(Pocket-lint) - Sony has revised and updated its flagship smartphone more times than any rival in recent years, with the Xperia Z3 model arriving just six months after the previous Z2 hit the shelves.
The Sony Xperia Z3 sticks very much to the lines laid by its predecessors, so is a minor revision rather than a drastic rethinking of the flagship phone. In its sights, however, are some of the points we most criticised about the Z2, so it's a very welcome update.
So is this third time lucky for Sony? Has it finally got the Xperia Z perfect this time around?
The biggest complaint we had about the Z2 was the overall size. The Xperia Z3 makes some small tweaks to make it better. It measures 146 x 72 x 7.3mm, which is a touch wider, but also a touch slimmer, than the Z2. That's paired with curved edges making for a handset that settles better in the hand than before, and there's an 11g weight loss too.
That eliminates one of the things we disliked about the Xperia Z2 and the Z1. This shift in edge design, combined with being slightly slimmer makes things much more agreeable and much better to handle.
However, the Z3 is still a large handset, with a 5.2-inch display, and it doesn't come in as compact as the larger-screen LG G3. That's because Sony's OmniBalance design maintains the space above and below the display, which makes the Z3 taller than it perhaps needs to be, although there's been a revision to the front-facing speakers over the Z2.
Size irrelevant, the quality of the finish is great. The tempered glass front and back is held together by a metal waistband, now reinforced with nylon corners for added impact protection. That's nice, but it means there's now more sections to it - if only they were integrated for a more seamless design. Each gap will only attract dust and debris, after all.
There's also been a revision to the flaps that cover the charging and card slots. These look much higher quality now and we love Sony's use of colour: the copper finish to our review model has an elegance to it that draws comment. It's a standout finish that's a welcome relief from the normal and often tiresome smartphone colour palette.
The Z3 hangs on to its waterproofing too, so you don't have to worry about using this handset in the rain, in the bath or in a swimming pool. With an IP65/68 rating, you'll be able to take it down to depths of 1.5m, for up to 30 minutes. Although the headphone socket is waterproofed, you'll need to open the Micro-USB flap for charging. There is, however, a wireless charging dock (sold separately) that connects to the pins on the side, which we'd recommend to take the faff out of charging.
Overall the Xperia Z3 is a quality handset with a great design that Sony has had the chance to refine through several generations. Now the flagship Xperia Z has finally arrived at the point where everything is actually in balance.
Powerful hardware, excellent battery life
The Xperia Z2 was a powerful device - one of the more powerful flagships of 2014 - and the Z3 repeats this performance. It's equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset with 3GB of RAM, as it was before. In that sense, the Z3 is very much the device that the Z2 was, although now clocked at 2.5GHz.
It's slick and fast in operation, although if you own an Xperia Z2, it's possibly not worth the upgrade. Of course, some will question why Sony didn't release it with newer hardware - like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 did - but we have a niggling feeling that the Xperia Z4 will correct that in another six months' time.
In use everything happens with real purpose and that power means intensive apps and games open quickly, although the handset will get a little warm during 4K video capture or when you fire-up the biggest games.
In taking a slimmer design, the battery capacity has shrunk a tiny amount too to 3100mAh. Battery life on the Z2 was stellar, and the Xperia Z3 repeats that trick: despite capacity reduction there's no loss in longevity per charge, but instead a better overall performance, which is commendable. Of all the current flagship handsets, we'd pick the Sony Xperia Z3 for endurance and given the display size, that's a very positive point indeed.
Where a number of devices in this size will get you through the day, the Xperia Z3 is one of those devices that will get you most of the way through the next day too. It's a phone we're not worried about charging every night and we've happily got through a weekend on a single charge.
One of the things that Sony continues to offer is granular control over what has access to data in the background, as well as other power-saving measures. You can bunch data so it sends in bursts to save power (although that means some things, like instant messaging, is no longer instant), and you can set stamina clock, which will allow you wake the display to view the time without waking all the other apps too.
This shows a considered approach to power control that's rarely found in other devices. Some may have a catchall power-saving mode, but we think Sony's approach is the best. The fact that it's combined with a larger-than-average battery really helps too.
If there's one downside, it's the 16GB of internal storage. Although you can add a microSD to expand this by up to a further 128GB, for power users you might find this limits the number of apps (especially games) you can install. Real Racing 3, for example, which plays wonderfully, eats over 2GB of space.
One area where we've questioned previous Sony devices a fair amount is in the display. Despite adding a lot of branding to mobile displays (Triluminos, X-Reality, Live Color LED and so on), we've sometimes been left nonplussed about things like viewing angles.
The 5.2-inch Sony Xperia Z3 has a Full HD resolution, meaning the same 1920 x 1080 pixels (423ppi) as the earlier Z2 model.
One of the great things about this display is the brightness. Flip off auto brightness control and you've got a very bright display when set to max. If you want to use your device in really bright conditions - on a sunny ski slope, or beach - then you'll have no problems, but remember that it does eat at battery life.
The viewing angles are reasonable, but there's still some dimming when you view from an angle and if you're a fan of polarised sunglasses then you won't like the fact that the Xperia Z3 goes completely black in landscape orientation when donning said specs. Just remember to cock your head like an inquisitive dog when taking photos.
Regardless of everything else that's going on in Sony's display, we like X-Reality which makes images richer and adds vibrancy. The slight downside is that what you're looking at on the device doesn't look quite so good when you share it with the wider world.
We'd advise against the Super-Vivid mode as you'll lose lots of detail in your image through oversaturation (as seen below) with X-Reality on the left and Super-Vivid on the right.
Sony also allows you double tap the display to wake it up, which is one of our favourite options, just like in the LG G3. If the phone it sitting on your desk you can just double tap to see the time, for example.
