The quick take
The latest Sony flagship is a decent phone set back by hardware wonk and some wrongheaded design decisions. While the core experience is good, the Xperia Z3+ loses points for thermal issues, particularly when using the camera, and battery life that's outpaced by its predecessor.
- Slim, light design
- Excellent 1080p display
- Generally speedy performance
- Water- and dust-resistant
- A decent camera, but no rival to LG, Samsung or Apple
- Thermal issues, particularly in the camera app
- Battery life a regression from the original Z3
- Fingerprinty factory-fitted screen protector
- 5.2-inch Full HD
- TRILUMINOS Display
- 1920x1080 resolution (435ppi)
- 20.7MP, ƒ/2.0 lens
- 5MP front-facing camera
- 2930mAh capacity
- Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0
- Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor
- 4x2.0GHz A57 cores + 4x1.5GHz A53 cores
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB internal storage
- microSD slot
Sony Xperia Z3+ Full Review
There's something to be said for iteration. As much as "iterative" has morphed into a pejorative term when talking about smartphones, not every product cycle demands that the wheel be reinvented — a point proven by Sony Mobile in recent years.
Sony's iterative approach has served it relatively well. Since the original Xperia Z in 2013, we've seen a refinement of the company's "Omnibalance" design language every six months or so. Though the technical improvements that accompanied each generation of Xperia flagship weren't always great leaps forward, the phones themselves have generally been solid high-end contenders.
The Xperia Z3+ arrives somewhat out of step with Sony's usual half-yearly refresh cycle, hitting European stores some nine months after the original Z3. The phone's name confirms what many suspected of its Japanese cousin, the Xperia Z4 — this is only a half-upgrade from last year's model.
But like we said, iteration is nothing new for Sony. What really matters is how the Z3+ measures up to its major Android competitors, the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4 and HTC One M9. And as we'll discover in our full review, this is a decent phone, though arguably a regression from the Z3 in a few important areas. Read on to find out why.
About this review
We're writing this review after one week with an unlocked global Sony Xperia Z3+ (model E6553) running on the EE network in the UK. As part of the initial setup process our phone downloaded a software update to version 28.0.A.7.27, which is the version it remained on throughout our testing.
Sony Xperia Z3+ Video Walkthrough
Sony Xperia Z3+ Hardware
With an aluminum band sandwiched between two sheets of glass, the Xperia Z3+ is the latest incarnation of Sony's current design language, first seen in the Xperia Z. Sony's stuck with "Omnibalance" for more than two years now, and the latest version of this flat, symmetrical design language is the best yet. The lines are clean, the joints close and the in-hand feel less bulky than its 5.2.-inch screen size would suggest.
The metal frame is noticeably more polished than previous versions, giving it a slightly glossier feel than the largely matte Z3. The corner sections are still plastic — likely due to antenna requirements, or to make the phone more resistant to unexpected drops. Whatever the case, the Z3+'s plastic corners blend into its overall design a little better than last time.
It's also thinner than any of its predecessors, coming in at an iPhone-matching 6.9mm.
And it's worth mentioning how ridiculously light this phone is for its size. At 144 grams it feels almost insubstantial — although this comes at the cost of a reduced battery capacity compared to the past three generations of Sony flagships, and with an associated battery life hit.
The rest of the design is a very familiar story. Sony's got its usual buttons in their usual places — the stylized circular power key on the right edge, above the volume rocker and camera shutter button. And the back of the phone is featureless except for the rear camera, which sits flush with the back, and a small huddle of logos.
That's nothing we haven't seen before on a whole bunch of different Sony phones. The most significant change in terms of day-to-day use has to do with the Z3+'s various ports and plastic flaps. Because it's water- and dust-resistant (rated IP65/68), the SIM and microSD tray — now just one tray, by the way — is tucked away behind a sealed plastic cover. But the microUSB port has finally been moved out from behind these fiddly, breakable flaps, and now lives along the bottom edge, as nature intended.
