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Sony Xperia XZ3 review: A low-key entertainment winner

Sony Xperia XZ3
(Image: © Android Central)

I know I'm a little late to this one, but Sony products are ones that I feel the need to luxuriate in, to get a feel for their pros and cons, benefits and drawbacks, over the course of a few weeks, not a few days. I think that's OK, too, because the average Sony smartphone buyer probably isn't lining up on day one to buy the company's new phones. That is, if they're even in a country that sells Sony products in stores.

The Xperia XZ3 was announced back in September, during the IFA conference in Berlin, and comes just six months after the Xperia XZ2. While the cadence was not surprising — Sony's been doing twice-yearly phone refreshes since 2013 — the number of changes, physical and otherwise, were meaningful. The XZ3 is Sony's best device ever, but it comes at a $100 price increase over the XZ2, and given the number of high-end flagships in that price bracket, I'm not sure the PlayStation maker has done enough to justify the surge.

I've used the Sony Xperia XZ3 on and off for a month now (it's been a busy October, give me a break) and it's been a sturdy companion. But should you buy it — especially when the up-front cost for most Americans is $900? Let's dig into it.

Sony Xperia XZ3 What I love

CategoryXperia XZ3
Operating SystemAndroid 9 Pie
Display6-inch OLED, 2880x1440
Gorilla Glass 5
18:9 aspect ratio
HDR support
ProcessorSnapdragon 845 64-bit
Adreno 630
Rear Camera19MP Exmor RS, hybrid AF
960 fps FHD slow-mo, 4K HDR video
Front Camera13MP f/1.9 wide-angle
ChargingUSB-C, PD
Qi wireless charging
SoundStereo S-Force front speakers
Water resistanceIP68
SecurityRear fingerprint sensor
Dimensions6.2 x 2.9 x 0.4 in
Weight6.8 oz
Network1.2Gbps (Cat18 LTE)
ColorsBlack, White Silver, Forest Green

Repelling (or ignoring) years of criticism about its phones, Sony has slowly been moving towards a style and feature set that it thinks will win over enthusiasts. Display, sound, and camera, all meant to bolster the entertainment experience of using one's phone. With the XZ2 redesign, the company's handsets became a bit more ergonomic (and slippery), but considerably more in line with what you'd expect from a high-end smartphone in 2018. The bezels were reduced, the display quality improved, and the sound boosted.

And yet, even compared to other phones released in early 2018, the XZ2 was bulky and awkward. With the XZ3, there's just enough refinement in the build and design that I'm willing to concede that it looks great, albeit a bit more generic than previous generations. The front is covered with a 6-inch QHD+ OLED display, with glass that slopes in slightly to meet the narrow metal bezel and color-matched glass back. I love this display, with its bright, vivid colors, excellent brightness, and HDR for supported content (though the company's X-Reality engine reportedly upscales SDR to HDR, but that's not really a thing).

It's funny to think that just a few years ago Sony was rightfully excoriated for releasing phones with some of the worst LCD panels on the market. Things improved in 2014 with the Z3 line — viewing angles and colors grew more in line with the industry standard at the time — and the company is playing catch-up once again with the XZ3.

But it's fine, because this is one of the nicer OLED panels I've seen on a phone. At 2880x1440 pixels, it's much sharper than the XZ2's LCD panel, and touch response is as good as ever. Not only that, but Sony managed to eliminate more of the bezel above and below the display while maintaining the superlative S-Force stereo speakers the line is known for, all without resorting to a notched design.

Sony's XZ3 looks fantastic, if a little generic, but it's in the feature set that the company hopes to differentiate itself this generation.

The best (and given the recent price drops, perhaps worst) thing I can say about the XZ3 from the front is that it looks a heck of a lot like the Samsung Galaxy S9. Sony's paying attention to symmetry here, with an evenness and balance to the bezels above and below the display as well as the metal frame around the phone.

