The Galaxy S5. The One M8. The LG G3. All very good phones - all phones that I like, for various reasons, and dislike in certain respects for others! HTC, Samsung, and LG have generally been the de facto leaders of the high-end Android smartphone market here in the US. But what about Sony? I'll freely admit that I've never been much of a Sony smartphone fan. I didn't like the Xperia ZL as well as its competitors. Nor the TX. I've had a chance to play with most of Sony's major devices in the last couple of years; the Ion, the S, the Z, the Z1, the Z2 - and they did seem to genuinely be progressing into better and better phones. But I never had a chance to carry around those devices on a day to day basis, and so, my attention to Sony's hardware releases has understandably waned over time.
The Xperia Z3, though, marks a big comeback for Sony in the US market. Sure, T-Mobile got the Z1s earlier this year, but it was months behind the original Z1's IFA launch back in 2013. By the time the Z1s was available on T-Mobile, the Z2 had been announced. A successor device being announced prior to its predecessor's release in a particular region doesn't exactly play well to technology enthusiasts. The T-Mo Z3 is a good month behind the international launch, but this is a lot better than Sony's previous US track record (that said, they still kowtowed to Verizon and made the Z3v).
So, if you're like me (eg., American) and don't exactly keep a close watch on Sony smartphones - what's the Z3's real draw? A large 3100mAh battery, for one. Excellent build quality. An IP68 water and dustproof rating allowing for full immersion. Understated hardware design language. A camera that comes from an increasingly trusted brand in the industry. And, for many consumers, simply the Sony name.
The thing many reviewers have taken issue with, though, is that the Z3 really is a fairly small evolution over the Z2. I'd go so far as to say the name is a bit misleading - this is decidedly more Z2.5 than it is Z3. Sony's made some subtle changes to the chassis (easier to hold, narrower, lighter), added a slightly quicker variant of the Snapdragon 801 processor, switched over to nanoSIM (at least on this model), and is touting considerably increased battery life while actually using a slightly smaller battery. For the rest of the world, increased LTE band support is certainly a noteworthy addition to this new device.
- Display: While it still has some of the odd Sony white cast at certain angles, the Z3's 1080p LCD is extremely bright with excellent contrast for something that isn't an AMOLED. It also has superb white balance, making the Note 4's QHD SAMOLED look dingy and yellow. It's an amazing screen.
- Battery life: Though I find Sony's 2-day claim a bit dubious without forcible data sync staggering turned on (yes, really), the 3100mAh battery in the Z3 easily got me through a day of heavy use and then some - basically comparable to my experience with the Note 4. Me like.
- Slim and light: The Z3 has a display 0.2" larger than a Galaxy S5, but is still half a millimeter narrower than it. It has a 300mAh larger battery, and yet is only seven grams heavier. And it isn't covered in plastic. There's some pretty decent engineering going on here.
- Front-facing speakers: They're not quite BoomSound, I'd argue, but they're very good, and they face... your face. So that's a plus.
- Fast: While it's not sporting a Snapdragon 805, the Z3 is one of the quicker Android handsets I've used for day-to-day tasks.
The Not So Good
- Camera: Did you like the camera on the Xperia Z1 and Z2? Great! It's back. It's still not amazing. This is somewhat frustrating considering what great consumer mirrorless cameras Sony is making. There are just so many issues here, so read the full camera section.
- Updates: Sony has a solid record for transparency about OTA updates, but a pretty piss-poor one for speed. They have regularly been very slow with OTAs, and oftentimes, users end up complaining that the updates they do receive are buggy.
- Slippery smudge magnet: I get it, Sony, the glass back is your thing. But it gets so dirty. It's a minor complaint, but it does bug me. Also, never leave the Z3 near the edge of a drop off anything - it is one slippery phone, and slide it will.
- Crappy power / volume buttons: Good luck trying to feel out the power or volume keys on the Z3. They're vague, have very shallow action, are exceptionally squishy, and right next to each other. It's a perfect storm of ergonomic awfulness. The Z3 does at least have double-tap to wake.
Design and build quality
The Z3 is an admirably constructed phone. The thing is, though, that Sony's competitors have started realizing build quality is important, too, and are stepping up their efforts. So, what passed for "amazing" a year or two ago is rapidly becoming "above average" today. And make no mistake - the Z3 is a very nice phone to hold, and does indeed feel very premium. The glass back, while it does make the phone annoyingly slippery, lends a feeling of real solidness to Sony's flagship that few other Android devices aside from the all-metal HTC One M8 can lay claim to.