A comfortable, classy, understated smartphone.
The new port placement doesn't affect the phone's water-resistance — it's just as tolerant to splashes and dunkings as before, though Sony doesn't recommend protracted underwater use. As we've said before, the real advantage of a waterproof phone comes from not having to worry about using it in the rain or with wet hands. And the latter is an area where the Z3+ excels, accurately tracking touches and swipes even while the screen is wet.
Sony's new flagship phone comes with a screen protector pre-installed. But fear not — this isn't a return to the bad old days of the permanent 'anti-shatter film.' In fact, it's more like the optional plastic screen protectors you'd find boxed with an Xperia Z2 or Z3, only pre-applied to the phone. And you can remove it.
Take a closer look at why you should remove the Xperia Z3+'s factory-fitted screen protector!
What's more, Sony has effectively banished all of its lingering ergonomic issues. No more lint-magnet plastic joins, no more enormous bezels or awkward angular corners — just a comfortable, classy, understated smartphone. (That's why it's baffling to see an unsightly pre-fitted screen protector attached out of the box — but at least this is easily removable.)
The Z3+ realizes Sony's vision of a handheld screen with few distractions.
Sony's designers have previously told us that "Omnibalance" is intended to subdue all distractions and allow the user to focus on what's important: the content on the screen. The Z3+ is clearly the most successful realization of that vision — with the exception of the Sony logo up top, there's no extra visual cruft whatsoever. It helps that the screen itself looks spectacular. It's a 5.2-inch 1080p panel, and while it doesn't match the sheer pixel density of some rivals, it's a perfectly great display by any standard. It's bright and clear enough to see even in bright sunlight, with great viewing angles and natural-looking colors that don't appear over-saturated. And there's no aggressive contrast enhancement going on, with the exception of the X-Reality photo-enhancement feature, which can be disabled. To nit-pick a little: the colors are a little on the cool side, like many other Sony phones; fortunately there's a white balance control in the Settings app that lets you tune things to your own taste.
Sony's use of front-facing speakers continues in this latest handset. The Z3+ tucks its speakers into tiny cutouts at the top and bottom of the display — a small design change from the previous model. As for sound quality, the Z3+ has no problem reaching high volume levels, but it lacks the bass of HTC's BoomSound, not to mention some of the better bottom-facing speakers we've seen, like the iPhone 6 and Huawei P8.
Connectivity-wise, the Z3+ features everything you'd expect from a modern Android flagship — Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, MIMO Wifi support — as well as a whopping 12 bands of 4G LTE (bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 20, 28 and 40), making this an excellent phone for travelers. For anyone importing into the U.S., you'll have sufficient band coverage to get up and running on AT&T or T-Mobile LTE.
The Z3+ is also helped along by an ample 3GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage, backed up by microSD expandability. (You're looking at 22GB and change available from the built-in flash at first boot.)
Overall, then, we have a solid configuration of smartphone hardware arranged into an attractive, well-designed chassis. So what's the catch?
Too hot to handle
Sony Xperia Z3+ Performance and Heat
On the inside is where things get a bit ... controversial. The Xperia Z3+ runs Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 processor, with four low-power ARM Cortex-A53 cores at 1.5GHz and four high-power Cortex-A57 cores at 2GHz, paired with 3GB of RAM. It's a chip that despite its maker's best efforts has developed a reputation for kicking out more heat than perhaps it should. As we discovered while reviewing the HTC One M9 and LG G Flex 2, the 810 is powerful but power-hungry, and 810-powered phones can get a little toasty.
The same applies to the Z3+ — the top rear section of the phone gets very hot to the touch under heavy use, and this comes with a few unfortunate side effects. In certain conditions, the camera app will first pop up a thermal warning message, then shut down entirely. Often it'll do so within just a minute or two of being active.
