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Featured Review: Sony Xperia Z3+

August 3, 2015 - Written By Tom Dawson

Make no mistake about it, Sony are a smartphone manufacturer that you should be paying attention to. They were doing the whole glass and metal construction thing long before Samsung and they ship stereo speakers a la HTC. Their Xperia Android smartphones have been blessed with some of the best camera hardware for years now, and they run a fairly stock version of Android. There are a lot of ticks in a long column for Sony’s smartphones, the problem is that these ticks have been there for quite some time now, and with the Xperia Z3+ – the eighth Xperia Z smartphone in two years – Sony have made some more minor adjustments and a bigger change under-the-hood. The question is however, is the Xperia Z3+ a big enough upgrade of the Z3, or even the Z2, or is just another bout of de ja vu?

Hardware and Design

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The Xperia Z3+ is a good-looking phone, there’s no denying that. It goes against the curves of the HTC One and Moto X, while showing Samsung how you do a glass and metal design. It’s balanced in your hand and this time around it’s a little thinner, at just 6.9mm thin this is a slender phone. The niceties don’t stop there however, as the stereo speakers have been worked back into the bezel a la the Xperia Z2 creating a more subtle design and there’s no longer a flap covering the microUSB port. The only flap remaining here is the one cover that houses the nano SIM slot and microSD card slot. The Xperia Z3+ still has excellent water and dust resistance ratings of IP65 and IP68 which makes this both resistant to splashes as well as full submersion (as long as this is no deeper than 1.5m or longer than 30 minutes). As the HTC One has never adopted this feature, and now Samsung have abandoned it with the Galaxy S6, this is a highlight for Sony once again.

The color we have review is the Aqua Green, and it’s less green than it is a silvery-blue. In actuality, it’s more of a mirror than a phone, but there are other colors available and no matter which one you choose you’re in for an elegant piece of hardware that really looks the part. The fit and finish here seem to be a little better as well, the flap covering the SIM and microSD slots now looks more a part of the overall design and the buttons are clickier and more confident in use. Subtle changes like the small LED indicator at the top-left corner of the front all come together to deliver a classy look and feel.

The only complaints I could have, if I’m picky enough to point them out, is that the corners look a little unsightly and the color doesn’t quite seem to match the rest of the device. On top of that, Sony have now reduced the bezels around the display, which is a good thing, but they seem to have only touched the sides of the display. As a result the Xperia Z3+ now just feels narrower than the Z3, rather than smaller overall.

Display

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From a company like Sony, you would expect some pretty good displays, but they didn’t get off to a good start with the original Xperia Z and Z1. With the Xperia Z2 they moved to IPS displays and they’ve been producing rich, warm displays that offer up a crisp and realistic look. Viewing angles in the Z2 and the Z3 were on point, and blacks were deep and colors fairly warm and rich for an IPS panel. With the Xperia Z3+ however, it feels as if Sony have taken one step forward and two steps back. The display now feels much closer to the glass and touch response is excellent, which delivers a much more pleasant experience compared to other devices, and the display is now brighter than the Xperia Z3. As a result, the 5.2-inch 1080p display on the Z3+ looks a little luminous at times and I experience some ghosting here and there. White text on a black background would blur into each other when scrolling, and the same goes for moving objects in app drawers and such. This is a sore point for the whole experience, and I was really expecting much better from Sony. The brighter display however does mean that this is much more visible in daylight. In the bright British sun on a hot day, the Xperia Z3+ was very usable, while other devices fell by the wayside.

Still, you can adjust the white balance to suit your taste, and I wish more devices offered this. Brightness adjustments seem to be pretty decent, but out-of-the-box I was less than impressed and after using it for a few weeks I haven’t grown to like it that much. I have a sinking suspicion that to make the device thinner, Sony skimped on their display quality and dare I say it, but I think the Z3 and Z2 looked better overall than this display. All of this could just be my eyes of course, but the display here is not only less dense than the Galaxy S6 and others from even last year, but it’s too bright and loses the warmth that made previous Sony displays so appealing.

Performance

Under the hood this time around is a Snapdragon 810, which is a 64-bit Octa-Core CPU. Backing this up is 3GB of RAM, and altogether these two key specifications work together admirably. Contrary to common belief, the Snapdragon 810 isn’t the processor that’s to be avoided like the plague. It’s not got the same sort of special sauce as the Snapdragon 801 and 805 had – both of which hold their own against the Snapdragon 810 – but it still runs nice and speedily. In fact, the Xperia Z3+ exhibits some pretty immediate performance day-to-day, and overall everything is nice and snappy. There are moments however, when things start to chug just ever so slightly, and this can be an annoyance, but nothing more than that. Is it a big step up from devices with a Snapdragon 801 or 805? At least not here in the Xperia Z3+ it isn’t, sadly.

