Hands-on: Sony Xperia Z3 review

It's only been 6 months since the Sony Xperia Z2 hit the shelves, but the company has already announced its successor, the Xperia Z3. It offers a more refined design, improved camera and the ability to play your PS4 console games on your smartphone.

The Xperia Z2 arrived with the tagline "details make the difference" and the Xperia Z3 takes it one step further with "don't settle for good, demand great". We got our hands on prior to launch it to see what makes it great.

Much better design

The Sony Xperia Z3 brings the same OmniBalance design we have come to expect from the flagship Xperia line, but the Xperia Z3 has improved it dramatically. The flat tempered glass back remains, but the Xperia Z3 is rounder at the edges and noticeably lighter than those that have gone before it.

Sony has reduced the weight of the latest device by nearly 10g to 152g and it makes it a huge difference. We instantly felt more love towards it than we did when we picked up the original Xperia Z1 the same time last year. It feels less like a rectangular slab and more like a device that will slide in and out of your pocket without weighing it down.

The thickness has also been reduced to 7.3mm, which is another thing you notice immediately when you pick it up. It feels much slimmer than both the Xperia Z1 and the Xperia Z2 and the rounded edges offer a much more refined finish that make it a true pleasure to hold.

Sony sticks with aluminium as the main material for the frame of the Xperia Z3, but unlike the Xperia Z2, the new flagship offers an all over colour. The Xperia Z2 had a metal trim that ran around the edges and separated the colour making it look thicker than it was. With the all over colour, the Xperia Z3 takes on a more solid design and it looks great.

The corners of the device have also had a face lift. Rather than aluminium all the way around, Sony has introduced nylon to the corners, which it claims is down to user-inspired innovation. The idea is that it will help protect your phone if you drop it and they are the same colour as the rest of the device, making them blend with the design well.

The signature side power button still exists in the same place but it doesn't protrude as much as the two previous flagship Xperia devices. The Xperia Z3 has a much smoother finish and even the microSD and Micro-USB covers blend in more with the overall design than they have in the past, which overall makes for a much better-looking device.

The rear of the Xperia Z3 is no different to the Xperia Z2 with the camera and flash in the top left-hand corner and the top of the device also remain the same, other than the shape, with the headphone jack also sticking to the same position. The bottom of the device has changed slightly though, as the microphone holes are no longer visible on the Xperia Z3 like they were on the Xperia Z2. The lack of fuss works well.

The Xperia Z3 is of course IP65 and IP68 rated meaning both waterproof and dust resistant but for the first time, we don't think the design has been compromised to achieve this.

The hardware

Under the hood, the Xperia Z3 has an upgraded 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, which is supported by 3GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage along with a microSD slot for further storage expansion.

It's the battery that is really interesting though as Sony has actually reduced the battery capacity from the Xperia Z2 to 3100mAh but it claims you will get 2 days of normal use from it, which is an improvement on the 1.4 days claimed for the Xperia Z2.

The improved battery life is said to be down to the processor and the display, which Sony claims doesn't consume too much power. Two days is a big claim and one that we will certainly be testing in our full review.

Display remains the same

Despite other competitors moving towards 2K resolution screens, Sony has opted not to with the Xperia Z3, sticking with the same 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution as both the Xperia Z1 and Xperia Z2.

We felt a little disappointed when we heard the resolution hadn't been bumped up, but Sony rationalises its decision with the claim that the trade-off between battery life and a 2K screen isn't justified and in all fairness, it probably has a point there, as the Xperia Z2 was great compared to the LG G3.

The Xperia Z3 display takes the Triluminos, X-Reality and Live Colour LED labels from the Xperia Z2 meaning red and green phosphors have been added to the IPS display to widen the colour gamut. Sony claimed with the Xperia Z2 that Live Colour LED allows you to boost colours without oversaturating and the same will go for the Xperia Z3.

There is a punch in the colours and on first impressions, the display is good like it was on the Xperia Z2, featuring a pixel density of 423ppi. However, while the viewing angles are considerably better than the Xperia Z1, we do feel the screen still has some room for improvement.

The 5.2-inch screen still features quite a lot of bezel at the top and bottom of the display, that undoubtedly has a function from the inside but it seems redundant from the outside other than to house the speakers. We would love this to be reduced slightly to offer either a smaller device with the same-sized screen, or a larger display in the same footprint.

