We call it battery life because it is vital.
Without it, e-readers wouldn’t be so popular, electric cars wouldn’t threaten gas guzzlers, and smartphones would never have taken over as the primary computing device in people’s lives. Battery life is the story of Sony’s new Xperia phones. They have the usual panoply of specs and features that no Android device would dare leave a factory without, but the main reason you’ll want to buy one will be their extraordinary endurance. Sony expects both the 5.2-inch flagship Xperia Z3 and the smaller 4.6-inch Xperia Z3 Compact to last for two full days without a problem.
Together with the 8-inch Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact, these new phones from Sony represent the most direct Android counter to Apple’s iPhone and iPad family. Sony isn’t dodging confrontation with the high-end market leader; it’s openly courting comparisons to it. Like Samsung’s 4.7-inch Galaxy Alpha — which looks to have been designed as a direct response to the new iPhone of that size — Sony’s Z3 Compact has all the features and capabilities of a flagship smartphone without the currently prevalent exaggeration in size. The Alpha is compromised and expensive, however, whereas the Compact seems to lack nothing and costs significantly less than Sony’s designated flagship Z3.
Before I even open the box, I know that Sony’s new smartphones are going to be a big deal. They have no obvious spec weaknesses and are going up against the iPhone by emphasizing what’s probably its biggest shortcoming: battery life. With durable, waterproof designs, advanced cameras, and the greater flexibility of Android, the new Xperias strive to be the best thing on the smartphone market, no matter the size or the operating system.
The earlier Xperia Z1 and Z2 were to my mind the products of a design team more determined to build a stylishly angular monolith than a human-friendly smartphone. Not so with the Xperia Z3. It retains the unmistakable look of the Z family, but the corners are softer and no longer dig into my palm while holding the phone. There’s a more rounded shape to the sides as well, which contributes to a significant upgrade in ergonomics when moving from the Xperia Z2 to the Z3. The Z3 is also a few grams lighter and a hair thinner than its predecessor. All of these small improvements make a big difference in practice. Devices with 5-inch screens and above come with inherent compromises in usability, but the large size of the Xperia Z3 is offset by an efficient, minimalist design that effectively files away the rough edges of Sony’s earlier iterations. The Xperia Z3 is the first in Sony’s line of flagship smartphones whose design I can endorse without reservation.
Both functional and fashionable
Improved ergonomics are going hand in hand with a greater aesthetic cohesion in the Z3. The rounded sides are echoed by a recurring elliptical shape to all the detailing around the handset: the speaker ports, the charging dock connector, the volume rocker, camera button, and even the USB and microSD slot covers all share the same shape. Sony’s marketing tagline for the Z3 family is that details matter and the industrial design of its new flagship shows a company that’s staying true to its word. This would all be good news in and of itself, but it becomes downright impressive when you factor in the Z3’s large 3,100mAh battery and the fact it’s waterproof.
The Xperia Z3 Compact is in almost all respects a faithful recreation of the Z3 at a smaller size. Other than the smaller 2,600mAh battery, dictated by its dimensions, the only area where it compromises slightly is in its design. Instead of an aluminum frame, the Z3 Compact uses a translucent plastic surround. That doesn’t come at the expense of any rigidity or durability, but it just deprives this handset from the pleasing consistency of its more expensive sibling. This is Sony’s way of distinguishing between two extremely similar devices: getting the fundamentals right on both and adding an extra layer of polish to the premium one.
I’ll never cease to be impressed by waterproof phones that maintain an open headphone jack. I know it’s achieved with a hydrophobic coating, but it still feels like dark magic. Sony adds to the flexibility of its new phones with microSD card slots and easily accessible nano-SIM trays (no tools required). A magnetic charging dock also minimizes the need to open the flap covering each phone’s microUSB port, though using a more widely adopted wireless charging method like Qi would obviously have been preferable.
From among the top-tier smartphone makers, Sony has been the one upgrading its devices at the fastest pace. Apple takes two years between new iPhone designs, HTC and LG are on one-year cycles, and Samsung had stagnated for almost three years before unveiling the new Galaxy Alpha. Sony iterates on its flagship every six months. That’s how we now have the Z3 only a year after the Z1 and the Z3 Compact only a few months after the Z1 Compact (there was never a Z2 Compact). It’s an uncompromising and unforgiving pace that deprecates devices rapidly, but at each step Sony has moved forward, which is not something that can be said of every company.
