Z3 display is easy on the eyes, making it very hard to pixel peep in a screen that can survive a bit of a whipping from water and what-not.
Using the phone won’t be hard, either, because Sony is relying on its flavour of Android 4.4 “KitKat” that is similar to Google’s own, though with more of that Bravia and PlayStation look, with the option of a live wallpaper that changes colours and offers that PlayStation swish in a lightly animated wallpaper, while the home screens, the dropdown bars, and the menu are easy to get used to, making it a cinch to place shortcuts and organise your app menu.
Features are also smack dab what they were with the Xperia Z3 Compact, so apologies if it sounds like we’re repeating ourselves.
You’ll find high-resolution audio playback, a gesture keyboard, a “Stamina” mode for getting the most out of that battery, and even a PlayStation 4 app that will let you play a PS4 (if you own one) in your home from your WiFi network on the phone from any room in your home.
Over to the performance, and we’re pretty pleased with what the phone can do, the extra 1GB of RAM helping out to make sure apps load quickly, with multitasking never a problem as we jumped from the Chrome web browser to Google Play Music to messaging to Twitter to Instagram and so forth.
Sony’s Z3 phone is speedy and effortless, and generally does what it’s supposed to, which is fantastic for people who love to load apps.
The positives keep on coming with the battery life which is even better than its smaller brother, the Z3 Compact.
In that handset, Sony sacrificed the screen resolution to get more out of the battery, dropping the display to 720p (1280×720) to make sure all of its 2600mAh battery could be used, which resulted in a god day and a half if you weren’t a power user, and a solid day if you were.
Over in the larger Xperia Z3, you get the Full HD resolution and a 5.2 inch display, as well as a 3100mAh battery, so what does that mean for battery life?
In our tests, we found power users would find a solid day without any problems with a little life heading into the next day, while casual users would see close to two full days, or enough to keep you going for two days until you got back home to plug the phone in for a charge.
Those tests were conducted while making phone calls, taking photos, surfing the web, social networking, sending messages, emailing, playing the odd game, and listening to music, and we need to note that this model — the Xperia Z3 — actually has 100mAh less power than its slightly older brother, the Xperia Z2, which we checked out earlier in the year.
We’re not exactly sure what Sony is doing in the battery optimisation department, but whatever it is, it needs to keep it up because this is one phone that astounds, demolishing other 5 inch phones it competes with in battery life.
Mobile broadband performance also manages a solid score, with a Category 4 LTE modem found in this handset, capable of pulling in downloads speeds up to 150Mbps, while uploads can net as high as 50.
Testing in Sydney, we weren’t able to achieve the full 150Mbps, but did get close on the Telstra 4GX network, with a speed as high as 130Mbps.
That’s pretty good, and while every network will yield different results, if you’re using 4G, you should be happy.
You’ll also be pleased with what the camera can do, and since the modules are more or less identical from the Xperia Z3 to the Xperia Z3 Compact, we’re not surprised by the former’s ability to match the latter in our testing.
In this phone, you’ll find a 20 megapixel shooter producing 8 megapixel images on the back, often resulting in images with decent low-light results and spectacularly solid daylight samples.
With the sun out, the camera handles its own, resulting in pictures that are more than suitable for uploading to social networks, while printing is also possible, and even when the lights drop and night sets in, the camera’s night-time mode produces some decent imagery with only a modest amount of blur.
Overall, it makes for one of the best smartphone cameras you’re likely to see, and is also helped by the inclusion of a shutter button, which sits on the right edge at the furthest point (lowest right edge if you hold your phone upright), making it easy to attain focus lock and firing without touching the screen.
That shutter button also means you can load the camera from standby simply by holding the button down, which means you can go from your pocket to taking pictures in a second, which is great news for when you need to take a photo in a pinch.
And just like how the Compact featured some playful modes, some of which can be downloaded, the Z3 supports these too, catering to Ultra HD 4K video, augmented reality, slow motion video, creative effects, panoramas, and more.
Like the Xperia Z3 Compact — which we checked out before its big brother — there’s a lot going for the bigger Z3, which we’re beginning to call the Z3 Major because of its size difference. It’s well built, lasts a while in action, boasts water and dust resistance, has a great camera and solid multimedia support, can play a PlayStation 4 if you have one in the home, and generally feels like an all-round excellent smartphone.
Those larger bezels on the top and bottom are still there around the screen, and while it’s not necessarily a design we adore, it is at least a very Sony thing at the moment, at least until the design big wigs at Sony decide something else should be there instead, like perhaps nothing at all.
In fact, there are only a couple of things we found wrong with the Z3, and neither of them are particularly large deal breakers.
The first of these stems from the design, and that is, well, it’s a slippery phone.
Take two panels of glass, some softened aluminium sides with a slight curve, and throw the guts of a smartphone in between, and then place it on surfaces with vibration on. What happens when the phone vibrates?
Well, quite frankly, it falls off the desk, or table, or night stand, as has happened with our Z3 during its test.
It’s slippery enough to fall off even without the vibrations, which it has done to us also, so make sure you put it somewhere length-wise or with a reasonable amount of space so it doesn’t move too much.
The specs are a little out of date, now that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 has rocked up with its Snapdragon 805, but the differences aren’t a huge life-changing deal, so we’re not exactly bent out of shape about this issue.
One other quibble is the heat, and if you make the processor do a lot — heavy games and what-not — this phone will get hot. It’s not a total surprise, mind you, and can happen with pretty much any phone, but it’s something to be aware of, as the glass simply doesn’t help here.
In terms of all-round performance and feature packing, Sony’s Xperia Z3 is a slam dunk as far as smartphones go, packing in plenty of camera, multimedia, and gaming smarts in something still recognisable as a phone.
There is just so much here to love, from the top notch display to the premium materials to the excellent battery life and water resistance, and the phone is easily one of the best all year, if not the best.
This is our new phone. There, we said it.