Sony Xperia XZ3 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Sony Xperia XZ3 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Sony is on a wicked update track with its Xperia XZ line of flagship phones. Just three months ago, I took a look at and reviewed the Sony Xperia XZ2, a phone I felt was overpriced but also offered an incredibly compelling alternative to the modern flagship. It had a portly but comfortable high-quality body, flat display, a sizable chin and forehead, and a no-frills camera experience. All of this won me over, and I used the phone daily for six months.

But Sony is already back with its third flagship device of 2018 – the Sony Xperia XZ3 – and while many other OEMs release at least two flagships a year, they typically tailor them to different markets or offer some sort of differing experience – Sony does almost none of that. The Sony Xperia XZ3 offers a lot of substantial improvements over the Xperia XZ2, but in other ways, the two are nearly interchangeable. Is this the Sony flagship some have been waiting years for or is it a continuation of what some have felt as Sony losing its identity in exchange for familiarity for new users. Let us explore this in our review of the Sony Xperia XZ3.

XDA VIDEO OF THE DAY
Device Name: Sony Xperia XZ3 (US Version) Price USD $900
Android Version Sony Xperia UI w/Android 9.0 Pie (August 2018 patch) Display 6.0-inch 18:9 QHD+ (1440×2880) P-OLED HDR Display, TRILUMINOS Display, X-Reality Engine, SDR>HDR Upconverting, Dynamic Vibration System, Gorilla Glass 5
Chipset Snapdragon 845 4x 2.8Ghz Kryo 835 & 4x 1.8Ghz Kryo 835; Adreno 630 GPU Sensors Fingerprint, Accelerometer, G-sensor, Electronic Compass, Gyroscope, Proximity, Ambient Light Sensor, RGB
RAM 4GB LPDDR4X Battery 3,300mAh; USB-PD; Wireless Fast Charging
Storage 64GB Internal + Expandable Micro SD Connectivity USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C; Bluetooth 5.0 (aptX and AptX HD);  NFC; GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo; Dual nano-SIM slot
Rear Camera 19MP Sony IMX400 1/2.3″Exmor RS, f/2.0, 25mm G Lens, 1.22 µm pixel size, EIS, Sony Steady Shot Intellgent Active; 4K 30FPS / 1080p 960FPS video / 1080p & 4k HDR rec.2020 Front Camera 13MP 1/3.06″ Exmor RS, f/1.9, 5-Axis EIS, 23mm Lens, 1080p 30FPS video
Dimensions
& Weight
158mm x 73mm x 9.9mm
6.81 ounces (193g)

Sony Xperia XZ3 Design and Display

I had mentioned earlier the Xperia XZ3 offers some substantial improvements over the XZ2, but if both are sitting on a desk you would be hard-pressed to tell which is the newer phone. Both are sleek black all-glass handsets, both feature a single centered horizontal rear shooter and mid-placed fingerprint sensor, and both have 18:9 ratio displays with the Sony logo beneath them.

Design

The phone still retains its black slab appearance, the Sony logo is still present on the chin, and a large, unhidden camera cutout is to the right of the centered earpiece. Flip the phone over and the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor is still a little too low, and a little too close to the camera sensor – although I feel the majority vastly over-blow this issue. The Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 9 both have poorly mounted sensors too close to their cameras as well, but you rarely hear complaints. It isn’t until you pick up the Xperia XZ3 that you notice the improvements over the XZ2, though. Gone is the flat display, matte side-rail, and very-rounded back – the things that made the XZ2 unique, in my opinion. That said, unique does not mean perfect and as much as I still like the in-hand girth the outgoing model offers, the Xperia XZ3 is nearly perfectly balanced and designed, and is one of the very best feeling phones – period. The rounded back is less so this time, making it fit into your hand even more perfectly and comfortably. It also allows the phone to sit almost flat on a table and stop the spinning the XZ2 would seemingly do on any surface. The back still curves to the sides, but it has been refined and has an aluminum railing with the junction of glass and metal being nearly perfect and the new gloss sides give the phone a polished, near-fully-glass look and feel. In black, this is the ‘perfectly-tailored tuxedo’ of smartphones.

