Apple has its ecosystem. Samsung has its near-perfect design. Google and Huawei have their clever camera tech. OnePlus has its irresistible price of entry.
Sony? Well, Sony is a company that, all things being equal, should be firing out top-notch smartphones like Madhur Jaffrey does cakes. In reality, that hasn't quite happened.
This time, then, the company knows it has to make a statement. The XZ3, which arrives only six months after the XZ2, is the first Xperia smartphone to sport an OLED panel.
Big whoop, you might think. Loads of flagship blowers have been OLED-equipped for a while now. But Sony is using its Bravia TV know-how to create a display it reckons makes it one to rival anything on the market right now.
There’s also HTC-esque squeezable sides as well as a handful of other incremental upgrades - but do these enhancements equate to a phone you finally want to buy?
Design: Glass act
Luckily for the butter-fingered among you, both front and back are made of sturdy Gorilla Glass 5, and there’s an aluminum frame running around the phone to give it a bit of extra protection. Sony says the handset is 40% tougher than its predecessor, despite looking quite similar.
The absence of a notch has oddly become quite a refreshing quality in a smartphone, but if you’re picking up the XZ3 you’ll need to be comfortable with what are fairly substantial bezels in this day and age. While it’s not a deal-breaker for me, I do wish they were a bit thinner.
I like the shimmery mirrored back too, although the blue model I tested really picks up prints, so be prepared for a lot of t-shirt wiping.
Another slight design quirk comes (quite literally) in the shape of the rear-mounted circular fingerprint sensor, which is placed just under the also circular camera lens.
This rather unnatural placement and similar feel means you don’t always know exactly what you’re jabbing at, and makes me long for the day when every new smartphone has an in-display scanner.
Display: OLED by example
By far the biggest addition to Sony’s premium line is an OLED screen. Specifically, the XZ3 is rocking a 6in 18:9 QHD+ OLED panel - and it shows.
So confident in the performance of its display were the Sony suits demoing the phone, that they challenged everyone in attendance to watch a side-by-side trailer for Tom Hardy’s upcoming Venom movie. Against my iPhone X (once I’d turned off TrueTone) I’d tentatively lean towards the XZ3 having slightly more vivid colours, but I’d need to test that a lot more before making any definitive claims.
What I can say for certain is that it’s a lovely screen to behold, the reds and blacks of Spider-Man’s suit in the latest trailer for his imminent PlayStation game looking particularly great.
Like its predecessor, the XZ3 supports HDR, and it can upscale any SDR content to near HDR when called upon. In theory, that should result in higher contrast and punchier colour for whatever you happen to binging on the train to work. Again though, we need to have the phone in our hands for longer to know how it stacks up against its direct rivals.
The XZ3 is also equipped X-Reality for mobile, Sony’s own processing wizard that supposedly gives you an enhanced, less noisy picture. We weren’t hugely fond of it last time, so it’ll be interesting to see if anything has changed.
Cameras: Face the facts
Contrary to what the rumour mill had us believe, the XZ3 hasn’t inherited the XZ2 Premium’s dual camera setup. Sony has instead opted to stick with its sizeable, but singular, 19MP Motion Eye snapper on the rear.
It’s pretty much identical to the XZ2’s camera. You can still shoot 4K HDR video, while there’s plenty of fun to be had with the 960FPS super slow-mo mode too.
There is, however, a potentially handy new AI feature called Smart Launch. Say you’re walking home and a rather elegant urban fox trots along the road. Ordinarily, by the time you’re able to boot your phone’s camera for a quick snap Mr. Fox will already have nosedived into the nearest bin. With Smart Launch, though, just hold the XZ3 out horizontally and it knows you want to take a picture, straight away launching the camera app.
Well, that’s the idea. It’s important to note that the XZ3 I saw isn’t the finished product, so expect software kinks to be ironed out before it’s in shops. But on my unit at least the feature was far from reliable. Sometimes it only worked after several attempts, by which time I could have just done it manually and snapped a selfie of my excited fox face for good measure.
While it's business as usual on the rear, then, the front camera has received a spec bump. It’s now a 13MP f/1.9 lens that’ll take those bokeh-tastic selfies that every flagship has to have these days. A redesigned UI is intended to make additional modes like this easier to hop between too.
Naturally, you can also create an animated 3D scan of your mush, because why should Apple and Samsung fans get all of the (short-lived) fun.
Features: Bit on the side
Side Sense is the XZ3’s new machine-learning functionality. To activate it, you tap either side of the screen twice, which brings up a menu of your most-used apps. To go back, you simply slide down.
It’s customisable, and over time the phone will know your favourite apps and when you’re most likely to want them.
Problem is - and again, bear in mind that I didn’t use the final version of the phone’s software - I found it to be a bit awkward and temperamental.
I definitely got better at finding the sweet spot, but far too often it was unresponsive, despite my increasingly aggressive tapping. Worse still, more than once I activated it by accident.
When it does work, though, it’s a useful feature, and one I could definitely see myself using when on the move. Watch this space.
Not everyone was a fan of the XZ2’s Dynamic Vibrations feature, which makes the device vibrate in sync with whatever’s happening on screen, DualShock style. Gimmicky and not entirely necessary? You could make the argument. But as a gamer I quite like the feedback, and I’m glad it’s back for the XZ3.
The S-Force Front Surround speakers, meanwhile, are apparently 20% louder than the previous model, and they weren't exactly quiet to begin with. Thumbs up.
Performance: Steady as she goes
With the XZ3 rocking the same Snapdragon 845 processor with 4GB as last year, there isn’t a whole lot to report here. Put simply, it’s lightning quick and I defy the most hardcore multi-tasker to to slow it down.
At 3330 mAh, the battery is slightly above the XZ2 and slightly below its premium counterpart. We’ll need to put it through its paces before judging once and for all, but Sony's battery tech and power saving modes are good at making its phones hang in there as long as possible.
Sony Xperia XZ3 first impressions
The move to OLED does feel like a bit of a game-changer for Sony’s Xperia flagship. I’m not quite ready to proclaim it a screen champion, but the improvements are immediately noticeable. And the curved edges only improve the experience.
The other new features I’m not so sure about, for now at least. Side Sense, while undoubtedly a good idea, didn’t convince me during my hands-on, and it was the same story with the Smart Launch camera trick.
I think the camera is going to be totally fine for most people, but it’s just not as exciting what the likes of Huawei and Google are doing.
I should also repeat that if you’re only interested in all-screen phones in 2018, The XZ3’s bezels probably won’t endear themselves to you.
Still, as incremental as its upgrades might be, I enjoyed my time Sony’s zippy handset and cI’m really looking forward to giving it a proper workout as soon as we get our hands on the finished product.