Review: Sony Xperia Z3

Sony has an Android problem. For years now the consumer electronics giant has been making some truly head-turning hardware loaded with Google’s mobile OS. When it comes to actually using the hardware, though, things almost always go south. It seems Sony just can’t help itself from making the same mistakes over and over.

The Xperia Z3 is its latest almost-great phone. On paper, the it looks like a gem. You’ve got a 5.2-inch 1080p display (424 ppi), a 20.7-megapixel camera capable of shooting 4K video, Qualcomm’s super-quick 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, not two but three gigabytes of RAM, a 3100mAh battery, dual front-facing speakers, and sure, what the hell, let’s make it waterproof to a depth of 5 feet for up to half an hour, too. There aren’t many phones out there with a rap sheet as bad as that.

With the screen off, it looks like a polished black slab—both front and back. Around the sides is a solid, gently rounded aluminum chassis. Up top is a headphone jack (yes, it’s waterproof). On the right-hand side, you’ll find the door covering the micro SD card slot, the silver power button, the volume rocker, and lastly, the physical shutter button for the camera. (All phones should have a physical shutter button.)

When it comes to speed, you won’t have any complaints. Sony went through a long phase where it used great processors, but bad software slowed everything down. That seems to be one thing they’ve solved because this thing absolutely screams. I don’t see any hesitation while flipping between home screens, app and folders fly open, and everything seems to move as fast as your finger.

As for sights and sounds, the screen is very bright and I almost never had any difficulty reading it outdoors. The colors are rich, too. The Z3 doesn’t have those super inky blacks that we love on AMOLED displays, though, and at times it looks a bit gray and flat.

I was excited about the dual front-facing speakers (a la the HTC One M8), but while they’re fairly loud and nice for gaming, they’re not very clear. Music sounds distorted and unbalanced, and things can be grating at full volume. In contrast, both the HTC One M8 and the new Moto X (which only has one true front-facing speaker) are louder and better sounding.

The camera is finicky too. Sometimes, when there’s enough light, it produces rich, vivid, and sharp photos that absolutely make you salivate. Two seconds later, you can take almost the exact same shot, and it’ll be washed out with bland colors. The camera app isn’t particularly user-friendly, either. Settings seem to be placed at random within the menu, and you can’t access most of them until you change out of auto mode.

Speaking of camera modes, there are over a dozen, although they take the form of “camera apps.” That’s where you’ll find useful things like 4K video stashed among other generally useless apps like AR Fun, which overlays dinosaurs and elves onto whatever you’re pointing your camera at.

Battery life is generally solid, too. Sony claims that it has two day battery life. I definitely never saw it get anywhere close to that (the most I ever got was 30 hours), but I’m a heavy user. I will say that most of the time made it well past bedtime without needing a charge, except for when it didn’t. And here’s where things started getting weird.

It seems that there’s got to be a runaway bit of code somewhere in the device, but I have no idea what triggers it. There are days where it seems this phone will never run out of batteries, and then there are days when I notice the phone is running hot and I find myself looking for a charger before 6pm. As far as I can tell, I’m using the phone roughly the same amount, so something must be wrong in there.

Ultimately, even though the software doesn’t cause many slowdowns, it’s still what keeps this from being a great phone. When you compare the UI (i.e. the skin) Sony puts on top of Android to the minimal UI that Motorola is using, or to stock Android, it looks like a convoluted mess.

For proof, just look at my notification panel. All of those are from pre-installed software that came with this phone. Do you see what’s not there? My actual notifications, like for email and text messages. I had to scroll down to find them. Even when there are fewer things on there, it’s still tough to find what you’re looking for because it gets so cluttered.

The apps Sony decides (for some reason) to redo on their own—like the very good stock Android Calendar—universally get worse as well. This is true for the dialer, where the UI has no sense of flow, and the app drawer, where they add a layers of complication to something as simple as adding an app to your desktop. It seems Sony has too much ego caught up in the game and just can’t get out of its own way.

There are stability issues, too. I got an error message after I hadn’t been using my phone, pulled it out, and took five photos. I also get a lot of apps randomly crashing. Sometimes, everything you open instantly crashes, and you have to restart the phone. It’s these layers of annoyance and complication that make it very hard to recommend the Z3 to John and Jane Q Public.

So once again we’re left with an all too familiar story. The Z3 is ostensibly a phone with a lot going for it. It’s a phone I actually really want to love. But once again, the flaws are simply too sizable and numerous to recommend it in good conscience. Here’s to hoping that story will finally change next time.

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