The ports and buttons are still in the predictable Sony locations, with the USB-C and microphone along the bottom, volume, power, and two-step camera button on the right, the multipurpose SIM/SD tray on the top along with another microphone, and a totally barren left side. The volume rocker is about the same height as on the XZ2 which means it is not at the extreme top of the phone. I like this little quality of life change as so many manufacturers move all the buttons farther up when their device grows taller. Sony still is omitting the 3.5mm headphone jack, something I think we need to just get used to, given that I feel 2019 will be largely jack-free. In the box you do get a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter and a pair of really cheap asymmetrical 3.5mm Sony earbuds. Much like almost all recent Sony flagships, the XZ3 features IP65/68 certification protecting you from water activities.

Around the front is where Sony focused its biggest change. Gone is the old trusty flat-and-square 5.7-inch 2160x1080p LCD and in its place is the new 6.0-inch P-OLED 2880x1440p panel with curved edges and rounded corners. On the XZ2 I applauded it for its throwback to the old days of flat displays and squared corners, and I still feel that way – it is superior. But Sony finally folded to the competition like that from Huawei and Samsung, which are pushing curved displays harder, and although it looks fantastic there are some functionality issues I will discuss shortly.

The phone is a bit larger than the XZ2 in nearly every dimension but comes in 5 grams lighter and it’s strangely noticeable. Where the XZ2 almost felt like a compact device, the Xperia XZ3 feels a lot more like the Huawei and Samsung devices it is imitating. Despite this, it does feel narrower in hand thanks to the curved display and better curve to the back. I wish Sony would have kept this phone at 5.7-inches, but they might have felt they needed to push it to 6-inches to offset the lost area due to the rounded corners and screen curves. It isn’t my preference for sure, but the phone does look a lot more competitive this year. It is also worth noting that the XZ3 improved 5% in the screen-to-body ratio to a respectable but not ground-breaking 80.5%. That 80.5% is quite the feat considering the XZ3 retains its dual front firing speaker setup from the XZ2. For reference, this falls between the Pixel 3 (77.2%) and Pixel 3 XL (82.8%), but still far short of the Galaxy S9 (83.6%) and Galaxy s9+ (84.2%).

Overall the Xperia XZ3 is a refinement on the XZ2 design language. People who hated the in-hand feel of the XZ2 might be more at home with this year’s more-reserved and mainstream feel. The way the back blends into the sides and around the front is beautiful and it is indeed a well-crafted phone, but I cannot help feel that Sony lost a bit of itself with the curved and rounded display. No longer being a stand-out it falls right into form with the rest of the market feeling largely like a better-designed Galaxy S9+, which isn’t a bad thing. In my opinion, the XZ3 is the best-feeling phone on the market in terms of weight, size, and usability, and matches those ergonomics with a stellar design. While I have the black model here, the Bordeaux Red, White Silver, and Forest Green look even better now that Sony has followed another common trend, that of having black front panels regardless of back color.

Display

The first question a lot of us had when we heard the XZ3 features an OLED panel was whether it was a Samsung or LG panel. Initial reports rumored that it was an in-house display produced by JDI, however, recent information points to an agreement between Sony and LG, through which the latter produces panels for the former. Being that this is a P-OLED panel and LG is the primary producer of panels with this technology, I am inclined to believe LG is indeed the producer of this display.

Unlike almost all other Sony flagships, Premium series aside, the XZ3 finally moves the display resolution up to QHD+ like many other flagships on the market. This move was almost required as if they would have retained a 1080p resolution on OLED it would have lowered their effective resolution due to losses from the pentile subpixel arrangement. This is not always a terrible thing, the OnePlus 6 and Huawei flagships from last year made do with it just fine, but it is still a change some would have found noticeable and for a company that hangs its hat on display quality – they needed to go with the best.

In addition to the move to OLED, Sony is now using a curved panel much like Huawei and Samsung phones. In my opinion, this was a mistake as they are taking their first swing at a curved panel on their flagship without allowing time to work through things like palm rejection. The best way to describe the performance of these edges is “first-gen Samsung” curves, like the Galaxy S6 or Galaxy S7 edge, and it is bad. Swiping things from the edges can be a chore because there are two things fighting you. Firstly, the edge where your palm is does not reject the pressure causing it to reject most other gestures. Secondly, the screen curves are harsh with some UI elements not properly extending beyond the curve. One of the most notorious applications is the Google Play Store, and dragging out the sidebar requires a firm and dedicated press and swipe to react. Similarly, Sync for Reddit has its sidebar beyond the curve and I cannot tell you how many posts I have accidentally hidden entries due to this issue. Samsung has worked out screen curves over 5 generations, finally landing with the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 9. These phones curves have been refined to the point where you can complain about the look or feel, but actual real-world limitations and annoyances have been extremely limited and are almost non-existent. It is never a good idea to test new hardware revisions on your only flagship, Samsung released dual versions for 3 generations to work these sorts of issues out.

