3 November 2014

Sony Xperia Z3 review

The Sony Xperia Z3 isn't a phone that you'd have thought would make a lot of sense. After all, the Xperia Z2 was a nifty little handset and yet it's now been replaced barely six months later.

Sony Xperia Z3 review

The new phone, from the outside at least, doesn't seem to add much more into the mix, merely improving things a little more and tweaking elements that were already pretty good. So has Sony really done enough?

The Xperia Z3, which lands alongside a new tablet and mini phone to complete the family (the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact and the Xperia Z3 Compact), is a really good phone that does it all, on paper at least.

Sony told me that the reason these flagships are coming thick and fast is simply because it wants to start making waves in the high-end smartphone market, and the way to do that is always offer the best innovation.

That's perhaps true, and perhaps customers won't get too confused by seeing a new phone on the shelves and advertised all the time, but there's no doubt it kills the lustre that might have been built by users having to wait a year to get the best of Sony in a smartphone.

It needs to work as well - while Sony does OK in some markets (it's still got a lot of fans in the UK, for example) the profits are dipping in the smartphone business, and something needs to be done to arrest the slide.

So is the Xperia Z3 that phone? It does come in attractive colours (white, black, copper gold and 'silver green') and has a shrunken frame, improved camera and that all important Sony PS4 Remote Play compatibility.

Those things alone would be good enough for most, and the IP68 rating (which might not really change the way 99% of people use their phone) is at least a good 'peace of mind' marketing tool.

But there's a sense of the Z2 owners being left out in the cold. Why can't they have PS4 compatibility? After all, it's only a matter of the chipset being up to the task, and with both phones running the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 option (albeit with slightly different models and clockspeeds) that shouldn't be an issue.

And what about in six months time when the new Xperia Z4 lands on shelves? Surely this model will be seen as clumsy and outdated too, although at a lower price point?


The design of the Sony Xperia Z3 is something that surprised me from the word go - I didn't expect to be as impressed as I am.

This is a phone that has dimensions of 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm, which compared to the Sony Xperia Z2 (146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2 mm) doesn't seem all that different.

But the slightly shrunken nature of the chassis is very nice indeed (especially the millimetre thickness shaved off the phone), and something that I really want to laud the brand for.

The ergonomics still don't quite impress - this is, after all, a slab of light-feeling glass encased in a metal band, and the flat edges make it slightly harder to hold and grip (and easier to drop, as I did a couple of times).

But in terms of aesthetics, it somehow impresses me every time I look at it. Yes, the bezels above and below the display aren't anything to get excited about (they're just too large to look nice, but presumably pack some important components) the overall package looks premium.

The copper colour I had on test is also something I didn't expect to like - after all, this is really a brown phone - but it again seems to exude a quality that belies the slightly lower price tag.

On top of that, the edges have been rounded to make holding the phone an altogether more pleasant experience. I wasn't expecting to feel much difference between this and the Z2 given the similarity in dimensions, so this was a nice surprise.

The rest of the phone is largely as expected: the Omnibalance key at the side is pretty easy to strike, and although the volume key is positioned just below and theoretically too close, the larger size of the phone makes it easy enough to differentiate in the hand.

I do hate that Sony keeps putting a dock connector on the left-hand side of the device - this confuses in the hand, feeling a bit like the volume key, and I can't see that it's something many people would actually use given the smaller sales of such aftermarket accessories.

Then there are the port covers. We clearly need these to make sure the phone is fully waterproof of course, but the problem here is that they ever so slightly stick out, even when pressed in as hard as possible.

The main culprit is the cover for the microSD and SIM card (which is now a nano option, showing Sony is starting to fall in line with the rest of the industry) which just protrudes slightly and therefore ruins the sleek, premium air the Sony Xperia Z3 has.

The other change to the design is the nylon covers in the corners of the phone - apparently these are cleverly added to stop the phone looking so damaged. According to Sony, most phones land on these corners when dropped, so putting the covers on helps stop the tarnished metal.

Except, well, it doesn't. The corners on my review device are fine, but even before dropping the phone later in the test, there were already two small nicks in the metal band in just over a week.

This is the same thing we saw with the iPhone 5, and anyone that's owned one of those and kept it out of a case will see the scratched up monstrosities that some people are walking around with.

I don't think the Sony Xperia Z3 will suffer to quite that degree, but it's interesting to see the effect happening so quickly.

The front facing speakers are worth a mention here too. Not only do they help to justify the oversized bezels, they also provide some pretty good and rich sound.

While not in the same league as the HTC One M8, the smaller and more discreet design will appeal to those that want good quality audio without the compromise in aesthetics.