The one major misstep with the Xperia Z2 was the outdoor performance of its display. As excellent as the newly upgraded panel was inside the house, it would become near useless the moment I stepped out into the sunlit street. The good news with the Xperia Z3 is that the issue has been corrected. The new 5.2-inch handset has great color accuracy (plus the option to adjust the white balance to your liking), good contrast, and reasonable viewing angles. The same is true of the 4.6-inch Z3 Compact. Neither is quite on the level of excellence of the iPhone or HTC’s One series, but they’re perfectly adequate and no longer a cause of concern for Sony phones. The resolution — 1080p on the Z3 and 720p on the Z3 Compact — is also not leading any spec races, but it doesn’t have to. I have no issues with either one, and share Sony’s opinion that there’s little to be gained from moving to higher resolution. The company deliberately chose not to match Samsung and LG by going to Quad HD in an effort to use the processor most efficiently and maximize battery life.
The only warning I would offer is that you should disable Sony’s X-Reality image processing. It’s supposed to act like a real-time version of the Auto-Enhance feature on Google+ — whereby all video and stills are automatically sharpened, contrast-adjusted, and otherwise tweaked during playback — but it leads to unrealistic representations that can play havoc with your mobile photography. Because of the aggressive X-Reality algorithms, you’ll be left thinking the camera oversaturated a shot that was in actual reality perfectly color-balanced.
Sony’s large (1/2.3-inch) Exmor RS camera sensor made its debut in the Xperia Z1 a year ago and returns with the new Z3 family. This time, the G Lens has been widened slightly to a 25mm equivalent, meaning you can fit more into each frame. It’s a choice that has its pros and cons: it will help you take large group photos more easily, but makes it harder to isolate individual subjects. While the 20.7-megapixel sensor appears unchanged, Sony’s raised its max ISO rating to an impressive 12,800 — the first among smartphones to reach that value. Of course, photos shot at that level are almost universally too noisy to use, but it’s an acknowledgement of the company’s confidence in its hardware. 4K video recording also makes a return with the new Z3s, along with slow-motion 120fps video at 720p resolution.
Step back from the headline specs and what you end up with is a very reasonable 8-megapixel shooter. Sony defaults to shooting photos at that resolution, using the extra information the sensor can gather to algorithmically improve image quality. Similarly, high-ISO performance is very good for a smartphone and the the Z3 Compact is able to take decent photos in poorly lit situations where the Galaxy Alpha would just produce impressionistic pieces of blurry art.
The Alpha isn’t the highest standard to be judged by, it’s just the most recent, and older and better models do exist. LG’s G2 and G3 stand out for me, primarily because of their excellent optical image stabilization, and deliver more consistent focus and steady results. Maybe I’m just particularly sloppy when taking photos with my phone, but I find myself having to capture multiple shots with the Xperia phones to make sure that one of them will be good. It’s typically an autofocus issue, particularly when shooting close to the subject, or motion blur induced by the movement of my hands. These are not problems I encounter when using the HTC One, Nokia’s excellent series of PureView cameraphones, or indeed any iPhone model to date.
Sony has a truly comprehensive set of options and modes, and switching to manual will let you tailor everything to your liking and shooting style — though I can’t help feeling that the company is failing with its camera software. The sensor’s capabilities are just fine, and it does reward the extra effort to accustom yourself with the controls and behavior of Sony’s system, but this is still supposed to be a consumer device. And consumers, like me, prefer to be quick and careless with their phone photos.
The Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact emerge at a time of spec consolidation among Android phone makers. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 series reigns as the supreme choice of processor and indeed the two new Sony handsets feature its quad-core 2.5GHz 801 variant with an Adreno 330 GPU. There’s little to be said about it that hasn’t been expressed already: this chip is fast, superbly power-efficient, and still has tons of untapped potential for Android developers to exploit. 3GB of RAM accompany it on the Xperia Z3 while the Z3 Compact makes do with 2GB. The difference between the two is nonexistent. I couldn’t find any application or game that could show the larger phone more capable or agile than the smaller one.
