October 16, 2014
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The Bottom Line

The Sony Xperia Z3 might be here too soon, but it still brings the best that Sony has to offer.

Pros

Further refined aesthetics
Great display experience
Great sound experience
Sturdy, IP certified design
Powerful camera
Minimalistic but very useful Xperia UI

Cons

Upgrade might not be substantial for veteran users
Performance package is a step behind current competition
Best camera features are disjointed

Bottom Line

8.7
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Following the introduction of the Xperia Z, Sony adopted a bi-annual release cycle with their flagship smartphone line. While the differences between releases weren’t revolutionary, each subsequent release further refined and enhanced what was already great about its predecessor. That said, following such a launch cycle brought with it doubts about what kind of upgrades every iteration would feature. Has that concern finally caught up with Sony with regards to its latest flagship? We find that out, and more, in this in-depth review of the Sony Xperia Z3!

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If there’s one thing you can count on with Sony, it’s their commitment to great design language and build quality. With the Xperia Z3, we once again get the familiar black slate design, consisting of two glass panels held together by a metal frame. This time, the metal frame has been given a more polished, rounded feel, allowing for an even sleeker profile than what was found with its predecessors.

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Signature elements of the design make a return, with the big silver power button found on its side, with the volume rocker and dedicated camera shutter button found below it. Unfortunately, I did feel like the tactile feedback from the buttons weren’t as good as before, likely caused by the rounded design resulting in the buttons being a little more flush with the body.

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While the design language remains familiar, some changes have been made to the established formula. For starters, the covers that protect the microSD card slot, SIM tray, and microUSB port have also been given a more polished and rounded look, and completely blend into the frame. Of course, the presence of these covers are indicative of another standard feature of high-end Sony devices, and that is its resistance to dust and water. The dual front-facing speaker setup has also been altered to a couple of smaller grills, as opposed to the slit-like design that was found with the Xperia Z2.

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If you were already a fan of Sony’s design language, you’ll love the design of the Xperia Z3, and certainly appreciate the changes and refinements that have been made from the previous iteration. When it comes to the handling experience however, I did find the device to be quite slippery, due to the glass panels and the light metal frame. You won’t be in constant fear of the phone slipping out of your hand, but it may crop up occasionally. As was the case with its predecessors, the glass on either side is prone to fingerprints and smudges, and it’s quite difficult to get the device back to the pristine state it was in right after the plastic was peeled off.

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With the Xperia Z3, Sony has further perfected the design of its flagship line, making this smartphone enticing for not only newcomers, but veteran users of Sony devices as well.

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The Sony Xperia Z3 features a 5.2-inch IPS LCD display, with a 1080p resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 424 ppi. Long gone are the days when we found ourselves feeling underwhelmed with the display capabilities of Sony flagships. Improvements that were clearly shown with the Xperia Z2 carry over, and are further enhanced, with the Xperia Z3, allowing for a great display experience.

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The same enhancements to this display return in the form of the Triluminos tech and X-Reality Engine, ultimately providing even better color reproduction here than what is found with standard IPS LCD offerings. The result is a display that provides a lot of contrast and the kind of viewing prowess you may have come to expect from Sony televisions.

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While the display size remains the same as its predecessor, the thinner bezels and sleeker form factor allow for an even better handling experience, and 5.2-inches is plenty of real estate for anyone looking to view media or read text. You’ll have a great time doing anything on this display. Text looks great, as do images and videos, and gaming is very enjoyable. Viewing angles are an issue that has plagued previous iterations, but this is vastly improved here, and the signature brightness of IPS LCD displays shines through as well.

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Though the idea behind Sony’s release schedule is to stay ahead of the curve, the Xperia Z3 manages to fall slightly behind in the performance aspect. While the Snapdragon 805 is what is found with flagships released during this time period with devices like the Galaxy Note 4 and Nexus 6, the Xperia Z3 still sports a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, clocked at 2.5 GHz, and backed by the Adreno 330 GPU and 3 GB of RAM. For those who want to be on the absolute cutting edge, this may be a bit of a deal breaker, but it actually doesn’t make a significant difference in the overall experience.

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All but the most recent and most processor-intensive games still performed wonderfully, and getting general tasks done is still as smooth and easy as ever, helped along by the simple, minimalistic, and therefore fast, Xperia UI. Jumping between applications using the Recent Apps screen is still a breeze, making multitasking as easy as it can be.

While it certainly would have been nice to see the latest and greatest processing package with the Xperia Z3, it is still a top-tier device in terms of performance.

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Hardware has always been a strong point for Sony, with features that often bolster the media experience. The front-facing speakers make a return here, and as expected, they are the great performers they always have been. Default settings at the maximum volume allow for a great audio experience even in very noisy environments, and various options in the Sound Settings could make things even better. What I thought was missing in the sound department was the inclusion of the noise-cancelling headphones that included with the Xperia Z2. These headphones will be available with the device, but only in certain regions.

