Sony's Xperia Z2, launched this April, was a mere nip and tuck away from smartphone perfection. But in the cut-and-thrust world of high-end smartphones, coming close just isn't good enough, and in the final reckoning we preferred the HTC One (M8) and LG G3.
The good news for Sony is that just six months later it's having another go at it. And the good news for the smartphone-buying public is that the Xperia Z3 solves many of the problems of its predecessor while also adding a few genuinely unique features.
So while it may at first glance look like a mere incremental upgrade over the Z2, make no mistake: the Z3 is the real deal.
Which one's the new one?
On first unboxing the Z3 you'll suspect someone's just stuck a new logo on the Z2.
But look a little closer and you'll notice a few tweaks that 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'. It takes getting one in your hand to really appreciate it.
The aluminium and tempered glass OmniBalance design now has rounded sides and, while the body is still angular and doesn'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 wants OmniBalance to be iconic the way a BMW or Mercedes design is, even at the expense of comfort - but this time 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 just 152g - that's 11g less than the Z2 - and is skinnier too at a mere 7.3mm. Throw in the fact that that it's ever so slightly smaller in height and width terms and you have a phone that feels less like a big, heavy block of a tech and more like a standard premium flagship. Yes, it's a big phone with a 5.2in screen but it's not overly wide in the hand compared to, say, a Galaxy Note 3.
The flaps hiding the microUSB, SIM and microSD slots are smaller, rounded and more refined and even though the top and bottom bezels still look a teensy bit retro, the bezels either side of the screen are now slimmer.
With all that glass you might be worried about smashing it but Sony has added new nylon caps to the corners. It says handsets are most likely to be dropped on corners, so replacing the old aluminium edges is designed to make the Z3 more durable. Sure enough, while we were testing the Z3's camera, we dropped it (on purpose, of course. Maybe). Apart from a small scuff on the top left cap, the Z3 survived as flawless as before.
Another 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. You can't use the screen properly when it's wet but 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) with a new higher dust resistance too.
Over the course of our testing we've managed to play around with a few Z3s. The white model was our favourite - it's less reflecty outdoors than the black model. There are also two new colours in the form of copper and silver green. Hey, at least it's not pink.
Screen: 5.2in 1920x1080 (424ppi) Processor: 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad core RAM: 3GBOS: Android 4.4 KitKat Storage: 16GB/32GB (+microSD) Battery: 3100mAhCamera: 20.7MP, 1080p/4K video rear, 2.2MP front, 1080p videoConnectivity: Wi-Fi, 3G/4G, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC Dimensions: 146 x 72 x 7.3mmWeight: 152g
In defence of 1080p
Given that the Xperia Z2's screen is one of the best we've ever laid eyes on, we're not going to complain that Sony's pretty much left it alone.
It's 20% brighter than the Z2's screen - 600 candela, fact fans - and it really does help when you're looking at the screen outdoors as the front of the Z3 can be very reflective in direct sunlight, particularly the black model.
It has the same full HD resolution and is unsurprisingly as sharp and punchy as the Z2. Deep blacks don't quite rival those on the Galaxy S5 but are still impressive and text looks crisp and clean.
The X-Reality setting returns to pump up colours further still as well as improving contract and sharpness - fine if you want to wow friends with photos but we'd rather keep it turned off. Even more Samsung-like is the new Super-vivid mode. Scroll through the preloaded Sony World Photography Awards with this turned on for hyper-real hues. Both are unnecessary, as colours look really vibrant on the Sony, more so than the more natural-looking LG G3; which you prefer comes down to personal preference.
But the screen isn't exactly the same. This time around, Sony's preset white balance makes webpages, games and movies look too blue. We played around with the sliders until we got it just right but considering that Sony makes such an effort with its display tech, we'd prefer this to be perfect out of the box.
Why not 2K? Sony says it's too hard for the human eye to discern the difference, and seemingly isn't planning to put a 2K screen on a 5in smartphone anytime soon. Or even on its 8in Z3 Tablet Compact.
Now, if you've got eyes like Stuff's trained pixel hunters then you'll know that on the contrary it is possible to discern more detail in video, images and ebooks on 2K screens than regular 1080p ones.