Calling and sound quality
The new revised front-facing speakers on the Z3 have a more prominent position than previously. They offer reasonable volume, but given there's plenty of space available, we don't quite understand why they aren't bigger.
Because, in reality, they don't come close to the performance of the HTC One's BoomSound speakers. They lack the richness and depth, although they are mostly distortion free at high volumes and you'll need to engage ClearAudio+ to get the best performance. There's a fair amount of vibration through the rear of the body however.
If you want the very best quality sound from the Sony Xperia Z3, you'll need to plug in your headphones. Here the Xperia Z3 excels, with support for in-device noise-cancellation if you're using compatible headphones (not included in the box). There's plenty of options for tweaking the sound delivery, including virtual surround sound effects. The Z3 also supports high-resolution audio through USB.
When it comes to calling, we had no reported problems. Callers came through loud and clear.
The Xperia Z3 launches on Android 4.4 KitKat with Sony's usual customisations added. Sony tinkers in a number of areas: from the battery-saving measures, sound and display tweaks we've already mentioned, to the feature-packed camera that we'll discuss about in a moment.
Little has changed in the software from previous devices, with Sony offering a good balance between tweaked user interface and Android feel. Sony does, however, parachute in a number of its own services. It offers gaming, movie and music services that integrate in various places, as well as trying to push its What's New content discovery service alongside the Google Now shortcut. What's New often isn't especially new content, so it's perhaps awkwardly named.
You'll find Music Unlimited plugged into the Walkman app, although it can be switched off if you're not a subscriber to the service. We like the connected options, accessing media servers, sharing to DLNA devices simply and easily, but some of what Sony adds simply duplicates services that Google already has covered. If you're in the Sony entertainment ecosystem, then fine, if not you'll probably ignore a lot of it and stick to the stock Android options.
There's little to complain about, although the contact linking isn't as slick as that from HTC, but again, you can see how Sony Mobile has been learning and refining over time, little by little.
One interesting addition is the Movie Creator app. This will take your photos and video and create highlight reels from your days out. It feels a little like a work in progress, as the results are rather staid, but it's a sign that Sony wants to get some of the love that HTC's video highlights attract.
We've found the Xperia Z3 to run smoothly and haven't experienced any sort of slowdown during our time with the handset. We've had one unexpected restart, but otherwise it's been smooth sailing over a couple of weeks of use.
PS4 Remote Play
There's a killer feature sitting in Sony's latest Xperia Z3 devices (the tablet and Z3 Compact also offer it) and that's PS4 Remote Play. Taking the place of your PS Vita, you'll be able to move your PS4's gaming onto your phone, leaving your TV free for important programming such as the Great British Bake Off.
You'll need to use your PS4 DualShock controller, but this then means there's no need for strange button mapping and no change in controls. An accessory will let you connect your DualShock to your Xperia Z3, for the ultimate handheld gaming setup.
The option isn't going to be available until November, however, but we've had the chance to play with it before now and so far we've been impressed with how slick it is in operation.
Sony sticks to its headline-grabbing 20.7-megapixel rear camera on the Z3, but remember, as with other Z models, that the full sensor resolution isn't used in the default Superior Auto mode - it uses 8-megapixels instead.
Nor can you use HDR (high dynamic range) if you opt for the full resolution, and HDR is something you'll want to use, as the biggest criticism we have of the Z3 camera is how it handles scenes with high contrast light and dark areas. We've had occasions where the sky completely whites out (in one case obliterating New York's Empire State Building). We've tried touching to meter elsewhere and found that only HDR rescues it. Its results can be a little ethereal at times however, but we'd rather have blue sky than white.
The Superior Auto mode attempts to recognise the scene and give you the best settings. In many cases it identifies it well, but those high contrast scenes seem to fox it. HDR is also a two-step removed option: it's not available in Auto, you have to switch to manual and then toggle it on, which is a little too far for our liking, especially when many rivals offer a simple "auto HDR option".
Much of what the Sony Xperia Z3 camera does is very good, but there are a lot of options. You can select the metering, focus type, and tweak the ISO sensitivity for example, which is nice, but you really just want all these things to happen for you most of the time.
There are lots of fun options you can access in camera apps, although we can't say these get us excited. AR fun might amuse the kids for 10 minutes, but it's not something we'd call a necessity on this high-end handset. However, features like 4K video and SteadyShot stabilisation - which is very effective - are most welcomed.
The Sony Xperia Z3 is capable of some excellent photos and video. It suffers the normal downsides of image noise in low-light - a result of light dropping and the ISO rising as a result. Up to about ISO 1280 the results are passable, beyond that the ISO boost is detrimental overall.
The Z3 also isn't the best for macro shots, you'll have to back off a little and then crop in again for those extreme close-ups. But overall the Z3 has a very capable camera, with lots of options. It's important, however, not to fall for the "20.7-megapixel myth" - most of the time you aren't using that resolution, nor does it offer you all the options.
However, the front-facing camera doesn't cope so well. Even in the best conditions it isn't the best performer out there.
Having criticised the earlier Xperia Z1 and the Z2 models, we feel like Sony has made the right moves in its latest handset. The Z3 gives you the design, the power, the display, the camera and importantly, the battery life. It's the flagship device where Sony has got everything right.
It's a subtle change from the previous Z2 device, granted, but one that makes a big difference. There are still some areas we would criticise, such as the tall design and occasional software excess, but overall Sony has done an excellent job. Just like its Z3 Compact sibling this handset sees Sony arrive in at the fore once again.
If you're looking for a big-screen device that's easy to manage then the Sony Xperia Z3 has it all. It's a compelling flagship set to rival any of the top handsets currently out there.