All of the XZ3's buttons are on the right frame, and I've grown fond of their placement: volume near the top, power dead center (and well apart from the others), and a dedicated camera shutter near the bottom. While I love that Sony continues to emphasize the tactility of photo taking by offering a physical button, its usefulness has declined proportionally to the slipperiness and reduced size of the bezel. With the XZ3, Sony's most svelte and slippery smartphone to date, I find it nearly impossible to use the shutter button without dropping the damn thing. It's a problem (that requires a case).

Around back, the XZ3's single 19MP camera is flanked by a trail of sensors and LEDs, along with a capacitive fingerprint sensor that, while still too low, isn't as awkward to use as it was on the XZ2, as the phone is slightly taller overall. We'll talk about the camera later, but let's talk sound now, because it's one of my favorite aspects of this device.

Sony's dual front-facing speakers are loud and clear, and combined with the Dynamic Vibration System, makes for an engrossing and enjoyable video-watching or music-listening experience. Dismissed as a gimmick in many of the reviews of the XZ2 and XZ3, I'm a big fan not only of the feature itself but of the concept: in lieu of using the phone's internals as a resonance chamber a la LG G7 or Pixel 3, Sony's chosen to focus on tuning its speakers for sparkling highs and warm mids while relying on an ultra-powerful vibration motor to recreate bass within it.

I think it works, and because it's a motor it can be tuned to your liking; the G7's bass increases and decreases proportionally to the phone's volume. And while the Dynamic Vibration System doesn't reproduce low-end the same way as a subwoofer, I think it's a stupendous solution to a problem many companies have struggled for a long time to solve.

Battery life is characteristically Sony excellent, which means all-day-plus, in my experience. Despite only having a cell size of 3,330mAh, Sony's imperious killing of background processes ensures that there's no workflow this phone can't survive. In my multi-week torture test of the XZ3, I didn't kill it before bedtime even once. Plus, it supports Qi wireless charging and USB-PD, so topping it up is fast and reliable.

As for software, I'm satisfied, if not elated, with Sony's restraint in Android 9 Pie. Yes, it ships with the latest version of Android, but it also looks increasingly like Google's version but for a launcher that can be easily swapped for something better. Sony doesn't inundate users with gimmicky features (save for one, which I'll get to), but there's plenty to like about the pre-loaded experiences, including a well-designed camera app and gallery, and first-party options that are inspired by, but don't copy verbatim, Google's Material Theme.

A few more things the Xperia XZ3 does well:

  • Call quality is excellent, as is Bluetooth reliability.
  • I used the phone on TELUS and Wind Mobile in Canada throughout my testing period, and both networks performed extremely well. Speeds were often well above 150Mbps in tests, and signal strength remained strong.
  • While the XZ3 doesn't have a headphone jack, it's compatible with every USB-C earbud I own, which is encouraging.

Sony Xperia XZ3 What's not great

There's a lot to like about the Xperia XZ3, but one thing dooms it, especially for the price: the camera isn't great. The 19MP sensor and f/2.0 lens combination goes all the way back to early 2017 with the Xperia XZs, and while Sony gave image quality a boost with the XZ2, switching from its own proprietary processing engine to Qualcomm's, and it showed — daytime images had better colors, and low-light photos weren't as bogged down with noise. Here's what I wrote when I reviewed the XZ2 back in June:

The phone makes smart decisions most of the time, but not every time, particularly in scenes with blown-out areas that require HDR, something Superior Auto is reluctant to apply.

That still applies today, but the points of comparison aren't the same. Since the XZ2's release, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, Pixel 3, and iPhone XS have all been released, lengthening the delta Sony has to narrow to get back into camera conversation. The problem isn't that the XZ3 shoots bad photos — the sensor is good and the lens is sharp, so there are no real technical roadblocks here — but that they're lifeless and boring, especially when compared with the current crop of great camera phones. While Sony's camera app has improved immensely with its Android Pie update, the software just makes poor decisions.

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Colors aren't just lifeless, they're often wrong. White balance errs on the cool side, and exposure is infuriatingly inconsistent. And in situations where HDR is necessary, the automatic shooting settings don't activate it, washing out skies and other bright areas, or keeping darker areas completely imperceptible.

