Sony Xperia Z3 Review

80/100

WhistleOut
24 June 2015

Pros:

  • Great two-day battery life
  • Screen is sharp and colourful
  • Impressively slim and lightweight
  • Solid everyday performance

Cons:

  • Camera is average,
  • Plastic port flaps are kinda annoying
  • Sony apps add little to the package

In a world where big-budget stadium concerts introduce new smartphones, Sony is comparably quiet. Don’t let this fool you though, what Sony doesn’t scream loudly in a choreographed song-and-dance, it says succinctly through solid design and performance.

Design

Like Xperia models before, the Z3 is pretty unassuming in design. Our unit is bone white on its glass front and back, with stainless steel around its rounded trim. There are a few other colours if you'd refer something darker or more visually striking. It feels very nice to hold, it is pleasingly thin and lightweight, and the buttons are conveniently positioned on the sides -- including a dedicated camera launcher.

The phone is water-resistant, capable of withstanding a dunking in water, but this also means that all the slots and ports need to be covered by small flaps. The ritual of opening and closing these flaps before charging the phone becomes pretty annoying over time (especially in the dark after a few beers), and we are a little concerned about what happens if the flap snaps off — after all, these are held to the phone by such a tiny sliver of plastic. But, such is the price for water protection.

Another fault is in the positioning of the camera, which is so close to the top-left corner of the back panel that is almost exactly where you’ll want to place a finger to steady the phone while holding it length-ways. Even if your finger is not on the lens itself, it will be closer enough to it, and the flash, that many shots are spoiled by excess light reflecting off your finger and onto the image sensor. For our money, a central camera lens is a far better solution.

Super screen

Sony hasn’t followed the lead of Samsung and LG in putting super high-resolution screens in its phones yet, and so the Xperia Z3 has a plain, old Full HD resolution display. This, of course, is a ridiculous statement, as “plain, old Full HD” screens are still an excellent choice for smartphones. It’s only been a couple of years since we were amazed that you could have the same quality screen in your pocket as you have in the big TV in your living room. Just because there are now quad-HD screens in market doesn’t automatically make this a poorer choice.

In fact, the screen in the Z3 is one of its finest features. From the first moment we turned it on until today, it has looked stunning and served the purpose well. Fonts and icons look crisp, videos and photos look stunning and most apps are designed for 1080p resolution screens, so you’re not missing out there anyway.

This is a classic case of where it would be easy to let the numbers on paper tell the story, and it would be a mistake. We love the screen quality of the Xperia Z3.

Software and apps

Sony, like its competitors, designs its own software layer for the Android OS, adding in a few additional tricks and tweaks. But unlike many of the other Android phone makers, Sony keeps it pretty simple. It is still really easy to see the core Android system underneath the extras.

This is Android v.5, aka Lollipop, which comes with a bunch of cool features you mightn’t have seen before. There is ability to have multiple users, or guest users, where everyone has their own screen layouts and access to different bits of data on the phone. For example, you might have a profile for your kids which hides away work apps, etc.

Notifications can now be seen, and dismissed, from the lock-screen, so you don’t need to be constantly going in and out on your phone just to swipe away deals from group buying websites or reminders from Facebook to “add more friends” (seriously Facebook, I like the friends I have).

Sony’s additions to this stable of features is pretty simplistic. There are a few Sony-designed widgets and clocks, and a number of Sony apps, but nothing we’d use on a daily basis.

The best example is Sony Lifelog, an app which tracks a number of things you do based on what sort of data the phone can collect. It knows when you walk, when you watching YouTube, when you send emails and when you make phone calls. With this information it compiles a timeline of your day, then your week, then month, as so on. Besides it being kinda creepy, it is also completely useless. It’s like if someone was blogging about your life, but didn't have access to any of the details which make your life unique and interesting.

Camera

Sony has always made a big deal out of is the photographic capabilities of Xperia phones — and it has been no different with the Z3. We’ve seen countless ads on billboards and the sides of buses reminding us that the Z3 has a 20.7-megapixel camera, which is a pretty remarkable number. If you consider that the iPhone 6 has an 8-megapixel camera, then the Sony Z3 takes photos with two-and-a-half times as many pixels with every shot.

And you know what? It’s still not a very good camera.

That is, not very good compared to the other, better cameras available in other phones. In our opinion, Apple and Samsung are making the best cameras in phones by a wide margin, and from a user’s perspective, they are much, much easier to use. There was a time when you had to really think about how you’d take a shot with a camera-phone so as to get a decent result, but new cameras from Samsung are totally point-and-shoot.

In contrast, the camera in the Z3 is really hit and miss. Some photos turn out well — good colour, sharp focus. Other times the results are crumby, the sort of shot you delete immediately. It struggles, for example, with external light sources. A little sunlight at an angle, or an exposed lightbulb can ruin a photo. So you have to be really careful about how and where you use the camera, like you had to in the past, and unlike the level of ease you’d have using the iPhone.

There is one redeeming photographic feature though, and that is Sony’s suite of photo apps. Rather than having camera settings, you have a raft of different apps which convert the function of the camera. There is an app which live-streams to YouTube for example, and another which shoots at a high frame-rate so you can slow down portions of the video after the fact.

Our favourite is a goofy Artificial Reality app which fills the frame with goofy animated scenery. You pick a theme — say Disco — and it introduces flashing lights and disco balls, plus it dresses up your friends with coloured afro wigs and star-shaped glasses. It’s really clever how accurate it is and great with a quick laugh at a party.

Performance and Battery

Our general opinion of the Xperia Z3 is that it is a good solid workhorse. Not necessarily outstanding, but a good all-rounder. However, there is aspect where it is outstanding, and it is a biggie — the Z3 has excellent battery life.

Based on our usage while test driving the Z3 as our daily driver, we could comfortably use the phone for two days without needing to worry about a recharge. Leaving its charger at our office, we could get through two full days, and two nights, and still have enough charge to get back to the office and put it on the charger. Of course, your milage will vary, but for as many of you who see less than two days, there will be some who enjoy even more.

General performance of the phone is also very good, but not more so than in any other phone in this price range. Apps open quickly, multi-tasking is swift and the camera launches in about a second. This is all great, but it has been a long time since we criticised the performance of a top-tier smartphone.

Overall

As we said above, the Xperia Z3 is a solid all-rounder, a great everyday phone pumped up by great battery life and brought down by an average camera experience. It may not compare well on paper with the new Samsung Galaxy S6 or LG G4, by in all ways the Z3 is its equal.

It’s also great for PlayStation gamers, with Remote Play capability. You’ll need to pick up the option controller cradle, but the ability to play Next-Gen console games on your smartphone is pretty extraordinary.


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