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Sony Xperia Z3 + Z3 Compact review

by Alex Dobie

7 October 2014

Over the past year, Sony has shown a quiet determination to claw its way to the top of the smartphone food chain. The Japanese electronics giant may be in a sticky financial situation at present, but in 2014 it's fielded some of the most compelling high-end smartphones on the market. At CES this January it was the first big Android player to offer a true flagship smartphone in a smaller form factor with the Xperia Z1 Compact. A few months later it improved on the Z1 in a few important areas with the Xperia Z2, one of the most balanced Android flagships of the year.

Six months later, Sony's back with another fall refresh, and two new smartphones in different form factors. There's the Xperia Z3, the latest iterative update for Sony's Z series, and the Xperia Z3 Compact, which takes the guts of the Z3 and transplants them into a smaller chassis.

Given the similarities between the two, the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact call for a different kind of review, and as such we're going to present a mega-review of sorts, covering all the usual areas, as well as the differences between the two.

Read on to find out how Sony's latest handsets shape up.

Xperia Z3

About this review

We're publishing this review after a week with the global unlocked Xperia Z3 (D6603) and Xperia Z3 Compact (D5803) on the EE network in the UK, in areas with good LTE coverage. Our review units were running software version 23.0.A.2.105.

Thanks to Clove Technology for providing the Sony Xperia Z3 for review. Clove is selling the Xperia Z3 for £515 inc. VAT, and the smaller Z3 Compact for £349 inc. VAT.

Xperia Z3 + Z3 Compact video walkthrough

Xperia Z3 + Z3 Compact hardware

Not your average rectangles

Performance and specifications

Bigger numbers only tell part of the story

Both Z3s are powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processors at 2.5GHz — a small bump from the previous generation. Snapdragon 801 is a proven chip at this point, and while it's not an earth-shattering improvement upon the computational power of the Z2, both the Z3 and Z3 Compact feel quicker than earlier Sony phones. Most of this can be attributed to touch responsiveness, an area where Sony's made substantial improvements this time around. Touch input on the Z3 doesn't exhibit the weird fuzziness of the Z2, and many of the occasional delays from that phone — for instance, in the recent apps menu — are gone too. Whether this is due to hardware or software is unclear; either way, these feel like faster phones than their forebears.

The regular Z3 includes 3GB of RAM, still the most we've seen — or are likely to see until 64-bit phones arrive — in an Android handset. On the Z3 Compact you'll downsize to 2GB, though we've found this makes virtually no difference in day-to-day use. That said, the extra gigabyte of the Z3 should provide extra breathing room for memory-heavy apps.

Xperia Z3Xperia Z3

Our only real hardware complaint is 16GB cap on internal storage.

As for the other type of memory, both phones come with just 16GB of storage, at least in Europe, where they're currently available. As apps and games become larger, and Android itself becomes heavier, it's increasingly difficult to justify limiting internal storage in this way.

Nevertheless, most users shouldn't find the available 11GB and change too claustrophobic — and there's also the option to offload some stuff, including certain apps, to a microSD card. (And as an aside, we should note that it looks like the T-Mobile U.S. Z3 variant will ship with 32GB of storage, as the Z1s did.)

Naturally, both phones also pack batteries of different capacities — 2,600mAh in the Z3 Compact, 3,100mAh in the larger model — meaning there's ample power on offer. And while the Z3 actually includes a slightly smaller battery than the Z2, it more than makes up for this with power savings in other areas. As we'll discuss later, both devices offer best-in-class longevity.

Both Z3s include a full complement of connectivity features too — Wifi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX and 4G LTE. Like earlier Sony phones you'll get a whooping 10 bands of LTE coverage on the global Z3 and Z3 Compact models — Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20 — meaning you're good for most European networks, and AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S.

  Sony Xperia Z3 Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
Weight 163 grams 129 grams
Dimensions 146 x 72 x 7.3 mm 127 x 64.9 x 8.6 mm
Battery 3200mAh 2600mAh
Display 5.2-inch 1080p 4.6-inch 720p
OS Android 4.4.4 KitKat Android 4.4.4. KitKat
CPU Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz
Storage 16GB (global version) 16GB (global version)
Rear Camera 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS
Front Camera 2.2MP 2.2MP
Durability Waterproof and dust tight (IP65 and IP68) Waterproof and dust tight (IP65 and IP68)
Colors White, black, green, copper White, black, red, green

Software and apps

Android, Sony style

Unlike rivals such as Samsung, HTC and LG, Sony has been mostly content slowly evolving its smartphone software over the past few years. Perhaps it's due to the need to maintain parity with the company's other products. Perhaps it's just not time for a major change yet. In either case, the Xperia Z3's software is best described up as the sum of many small changes. First of all, we're up to Android 4.4 KitKat, which at the time of writing is still the latest version of the OS.

At this point it's worth mentioning that the software on both devices is essentially identical, right down the firmware version. Aside from the screen resolution, we noticed no difference in the apps or feature sets loaded on the Z3 and Z3 Compact.

The Xperia Z3's software represents a marriage of the Sony and Google design languages.