And Sony, of course, continues with the dedicated camera button. I mention it last as its presence is always something to be celebrated: an easier way to fire up one of the most-used applications on the phone and a more stable method of snapping away.

Thank you Sony, long may the camera key continue.

Key features

It's hard to define key features for a phone that's been mercilessly refined over the last two years, as most of the inherently good things about it have been there for a while.

However, Sony has made some important tweaks that it's worth talking about, so let's take a look and see if the new changes really warrant you buying the new phone - or, if you're into Sony but don't want to spend all that money, whether you could get away with buying the still-new Xperia Z2 for a whole heap less cash.

Loves the water, craves the dust

The big claim Sony is making here is that the Xperia Z3 is one of the most waterproof and dust resistant phones on the market. It's IP65 / IP68 rated, which means it can not only spend longer underwater (two metres for 60 minutes) but also is better able to withstand jets of water flung at it.

And there's that IP6X dust rating too, which has been added for a while to let you throw the phone into all manner of dusty environments and not have those pesky granules invade the phone's innards.

Does it add a lot to the Sony Xperia Z3? Not really, unless you're one of the very niche who do like to run around all day in the lower depths of plunge pools, or have invested in an industrial power shower and want to watch videos in there at the same time.

However, being IP68 rated does add something clever to the Sony Xperia Z3: it makes it into more of a rival to the likes of the Cat Phone, which is touting itself as an antidote to the modern fragility of smartphones. The downside is the Cat option is a much poorer phone, which means that Sony can now offer not only a more robust device but one that works well too.

Stuff the Z3 in a rugged case for the weekend and you've got the smartphone that won't crack, break or fall apart just because you fancy a spelunk.


Lifelogging is an interesting feature on the Xperia Z3. It's taking the boring steps counter (which we've seen on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S5) and adding in some very clever extra tricks.

Open up the app (which annoyingly has a notification at the top of the phone at all times to let you know it's logging - the more OCD among us will appreciate the irritation of not being able to dismiss this) and you'll be able to see not only how many steps, but how many hours walking, running, commuting, cycling, sleeping and more.

The phone is most people's primary music device, so it can tell how long you spend listening to tunes daily, and if it's your main way of consuming video, it can tell you how many hours that's taken too.

Even the calorie counter is more accurate as it not only adds in exercise from movement, but also your background burn, so you can see how much that cake is really going to affect your weight.

Combine that with a clever interface that's easy to understand, and the ability to bookmark your day at certain points like a digital diary, and Sony is well on the way to nailing a proper life tracker.

However, the current version still isn't good enough. Put on certain battery modes to save juice and it stops working. While it's amazing that the app can work out when you're cycling or commuting, it's not accurate enough, only picking up my morning journeys on occasion.

And the fact it sees all apps as games means that it looks like I play all the time, when in reality I'd much rather it was able to tell me how much time I spend on BBC Sport rather than 'loads of gaming in the day'.

Lifelog also really needs the Core Smartband to really work as well, to track those moments when you play football and don't have the phone, or offer proper sleep tracking, as the phone can't do that at the moment.

There's a really annoying niggle within it in that if it can't refresh the data on the server side, it won't show any activity for recent hours or days. This means you can go for a run and see nothing, thinking it's not tracked, but leave it five minutes and suddenly see it appear.

Also Lifelog will only tell you that you've listened to a couple of minutes of Spotify a day, even if it was the soundtrack to a massive run. If the data's not correct, it renders the whole system slightly moot.

This system will get better with time, and it's better than 90% of other options out there already - I just hope Sony keeps refining it quickly enough to make it really awesome.

Therein lies the problem with all 'lifelogging' apps and smartbands – what's the point? Sony's Lifelog can tell you what you've done, but doesn't analyse that data. It doesn't give you helpful hints over how to improve things beyond 'achieving' targets for the day.

Until these life gamifying systems give an actual victory (for instance, this app could tell you the optimum time in your day for a run based on your performance) there's very little point in them beyond curiousity.

Snap up

One of the big things Sony is always crowing about is the fact it's got into bed with the cameras division and made this all singing sensor for smartphones.

Yes, it's 20.7MP, and yes, it's got Exmor RS technology with the G Lens, but to most people that doesn't answer the question of whether it's any good.

You'd think it would have to be, given that it's got so many fancy Sony brands in play, but while outdoor bright shots can look brilliant (and often do) this is something we say about many high end phones. The Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G3 both offer a similar experience and, along with the iPhone 6 Plus, they beat the previous Sony Xperia phones hands down in low light.

So Sony has upped its game here and added in a wider G Lens and boosted the ISO settings to 12800 in order to improve the low light performance of the phone.

The wider shots certainly do add something to your photos (both figuratively and literally) although unless you test side by side with an older Sony phone you won't necessarily notice the difference.

