The right mix of new and tried-and-true
Sony’s mobile division has been through a lot over the past few years, in particular, but its 2018 redesigns have been a big step in the right direction. The Xperia XZ3 takes the revolutionary Xperia XZ2 design and further improves it, particularly in the display department, and tweaks the experience in some very positive ways. This is the phone many have been waiting for from Sony for quite some time, so let’s see what makes this such a positive experience, and why this is certainly one of the must-have devices of 2018.
Xperia XZ3 Video Review
Xperia XZ3 Specs and Unboxing
Sony is once again launching their latest Xperia device in several countries, with Europe as its starting point. Landing in the UK for £699 and throughout Europe for €799. US Customers will pay a fair bit more at $899. On the front of the Xperia XZ3 a 6-inch Quad-HD+ 18:9 HDR OLED display, which is 0.3-inches larger than the Xperia XZ2’s screen. As it has smaller bezels, the Xperia XZ3 measures in only 5% larger overall, despite having an 11% larger screen. This new display type breaks with Sony’s long-held tradition of using LCDs on its phones and joins it with the premium Bravia line of TVs that new use the newer OLED display type, including a resolution bump as well.
Under the hood is a pretty expected set of premium-level specs, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage with microSD card support up to 512GB. Above that display is a 13-megapixel camera sensor behind an f/1.9 lens, taking the better camera sensor of the Xperia XZ2 Premium and putting it behind an even-better lens. The rear camera is the same one used on all Xperia XZ2 cameras this year, a 19-megapixel Sony IMX400 1/2.3” sensor with 1.22µm pixels, OIS, gyro EIS, predictive phase detection autofocus and HDR10 recording capabilities, residing behind an f/2.0 81-degree angle lens. A 3,300mAh battery powers the phone, featuring Qi wireless charging, QNovo adaptive charging and Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 support as well.
The phone does not ship with a QC3.0 charging brick though, only a 5v/1.5a one, so you’ll need to purchase an additional brick or wireless charger to take advantage of its full abilities. Sony is packing larger S-Force front-facing stereo speakers on the Xperia XZ3, as well as the new Sony Dynamic Vibration System that was employed on the Xperia XZ2 family. The 7000-series aluminum frame holds together the two Gorilla Glass 5 front and back panels, and sports an IP68 water and dust resistance rating. A single USB Type-C port is on the bottom, and a rear-facing fingerprint scanner is located underneath the camera on the back. The phone measures in at 158mm tall, 73mm wide and 9.9mm thick and weighs 192 grams. That compared to the XZ2, which measured in at 153mm tall, 72mm wide and 11.1mm thick, with a heavier weight of 198 grams, making the Xperia XZ3 taller and slightly wider, but thinner and slightly lighter.
Xperia XZ3 Display and Gestures
The biggest upgrade on the phone is no doubt in the display department, as Sony has done away with its old IPS LCD panels and replaced them with higher-quality, higher-resolution OLED panels. These are similar panels used in its BRAVIA TV line, and feature many of the same qualities. Coming from previous Sony flagships, you’ll immediately notice that colors look deeper and more natural, owing both to the infinite contrast ratio of OLED displays as well as Sony’s TRILUMINOS tweaking and its X-Reality engines. The X-Reality engine will upscale content to HDR color space, virtually broadening the color gamut presented, but native HDR content will always look better. It’s also a higher resolution panel than Sony has put on its regular flagships, now sitting somewhere in-between previous Sony flagships, which were 1080p, and their Premium line, which have 4K displays.
The display is certainly striking looking, but it’s not without its faults. Like many mobile LG OLED panels manufactured in 2017, the display on the Xperia XZ3 can tend to look a little “gritty” when displaying solid colors, particularly greys, where uneven color reproduction is more noticeable than on other colors. Brightness is generally solid and is easily viewable in any lighting conditions, but isn’t the absolute brightest OLED panel on the market. The curved edges of the panel look simply gorgeous and lend a particular sense of premium quality to the overall design and display. In fact, the curved edges on the panel make this look like the sleekest, most premium device Sony has ever made, bar none. It’s stellar design as a whole, and really helps elevate the panel above what most OLEDs already offer, and gives the phone a special look and feel to set it apart from many other phones.