Visually, Sony's UI still doesn't stray too far from vanilla Android, and there've been a few changes this time around to bring it in line with Google's design language. The Sony home screen setup has evolved to look a little more like the Google Now Launcher, with a persistent (though disableable) Google Search bar up top, larger icons and use of the Roboto Condensed font. Elsewhere though, it's clearly Sony running the show, with PS4-style energy spiral animations and the company's own "SOMA" font, along with a familiar loadout of icons.

It's a pleasing UI that doesn't overwhelm with bright colors the way some competitors do. Sony's apps, menus and graphics fit into a cohesive whole, even if the manufacturer's own design language is somewhat at odds with Android's. The biggest example of this is probably Sony's icons — these are essentially true-to-life representations of real-life objects, rather than the more stylized, geometric interpretations seen elsewhere. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but the two styles look somewhat odd when put together.

Sony's core apps continue to hook into its content and cloud ecosystems, making the Xperia Z3 series an ideal fit for anyone already invested in Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited or PlayMemories. What's more, Sony's default Album and Walkman are among the better-designed manufacturer-build apps we've seen, with a visual style marrying the Sony style and Android's design guidelines.

Overall, Sony's software continues to maintain a balance between speed, feature set and design. But with Android L and an all-new approach to Android UI design launching imminently, we have to wonder if it's time for Sony to be thinking about a comprehensive redesign.

Xperia Z3Xperia Z3Xperia Z3Xperia Z3

Some additional software bits worth noting:

  • Sony's built in its own screen record function, accessible through the power menu. There are some limitations built in to stop you recording phone calls or other sensitive content, but otherwise it's really well done — and certainly easier than using the command line like other KitKat phones require.
  • Sony's Movie Creator app, available as a download for some other Xperia handsets, brings HTC Zoe-style video highlights to the Z3, with daily, weekly or monthly highlights available depending on how you use the camera.
  • There's also a wealth of power-saving features, which we'll explore in the next section.
  • Once you disable the persistent Google search bar in the stock launcher, you have to go into App settings and clear data to bring it back, which is completely insane. Was there no room for an extra checkbox somewhere?
  • You can now set the color of the "Xperia" live wallpaper, so it's not constantly cycling through a rainbow of colors.
  • The "What's New" orb introduced on the Xperia Z2 in the swipe-up menu alongside Google Now is still present, with no way to turn it off. It's not a huge deal, but a minor irritant if you're not into getting all your entertainment content from Sony.

Xperia Z3 series battery life

Epic longevity

Over the past year battery life has emerged as a major strength for high-end Sony phones, with the company's squared-off smartphone designs providing more space to pack in bigger and bigger batteries. With the Xperia Z3 series, Sony's marketing department is heavily exploiting the phones' longevity, claiming they offer "two day" battery life. And it's no exaggeration.

Both flavors of Z3 boast absolutely phenomenal battery life.

For all intents and purposes it's impossible to kill off either Z3 in under a day, even with the heaviest of use. Both phones delivered best-in-class longevity, regularly totalling more than 18 hours of heavy usage between charges, with between 6 and 7 hours of screen-on time. During this time we were hopping between Wifi and LTE and using a standard loadout of apps — Chrome for web browsing, as well as various social apps, and taking a handful of photos from the rear camera.

Xperia Z3Xperia Z3

With similar usage, most high-end Android phones don't fare anywhere near as well. In fact some, like the Samsung Galaxy Alpha, last around half as long. So if battery life is a deciding factor in your smartphone purchasing decision, Sony has two really great options for you here.

But there's more than sheer hardware power on offer here. Sony's also expanded its already comprehensive array of power management options. There's Stamina mode, a well-known Sony feature that disables background data usage when the screen is off. And new on the Z3 is Ultra Stamina mode, which like similar offerings from Samsung and HTC, basically turns your Z3 into a glorified featurephone, with battery life to match. Many of the higher-level features of the phone are disabled, leaving you with phone, SMS, calendar, clock, calculator and FM radio at your disposal, in addition to the camera and gallery apps. Like similar features from rival manufacturers, it's a last resort, and during our testing we never had to reason to use it.

On top of that there's a special low battery mode which can disable many of the phone's connectivity features to save that precious last few percent of battery. And a new battery shaming screen allows you to track down apps that might be misbehaving and running down your battery. (Similar to the "Apps Using Significant Energy" readout in Apple's OS X.)

So between all these features there should be no excuse for running out of juice.

Finally, we should note that we didn't see any significant divergence in battery life between the Z3 and Z3 Compact — both models performed admirably. Whichever one you pick up, you won't see any major difference in battery life outside of synthetic benchmarks.

Xperia Z3 series cameras

More of the same

It's been just a year since Sony introduced its 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor in the Xperia Z1, but the company's strategy of constant, half-yearly updates has seen this camera grace three flagship phones already. In the past we've praised Sony's high-resolution shooter for its general versatility and oversampling capabilities, not to mention the vast array of features the ever-expanding camera app.