But rest assured: it does give better snaps with more elements in, which are great for group shots or wider landscapes.

The lower-light performance seems to be working too - however, there's a slight confusion Sony's created here. Arguably the best thing its camera app offers is intelligent auto mode, which can work out the best image for the scene you're trying to take and alter the settings accordingly.

In a world where the iPhone is the most popular camera, the need to offer a really powerful yet simple point and shoot experience has never been greater, so it's good to see Sony making the jump.

However, get to lower-light situations and the camera understandably goes into Low Light mode. This results in a very, very slow shutter speed and kind of negates the low light performance as most shots will come out blurry unless you're taking pictures of still life.

It also limits to 8MP (not a real problem, but the advertised 20.7MP seems a bit pointless) and isn't - by far - the best smartphone snapper on the market.

That said, if you are willing to sit and compose a decent low light shot, the results are more than satisfactory, as you'll see in the camera comparison later on.

Brighter screen

I'm a big fan of decent screen technology, and the fact that Sony has made something that's arguably among the best excites me a lot. The main trick here is that the 5.2 display is brighter than ever before, perhaps more than anything on the market, with 600 nits of brightness compared to the 400 from older model.

This means that if you're outside, you're always going to get a clearer and easier to read display, with pictures fired up and more visible.

Combine this with Sony's already decent IPS screen with Live Colour LEDs (which are mostly a marketing gimmick in name, but do boost the colours and viewing angles to take what was a poor display on the Z1 (with a very washed out screen) and made it into something you'd really want to spend time watching video on.

The brightness won't make much of a difference day to day, but what it does do is make you constantly feel like you're looking at a really clear and clean screen - improving on the Full HD resolution already on offer.

Remote Play

Ah, the big hope of Sony Xperia smartphones. Leveraging what others can't by being able to connect to one of the most popular consoles in the world. What a genius idea! This is going to sell loads of phones!

You can even get a connector that lets you hold the phone above a Sony PS4 controller! This is brilliant. Gaming will never be the same again.

Except... wait... the feature isn't enabled at launch for the Xperia Z3. We knew this already, knowing it was coming in November, but that doesn't explain why the PlayStation app is included on the homescreen from the outset.

Nor does it help that there's a button to connect to your PS4 already, and it can find your console if you're on the same Wi-Fi network...it just won't actually connect.

There's a lot to be tested here, and I'll flesh this out into its own section when it arrives, but Sony has created a lot of confusion by announcing a feature that can't actually be used yet - and then furthering that bewilderment by having it already installed on the phone, rather than activating the feature when it's ready.

Interface and performance

The interface on the Sony Xperia Z3 is a pretty basic offering, something Sony has pushed as quietly helpful. It's somewhere between a stock Android, naked interface and a complete reimagining by the brand, with updated icons but a relatively familiar user experience.

The menu and home screens are very sparse, but there's a 'secret' screen to the left of the apps grid that lets you organise the apps.

It seems like an odd place to put it in terms of intuition, but once you're aware of it, well, it's OK, I guess - but it's things like this that can harm a phone's enchanting first experience for a user to have to hunt for ways to customise your experience.

The home screen and notifications bar have been updated slightly, with more clean and usable fonts used for things like the clock, and while the notifications area is nothing new, the upgrades Sony has brought (being able to long press Bluetooth in the 'Quick Settings' area will open an option to mess with those settings, for example) are useful and showing that the brand is more aware of what users actually need.

After that, it's hard to really rate or disparage the interface on the Sony Xperia Z3, as it's largely subjective over how users interact with it. Some people loathe Samsung's TouchWiz, others love it. HTC's Sense overlay is clever and intuitive, but to some it masks the native Android experience far too much.

Sony's at least stripped things down from the terrible events of the 'Splines' on the Timescape overlay of years ago - but that doesn't mean it's a perfect system. There are some lovely touches that will delight: for example, open the movies app and the background will autoplay the most recent video you had running, seamlessly blending into the interface while you choose what to watch next.

But then again, there are some misses here: I really like that Android 4.4 lets you have fullscreen album art on the lock screen, but here you're consigned to the dull square album and navigation keys.

Similarly, while everything whizzes around perfectly acceptably under the finger (although not the fastest), there seems to be a touch more lag on jumping between apps, with the camera taking a while to fire up too, for instance.

Performance wise though, the Sony Xperia Z3 should be as good as the competition and its predecessor, as it scored a palatable 2737 on the Geekbench 3 test we run on all phones.

That's a little slower than the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 (if you take into account the latter is slightly duping these tests) but does make me wonder: why is the clockspeed of the CPU higher than the Z2 and yet this phone has a slightly lower result on Geekbench?