But in the fit and finish department, Sony starts to fall flat. The power and volume buttons are absolutely case in point here - they are just not good. The circular power button, for all its metallic good looks and stylishness, is squishy, vague, and utterly hopeless to feel out in the dark. That's not aided by the fact that the Z3 is intensely symmetrical.
Luckily, double-tap to power on is now an Xperia feature, and it seems to work pretty reliably. So the power button's fault is, largely, forgivable.
The volume rocker, though. Ugh. It's just not good. It's too small, it's right next to the power button, and it's just not nice to use. Too difficult to press, not raised enough over the frame, and lacking much in the way of strong click feedback. It is deeply puzzling to me how Sony can get so much about hardware right only to fall flat on such a simple thing, but my guess would be that the waterproofing comes into play here.
The dedicated camera button is a bit, but not much, better. I still think a dedicated camera button is a great thing to have. 95% of the time, the only camera I'm carrying is smartphone. If I want to snap a quick photo, that dedicated button saves me a very valuable 3-4 seconds fumbling with a lockscreen, potentially missing the subject or event I'm trying to capture. You can set the behavior of the button to automatically snap a photo or start recording video immediately, too. Good stuff.
Getting back to build quality, Sony also isn't the only player in the premium Android phone game these days. Despite its plastic back, the Galaxy Note 4 has a level of polish and attention to detail that Sony simply doesn't match. It seems likely that kind of quality will be sneaking into other Samsung devices (like the Alpha series) as time goes on. The Z3 is a very nice phone, but the Note 4 just feels even more refined and solid, not to mention has excellent buttons, all while still retaining a removable battery (granted, it isn't waterproof). The HTC One M8, I think, is somewhere in the middle of these two phones - nicer than the Z3, but not as nice as the Note.
The Z3 does have its IP68 water and dustproof ratings to fall back on, though (possibly part of the reason for the sealed battery), something most of its competitors - aside from the S5 and S5 Active - still don't seem keen on adopting. For those who absolutely demand a waterproof device that isn't largely constructed of plastic, Sony still is the only name in the game. At least, for now.
On a related note, Sony's microUSB port cover is also far less annoying than the one on the Galaxy S5, popping off easily, enough that I wouldn't be truly annoyed to have to live with it. I was definitely annoyed regularly by the S5's. Granted, it's always seemed weird to me to have the microUSB port on the side of the phone, another case, I think, of Sony being different just to be different.
While I am an admitted sucker for Samsung's Super AMOLED panels, Sony, I think, has the best LCD panel it has ever produced on the Z3. Apparently, it's actually even better than the Z2's, owing to some pixel lighting changes and use of special adaptive contrast algorithms that allow it to appear brighter or, alternatively, consume less power at the same level of effective brightness as the old screen. This is definitely contributing to Sony's strong battery life estimates on the Z3.
At 1080p, the Z3 is plenty sharp for any human's eyes, so long as you don't make a habit of putting to screen two inches from your face. And because it's 1080p, unlike the G3 or Note 4's QHD panels, it's also probably using less power still than those devices. I personally see no reason for a Quad HD display on anything under 6" - all information to date tells us outside of a few, specific scenarios (Chinese and Japanese characters, in some small fonts), that 1080p is more than sufficient, a conclusion I wholeheartedly agree with.
There is still some of that trademark Sony white cast at certain angles, though it's not as bad as it was even on the Nexus 5, a display I had no real problem living with. The white cast is greatly reduced from the that of the displays on the original Z and Z1, which had truly awful viewing angle distortion.
Colors on the Z3 seem very true, and white balance out of the box is superb. If you don't like it, you can manually adjust the white balance in the display settings, something Sony has allowed users to do for some time. Contrast is strong on the Z3, too, and overall, this may be the best smartphone LCD I've ever seen. It's that good.
On the point of white balance, I thought the Note 4 looked great - until I saw the Z3. The Note 4 looks dingy and yellowed when displaying whites by comparison. It was like lifting a veil off my eyes. Good job here, Sony.
Sony says the Xperia Z3 should get "2-day" battery life, but I think that's probably a bit of a stretch, not that the battery life is bad. First, that's assuming you use auto-brightness, which I find to be very conservative (leaning toward dimmer settings) on the Z3. Second, that's also assuming you're utilizing the "background data queuing" feature that is enabled by default in the power management settings. This feature allegedly will make it so that when your phone is asleep (basically, display off), it won't wake up as often to send or receive data. Instead, it will wake up at an unspecified interval, and then do the sending and receiving it needs to before going back to sleep for that unspecified interval again, but Sony doesn't explain this in any real detail. In the end, this reduces battery consumption.