Here's a quick breakdown of instances in which we encountered the overheating message:
- Starting the camera app while apps were updating after the first boot.
- Starting the camera app outside on a moderately sunny day (in direct sunlight)
- Taking around 10 photos outside on a warm day (not in direct sunlight)
- Starting the camera app shortly after installing Asphalt 8 from the Play Store.
- Attempting to load the AR Fun app after a heavy browsing session in Chrome.
- Using the AR Mask feature inside, at room temperature.
All phones will take measures to avoid overheating given enough encouragement, but the Z3+'s camera does so with alarming regularity and in situations which, honestly, shouldn't be a problem. The Xperia Z3, which uses an almost identical camera setup along with an older Snapdragon 801 CPU, didn't experience issues of this sort.
Sony says a software update is coming to address the issue, which likely means increasing the threshold for the temperature warning, or more aggressive throttling of the CPU.
Most of the time, the Xperia Z3+ fires up only six of its eight cores.
We also discovered something unusual in how the Z3+ manages its eight CPU cores. Basically, the vast majority of the time the Z3+ fires up only six of its eight cores, with two of its A57 cores disabled entirely through software. That means the overwhelming majority of apps won't be able to benefit from the full "octa-core" performance of this phone.
The CPU governor (the software which manages the CPU cores) seems to alternate between which pair of A57s is active at any one time. As heat increases, the phone switches off additional A57 cores to cool down, eventually bumping them all off and running entirely on A53s. We noticed this behavior after just a few minutes playing Asphalt 8 on the phone.
Unlike the LG G Flex 2, which throttles back to just six cores at higher temperatures, no amount of cooling will persuade the Z3+ to enable all eight cores as standard. We tried leaving it idle. We even tried chilling it in a refrigerator. Unlike other Snapdragon 810 phones we've tested, the default operating mode for this device seems to be four A53s plus two A57s.
With further testing we discovered that only certain apps and tasks will reliably cause all of the A57 cores to fire up at once, allowing full octa-core performance. These included the Sony camera app, but not third-party cameras, installing (and compiling) apps from the Play Store, and certain tests in benchmark apps like Geekbench, Quadrant and Antutu.
This is more of an 'up to' eight-core phone.
All this leaves us asking: "when is an octa-core phone not really octa-core?" It's true that most Android apps don't need anywhere near the full performance of a Snapdragon 810. It's also true that all CPUs throttle back performance in some way to conserve power. But disabling two out of eight cores as standard seems extreme, especially considering the very limited situations in which all four A57s are allowed to activate.
We're not saying the Xperia Z3+ feels like a slow phone — far from it. We only noticed very minor performance hitches in our time with the device — for example, a very brief delay in opening the app switcher, or a few missed frames when pulling down the notification shade. This is still a fast, responsive handset, but direct readings from Qualcomm's own Trepn profiling app (among others) don't lie — only rarely does the Z3+ operate in octa-core mode.
The benefits of limiting the chip in this way are pretty obvious — less power consumption and heat, due to only half of the high-power cores being active most of the time. That in turn is likely to have a positive impact on battery life, which we'll get to later in this review.
Sony provided Android Central with the following statement on the Z3+'s CPU core management:
"Xperia Z3+ runs on the optimal number of cores in order to optimize its performance, considering the balance with factors including the power consumption."
"The number of cores differs by use cases (applications etc). It means that Xperia Z3+ does not always run fully on 8 cores."
Lollipop with Sony sprinkles
Sony Xperia Z3+ Software
In the past year or so, Sony's smartphone software has morphed from an arrangement of highly customized PlayStation-style icons and menus into something much closer to Google's vision of Android. That's especially true as the Xperia line enters the Lollipop era, with new Material Design versions of its own apps, widgets and menus.