We're talking fractions in terms of difference between the two, but why has Sony made the new phone the same speed as the old one? Surely there could have been something done to make it faster and be a real upgrade?

And actually, the Xperia Z3 I had on test was actually a lot more bug-filled than the previous model. Things like the keyboard bouncing up and down, or not responding well to interactions, was a common occurrence. Also the notifications bar would sometimes get stuck halfway down when on the lockscreen too.

And the bad news is the second model didn't seem to solve these issues really - the keyboard was more stable (although the inbuilt offering is still terrible, so you'll need to upgrade that, which you can easily do for free) but the notification bug still exists and really mars the experience.

So is the Sony Xperia Z3 good enough to be a flagship, high end phone for Sony in terms of how easy it is to use?

The short answer is yes: if you know what you're doing. To the new user, the Sony will seem like a bit confusing, with a number of widgets and pre-installed apps (do we really need an Xperia / Garmin tie in when Google Maps resides on the phone?) where what you really need is a slick, interactive but passive system.

There are some clever additions in here that are locked away in the settings menu: for instance, you can set the Xperia Z3 to let you double tap the screen to wake it, which is much better idea than the need to press the power button to fire the screen. It's odd this is hidden in myriad menu levels rather than being a feature Sony wants to shout about.

It's hard to fault the UI on Sony's smartphones (apart from the slightly buggy software on offer here) as, like I mentioned earlier, it's a perfectly serviceable system - but one that has very few redeeming features other than being unobtrusive.

If you're into making a smartphone work as YOU want it to, but like the additional customisations and links to Sony services that are peppered throughout the phone (will anyone really ever use Video Unlimited, when it competes with Google Play, unless you're completely wedded to the Sony phone / PS4 infrastructure?) then this is a great interface.

If you've never used a Sony handset before, it might take you a week or so to get your head around how everything works, as is true for most high-end Android phones.


Battery life on the Sony Xperia Z3 borders on the exceptional at times. Sony claimed to me that this phone could last two days on a single charge in 'real use' - a lofty claim indeed.

Of course, it can't live up to that level - but then again, I've never come across a phone that has ever been close to manufacturer's claims.

In reality, without Stamina Mode activated, you'll comfortably get through a day. With it turned on from 65% (as I had) you'll get easily into another day and maybe trickle into two if you're really careful.

However, it's not perfect, as it does show the standard 'quick drop' of power if you're using the screen too heavily, even on average brightness.

But let's place this in context: compared to something like the iPhone 6, which has a 720p display (roughly) compared to the Full HD offering here, and the Z3 still manages to outscore the iPhone in terms of out and video and gaming ability when it comes to battery life.

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given the Xperia Z2 did so when in the world of battery retention - although the fact the non-removable battery is now smaller (at 3100mAh) compared to its predecessor but still manages to last longer shows that Sony's mysterious screen technology is working.

I say mysterious because the brand won't really talk about it. There's some element of the screen 'remembering' what's on there, rather than constantly refreshing all the time, but I have no idea if this trick can be used in movies or whether it's limited to more static web browsing.

Stamina Mode isn't a new idea from Sony, having arrived on the original Xperia Z, but it's still a useful feature, if not a frustrating one at times.

The theory is simple: the Z3 goes to sleep, the phone then cuts all connectivity to apps (apart from those that have been whitelisted as able to connect during sleep) and the battery is thus preserved. The downside is that you don't get updates instantly, the upside is fewer disturbances and a longer battery life.

On the whole, it works well. However, there were a few instances where I was alerted that Spotify or Real Racing 3 were preventing the mode from working (even though I wasn't using them), thus nullifying the battery savings.

Why were these apps running in the background anyway? And if they were, why didn't Stamina Mode shut them down? The same option will truncate the frame rate in gaming, leading a juddery experience that I accepted at the reward of more battery power.

If that's the case, then the phone should be able to shut down or at least hibernate apps - I don't want to be told that this feature doesn't work, I want it fixed.

The same for the heavy power saving mode the Z3 has embedded: like Samsung and HTC, Z3 owners can now flick a switch and have only the most basic of functions working, allowing you to have maximum battery and make a few calls and texts.

When turned on, it takes an age to boot the phone into the mode, and even then I saw very little power saving, with the device still running low on juice almost as quickly as when the phone was on normally.

It also doesn't seem to do much more than limit the data and apps you can use, although presumably all the cores are turned right down. It's like it needs some time to warm up – if your battery is falling, it won't arrest that slide, more bring it to a controlled slow-down.

In terms of TechRadar's battery test (a 90 minute Full HD looped video), the Sony Xperia Z3 on full brightness is a real power guzzler – at 31%, that's one of the poorest showings from any phone.

