Sony Xperia Z3 Review Editor's Choice

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Sharp 20.7-MP camera; Discrete camera button; Front-facing speakers; More than 12 hours of battery life; Gorgeous, bright screen

The Cons

Flimsy port covers; Too many preloaded widgets

Verdict

Sony's best smartphone ever features a super sharp 20.7-megapixel camera, a wonderfully bright screen, epic battery life and even PS4 integration for avid gamers.

When we reviewed Verizon's version of the Sony Xperia Z3, which the carrier calls the Z3v, we were impressed with its vivid display, durable design and sharp camera. T-Mobile doesn't tack any extra letters onto the Xperia Z3's name, but it adds something much more important: epic battery life. Housed in a sleek glass body with smooth, rounded edges, the Xperia Z3 on T-Mobile has the same waterproofing and speedy Qualcomm 801 chip as the Z3v, but it looks and feels even better than its Verizon sibling. This $630 portable powerhouse also comes with the Sony-only PS4 Remote Play app that makes it a great choice for gamers on the go.

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Design

The standout design features of the Xperia Z3 are its smooth and shiny black front, and back glass panels. The plastic band on the sides is painted a dark metallic gray and has lovely rounded edges, unlike the Z3v and its knife-edged sides. Some of the ports are on different sides than they are on the Z3v, but they remain hidden behind the slim covers that are needed to give the Z3 its 5 feet of water resistance for up to 30 minutes. The volume rocker is located halfway up the right side, and the dedicated shutter button is located below, on the bottom-right corner. The shutter button has a little less travel than the one on the Z3v, but it still has the same half-step action that allows you to prefocus your pictures.

At 5.7 x 2.8 x 0.28 inches and 5.36 ounces, the Xperia Z3 is slightly shorter, thinner and lighter than the Xperia Z3v (5.85 x 2.89 x 0.35 inches and 6.02 ounces). It's also very similar to the 5.6 x 2.9 x 0.31-inch, 5.1-ounce Samsung Galaxy S5 (5.1-inch display) and smaller than the supersize 6.22 x 3.06 x 0.28-inch, 6.07-ounce iPhone 6 Plus (5.5-inch display).

Display

When the Z3 and Z3v are compared side by side, it becomes immediately apparent that their screens are not the same. The Z3's screen is much, much better: The Z3 has a brilliant 5.2-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel display, and is one of the few phones able to match the top-tier iPhone 6 Plus' display brightness. When I watched the trailer for Dumb and Dumber To, the Z3 showed off deep, saturated colors and displayed Jeff Daniels' shaggy, dirty-blond hair and Jim Carrey's light-blue cowboy pajamas in all their harebrained glory. 

Measuring 531 nits on our light meter, the Z3 was much brighter than the Galaxy S5's 373 nits and the Z3v's 395 nits, and nearly equal to the iPhone 6 Plus' shining mark of 537 nits.

MORE: 15 Best Apps That Aren't on Android

The Z3 also features a wide color gamut, recreating 125.6 percent of the sRGB spectrum. While this is below the S5's gamut of 158.4 percent, it's the same as the Z3v's 125.1 percent and more than the iPhone 6 Plus' 95.3 percent. Unfortunately, the Z3 falls short when it comes to color accuracy, with a Delta-E of 13.9 (closer to zero is best), considerably worse than the Z3v (7.5), iPhone 6 Plus (1.9) and Galaxy S5 (0.9).

Audio

Sony still managed to fit front-facing stereo speakers on the Z3, despite its skinny glass sandwich of a body. This lends the Sony device a richer and more immersive audio experience compared to that offered by the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy S5. When I listened to Cut Copy's "We Are Explorers," the new wave-style synths sounded bright and crisp, and were further complemented by surprisingly deep bass.

The Z3's powerful speakers produced 83 decibels of sound when measured from 13 inches away. This is quite a bit louder than the iPhone 6 Plus (76 dB) and the Galaxy S5 (78 dB), and similar to the mark set by the Z3v (84 dB).

OS and Interface

The Xperia Z3 is powered by a version of Android KitKat 4.4.4 that has been altered just slightly by Sony. This gives the Z3 a clean, minimalist look, reminiscent of the XMB UI from the PlayStation 3. The background is accentuated by the wispy white lines that swirl gently as you swipe from screen to screen. The notifications tray has received a small redesign from stock Android; its icons are replaced with delicate san-serif labels.

My only gripe with Sony's changes is the preponderance of widgets -- seven, in total -- that dominate the various screens; they take up too much space and feel more like ads than helpful tools. Thankfully, you can easily remove them by long pressing and dragging them to the top of the screen.

