Sony's Xperia Z2, launched this April, was a mere nip and tuck away from smartphone perfection and remains one of our favourite smartphones. But despite that it's not long for this world.
As it did last year with the Xperia Z and Z1, Sony is replacing its flagship just six months later. That's bad news for Z2 owners but great news for anyone who held out while the HTC One (M8), LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy S5 have come and gone.
Because more so than any other smartphone launch this year, the Xperia Z3 both solves the problems of its predecessor - the unwieldy design being the big one - and pushes genuinely unique features and capabilities. This is sure to give the LG G3, our current number one smartphone, a serious headache.
Sure we were a bit narked that it arrived so soon. But within five seconds of getting our hands on one, all was forgiven.
READ MORE: Sony Xperia Z2 review
Design - why didn't the Z2 look like this?
Answer: it did. Sort of. At first glance - and in press shots - it looks like a case of "spot the difference" between the Z3 and Z2.
But the tweaks that Sony has made really do make an incredible difference. The difference between "I know it's well-specced and well-built but I just don't love it" and "I need one right now". You need to get one in your hand to really appreciate it.
The aluminium and tempered glass OmniBalance design now has rounded sides and, while it's still an angular body and won't sit completely snug in the palm like a One (M8), it's enough to make it much more comfortable. It's a compromise - Sony want OmniBalance to be iconic the way a BMW or Mercedes design is - but it's a compromise that allows for the contours of human hands while keeping the year-and-a-bit old Xperia aesthetic.
It also helps massively that the Xperia Z3 weighs 152g, that's 11g lighter than the Z2 and probably achieved by the smaller battery. It's also ever so slightly smaller in both dimensions and skinnier than the Z2 at 7.3mm thick, all of which makes it feel less like a heavy block and more like the sleek wonder-phone it really is.
With all that glass you might be fretting about smashing it but Sony has added new nylon caps to the corners. Apparently handsets are most likely to be dropped on corners so replacing the old aluminium is designed to make the Z3 more durable. We thought it best not to drop the Z3 within minutes of meeting it but we can say that the new corners don't ruin the design - in fact, we rather like them.
A big advantage of the OmniBalance design is that it’s water- and dust-proof, so the Z3 is capable of withstanding anything the weather can throw at it – as well as enabling you to make calls from the shower and watch Netflix in your Jacuzzi. The new IP65/68 rating is the highest waterproofing you can get on a smartphone right now (surviving up to 30 minutes in up to 1.5m of water) and a new higher dust resistance too.
We managed to play around with a few Z3s with the white model being our favourite - it's less reflecty than the black model. There's also two new colours in the form of copper and silver green. Hey, at least it's not pink.
READ MORE: HTC One (M8) reviewed
When the Xperia Z2's screen is one of the best we've ever laid eyes on, we're not going to complain when Sony leaves it alone.
And that's what it's done. It's 20% brighter than the Z2's screen, now 600 candela, which means it's easier to make out in direct sunlight. We haven't tested it side by side with the blindingly bright Galaxy S5 yet but we're sure it will match it for outdoors use.
Apart from that, it's the same sharp, punchy 5.2in Full HD screen we saw - and loved - on the Xperia Z2. A quick scroll through Sony's preloaded hi-res snaps shows that blacks don't look quite as inky as we've seen on the Galaxy S5. But for more vibrant colours and higher contrast, there's always the X-Reality engine setting to play with.
Why not 2K? It sounds like Sony isn't planning to put a 2K screen on a 5in smartphone anytime soon. Or even its 8in Z3 Tablet Compact. It says it's too hard for the human eye to discern the difference. Now, if you've got eyes like Stuff's trained pixel hunters then you can see more detail in video, images and ebooks on 2K screens than regular 1080p ones. But that's side by side with exactly the same high def content. For most people, we agree with Sony that a 424ppi display is plenty of pixels for your peepers to compute.
As we've seen with the 2K LG G3 and the Oppo Find 7 and 7a, there is a trade-off between resolution and battery life too. Rather than gamble on 2K and fewer hours between charges, Sony's gone and upped the battery life on the Z3.
READ MORE: LG G3 - Stuff's no.1 smartphone - reviewed
Two day battery life
Like the Z3 Compact, the Z3's battery percentage indicator barely budged in the half an hour we were trying it out. No surprise then that Sony claims both smartphones will last two days of 'regular use'.
Skeptical? So were we. There's a smaller 3100mAh battery (versus the Z2's 3200mAh unit) for starters. A brighter screen too. And Sony reckons the Z3 will last two days when the Z2 lasts 1.4 and the Z1 lasts 1.2 days?
Sony puts the extra efficiency down to two things - the Snapdragon 801 processor, here clocked at 2.5GHz but also present in the Xperia Z2. And a new screen technology that it's developed which retains the memory of whatever is on the screen meaning less reloading and more efficiency. It doesn't have a catchy name like Sony's other screen technologies but we looking forward to putting the Z3 through its paces. The only true two day flagship we've tested is last year's brilliant LG G2 - if it can match that (which the G3 doesn't) we'll be very, very impressed.
Nosing around the settings, Stamina mode returns with a Samsung and HTC-style monochrome-screened, ultra power saving mode absent. Though it's worth noting that the above test times are without Stamina turned on. Any bets on how long we can get a Z3 to last for with this turned on? 2.7 days anyone?
