Over the past two years, buying one of Sony’s Xperia Z smartphones has always been a bit of a gamble. While its glass back and waterproof design certainly make it stand out from other flagship handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One (m8) and LG G3, the fact that Sony’s brought out a new model every six months means that newer, shinier versions of Sony’s range-topping smartphone are always just round the corner. However, the Sony Xperia Z3 could put an end to this biannual replacement cycle as this latest iteration finally feels like it’s perfected the flagship formula, making it by far the best Z phone yet.
On paper, the Xperia Z3 isn’t actually that different from its predecessor, the Xperia Z2. 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 1.5m depth. 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 curved back of the G3, for example.
Sony Xperia Z3 display
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. Our own tests weren’t far off, as our colour calibrator measured a white level of 592.12cd/m2, making it by far the brightest screen we’ve ever tested by quite some margin. The nearest flagship handset to even come close is the HTC One (m8) at 491.75cd/m2.
This is great news when summer rolls around (or if you’re lucky enough to be going skiing come winter) plus 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 we’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. We measured a black level of 0.52cd/m2, which is a little higher than we 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
Sony Xperia Z3 chipset and benchmarks
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. We’re also big fans 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 we were 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 we’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 we think the Z3 will be a much more enticing option for gamers as it supports PS4 Remote Play. This feature won’t be available until November, but it’s exclusive to both the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact and can be accessed through the normal PlayStation app that comes pre-installed on every handset. 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. We’ll update this review soon to bring you our impressions, but check out Remote Play on the PS Vita if you want to know more.
Sony Xperia Z3 battery life
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 our current battery life king, the Galaxy S5, and almost two hours more than the Z2.
In fact, looking at every smartphone we’ve 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.
Sony Xperia Z3 Android
Out of the box, the Xperia Z3 arrived with Android 4.4 Kitkat, skinned with Sony’s own Xperia UI which makes minimal changes to the base Android experience and has very little impact in terms of performance. There are plenty of pre-installed apps, including several of Sony’s own multimedia portals, while Sony has skinned some of the basic apps like the dialler, internet and Messages.
The company has pledged to bring Android 5.0 Lollipop to the Xperia Z3 sooner rather than later, although it has yet to commit to a specific date and it’s unclear how long it will take to adapt the Xperia UI to match Google’s Material Design UI. We’re expecting an official launch to be months away, but because Sony now makes its device binaries available to third party developers (as per the Android open source guidelines) it’s looking increasingly likely that third party ROMs will be available even sooner. Great if you’re desperate for that first lick of Lollipop and don’t mind rooting your phone, but less than ideal for anyone that doesn’t understand custom recoveries and ROMs or who doesn’t want to lose access to Sony’s pre-installed apps.
Sony Xperia Z3 camera
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 our 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
Sony Xperia Z3 conclusion
The Sony Xperia Z3 is another incremental improvement on Sony’s distinctive-looking handset, but these additional tweaks finally give it the means to compete with the rest of the flagship opposition. With its industry-leading battery life, amazing screen and excellent performance, the Xperia Z3 has finally caught up with, and in some ways surpassed, the Galaxy S5, LG G3 and HTC One (m8).
It will be a particularly enticing prospect for PS4 owners once the Remote Play support arrives as well. 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 may be arguably better than its rivals, but it has come late to the party, which means right now, at launch, it’s more expensive than the competition, which have slipped in price over the last few months. Contracts start at £38-per-month at time of writing and SIM-free prices at just under £500, which is around £8 more a month than most of its rivals.
It’s an excellent phone, but right now we can’t quite bring ourselves to give it a Best Buy, but with five stars and our Recommended award, it’s certainly a flagship phone to watch out for. We’ll be keeping an eye on prices over the next couple of months with a view to re-rating this handset.