I do not like this idea. It's a sneaky, backhanded way to claim superior battery life, by asterisking it with "oh, by the way, that means we'll be tweaking how often your smartphone syncs data when you're not actively using it." If it wasn't enabled by default, I wouldn't take issue with it, but the fact that it is just does not sit well with me. It's misleading. Sony should either explain this feature much more clearly or not enable it by default on the phone.
So, how is the battery life, then? It's pretty good, definitely better than any of its similarly-sized rivals can lay claim to. The 3100mAh pack should keep moderate to heavy-ish users going all day, but a full two days seems like a stretch. I can make it to the early afternoon of a second day, but not much longer than that, and that's still mostly on Wi-Fi with well under 4 hours of screen-on time. This is largely reminiscent of my experience with the Note 4, though that device obviously has a significantly larger display to power.
Still, this puts the Z3 well-ahead of competitors like the Galaxy S5, LG G3, or One M8, and that's what it's really competing against, if we go by size. The fact that Sony has crammed such a large battery in the Z3 while keeping it relatively light is impressive, as well - it's just seven grams heavier than the S5, and only 3 grams heavier than the G3. It's lighter than the One M8.
The Z3 does not appear to have any kind of quick charging technology, as the included wall wart has a peak output of just 7.5W. (Compare that to 9W for the G3, 10W for the S5, and 15W for the Note 4).
Storage, wireless, and performance
The T-Mobile Z3 has 32GB of onboard storage, right around 25GB of which is available to you, the end user. There's a microSD slot, too. That puts it between the LG G3 (24GB) and the Moto X (26GB) for storage used out of the box, certainly not bad company to be in.
Wireless performance is acceptable, but if I'm honest, Wi-Fi signal didn't seem all that strong to compared to other phones I've reviewed recently. The Z3 has trouble maintaining Wi-Fi connectivity at the edges of my apartment where the Note 4 and Galaxy S5 don't have an issue.
On T-Mobile, LTE speeds were typically blazing-fast for Los Angeles - 40Mbps down and 10Mbps up. Oh, and yes, if you have an account in good standing on T-Mobile, unlocking your phone to use it elsewhere is pretty much a two-tap affair. Open the preinstalled unlocking app, and request a permanent unlock - it worked like a charm on my review unit. Very cool.
Wi-Fi speeds were very good on 5GHz, maxing my ISP at 110/10Mbps, though I found the Snapdragon 801 still wasn't as robust on 2.4GHz N networks, topping out at just 35Mbps down on my router. The 805-powered Note 4 managed more than twice that, and I've yet to see any other device yield those results apart from my iPad Air 2. It may be some kind of MiMo thing, I'm not sure.
General performance on the Z3 is very respectable. The phone is quick and responsive, reminiscent of the HTC One M8, though perhaps even a little quicker than that (I don't have one to compare, sadly). Even under heavy workloads like task switching, the Z3 feels speedy, and manages to be more consistent in performance than Samsung's technically more powerful Note 4. While the Note 4 opens apps more quickly by a small margin, the Z3 doesn't bog down with things like task switching or loading up SwiftKey nearly as much, in my experience. Slap on Google Now launcher, and it's a very speedy, efficient device.
Audio, speaker, and call quality
The Xperia Z3 uses the same headphone amp and DAC as every other Qualcomm Snapdragon 800-series device, so there's nothing to see there. Audio from the headphone jack sounds good, and I experienced no problems with it.
The dual front-facing speakers on the Z3 are very good, though I personally found volume wasn't quite what I was hoping for (it's not particularly loud). They are true stereo speakers, though, so there's real channel separation you won't get on devices without such a thing, and there's also some actual midrange punch to the Z3's speakers that most phones without them simply don't have. The midrange, to me, does feel a little forced, though - it can come across muddy and reduce the clarity of treble, particularly spoken word, so I'm not quite sure how to feel about it. All things considered, though, these are some of the best speakers on a smartphone currently shipping, even if they aren't quite BoomSound.
Call quality is actually very good on the Z3 - the powerful earpiece speaker up top works very well, and I never struggled for volume. Clarity was also quite decent, though I'm still just using standard voice on AT&T, not T-Mo's VoLTE, so it still sounds like a phone call.
The camera on the Z3 is very much a mixed bag. Overall, I find that as someone who owns and loves his Sony mirrorless camera very much (used to take all the photos in this review), the Z3 is kind of a letdown, particularly in the UX department.