One of the most common concerns with OLED displays as of late has been black crush. Last year, both Samsung and Google had issues struggling with the ability to properly display the full range of black colors. This is more pronounced while watching dark movies on the Galaxy S9 I could clearly see where the slow drop off to black just stopped causing clipping. The Pixel 2 also had this issue and it made me get rid of my Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL because this actually occurred on the home screen. Fortunately, the XZ3 does a great job in my testing. I took a home theater reference image you can find here and opened it in the default photo viewer on each phone. I then maxed out the brightness and tried various color modes to see which performed the best. For the Sony, I found that regardless of color mode I could see down to box #3 where it was barely perceptible. The iPhone XS Max can go all the way to box #1, OnePlus 6 matches the Sony with box #3, and the Pixel 3 still struggles with crushing or clipping the blacks at box #7 in Natural and Boosted and going down to #4 in the poor looking Adaptive mode. Overall, I do not think that black clipping is an issue on the XZ3 even if it does not match the best performer on the market.

xs_op6_xz3_p3_colordisplay

So, how does this panel actually perform? Initially, I was worried. One of the earliest reviews of the device ran their display testing suite and came back with some horrific numbers, and initially, I felt the same way, until I went into the display settings. I knew I had to get some more display testing done, so Dylan Raga graciously sent his suite over to test a few devices and I ran some basic tests on the XZ3 in its shipping mode, but also my preferred mode. If you aren’t familiar, the Xperia XZ3 ships with three display modes alongside customizable white balance. The three display modes are Professional, Standard (default), and Super-Vivid. The Professional mode, as we will see shortly, is tuned to best match the sRGB color space which Android sees as the default color space for almost all content. Most web content is also in sRGB, but there is more wide color supported content becoming available. Most notably, iOS can detect wide color content and implements it throughout the OS, even on its Springboard launcher and in applications which is why although properly calibrated, iOS devices have more color pop to them. (Standard) Triluminous and Super-Vivid do not appear to correspond to any color space but are both stretching the content colors to a wider range to make the colors pop, much like other competitors are doing. The second adjustable setting just might be my favorite: adjustable white balance. Much like Samsung, Sony allows you to set a custom white point on your display by using three sliders for red, green, and blue. With Sony’s Android Pie update, they expanded this to include preset options for warm and cool along with the default standard. This also works with all color modes, unlike Samsung who forces you to use its poorly-calibrated Adaptive mode to adjust the white point. As we will see in just a moment, this granular level of control really pays off.

xs_op6_xz3_p3_colorshift

Color Shift Comparison – Use Album Controls to see off angle

Color shift is also fairly good on this phone, although the curves do cause some issues. Off angle, the colors will shift slightly magenta and the display brightness falls off considerably and compared to my Pixel 3 and iPhone XS Max it is a tad more pronounced, but nothing like LG’s 2017 panel problems. That is until you get to the curves. If you look at this phone from an off angle on the sides the curves are almost hotspots that shine far brighter than the rest of the panel. I don’t notice this on my S9 or my old Note 9 so I suspect Samsung might be dimming those pixels slightly to offset this natural occurrence to the curve. It is distracting, but only if you are looking for it and only if you are looking across the display from the side. A bigger issue with the curves and color shift are the streaks of blue and a slight parallax effect you get from the sides of the display — this is far more distracting. I believe it is due to the sharp curve instead of Samsung’s gentler curve and it reminds me of the effect I saw on the Galaxy S8 which actually made news and required Samsung to distribute a patch to offset this.

xs_op6_xz3_p3_white_color_shift

White Brightness & Color Shift Comparison – Use Album Controls to see off angle

White is the most straining color for OLEDs to display due to all the subpixels needing to be fully lit, and the more pixels that are lit, the lower the total voltage share that is available throughout the display, which decreases the overall brightness for the colors being shown. We test this at a 50% white image and a 100% white image to determine its average and worst case scenario. The XZ3 gets a good rating from me coming in at 555 nits of brightness in our 50APL tests and 402 nits in our 100APL tests. These are not iPhone XS or Samsung Galaxy numbers, but it is quite a bit better than what the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are testing at. I was not able to find any user-facing high brightness mode toggle, and the display did not increase its brightness in auto mode or manual mode when shined on directly with a flashlight. One thing to note in the below images is that although the Professional/Warm color settings are far more accurate than the shipping mode, it does take a hit on the maximum brightness taking over 80 nits of brightness away. Much like with the Galaxy S9, leaving it in the standard display mode is best if you want the brightest possible display outdoors.