Sony offers more ways to customize the look and feel of the display than most OEMs as well, including ways to easily adjust color gamut and contrast via 3 presets. The default preset, “Standard mode,” produces some of the most accurate colors of any panel with just a bit of pop to the color, but you can adjust this to sRGB for fully color-accurate imagery, or go full eye-candy with the “Super-vivid mode.” Full white balance control is available with RGB sliders, as well as an HDR-upscaling “video image enhancement” setting that works to pull more color information out of SDR content that should look better on that HDR OLED display. There are even options for smart backlight control, which will keep the screen awake while holding the phone even if it exceeds the normal sleep timer.
Sony has added two very interesting new features to the display component this time around, aside from the curved edges, of course. While the display is off, the default Always On Display will show recently taken photos in a full-color collage on the screen. This adds even more beauty to the already fantastic always-on display, which of course will display important things like the time, date and any notifications delivered since the phone was last unlocked. These photos are ones saved on the device, or you can even choose a specific one to show, as well as music information and album art for what’s playing, half a dozen different clock styles, and plenty of other options as well. Photos are displayed according to the time and location taken, so if you visit a place regularly you'll find photos taken in that location will appear on the screen for a look back at what's happened there in the past. It’s a rich experience that offers more than most phones out there, and the unique photo collage is a really cool way to experience photos taken recently without always scrolling through the gallery.
Side Sense may just be the single coolest new feature Sony added to the Xperia XZ3, owing completely to a set of sensors on the side of the device that work in tandem with the curved edges of the screen. The top 2/3rds of the screen on either side can be double tapped to bring up a list of recently used apps, or slide your thumb down the side to navigate back. Sliding down to navigate back felt like a feature that was more useful in concept than in execution, as the gesture often required more than one swipe, negating any advantages it might have had in speed or ease of one-hand use. It’s this one-hand use that is the primary goal of the feature, as it offers 8 often-used apps within a single thumb’s reach, which are oriented to the left or right side of the screen depending on which side was double-tapped. This list of apps gets automatically switched out depending on how often the app is used, so typically you’ll find your 8 most-used apps here.
If you find this list doesn’t quite fit your needs, or is including apps that you don’t want (i.e. settings), you can simply cull the list of apps within the “Side Sense” settings, as well as toggle any settings you wish to have off, such as the slide-down to navigate back gesture. You can also adjust the speed that double-tapping needs to be performed (I found the “very slow” setting to work best), as well as only enable the feature on either the left or right side. This last setting, in particular, was important for me, as keeping the feature enabled on both sides often caused “ghost touches” on the screen, as the side panels were detecting the touch of my palms and making my thumb touches register incorrectly.
These false touches were incredibly frustrating when using the device for the first time and were a huge deterrent for using the phone until I figured out how to mostly fix the issue. Disabling the Side Sense feature altogether will also solve this problem if you’d rather just not have it enabled at all. Outside of any issues this mode may sometimes cause, touching a phone with gloves isn’t always the easiest task. Some gloves offer tips that work with touchscreen devices, but Sony also offers a Glove Mode for the phone, which enhances the digitizer’s touch sensitivity, making it work well with many different types of gloves. Super thick gloves will still not register a touch, but most cloth and leather gloves should work just fine with this mode enabled, which is handily placed in the quick settings area for easy and fast toggling.
Xperia XZ3 Hardware and Build
To say Sony’s devices have come a long way in just a short few months might be the understatement of the year. When comparing a 2017 Xperia phone next to a 2018 model you would be entirely forgiven for thinking these devices were made by two completely different companies, as just about everything about them has changed. The only “negative” aspects of Sony’s design are held entirely in the size of the top and bottom bezels, which are larger than any other flagship on the market but are done so for a hugely important reason: front-facing stereo speakers. Google’s design of the bezels on the smaller Pixel 3 is fairly similar to Sony’s and it’s clear that this is the only viable option, for the time being if manufacturers want to utilize front-facing stereo speakers without receiving lots of negative feedback from users (see the Pixel 3 XL's notch).
Despite having larger bezels than most, the rest of the phone is almost futuristic in its design. All 8 sides are fully curved to complement each other, although the top and bottom curves are far more acute than the left and right sides are. The “bulge” on the back of the Xperia XZ2 is gone, replaced with a less pronounced curve from all edges, resulting in a phone that’s 2mm thinner. The phone feels considerably sleeker as a result, and both looks and feels every bit as cutting edge as the €799/$899 price-points would lead one to believe. The metal sides are curved and polished to match the glass paneling, and while there are visual lines that separate the front and back from the sides, the curves all look and feel like a single cohesive structure.
