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Sony Xperia Z3 review: Superb design and capabilities that best the Apple iPhone 6

Sony doesn't release too many smartphones on US carriers, but T-Mobile has a real winner here with the Z3. Matthew not only tested one out, he bought his own and put aside the iPhone 6 Plus.
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1 of 17 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

T-Mobile Sony Xperia Z3

I bought a Sony Xperia Z2 from Handtec back in May and thought it was the phone for me. While it was great, the rumors of a Z3 kept me from keeping it. Now that I have spent a week with the new T-Mobile Sony Xperia Z3, I am extremely pleased I waited for this upgraded model — which may be the best Android phone available today.

After selling that Xperia Z2 on Swappa and moving through a few other phones in the last couple of months, my most recent infatuation has been with the Apple iPhone 6 Plus. But I now have at least 10 reasons (keep reading this review) for preferring the Sony Xperia Z3 over the iPhone 6 Plus..

I checked out the evaluation Z3 for just two days before ordering my own and returning the review unit. The Xperia Z3 gives me a high end device with waterproof characteristics at a reasonable price, along with the great benefits of T-Mobile ownership. T-Mobile customers should take a serious look at the Z3 before buying a new smartphone.

Specifications

  • Processors: Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz quad-core processor and Adreno 330 GPU
  • Display: 5.2-inch 1920 x 1080 pixels resolution IPS Triluminos
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Internal storage: 32GB and microSD storage support up to 128GB
  • Cameras: 20.7-megapixel rear and 2.2 megapixel front facing
  • Radios: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, DLNA, ANT+, MHL 3.0
  • Battery capacity: 3,100 mAh with stated talk time up to 21 hours
  • Other features: Waterproof and dust tight (IP65 and IP68 ratings), Sony 3D surround sound technology with dual front facing stereo speakers
  • Dimensions: 146 x 71.88 x 7.62 mm, and 152 grams

The T-Mobile variation of this device addresses one concern I have with overseas models and the last Z2 I owned, the integrated storage. Every high end smartphone should come with at least 32GB so it is great to see T-Mobile and Sony launched a version here with 32GB rather than the 16GB on most all other Xperia variants.

Looking at the other Sony Xperia Z3 specifications, the only one that isn't the highest available on Android today is the processor. The Snapdragon 805 processor is available on the Galaxy Note 4 and Nexus 6.

On the hardware

It is rather stark to grab a Sony Xperia Z3 and then a Samsung Galaxy S5. One is clearly a much better built device and in my opinion you won't find an Android device with a better fit and finish. If Apple built an Android device, it would probably look and feel much like the Xperia Z3.

Sony fixed its Xperia displays with the Z2 and the same one is found on the Z3. The side bezels are pretty narrow and the top and bottom don't even bother me any longer knowing that stereo speakers are present.

I love Sony's silver central power button positioned along the new rounded metal edge. The corners are made of plastic to help with drop survival while metal wraps the rest of the edges. The glass back concerns me a bit, but I will just have to hold on to it a bit tighter.

Sony includes a couple of contacts on the left side and for about $25 you can pick up a dock on Amazon and charge the Xperia Z3 wirelessly. I wish that Qi charging was including, but the dock solution works well and provides you with a nice bedside clock.

A physical camera capture button is found on the lower right side and this is something I love having on a smartphone. While nearly all Windows Phone devices have this button, very few Android models include it.

The same 20.7 megapixel camera from the Z2 is found on the back of the Z3. It does a solid job of capturing photos, but I honestly expect more from Sony and hope they can continue to improve it with software updates.

Like HTC and others, Sony includes a Stamina Mode on the Z3 so you can manage your battery and make sure your phone never dies when you need it. I have been going longer than a full heavy day with the Z3 and with the Stamina Mode there are no worries at all about having an integrated large capacity battery.

Sony was one of the first to integrate waterproof capability in its smartphones and as a person living in a wet part of the world, it is something I find almost essential today. Now that I run with a phone for safety and to capture images on the go, I need a waterproof phone or a case that keeps the phone safe and sound.

Sony sells noise-cancelling earbuds that work with the Z2 and Z3. As a daily train commuter, these are awesome to have working with the Z3.

In my opinion, Apple and HTC are the current leaders in smartphone design and when you hold one of these devices you feel like you spent your money well. The great thing about Sony is that they take this same attention to design detail and include all of the best Android specs to create a superb smartphone experience.

A few phones have designs that keep me flipping the phone around in my hand and the Z3 is one of those devices. It is very pocketable, especially for a 5.2 inch display smartphone, and feels great in your hand.

Pros Cons
Awesome metal and glass design Cover to access the microUSB port
Waterproof capability Device is slippery and easy to drop
Physical camera capture button
microSD expansion card slot
3GB RAM, 20.7 megapixel camera, other high end specs
Loud front-facing stereo speakers
Long battery life

On the software

The Sony Xperia Z3 launches with Android 4.4 with the promise that Android Lollipop (5.0) will be released in the next few months. I won't go into detail on Android KitKat since the OS has been covered extensively over the past year.

Sony has one of the lightest skins available in the Android world, but let's take a bit closer look at what you can expect on the Z3 since it is different than stock Android.

Sony additions: Sony does bring some of its branded experiences to the Z3. Sony has long been known for the Walkman and you will find this as the music player on the Xperia Z3. It is an attractive and functional application and I am working to load up all my music on my microSD to enjoy it with the noise-cancelling earbuds on the Z3. You can also sign up and use Walkman to access Sony's subscription service.

