Ever since the original Xperia Z, buying one of Sony’s flagship smartphones has always been a bit of a gamble. When a new model is brought out nearly every six months, it means that newer, shinier versions of Sony’s range-topping handsets are always just round the corner. Indeed, in less than two years, the Z3 has already been replaced by theXperia Z3+ (a kind of stand in for the Xperia Z4), theXperia Z5, and now, the Xperia X – Sony’s new range of flagship smartphones that have replaced the Z series in its entirety.
That’s an astonishing turnover rate, but that’s not to say the Xperia Z3 still isn’t a great phone in its own right. Even two years down the line, it’s still one of my favourite Xperia smartphones and the one I’d definitely recommend buying over the new Z5 – provided you can still find one of course.
While it’s no longer available on contract, you can still pick one up SIM-free for around £345 fromMobile Fun. I’ve also seen handsets as low as £270 from Amazon marketplace sellers. I would have hoped it might have come down a bit further after two years, but even at this price you’re still getting a great phone for your money.
To be fair, the Z3 isn’t actually that different from its predecessor, the Xperia Z2, when you look at its specs on paper. It’s kept the same 5.2in Full HD display, and it still has plastic flaps on the side of the phone to help protect the micro USB port and microSD card slot from water damage – up to a depth of 1.5m. In your hand, though, it feels like a completely different handset, as its new rounded nylon corners are much more comfortable to hold. They’re a world away from the sharp, angular edges of the Z2, and they’ve been designed to help take the brunt of an impact should the phone slip out of your hands as well.
The Z3’s rounded aluminium frame also helps provide a bit more purchase on the phone’s slippery glass back when using it one-handed. It’s nowhere near as grippy as the Galaxy S5’s textured rear, but we think it inspires much more confidence than the glass back of the Galaxy S6 and new S7, for example.
Sony has also improved the Z3’s screen. It’s now much, much brighter, and Sony claims it’s the world’s first phone to deliver a brightness level of 600cd/m2. My own tests weren’t far off, as our colour calibrator measured a white level of 592.12cd/m2, making it by far one of the brightest screens I’ve ever tested.
This is great news when summer rolls around (or if you’re lucky enough to be going skiing come winter), and it really makes colours pop out of the screen. This is partly thanks to Sony’s X-Reality technology, which helps make images appear noticeably richer and more vibrant onscreen, but the screen itself has fantastic colour accuracy regardless of whether X-Reality is enabled or not. Our colour calibrator showed it was displaying an impressive 97 per cent of the sRGB colour gamut, which is just what I’d expect from an IPS panel.
A higher brightness does have its downside, though, as it means the screen’s black levels aren’t as deep as phones with dimmer displays. I measured a black level of 0.52cd/m2, which is a little higher than I would have liked for a high-end phone, and it meant that blacks appeared slightly grey compared to the phone’s black bezels. Still, contrast was excellent, measuring 1,139:1, providing plenty of detail in darker areas and crisp, easy to read text; it also has superb viewing angles.
^ As well as white, the Xperia Z3 is also available in black, copper and light green
Inside, the Xperia Z3 is once again very similar to the Z2. It uses the same quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor as its predecessor and comes with 3GB of RAM. The main difference lies in an increase in the processor’s clock speed from 2.3GHz to 2.5GHz, matching the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the LG G3. It’s a small change, but one that makes the phone feel that much more responsive compared to the competition.
Sony’s version of Android 4.4.4 zipped along at a blistering pace, with menu screens and the app tray feeling much quicker and snappier than the G3. I’m also a big fan of Sony’s dynamic ribbon background, which twists and turns and gradually changes colour with every swipe of the home screen.
The Xperia Z3’s web performance was beautifully smooth. Desktop web pages loaded quickly with hardly any signs of stutter or hesitation and I was able to zoom in and pan round the screen with very little trouble. Not that you’ll need to zoom in that often, as the Z3’s Full HD resolution meant that text was clear and legible even on desktop sites.
