REVIEW: Sony Xperia Z3

The Xperia Z3 is the best smartphone Sony has ever made. It might not have cutting edge specs of newer flagships like Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 but there's plenty of appeal for Android users.

Despite an aggressive biannual release schedule, Sony’s smartphone business has failed to live up to expectations with the Japanese giant recently trimming its annual shipment target from 50 million to 43 million.

Sony’s Xperia business was once a strong performer but the rise of Chinese players in the low-end smartphone market and the dominance of Apple and Samsung in the top-end segment has left Sony bruised.

When it comes to market share, Sony has failed to crack the top five smartphone makers list for seven straight quarters despite its flagship devices earning critical praise. What’s more, Sony's inability to land distribution deals with US wireless carriers has meant that it has next to no presence in the second largest smartphone market.

Sony is hoping to turnaround its fortunes with a slate of new flagship offerings starting with the Xperia Z3 and is going all in with a near simultaneous release in all major markets.The Z3 promises to deliver a better display, an improved camera, the ability to stream Playstation 4 games and two day battery life - all packed inside a thinner frame. But is it a worthy refresh?

Thinner and more colourful than before

At just 7.3mm, the Z3 is the thinnest Android flagship smartphone on the market and not far off from the iPhone 6’s petite 6.9mm frame. It’s an impressive feat when you consider that the Z3 also packs waterproof protection at up to a depth of 1.5 metres of fresh water and will also withstand exposure to dusty environments thanks to the IP65 and IP68 rating.

Despite the slightly smaller chassis, the Z3 sticks closely to the Xperia premium design formula with a glass covered front and back, aluminium banding around the sides, dedicated physical camera button and signature machined aluminium power button.

Sony has made some thoughtful tweaks for its latest entry such as the switch to rounded corners and tapered edges that make for a slightly more pleasant experience in the hand. The corners of the handset have also been coated with a nylon material which, according to Sony, can minimise damage to the smartphone from an accidental fall.

It has also added a few more colour options to the mix with a copper or silver green available on top of the regular staple of white or black models.

Brighter display

With the Z2, Sony was close to having the perfect LCD display but its inability to cope with ambient light and high levels of screen reflectance limited the display’s usefulness outdoors.

Sony has rectified the issue this time around by equipping the Z3 with one of the brightest displays on the market at 600 nits. While not quite as bright as the AMOLED panels on the Galaxy S5 or Note 4, the brightness is a noticeable jump above its predecessor, which only had a peak brightness range of around 400 nits.

The result is a display that is clearer and easier to read even in direct sunlight.

Not quite future proof

It’s worth noting that Sony has chosen to stick with the same 5.2-inch full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) display instead of following the higher resolution Quad HD (2,560 x 1,600 pixels) trend of other flagships like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and LG G3. According to Sony, the higher resolution isn’t worth the tradeoff in reduced battery life.

There are no changes under the hood either, with the company once again opting for a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor instead of the newer and more powerful 805 processor.

This is likely to be a sticking point for power users who regularly use their smartphone for demanding apps like high-end 3D mobile games, video and image editing apps or for those who like to future proof their smartphones as much as possible. That said, the Z3 is still one of the snappiest Android smartphones on the market thanks to its relatively minimalist UI and the average smartphone user is unlikely to miss the upgrade in processing power.

High-Res audio and Playstation 4 gaming on the Z3

The UI and software features are pretty much the same as what we saw on the Z2 with support for built-in themes and floating apps. Some new additions include Lifelog - a health tracker designed to work in conjunction with the company’s very own fitness band.

There’s also built-in support for screen recording which can be accessed by simply long-pressing the power key.

Sony continues to win over audiophiles with the support for USB DACs and playback support for High Resolution Audio files which also requires the use of compatible headphones. The Z3 is also capable of upscaling regular MP3 or AAC tracks to Hi-Res quality. As is the case with any upscale technology, the results aren’t quite as good as the native content that it is trying to replicate but we did notice an audible improvement particularly with lower quality tracks.

The headline new feature, however, is the ability to play Playstation 4 games on your Xperia Z3 over Wi-Fi. With ‘Remote Play’, the smartphone display acts as a remote screen and supports the ability to pair the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller directly to the handset. The ability to effectively turn the Z3 into a portable PS4 is a killer feature for any Playstation 4 owner and is something that was previously exclusive to Sony’s handheld console, the PS Vita. Unfortunately this feature wasn’t available for testing at the time of the review.

Still the best Android smartphone camera with a few caveats

Sony is using the same 20.7-megapixel camera that we first saw in the Z1 but as was the case with the Z2, there have been a few improvements along the way.

The Z3 is the first smartphone capable of hitting an ISO sensitivity level of 12,800 for better performance in low light and there’s also a new 25mm wide-angle Sony G Lens for fitting more of a scene in a shot.

We felt that the camera on the Z2 beat out other competing Android smartphones at the time and the camera on the Z3 further cements Sony’s reputation in this arena. However, there are a couple of areas where it does fall behind the competition. The autofocus and the time it takes to fire off a shot are noticeably slower than the rapid fire cameras found on the HTC One M8 and LG G3.

What’s more, overheating issues that restrict 4K video recording to three minutes remain unaddressed when no such issues are apparent on competing flagships.

Two-day battery life

The Z2 was exceptional when it came to battery life and Sony has somehow managed to squeeze an even longer runtime with the Z3.

We were comfortably able to achieve a two-day battery life with normal usage that included continuous syncing of multiple email accounts, social media, light web browsing, two hours of phone calls, occasional picture taking and music playback.

Of course as is the case with any other smartphone, heavy video watching and gaming will quickly eat through battery life.

The charging time on the other hand was lousy, taking four hours on average to go from 0-100 per cent with the included 850 mA charger.

Final thoughts

The Xperia Z3 is the best smartphone Sony has ever made and has plenty of appeal for any Android owner in the market for an upgrade.

Though it took a few refinements, Sony’s prowess in industrial design, display technology, imaging sensors, audio, video games and enormous library of music and movie content finally comes to the fore, in equal parts, on the Z3.

It might lack the cutting edge specs of newer flagships like Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, however, the handset more than makes up for it with a snappy UI, class leading battery life and a camera that while not perfect, outperforms snappers found on other Android handsets.

The waterproof and dust-resistant casing is something that we hope to see become standard on flagship smartphones but for now Sony leads the way with a handset that can be submerged deeper and longer in water than the competition.

For audio purists, there’s the support for High-Resolution audio playback, USB DACs and built-in digital noise cancellation. And ‘Remote Play’ is a tantalising prospect for over 10 million Playstation 4 owners.

The Z3 is a logical upgrade for owners of the original Xperia Z or Z1 but there isn’t enough here to justify a purchase for existing Z2 owners. For those who might be looking for something a bit smaller, there’s the impressive Z3 Compact which condenses all the features from its bigger brother into a much smaller package.