The Z3 is perfectly capable of taking good pictures given the right situation - I took some images I was pretty happy with. It's a good camera, but not a great one, and I think that there's just a lot Sony could be doing on the software side to make it better. For me, the user experience just isn't there.
On the quality side, the Exmor RS sensor suffers from Sony's excessive image processing in dark environments. Look at the image above - the mug looks good, the hand is a weird blurry processed mess. Sure, Sony's processing does clean up more image noise than Samsung's, but it's so aggressive that I find the resulting images just don't look good. It also seems to struggle with white balance fairly regularly, erring on the cool end of the spectrum, giving images a stark, sterile aesthetic sometimes. The HDR mode is also just plain bad - shadows end up getting washed out far too much, and overall image contrast suffers greatly for it.
Really, though, it's a pretty good camera otherwise - it just isn't very good to use.
As you're aware, the Exmor RS on the Z3 is largely the same 20.7MP unit on previous Z-line devices, but you'll probably take very few images at that resolution. That's because the phone is set to Superior Auto mode by default - the most intelligently processed, fully-automatic mode, the one you want to use - and does not allow you to adjust the resolution in this setting, forcing it to 8MP. If you go to manual mode, you can set ISO, metering mode, EV, white balance mode (no manual setting), HDR, image stabilization, resolution (up to 20.7MP at 4:3 aspect, 15.5MP is the highest at 16:9), and a few other things. But scene modes and HDR are still only available in the 8MP setting, presumably because the processing would take too long and look unpleasant at the finer resolutions, where these features are locked out.
Notice the cool temperature - the camera has a tough time with white balance indoors.
You can't set the ISO beyond 800 at full resolution, 3200 only becomes available at 8MP, and the advertised maximum of 12,800 only works in Superior Auto when the camera judges such an ISO to be necessary. So, if you want to take a 15 or 20MP image at night or in a darker setting - meaning no night processing mode and no high ISO setting - you basically can't unless you use the flash. Hooray.
The camera app itself is kind of a mess, too. There is no fast way to activate HDR - you have to switch to manual mode, open the overflow, then turn on HDR (assuming you're at 8MP or lower, otherwise you can't have it). This T-Mobile firmware also has a strange bug that causes an error to appear saying the camera can't record because another app is recording every time I launch the camera app. I'm guessing a patch will fix it, but still, come on.
The restrictions themselves, I'm sure, have some technical reason behind them in some cases, so I am not just trying to bash Sony here. The problem I have is that the way the app works, it's never explained to the user that these limitations exist. Switch resolutions, and suddenly you lose a bunch of options, with no explanation as to why, or even that changing the resolution caused them to go away. It's ridiculous, and it is straight-up poor UX. This kind of stuff needs to be way more seamless.
The only real saving grace to the Z3's camera in all this is the dedicated shutter button, allowing for quick launches of the app when you need to snap a photo on the spot. It's convenient, and I wish more phones had one, but it's never really caught on.
Overall, the thing about the camera I find most annoying is that is doesn't like to just work. Sure, in a well-lit environment where literally every smartphone camera can produce good pictures without a fuss, the Z3 can, too. It's where things get difficult, or you want more control over the image, that the Z3 stumbles. Sony needs to get some people from the NEX and CyberShot teams in here, because really guys, it's kind of embarrassing that one of the world's best consumer camera companies can't make a solid smartphone camera experience.
Sony's software layer has long been regarded as one of the lighter interpretations of Android in the industry, but I think that's really just not as much of an advantage these days. No major OEM is really digging so far into Android on a UX level anymore so much as to regularly break things and cause serious usability problems, and most Android phones follow the basic UI paradigms Google has laid out over the years. Picking up a modern Samsung phone, LG phone, or Sony phone and being able to understand how to use each one fairly quickly is not a farfetched idea. Most of the functional OEM modifications come at the service level, that is, the things running out of sight of the user under most circumstances.
Aesthetic changes are the big differentiator these days for consumers, and honestly, I'm getting kind of tired debating them. Sony has a look, Samsung has a look, LG kind of has a look, and so does HTC - the one you decide you prefer is a pretty personal choice. I'm not saying how a UI is laid out is irrelevant - it can be very relevant if it enhances or impedes usability. So those are the aspects of the software I'm going to talk about, the distinguishing points.