The Z3’s Adreno 330 GPU is also one of the most powerful graphics chips I’ve seen on a flagship phone. It maxed out both our 3DMark Ice Storm and Ice Storm Extreme tests and scored an impressive 18,228 (or 75.3fps) in Ice Storm Unlimited. This is more than enough power to run any type of game or app in the Google Play Store, and its average frame rate of 54.2fps in Epic Citadel on Ultra High Quality settings means that even the most demanding games should still look spectacular.
^ The GCM10 Game Control Mount will be available separately, turning your Xperia Z3 into a portable gaming screen for your PS4
It’s a very similar set of scores to the Galaxy S5, but I think the Z3 will be a much more enticing option for gamers as it supports PS4 Remote Play. It’s an ingenious trick, as it essentially lets you use the phone as a remote screen for your PS4 over your home network, turning your PS4 into a portable games console. Check out Remote Play on the PS Vita if you want to know more.
Of course, there’s always a risk that powerful hardware will take its toll on the phone’s battery life, but Sony’s claim that the Z3 can last up to two days on a single charge may well be accurate this time round. In our continuous video playback test, the Z3’s 3,100mAh battery lasted a massive 18 hours and 29 minutes with the screen set to half brightness and all power-saving modes disabled, which is a full hour more than the Galaxy S5, and almost two hours more than the Z2.
In fact, looking at every smartphone I reviewed in 2014, the Xperia Z3 only loses out to Samsung’s oversized Galaxy Note 4 phablet and the unnaturally long-lasting Xperia Z3 Compact – it exceeds anything from Samsung, LG, HTC or even Apple in our video rundown test.
This is outstanding for a flagship phone and lighter users should easily be able to stretch that out even further, particularly if they take advantage of the Z3’s three separate power saving profiles. Low-battery mode disables mobile data, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and auto-sync, while Stamina restricts hardware performance as well. Ultra Stamina mode, meanwhile, only lets you use a few basic functions, such as calls and texts.
The Z3 is available with 16GB of storage, but can support microSD cards up to 128GB, so you should have plenty of space to store your files. Sony’s File Commander app also makes it easy to manage your storage and move files between folders.
On the back is Sony’s 20.7-megapixel 1/2.3in Exmor RS camera sensor. Like previous Xperia phones, you can access it simply by holding down the dedicated shutter button on the side of the phone, and there are multiple picture modes to choose from. Be aware that the default Superior Auto mode only takes 8-megapixel pictures, so you’ll need to switch to Manual to get full 20.7-megapixel shots.
On Superior Auto mode, photos looked great. The brickwork in my test shots was full of detail, and it coped well with the mid-afternoon sunshine shining almost directly into the camera. Images looked a little fuzzier toward the edge of each frame, but colours looked natural and accurate and didn’t suffer from gloomy underexposure.
^ In Superior Auto mode, images looked bright and vibrant even as the sun was beginning to shine into the lens
^ The phone produced well-balanced exposures in varied lighting conditions
Manual mode was much the same, producing rich, detailed photos that looked great in the centre of each shot, but weren’t quite so crisp elsewhere. Noise was also more noticeable in this mode, particularly in large expanses of blue sky, but at least Manual mode gives you more options to adjust the image to your liking. You can adjust the ISO, white balance and there’s a slider bar for exposure compensation. There’s also an HDR mode and different scene options, although the latter becomes unavailable when you select the 20.7-megapixel resolution size.
^ After switching to Manual mode, we still found that photos weren’t quite as detailed toward the edge of each frame
^ There was also much more noise present at the photo’s native resolution, but the Xperia Z3’s plentiful supply of controls should help counter this
The Sony Xperia Z3 is another incremental improvement on Sony’s distinctive-looking handset, but its industry-leading battery life, amazing screen and excellent performance finally gives it the tools it needs to play ball with today’s current flagships. The Remote Play feature is a particularly enticing prospect for PS4 owners as well, as the ability to play console games without hogging the TV should be enough to persuade many that the Z3 is a better bet than other comparable handsets.
It’s also a better bargain than the Xperia Z3+, as I much prefer the Z3’s design and the difference in speed isn’t worth paying such a high premium for. However, its performance levels are starting to look slightly long in the tooth compared to the rest of the competition, making some of its newer competitors, such as the OnePlus 2 now better value smartphones overall. However, if battery life is your number one concern, then the Xperia Z3 is still an excellent choice.