But, and this is a very important but, the phone can go brighter than most other handsets can manage, which is a choice you'll need to make at the expense of a wider gamut of places you can use it and thus accept the drop in power to get a really good screen.

What's interesting is that even at lower battery modes, the power savings aren't that great. This tells me that it's the screen 'remembering' tech that's the battery saver, which obviously can't be used in video.

The other niggle is getting power back into the battery. It charges rather slowly at times, even with high amp charging blocks, which is most irritating seeing as many modern smartphones are able to juice up in minutes - the iPhone 6 is practically 'blink and you'll miss it' speedy when it comes to charging.


The camera on the Sony Xperia Z3 is understandably powerful, given that it's chock-full with Sony technology from the camera division.

This means an Exmor RS sensor, a Bionz processor and G Lens technology to really get the most out of your snaps. With that in mind, the extra width on the lens and the improved low-light sensitivity really come to the fore here, as these were a couple of the big bugbears with the older flagship phones from Sony.

The thing with the Sony camera is you really need to decide what you want from a phone snapper: is it a simple point and shoot that gives you pretty great results each time, no matter the setting, or is it one that can be played with and give you the amazing picture?

The Sony Xperia Z3 camera is definitely in the latter. I found it a touch frustrating compared to the other cameras on the market when it comes to speed of snap, taking longer to load and fire than the others around.

Photography is the only area where speed is important, as you'll miss your kid doing a funny thing or a moment in history that's set up just right. They say that the best camera is the one you have with you, but that doesn't mean you can't look for more snappiness in your snapper.

The autofocus on the Z3 doesn't seem quite up to the level of the rest of the competition, with the LG G3, iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 all providing faster clarity. It's not a lot to deal with, but it's perceptible.

And that's not to say that when it gets it the Sony Xperia Z3 doesn't give superbly clear photos, but it can be a bit hit and miss.

The other big upgrade from Sony is the new high level ISO mode, which is designed to get the most from darker scenes when older cameras don't.

I'm torn about what to say here, as I do have some truly great low-light photos from the Z3. But these were the result of 'low-light' mode firing up in the main Intelligent Auto camera mode (the basic setting that can decide which scene settings are best based on what you're shooting) and not just the general power of the sensor.

Both the iPhone 6 Plus and HTC One M8 don't rely on low-light mode and still give good low-light pictures. With the Z3 in full Low Light power, it will give you brighter lit stills than these two, but the others take them at normal speed, and don't need a super steady hand for a few seconds.

If you go manual on the Z3, the low light capabilities do seem to give brighter photos, but with a weirder white balance (which, again, you can tweak). I hope I'm going some way to showing that the Z3 is a more capable camera than most on the market, but by gosh, you'll need to spend some good time getting to know it.

There are plenty of other modes as well, and some of them are pretty good. Timeshift Video allows you take slow-motion movies, but having just come off an iPhone 6 test, the results are nowhere near as smooth thanks to the iPhone running to a 240fps level, which really irons out the judder.

That's not to say you can't get great results here - if you want to take a video of friends jumping, you'll get something funny and easy to manipulate too.

The only other thing I'd talk about is the augmented reality effects: while they can take a LONG time to set up, the results are funny if you've got kids around. That said, putting dinosaurs on a football pitch when you're watching Portsmouth play can enliven a 0-0 draw even if you are the wrong side of 30.

Oh, and here's some good news for Sony fans: the background de-focus on this camera is SUPERB. It's definitely the best in class when it comes to picture quality, with the phone only needing to take two quick shots and then can allow fantastic levels of blur, either general, side to side or up and down.

The results are great, and while the HTC One M8 is the superior device for capturing more mobile scenes and blurring (which, in fairness, is a lot of the times you'll do this) thanks to having two cameras, if you spend some time with the Z3 setting a shot it's really worth it.

As you can see on the next page, even more mobile subjects can be blurred, but the effect isn't perfect.

4K video

Here's something that's crazily not been fixed: the Sony Xperia Z3, like its predecessor, can't record 4K video for longer than three minutes before heating up crashing the app.

Well, crashing isn't what I'm calling it this time around, as instead of shutting down, the Z3 will let you know it's heating up and then at around 2-3 minutes of footage will shut down the recording no matter what you do – and without warning.

The footage shot looks good, there's no doubt about that, and if you've got the right monitor or TV to view it on it's a really good thing to look at.

But why make it a headline feature (of the Z2 – it's unsurprisingly been brushed under the carpet a little with the Z3 despite being equally capable) and then have it not actually work?

I would have assumed Sony would have solved this issue by now, but the fact the same problem exists even with new hardware shows that perhaps 4K recording is a little too advanced for the modern smartphone (even though Samsung and others seem to be able to do it with less of an issue).

