Sony Xperia XZ3 full review
Just six months after the Xperia XZ2 introduced the new Sony smartphone look, the XZ3 refines it by adding a curved edged, curved corner OLED display that borrows from Sony’s Bravia TV range.
This is the best-looking Sony phone for some time, looking equal parts like a Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9 but with a unique glass back that you’ll either love or hate. We still aren’t sure it does enough for us to recommend it over those phones though, despite its high points.
But credit to Sony – it has made a beautiful piece of phone hardware at a reasonable flagship price and improved in key areas. If you dig where it’s coming from, this could be the phone for you.
Sony Xperia XZ3: Price and availability
The Xperia XZ3 costs £699 SIM free in the UK from Sony. This is less than the Galaxy S9 (£739) and Pixel 2 XL (£799) but more than the excellently priced OnePlus 6 (£469).
Odder is the XZ3’s US price of $899. This is very high and puts it above all those phones by some distance. Perhaps this is because Sony struggles to sell phones in the US, but it’s a catch 22 situation if the answer is to make them more expensive.
Sony Xperia XZ3: Design and build
While the XZ3 retains the style of the XZ2, as soon as you pick it up it feels more refined. The new Xperia has a slimmer, slight and well-thought out balance that it didn’t find in the XZ2 and certainly not in the hulking XZ2 Premium.
The design is what Sony, debatably, should have done about two years ago. We were fans of its rectangular designs at Tech Advisor but with Samsung pushing so aggressively forward with the designs of the S6 edge and S8, Sony was left behind a bit.
A Gorilla Glass 5 sandwich with a 33mm aluminium frame, it’s not a light phone at 193g but it feels premium in its density. It keeps its IP68 waterproofing, which is excellent.
It’ll come in four colours: black, white, forest green and Bordeaux red, the latter two particularly standing out.
There are fierce fans who will defend Sony to the hilt, and that’s fine. But as good as the XZ3 looks, its looks come after the curved displays of Samsung and simply exists because of this.
That aside, it is gorgeous. It is marginally less bulbous than the XZ2 and has a subtle glass curve to the back – but it still rocks when on a surface and is a slippy phone that we consistently nearly dropped (though this is true of all glass phones).
It makes the XZ3 thick and very hard to hold without dropping. This is a phone you really might have to use in a case.
We also placed the phone on a tiled floor briefly (without case) and the back immediately and audibly scratched. We can see our lovely forest green review device looking a little worse for wear down the road.
We don’t see a problem with the fingerprint sensor placement. It’s in the middle of the back of the phone, a choice that has been panned. We review a lot of tech and yes, it’s a tad unconventional. But if you buy the phone and keep it for many more months than we might, then you’ll get used to it – it’s not a problem.
There’s a single camera on the back of what is otherwise a slick device, one that also has a dedicated camera button on the right edge. There are also still bezels at the top and bottom of the 6in 18:9 display – but they house stereo front facing speakers. Well done, Sony.
While it’s not a straight up ‘better’ design than before, it feels more modern, a better use of space and a more complete package, with full IP68 water resistance.
Sony Xperia XZ3: Features and specs
Sony’s second shot at a new curved glass design curves the glass in more places than the back, as well as packing in top tier specs.
The standout change of the XZ3 is its OLED display, a first for a Sony phone. It’s a marked change, and blacks looks excellent across the curved corners of the design. The glass also curves down on the left and right edges of the sides, another first on an Xperia device.
It’s a 6in 18:9 QHD+ HDR OLED with no notch (phew), but more simply it’s a big improvement in clarity and colour reproduction compared to even Sony’s best recent phone LCDs.
The difference is noticeable and incredibly impressive, outshining an iPhone X side by side for colour and clarity on video playback. Not only does the XZ3 benefit from the OLED upgrade, it automatically upscales standard definition content closer to HD, with noticeably excellent results. Brightness and detail were very good.
The phone can cleverly auto-upscale most video to the next level of resolution. It's done subtly and you won't notice, but it's great to have on board.
A new feature called side sense is like a mix of Samsung’s edge screen and HTC’s edge sense where you can double tap on the edge of the screen to bring up a menu. You tap on the curved edge of the screen, not the metal frame, and it calls up a box with your most used apps and settings.
Sony says the software will learn your usage of the phone and suggest the most useful apps to you depending on time and location. This seemed to be true, but it didn’t make us use it more, particularly when we actually went to trigger it (correctly with a double tap) and it didn’t work. Often.
It is quite temperamental in the same way edge sense is on the HTC U12+. You can turn it off, and we turned off the swipe down to go back function simply because it was triggered just by gripping the phone in one hand. The palm rejection is not great here, and we got a lot of false inputs.
These features on phones are nice to have, but when they get in the way of actually just using the phone, they are annoying. Often, we’d be reading an article with one hand and the phone would detect a touch incorrectly and go back.
