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.
|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|
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
AOD Arrives on Xperia
The second big software change that the OLED display makes possible is a true Always On Display mode and I have to give Sony credit for thinking a little out of the box and giving users more options. First, let’s go through all the different settings. Sony gives you fine granular control over its ambient display by allowing you to choose when it is enabled. You can have it always on, activated when it is lifted, or Sony’s Smart Activation which activates when you take the phone out of your pocket or double tap the display. They also allow you to change whether the display turns on when you get a new notification as an entirely different setting, so if you want privacy you can set it to Smart Activation or when picked up, and not worry about your friends’ vulgar SMS plastered on your display while your phone sits on a table, something I have seen a lot of people deal with. Sony also allows you to set a “sticker” on the ambient display which is a feature I love. Instead of what Samsung offers, which is equivalent to a postage stamp (though it offers gif support), Sony allows you to set a fairly large image under the clock. If you get fancy you can also use an image with a black background or transparent background to make a cutout on your display. The next feature is neat in concept but very poorly executed, it is called Photo Playback. If enabled your ambient display will have an art board of sorts with various photos taken on the phone at your current location displayed on the screen. In concept this is neat, but when you get random dumb photos of a room you took for some unknown reason displayed, it gets old and gets shut off. Sony claims it is using its Xperia Assist machine learning to select the right photos to display, but in my time with the feature, it just showed a random selection of photos taken at a location. The phone does not allow you to select a specific album on the device which is puzzling. Sony’s ambient display also gives you options to display currently playing media which works as you would expect. The white line you see is the Xperia Loops that appear while charging, I really wish you could turn these off on the AOD because elsewhere they are a nice touch.
Something related to the lock screen I wanted to point out was the “Keep Notifications” option which is confusing at first. Basically, what this does is display only notifications received since you last unlocked the phone on the lock screen and operates largely like iOS. You can still access the notifications from the notification shade, but this does help keep a cleaner lock screen which I appreciate as an option.
Overall, the software experience on the Sony Xperia XZ3 is as expected. There are some useful additions to Android which are those we discussed in the XZ2 article like Smart Stamina, battery conditioning, and a fairly robust display quality set of adjustments, but there is also the largely useless Side Sense and pretty much anything related to Sony’s uncompetitive Xperia Assist. The first device shipping with Android Pie feels like it is not with some of the most impactful- and disruptive – features noticeably absent and at this point, the performance is suffering. Sony’s normally minimalist approach to its software is getting a little too minimal and some of the features it chooses to add are fairly useless or do not work very well.
I praised the Sony Xperia XZ2 for its excellent performance, and I had hoped to say the same for the XZ3. Unfortunately, that is not the case and there are a few reasons for this. To start though, my device is still running the August 2018 security patch and the shipping software. I was only allowed a month with the review unit and waited until the last few days to run performance benchmarks to see if the phone would receive any updates that could improve what I am seeing and feeling… unfortunately that has not occurred.
In my testing, the XZ3’s performance regresses from what I felt on the XZ2 and what I expect from a current generation flagship, even if that is not too clearly noticeable in all of our performance tests. Due to changes in Android Pie, our testing suite needs to be almost completely rewritten and we could not run our composite tests that simulate more complex in-app navigation, which I feel could show some of the issues I am seeing. The biggest problems I am having are mostly related to the reliability of its performance. I will frequently see stutters and lags just going around the general user interface. If I drop out of the application and come back, they might or might not reoccur. This can be observed throughout the phone and even the stock settings application, the one place that even noticeably bad performing devices have made some big gains, like the Galaxy Note9. Put simply, if a phone in 2018 drops these many frames in the settings menu, you know there’s a problem. I have also had random application lockups, freezes where the UI would be unresponsive, and other oddities that made me feel like this software was not performing optimally. I am not the only one feeling this either, as I have seen a few posts on our forums and Reddit noting this with the XZ3. Hopefully, Sony is seeing this and it relates as to why the phone is still running software from August whereas XZ2 devices on Pie are running October.
You can see in our scrolling tests below that the XZ3 performs noticeably worse than the Pixel 3 and OnePlus 6. However, if you look at our application switching test above, you can see the XZ3 perform substantially better than both of the other phones. Although we could not run our full suite, we were able to run our YouTube composite test, as well as app switching and scrolling comparisons. For the YouTube test I included the XZ2 for reference, but being that I could not test it alongside the XZ3 and Google changes their applications seemingly every day, there could be disparity among them. This is also our first chance to see the Pixel 3 in action and wow, does it amaze! The XZ2 surpassed the Pixel 2 XL in some tests earlier this year, but the Pixel 3 with the Snapdragon 845 just flies.