Switching in and out of apps is nice and quick, web performance is great and scrolling through lists and web pages is noticeably slick and smooth. I found very little to complain about when it came to everyday performance, and it looks like Sony have done it again on the performance front. More than just immediate speed however, Sony continue to deliver a solid and stable build of Android. Not that other Android devices are prone to crashes, but the Xperia Z3+ just smooths over any bumps in the road and if an app misbehaves it won’t take your entire device with it.

When gaming, I found things to be pretty good overall. Games loaded quicker than on other devices I’ve tested and with my go-to game for testing devices, the classic Colin McCrae Rally, everything ran with a high frame rate and everything was nice and responsive. There will always be a question of heat with a device running a Snapdragon 810 and just in between the NFC logo and Sony logo, there’s a lot of heat concentrated there. Things are hot to the touch, but it soon cools down and I haven’t come across an issue related to heat generated by the SoC.

One notable, and excellent, improvement over previous Sony devices is that the camera now launches and takes photos much, much quicker. There’s still a little lag here and there when sending photos to the gallery, but this bump in camera performance makes the Xperia Z3+ a much nicer device to use as a daily camera (more on that elsewhere).

Camera

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The Xperia Z3+ is the latest in a line of Sony smartphones to feature an excellent 20.7-megapixel Sony Exmor RS sensor with a 25mm wide-angle lens, an aperture of f/2.0 and SteadyShot stabilisation to keep things nice and still. The high-resolution is obviously a deciding factor in how good the camera is overall, but as we all know, megapixels are just half the equation. The other half is comprised of how sharp the lens is, how good the software is and ultimately how easy the camera is to use.

Speaking about use, the camera here on the Xperia Z3+ opens much, much faster than it did in previous Xperia Z devices. The dedicated camera button here can be used to focus and take a shot, or to launch the camera from a locked device with a press and hold. The rest of the software however, feels dated and quite limiting to say the raw hardware is so good. The Superior Auto mode sometimes produces washed out photos that are a touch over-exposed, and it doesn’t shoot at the full 20.7-megapixel available. However, it does an excellent job of determining whether you need the “Landscape” mode or “Portrait” mode, and for those that enjoy pointing and shooting, this will do just fine. The results here are still pretty great, and the images have enough detail and sharpness to be used for a lot of things, and for many, this could replace their dedicated camera.

Going into full manual mode however, and the detail and clarity you can achieve with the 20.7-megapixel sensor is simply unrivalled. It is however, all too difficult to get the most out of it. Compared to the LG G4’s camera, there’s no dedicated shutter speed settings or anything like that. You’re left with a mode choice, exposure and white balance. That’s about it. Still, I found that dialling the exposure back just a notch or two delivered stunning results. I wish there were more options, and there’s very little that Sony have changed since previous models, but it still delivers, and delivers swimmingly.

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All-in-all, the Xperia Z3+ has one of the best cameras on the market. More manual options would allow creatives to get even more out of it, and while the Superior Auto mode isn’t perfect, it’s great for point and shoot fans. The maximum ISO of 12,800 and SteadyShot features go a long way to round out the whole performance here, too. A myriad of full resolution camera samples can be found below.

Sound and Call Quality

Just as their devices have become known for quality camera experiences, Sony’s smartphone offerings have been known for their excellent sound quality. For music lovers, the Xperia Z3+ has a lot on offer, with some new tricks here and there. First of all, there’s the graphic equalizer that Sony smartphones have been shipping with for a long time now, and through their ‘Clear Bass’ slider as well as the 5-bands available, you can tailor the sound to your liking. This works throughout every app, and you can easily add more warmth to the sound by bumping the low end, add more bass whenever you want or bring out vocals by adjusting the mid-range. There’s now also a neat little auto optimization tool which apparently figures out what earphones or headphones you’re using and then adjusts things to make sure you get the best sound quality. Personally, I didn’t find this too helpful, but it is a nice feature to have on offer.

As for calls, people I spoke to said I sounded just as good as with other devices, if not a tad clearer and a little warmer and less robotic. On my end, the Xperia Z3+ has the same sort of warmth and slightly base tone to people’s voices as previous Xperia Z devices, and this is a pleasant device to have a conversation with. No complaints at all here, calls sound good, and apparently I sounded good as well, so another box ticked for Sony.