If you've used an Xperia Z2 or Z3 on Lollipop, you'll know what to expect here, because it's by and large the same software experience. Based upon Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, Sony's latest Xperia UI is bright, modern and lightweight. Most of the visual flair is inherited from the stock OS — things like the expandable (and now customizable) quick settings panel, and animated flourishes when tapping buttons and hitting the end of menu lists.
The Sony home screen launcher has grown into a pretty close approximation of the Google Now Launcher, with a similar layout and structure, though obviously without the Google Now component. Icon sizes can be tweaked, and it's also possible to use the launcher in landscape orientation if that's what you're after.
Sony's theming system has continued to grow. There are seven colored themes to chose from out of the box, each with its own take on the "liquid energy" default wallpaper. And a growing collection of Xperia themes on Google Play lets you customize everything from the on-screen buttons to the menus in certain Sony apps.
This is a phone for the Sony ecosystem.
Most of Sony's built-in stuff has been brought up-to-date to fit in with the look and feel of Android 5.x. Apps like Album (gallery) and Music (renamed from Walkman) feature slide-out "hamburger" menus and card-like navigation for albums. As Sony recently shut down its Music Unlimited service, the built-in Music app now integrates with Spotify — a good thing if you're already on-board with that service but would prefer an app experience that's easier on the eyes.
Sony's Album app continues to integrate with (and promote) the company's own PlayMemories photo service, though its promise of unlimited "Full HD" photo uploads seems quaint in a world where Google Photos offers the same at up to 16 megapixels.
Regardless, there's plenty on offer if you're already bought into the Sony ecosystem. PlayStation Video (formerly Video Unlimited) is built into the Videos app, while the bundled PlayStation app lets you connect to the PlayStation Network and even stream PS4 games to your phone, using a paired DualShock 4 controller. We've tested this feature in Sony's own demo space in the past, and our own Jerry Hildenbrand has used the feature on a first-gen Z3. If you're a big PS4 gamer — and your home Wifi network is up to scratch — this could be a major reason to consider a Sony phone like the Z3+ over the competition.
Sony mostly gets Material Design ...
As good a job as Sony has done working with Material Design, there are a few unfortunate design misses. In older apps that don't specify a status bar color, Sony uses a light blue color instead of the standard black, which doesn't look great. And the default Dialer app looks oddly cobbled together, with alignment issues and dividing lines that stop abruptly.
Outside of those few exceptions, there's little to complain about. Sony's UI is an equitable marriage of its own design language and Google's, and while it's not as flashy as Samsung's latest TouchWiz, it is visually appealing.
Other software bits to note:
- Sony's dialer app includes a built-in answering machine, which can be a useful alternative to navigating your carrier's voicemail system. It only works when the phone is connected to the network, for obvious reasons.
- The Small Apps feature, which allows you to create small windowed versions of some apps, continues to take up valuable space in the recent apps menu, with no way to disable it without command-line fiddling.
- Outside of Sony's own loadout, pre-loaded apps are relatively few. You've got Garmin navigation, AVG, Kobo, Flipboard and NeoReader, all of which can be uninstalled. Expect carrier variants to feature an additional layer of crapware, though.
- In addition to the standard (volume-plus-power) screenshot shortcut, you can also take a screenshot or record a video of your screen using the power menu — a feature first introduced back with the original Z3.
More of the same
Sony Xperia Z3+ Camera
Excluding "Compact" models and single-region phones, the Xperia Z3+ is the fourth Sony flagship to use the company's 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor. As in the Xperia Z3, that familiar sensor sits behind an f/2.0, 25mm equivalent Sony G lens. Around the front there's an upgraded 5-megapixel camera for selfies. Video is supported at up to 4K resolution, though with a warning that temperature increase could cut off your recording at any moment. (That's nothing new — most current phones limit 4K recording to five minutes.)
So the camera hardware is largely a known quantity. It was good two years ago, and with the addition of a faster processor and a couple of years of software improvements, it's a decent smartphone camera even by modern standards, if not the very best available.
