Sony Xperia Z3 review: great battery life and quality camera
Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Sony's latest Xperia Z3 flagship smartphone sets a new bar for battery life, and manages to last half a day longer than most other smartphones without cutting back on features or power.
The Z3 is the latest in Sony's premium smartphone range, and part of its plan to replace them every six months.
'We are a latecomer to the smartphone market and have a lot of new technology bubbling up inside of the company,' Sony's head of mobile Kuni Suzuki told the Guardian. 'We want to show it off and use it to be more competitive.'
'Every six months we find many, many areas where we can improve in both hardware and software, but it's only sustainable as long as we are growing in the premium product market,' he said.
Sony warned on 17 September that poor sales and negligible growth in its smartphone division, primarily fuelled by failures in the US, would drag the company into a £1.3bn projected loss.
The Z2 released in April this year was a solid phone, but felt too big and bulky. Does the Z3 have what it takes to bring Sony out of its tailspin?
Thin, metallic and glass
The Xperia Z3's smooth, rounded metal band around the outside, and the glass front and back, both look and feel premium. Its nylon corners are designed to absorb impact without shattering the screen, although they were not put to the test.
The phone is 9g lighter and 0.9mm thinner than its Z2 predecessor, weighing 152g at 7.3mm thick. It is still heavier than the competition including the 145g Samsung Galaxy S5 and the 129g iPhone 6.
The Z3 is thinner than most of its Android and Windows Phone competition including the 8.1mm thick Galaxy S5, but is 0.4mm thicker than the new iPhone 6. It is waterproof to 1.5m for 30 minutes, with small doors protecting the microUSB port, SIM and microSD slots.
The phone feels solid, with little twist or bend in the frame, although I'm sure if you really tried you could bend it like an iPhone 6 with sufficient force. Tapping on the screen and the back plate feels hollow.
The 1080p resolution 5.2in screen is crisp and colourful, with wide viewing angles with similar pixel density to its competitors. It is one of the brightest screens I've ever seen on a smartphone, but adapts to whats on screen a lot like a TV, locally dimming dark areas for better blacks and a higher contrast with high brightness levels.
Stereo front-facing speakers are loud and clear even at maximum volume.
The small bezels around the screen combined with the the 7.3mm thickness and rounded sides make the Z3 easy to hold, despite the large screen - a significant improvement over the bulky-feeling Z2.
Specifications Stamina to go the distance
In six months, there has been little improvement in processing power between the Z2 and Z3. The Z3 is just as powerful as the older smartphone and as quick as the competition from Samsung and HTC. Having 3GB of RAM, instead of 2GB like the One M8 and Galaxy S5, makes multitasking smoother with many apps running in the background.
The Z3 will easily be able to smoothly handle anything from graphically intensive games to video and image editing.
Sony's built-in noise cancelling technology is as effective as most dedicated active noise cancelling headphones worth over £100, but requires a special headset to use.
The biggest upgrade is in battery life. Sony claims the Z3 has a longest usable battery life of any flagship Android or iPhone, and it has made significant power savings with new screen technology.
The smartphone easily lasted two days on a single charge with heavy use: push email arriving all day, hundreds of notifications from social media, three hours a day of browsing and 30 minutes of gaming, plus an hour of streaming music over Bluetooth.
That was without activating any of the battery saving features, which can reduce processor performance or shut off data when the screen is off, as well as other power saving tweaks to extend standby and usage time by days.
The Z3 is easily the longest lasting flagship Android smartphone currently available and shows that battery life does not have to suffer for thin devices.
Small additions to standard Android
The Z3's software is identical to the Z2's, with Sony's small customisations to Android, adding theming for changing the appearance of the software among other useful additions.
Sony's apps including its Music and Video Unlimited on-demand subscription services are decent, but can be ignored in favour of Google's or other apps.
The Walkman app is capable of playing Hi-Res audio files, able to play the music regardless of the format. In my testing it handled 24bit FLAC studio master files without issue.
The Z3 will be compatible with the Remote Play Android app that allows PlayStation 4 games to be played remotely via Wi-Fi or the internet, connecting a controller via Bluetooth. The app was not available for testing at the time of this review.
The Z3 has Sony's excellent 20.7-megapixel camera, which is a capable point-and-shoot camera replacement using its Intelligent Auto mode. It also has extensive manual modes for those that want to explore their photography, with HDR, white balance, ISO modes and metering all available.
The phone can record 4K video. At the lower 1080p resolution it also has two levels of electronic shake protection, what Sony calls Steady Shot. It uses the phone's accelerometer to smooth out shakes and jerks, and is impressive even smoothing video shot on the move.
Sony's playful augmented reality camera modes can also overlay dinosaurs, clown hats or party balloons in real-time into photos and video for anyone that wants to do that.
The Xperia Z3 costs £530 in black, white, copper and green, making it £9 less than the iPhone 6 and around the same price as most of the competition from Samsung and HTC.
The Xperia Z3 is easily the best smartphone Sony has ever made and an improvement in feel and design over its predecessor.
The lack of wireless charging for something waterproof with fiddly doors covering the charging port is disappointing, but it has a magnetic charging port for an accessory dock.
It has a tough job on its hands battling with Samsung and Apple, but the Z3 is comparable in most ways short of a fingerprint sensor. A worthy contender for the next six months with the great battery life making it one of the best smartphones currently available.
Pros: great battery life, solid build, waterproof, great camera, built-in battery life, PS4 Remote Play support, built-in noise cancelling tech
Cons: fiddly doors for ports, no fingerprint sensor, heavier than some competitors