We viewed it side-by-side with the LG G3 and whether displaying hi-res pics of spices or crisper detail and textures such as fur and snow in 1080p nature vids, the G3's bigger 5.5in 2560x1440 screen made its extra pixels known.
However, while there is a difference, it's not going to affect your day-to-day enjoyment of the device. For many people, the Z3's 424ppi display offers plenty of pixels for your peepers to compute.
As we've seen with the 2K LG G3 and the Oppo Find 7 and Find 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.
This battery goes and goes ... and goes
Battery life was the one thing we really wanted to test on the Xperia Z3. Why? Because to justify the lack of a 2K screen Sony has been throwing around bold claims that both the Z3 and Z3 Compact last two days of regular use. Now, looking in more detail at Sony's tests, it puts this two days as five hours per day of intensive messaging, gaming, web etc.
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 in the same conditions as those in which the Z2 lasts 1.4 and the Z1 lasts 1.2 days.
Well, it's time to set aside your cynicism - because the Z3 has the best battery life of any smartphone we've seen in a long time.
We haven't got it to two days on one charge yet but that's probably because we've been hammering it night and day. And since we received our test units, we've averaged a day and a half out of it without any of its (many) Stamina and battery saving modes turned on, largely thanks to the fact its standby juice-saving is brilliant.
It was even more impressive in our battery rundown, clocking just under 14 hours (13 hours 52 minutes to be exact) on our 720p video loop with Wi-Fi on and half brightness. Now, it's worth noting that the Xperia Z2 managed 12 and a half hours in the same rundown so it's not a huge difference on playback alone, but in regular use it's certainly enough to get you four or five extra hours on top of an already excellent battery life. The LG G3, in comparison, lasted for 9 hours 25 on the same test.
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 display 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 it seems to be doing the trick. The only true two-day flagship we've tested is last year's brilliant LG G2 and the Xperia Z3 comes very close to matching it.
Nosing around the settings, Stamina mode returns and Sony follows Samsung and HTC's lead with an Ultra Stamina mode. There's no Wi-Fi or data connection when you're in this mode, but otherwise it looks spot-on for festivals with phone, messaging, camera, contacts, alarm, clock, calculator, FM radio, settings and Bluetooth. Everything is still in colour, unlike rivals, and though there's no music playback and it takes 30 seconds or so to make the switch, it estimated seven days on 34%, so we can't argue with that.
A smartphone cam for enthusiasts
Given that the Xperia Z2's 20.7MP camera is one of the best we've ever laid eyes on, we're not going to complain that…
Now, as with the Z2 your love of the Z3's camera really does depend how much time you're willing to spend with it; you do need to learn your way around Sony's camera app and settings to get the best out of it. For instance, in manual mode you get maximum ISO of 3200 and for video it's 2000. Just as certain resolutions - such as 20.7MP - are only available in manual mode. Settings are also greyed out depending on what resolution and ratio you select. So it's one to spend some time with, but once you get the hang of it the images you take can be spectacular. Pics are very, very detailed, allowing you to zoom in on textures and comfortably crop scenes.
Superior Auto mode is still present and it's still quick to switch between modes, but it's also still hit and miss (particularly on exposure) for getting that shot every time. Together with the fact that the Z3 isn't the fastest shot-to-shot, partly down to processing, the likes of the LG G3 and iPhone 6 stay on top for reliable on-the-fly snapping. One more quick moan - why is the lens still right in the top corner precisely where our fat fingers might cover it when snapping in landscape, Sony?
To fill out the features sheet, Sony has thrown in some more of its 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 on to pics, and Multi Camera - which lets you combine up to three smartphones or accessories (such as the QX10 lens) to stitch together different angles of one scene.
Another nice touch is Highlights Movies which the Z3 creates automatically after a day out taking stills and video. HTC's very similar Video Highlights feature, which debuted on the HTC One, is slicker, enabling you to add footage and images you prefer rather than just remove duds as Sony allows. But you can swap the music within the small selection and export as an MP4 file when you're finished.
Fast, Smooth and Always Tracking
Sony's added plenty of features - some useful, some gimmicky - to its camera app. The Z3's Android skin, though, stays relatively free of these quirkier additions.
