Sony Xperia Z3 review – an unsung hero among smartphones

Price when reviewed

We first laid hands on the Sony Xperia Z3 some time ago, but in the Christmas rush it was one of those products that slipped through the net, overlooked in favour of glitzier, more newsworthy products. See also: what’s the best smartphone of 2015?

Sony Xperia Z3 review - an unsung hero among smartphones

But, having taken the place of the excellent Nexus 6 in our pocket, we’ve been quietly impressed by Sony’s flagship smartphone. This is an Android handset that doesn’t elbow its way to the front of the queue, loudly boasting of the fastest this or biggest that – instead, it delivers a refinement of an already successful formula.

Sony Xperia Z3 - front

Sony Xperia Z3 review: key features and design

Instead of keeping up with the latest handsets with their overblown AMOLED Quad HD (QHD) displays, the Xperia Z3 has the same 5.2in Full HD screen as its predecessor, the Sony Xperia Z2.

The design is pleasant enough, too, without grabbing you by the lapels. It’s available in a number of different colours, which we like – especially the copper hue of our review handset – and both front and rear are coated with tough, “tempered” glass.

Sony Xperia Z3 - rear

Narrow bezels to the left and right of the screen and curved edges make it easy to grip in one hand, and the flat back ensures it doesn’t rock to and fro if you’re interacting with it while it’s on a flat surface. And just like every other high-end Xperia device, the Z3 is water- and dust-resistant, rated to IP68, with sealed flaps covering all the ports and slots. One of these covers a microSD slot capable of accepting cards up to 128GB in capacity.

Generally, we like the design. It’s a tad slimmer, lighter and more compact than the Z2, and we think it looks nicer as well. One negative point, though: the glass on the front and back makes the phone super slippery. It feels like you’re holding an expensive bar of soap, and beware of placing it on any smooth surface that isn’t dead flat. Take your eyes off it for a moment, and it’s likely to slide stealthily off and plummet floorwards.

Sony Xperia Z3 - camera button

Sony Xperia Z3 review: hardware and performance

The main power plant is a quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC, which is perfectly fast, but hardly the latest in mobile tech. In fact, it’s the same model as inside the Xperia Z2, clocked 200MHz faster, and it’s backed up by the same GPU – an Adreno 330 – and the same 3GB of RAM.

However, with a mere 1080p display up front, there are fewer pixels to shunt around than phones equipped with higher-resolution QHD displays – and performance remains perfectly acceptable as a result. Geekbench 3 scores of 961 and 2,713 in the single- and multi-core tests put it level with its predecessor, and the average frame rate of 29fps in the GFXBench T-Rex HD (onscreen) is exactly the same.

Sony Xperia Z3 - front logo

While the screen doesn’t pack in the pixels like the LG G3 or the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, quality is pretty good. Brightness reaches a searing 631cd/m2 (candela per square metre), far brighter than the Z2 and even the iPhone 6, promising superb daylight readability. Contrast is what you’d expect from an IPS display, at 1,053:1, and it’s capable of displaying 98.8% of the sRGB colour gamut. Sadly, colour accuracy isn’t up with the best, but you can use Sony’s white-balance adjustments to tweak the colour temperature to your liking – whites are a touch bluish and cold at the default settings.

Elsewhere, this is backed up with the usual bevy of flagship smartphone hardware: wireless connectivity comprises Bluetooth 4, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, NFC and 4G; and the battery is a healthy 3,100mAh.

Oddly, the latter is a downgrade on the Z2, which has a 3,200mAh battery. Despite this, battery life is commendably good. In general use we found the Z3 easily made it through a full 24 hours and then some, and it fared well in our benchmark battery tests, consuming a mere 6.3% per hour while playing a 720p video (with the screen set to 120cd/m2 brightness) and 1.3% per hour while streaming a podcast from SoundCloud. In the GFXBench battery test, the Z3 promised a projected runtime of 3hrs 16mins.

Sony Xperia Z3 review: camera

By now, you won’t be surprised to discover that the Z3’s camera specifications are exactly the same as the Z2. The rear camera still captures stills at 20.7 megapixels and 4K video from a 1/2.3in sensor through an f/2 lens, while the front camera is a 2.2-megapixel effort. There’s no upgrade to optical stabilisation here, nor phase-detect autofocus, so autofocus is a touch sluggish.

Sony Xperia Z3 - 20.7MP rear camera

Quality is more than acceptable, butit’s largely similar to the Z2’s output: in other words, it’s an excellent all-rounder that can’t quite match the best in the business. Our main concerns surround the softening of details through over-compression and a large dose of optical distortion that bends straight edges and skews buildings out of whack.

However, in most conditions, the Z3 is capable of capturing perfectly serviceable snaps and well-balanced video.

Sony Xperia Z3 review: software, call quality, audio

As is usual with Sony smartphones, the Xperia Z3 is loaded with a customised version of Android. In this case, it’s Android 4.4.4 (an upgrade to 5 is promised in February) – and, once you’ve removed all the Sony widgets from the homescreens, it’s a pretty unobtrusive skin with a few practical additions.

We’ve always liked Sony’s tweaks to the app drawer, which allow you to order apps in a number of different ways, but there’s a number of nice-to-have extras available through the phone’s settings, including a hypersensitive glove mode, a setting that keeps the screen alive if you’re looking at it, and a selection of power-saving settings to help you make the most of the battery when you’re running low.

Sony Xperia Z3 - rear view at an oblique angle

We found no issue with call quality during our time with the phone, but the speakers aren’t the loudest or clearest around. The HTC One M8 and Nexus 6 hold onto that crown for now.

Sony Xperia Z3 review: verdict

In summary, the Xperia Z3 is a more than decent smartphone, and one we’d happily carry around from day to day. It’s nicely designed, has great battery life and a lovely display.

But then, the Z2 was pretty good too, and it’s now far cheaper than the Z3 for an almost identical roster of features and performance figures (aside from the screen). We note that stocks seem to be running low for the Z2, but if you can get your hands on one, it’s the one we’d buy. Here’s hoping for a bigger step forward with the Xperia Z4.

Sony Xperia Z3 specifications

Processor Quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
Screen size 5.2in
Screen resolution 1,080 x 1,920
Screen type IPS
Front camera 2.2MP
Rear camera 20.7MP
Flash Single LED
Compass Yes
Storage 16/32GB
Memory card slot (supplied) microSD (up to 128GB)
Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Bluetooth 4, A2DP, apt-X
Wireless data 4G, 3G, 2G
Size (WDH) 72 x 7.6 x 146mm
Weight 152g
Operating system Android 4.4.4
Battery size 3,100mAh
Buying information
Warranty 1yr RTB warranty
Price SIM-free (inc VAT) £471 inc VAT (includes £12/mth goodybag)
Price on contract (inc VAT) Free on a £27/mth, 24mth contract
SIM-free supplier
Contract supplier

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