Just as with the Xperia XZ2 family, the Xperia XZ3 does not have a 3.5mm audio jack, rather just a single USB Type-C port at the bottom. A dual-SIM tray sits up top with microSD card support, and this tray can be easily removed with fingers rather than need a tool, as most SIM card trays require. Unlike previous generations Sony is only selling the Xperia XZ3 in a single size, so fans of compact phones will need to stick with the Xperia XZ2 Compact for now, which features almost identical specs, at the very least. Sony is still utilizing the dedicated camera shutter button, the lowest of the trio of buttons on the right side of the phone. This dedicated shutter button feels amazing to use, and it’s funny how pleasant a simple tactile button can be to press in a world where buttons are constantly being replaced with digital forms.
The centered power button is in an excellent place, but the volume rocker feels just a tad too high to comfortably adjust volume while on the phone, mostly owing to the incredibly slippery nature of the device. Being all glass and polished metal means skin has little hope of truly gripping the phone, especially when the weather is cold or dry. Another interesting design choice, and one that was carried over from the Xperia XZ2, is the fingerprint and camera lens placement on the back. The camera lens is situated in the same place where most phones place their rear-facing fingerprint scanners, and the fingerprint scanner itself sits at about the midpoint of the phone. While this isn’t a bad placement, I found myself regularly touching the camera sensor on accident, something that won’t be a problem after owning the device for a while, but it’s still something that needs to be adjusted to when coming from other phones. Folks with larger hands might find this placement uncomfortable though, as you need to reach down a bit to touch it.
Xperia XZ3 Security, Performance, and Battery Life
The Xperia XZ3 ships with a rear-facing fingerprint scanner that, as previously mentioned, is situated in a slightly different place on the back when compared to other phones with rear-facing fingerprint scanners. Despite placement that some may find less than ideal, the performance and accuracy is exactly what we expect from Sony, and of course being separated from the power button the side means that this fingerprint scanner will work in the US market. While Sony doesn’t offer any kind of advanced facial recognition features on its phones, it does feature a handy little security feature called Lockdown. Lockdown places an extra button in the menu that appears when long-pressing the power button, which upon pressing will immediately lock the phone, hide all notifications from the lockscreen, and disable the fingerprint reader. It’s a great way to single-tap secure your phone for any number of reasons, helping keep people out that shouldn’t be snooping.
On the performance side of the house we’re looking at identical specs to the Xperia XZ2, which was launched in the Spring. Qualcomm hasn’t released a new processor for the Fall/Winter season as they have in some past years, and as a result you won’t find any processing power increase on any Fall flagship over the Spring/Summer models. What’s disappointing, especially for the price tag, is that Sony only outfitted the Xperia XZ3 with 4GB of RAM. With a 1080p+ display, as the Xperia XZ2 family had, 4GB of RAM is just fine. The Xperia XZ3, however, sports a Quad-HD+ display that’s double the number of pixels to render over the Xperia XZ2’s display. That’s 2,332,800 pixels on the XZ2 versus 4,147,200 pixels on the XZ3, all without increasing the amount of RAM this imagery has to be stored in. Mathematically there’s only so much that can be done to prevent reloading of apps when you’re faced with the reality of double the pixels, and unfortunately the Xperia XZ3 ends up reloading apps far more often than a 2018 flagship at this price range should.
We saw this exact same problem with the Google Pixel 3 XL, which features an even higher resolution screen thanks to the taller ratio, yet still only packs in 4GB of RAM, along with an even more aggressive governor than Sony utilizes. This is particularly unfortunate because Sony has done what no other manufacturer has at this point in time; rejected Google’s poor vision of multitasking on Android 9 Pie. We’ve critiqued Google’s new Overview multitasking interface for Pie many times over at this point, as well as their rushed design for gesture-based navigation, and Sony seems to have realized that both of these decisions are not a good fit for phones that are increasingly growing larger, yet still trying to be used with a single hand.
Sony is still utilizing the tried-and-true software navigation buttons as well as the superior design of the “Rolodex” style cards for multi-tasking, which creates both an easier visual design for switching between multiple apps, better one-hand use since the cards are always within thumbs’ reach, as well as a quicker way to split-screen multi-task with a long press of the square Overview button, or swapping between the most recently used apps quickly by double tapping that same button. There are plenty of other designs for both navigation and Overview that work considerably better than Google’s designs in stock Android 9 Pie, and we’re pleased to see that Sony has rejected Google’s newer vision instead of just towing the line. While the term “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t always apply to technology, this is certainly a case where new doesn’t always mean better, especially when it makes things more difficult and slower for daily use.