Processor, memory and storage
Better is sheer performance. The Snapdragon 845 also found in the XZ2 is still exceptionally fast in conjunction with Sony’s light Android skin. 4GB RAM keeps things ticking along OK and it doesn’t feel like Sony needed to match the 8GB touted by OnePlus.
64GB storage is your only option for the XZ3 but a microSD card slot can expand up to 512GB.
It’s a complete package, and runs pretty much as fast as the OnePlus 6 and Pixel 2, the two Android phones that set the bar in 2018 for swift performance.
Here are some benchmarks that show how the XZ3 performs against the XZ2 and other phones with similar specs. They are all extremely fast – Geekbench measures processing power, GFXBench graphics and Jetstream browser speeds.
It scores a little lower than the XZ2 on GFXBench, but this due to the improved resolution on the XZ3 – trust us, it’s a better display.
Connectivity and audio
Unfortunately, the nothing other than gimmicky dynamic vibration system is back to weirdly vibrate along to music and films. It works, but it also never needed to exist. It might add something to certain racing or shooting games, but for most situations it’s a big no.
Sony retains the excellent stereo front facing speakers from its older phones, so we can cope with the slight bezel on the phone for that. You also get Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX and Sony’s great audio options.
Some need wired headphones to work (thankfully there’s a headphone dongle in the box) and improves compressed music files and streamed audio. Clear Audio boosts the mids and high ends but is good for some music and tastes, whereas the DSEE HX mode is subtler but positively noticeable.
You can also create surround sound effects. It’s pretty great if you appreciate good audio on a smartphone and it’s good to see Sony, along with LG, still value this.
The single camera on the back is a 19Mp sensor with f/2.0 and photos are the best we’ve ever seen on a Sony Xperia. Finally! Sony has had real trouble replicating the excellence of its actual cameras with the ones on its phones.
This is not the best camera on a phone but images are crisp, and detail and colour reproduction are good in sunlight. On closer inspection there is a lot of noise in shadow and low light and even well-lit indoor shots. The Pixel 2 camera is still leagues ahead here, and we also recommend the cameras on the OnePlus 6 and Huawei P20 Pro over the XZ3.
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You do get 960fps slo-mo video shooting, but you have to tap to capture at the exact right moment or you miss the action. Samsung and OnePlus’s longer shooting systems are preferable
But the camera app is still a bit creaky; you get a preview of the photo you’ve just taken but it’s pixelated heavily, so you are never sure if you have got a good photo or not.
The front facing camera is a 13Mp sensor that does all the selfie work you could dream of – you might want to turn off the beauty modes though. It's also notable that, unlike umpteen rivals, Sony does not include a face unlock option. This is pretty standard on flagship phones now and should be here.
As we have written many times already this year and in years gone by, the battery life of this phone will last you a day. It’s not remarkable, but it’s not under par either. Straight down the middle, good old fashioned one day battery life. That’s it. Pack your charger overnight.
Wireless charging is a nice-to-have, and it uses the Qi standard as most stands and mats do. But it’ll charge faster with the included fast charger.
In the Geekbench battery test with screen brightness set to 120cd/m2, the 3,330mAh battery scored 6 hours 33 minutes. This is a good score considering the high resolution of the OLED screen, and is similar to the OnePlus 6’s score of 6 hours 43 minutes.
Sony Xperia XZ3: Software and apps
Sony doesn’t mess too much with Android, which is great. The best part here is that the XZ3 has Android 9 Pie on release, four days before the Pixel 3 event. It’s the first non-Google phone to have Pie on a stable, non-beta build and it’s great.
Oddly, Sony adds Gallery and Video apps where on the XZ2 it prompted you to use Google Photos, but along with the Xperia bloat pre-installed it’s easy to disable or ignore if you want to.
Another strange addition is raising the phone to wake the camera. It must be landscape and you have to be holding it correctly, but it does work. Sometimes. It seems odd though to strive to include this on a phone that has a dedicated camera button.
Also, with auto rotate on you might find the screen turning to landscape when you place the phone down because of the curved back. It’s not as big a problem as it was on the XZ2, but we did end up locking rotation to portrait.
These annoyances can be looked over such is the strength of the rest of the phone, but it shows that Sony is still ironing out the creases.
The Sony Xperia XZ3 is Sony’s best phone yet, and it’s about time. The display is excellent, the design can hold a candle to Samsung and the camera – while not the best – will be enough for all but the pickiest of pixel peepers.
It still lacks face unlock, and we are sceptical about the camera improvements. Side sense is not stable and raise to wake the camera is a gimmick where simplicity would do.
But it’s pretty complete package and is competitively priced. With Android 9 Pie and great audio features there’s finally reason to plump for Sony again in a crowded market.
Sony Xperia XZ3: Specs
- Android 9 Pie
- 6.0In OLED QHD+ HDR
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB storage, microSD up to 512GB
- 19Mp f/2.0 main camera, 4K HDR recording
- 13Mp f/1.9 front camera
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Nano-SIM (single or dual)
- 3300mAh battery
- 158 x 73 x 9.9mm