So, time for our display tests. For this particular device, I did an abbreviated testing suite tailored to a full review like this, where I took the default shipping settings and compared them to the best calibration I could get from the phone. We looked at this from a color space accuracy test, grayscale test, and brightness test and these are the summary of results.

In its shipping state, the color calibration of the XZ3 is not too bad. It misses most targets and ends up with a Delta E 3.2 when compared to the sRGB color space, which is better than the Note 9 in Adaptive mode but is still inaccurate. Most of the issues lie in the display’s tendency to shift toward the blue which can be seen in red, magenta, and green targets. Switch it over to Super-Vivid and things go very wrong, very fast. I would not recommend anyone to use this setting as it is highly inaccurate and just looks horrific to my eye, the reds, in particular, are piercingly red. The best, predictably, is the Professional mode, and more accurately, the Professional mode with the white balance set to warm. Across the board, this color reproduction is outstanding and is only second to another particularly newly released Android phone. These deviation numbers are unnoticeable to the eye and is an excellent result especially from what we believe to be an LG display.

In terms of white balance, the XZ3 puts up an excellent result at 6,454K in Professional Warm and 7,066K in the default shipping mode which is a bit too blue for my tastes. I highly recommend using the warm white balance for a more accurate display regardless of your profile preference. The resulting gamma in the Professional Warm setting comes in at a near perfect 2.23, and default comes in equally as good at 2.18. 2.2 is the ideal target they were aiming for, split the difference and they would have had it. Samsung still holds the crown when it comes to what their panels can display accurately and brightly, but LG looks to really be making a large amount of progress in a short amount of time. We hope to have a Pixel 3 display review up shortly, highlighting LG’s slow march towards the best of the best in overall display quality.

If you were worried about the panel on the Xperia XZ3 because it was OLED and more-so an LG OLED, don’t worry. It is an excellent panel that has good brightness and near-perfect color reproduction if you set it properly, while the color shift is more pronounced than on some OLED panels, it is not LG V30 or Pixel 2 XL levels of bad. However, if you were worried about the panel on the XZ3 because it was curved, you have every reason to worry. This panels curves are clearly and noticeably generations behind the best in the industry and the whole experience suffers from it. From the color shift on the curve to the lack of palm rejection and angle of the curve, the whole experience makes the display something you have to deal with instead of something you can just enjoy, which is a shame because that calibration was outstanding.


Software and Performance

This software section is going to be a slimmed down version of the one I did on the outgoing XZ2. The reason for this is that although the phone is on Android 9.0 Pie, many of the Sony applications are still the same. Speaking of Android Pie, the Xperia XZ3 was the very first phone to ship with the new software and the update is already pushing out to the XZ2 line of phones and is largely the same as we have here, kudos to Sony.

The biggest change you will notice compared to Google’s vision for Android Pie is the always dark notification panel. This is a welcome change, and one Sony had on Oreo as well. They adjusted the default accent color to a slightly different shade of blue from the Pixel and much better looking than the teal that AOSP ships with and some OEM’s refuse to change. Because we are running Android Pie though, you do have the less efficient design language for the notification shade along with the left mounted clock and notch allowing space. This is not my favorite design language Android has ever had as I feel it leaves a lot of space unattended to and caters to the boon in notches, something that penalizes devices without one. The settings menu is very similar to the one found on the Xperia XZ2 with the same colored icon design and some added Pie flair. Something you will notice, especially compared to a Pixel, is the loss in a lot of the added features to Pie. The updated machine learning auto brightness and battery management software is gone and replaced with Sony’s stock software from Oreo. This is not always a bad thing as I feel Sony adds a lot to Android especially when it pertains to the battery monitoring and management. But I cannot help but feel that largely Sony did a copy/paste job on the entire OS. How you feel about this will vary and the fact that the phone is running Pie does smooth that over a bit.

