Most smartphones don’t amaze me, but the Xperia Z3 has certainly done a lot to win my heart. Officially billed as Sony’s premier flagship that gets tinkered with every six months, this is the provocative underdog among the plethora of attention that LG, HTC, and Samsung receives on the regular. Now in its third iteration, can thoughtful refinement overcome timely flamboyance?
The Xperia brand may have found a niche for a different type of buyer, someone who’s grown beyond the hyperbole of gimmicks – deep down, they’re excited about being cutting edge but won’t want to call much attention to it.
Innovation through evolution
A durable aluminum frame of tapered edges, surrounding a tempered glass panel keeps the appearance nearly identical to the previous Z2. The buttons for the power/lock, camera, and volume rocker are also contoured to the bezel, though shallow to the touch. All of these restrained elements are under the principle of ‘OmniBalance’ – a contemporary design language narrowed down to its basic form, and further refined with each model.
Connectivity is also what you’d hope for with MicroUSB, microSD expansion, and nano-SIM card slot but are covered by protective door compartments that doesn’t interrupt the minimal linework and keeps out water. There’s also a magnetic charge connecter on the left side, just perfect for that charging dock you’re probably not going to buy from the Sony Store.
With a thinner 0.29” (7.3mm) chassis the Z3 has very little physical twist, but remains heavier than the competition at 5.5 ounces. It might not be the most pocket-friendly device out there but it is meant to absorb drops and rain-resistant with an official IP65/68 rating. As long as you’re not swimming in the salty ocean, this phone is waterproof up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) for about 30 minutes; or can easily endure a daily shower, whatever the reason.
The prominent 5.2” IPS display is beautiful. Of course, Sony incorporated their latest array of technology like TRILUMINOS Display, Live Color LED, and ‘X-Reality’ engine. We recommend leaving the enhancements off as the image quality alone is pretty crisp (1920 x1080 pixels/16,177,216 colors) with punchy colors. Aside from much wider viewing angles this sports one of the brightness screens I’ve ever seen since the original Z at a recorded 691 nits.
Sure, other makers have moved on to 2K resolutions for bragging rights but the tradeoff for them was mediocre battery life. By not following the crowd the Z3 gave us almost 15 hours from a single charge, without having to resort to any of the numerous power saving modes. It’s impressive considering how many resources are divvied between constant email notifications, mundane Facebook updates, and the occasional phone call. If there’s ever a time when longevity is an issue you can enable the ‘Stamina’ mode, or the ‘Ultra Stamina’ mode for a loosely estimated 9 days of extra life, however, every nicety is disabled to conserve power.
The overall call quality was great, with conversations typically in heard HD voice clarity and void of annoying distortion. throughout my testing I found myself wanting to talk more rather than relying on IMs, as the Z3’s front-facing speaker provided excellent reception but not necessary too loud either.
Before we get to the good stuff we gotta talk specs, because technology. The Z3 comes equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor clocked at 2.5GHz, and 3GB of DRAM memory. Internal storage can either be had in 16GB (unlocked/international) or 32GB from carriers such as T-Mobile.
By the way; here’s a list of random stuff this phone can do: Dual-band Wi-Fi (Certified Miracast™), DLNA, MHL 3.0, mircoSD (SDXC), near field Communication sensor (NFC), Xperia Link™, Digital Noise Cancelling (DNC), aGPS, GLONASS, Bluetooth 4.0, and cellular networking (LTE, UMTS HSPA+, GSM GPRS/EDGE).
For Verizon owners, you can get this smartphone in CDMA flavor with the exclusive Xperia Z3v.
Apps and PS4 Remote Play
You get Android 4.4.4 KitKat, which by the way is not version Lollipop (5.0). What you do get are Sony’s own suite of themes and apps that range from Movie rental, Walkman (Music), and Lifelog organizer that are redundantly preinstalled with the Google defaults. But it’s the PlayStation 4 and the Remote Play app that we were interested in, and surprisingly enough it does work as advertised.
It’s basically screen mirroring via streaming, but for me and a couple games (Killzone Shadow Fall, GTA V) the overall Wi-Fi distance and other bandwidth hogs hampered things. It wasn’t until the PS4 was on Ethernet is when the experience improved. In fact, if the source (being the console) has a wired connection the Xperia itself gets along smoothly with the Remote Play app, up to about 35 feet between thicker walls during my testing. My real complaint? The optional Game Control Mount for the DUALSHOCK 4 costs a staggering $40, so I guess I’ll need to use a lot of tape for that instead.
A miniature Cyber-shot
Sony left nothing to chance with the brilliant 20.7-megapixel camera replacement. Considering everything you get from augmented reality, Intelligent Active (iA) mode, HDR, white balance, and a wealth of photographic freedom with the manual mode the options are damn-near extreme. This is practically a miniaturized Cyber-shot and Handycam rolled into one.
The maximum ISO sensitivity of 12800 is great for image noise reduction along with wide angle lens, but caveats such as leisurely auto-focusing means an iPhone 6 does a faster job. it’s annoying but a quick tap on the screen can immediately cure it, that and the Exmor RS image sensor offers the innate ability to snap a discernible photo and/or video in pitch black scenarios.
The Z3 can record 4K video, but that won’t matter much. You’ll be capturing most moments in 1080p resolution and below with ‘SteadyShot’ stabilization doing the work, it utilizes the phone’s internal accelerometer to get that leveled shot and eliminate any unnecessary juddering. For smoother video it really is a godsend for casual filming.
Whether or not you believe the hype, Hi-Res Audio makes the Xperia another Walkman for true audiophiles.
The recent Z2 has been a favorite for sound quality, and it’s perfectly logical for Sony to cram the latest in fidelity right into its smartphones. To differentiate between high-resolution tracks a ‘HR’ logo pops up while playing your music and will read the proper files (DSF, DSDIFF, FLAC, WAV, ALAC) although you’ll probably be able to tell anyway with familiarity.
Listening to albums like D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah and Californication from the Red Hot Chili Peppers the dynamics had more presence during the highs and low-ends, but was more controlled for the Z3’s size instead of immersive. Standard audio can also be upscaled almost to Hi-Res frequencies with Sony’s DSEE HX engine, and unexpectedly works noticeable wonders for MP3 format.
All of this is great for the enthusiasts who’ve gone all in for advanced sound. However, you’ll also have to spend time trying to find content to actually enjoy it.
Conclusion: A more refined, more adult phone
After years of doubt, the Xperia Z3 could be one of the better phones you’ve never looked at. For people in the know, this is a proper premium handheld without being obnoxious about it. It might not look like it but it’s genuinely appealing and thoroughly improved – namely for the fashionable audiophile, to the infrequent hardcore gamer.
For prospects who already own the prior Xperia, you’re right to be a little jealous due to the brief lifespan of each upgrade. In that respect, Sony may eventually find their place in the market, but we’ll have to be patient until they nail it down.