Software

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Right now, Sony is testing a new vision for their Android software on Xperia devices, but that vision isn’t present on the Xperia Z3+. Instead, this is the same sort of vision for Android Lollipop that we’ve seen on other Sony devices. Material Design is very much alive and well, and Sony’s attitude here seems to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” which is an attitude I wish everyone approached Android with. In terms of ‘bloat’ this International Version that Carphone Warehouse sent me has some pre-installed stuff. Highlights include Garmin Navigation, Kobo Books and AVG. These are however, uninstallable, which is exactly how it should be.

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The only real departure here from stock Android is in the launcher and some settings. The launcher is similar to to other Android launchers, but it offers up some neat features (which you can a look at below in the gallery) like the ability to sort the app drawer however you want and uninstalling apps is different, yet fairly straightforward. if you’ve ever used a Sony smartphone running Android 5.0 or even Android 4.4 KitKat, then you’ll know what to expect here. If not, then all that’s needed here is a slight relearning of how the launcher does things. Of course, you can always change the launcher to whatever you’d like, as well.

All-in-all, Sony have done a great job of keeping Android Lollipop’s look and feel alive and well, and it’s refreshing to see a top-tier manufacturer like Sony not mess around with Android a la Samsung and LG. A clean and smooth software experience is present in the Xperia Z3+ and there’s little hassle here.

Battery Life

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There’s a 2,930 mAh battery in the Xperia Z3+, and while that’s shrunk from the 3,200 included in the Xperia Z2 and the 3,000 or so in the Xperia Z3, it still performs admirably. Considering that everyone in 2015 seems to be struggling to deliver excellent battery life with the Snapdragon 810, it’s nice to see Sony nail it. My usage on a smartphone is fairly light, I don’t stare at the display for hours on end, but I have everything cranked up to full and stream a lot of music. The vast majority of the time I was surprised at how long the Z3+ could keep on going for. It’s definitely a cut above the rest, but it’s not quite the stellar performance the Xperia Z3 delivered, and there’s no getting two-days of average use out of this guy.

With that said, the Xperia Z3+ surpasses pretty much everything else out there in 2015, at least so far, when it comes to battery life. It’ll last you morning ’til night quite happily. Of course, if you’re a really heavy user then you might need to adjust that claim, but on the whole this is an admirable showing from Sony on the battery life front.

The Good

  • Strong battery life compared to to other 2015 flagships.
  • Mostly stock Android with thoughtful additions that genuinely help, rather than get in your way.
  • No port cover for the microUSB port makes this a waterproof phone that’s still easy to use day-to-day.
  • Elegant and good-looking smartphone that’s subtle yet eye-catching.
  • Quality fit and finish that delivers a solid, premium feel.

The Bad

  • The magnetic charging port (which is really quick to charge) from earlier models has been thrown out, making previous accessories like docks and cables useless.
  • Washed out display with a few ghosting issues here and there, is no better than previous Xperia smartphones.
  • Camera software remains the same from over a year ago, which means no more manual controls than other flagships.
  • Feels like yet another iterative update, rather than a considerable improvement over previous devices.

Conclusion

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Comparing the Xperia Z3+ to other 2015 flagships is perhaps not the best idea, but it is vying for customers that are also considering the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, the HTC One M9, the LG G4 and perhaps even the OnePlus 2. In the face of all of these phones, the Xperia Z3+ falls short in a number of areas. Its display is still a 5.2-inch 1080p display, and rather than an overall good display like the 1080p found in HTC’s One M9, the display here feels washed out and too bright. Instead of leading the pack as they once did with the Xperia Z2, setting excellent battery life records and introducing one of the best camera experiences on a smartphone, the Xperia Z3+ simply follows. Compared to the myriad of manual and creative options the LG G4 camera offers and the easy point-and-shoot approach of the Galaxy S6, the Xperia Z3+ pales in comparison. That 20.7-megapixel resolution offers up a lot of detail, but getting the most out of the sensor is a lot of hassle, and Sony should have at least rethought their camera software if nothing else.

Hopefully, Sony have something big in store for the next Xperia flagship, because right now the Xperia Z3+ is another ‘me too’ in a line of iterative upgrades and the Xperia Z lineage is beginning to look tired. With a great camera, strong battery life and a refreshing software experience, the Xperia Z3+ is not a bad phone, it just can’t keep with the new design of the Galaxy S6 and the fantastic display and manual camera controls of the LG G4.