Battery life is about average for what’s expected from a flagship phone in 2018. You’ll easily get a full-day’s use out of the Xperia XZ3, almost no matter how much you use the phone. A 3,300mAh battery is a standard size battery for a phone with a 6-inch screen, and as such you’ll find an average battery life overall. Most days I got through a full 18 hour day without need for a top-up, which in my case means around 4 hours of screen on time (SoT). QuickCharge 3.0 means that a full charge can be achieved in just over an hour and a half, with a 30 minute charge giving around 60% battery life from an empty battery. The included charger is unfortunately not a QuickCharge 3.0 one, so you’ll need to have one handy to take advantage of these speeds. Sony’s QNovo battery conditioning helps keep the battery from dying an early death by only charging to 90% when plugged in overnight, filling in the final 10% when it determines you’re an hour away from unplugging the device. This is done through machine learning and will get more accurate over time.
Xperia XZ3 Wireless Connectivity and Sound
It’s been some time since Sony phones were sold on US carriers, and while that’s not changing with the Xperia XZ3, features like WiFi Calling and Voice over LTE (VoLTE) are finally available on some carriers in the US. On T-Mobile, for instance, VoLTE was available and enabled out of the box, but T-Mobile hasn’t enabled WiFi Calling on their end for this particular device. While these aren’t always make-or-break features, they are extremely important, and the presence of WiFi Calling alone may be a must-have feature for folks that often venture into buildings with poor cell signal but a WiFi network they could use instead. WiFi Calling is a feature that has to be enabled by the carrier, which means that even though the Xperia XZ3 supports the technology, it won't work if the carrier doesn't allow it. Signal strength and speed were as good as they should be, with ultra-fast LTE downloads and excellent signal strength where it is expected to be.
When it comes to quality sound playback, few companies have the pedigree that Sony does. There’s a good reason for this, but the most prominent is likely in the incredible front-facing stereo speakers that Sony has been using on its phones for generations now. In a time where bezels are shrinking and front-facing speakers are slowly disappearing, Sony is staying with what it does best and including bigger and better speakers than ever in the Xperia XZ3, despite reducing bezels from previous generations of phones. These speakers sound absolutely incredible, and deliver the best overall sound quality of any 2018 flagship on every level. The only speakers that come close are the ones found on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, but those speakers only best the Xperia XZ3 in their ability to deliver better sound quality on the low end.
Every other quality for the speakers, including sound reproduction of mids and highs, as well as pure volume and ability to not only deliver more complex sound that doesn’t get muddled when a lot is going on, but also to deliver virtual surround sound as well. In addition to this Sony utilizes the excellent vibration motors inside the Xperia XZ3, taken directly from the PS4’s controller, and uses them to create a unique Dynamic Vibration system that bumps along with audio playing on the phone. While this sounds gimmicky at first since it doesn’t actually enhance audio and won’t work well when playing the phone on a table, it truly does help bring an extra dimension to video playback thanks to some enhanced vibration logic even over what was present in the Xperia XZ2. The phone vibrates according to low frequency sounds, adjusting the intensity and speed depending on how low the sound measures, and it doesn’t have a hard time keeping up with complex sounds either. It’s really something special, and needs to be felt to be truly understood.
Sony doesn’t offer a 3.5mm audio jack, once again, but ships the phone with a 3.5mm to USB Type-C adapter that sounds simply incredible on any sound system, with plenty of options for adjusting the sound to your tastes or your specific sound system’s needs. This includes high-res upscaling via Sony’s DXEE engine, true high-res audio delivery, virtual surround sound, and a host of other quality enhancement features in addition to a fully realized equalizer. Sony ships the phone with a pair of its own wireless Xperia Ear Duo earphones with some bundles, and of course supports Bluetooth 5.0 for the latest wireless audio standards, in addition to all high-quality Bluetooth codecs like aptX HD and LDAC. Sony even offers built in noise-cancellation for any plugged-in headphones, as well as automatic sound optimization on supported USB Type-C and Bluetooth headphones.