I cannot write this review without addressing something that affects many potential users of the XZ3 though, and that’s RAM. While some Asian markets will see 6GB models of the XZ3, the majority of users will get the 4GB model which in my opinion is unacceptable. This is just as terrible on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL but it might be worse on the XZ3 given the modifications Sony has put in place. While using the device, mine will frequently see 1-Day average RAM availability under 20% and I do not do any sort of gaming on my phones. Even being relatively unused for a few days my XZ3 showed an average usage of 77%. Open up an intensive game like Fortnite and something will be killed in the background. I am all for letting Android manage its memory all on its own, and unused RAM is wasted ram yadda yadda, but when you are running with sub 800MB available and applications continue to grow in size and resources, this might be a minor problem today, but it will be a much bigger problem one to two years down the road. The bottom line is that regardless as to whether you see this as a problem, there is absolutely the value concern at $900. With outrageous devices like the new Mi Mix 3 shipping with 10GB variants for less cost than this XZ3, and devices like the OnePlus 6T shipping with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage on a $549 base model, it makes it absurd that OEMs still stick us with the bare minimum you should have for a 2018 phone at almost any price range. Hopefully, this will be the last year we will have to have this discussion.
When I reviewed the Sony Xperia XZ2 earlier this year I walked away with this impression as noted in my final thoughts: “In video and daylight photography I found the photos I took with it to be superior to my (Galaxy) S9+ with less processing, better exposure, more true to life colors, and better white balance. Those leads do diminish once you go into tricky lighting scenarios”. I had hoped that with the Xperia XZ3, Sony was finally willing to make a change and fix some of the shortcomings that affected the prior model. Many had hoped we would see the dual camera system from the XZ2 Premium, unfortunately, that is not the case. After spending some time with the XZ3 my thoughts are very much the same that I had on the XZ2 in the large photo comparison I did a few weeks ago, but now the playing field is even tougher with the largely improved iPhone XS and modestly improved Pixel 3. There is also the OnePlus 6 and 6T that OnePlus keeps tuning and adding more features like their Night Mode.
So, first let us talk about the specs. The XZ3 has the exact same rear sensor system and lens system that the Xperia XZ2 shipped with and as such the photo and video experience is nearly exactly the same. To refresh you, that is an f2.0 22mm Sony G lens, which lets in considerably less light than competitors are currently doing. The sensor is a 19MP “Motion Eye” 1/2.3” Exmor RS model that is lacking both the dual-pixel autofocus system and OIS that most other flagships are offering. Being that these are largely the exact same camera, today we are going to focus on the three areas of change I noted in my review period: the front camera, the camera software, and low light image processing. For a detailed breakdown of how the XZ3 performs in daylight and in video recordings, I refer you to my camera comparison and my Xperia XZ2 review. The camera comparison, in particular, should show you most of what you need to know about the Xperia XZ3’s daylight performance: the cameras of the XZ2 and XZ3 perform nearly-identically in such scenarios, and that article compares shots in various settings across multiple flagship devices. The things you will see across both devices compared to the rest of the field is an increased sharpening leading to more perceptible noise, poor dynamic range handling in tricky situations without resorting to manual mode, and excellent color reproduction.
Outdoor XZ3 Camera Samples
The Front Camera
I personally had no problem with the Sony XZ2 front camera. Despite it being a smallish 5MP sensor, the front camera is one that I rarely – if ever – utilize. That said, the bump from 5MP to 13MP is a noticeable one and the loss in light intake ability is offset by the larger aperture of f1.9 versus f2.2 on the XZ2 and a significantly larger sensor at 1/3.06” versus the 1/5.0″ unit found on the XZ2. Sony also bumped the ISO abilities from ISO1600 to ISO3200 for photos and from ISO1000 to ISO1600 for video. While you would never really want to use this high of an ISO, it does show that the sensor in the XZ3 is of far higher quality than that found on the XZ2. One thing I can recommend, turn off skin smoothing in the camera settings. There is something very wrong with Sony’s skin smoothing and it makes the picture so bad you would think it is out of focus, and that is likely because it is. Hopefully, they fix it with a software patch in the future because it is clearly broken. Something I do really like about this front camera is the field of view. It is significantly wider than the primary front camera of most other phones and does a good job of balancing wide angle and ‘too wide’ angle like the Pixel 3 has with its dedicated extra-wide shooter. There is no adjustment level you can toggle like on the Pixel and some other phones, but I think they went with a great default field of view. All of this looks great on paper, but how does it actually perform? Well, it is not great. Compared to the Pixel 3, the front camera has far less dynamic range, detail, color, and the end product just looks washed out and has poor detail sharpness. Personally, I do not take many selfies so this is not a factor for me on smartphones, but for a lot of people I know, it does matter. The excellent field of view makes up for it versus competitors, but the end result does not.