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While the usual array of connectivity options, including NFC, are available, what didn’t make the cut was an IR blaster. Speaking of connectivity, if you are planning to pick up the Xperia Z3, remember to make sure that you pick up the appropriate version of the device to connect to your mobile network. With this particular version, the D6653, I was unable to connect to T-Mobile’s high speed internet, and instead was only able to get the 700 band for AT&T. Data speeds were still pretty fast, but the constant search for signal and reception took a massive blow on battery life, making true battery testing tough to do.

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When it comes to the battery, a 3,100 mAh unit is bolstered by the usual suite of Sony battery saving options, so under the correct circumstances, longevity should be at a comfortable high. In this case though, the constantly searching radio antenna resulted in the battery draining in around 13 hours. But with the STAMINA mode activated, it managed an impressive day and a half of bettery life, due to the stellar standby time.

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Of course, everything under the hood is protected from the elements, with the Xperia Z3 featuring IP68 certification, indicating a complete resistance to dust, and the ability to be submerged in up to 1 meter of water, for as long as 30 minutes, without a negative impact on performance.

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It’s clear that Sony has a lot of faith in their camera optics, because this is the same package that is has been a part of the Xperia flagship line since the Xperia Z1. The 20.7 MP rear shooter is capable of some enormous pictures, and also brings a lot of modes for fun and creativity.

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Some of these modes that provide the tools to get a myriad of shots include AR effect, Background Defocus, and Timeshift, with numerous more available for download, should you need dedicated cameras for services like Evernote and Vine. 4k video recording is available, but huge file sizes might make you opt for the already good quality 1080p shots. The manual mode is where you can really cater the shot, but needing to go here in order to force HDR mode on is cumbersome.

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Unfortunately, the issues that were prevalent with previous iterations also come back here. The 20.7 MP resolution is only accessible when in the full manual mode, after which you can get a 16:9 aspect ratio by jumping down to 15.5 MP, or even lower with the Superior Auto default of 8 MP. While the Superior Auto does a pretty good job of catering the settings to the shot, it’s disappointing that these features are not available in the 20.7 MP size.

That being said, the picture quality is still very satisfactory.The 20.7 MP shots obviously capture a lot more detail, but the 8 MP shots in Superior Auto, with its various modes and features, will likely be more pleasing. Though there is a propensity here to overexpose photos, this actually works in its favor when considering low light shots. In poor lighting conditions, the Xperia Z3 still yielded more usable shots than a lot of the competition.Further, using the dedicated camera button to easily activate the app and then shoot makes the Xperia camera one of the best tactile experiences currently available.

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Though minor upgrades across the board have been noticeable and proven to be welcome, the software aspect doesn’t quite fall under that category, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Xperia UI returns with essentially the same look and feel as before, with its decidedly stock-like elements and few additions piled on top.

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If there is one thing that we are happy about with the UI it is that the simplicity keeps things really fast, and the interface seldom slows down due to being overworked. You get the general homescreens, the app drawer, the notification dropdown with the quick settings shade, and the Small Apps that are found in the Recent Apps screen, if you are looking to get some small overlay tasks done.

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The main additions include the Sony specific applications like the Walkman, Album, and the Unlimited media buying experience. Connectivity to a PlayStation 4 is possible, allowing for streaming from the console to the phone on the same network. It’s definitely a feature that I’m very excited to use as soon as I get my hands on a PS4.

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The main addition here is the LifeLog, which is a robust but somewhat disconcerting data logger that tries to record your entire life. Everything from internet usage, camera usage, Facebook usage, to even your steps and distance traveled, are recorded and illustrated by an avatar on the screen. Lifelog lets you literally look back and see what you have done in the past day or beyond. It’s definitely understandable if you’re wary about just how much specific data is being monitored, but anyone out there that likes to journal or just have logs of everything from fitness to data usage, it is an interesting tool, made even better since it will be able to connect with Sony wearables for data recording.

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Ultimately there is a lot to like about the Xperia UI, if only because there isn’t too much to wade through. Sony continues to puts its faith in this iteration of Android, and it has to be said that we are definitely still fans of what we see.

The Sony Xperia Z3 is currently available for the full unlocked price of around $650, putting it squarely in the realm of flagship smartphone, in both value and price. Boasting similar performance packages and price points, the main competitors of this device are the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the HTC One (M8).

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And so, there you have it – a closer look at the Sony Xperia Z3! For a number of people out there, the updates might not fully justify what is definitely a costly upgrade. But, veteran Xperia fans will find that the Xperia Z3 does provide just enough to keep things fresh, doing so very successfully, especially in the design department. For anyone unfamiliar the high-end Xperia line, this device is another great example of OEMs continuously perfecting what was already a good experience, and is for now, the best point of entry into this family. We can’t fault Sony for having faith in a product that already showed us what they were made of two versions ago, and we certainly can’t blame them for continuing to make that experience even better.

Next: Sony Xperia Z3 top cases & accessories.

Joshua Vergara
Writer, blogger, and videographer - Josh is a former support technician that learned much about technology by fixing everyone else's. On the side, he wrote and performed spoken word, maintained his own personal blogs, and began his own video podcast. Now, he's here at Android Authority looking to put it all together!
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