Keyboard

By default, the Z3 features the Xperia English keyboard, which can handle traditional typing or Swype-like tracing, and an option for a spell-checker in supported apps. There's also next-word prediction, although you will have to teach it your own personal dictionary, unlike with other keyboards that learn from your posts on social media. You also can switch to other languages, like Chinese and Japanese; use the stock Android keyboard; or download a third-party app such as SwiftKey.

PS4 Remote Play

For PlayStation 4 owners, Sony has created an app unique to Z3 and Z2 devices that lets you play your console wirelessly over Wi-Fi. You can then connect a DualShock 4 ($60) controller via Bluetooth to mimic the full console experience, but with the freedom to move around your house untethered by wires or a heavy TV. The one thing you may want to get is Sony's GCM10 game controller mount ($40) for holding the phone and DualShock 4 together. It's a much better solution than trying to prop the phone against a nearby cushion, as I did.

MORE: 12 Killer PlayStation 4 Games and Demos

Setup takes just a minute, and involves downloading the PS4 Remote Play app from Google Play and adding the Z3 in the Settings menu on the PS4. The PS4 will then give you a number to enter into the app -- that's it.

You will need a pretty speedy network to support the highest-quality streaming, but even at standard quality, every game looked sharp and devoid of major artifacting or aliasing. Just keep in mind that there's a little input lag due to the wireless connection, so playing reaction-heavy games like Destiny is more difficult than methodical games like Minecraft (and yes, games downloaded from the Playstation Store work too).

I played the racing game Driveclub using PS4 Remote Play, and despite the slight lag, I was still able to dive and weave past other AI drivers while still enjoying the coastal scenery of the British Isles as I sped by.  Even on the Z3's 5.2-inch screen, I had no problem making out tiny details like a cracked headlight or the missing paint on my Mini Cooper from an earlier altercation with a wall.

Apps

The Z3 comes loaded with the normal suite of Google apps, such as YouTube and Gmail, along with carrier apps, such as Mobile Hotspot and T-Mobile's My Account. There are a few third-party apps, such as Flipboard and Lookout Security, along with app traps like T-Mobile's silly Name ID, but the really intriguing apps come from Sony, highlighted by the Lifelog and PlayStation apps.

Lifelog is a fresh, modern take on the traditional diary. It features a colorful health and activity tracker that automatically records what you do throughout the day, saving information to a timeline so you can review it later. Lifelog tracks data on things like how long your daily commute is, how many photos you take and how much time you spend watching movies or surfing the Web. You can even tag events with notes, so you will remember if your jog was especially difficult or how disappointed you were by Constantine's second episode.

The PlayStation app is a miniature portal to your console on your phone. All you have to do is sign in with your PSN account, and from there, you can check notifications, invitations, game alerts and messages from the bar along the top. There's also a link to the PSN Store that allows you to buy games from your phone and take advantage of digital sales before they expire. Combined with PS4 Remote Play, you can launch and play games on your console from any room in the house (Wi-Fi permitting, of course).

Performance

Like the Xperia Z2 before it, the Z3 features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chip, although this time, the clock speed has been bumped up from 2.3 to 2.5 GHz. The Z3 also features 3GB of RAM and 32GB of flash memory, with storage expansion up to 128 GB via the microSD slot. This allows the Z3 to keep up with other flagship devices, and it has no trouble running a wide variety of apps and games.

When playing the graphics-heavy shooter N.O.V.A. 3, I waited 17 seconds for the game to load -- about the same as the smartphone average of 16 seconds and faster than the S5's load time of 19 seconds.

Using Geekbench 3 to test overall system performance, the Z3 scored 2,586, which is lower than the S5 (2,927), Z3v (2,725) and iPhone 6 Plus (2,903), but faster than the smartphone category average of 1,998.

To test graphics performance, we ran the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark. The Z3's score of 17,635 was higher than the iPhone 6 Plus' 16,965 and the smartphone average (12,583) but a little behind the Galaxy S5's 18,204.

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For real-world performance, we used VidTrim to convert a 204MB 1080p movie to 480p. The Z3 finished with in 6 minutes and 10 seconds, which is slower than the Galaxy S5 (5:07) but faster than the smartphone average (7:45).

T-Mobile 4G LTE

When you can get it, T-Mobile's network can be pretty speedy, but at our offices in New York's City's Flatiron District, I often couldn't get a signal at all. At my apartment in East Harlem, I saw speeds averaging 5.15 Mbps down and 1.34 Mbps up, while in Union Square with full bars, I averaged 15.73 Mbps down and 18.33 Mbps up.