Xperia XZ3 Software
Sony has, historically, been among the very first phones to debut with a new version of Android when launching their Fall flagships, and the Xperia XZ3 continues that trend. A scant few phones have launched with Android 9 Pie since the major OS update became available in early August. While many were hoping for quicker update schedules initially because of Project Treble, which was a reworking of Android’s back-end structure to facilitate easier updating for OEMs, many were dissatisfied with some of Google’s new designs for Pie’s interface. Sony seems to have directly answered the call of many for these design issues, as they have no only stuck with the arguably superior Rolodex-style vertical card scrolling for Android’s multitasking Overview screen, but have also reworked a few questionable interface changes from Google, including the Pie-style gesture navigation that Google forces users of the Pixel 3 to use.
Sony has made some quality of life improvements throughout the UI, including simple things like keeping the “Settings” cog wheel in the first pull-down of the notification shade (whereas you’ll need to pull down twice to access it in stock Android 9 Pie), all while keeping the more positive changes of Pie’s UI like the excellent new animations and the handy volume adjustment interface. This volume adjustment interface has been expanded over stock Android by providing additional sliders for the ringer volume as well as the Dynamic Vibration system. The biggest negative interface change that was kept from Google’s stock Android 9 Pie UI design are the quick toggle buttons, which have had their “quick toggling” functionality completely removed by Google. This means no instant changing of WiFi hotspots, Bluetooth devices, or other toggles that offered secondary drop-downs for changing settings without navigating away from the active app. It’s a lame design and one we hoped Sony would also change, but there’s always room for improvement in the future.
Themes are still available for the device, and we received several notifications of new themes during the review period, including ones for new movies like Venom, and plenty of other event and holiday themed ones as well. This is the first time we’ve seen a good number of themes display “not compatible with this device” tags on the Play Store though, which is likely just a sign that quite a few themes are getting long in the tooth and no longer play nice with Android’s latest interface designs. While themes have been around for some time on Xperia device, the latest Ambient Display additions are something wholly new to Sony’s flagships, and unique among other smartphones out there. The always-on Ambient Display can now display a random collage of recently taken photos, selected at random by an algorithm that will pair together categories of pictures, ones taken in a similar timeframe, and so on and so forth. These photos are pulled from ones on the device as well as Google Photos, and it feels a bit similar to the photo collage modes that Google has enabled on its latest smart display OS update, as well as the one enabled on the Pixel 3 when it’s in the Pixel Wireless Charger.
This collage is extremely pleasant to look at, as it will display 4 or more photos around the display, all within different sized circles and in full color as well. It’s great to glance down at your phone and see a pattern of pictures that changes at random, smiling as you’re reminded of pleasant imagery throughout the day. If you don’t like this it’s easy enough to disable, or change out for any number of different Ambient Displays that Sony offers too, including several different clock types and even the ability to make it fully your own with custom designs. Even the notification icons will pulse as notifications come in, bringing a bit of life to what would otherwise be a boring, static image. Sony has also kept its Xperia Loops animations throughout the UI, with pleasant circles that appear when the device unlocks, the battery is low, etc. These circles are quick, elegant animated circles that pulse momentarily to create the a more lively feeling on the device, adding a bit of character and elegance to the experience.
Sony ships the device with a handful of pre-installed apps, the most useful of which are Xperia Lounge, What’s New, Playstation, and Support. This last one is self-explanatory, but offers excellent built-in troubleshooting tips, how-to guides, and one-touch access to a support representative if trouble arises. Xperia Lounge and What’s New offer up themes and other similar add-ons, and the Playstation app allows for PS4 remote play anywhere you’re at. The Xperia family also supports native pairing of DualShock controllers too, which is a simple pair-and-go affair. Having native controller support is something wholly underrated, as it opens up a world of gaming possibilities without having to install 3rd party tools or work with hacky methods of input. It also enables native PS4 remote play so that you can play full-fledged PS4 games on the go via Internet streaming from your PS4 console at home. It’s a fantastic tie-in that’s exclusive to Xperia devices, but not the Xperia XZ3 specifically.
Xperia XZ3 Camera Hardware and Software
From a camera standpoint, there’s nothing different about the rear-facing camera when compared to recent Xperia XZ devices. That’s the same 19-megapixel MotionEye camera with a large 1/2.3-inch sensor, 1.22-micron pixel size, and an f/2.0 Sony G-lens with a wide 81-degree field of view. Most main rear-facing cameras are between 71 and 75 degrees on average, so this is a fair bit wider than other phones. The front-facing camera is getting the huge upgrade that the Xperia XZ2 Premium brought, which features a 13-megapixel 1/3.02-inch sensor capable of 3200 ISO in photo and 1600 ISO in video, behind an 86-degree field of view f/1.9 lens. That’s a big upgrade from the 5-megapixel 1/5th inch sensor on the regular Xperia XZ2, which was also only capable of 1600 ISO in photo and 1000 ISO in video. Sony still includes a dedicated camera shutter button on the side, something that provides a special tactile feedback for photos that most others phones no longer have.
