Sony Xperia Z3 hands-on review: An iPhone-killer that chooses substance over style

Sony's Xperia Z3 makes no secret of its intention to be an iPhone-killer. Released the same week as Apple's upcoming iPhone 6 flagship, this sleek, beautiful and fully-waterproof high-end smartphone also brings the beef when it comes to the specs, giving Apple a little something to think about. So what exactly does Sony have in store for us this time?

ITProPortal got hands-on with the Z3 to find out.

Design

Sony loves design. Whether it's the crisp lines of its Vaio laptop range, the machined metal of its cameras, or the sharp angles of the latest PlayStation 4, it's a company that puts the look and style of devices right at the top of its list of priorities. The Xperia Z3 is no different, taking the sleek look of its predecessor, the Xperia Z2, and trimming it down even further.

Read more: Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact hands on review: Sony ups the game once again

The Z3 is thinner, smaller and lighter than the Z2. It measures 146 x 72 x 7.3mm compared to its predecessor's 146.8 x 73.3 x 8.2mm, yet still packs exactly the same 5.2in screen as the Xperia Z2. The Xperia Z3 is light, too, weighing in at 152g, compared to its predecessor's 158g. The edges are also meticulously detailed, with beautiful design features set in chrome and glistening silver metal. The phone comes in black, white and amber flavours, which each set off a note of class and sophistication compared to Nokia's garish neon, or the bright plastic of the iPhone 5c.

Sony has included rubberised corners on the Z3, meaning that dropping the phone should cause less damage than usual. Since most screen-shattering falls occur when the phone lands on its corners, this should thankfully reduce the amount of smashed screens for Xperia users. While the little bumpers do slightly ruin the smooth chrome edges of the phone, the trade-off of design for hardiness is something that seems directly aimed at enticing iPhone users away from their famously crack-prone screens.

The phone is also fully waterproof and dustproof, being able to be submerged in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to half an hour. So if you drop it in the swimming pool on holiday, you can go get a piña colada before you bother going in to get it.

One of the downsides I found with the new design is that the rear of the phone is covered in a surface that feels identical to the screen – a sort of glassy shell behind which the Sony logo glitters in silver. This caused a couple of problems with taking your phone out of your pocket and not knowing immediately which way round it is.

Related: iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus vs Sony Xperia Z3: All the specs compared

I also found the back plate's surface unpleasant to hold compared to the smooth, slightly rubbery feel of the Nexus 5, say, or the metallic back of the LG G3. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was leaving fingerprints on the shiny surface, which the Lady Macbeth "Out damned spot!" in me couldn't stand.

Sony is also throwing in a smart cover similar to what we've seen on the LG G3, which protects the screen and shows some information (like a clock, date, incoming messages, etc) in a little clear plastic window. The cover seemed like a bit of a gimmicky add-on, though, and didn't have the same premium design feel as the rest of the phone.

Display

Sony has made a pretty sensible choice in the area of display: rather than upgrading from its Full-HD (1080p) display found on the Xperia Z2, it's stuck with exactly the same one. In contrast, LG shocked the easily-shockable this year with the highest-ever pixel density on a smartphone, packing 1440 x 2560 pixels, into a 5.5in screen for around 534 pixels per inch (PPI). Many commentators at the time criticised LG: while the G3 display is remarkably crisp, the high-density screen is a huge battery hog, guzzling down juice like someone on a cleanse.

It's also unclear whether the human eye can actually discern an appreciable difference between Full-HD and 2K. Sony's decision to stick with the (still very sharp) screen of the Xperia Z2 shows a refreshing clear-headedness in a market too often saturated by headline-grabbing stats over actual results.

The display on the Xperia Z3 is bright and crisp, with strong colours and an impressive ability to be viewed in even bright sunlight. Its 424 ppi is more than enough to give any media consumed on the device the feel of watching on a high-quality (if tiny) TV.

Camera

Sony has brought all the experience of its huge camera operation to bear in its Xperia Z3. The astonishingly high-powered 20.7-megapixels (5248 х 3936 pixels) combines with a crisp autofocus and LED flash to create beautiful photos.

Sony has really pushed to make the camera work well in low light, too. While we didn't have a dark cupboard handy at the time, we did take some low light photos that adjusted well and came out looking pretty good. Where the camera slightly struggled was with significant backlight, which tended to wash out any photos. The camera's focus is also lightning fast.

Under the hood

In theory, the Xperia is an incredibly high-powered phone. Between its Snapdragon 801 chipset, with its Quad-core 2.5 GHz Krait 400 serving an impressive 3GB of RAM, the phone should be zipping along. But whether due to the slightly overladen version of Android being used by our review model, or some other reason, the responsiveness of the phone didn't seem quite as crisp as it could have been. There was the slightest hint of lag on the model we used, which you frankly shouldn't see on a phone that's barely running any apps.

The key difference between the Xperia Z3 and Z2 is in battery life. Sony claims that the new Z3 can last for up to 2 days of standard use - a milestone that should be grabbing users' attention around the world.

Overall experience

On the whole, the Xperia Z3 is a beautiful update on the Z2. This is more of the same: an iterative advance, rather than a complete overhaul. There's nothing really surprising here, but a whole load of high-end specs and strong design features.

Where Sony might struggle is that it's chosen quite a conservative middle ground to tread. While LG and Apple tend to fall into the "design for the sake of it" camp, and Microsoft's Nokia and Lenovo tend to stump for "highly functional", the Xperia Z3 is trying to do both. Most of the compromises are made for functionality instead of style, though – and the Z3 is a very impressive update to one of the most impressive phones we've seen at ITProPortal.

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