Most of the time you'll be taking oversampled 8-megapixel images from that 20.7-megapixel sensor, meaning there's some extra leeway for zooming in if you want. And of course there's the potential to create clearer, less noisy 8-megapixel images by downsampling from the full sensor size even when zoomed all the way out.
We spent most of our time shooting in the Z3+'s Superior Auto mode, which does its best to analyze the type of scene you're shooting and adjust presets to match — and most of the time it's fairly accurate. An additional settings menu lets you control the aspect ratio, timer and shutter options, among other variables.
Sony's camera software has improved, but the overall package can't rival Samsung or LG.
For a more extensive array of settings, including resolution, HDR, manual scene selection and software stabilization, you'll need to head into the Manual shooting mode. From here you can also tweak EV, white balance and ISO if you desire, though these settings are laid out haphazardly, and it's not always clear where everything's supposed to live.
Sony's post-processing has improved somewhat, and the Z3+ seems to strike a better balance between noise reduction and fine detail. At the same time, colors are generally punchy and accurate, though prone to wash-out in overcast scenes and slight overexposure in bright daylight.
For the most part, the Z3+ is able to turn just about any scene into a good-looking JPEG, though it's clear that the ceiling for image quality has heightened considerably since Sony first used this sensor in a smartphone. So while the Z3+ is dependable, don't expect to get Galaxy S6 or LG G4-level pics from the rear camera, because it's just not going to happen.
The rest of what might be considered camera "modes" live as their own apps in a list within the main camera app. From here you can select options like sound photo, face in picture (which uses the front and main camera at the same time), slow motion (timeshift video) or sweep panorama, among many others.
Sony has been slowly growing its collection of AR (augmented reality) camera apps as well, allowing you to apply real-time effects to your pictures. You can add digital beasties like dinosaurs and puppies to your pics and play with virtual objects like spray-paint, bombs or bubbles. There's even the option, through "AR Mask," to create terrifying hybrid selfies by combining your own face with that of a friend, one of Sony's preset models, or a collection of animals.
The camera's biggest problem has to do with heat, not image quality.
We've already addressed the issue of heat in the Sony camera app, and this is particularly problematic in the phone's various AR modes. The first time we used the AR Mask feature, for instance, the app closed due to temperature increase. And subsequently the app would regularly display the temperature warning message.
We're hopeful that Sony can do something to address this in future firmware updates. Until then, temperature warning dialogs — and the occasional app shutdown — are a common occurrence.
One step forward, two steps back
Sony Xperia Z3+ Battery Life
Last year, Sony was all about two-day battery life, boasting epic longevity in its Xperia Z2 and Z3 phones. This year? Not so much.
The Xperia Z3+ comes with a 2,930mAh internal battery, down from the Z3's 3,100mAh. That's a decrease of around 5.5 percent — not a huge number, but considering the Snapdragon 810 has proven a power-hungry chip in devices like the M9, enough to put a sizeable dent in the phone's longevity.
You'll get a full day, but probably not more.
With mixed usage patterns on Wifi and LTE, we typically managed a full day of use per change on the Z3+ — between 14 and 16 hours off the charger, with up to four hours of screen-on time. That's in between what we've been getting from the LG G4 and HTC One M9 on similar usage — enough that we're not worrying about a mid-day charge, but far from the two-day longevity of the original Z3. (Sony instead promotes the Z3+ as having "up to" two day battery life.)
And the grand scheme of things, there's nothing wrong with the Z3+'s battery life. And it's likely that the unique way Sony's handling the CPU — disabling two of the four A57 cores most of the time — is having a positive impact on battery life. But for a phone marketed as Xperia Z3 plus, it seems weird and contradictory to find that battery life has taken such a hit.
The trade-off in the other direction is a slimmer design, and if you're happy with a single day of use per charge and nothing more, then maybe that's worth it. But to us, it seems like Sony has abandoned an important unique selling point here.