Specs aside there’s also a big new camera software redesign that brings a much-desired visual refresh to the camera while still retaining all the good stuff behind the scenes, and some unfortunate other limitations as well. A swipe left or right will swap between photo and video modes in a snap, with the rest of the modes located in a clearly-labeled white modes button at the bottom, which is within thumbs reach at all times. This is a fantastic design that makes modes easy to find, with some brand new colorful flat icons for each mode too, helping bring visual aids to the table for fast switching. The biggest problem comes in those tertiary modes like bokeh or AR effect, which launch an entirely separate app instead of keeping everything in the main camera app.
This cuts down on the size of the camera app, but ends up being more of a hassle because the phone needs to be unlocked, and even then it takes an extra few seconds of loading, in many cases, for these other apps to launch. Back in the main interface, along the top, you’ll find the usual row of quick setting toggles like flash or brightness adjust, as well as a tiny button for switching between front and rear cameras, but a quick swipe down will also perform this function. This many swipes could lead to erroneous switching of the cameras, but Sony requires you to drag down a bit before the cameras switch, much like refreshing a web page through Chrome, for instance, so you’re probably not going to find yourself doing this on accident much.
Launch speeds and focus times are excellent, with a hybrid autofocus that’s rated at 0.03 seconds to focus, although the visual behavior of this has always been a bit odd looking when compared to other smartphones. Pressing the shutter button results in the camera always refocusing the scene, but this is done for a number of reasons. First off is in the predictive capture ability, which detects things like smiles on faces or motion in a scene, and will later present you with up to 4 full-resolution options to choose from instead of just the shutter timing. This feature is not new or exclusive to the Xperia XZ3, but it’s worth noting, if for no other reason, than the fact that it’s largely a better implementation than Google’s Top Shot on the Pixel 3.
Top Shot allows you to choose from any point in time in the 2-second capture window, but the massive drop in quality to 1 or 3-megapixel resolution renders those options somewhat useless in a number of cases. It’s not just full-resolution photos in Predictive Capture that makes Sony’s implementation better, it’s the fact that the camera refocuses between every single one of these shots, ensuring that your subject is always in focus and blur-free; something the camera specifically looks for when picking images out of the burst. Object tracking, done by simply clicking on anything in the viewfinder, will also help better this feature, and will work to trigger this selection more often. My only complaint would be that I wish Sony would allow me to have a little more manual control over when this background task kicks in rather than hoping it noticed someone blinked or moved at the last second.
Sony’s portrait mode really needs a full overhaul though, as it’s really just not good, especially when compared to other phones out there. Second camera or not, it needs some reworking, as it often gets the foreground and background completely wrong, and the blurred lines around objects is wholly inaccurate, even in better shots. Betterment also needs to happen to the AR mode in the camera, which generally feels old and dated. Sony was among the first, if not the first, to showcase AR technology in its camera app and on its phones, but this tech hasn’t been updated for some time and it really shows. It’s slow, doesn’t have good placement or spatial recognition, and would be best if just replaced with something that runs on Google’s ARCore platform instead.
Xperia XZ3 Camera Results
Most phones take sufficient daytime photos, but it’s fun to delve into the specifics of what sets each phone apart from the others. During well-lit conditions, you’ll find the Xperia XZ3’s colors are usually very accurate, with a slight bump to saturation at times, but this comes across as pleasant, rather than offensive. Sony has been using the Scene Detection concept longer than any other OEM, utilizing software smarts to detect objects in the scene and categorize them in order to provide the best type of processing. Identifying the correct scene is paramount for getting the best shot, particularly when it comes to dynamic range. Landscape and Backlight scene modes seem to produce the widest dynamic range shots, otherwise, the camera will prioritize exposure based on what appears to be spot-metering-like behavior rather than trying to balance the scene out as a whole. This means the foreground is usually prioritized for being bright enough to see at the expense of blown out highlights in other parts of the photo.