It took me nearly three days to drain the Z3 Compact’s battery
One of my biggest challenges with this review was figuring out ways to use up these phones’ batteries. It took me two days and 20 hours to drag the Z3 Compact’s battery to below 10 percent. Even on the day when I went out shooting sample photos and video with the Z3 Compact, I was only able to eat up about a third of its charge. The Galaxy Alpha, which accompanied it on the trip, was in need of a recharge in the evening having been fully topped up in the morning. The Z3 is just as impressive as the Z3 Compact, though its larger screen consumes more power under intensive use and leads the bigger phone to run out of juice a little bit quicker.
Even without activating the Battery Stamina mode — which minimizes data transfers to improve endurance even further — I found the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact to be the longest-lasting smartphones I’ve tested. There’s an extra Ultra Stamina mode, to make the most of the last few drops of power remaining, and a power consumption monitor that can tell you if some apps are being particularly greedy. Sony has put together an excellent combination of the biggest possible batteries, the most efficient possible processor, and some of the most useful power management software around.
If there’s been any downgrade in the move from the Xperia Z2, it’s in the Z3’s speakers. They are positioned symmetrically at the top and bottom of the phone’s front, however they sound tinny and are not as pleasant to listen to as in the previous model (which I actually enjoyed almost as much as the standard-setting HTC One). This may be a sacrifice made in order to fit into a slimmer and lighter shape, although the Z3 Compact appears to be using the exact same parts as well. It’s a small foible in an otherwise uncompromising hardware package — whether you’re talking about the Z3 or the Z3 Compact.
Like the specs of the best phones running it, Android software is becoming increasingly standardized. Google has pulled many aspects of the operating system out into the Play Store, and everyone has the same set of extra features, so it really comes down to whose look you like best. Sony’s skin is simple and uncluttered, giving little cause for criticism. The notifications tray comes with a second tab for quick settings where you can customize a grid of toggles and modes for fast access. The overwhelming theme to it for me is one of cleanliness: the Xperia user interface just doesn’t have any of the crud that Samsung and LG skins are consistently encumbered with. I’m not having to wrestle against things like HTC’s BlinkFeed trying to take over my home screen.
Sony’s not entirely without fault, however, as it does pull a couple of unnecessary cheap tricks to promote its own-brand services. Most peeving are the automatic notifications coming from the Xperia Lounge app, alerting you to things like the debut of Pharrell Williams’ latest single. I had to Google who Lorde was this morning, so you can imagine how unhelpful a notification that was to my anti-pop musical needs. The other thing is that the Chrome homepage is taken over by Sony Mobile and your photo album is basically an advertisement for the PlayMemories app.
The killer software feature that will distinguish the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact from the rest of the mobile industry is Sony’s PS4 Remote Play. It’s an option already available on the PS Vita that is making its way to the Z3 Android device family from November. These will be the first smartphones that can play PS4 games by streaming them over the same Wi-Fi network as the console, and Sony’s preparing for it by also releasing a mount that would attach a phone or a tablet to a DualShock controller. I’ve been waiting for a long time to see Sony find the right synergy between its mobile devices and its enormous PlayStation library, and this seems to be the perfect answer. Unlike the PlayStation Mobile efforts of the past, this is not a compromised solution. You’ll be playing your PS4 games at the same resolution and quality as you would if sat in front of the console — the larger machine still does all the processing while the phone just handles the streaming of video from one side and inputs from the other.
A series of small improvements adds up to a major upgrade
It’s always a joy to be able to say that a company’s latest phone is also its best. That’s how things should be, it’s the very definition of progress, and Sony’s done a fantastic job of upgrading its handsets with small changes that make a big difference. The Xperia Z3 is categorically the most refined and best flagship phone that Sony’s ever produced. It is attractive yet rugged, built out of better materials than the Galaxy S5, and also waterproof unlike the HTC One, LG G3, or iPhone 6. Choosing a phone today is hard, though: there’s a very good argument to be made in favor of the iPhone 6 and its kickass camera or the Moto X and its all-around greatness.
As for me, I’d get the Xperia Z3 Compact. The smaller and cheaper Z3 is just about the perfect size for a phone while retaining the excellent battery life and performance specs of the outsized flagship handset. Its downsides pale into insignificance when set against the assurance of having a superbly durable, long-lasting, and fast phone that’s also a joy to handle and use. There’s no other phone like it on the market today.