Sony also includes Movies, Movie Creator, OfficeSuite, PlayStation, Sketch, Smart Connect, Sony Select, TrackID, Video Unlimited, What's New, and Xperia Lounge. While I am not sure we need additional service options with Google Play loaded on Android devices, Sony isn't overbearing with these services either.

Movie Creator creates highlight movies with your photos and videos. HTC launched this idea with the HTC One M7 and since then many others, BlackBerry, Motorola, and Sony for example, have implemented a twist on highlight videos.

Sony PlayStation gamers will love the Z3 and to be honest I did start looking at the PS4 after I bought the Z3. Sony provides the capability to connect the Z3 to the PS4 and also use the DualShock 4 Controller with the Z3.

While the iPhone camera does a great job and Apple has improved the functions with more options on the iPhone 6, Sony provides an extensive collection of camera modes on the Z3. Some of the modes are silly, but others are quite useful. You can take slow motion and time-lapse videos with the Z3, along with many other advanced scenes.

T-Mobile additions: Thankfully T-Mobile is the one major US carrier that limits how much bloatware is added to its phones. On the Z3 you will find T-Mobile Name ID (subscription service), T-Mobile My Account, Mobile Hotspot, T-Mobile TV, Visual Voicemail, and Device Unlock. After you pay off the phone, you can SIM unlock your phone with the Device Unlock application.

A couple of these are subscription services, Name ID and TV, but those are the only two I would like to remove. The rest actually help you manage your account and control your wireless connections.

The fantastic T-Mobile services that came through various Uncarrier initiatives include Wi-Fi Calling and unlimited streaming of music services. While Wi-Fi Calling is excellent at my house, I use the free texting via Gogo while flying around the country on Alaska Airlines. It is very convenient to stay in touch with my family on the airplane without having to pay for wireless service.

Pricing and availability

The Sony Xperia Z3 is available now for $630 or $26.25/month for 24 months. This is a reasonable price for a high end smartphone. By comparison, the 16GB iPhone 6 is $649, but has no capability for memory expansion. The 32GB Nexus 6 is available for $649 as well, again with no capability to expand that storage capacity.

The competition

There are plenty of high end smartphones available today that compete against the Xperia Z3. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Nexus 6, BlackBerry Passport, Moto X, Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Galaxy S5, and more are available now.

The Z3 satisfies me over all the others due to these ten features:

  • Waterproof rating: I run with my phones and often in the rain so I need a waterproof phone to help me stay fit.
  • microSD storage: It is nice to pop a microSD card in and out as you capture photos and videos, as well as making it easy to transfer documents.
  • Indicator light: I like having a small subtle light to inform me when a notification is present. It is also helpful to have different colors for different types of notifications.
  • 3GB RAM: I still can't believe Apple only launched its new iPhones with 1GB of RAM. You won't have any trouble multi-tasking with the Z3.
  • Front-facing stereo speakers: All phones should at least have one speaker on the front, but I prefer dual speakers like HTC provides.
  • Physical camera button: Nothing beats pressing and holding a camera capture button to launch the camera. The Z3 feels more like a camera than a phone at times.
  • Active noise-cancelling earbuds: I commute a couple of hours a day on the train and also travel via plane about once a month. Having noise-cancelling earbuds, with smart controls, is awesome.
  • FM radio: While some people may not appreciate having a FM radio, it is a great way to enjoy music, news, and sports without consuming data.
  • DLNA support: One thing that drives me crazy about my iPhone is that I cannot easily share photos and videos with family and friends on a large TV.
  • USB OTG: It is incredibly convenient to pop in the Truffol Dual OTG USB stick and transfer files to and from my PC when on the road.

Conclusion

Sony has a limited presence in the US with most of its devices being sold either overseas or at the US Sony Store as unlocked models for AT&T and T-Mobile customers. Verizon just recently launched the Sony Xperia Z3v, which is a variation of the Z3 I bought from T-Mobile.

Some people complain that Sony launches new smartphones too often, but that is definitely not the case in the US. This latest model is an amazing piece of technology and is clearly one of the best smartphones available today. While the Apple iPhone 6 is a well built and designed smartphone, it is clear that Sony also knows how to design a phone for the masses.

I tried using my iPhone 6 Plus and still do like it, but just like in the past I tend to get bored with iPhones after about a month. Android offers more for my needs and the Sony Xperia Z3 is the one for me.

I also find that Sony's RF signal is better on the Z3 than what I see on the iPhone 6 Plus. My iPhone 6 Plus often drops to 3G or worse in the exact same locations where the Z3 keeps hold of a LTE signal.

Contributor's rating: 9.5 out of 10

Browse the gallery

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Sony Xperia Z3 in hand

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Glass back of the Xperia Z3

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No problem working under water

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Rainproof is what I need in Washington State

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Moto X, Sony Xperia Z3, HTC One M8

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20.7 megapixel camera and flash

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The camera capture button is very useful

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Power and volume buttons on the right side

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Connectors for the wireless charging dock

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Plastic corners, metal frame, and waterproof headset jack

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Typical default Sony Xperia Z3 home screen

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T-Mobile adds a few apps

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Sony has a few default widgets promoting their services

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Sony has an advanced application launcher

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Another view of the apps on my Z3

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T-Mobile lets you unlock your phone after it is paid off

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