Crop detail is stellar, often times besting most other phones, which should be expected given the 19-megapixel resolution and the fact that this has been the case with Sony flagships for a while anyway. Saturation and contrast can look a bit elevated over what’s truly natural, depending on what scene detection determines, and things like food or foliage will be nice and saturated without looking wholly unrealistic. For comparison, Samsung tends to oversaturate colors but usually has excellent dynamic range, while Google’s colors are often more realistic, but we’ve seen dynamic range suffer this year as the camera tends to turn the contrast up a tad too high, crushing shadow detail in the process.
In shots where Sony’s scene detection correctly identified objects and chose the best processing mode, the Xperia XZ3’s photos tend to look the best, as they often have better dynamic range than phones like the Pixel 3, sport more pleasant colors than Huawei’s 2018 flagships, and keep from looking too unrealistic as Samsung’s colors can sometimes be. In scenes where scene detection didn’t make the best choice, things tend to look overexposed and blown out. Regardless of exposure, the Xperia XZ3 usually has a slight bit of enhanced detail when compared to other major flagships. Sony’s noise reduction seems to be less aggressive than previous generations, which only further enhances the extra detail in scenes, sometimes at the expense of adding a tad bit of noise in shadows.
When zooming in with the viewfinder, you’ll find the 19-megapixel resolution isn’t quite enough to truly compete with phones that have a secondary camera with optical zoom though, and in some cases, the difference can be truly drastic. Optical zoom lenses have become particularly important in recent years as manufacturers have been able to put higher quality sensors behind the secondary lens, sometimes even using hybrid imagery to enhance these sensors to further levels of detail enhancement. Compared to other phones with digital zooming only, however, you’ll find that Sony does a great job of keeping detail high.
The front-facing camera has the potential to be truly excellent, especially in low light, but it seems to be constantly plagued with focusing issues. Most front-facing cameras are fixed focus, but Sony is one of the few manufacturers who is utilizing an autofocus mechanism on the front-facing camera. For whatever reason though, it seems like this camera prioritizes the background more often than the foreground, which obviously is problematic for a front-facing camera. Photos don’t look bad because of this, but it’s really obvious that the desired subject isn’t in focus at times, and this was consistent in almost every shot taken. The times where it focused on the right subject looked excellent, as color accuracy is superb, contrast and exposure are fantastic, colors look rich and deep, and subjects were sharp and detailed thanks to the 13-megapixel resolution. In low light, the new larger sensor pulls ahead of the competition both in terms of detail and color accuracy, and in many of these types of low light shots, the XZ3 is the only camera that actually got the scene properly color lit. There are some examples in the gallery below, like a scene with brown drapes, which come across looking a bit green on the Mate 20 and Pixel 3, but are the correct color on the XZ3’s image. Even the front-facing flash looks great when needed, so hopefully Sony can resolve these focusing issues with an update.
Low light on the rear camera can be just as solid at times, but the small 1.22-micron pixels and the relatively high f/2.0 lens don’t do the phone a whole lot of favors in the darkest of conditions. Just like the front-facing camera, lower light shots are more color accurate on the Xperia XZ3 than most other phones out there. Detail is also often excellent, as Sony seems to be less afraid of letting a bit of noise in to preserve fine detail in shots. This often results in more detailed lower light shots than almost any other phone we tested no matter the light. Dim lighting, overcast days, dusk and dawn shots, or even tough indoor lighting conditions resulted in the XZ3 being able to pull out more detail than any other phone in these conditions in most shots.
The biggest issue comes in the form of dynamic range and overall amount of light in a scene. In lower light shots with harsh backlighting or lots of glowing windows or signage, the XZ3 will often either blow out these parts to make the rest of the scene light enough, or meter to keep them from being blown out, which makes a scene too dark, especially when there’s a lot of these types of light sources. The camera seems to do best when it can focus on one type of lighting condition, like scenes with a single or no direct light sources, rather than multiple ones where it tends to get a bit confused.
Ever since moving to the Motion Eye sensor with last year’s XZ Premium, Sony’s video recording image quality has really been impressive from a number of levels that other OEMs don’t compete on. They were the first to have HDR video recording earlier this year with the XZ2, which continues onto the XZ3, and remains the only phone with HDR recording in the auto mode, whereas LG is the only other manufacturer to have this ability, but is only available in manual video mode on the V40. It’s tough to say how much use people will get out of HDR video, really just because it’s less prominent than even 4K displays are. It’s also limited to 24 frames per second output, which reduces the smoothness of the video, but overall image quality improvement might be something people prefer over high frame rates. It’s good that Sony offers a different high-quality video recording mode too since there’s no 60 frames per second recording at 4K, only 1080p, meaning it bests other flagships in its ability to record in 4K HDR, but is behind in the high framerate department since it can’t do 4K60.