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I have taken great photos on the XZ3, and on Sony phones in general, but they are usually done in manual mode, and with a bit of patience tweaking settings. That shouldn't be necessary.

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Sony's video prowess is also marred by an issue I also experienced on the XZ2: dropped frames. Shooting a random video in 4K nearly always results in blips in the viewfinder — it looks kind of like a glitch in the Matrix — which translates into dropped frames in the final product. I hoped this would be resolved with the update to Pie and the improved camera app, but it doesn't appear to have been prioritized.

Elsewhere, Sony's one software "gimmick", Side Sense, could have been great but is criminally underutilized. The idea of having a touch-sensitive side area isn't new to the industry — HTC's Edge Sense is probably the best-known and most robust example— but Sony's Side Sense tries a different tack. By default, double-tapping anywhere on either side of the phone's slightly curved glass — not the metal bezels, but the actual OLED display — shows your last eight most-used apps, with shortcuts to bring down the notification shade or to disable auto-rotate, among others. You can also configure a slide up or down the side to emulate Android's back button.

The Xperia XZ3's Side Sense feature could be an invaluable tool for power users, but it's bogged down by Sony's narrow thinking.

Side Sense would be useful were it not for its unreliable nature — you have to be very precise with your taps and swipes — and its lack of customization. Why not let me bring down the notification shade with a double-tap or slide instead of making me wade through a bunch of icons? Why can't you disable the app switcher altogether and just emulate the quick settings menu? Sony's idea is sound, but it didn't take into account that the last thing I need is yet another way for me to access my apps; the home screen is a single tap away, as is the multitasking menu.

For Side Sense to be useful it would have to let me automate tasks that aren't already within thumb's reach. (Can we also talk about the fact that Sony lets me pull down the notification shade using a shortcut within Side Sense but not by swiping down on the rear fingerprint sensor like nearly every other manufacturer? Come on.)

Moving onto hardware, I'm all-in on Sony's new design language and aesthetic, but my gosh this phone is slippery. Sony really should be including a case in the box — even a cheapy clear case — if it wants people to buy this. I can't tell you how many times I almost dropped the XZ3 during my testing period, and it slid out of my pocket more than once while sitting down.

Sony Xperia XZ3 Should you buy it?

The Sony Xperia XZ3 is a good phone, and competes well with other flagships in its price range in every way but one: camera. That's unfortunate given Sony's position in the camera sensor market; it creates the actual sensors that go into every phone that destroys it in terms of photo quality and video performance. As Huawei, Google, Apple, and others invest in computational photography, Sony's left exposing the weakness of relying on hardware alone (or the consequences of bad software processing).

The phone's display and sound make for an enjoyable, if slight, upgrade over competing products, but it doesn't trounce any of them. Indeed, the screen on the newly-released OnePlus 6T is almost as good, though it lacks the XZ3's stereo speakers and powerful haptics. Sony also lacks a carrier ecosystem to fall back on in the U.S., so there's no getting it on a generous financing plan. Nor can you use the XZ3 on Verizon, which limits its potential uptake in the U.S. Even the OnePlus 6T can boast of being sold at a U.S. carrier and being compatible with Verizon's network.

3.5 out of 5

I'm a big fan of the Xperia XZ3, and have enjoyed my time with it. But like I've said with almost every other Sony phone (except the exceptional XZ2 Compact, which you should buy right now if you prefer small devices), it's too expensive, and requires a pretty substantial price drop to even be considered in the same breath as today's flagships. As many people pointed out to me already, why should you buy this when the Galaxy S9 and G7 ThinQ are available for under $700 right now, or when the OnePlus 6T is sold at a tantalizing $549?

I don't really have an answer for you. And that's a big problem for Sony.

