SONY’S PHONES should be the bee’s knees. The company has a fine heritage in all the individual components which make up a great smartphone, from Bravia panels to cameras and PlayStation games – and yet the phones tend to draw no more than a collective ‘meh’ from critics and shoppers alike.
A similar reaction greeted the Xperia XZ2, and the naming convention that sounds more like algebraic equations probably doesn’t help matters. Rather than accept the indifferent public verdict, though, Sony has fast-tracked another flagship handset out before the year is out: the Xperia XZ3. It’s just in time to go head to head with new iPhones and Pixels. Don’t say Sony doesn’t enjoy a challenge.
So can the Xperia XZ3 set the world alight? I wouldn’t count on it, unfortunately. Not at £699, anyway.
For years, Sony phones have clung onto sharp edges and flat sides as the company’s rivals have embraced curves. Sony is reluctantly following suit, and the result is a handset that feels slightly reminiscent of a boiled sweet. A liquorice boiled sweet in the case of our black review model, though it does also come in rather fetching shades of Forest Green, Bordeaux Red and White Silver. It feels decent in the hand if a little on the slippery side.
The curves extend to the screen, meaning you get a display that gently curls around at the edges, while maintaining touch sensitivity. Sony’s big plan here is that you can use that edge to bring up apps as and when you need them, with a little AI to learn which apps to surface when. That may well be the case, but we challenge anyone not to find the feature – dubbed ‘Side Sense’ – to be more trouble than it’s worth. At default sensitivity, we found just holding the phone would frequently bring up a side pop-up of suggested apps. Ironically a shortcut to disabling the feature wasn’t one of AI’s suggestions, so it’s no mind-reader.
There’s another own-goal in the design too: in a bid to make the back symmetrical, the rear-mounted camera lens and fingerprint sensor have exactly the same dimensions and feel the same to a probing index finger. That means that you’ll frequently find yourself smudging up your camera while trying to unlock your phone until the trial and error finally teaches muscle memory. We miss the side-mounted fingerprint sensor that Sony had with the Z series, but we guess that’s down to personal preference.
The curvy top and bottom leave no room for the 3.5mm headphone jack, and Sony follows Apple in jettisoning it, though there is a USB-C adapter in the box for wireless refuseniks, and the whole thing is IP68 dust and water resistant. Rather brilliantly, the SIM and microSD card tray doesn’t need one of those pointy doohickeys to open, but Sony continues to believe popping it out should prompt a reboot despite every other Android designer proving this not to be the case.
Overall, the changes in design are iterative over the XZ2, so why release the XZ3? Sony believes the screen is the trump card – you see the Xperia series has finally embraced OLED.
This is a sensible move, allowing for deeper blacks, perfect contrast and (theoretically) improved battery life, and one we can firmly get behind. This isn’t like when Sony decided everyone wanted a 4K screen on their phones (they didn’t). It isn’t magic beans this time (it was then).
And to be clear, it’s a very very good screen indeed. It’s 6in across, packs a resolution of 2,960×1,440 and supports HDR. Watch the right show on it and the picture is simply brilliant, with realistic tones and inky blacks. There is a little colour fringing noticeable around the corners of text on black backgrounds – a common side effect of OLED tech – but nothing too distracting.
The viewing angles are also as impressive as I’ve ever seen on a phone, and I was able to identify individual app logos when I’m almost looking at it side on. Not that this is a particularly useful skill, but it speaks to the wider quality of the screen itself.
In short, the XZ3’s big selling point is an absolute hit: the screen is one of the best we’ve seen, and hopefully this will be a staple of all Sony phones going forward.
Performance and battery life
The odd thing about releasing the XZ3 so soon after the XZ2 is that six months isn’t enough time for technology to advance. As such, the phone has the same innards as its predecessor: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, backed by 4GB RAM. Don’t get me wrong, it’s basically as powerful as smartphones get right now, but in a few months time it likely won’t be, so why not wait a little longer?