XZ3 vs Pixel 3 Front Camera Samples
A New and Improved Camera UX
The biggest change you will notice on the XZ3 is a result of a new camera version in Android Pie, this same camera software is rolling out to the XZ2 models as they get the Pie OTA as well, and boy is it a welcome change. While I was a fan of the old camera UI, I will be the first to admit it was clunky. On the left side, you had a tiny camera switcher icon, the four main camera modes, and the flash icon. Swiping up and down on the camera viewfinder would toggle those modes. Now that left side is all quick actions, even if they are some odd icon choices.
Firstly is the settings icon, which I feel is the exact wrong place for it, but since people won’t be using that too often I can forgive it for the location. Below that is the camera switcher icon, but the camera can also be switched by swiping in from the left side. Next is the white balance and exposure quick adjustment and I love this inclusion. Tapping this brings up a menu on the right side where you can quickly make fine-tune adjustments to the exposure and white balance of the shot. Where many other cameras leave this to the manual mode or only let you adjust exposure, the white balance slider is one prosumers will enjoy. That being said, I wish they had a button to set it back to auto or a bump in the slider to let you know you hit center. Next is the image ratio icon, timer for the shot, and flash adjustment. Much like the XZ2, the bottom left of the viewfinder also shows you what mode the camera is in as it toggles between landscapes, portraits, macro, night shot and more.
Along the right side of the viewfinder is your last image preview, shutter button, camera mode button, and a weird icon that is actually really handy. While here in the screenshot it is showing the icon for portrait mode, it will actually work as a toggle to the last used camera mode. So if you frequently are using Panorama while on vacation you can quickly select it and have it there to toggle back and forth with. This is also independent of the current mode, so if you are in the video camera mode, selecting this might change you to the manual camera operation. It has a slight learning curve to remember what each icon means but is really handy in practice. Inside the mode button, you have Portrait Selfie, Google Lens integration, Bokeh, Slow Motion, AR, Manual, Creative Effect, Panorama, and Sound Photo. It is important to note that these modes are independent of the actual camera mode currently set. So, if you are in the camera photo mode and choose slow motion it will switch to the video camera and the same inverse. You can also access slow motion from the video camera on the left side. This does make things kind of redundant and maybe a little confusing as to what modes are available where, but largely the camera UI is a big improvement over the old software. It is cleaner, better laid out, and much quicker to use and do what you want. Sony added a Smart Launch feature that detects when you pick up the phone with the display off and hold it up in landscape and wakes to the camera, but I found it lacking and easier to just hold the camera button in as I pick up the phone to access the camera.
An Update to Low Light
Finally, we will talk about low light photography which was the major low point for the XZ2. While it is improved upon here, it is mostly just the software algorithms and not the actual approach to shooting low light and it does not overlook the actual shortcomings of the sensor and aperture that Sony is still using. Unfortunately, my Xperia XZ2 was sold just prior to getting notification of our review unit and as such, I did not have the ability to do a direct comparison, but in my experience of the two, the differences you will see are three key changes. The first is that the XZ3 gets the feel of the shot better along with superior colors. Second is that the XZ3 reduces its heavy-handed low light softening. The third is that the XZ3 will produce noise, sometimes distractingly so, images with a higher ISO but faster shutter speed. Are we talking about Galaxy Note9, iPhone XS, or Pixel 3 levels of quality – absolutely not. But the camera is not a total potato in low light like it once was, as long as you are alright with a noisier image and is enhanced by an oversharpening effect.