First, let's talk bloat. Sony's various content hubs and product integration tools crowd the app drawer a fair bit right out the box, some of which no one but Sony diehards probably have use for. I have already disabled about 15 apps on the Z3, and would probably disable ten more if it was my own device.
While the Z3 may have a good amount of usable storage of the box, Sony absolutely does crowd its phones with app and service bloat that does not need to be part of the firmware. Rarely have I seen so much junk or absolutely unnecessary shortcuts (WHY ARE THERE THREE PHOTO AUGMENTING APPS) in an app drawer. Lay off, guys.
- App Source (T-Mobile)
- AR effect
- AR fun
- Background defocus
- File Commander (T-Mobile?)
- Google Korean keyboard (why is this embedded and not removable?)
- Live on YouTube
- Lookout (T-Mobile)
- Sony Select
- Support (just a web wrapper app)
- T-Mobile TV (T-Mobile)
- Xperia Lounge
- Backup & restore (practically useless)
- Movie Creator
- OfficeSuite (T-Mobile?)
- PlayStationSmart Connect
- T-Mobile My Account (T-Mobile)
- T-Mobile Name ID (T-Mobile)
- Update Center (this should be redundant)
- Video Unlimited
- Visual Voicemail (T-Mobile)
- What's New
As far as functional modifications to the interface go, let's look to the notification bar. Sony is using a somewhat strange and space-wasting tab interface to switch between your notifications and quick settings, and it just doesn't look nice.
Sony uses software navigation buttons for its devices and has for some time, and coming from a few months of Samsung devices, I've forgotten how much I approve of them.
Sony's also done a pretty good job of making its settings menu not a gigantic mess of innavigable awfulness, unlike Samsung. Finding most things is easy, and I think the menu structure makes sense. Sony also provides you a lot of battery-saving options if you find yourself in need of them, with a fair amount of customizability, too. There's even a dedicated menu item for selecting your launcher, something I absolutely approve of - digging through the app management UI is no fun.
Sony's theme engine allows you to modify the color scheme and wallpaper of your phone pretty extensively with 3rd party themes you can buy on the Play Store, which is a plus if you're into that kind of thing. I didn't really mess with it too much.
One nice addition to the Z3 compared to most phones making it to US carriers in recent years is the FM radio app, something most American wireless providers seem to have a vendetta against.
Sony's Smart Connect app is sort of a very basic kind of Tasker, allowing you to configure automatic event-based actions when devices connect to your phone, as well as a few event-specific presets. For example, when you put in a set of headphones, you can launch Google Play Music and set the volume. It's a convenient feature if you want it, but obviously this sort of thing has been available in 3rd party apps for a while now.
I didn't have a chance to test the PlayStation app or controller connectivity, because I don't have a PlayStation. So, sorry.
Overall, the software of the Z3 is perfectly usable. Its most stand-out feature? The fact that Sony can skin a phone without destroying the performance, something other OEMs occasionally seem to have difficulty with.
The Xperia Z3 is one of the best Android phones you can currently buy. It's quite nice looking (even if the glass back is kind of a miss for me), performs well, and has battery life that puts it a cut above rivals like the One M8, Galaxy S5, and G3.
That said, those phones came out significantly earlier in the year, when the Z2 was still Sony's top-of-the-line model. The Z3 isn't a huge evolution over its predecessor, though, so I've got to say it: isn't spitting out phones rapid-fire style exactly the kind of thing we get miffed at Samsung for? Sony doesn't release a massive breadth of phones, but updating your flagship twice a year as Sony has done since the first Z last January is not a strategy that makes me feel at ease in terms of post-purchase support. Especially on the subject of updates - an area where Sony still seems to be trying to get into the swing of things.
Do you really relish the idea of buying a Z3 today only for Sony to announce a potentially major upgrade in the new Z phone at MWC next March, running Android L? And considering how incremental an improvement the Z3 is over the Z2, and in just a few areas, you have to bet the next device is going to be a more significant evolution.
That said, if you're a T-Mobile customer with your heart set on this phone, the Z3 is perfectly fine in most ways, and excellent in a few key ones. The issues with the camera can be a nuisance, but if you keep it in the auto mode and just live with 8MP photos you'll avoid most of the headaches it can cause. The battery life isn't, in my experience, truly 2-day, but it is better than phones of comparable size from most other OEMs. Sony's also stepped up its display game very quickly in the last couple of years - I love the Z3's screen. It's probably the best LCD on an Android phone right now - QHD can suck an egg, as far as I'm concerned.
You can get the Z3 on T-Mobile now, $630 outright or $26.25 a month on Jump.