T-Mobile has been aggressively expanding its coverage and network capacity, and in our most recent 4G showdown in Los Angeles, T-Mobile finished second, with an average download speed of 3.5 Mbps. This is behind AT&T's first-place finish with a speed 10.1 Mbps, and slightly ahead of Verizon's 2.6 Mbps in third.

Cameras

Two of the best things about the Z3 are its 20.7-megapixel rear camera and dedicated shutter button. Pictures come out supersharp, and because of the high pixel count, pushing in with the 8X digital zoom can leave you with some impressive, although somewhat grainy, shots. With the discrete shutter button, you can position your hands as you would on a real camera, for a firm, stable grip, instead of hovering precariously over the touch screen, as you have to do on some other phones. The button even lets you take photos underwater, which is not possible with the iPhone or the Galaxy S5.

My biggest complaint about the Z3's camera is that, when it's in Auto Mode, it can be a little heavy-handed on the exposure. Oftentimes, the photos came out overexposed, and in low light, some images were overly grainy because the Z3 cranked up the ISO too high. You can override these tendencies using Manual Mode, but it would be nice if the Z3 didn't need the extra help.

My photo of an autumnal flower bouquet was full of vivid pinks and magentas, but because of the wide aperture, the focus fell away around the edges of the picture. In a shot of the ever-increasing national debt on the ticker in Union Square, the Z3's camera did a great job of capturing the glass-sided building and the heavily textured rust-colored art piece next to it.

The front-facing 2.2-MP camera did a decent job of capturing details in my hair and shirt, but there was a little more grain than I would have liked. Even in Selfie Mode, the dedicated shutter button is still useful, as I used my pinky to hit the button on the lower right, instead of being forced to use my other hand or straining to touch the screen.

Videos taken by the rear camera were crisp, and the Z3 can shoot all the way up 4K video at 30 fps. A word of caution: 4K video can quickly balloon in size. A 1-minute video I shot came in at a whopping 400MB. My 20-second 45MB, 1080p, 60-fps video at the farmer's market in Union Square was sharp and retained good focus throughout the clip, even though people walked in and out of the frame.

Battery Life

Whether it's due to better network management or lower-power radios, T-Mobile handsets tend to last longer on a charge than the same models on other carriers. With its 3,100-mAh battery, T-Mobile's version of the Z3 lasted an impressive 12 hours and 9 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over 4G at 150 nits). That's 4 hours longer than the Z3v (7:57) on Verizon and the category average of 8:30; 2 hours longer than the iPhone 6 Plus on AT&T (10:00); and an hour more than the Galaxy S5 on T-Mobile (10:57).

MORE: Smartphones With the Longest Battery Life

After three days of usage without charging the device -- including light Web browsing and streatming about an hour of YouTube videos per day over LTE -- the Xperia Z3 still had 38 percent battery remaining.

Bottom Line

The Z3 is Sony's best smartphone yet, and it stacks up well against other Android flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S5. For my money, it's the one I'd buy. The 1920 x 1080p display is sharp and bright, and photo fanatics will love the superdetailed 20.7-MP camera and dedicated shutter button. T-Mobile adds a cherry on top, with battery life that lasts longer than the Energizer Bunny. While it doesn't have the massive screen of a Galaxy Note 4, or the fingerprint reader in an iPhone 6 Plus, Sony's sleek smartphone is worth some serious consideration, doubly so for PS4 owners looking to liberate their console from the constraints of wires.

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Carrier T-Mobile
Phone Display Size 5.2
Display Resolution 1920x1080
Form Factor Candybar Touchscreen
OS Family Android
Operating System Android 4.4.4
Networks GSM GPRS/EDGE (2G) UMTS HSPA (3G) 4G/LTE (not available in all markets)
CPU Snapdragon 2.5 GHz Qualcomm 801 Quad-core
Processor Family Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
RAM 3 GB
Internal Memory 32 GB Flash memory
Memory Expansion Type microSD Card
Display (main) 5.2" Full HD display (1920x1080 pixels)
Display (secondary)
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 4.0
Wi-Fi
Front Camera Resolution 2.1MP
Camera Resolution 20.7 MP
Talk / Standby Time 3100 mAh Talk time: up to 16 hours Standby time: up to 920 hours Music listening time: up to 130 hours Video playback time: up to 10 hours
Ports microUSB
Ports microSIM
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Size 5.75 x 2.83 x 0.28 in
Weight 5.36 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website http://www.sony.com/
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