Sony Xperia XZ3 Low-light Camera Samples
iPhone XS Max Low-light Camera Samples
Overall the XZ3 camera improves upon an already good one found in its predecessor, especially in terms of the front camera, the camera UX, and low light photography. However, two of those three items are software-based and one is already active on the XZ2 and the second might be with the recent Pie update leaving the front camera as the main improvement. Should you already own an Xperia XZ2, you will not notice any large impactful updates with the XZ3. If you were holding out on the XZ2 hoping the XZ3 would utilize some new sensor like the pair found on the Xperia XZ2 Premium, totally new algorithms like ZSL, or some other large improvements – sorry to say, Sony made none of those much-needed changes. This also puts the Xperia XZ3 in a very bad position going into 2019. The XZ2 was already outclassed by the competition, but Sony’s failure to make meaningful changes with this generation further hurt it going forward. While I personally preferred the XZ2 over the Galaxy S9, the S9 is a more capable shooter all around and devices like the iPhone XS and Pixel 3 leave it in the dust when you factor in all the various scenarios and needs of the current smartphone user. In bright lighting and in the auto mode, the phone still overexposes making the landscape or broad shots have hotspots lacking in detail and in low light the lack of ZSL makes shutter lag and shutter delay a big problem causing blurred images if there is any movement. If having the right camera phone in your pocket in any scenario that comes up is important to you, you should probably hope that the XZ3 isn’t in that pocket.
Battery, Audio, Odds & Ends
Much like the Xperia XZ2, the XZ3 delivers solid battery life surpassing most of my other devices with the exception of the Galaxy Note9 which was legendary for me. I was initially worried that the change to a larger display, moving to QHD OLED, and jumping to Pie would more than offset the modest 150mah bump to total battery capacity, and while it does it is not by a large margin. Generally speaking, I did notice a decrease in total battery life compared to the XZ2 of 5% to 10% or so throughout my testing period. This was more pronounced if I were to use the device heavily indicating that with many applications still resorting to light UI’s, OLED is still a little less power efficient unless you as the user go out of your way to use a dark wallpaper, dark UI’s in applications and more. Much like the XZ2, the Xperia XZ3 has a huge list of battery-related tech supporting USB-PD, Qnovo Adaptive Charging, Wireless fast charging, Smart Stamina, STAMINA mode, and more. Notably absent on the spec sheet is support for Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 which the XZ2 advertised alongside USB-PD. I never got to really test it out, but I would assume that you won’t get the full benefits of both platforms anymore and will just top out with a QC3 plug as any other USB-PD device will, no major loss, just notable. This is not like the situation with the OnePlus 6T which will slow charge off any adapter that is not its own, the XZ3 will still use a QC3 charger as a fast charger, just not as optimally as a QC3 certified device will. Everything else aside from that omission the XZ2 offered, the XZ3 offers so feel free to refer to that section of the XZ2 review for more information on Qnovo charging or the various Stamina modes.
As I mentioned earlier, the Xperia XZ3 still retains its dual front firing speaker setup which few competitors still do. The XZ2 was strong in this capacity, and it would have been good to see Sony retain its good performance here, but yet again I noticed that in comparison to the XZ2 the quality has dropped a bit. Not unlike similar complaints about the Pixel 3 XL, the front speaker pair sounds muffled and not overly clear, but it does get a bit louder than the XZ2. While comparing the two Xperia devices I preferred the better sounding but quieter speakers on the XZ2 and neither come close to the very loud and clear front and bottom firing setups from the Galaxy Note9 and iPhone XS Max. The XZ3 also supports full 1440P 60fps HDR video playback on YouTube and HDR playback on Netflix which is excellent since you can get the full potential of this beautiful display through streaming services. Combine the HDR certified highly accurate OLED display with well above average front firing speakers and you get yourself quite a good personal media machine.
One of my biggest gripes with the XZ2 was its abysmal US certifications. It does look like there is some movement in the right direction in this regard, but I cannot say for sure. As for Verizon and AT&T support, it is the same dismal situation – no support for Verizon despite it supporting some of the bands, and lackluster AT&T support. On T-Mobile though, the phone does have VoLTE support which the XZ2 lacked but still lacks WiFi Calling. I am reserved about this though, as this could be that T-Mobile has not restricted it yet. A similar situation occurred on the Blackberry Key2 which supported VoLTE and WiFi Calling out of the box until an update that came a month later which removed both of them. Is the XZ3 properly provisioned for T-Mobile? No one can say for sure, it is weird that it supports one and not the other though and my thinking is that if it is not properly provisioned it will be removed in a future update. Either way, in my opinion, Sony has only itself to blame for providing an utterly disappointing US support structure and failing to do the pre-work to ensure its US-based and sold units properly support the target market. When companies like OnePlus are coming to the US market in a show of support and force for the two more notable carriers and a juggernaut like Sony flounders, it sounds like the problem is on their end.