As for performance, we didn't see a single stutter in our short time moving around homescreens, browsers and galleries. There's no real lag on the Xperia Z2 so this isn't a surprise and the Z3 is clocked slightly higher with a 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM.
That stocking-smooth experience is of course helped by Android 4.4 KitKat which, again, isn't too heavily trussed up by Sony. Its recommendation widgets remain as do the Walkman app and Movies and Music services plus you can make the most of the 5.2in screen with floating 'small app' windows. Expect to see more of Sony's cross-platform lifelogging app er, Lifelog, too as it debuts on its new Android Wear device the SmartWatch 3. Overall, it's a lean Android skin that doesn't get too annoying.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
More after the break...
Camera: stop me if you've heard this before
When the Xperia Z2's 20.7MP camera was one of the best we've seen on a smartphone..
No, really. All that Sony needed to do was make the best better and it's done so with choice tweaks. There's a new 25mm G lens for wide angle shots and improved SteadyShot for video. The idea is to put an end to shaky footage so you can compete with Hyperlapsers on iOS for smooth video when moving about - it worked well when we demo'd it by running with the Z3 versus wobble-tastic standard video.
Its main focus though is making the Xperia Z3 the low-light photography king as the sensor now has light sensitivity up to IS0 12800. By comparison most phones will go up to ISO 800 or so before giving up.
We had a quick 'go' of taking a picture by pointing the Z3's lens into a completely closed off, dark box in Low Light mode and the results were pretty jaw-dropping. This Xperia's been eating its carrots.
Now, as with the Z2 there are some caveats and you do need to learn your way around Sony's camera app to get the best out of it. For instance, in manual mode you get maximum ISO of 3200 and for video its 2000. Just as certain resolutions - such as 20.7MP - are only available in manual mode. It's one to spend some time with but once you do the images are mind-blowing.
Superior Auto mode is still there and is still brilliant but until we get a final device in to test, we'd be surprised if the LG G3 and iPhone 5s don't stay on top for point and shoot photos as sometimes the Xperia Z2 just doesn't quite get the shot every time.
To fill out the features sheet, Sony has thrown in some more of its hit and miss social camera apps. The best of these is the blogger-friendly live broadcasting to YouTube feature, following on from live broadcasting to Facebook in past Xperia phones. But there's also Face In to add a selfie bubble to shots, AR fun which gives you more effects to layer onto pics and Multi Camera which lets you combine up to three smartphones or accessories (like the QX10 lens) to stitch together different angles of one scene.
Audiophiles, listen up
LG got there first with hi-res audio but Sony will no doubt own it.
That's because Xperia smartphones have been our favourite Androids for sound quality when listening to decent quality tracks for a while now, even given the iPhone a run for its money as a music player. So the addition of hi-res audio capabilities makes perfect sense. Sure, there's not a whole lot of places to get the files but once you do, you're laughing.
Sony's also pushing its own DSEE HX engine promising to uprate your lower quality MP3s to near high resolution, focusing on the higher frequencies - this is available as a setting when listening through the Walkman app. We'll give this a closer listen very soon but we're generally cautious when it comes to tech that magically improves the quality of files - as we are with upscaling to 4K.
The front-facing stereo speakers sound OK but won't trouble the One (M8) on a first listen. There's always Sony headphones to take advantage of the Z3's digital noise cancelling - you don't hear the hum of the aeroplane and you don't need to charge your 'phones. It's not new to the Z3 but it is clever.
The only phone you can play PS4 games on
We saved the best to last but sadly PS4 Remote Play is another feature we haven't had a chance to test out on the Xperia Z3 yet. Stay tuned throughout the IFA show, though, as we're making a beeline for a second play as we type.
Because it's a genuinely exciting feature borrowed, of all places, from the much underhyped PS Vita. It allows Z3 smartphones and tablets to play real PS4 games over Wi-Fi when your PS4 console is turned on or on standby. You play using a DualShock 4 controller which can be used with a mount or alternatively you can prop the Xperia Z3 or 8in Z3 Tablet Compact up to see the screen.
It's best over your home Wi-Fi network - the example Sony gives is if your kids want to watch something on the telly, you can continue playing upstairs on the Z3. But Sony also says it is possible to connect to another Wi-Fi network outside your house though there's no guarantee of the experience.
The feature may come to other Xperias like the Z2 and Z2 Tablet but unsurprisingly Sony has zero plans to extend Remote Play outside the Xperia family. Quite right too as finally Sony's promise of a real ecosystem is coming together with Exmor sensors in smartphones, NFC in 160 of its products and now this brilliant PS4/Xperia mash-up.
READ MORE: Long term test - PS4 review
Sleeker, sexier and more capable than any Xperia flagship to date, the Z3 might be the smartphone that proves Sony's formula.
OK it can't continue pumping out an iteration of its best smartphone every six months but Sony itself admits this won't be forever. Just till it gets on top, we'd wager.
For everyone apart from Z2 owners, it's a great thing that Sony is continuing to improve its flagship device in every way, listening to criticism and innovating in areas largely ignored by the other tech giants.
For PS4 owners with no Android allegiance, Remote Play makes the decision for you. For audiophiles aleady smitten with the Sony sound, the futureproof hi-res capabilities do the same. And if that two day battery life is true then Sony will have won the 2K argument fair and square.
This is a smartphone that deserves attention. It's supremely specced in all the right places and shows that Sony does care about how people use its gadgets. And it may just be the best all-rounder you can buy.