Sony’s mobile devices are easy to overlook, at least in the U.S. It’s no secret the company has found it difficult to compete against mounting competition, and even by its own admission, it isn’t doing so hot in the mobile space, nor does it expect to in the future. It’s a strange anomaly, too, because its most recent Z3 lineup is one of the best we’ve seen all year, yet they’re rarely among the greater conversation. Even stranger is that Sony phones (and tablets) are consistently solid. You can always expect a certain high level of quality. You’d think Sony would get more recognition. And yet.
Six months after the company’s Z2 came out, Sony felt it necessary to announce a follow up, the Z3. The best way to describe the Z3 is a Z2 with a better design. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a minor revision, a refined version of a device that already had no immediate shortcomings. You still get that same water resistance, smooth performance, and a great camera. Best of all, battery life is terrific. Although it bears a striking resemblance to its previous effort, Sony’s new flagship is still a great addition to the Xperia brand.
Xperia designs have always followed a utilitarian ethos, glass monoliths that bare very little distinction. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seem them all. But the Z3 is different. It still very much looks like Xperia devices of years past, but it’s much more attractive, elegant, with softer corners and more rounded edges. Although the back is still completely flat—a lot of devices have rounded backs—the changes create a more ergonomic and comfortable device to hold, especially compared to the Xperia Z2.
Compared to Sony’s earlier model, the Z3 is slightly lighter, and a bit thinner as well. The differences might not jump out at you on paper, but in practice they are very noticeable. Sony designs have a tendency to feel unfriendly, cold, but the Z3 bucks that trend, proving the company can definitely compete with the big boys. I would have appreciated even more rounded corners, but the Z3 still feels wonderful to hold and use. There’s a consistently feel to it, and the durability is just phenomenal. Although the front and back are glass, it doesn’t feel fragile.
Since both front and back are glass, however, it will get smeared up with fingerprints very quickly. I’m the guy who refuses to use a case or screen protector, which means keeping a device like the Z3 clean is definitely a losing battle. It doesn’t take much effort to get the screen looking spick and span, but it only takes a minute or two of handling the device before it looks smeared up. Someone who uses a screen protector and case obviously won’t find this to be a major problem.
When held, your thumb will rest perfectly atop the power button, and just below that is a volume rocker, which honestly isn’t all that great; it’s not very easy to press, and there’s not much give compared to the phone’s power button. Also on the right side is a dedicated shutter button, which is convenient when you want to quickly launch the camera.
Beyond pure aesthetics, what stands out is Sony’s commitment to water resistance. In my years owning a smartphone, I haven’t personally run into an instance where I’ve needed a waterproof device. But I can appreciate that the Z3 gives me peace of mind. The few flaps that do cover ports area are easy to open and close, and there’s also a magnetic charging port for extra insurance; the headphone jack, meanwhile, is completely open, which always seems like a technological miracle. The Z3 isn’t the only phone to offer water resistant technology, but it’s definitely worth mentioning.
Staring you right in the face is the device’s excellent 5.2-inch 1080p screen—flanked by some great speakers—which has great color accuracy and viewing angles. It looks particularly good indoors where conditions are optimal, though it can’t quite match the quality of something from HTC or Samsung. Sony screens have always lacked that oomph, but that’s not really a concern here. I did find that the display was difficult to see outdoors, though that’s symptomatic of a lot of phones, and the Z3 is no different.
Some might complain that Sony didn’t follow the 2K trend, but the truth is is that 1080p screens still look terrific for day-to-day use, and the one on the Z3 won’t disappoint. Plus, it sounds like Sony is actively looking toward the future of QHD screens, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Z4, which we could see at CES next year, come with a sharper display. It has taken Sony a pretty long time to get the smartphone display right, so baby steps. It had to conquer the 1080p space before making the jump.
Comparing the screen to the Note 4’s incredible QHD display, you’ll obviously notice a difference in quality. But let’s not dwell on something that’s ultimately overrated; 1080p is perfectly acceptable for browsing the Web, looking at pictures and viewing content. Netflix on the go looks great, and using the Remote Play feature returns some impressive quality. Blacks are deep, contrast is good and it’s ultimately leagues better than anything that Sony has put out in the past.
The Z3 won’t win any big design awards, but it has an understated elegance; there’s isn’t any unnecessary flair. The size is very manageable, whether you use it with one hand or two, and it feels incredibly strong. And despite its smudginess, it doesn’t feel slippery, which is pretty important among the big phone craze.