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Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

  • Unless I missed it, one thing that I think should be added is that Sony has been killing it with security patches, and I know a lot of people care about that. Other than that, I pretty much agree with this whole review. Very well written.
  • No, you won't need cases. Dropped my XXP and XZ2 many times many times, no problem. And why hide such beautiful devices :)
  • The XZ3 is yet another Sony fail. Like the XZ2, the XZ1, the XZ and every single Sony "flagship" since the Z3.
    Sony just doesn't listen.
    For everything they fix, they ruin something else. They added a fingerprint scanner to the phones...then comes the XZ2 and ruins it by removing it from the right place - the side - and moving it to the dumb place - the back. They put in an OLED display...and they drop support for Xperia Themes 'cause on an OLED screen, the best thing to have is Google's sh*t white backgrounds everywhere. They remove bezels...and the headphone jack with it, despite the phones getting fatter. They changed the design that everyone liked for a generic, ugly thing that hasn't convinced anyone. And then there's the things they never fixed. The camera still lacks OIS, still doesn't support RAW capture (Sony active blocks that on the camera2api), the manual mode is still a joke and Sony still thinks it knows best than the person seeing the scene and taking the photo.
    It's not that the iPixel camera is great. It isn't and those photos just show Google's traditional approach of photos that look like a unicorn vomited on them. But the Xperia photos fail all by themselves. It's been over 4 years and Sony still doesn't know how to handle different exposures without something getting blown up or sent to the dark pits of Mordor.
    And then there's the software which is getting worse and worse. It's ever more close to sh*tock Android and still comes full of bloatware like AVG, Amazon etc to go along Sony's own apps and Google's bloatware. Simple things that Xperias had for a long time like double-tap to wake or a theme engine have been removed for no reason whatsoever and replaced with nothing. They're removed all that made Xperias unique and copies all the worst things of other OEMs. The only thing missing is a bloody notch to be the final nail on Xperia's coffin. It's no surprise that Sony in Q3 2018 managed to have its worst shipment numbers since ever. Only 1.6 million phones shipped. The losses of Sony Mobile were bigger than the profits of the PlayStation division which is Sony's most profitable division. But nah.
    Everything's fine.
    Keep doing what you're doing Sony. Ignoring the criticisms of your customers for years is definitely paying off!
  • Tell 'em how you feel.
  • You're trying to be smart but the joke's on you, mate. I've spoken to a couple of Sony's engineers years ago (during the Z5 time). I've already told them directly what I thought without needing your useless help ;)
  • I think Pacheco Ceo pretty much just killed you with that one. I see you're still on here bittching about anything you can find for attention. Carry on.
  • Nop. He tried to be smart and it backfired. Too bad for him ;)
  • An FPS sensor on the side is just silly let's be honest. Front or back at least it's centralised and works for both left and right handed people. In the side just limits that severely
  • The back is the stupidest place to have the sensor. You put the phone on a table? No access. You put it on a car mount? No access. You put it on a wireless charging pad? No access. The side is always accessible, regardless of what hand you use. If you're in the minority of left-handed people, you just need to add in your middle-finger or index finger instead of your thumb. The power button isn't going to change places anyway.
    And since you can add 5 different fingers, that's not even a real issue as you can add from both hands.
  • Jesus christ you are a miserable b.astard
  • So was your father. See? We have something in common.
  • I started reading this comment, realized who it was, then checked just to make sure. Yes. I was correct.
  • What about his comment is incorrect?
  • At least you didn't try to contradict me. You'd end up making a fool of yourself. Good for you!
  • From the reviews I read, weighing up cost, features, design, size, latest software and build. I would rate Sony as the all around winner for Smartphone of the year. The iPhone score would suffer due to poor value for money and do we really need the Pixel feature that takes the call for you and talks to the caller on your behalf, I think not.
  • Phone of the year LMFAO! Huawei Mate 20 Pro or Note 9. Pixel 3 XL and iPhone XS Max a very distant joint 3rd and the Sony would be lucky to make the top 10
  • Yes but I took into account value for money. The Note, Pixel and iPhone are poor value for money. So on my Smartphone of the year list none of the above would make 1st or 2nd place.