And all of that is true of the Z3 and Z3 Compact's rear camera, a similar 20.7-megapixel setup behind a slightly wider-angle lens, with an expanded ISO range — up to 12800. That's backed up by a relatively run-of-the-mill 2.2-megapixel front-facer, which performs adequately — though selfies quickly become blotchy if you're shooting in the dark.

Xperia Z3

Despite these token changes to the rear camera, the experience on offer is barely any different to that of the Xperia Z2, or even the year-old Xperia Z1. And while it's still a perfectly decent smartphone camera, Sony risks moving backwards relative to its competitors by standing still in such an important area.

By standing still in such an important area, Sony moves backwards relative to everyone else.

Nevertheless, there's plenty to like here: fast capture speeds, good-looking shots in a wide range of lighting conditions, even in relatively low light. Superior Auto does a great job of locking down settings and scene modes for a wide variety of situations. By default, the camera shoots images at 8 megapixels, leaving you with some room to zoom in and capture more detail before reaching the limit of the sensor. You can also capture images at the full 20 megapixels (or 16 in 16:9 orientation), though you'll do so without the help of any scene modes, or Superior Auto's scene-detection trickery.

Xperia Z3

And for advanced users, there's no end of tweaking options to be found in the comprehensive Manual shooting mode. There are 18 shooting modes available, along with the usual white balance and EV (exposure value) tweaks, a host of different flash options and additional features like HDR, various focus modes, ISO and metering tweaks and much more. It's the antithesis of the iPhone's "just shoot" camera app — but for more advanced users that might not be a bad thing.

Beyond the basics, the Z3's camera offers a range of plug-in camera apps for different situations, including panorama, burst captures and a range of neat AR (augmented reality) modes that can add characters and interactive objects to your viewfinder.

Both Z3 models also support video recording at up to 4K resolution through the specialized 4K recording mode, or 1080p in regular video mode. When shooting at 4K you'll sacrifice the stabilization and customization options available at lower resolutions, and the camera app also warns that recording may discontinue due to heat buildup — not exactly the most encouraging message dialog we've ever seen.

On the whole, though, the Z3's camera captures good-looking video footage at both 1080p and 4K, with no real complaints in terms of bit rate, color quality or dynamic range. The lack of optical stabilization means the Z3's video camera is more susceptible to hand motion than competitors like the LG G3, but there's a software stabilization option to compensate for this. In addition, there's an HDR video mode that's up there with the best from Samsung and others, though certain scenes do take on a slightly trippy quality with HDR video enabled.

Like its predecessor — and its predecessor's predecessor — the Z3 camera's main weakness seems to stem from its relatively small pixel size. Image quality can degrade rapidly in twilight conditions, leading to blurred shots, or images where there's just not much fine detail to be seen, even at full resolution. What's more, in the past year we've seen plenty of devices that are better in these conditions.

Ultimately what you're getting is still a pretty good smartphone camera, but there's no hiding the fact that Sony's 20-megapixel shooter is starting to show its age. It maybe one of the better ones for now, but the competition's become fiercer than ever over the past year.

Xperia Z3 + Z3 Compact: The Bottom Line

Two of the best ...

Now is a great time to be buying a smartphone. As 2014 draws to a close we've seen some incredible hardware from the top-tier manufacturers, and even some lesser-known brands. So for those of us who live and breath mobile tech it's become ever harder to nail down a single Android phone that's great at everything. It's hard to go wrong with many of the current flagships, but each of them has its own quirks, and in many cases there are fatal flaws to be found. The HTC One M8? Camera's not so hot. Galaxy S5? Plasticky design and bad low-light photos. Moto X? So-so camera and iffy battery life.

The Sony Xperia Z2 was one of the more balanced phones of the year in terms of doing a lot of stuff really well, and the same is true of its successors. As Sony slowly chips away at its remaining weaknesses, there are fewer outstanding gripes — and there's really nothing either of these phones is bad at. Whatever you think of Sony's aggressive six-monthly refresh cycle, you can't argue with the results.

Xperia Z3

Our biggest complaint is probably the camera — not because it's bad, just because Sony's allowed the Android-based competition to catch up with it over the past year. Because the core camera hardware has barely changed, image quality too exhibits the same quirks as the Z2, and to a certain extent the Z1. If Sony is to take market share away from Samsung and Apple, its imaging capabilities need to keep pace with its release schedule.

Xperia Z3Xperia Z3Xperia Z3Xperia Z3

As great as the full-sized Z3 is, its little brother could be the real jewel in Sony's crown.

On paper the Xperia Z3 isn't a huge upgrade from the Z2, but its strengths lie in ways that can't be measured by comparing specifications. The size, shape and design, for instance, are all huge improvements. It's still a big phone, but it's a big, sleek phone rather than a brick with a screen on the front. Touch responsiveness is noticeably better, and the display is one of the best we've seen on a smartphone.

As good as the full-sized Z3 is, the Z3 Compact, could be the real star of the show. Priced competitively — available for as little as £350 off-contract in the UK — and offering many of the perks of its big brother, the Compact is the only real option for Android fans looking for a device to rival the iPhone 6 — a sub-five-inch device with flagship credentials.

And as much as the choice between these two phones comes down to personal taste, there's really no wrong choice to make.

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