The Sony Xperia Z3 camera cannot be called poor in any way, as it's tremendously powerful. But Sony hasn't really found a way to tame that power, even with the intuitive Intelligent Auto mode which usually picks the right scene choice.

You'll get good snaps most of the time, and the range of additional options are excellent (including sound and shot, AR fun etc) - but most won't be used.

The low light performance is improved here too, although not from a hardware perspective, and I'm suspicious if that improvement has been found through software.

To sum up: the Sony Xperia Z3 is a tremendously disappointing camera from a brand that has such a heritage in the space. Take a look at this off-the-cuff shot compared to the iPhone 6 Plus and you'll see what I mean - bright, changeable light baffles the Z3 where the iPhone 6 automatically realises it needs HDR.

The essentials

What's the Sony Xperia Z3 like when it comes to doing, you know, the phone stuff? It's a competent performer, for sure, but does it really function well when you want to talk to people?

The main thing to talk about here is the connectivity of the phone - does it support fast downloads over Wi-Fi and 4G and does it maintain a strong connection?

The weird thing is it does both. It can be great and speedy, but also very slow at connecting to Wi-Fi, sometimes not manage it at all, and can have a very low tolerance to mobile signal at times - but when on a call, it would hang onto it for grim life.

There was definitely a sense of a gremlin in the system here, as the inability to connect to a visible Wi-Fi network was irritating to say the least. It's only Cat 4 4G as well, so in terms of getting the superfast networks in the future, or in other countries, it's not supported.

That said, it will do just fine 99% of the time and even after two years of use, anything faster still probably won't be overly widespread, so you're not missing out too much.


The calling options on the Sony Xperia Z3 were exactly what you'd expect - while I'm not a fan of the dialler visually, the fact it supports smart dialling is a real plus.

The contacts layout is smart and exactly what you'd expect from an Android phone, not really deviating from the stock experience, although the joining of other contacts from social networks worked very well.

The speaker phone functionality was really slick though, thanks to the dual-facing front speakers, and the overall call quality crisp and clear. It's a larger phone to hold to the head, which will need to be in the thoughts of some users, but if you're after a solid calling machine then the Xperia Z3 is just that.


Like most of the Android phones I get on test, the question is whether or not I'd instantly want to upgrade the keyboard to a third party one - in the case of the Sony Xperia Z3, I sadly felt compelled to instantly. One of the more irritating things about messaging on the Z3 is the fact that it's very easy to tag the 'sketch' feature when typing, which will instantly bring up the option of drawing something.

The problem for most is that MMS still costs a lot of money, meaning while I was desperate to actually send rude sketches to friends, the thought of paying for the privilege still put me off. If there was an inbuilt Whatsapp or iMessage way of talking, I'd be all over this feature like a pleasant rash.

The other messaging ability of the phone was perfectly fine, especially since Sony has gone 'full Google' in a lot of ways, offering Hangouts and GMail on the phone by default.

Let's not beat around the bush here though: if you're unhappy with an element on an Android phone, change it. Download the free Swiftkey keyboard, add in Whatsapp or just use a new email client - it's mostly free and instantly transforms an average messaging phone into a great one, and the Sony Xperia Z3 allows all this and more.


As I mentioned above, the internet here is governed by Google Chrome. There's no secondary browser on her to confuse things, like you might get on the Samsung Galaxy S5, and while Chrome might be a little bit boring for some users, there's no doubt it's a very functional app.

The desktop requests now work well, the ability to sync across desktop and mobile as well bookmarks makes it all very clean.

Wi-fi issues aside, the scripts generally load quickly, the browsing is clean and it does what you need: basically, seeing the internet in your hand.

Gaming and media

The Sony Xperia Z3 is a phone which, you could say, was born for media and gaming. Whether it's the impressive GPU at the heart, the ultra-bright and colourful screen or the sheer level of options for content from the Sony ecosystem, there's a lot to enjoy here.

But the Sony Xperia Z3 brings more than that this time around - after all, the above was all found on its predecessor. In terms of media, the Z3 has the ability to not only play hi-res audio files, but also can upscale your current music to sound a lot closer to the high-end music we all want.

The system is called DCEE HX, and resides many, many layers down from the music app. So much so that you'll not really know it's there unless you hit 'Settings', then 'Enhancements' and then tag the box to 'On'.

I'm not sure why such a key feature is so hidden away. Nor why 'Clear Audio+', a kind of default sound enhancer, is given higher priority.

And here's the kicker with DCEE HX - it doesn't actually do a great deal. You can tap it on and off over and over, but it's very hard to hear much difference, despite trying it with a number of files. One other person believed that the guitar reverb was higher with the feature turned on, but double blind tests showed this wasn't the case.