Capacity aside, the Xperia Z3+ supports Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0 out of the box, though the bundled charger doesn't support quick charging. Instead you'll need to shell out for Sony's own quick charger, or use an aftermarket adapter. It's also worth noting that there's no magnetic charging port on the Z3+, unlike earlier models, so you won't be able to use it with any Sony-branded magnetic charging dock you might already own. There's also no wireless charging — though the Xperia Z4v on Verizon has added it for the U.S.
Sony does, however, have an array of power-saving software features to help extend the device's battery life. Stamina mode cuts back on background data to extend battery life when idle, and Ultra Stamina mode turns off all but basic functions for featurephone-like battery life. The "App power consumption" menu also helps to track down runaway apps that might be hogging your battery.
Ultimately, the Z3+ fails to match the battery life of its predecessor, but if a single day of usage is all you're after, maybe that doesn't matter. In any case, between QuickCharge 2.0 support and power-saving software features, you shouldn't have to worry about the Z3+ dying before the day's end.
A decent phone, but one with issues
Sony Xperia Z3+: The Bottom Line
When the Xperia Z4 emerged in Japan, many critics and fans hoped that Sony would have something different — something better — to offer to international buyers. Unfortunately that's not the case with the Xperia Z3+, and what we have here is a phone that's an upgrade in some areas but a downgrade in others.
Sony is the only phone maker that's serious about waterproof handsets.
But let's start with the positives. Since Samsung abandoned water-resistance as standard in the Galaxy S line, Sony is now the only major phone maker that's serious about waterproof handsets, and depending on your occupation or lifestyle, that in itself could be a reason to buy. The same goes for PS4 Remote Play, a major bonus for PS4 owners considering a new smartphone purchase.
The core experience of the Z3+ is solid — it's a speedy performer with a great display, a capable (though not barnstorming) camera and a battery to comfortably see you through the day.
Just about all the arguments in favor of the Z3+ also apply to its predecessor, the Z3.
What it's missing is something spectacular — either in terms of software features, battery life or camera. Without that, there's little reason to recommend it over its predecessor, the Z3.
Instead the Z3+ is dogged by persistent thermal issues, especially in the camera app, and battery life that's a regression from the nine-month-old original Z3. Indeed, the way Sony's handling its Snapdragon 810 — disabling two of the high-powered A57 cores in all but a few apps — suggests that thermal concerns had a considerable impact on this phone's design.
All in all, it's a less confident performance than we've come to expect from a manufacturer like Sony.
Should you buy the Xperia Z3+? No
We've gone back and forth on whether or not we can recommend the Xperia Z3+. It's really not a bad phone, but the ultimate decision to pass on Sony's 2015 flagship can be boiled down to a few key factors.
For a phone that's supposed to be a Z3 plus, this ends up being a Z3 minus in a few too many areas.
First, the Z3+'s biggest problem is the continued existence of the original Z3. The phone it's replacing (or at least superseding) actually beats it in a few areas, and at a lower price point to boot. It can boast substantially better battery life, the same rear camera, the same software experience and largely identical performance from the user's perspective. What's more, it does all that without any thermal weirdness, excessive throttling or periodic camera crashes.
Then there's the fact that the Sony flagship — the phone from the company which makes image sensors for everyone else — finds itself outgunned by the cameras of its main Android rivals, the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6. Compared to LG and Samsung, Sony has dragged its feet in this important area, using the same OIS-less IMX220 sensor since 2013's Xperia Z1.
And frustratingly, Sony also seems to have abandoned the boast of "two-day" battery life from its previous generation of Xperia phones — a real differentiator for the company's 2014 flagships.
Considering all these factors, and the pace at which Sony likes to refresh its handsets, the Xperia Z3+ is a probably a phone to skip. Sony fans would be better off with the original Z3, or waiting to see what's next on the company's roadmap. Hopefully what's to come will be a much-needed return to form.
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