Where the video recording doesn’t fare as well is in the stabilization department for 4K recording. 1080p recording is as smooth as butter, with little to no jitters at all, but 4K is definitely shakier than the competition in many cases. On the bright side, you won’t find the weird micro jitters that can happen when hybrid stabilization has a hard time keeping the frame still, something you’ll notice on the Mate 20 Pro in our video review. Color reproduction on the XZ3 is really superb, with deep, punchy colors that look phenomenal, and exposure that generally does an excellent job of balancing things out. Phones like the Pixel 3 have better dynamic range in video, but colors tend to get slightly washed out, although the Xperia’s deep colors often times find themselves seated alongside slightly crushed black levels in brighter conditions due to a slight underexposure. Zoom detail is surprisingly good given that there’s no secondary optical camera, but optical zooming will always offer a cleaner, more detailed picture. The XZ3 is also quite smooth during zooming thanks to some hybrid stabilization that’s done to the cropped frame, while some phones like the Huawei Mate 20 Pro don’t have much more than optical stabilization, which lets a bit of hand jitter into the frame.
Audio quality from the XZ3 is simply superb. Check out our video review above to get a full 1-minute sample comparison between the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and the Sony Xperia XZ3 and hear the difference between the two. You’ll find that Sony’s audio recording quality is just a richer experience, with better spatialization, wider audio reproduction, and none of the tinny feel to the audio that the Mate 20 Pro has.
Lastly is super slow-mo video, which is something Sony has done better than anyone else for quite some time now, and continues this trend with the XZ3. There’s nothing different here from the XZ2, which introduced a resolution bump to 1080p for that 960 FPS super slow mo video. This allows for a wider view of your surroundings while simultaneously packing in significantly more detail than the competition, which can only record at 720p resolution for 960fps video. The biggest problem with Sony’s implementation is that you have to initiate the super slow motion manually by pressing the button in super slow mo mode, while manufacturers like Samsung and Huawei have an automatic mode that will initiate super slow mo when motion is detected. Auto mode would put this over the top, but as it stands, it’s still the best quality super slow-mo for any phone on the market.
Gorgeous new curved OLED panel
Thinner and lighter design
New design language is stunning with the curved panel
Dynamic Vibration system adds a new dimension to sound
Sony’s vibration motors are uniquely excellent
4K HDR video recording
1080p 960FPS super slow motion video recording
Predictive capture is a great way to catch clear action shots
New camera interface is a huge improvement
Excellent video recording sound quality
Front-facing stereo speakers are the best in the business
Audio output quality rivals the best phones out there
New always-on display options are unique and pleasant
IP68 water and dust resistant
microSD card support for expandable storage
Better multi-tasking (overview) screen than stock Android 9 Pie
Navigation buttons are still the most efficient way to navigate
Deep Playstation integration (native remote play, DualShock 4 pairing)
Portrait camera mode needs serious work
No 4k60 video recording
Side Sense is a finicky new addition
No 3.5mm audio jack
4GB of RAM can be limiting
US price is too high
The Xperia XZ3 is Sony’s best phone yet, representing the absolute cream-of-the-crop design from Sony’s team, a fantastic new OLED display, amazing front-facing speakers, ultra high-quality sound output, and one of the best versions of Android 9 Pie available. Folks who dislike Google’s redesign of Overview will be super happy here, and Playstation owners can pair their DualShock 4 controllers natively with the phone and play their PS4’s from anywhere with an Internet connection. Sony’s dynamic vibration motors are stellar and add a depth to music and videos that doesn’t exist on other phones, and their updated camera experience is better than ever, including the highest quality photo and video from any Sony phone.
There’s still room for improvement though, including tertiary camera modes (like portrait) that are simply not good, and a strangely small amount of RAM given the fact that the screen now has twice the number of pixels versus the Xperia XZ2. $900 is a lot to pay for a phone, and while you’ll need to spend a slight bit more to actually get something tangibly better, you can spend far less and get much of what’s great about the Xperia XZ3 by sticking with the Spring’s Xperia XZ2 instead, or spend about the same amount for the Xperia XZ2 Premium and get more RAM, and even higher resolution screen, and a fantastic dual camera system with better low light performance. The Xperia XZ3 is a far more attractive option in the UK and Europe, in particular, where the reduced price makes this a far more attractive option and makes this an easy recommendation.