  • I also have been using my xz3 for over 2 weeks and I would give this phone 4.5. To many reviewers compare phones they are reviewing to the iPhone and Pixel, but they never reverse the process. For example things that Sony got right and the Pixel got wrong. Most reviews are superficial, they skim the surface using the iPhone and Pixel and maybe the Galaxy as a reviewers template. But if you dig out more in depth reviews you will see what I mean.
  • I disagree with review saying camera performance is poor. It is one of the phones with accurate white balance during daytime pics and close to accurate slightly bumped up colors. It resolves incredible detail in the captured photos. Pixel pics might be great but certainly overprocessed. The only thing lacking is hdr processing. It is weak .
  • My experience with this camera is the same on all counts.
  • It just may be me but the front looks like a Samsung S series phone to me.
  • Read the article.
  • I've always been interested in Sony phones, but the only one I owned was pre-smartphone 610.
    It's interesting about the rumble pack emulation. The phone vibrates, and it's a feature. When other phones vibrate, it's a defect.
  • I really fail to see how people fall for OLED even in XZ3 case (best oled alongside iPhone X series) compared to quality LCD like on XZ2? While OLED can reproduce pitch black it completely fails to produce whites that are white and since you spend most of the time in apps that have white backgrounds I really don't know how you don't find that unacceptable? Then there is over-saturation of the color that some people call pop but all it is truly just saturation cranked into oblivion. Then there is PWM flickering if your display is not set to optimal brightness and this is actually the strength of XZ3's display. XZ3 display is not as bright as Note9 but it doesn't experience flickering at some normal non-eye damaging brightness while iPhone X and Note 9 start to flicker as soon as you dim em down from eye bleeding brightness setting. Camera on XZ2 is now the same as on XZ3 cause it got the exact same software last month when it upgraded to Pie (which is still broken in visual refinement instances such as quick access top down menu which got larger icons for easier tap but they seem to go off screen on XZ2 Compact and so on). Camera is really good. It's not night and day difference against Pixel 3 as many want you to believe including this review. You have to understand that Sony camera behaves in spot metering mode and that's exactly how you have to use it. You have to tap on the object which you want to be exposed (if you are not satisfied with automatic option) and result is that you get hell a lot better details in shadows and low mids than in Pixel 3 case which tries to balance the exposure to give you the sky but as a result it kills any details in shadow on the ground. Sony camera during your usual suspect daytime shooting has better dynamic range than Pixel 3 and more accurate colors, I guess you didn't know that. When it comes to night and low light photography Pixel 3 takes the cake but not all the time. XZ low light is really weird and not consistent, it's really hard to figure out why in the exact same scene shot couple of times you get a range of photos going from crap to acceptable to Pixel 3 low light quality. Exact same scene. Here is one more thing XZ does better than Pixel 3 and that is multiple frames of the same shot, Pixel 3 gives you 2 second video to choose the frame but in downscale resolution (read: completely useless) while XZ gives you only four frames but at full resolution. Video camera on XZ is better than Pixel 3, Pixel 3 video is completely opposite to Pixel 3 photo mode as shadows are presented with more details than in still images. This makes Pixel 3 video more neutral in color reproduction and has better dynamic range than XZ video but XZ video is properly balanced when it comes to flavored exposure, colors and contrast and stabilization. Also sound recording during the video is simply a lot better and more accurate for some reason. Then there is HDR video recording which is not present on Pixel 3 but it disables stabilization. Overall Pixel 3 has better photography but not by much as many want you to believe (unless you shoot predominately in low light) while XZ has better video camera but again not by that much.
  • Exactly what I felt. Many reviews are misleading saying that xz3. Xz2 do not ahveflagehip level camera or pics while in reality the pics from these are most natural in n terms of colors and white balance. My only gripe is that it blows away highlights during night when there are bulbs etc
  • My view is that the Sony cameras are best if you use Photoshop as you don't have to undo someone else's decision as to what you want.
  • Daniel, what are the chances to see xz3 compact soon? XZ1 Compact which really wanted for the size and form factor is not certified by ATT for VoLTE use.
    XZ2 Compact is taller and with worse battery life.
    So, I hope that XZ3 Compact would deliver better for original compact fans.
    If not , I'll have to stick with the bricks.