So it's a nice feature to have, and possibly with multiple tracks over a long time might show some worth, but why have it as an option that's turned off by default?

The hi-res audio is destined to be a very limited use case; in fact, it's probably on there only for marketing purposes at this time given the lack of such material and the fact you need USB-powered amp headphones to make it work.

But I'm never one to begrudge a brand trying to add more into a phone and hopefully this is a step towards better quality music.

The other trick, which came from Sony's Xperia Z2, is the internal noise cancelling. The phone can process sound from the microphones and then cancel out the sound of a train on the commute, for example.

However, you'll need dedicated earbuds to achieve this, and the ones that Sony are touting don't come in the box (although some networks might add them in). With this in mind, it seems sensible to just spend the money on other options which can be used with any source, although the ones Sony require only cost between £20 and £30.

Despite being rather large the sound quality is OK - I wouldn't call this a great feature, but it's one that's good to have if you want to buy specific earbuds.

Watching movies on the phone is a different ballgame altogether though. I've already said how fabulous the screen is, but that brightness really comes into its own when you're chewing through video. It's actually too much for some scenes, which is a nice problem to have, but darker images will no longer be the problem they once were.

The improved colour and Bravia technology used here really does add a lot to the phone, and with the excellent Movies app giving a strong way to actually watch this stuff, it's a nice mix of premium feel and quality output.

It's just a shame there's competition here between Google Play Movies and Video Unlimited. I appreciate Sony is trying to get you to buy into its ecosystem, but we need fewer video lockers, not more. Right now it's like buying a movie from a local shop and finding it only works on DVD players purchased from the same shop, where I want movies I buy online to be anywhere I damn well please.


The gaming element of the Sony Xperia Z3 is strong too, although no better than most others on the market. Using the Adreno 330 GPU, the Z3 is as capable as the Z2, and also the LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy S5.

However, with Stamina mode turned on things can get a little juddery, so make sure you disable that battery mode before going for a long gaming session.

But colours and graphics are well reproduced for even the toughest games, and combined with the dual-facing front speakers (which are richer and stronger than they were on the Z2, although not quite in the same league as the HTC One M8) you can really enjoy a long session of play... if the battery holds out.

The Sony Xperia Z3 belongs firmly to the top tier of smartphones, and with enhanced design and greater power (well, sort of…), how does it compare to the rest?

The competition

Samsung Galaxy S5

I would say that, despite being the 'worst' phone on this list, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is probably the closest competitor to the Xperia Z3 in terms of features and specs.

It's less water and dust resistant (albeit only mildly so) at IP58 rather than IP68 for the Z3, but also has a fabulous screen with its Super AMOLED display, which has greater control over the colour balance than anything else on the market.

The power and battery life are rather equivalent to Sony's challenger, and while the focus with the S5 is rather on the heart rate monitor and other slight gimmicks, it too packs a powerful camera (arguably better) and the same larger power pack.

It's only design that really lets this phone down - and the Z3 is light years ahead in that department.

Read Samsung Galaxy S5 review

iPhone 6

The iPhone 6 should be more of a competitor to the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, but it seems that most people will play it off against the larger model in their new phone choice.

The iPhone 6 is a phenomenal phone, no doubt about it, but it's a very different proposition to the Xperia Z3. I'd argue Sony's option is all about power combined in a package that's easy enough to use, where the iPhone offers premium features but in a more straightforward phone.

It's a tricky one to call, but the person that likes to tinker will find joy with the Sony Xperia Z3, with the camera and music settings providing a hotbed of toys to play with, and PS4 Remote Play is another good addition (when it turns up).

But the iPhone just works. The picture quality of photos is great, the sound output strong (over headphones, not on the speakers, and especially not compared to the Z3) and the overall use simple to pick up.

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus tips and tricks

HTC One M8

Still the best phone in the world, and not challenged by the Sony Xperia Z3. While you might prefer the power and settings choices on offer with Sony's option, the Z3 doesn't have the ergonomic design, powerful speakers and fast camera that the One M8 has, although it has more options for sure.

The interface on the One M8 is more delightful, and although doesn't quite have the battery life of the Xperia Z3 nor the camera power, is a brilliant package nonetheless that just has users cooing over the design and little touches that make it easier to use.

Again, this is more of a simple-to-use phone where things like MHL 3.0 on the Xperia Z3 will attract other users looking to connect their phone to a TV, but the One M8 is still the better all round package, if not as powerful.

Read HTC One M8 review


The LG G3 is a phone that's gained a lot of popularity for a number of reasons. Perhaps it's the QHD screen with the insanely crisp sharpness. Perhaps it's the tight packaging that allows users to hold a phablet almost like it was a smartphone.

Or maybe it's the clear, flat user interface, combined with superfast camera, that impresses.