Also missing is the entire gesture and multitasking makeover. Sony’s theme utilizes the normal three-button setup for Home, Back, and Recents with no options for gesture controls. The multitasking panel is also gone, as are the new overview features like being able to copy content from the window without actually being in the application. I am not the biggest fan of Android’s new gesture controls as I feel they are largely half-baked and poorly designed, but removing the option entirely also isn’t the proper course of action. I think it is very disappointing to see these features entirely removed from the OS restricting the option left to the user to enable them. This is not just Sony’s fault though, as there is no requirement for OEM’s to utilize this new layout which I feel Google dropped the ball on. Sony is likely not going to be the only OEM to vastly change what should feel like a stock experience and users are left without a singular operation experience making Android skins operate very differently from each other, just as we were getting some sort of uniformity. One neat thing related to user input is the option Sony provides to map a double press of the power key to the Google Assistant. This is really handy if you use an app like our very own Navigation Gestures application and want to keep the gestures simple and offload things like the assistant to other means. It also does not have the unintended side effects like OnePlus’s current method that displays the Assistant any time you go to reboot your phone, for people who reboot often that got old really quick.

As I mentioned earlier, much of the software experience is still the same compared to the XZ2. This phone still ships with Sony’s Dynamic Vibration system which will add a noticeable kick to anything playing on the device with the vibration motor. The feeling is the same as it was on the XZ2 and is largely up to the user if it adds or subtracts from the experience. Personally, I do not mind it if I am watching a movie or movie trailer as it acts like an overpowered subwoofer in your hand. That said, I do keep it on its lowest setting to avoid it triggering to someone’s voice as it can do on some of the higher settings. Also found in sound settings is audio EQ adjustments which are largely unchanged from the XZ2. I did notice that Sony included the Pie expanded Do Not Disturb settings to include granular controls for what you will or won’t see while the display is on or off from turning off the heads up notifications to even hiding notification icons and notifications from appearing in the notifications panel, something I doubt anyone would actually want. Triluminos is also still a part of the OS, but due to problems with many YouTube videos having color issues with this mode enabled, I keep it disabled. This is the mode where it will “upconvert” non-HDR to near HDR quality color representation. I notice it does a decent job in movies, but outside of that it is far too harsh, enable this when you enable the Dynamic Vibration system and it should be fine.

Another item on the Xperia XZ3 – which I failed to mention in the XZ2 review – is the “Smart backlight control.” Now, this is something most OEMs have some version of, but I feel Sony does it best. Much like Samsung and Apple, this is a variation of the ‘if you are holding your phone, keep the display on’ setting that allows you to keep the display awake simply by keeping your face in front of it. Those systems are limited to working while you are actually looking at the phone, but Sony takes it a step forward. Sony, much like HTC but utilizing a different method, will recognize when the phone is in your hand and held somewhat upright, and then keep the display on. I have tried this extensively and it works flawlessly. Hold the phone in an upwards manner, like you are looking at it or using it for reference, and the display will stay lit regardless as to whether you are actively looking at the display. Lower the phone to your side, or anywhere outside of a ~ 45-degree downward angle, and the phone will turn the screen off after the timeout. This is one of the first phones I have been able to reliably set the timeout to 15 seconds without regrets. My best guess is that it is using the gyros and accelerometers to detect when it is being held upright and lowered down. Either way, it is something I wish more phones did this way instead of requiring you to look at it.


Sony Xperia “Side Sense”

The biggest software change is something Sony calls “Side Sense.” Now I will first clear up a major misconception about this: there is no ‘in-frame’ sensor like HTC and Google utilize. This is purely run by the display, and more directly the edge of the display, and in this manner, it operates more like Samsung’s Edge panel than HTC or Google. To activate Side Sense you simply tap your finger on the edge of the display and it appears. I have found it to be more reliable if you tap the flat part of your finger instead of your fingertip. Once you activate the feature, there is a pleasing haptic buzz and animation that displays a sidebar of applications and quick actions. Sony says it is using its machine learning based Xperia Assist to select what applications are displayed, but personally, I think it is just your most recent and commonly used applications. You can lock specific applications to always appear which is nice and there are also quick actions at the bottom, which are kind of useless. One of them is the notification panel pulldown, which after double tapping, waiting on the rather lengthy animation, and tapping the icon is an inefficient way of pulling the notification panel down. Same goes for the One-Handed Mode, which can also be accessed by an easy swipe across the navbar. The panel does appear where you tapped it and is accessible from both sides and can be moved along the vertical axis. The feature also includes the ability to slide down on the side of the display to trigger the “back” button behavior which is a neat addition. All of that being said, Side Sense is something you should turn off near immediately. You will trigger this when you didn’t want to, sometimes it just shows up and you are left pondering what voodoo you just did when you weren’t even touching the display, but most times though it just straight up won’t work. It could be a cool feature but is entirely unpredictable and when a feature cannot be depended upon it doesn’t get used.