As ever there's lot of pre-installed Sony guff but this can be easily removed. Once you've taken care of that, Android 4.4.4 KitKat looks clean and easy to navigate, with Sony extras such as Walkman and Movies Unlimited present.
This time around, though, Sony has changed the layout of these built-in services slightly to push users into buying films from Movies Unlimited or, in our case, renewing a lapsed subscription to its Spotify-rival Music Unlimited. Sign-in details for all its services, such as PlayMemories for photos in Album, now appear in the top-left corner of settings. Great if you want to plunge headfirst into Sony's excellent ecosystem - PlayMemories is a great deal because it's basically free cloud storage - but really irritating if you just want to be left alone.
The real main addition to apps is Lifelog, which we really like. This slick life-tracking app displays a timeline of your day with colourful icon bubbles for each activity. You can 'play back' your day to see the figure move and it even shows a bus graphic when it knows you've been in transit. It's all a bit like stalking a cartoon of yourself, and is as fun as that sounds.
The usual steps, distance and calorie tracking are here but it also records browsing, gaming and viewing habits on the phone itself with graphs and goals for both. For fitness, this all-in app is great with day, week, month and year views and the ability to sync to Sony's GPS-enabled SmartWatch 3 when that arrives. For everything else, perhaps its good to log your mobile Netflix addiction for posterity?
As for performance, it's flawless. We're running calendar widgets over 1080p videos, using Sony's small apps function and much more, all without a hitch. Downloads of everything from Spotify playlists to big Android games over Wi-Fi and 4G are fast. And moving around KitKat is just dreamy. With an AnTuTu benchmark score of 41,357, beating the LG G3, and a decent SunSpider 1.0.2 score of 855.4ms, it's no surprise that the now slightly higher clocked 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 and 3GB RAM equal zero lag in use.
In fact, the only niggle is that the phone heats up when overworked. Not a problem when gaming but it does restrict filming in 4K to one-to-two-minute bursts.
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 for a while now, giving 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 by focusing on the higher frequencies - this is available as a setting when listening through the Walkman app.
The front-facing stereo speakers sound clear and loud - not like the small, tinny sound we're used to from smartphones. We still prefer the HTC One (M8) for an impromptu blast of Spotify, though, and when the Z3's speakers are on full blast, the back vibrates rather worryingly. It's not nearly as bad as the Galaxy S5 but turn the sound up when playing Real Racing 3 and you'll really feel it.
In terms of audiophile accessories, there's Sony headphones to take advantage of the Z3's digital noise cancelling. Travellers won't hear the hum of the aeroplane and won't need to charge their 'phones, making it a neat trick if you're willing to pay a bit extra. It's not new to the Z3 but it is clever.
The phone you can play PS4 games on
We saved potentially 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. It will, however, be coming to the Z3 in October, so look out for an update.
It's a genuinely exciting feature borrowed, of all places, from the much underhyped PS Vita. It allows Z3 series 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 up the Xperia Z3 or 8in Z3 Tablet Compact to see the screen.
It's best over your home Wi-Fi network. The example Sony gives is if the kids want to watch something on the telly while gamer parents 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 and we'd be surprised if this takes off.
The feature may come to other Xperias such as the Z2 and Z2 Tablet in time, but 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 mobile, camera and AV devices and now this brilliant PS4/Xperia mash-up.
Sony Xperia Z3 Verdict
Sleeker, sexier and more capable than any Sony handset to date, the Z3 is the smartphone that proves Sony's formula - namely not to compromise on quality in any area. Not on screen. Or camera. Or battery life. Or audio.
It's the anti-Samsung Galaxy. There's no gimmicks. Sony doesn't need them because it seems to understand more and more how we use its smartphones.
It's listened to criticism and made the Z3 lighter, slightly smaller and easier to hold than the Z2. At the same time it's innovating in oft-ignored areas such as hi-res audio and hardcore gaming. But it's far from just niche and the genuinely brilliant battery life is for everyone.
OK, Xperia Z2 owners will be grumpy and rightfully so. It can't continue pumping out an iteration of its best phone every six months but Sony itself admits this won't be forever. Just till it gets on top, we'd bet.