In any case, the results are the same: performance is excellent, and the XZ3 will handle anything you throw at it easily for the duration of your contract. On our Geekbench 4 benchmarking software, the Xperia XZ3 scored an impressive 2,383 for single-core and 8,743 for multi-core – up there with the best of them. Which is no surprise, given the innards are the same as virtually every other Android top dog. Crucially, that also means its overall performance is very similar to the Xperia XZ2, which is listed as achieving an average of 2,391 and 8,206.
Top speed aside, it does have a strange habit of sometimes seeming to lock up after long periods asleep, but we put this down to strange battery management rather than any kind of weaknesses with the hardware. Hopefully, Sony will be able to patch this out pretty quickly.
Speaking of battery management, the lifespan of the battery varied greatly for us. For most days of use, we managed to get through a day’s moderate use with over half the battery left. On other days, we found the battery would plummet with virtually no use. I eventually located the cause of this: lock screen stickers. Putting an official Sony picture on your always-on display alongside the clock absolutely kills the battery, which is a shame, because who wouldn’t want a sleeping Aibo robot dog on their lock screen? Killjoys, that’s who.
It has some clever software as part of the package which is designed to prevent overcharging: it learns when you typically plug in at night and unplug in the morning so you’re not left at 100 per cent for hours on end. This should help long-term battery health, though obviously with a week’s use I can’t say much more than the theory, which is sound.
The Xperia XZ3 ships with Android 9 Pie which is quite a coup. With the Pixel 3 still a month away, Sony has the first phone to ship with Android 9. It’s just a shame therefore that it’s weighted down with bloatware.
The PlayStation app, an aggressively attention-seeking news app and various creative applications round up the unwelcome guests, with a slot for the Kobo e-reader as well, in the vague hope you’ll open an account. Surprise! Not all of these can be uninstalled (including Kobo, bafflingly) so you’ll have to resort to ‘disabling’ them.
This isn’t new from Sony, but in an era where manufacturers are increasingly embracing the clean, uncluttered charms of Android One, it’s a bit of a shame that Sony still weighs down the onboard storage before you’ve even begun.
Some of the UI is more annoying than useful too. Not just the problems we had with ‘Side Sense’ mentioned earlier, but we were constantly setting off one-handed mode by accident. This reduces the screen size to make everything more reachable, and if that sounds utterly pointless to you, then we’ve done a very good job of describing it.
The camera specification hasn’t changed from the XZ2, which means you’re getting a 19MP rear camera with a f/2.0 aperture and Electronic Image Stabilisation. Just the one lens here, not the increasingly common two or the three seen on the Huawei P20 Pro.
Those specifications may not sound hugely exciting, but the results are actually really, really good. The camera on the XZ3 makes even the dull streets of Mitcham look interesting. No mean feat.
As you can see, they’re packed with detail, contrast and the colours look nice and natural. It also managed admirably in low light, as this picture of one of my cats in a dark room shows. Say hello, Humphries.
If you’re a budding movie-maker, you’ll be delighted to hear that the XZ3 allows for the shooting of 4K HDR video – albeit not at 60fps. More fun is the option to record super-slow-motion HD video at 960fps. This is definitely a cool party trick, although it only really works if you have something lined up to record: because time is limited, you can’t sit there recording in the hope that something you want to capture will happen (a cat yawning, to pick an example out of thin air and not bitter experience.)
Will you be happy with the Sony Xperia XZ3? Undoubtedly yes. It’s got a lovely design, a superb screen, the best performance around and a camera that will make your shots look magnificent.
But you probably don’t want to buy it.
Why? It’s £699 and offers only a mild upgrade on the XZ2 – and not even an upgrade compared to some other phones that come in cheaper. The OnePlus 6, for example, has an OLED screen, the same processor and 2GB more RAM – and yet it goes for £230 cheaper.
In truth, Sony should have waited another six months and packed this with the latest processor. Good as it is, it’s just not a big enough upgrade to justify usurping the XZ2 so quickly. µ
Lovely design, wonderful OLED display, super camera, Android 9 out of the box.
Side Sense is super annoying, the camera feels like the fingerprint reader and it’s too damned expensive
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