If you're deciding between this phone and the Z3, it really comes down to handling. Both have great cameras but ones that overprocess a touch in low light. Both have very good battery life. Both are powerful with a large number of features to tinker with.

Where Sony's option excels is the metal chassis, the much nicer screen (yes, it's lower res, but it also is brighter and more responsive as a result) and the longer battery life, despite both being good. It also has a decent interface, although I think most will prefer LG's offering in that respect.

LG G3 tips and tricks

Sony Xperia Z2

And finally - should you consider the predecessor? In this case, yes. I think the Sony Xperia Z2, when price is taken into account, is actually the better phone.

The Z3 definitely has a more refined design and sits better in the hand - which is a very important thing.

However, I noticed very little else in terms of upgrades throughout the phone, and given Remote Play for the PS4 still isn't on the phone, and the DCEE HX audio upgrading seems to offer very little (and the fact that the difference between IP67 and IP68 is negligible for most users) I can't see why else the Z3 is the better phone.

The screen brightness is definitely one such area, but if you're really into the Sony ecosystem here's a phone that's as old as the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5, yet a lot cheaper than both.

The Z3 is the phone to go for if you're thinking longevity, but if you're going to buy one outright without a long term contract I'd be tempted by the Z2.

Sony Xperia Z2 tips, tricks and hidden features


The Sony Xperia Z3 is a phone that's had me going back and forth in terms of a verdict. On the one hand it's very similar to the Xperia Z2 - but then again, the design and brighter screen are really great upgrades.

The innards are similar, yet there are some performance issues that worry me which I didn't notice on the Z2. The overall package is better on paper, but there are some interesting elements that I think Sony still need to address.

We liked

The Sony Xperia Z3, like its predecessors, is a premium phone. Put it on the table and people will be impressed with the way it looks. It's a lot like the Sony Bravia TVs of a decade ago: they were expensive but man, people knew you'd bought a premium product.

The Xperia Z3 takes that mantle well and adds in a good number of changes to make it a premium phone. Whether it's the great screen performance, the upgraded ergonomics or the attention to detail (nylon corners to protect against drops) it's clear this is Sony's most consumer-friendly smartphone yet.

Play with the camera, learn its ways and it will reward you. Spend some time getting decent movies on the phone and you'll love the impressive screen quality and good front facing speakers. Enjoy the long, long battery life and robust nature of this, the most water resistant of all top end phones.

We disliked

There's something up with this phone still, littered throughout the software. There were a few gremlins in the user interface (the notifications bar not falling all the way down) that left a nasty taste in my mouth.

The fact it doesn't launch with Remote Play renders that feature redundant too, and as such it's a real negative for me. Once I re-test with it enabled, hopefully it will become the shining beacon of this phone.

There's also the issue of 4K recording - it still overheats the phone and shuts down your movie capture without warning. If someone like Apple had released a phone with 4K as its big headline and then that didn't work, it would be castigated far more than just bending a bit.

I like a lot about this phone, but there are some slower bits and rough edges that grate with its premium look.

Final Verdict

Like the Sony Xperia Z2, I don't know why the Z3 doesn't impress me hugely. On paper it's got all the right bits: 3GB of RAM, MHL 3.0, extended battery, high power camera etc.

Yet the sum of those parts doesn't wow me in the way it should. Who needs 3GB of RAM when the performance under the finger isn't insanely brilliant? Who really connects up their phone to their TV, when in reality I'd rather have a better sensor on this handset that didn't rely on megapixels but on genuinely improved low-light performance?

Then there's the issue that this phone will likely be outdated by the Sony Xperia Z4 in a few months time - what will that bring that will render the Z3 an older phone that doesn't have the latest, shiniest feature?

The Sony Xperia Z3 is a very good smartphone. It's got an upgraded design and the brighter screen is genuinely a boon for something at this level.

But there are too many slight issues that roughen what should be a perfectly polished user experience. I'm almost livid the camera isn't scampering away as best in class... it's good, better than most, but given the effort Sony has put in, this should be better, and the interface is just too cluttered with all the lenses.

The lack of Remote Play at launch beggars belief, and the slight lag under the finger when whizzing in between apps is irritating. Nothing major, but it feels 'fuzzy' where other top end phones snap to attention. And why are most of the best features hidden beneath a thousand menus?

Were this the only upgrade Sony showed this year to its flagship line, I'd have recommended it wholeheartedly - even without the great screen brightness and design evolution, there's plenty of cool stuff that's got Sony's attention to detail all over it.

But this isn't enough of an upgrade for me to tell you to choose it over the still-new and now-cheaper predecessor - perhaps Remote Play will change that, but right now this isn't a phone that can be considered best on the market.

Read other popular smartphones reviews

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