So where does that leave the Sony Xperia XZ3? Well, that is a difficult question, so let’s take it one at a time: what this phone means to Android as a whole and what this phone means to the Sony Xperia line of devices.
I mentioned in my XZ2 article that the XZ2 was “yet another in a long line of Xperia Android smartphones, but it also feels like a new beginning”. I still feel this way about the XZ2, but I cannot say the same about the XZ3. Some things are welcome improvements like the new excellently-calibrated P-OLED display that improves the screen-to-body ratio from 76.1% to 80.5%, but that comes at the cost of terrible edge detection and a nearly-worthless Side Sense feature. The bump to QHD+ is well-welcomed too, but it could have come at the expense of some overall system performance which generally is not as smooth or responsive as the XZ2 was and some battery regression. The speakers are also less impressive sounding muffled and distorting for me at max volumes, the camera improvements are a side-grade at best, and the missing Android Pie features are a disappointment.
Where the predecessor felt like a love it or hate it new beginning for the Sony Xperia line, the XZ3 feels like a stagnation of what made Xperia unique, in the name of modernization and just trying to copy what everyone else is doing. There is also the factor of cost. The Xperia XZ2 might be one of the best flagship devices you can buy used right now, is widely available for around $400 for near mint condition, and the XZ3 does very little to demand a two-fold increase in cost over that. Even then, when the XZ3 drops a few hundred and the XZ2 plateaus, the predecessor still offers a more no-frills experience with its flat LCD squared corner display, doing away with the gimmicks and offering a solid – if barren – experience for a lot less. I don’t think that even without cost being a factor I could recommend the XZ3 over the XZ2 without qualifiers, and once cost is a factor it shouldn’t even be a toss up unless a larger P-OLED display is that important to you.
So what about the rest of Android as a whole? Much like the Xperia XZ2, the XZ3 does nothing to move the needle but at least the XZ2 felt important to Sony. The XZ3 is the continuation of the modernization of the Xperia lineup complete with a curved display and rounded screen corners but drops the ball completely when it comes to system performance and the camera, the former of which was a regression and the latter which is still just a solid second-tier choice at a top-shelf price. As much as I enjoyed holding the XZ3 in my hand, it feels like nearly every other smartphone available and very similar to the Samsung Galaxy S9, curved screen edge regressions included. Then there is the elephant in the room, the price. The XZ3 launches with a $100 premium over the XZ2 and is currently available in the US at the same exact price as the Google Pixel 3 XL. The Pixel 3 XL, despite its downsides, runs circles around the Xperia in system performance, camera performance, and carrier support. They both offer OLED displays and the Pixel 3 XL does it without the curved edges, but it includes a notch so we will call it a draw. They both offer front firing speakers, similar software features, and similar battery life, but the Pixel offers three full years of guaranteed OS support, something no other OEM has stepped up to match. All of this doesn’t even bring Samsung, LG, and the surging OnePlus into the conversation all of which offer some toss of up of better value, superior features, or a better camera – some of which with all three.
Even still, there is also nothing ‘majorly wrong’ with this device. The display performs excellently regardless of the irritating display curves. The speakers and audio experience are solid despite the regression from last year. The camera can still hold its own and has a few tricks up its sleeve like 960fps 1080p and HDR recording, but it retains the XZ2’s inability to be the camera that delivers solidly regardless of the shooting environment. Even the software experience is generally good with a close to stock experience throughout even though it removes some of Pie’s best and worst features and performs unreliably compared to the benchmark the XZ2 set.
That is sort of the story of the Xperia XZ3 though, it is a perfectly usable device with flaws and nitpicks that may or may not bother you. But the XZ3 falls short of the competition and still asks the typical Sony top-tier price and where the XZ2 at least felt unique and different from the rest of the market, the XZ3 clearly tries to copy what other more successful brands are doing in an effort to make itself mainstream and successful, and what did it cost? Everything that made you choose Xperia.
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