Performance & Software
Like most phones in 2014, the Z3 performs admirably—and it should. Equipped with a 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 chip, Adreno 330 GPU, and 3GB of RAM, the Z3 has the kind of specs that will zip through menus, open applications without hesitation, and fly through graphic intensive games. It won’t outperform any other big flagship from this year, though it’ll easily keep up. Compared to the Z2, it’s only marginally faster, which was zippy in its own right.
That said, with Snapdragon 810 chips quickly approaching, I wonder if it might be worth holding off until these Hulk phones of 2015 start hitting the market. If you’re a spec hound, the Z3 certainly won’t leave you wanting, but at the same time it won’t blow your hair back. It’s a consistently good performer, whether I’m sending off a few emails or watching videos on YouTube. That’s about all you can ask for from a phone performance-wise.
Riffing on that, the Z3’s 3100mAh battery is pretty astonishing. We’ve talked at length this year about the sacrifice of battery life, and frankly we wish there were fewer 2K screens and less emphasis on thinness. That said, battery life on the Z3 is pretty great, particularly with the help of Stamina and Ultra Stamina modes. Actually, really great, especially if, like me, your usage is casual (some Web browsing, a few YouTube videos, snapping photos, messaging).
Battery life varies depending on how you actually use your phone, but I consistently got a day and a half—more if I was careful. I don’t mean careful in the sense that I didn’t use the device altogether just to extend the battery; but careful in that I turned the brightness down a bit, didn’t mindlessly browse Twitter as much, and watched one less YouTube video before going to bed. We can all benefit from being on our phones less, but if you do insist on constantly staring at your phone, the Z3 will get you through a heavy day’s use and then some. Battery life has become a polarizing topic this year, but thankfully the Z3 hangs tough with superb longevity.
On the software side, Sony’s skin over Android is… ordinary. It’s like eating oatmeal; the taste is bland, but you put up with it anyway. There’s nothing really to dislike about the Z3’s software experience, but I wouldn’t highlight it as a standout. If you’ve used a single Sony device in the past few years, you already know that the company’s software is pretty uninteresting—at least from a design stand point. Inoffensive might be the best way to describe the look.
Sony does make some neat additions—RemotePlay is the obvious standout—but otherwise it’s simple and largely uncluttered. Some of the biggest handset makers try too hard to differentiate with bloat and other superfluous additions, but Sony refrains from force-feeding users. Sure, Sony’s software could use some sprucing up in the design department—but that’s something I’m sure we’ll see once the company releases Lollipop.
Like other Sony flagships, the Z3 sticks with a 20.7-megapixel shooter. At this point, there’s no real reason to jump up in megapixel count. Instead, Sony is offering a wider 25mm lens and the same 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor that showed up in the Z1 a year ago. Additionally, the company raised the max ISO to 12,800 to allow users to take better photos in low light. The Z3 can also record 4K video and 120fps slow-motion at 720p resolution.
Although you get a 20.7-megapixel sensor, the device actually takes 8-megapixel images, and relies on the rest of the sensor to improve overall quality. The results are mostly good in optimal conditions (outside, in a brightly lit room), and quality in low-light isn’t all that bad, either. In conditions where light is virtually non-existent (in a bar, for example), images are definitely noisy, but that can be said about pretty much every phone on the market.
You won’t find much to criticize about the Z3’s camera; it more than holds its own against some of the market’s stalwarts. The shutter isn’t the quickest, so really fast action might pose a problem, and auto-focus was sometimes slow to pick up a subject. But that applies to virtually every big smartphone currently available. The main thing here is that the quality is solid.
Many of the tweaks here are software-based, with a lot of cool custom features to heighten the shooting experience. You might just be content with the standard “superior auto” setting, which is fine. But if you want to get really creative, there are other options to help you get the best shot possible—and it’s definitely worth it to learn the Z3’s camera features.
The Xperia Z3 is a well-rounded flagship that's definitely worth your time and money.
Sony Xperia Z3
Sony might not have high hopes for its mobile future, but the company has made a winner in the Xperia Z3. The design is sophisticated, the camera is great, and battery life is excellent. Is it worth an upgrade from the Z2? Probably not—you should wait and see what Sony has next. But the Z3 has earned its place among today’s most popular flagships. You’d be missing out to skip the Z3 outright.
Of course, the fact that it’s only available through T-Mobile in the U.S. isn’t helping its fortunes all that much. Sony has found the American market a tough nut to crack, and with devices like the Note 4, iPhone 6, Nexus 6 and iPhone 6 Plus on the market (all of which are available through multiple carriers), it’s going to be hard for the Z3 to find a proper audience. But what you do get is a rugged, well-rounded device that has an endless battery.