Camera enhancements

The Xperia Z1 launched last year with the main focus being on the 20.7-megapixel camera and its range of functions, such as Info Eye and AR Effect. The Xperia Z2 took the same sensor and built on the features adding 4K video recording, Timeshift Video and Background Defocus, among others.

Enter the Xperia Z3, which once again builds on the camera features, adding six new applications. But Sony has also enhanced the camera hardware on its latest device.

In an attempt to get better low light images, Sony has upped the ISO to 12800 sensitivity, which it claims is the first in a smartphone, and SteadyShot and Intelligent Active Mode have also both been improved to get steadier and crisper videos.

That isn't all though, Sony has also introduced a new 25mm G Lens so you should be able to get more in the shot. We didn't get a chance to test any of these features during our brief time with the Z3 but we will look at what the enhancements mean for the final images in our full review. We remain slightly sceptical about the ISO 12800.

The six new applications include AR Fun, Multicamera, Sticker Creator, Live on YouTube, Sound Photo that puts a sound track over your pictures and Face-in that will capture your reaction while you take a photo. Although we didn't get a chance to test these in any detail, we had a quick play with the Face-in application and it was good fun.

Sound

When Sony launched the Xperia Z2, it moved the speakers to the front and introduced a new technology called S-Force Front Surround. With the Xperia Z3, Sony has kept the speakers at the front but moved them from the very edge of the device, to the middle of the bezel around the display.

We didn't have a chance to test out the sound during our time with it, but as there have been some new software introductions here too.

The digital noise cancelling feature has been retained in the Xperia Z3 from the Xperia Z2, but Sony has also claimed the Xperia Z3 will deliver "music as the artist intended".

Alongside being hi-res audio enabled, Sony has added a feature called DSEE HX to the Xperia Z3 that it claims will take lower quality audio and turn it into near high-res audio so we are looking forward to testing out how well it does here.

PS4 Remote Play

When it comes to software, there doesn't appear to be a great deal of difference between the Xperia Z2 and the Xperia Z3 except for one big thing. You'll find Android 4.4 KitKat with Sony's skin layered on top that incorporates the translucent notifications bar, along with the What's New feature that launched on the Xperia Z2. What's New is a portal that pushes Sony's own content and it's accessed the swipe action used to access Google Now.

The one big difference that arrives witht the Xperia Z3, however, is that Sony has introduced the ability to play your PlayStation 4 console games using Remote Play and the DualShock 4 controller

We couldn't test this out as it isn't going to be available until November, but it will depend on Wi-Fi connectivity and it will allow you to access and play PS4 games using your smartphone as the screen. Sony has said you will also be able to play remotely when your PS4 and smartphone are on different Wi-Fi networks, but it will not promote that as it can't guarantee the user experience.

Sony is also launching a gaming accessory, GCM10, that will allow you to attach your Z3 to your DualShock 4 Controller, so you can play games via Remote Play.

Let's accessorise

Many smartphone companies are introducing smart covers that interact with that device and allow you to perform certain functions without opening the cover. Sony has jumped on that bandwagon with the Xperia Z3.

Not much information was given but the Style Cover Window cover will use NFC to interact with the Xperia Z3 and allow you to control it through the window on the front.

The Style Cover Window comes in the same four colours as the Xperia Z3 including copper, silver green, white and black, and it has a soft felt material inside, coupled with a metallic finish on the outside. All ports are accessible, as is the camera lens and it's a nice looking case that doesn't add too much bulk to the device itself.

First impressions

When it comes to the design, the Sony Xperia Z3 has come on leaps and bounds. It's a beautiful device that is lightweight, offered in nice metallic colours and the rounded edges make it a pleasure to hold. It stays true to the Xperia style but it is the best looking flagship phone Sony has offered so far by a long way.

The added camera features introduce some excitement and they will be fun to try out, along with the wider angle lens, and the ability to play PS4 games from your smartphone will be a big win for some.

We are still a little disappointed that the screen has remained the same, despite Sony's competition ramping it up in that area, but we do understand the reasoning behind not trading battery life for a slightly sharper image and a 2-day battery life is certainly appealing. It would be nice to have your cake and eat it here though.

A new phone every 6 months begs the question of whether it would be better for Sony to wait a year to give users more to get excited about, but the Xperia Z3 looks good, offers some great new features and it seems on track to be Sony's best Xperia yet. It is certainly one we are looking forward to reviewing in full closer to launch.