The Sony Xperia Z3+ is the Japanese flagship we’ve all been anticipating, but is it really the one we’ve been hoping for? Or are the predictable chipset update and minor design touches simply a prelude to a proper upgrade later this year?
Starting with the original Xperia Z in February 2013, Sony’s condensed update cycle for the high-end Z-series has meant a spring release was followed by another in the fall, enabling the company to adequately combat competition on either side of the Pacific. Inevitably, each new model carried few improvements over the predecessor, failing to truly wow customers.
Those are considerations for the marketing teams though, and there’s obviously no way we could know Sony’s precise reasoning. We can, however, work with what we’ve got, and at this point that’s the Xperia Z3+.
A few months behind the obvious major competitors and Sony’s own established schedule, the Xperia Z3+ doesn’t surprise with hardware. The one major change is the Snapdragon 810 SoC, which brings a performance boost, alongside faster Cat.6 LTE.
Gone is the 16GB base storage option of the current model and the Xperia Z3+ only comes in 32GB flavor. The outdated 2MP front camera couldn’t fly on a 2015 high-end smartphone, and it has made way for a new 5.1MP snapper.
A less welcome move has seen the battery capacity taken a notch down from 3,100mAh to 2,930mAh – enabling designers to achieve the highlight 6.9mm thickness and the weight has also been reduced. Points are due for the capless microUSB port too, which made the charging pogo pins redundant, while keeping the IP68 certification intact.
- Also available as a Dual SIM version
- 5.2″ IPS LCD, 1080 x 1920 pixels, 424ppi
- Android 5.0 Lollipop with Xperia UI on top
- IP68 certified – dust and water proof up to 1.5 meter and 30 minutes
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chipset with 2 GHz quad-core Cortex-A57 plus 1.5 GHz quad-core Cortex-A53 processor, Adreno 430 GPU, 3GB of RAM
- 20.7MP camera, LED flash, 2160p video recording, dedicated hardware shutter key
- 5.1MP front-facing camera with 1080p video recording (along with Superior Auto and Video stabilization)
- 32GB of built-in storage, expandable via the microSD card slot
- Cat. 6 LTE (up to 300Mbps); Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac; Wi-Fi Direct; Bluetooth 4.1 with apt-X and Sony LDAC wireless High-Res Audio codec, GPS/GLONASS/Beidou receiver, Stereo FM with RDS; USB On-The-Go
- Active noise cancellation with a secondary microphone
- Digital noise cancellation available with certain Sony headsets
- Front-facing stereo speakers
- 2,930mAh battery; STAMINA Power Saving Mode
- Stylish dual glass-panel design
- Qualcomm Quick charge certified
- Non user-replaceable battery
- No wireless charging
- Qualcomm Quick charger not included in the retail package
- Screen has the same specs third generation in a row, when rivals have mostly moved to 1440p
- Battery downgrade hardly justified
- €700 introductory retail price is too steep
All by itself, the spec sheet is impressive, and you’d have to look hard to find glaring omissions other than the screen resolution. It’s just that we’ve seen most of it a number of times already and we’re no longer as impressed.
Still, the Sony Xperia Z3+ is the company’s answer to this season’s flagships. But if even Sony doesn’t think it’s worthy of the Z4 badge, can we really call it a true flagship?
We set out to determine just that, and we kick off with a look at the hardware.
Sony Xperia Z3+ 360° spin
The Sony Xperia Z3+ measures 146 x 72 x 6.9 mm, which is exactly the same footprint as the Xperia Z3. Mere fractions of a millimeter have been trimmed off the thickness, 0.4mm to be precise – just enough for marketing to have something to work with. The difference is not really easily felt in real life. Sony however is rightfully proud it has achieved it without a protruding camera lens. The cameras on both the iPhone 6 (6.9mm) and the Galaxy S6 (6.8mm) are sticking out.
Body and design
If you’ve ever spent time with a Sony smartphone in the past two and a half years, you know the basics of their trademark design language, which the company calls Omnibalance. A rectangular two-sided glass slab held together by a metal frame makes for a premium styling which feels equally nice to look at and handle.
Sony has gone with a slightly different material for the frame this time around. While it’s still matte, it has a bit more shine to it for extra flair. The bumper corners are still present and whether or not they provide additional protection in case of drops, they still are a bit of an eye-sore.
What is perhaps the most welcome design feature is the capless microUSB port. It’s actually the second Sony waterproof smartphone to feature it, as the hot-off-the-assembly-line Xperia M4 Aqua is already shipping.
Apparently the IP68 certification for dust and water ingress could be attained without the hideous flap, which brought hassle to every charging session.
What used to be a workaround to that issue – the side-positioned magnetic docking port – is now gone for good or bad. You no longer have the option of docking the handset in landscape orientation. Instead, a new dock, again sold separately, allows you to sit the Z3+ in portrait mode.
We’re not great fans of the design as the dock is not completely stable with the phone being wider than the dock itself. Also the dock tends to muffle the bottom speaker a bit.
The speakers themselves mark a return to the Xperia Z2 in terms of placement. The relocation to the edges of the front means they are less obtrusive than on the Z3 and the front is now back to a solid glass panel with no cutouts.
Unfortunately, when listening to music they don’t sound so crisp as we would have liked. Let alone that the whole phone vibrates with the sound when you have the full on (that’s the case with the Z3 as well), but music is not as deep as before. In comparison, even the Xperia Z3 offers deeper sounding music, while the the HTC One M9 hands down blows it away. Music reproduction there is much deeper and nicer and there isn’t any sign of vibration when playing back your tunes.
Sony is keen to point out that their camera lens sits flush with the back despite the slimmer profile, unlike pretty much every major competitor. A curious little detail for those of you keeping track is that now the lens is part of the glass panel, while the single-LED flash sits in a cutout, exactly the opposite solution to the previous model.
That said, looking at the back alone, you’d have to be a true Sony connoisseur to tell the Xperia Z3+ apart from the older models. We do have a Z3 for direct comparison so we admit that made our job much easier.
The controls of the Xperia Z3+ are located on the right side of the device. The aluminum circular power button, a highlight of the OmniBalance aesthetic, is joined by the volume rocker in the middle third of the side, while the dedicated two-stage shutter button is in its expected position towards the bottom.
What used to be two separate slots on the right for microSD and nanoSIM cards, hidden behind a long 33mm flap on the right, has become a single slot on the left, where the microUSB used to be.
Behind the single flap on the Z3+ there’s a flimsy plastic tray, which can accommodate both a nanoSIM and a microSD card. The tray is a pain to take out and we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s easy to break if you take it out too often.
On the top of the phone you’ll find the standard 3.5mm headphone jack in the very same spot as on the predecessor. For little apparent reason other than to move things around a bit, the secondary microphone has abandoned the 3.5mm jack and is now on the other end of the top plate.
What used to be a bare bottom plate is now home to the microUSB port in the middle and a lanyard eyelet towards the corner, an increasingly rare sight these days.
A fairly standard arrangement on the front sees the 5MP camera and the sensor cluster on either side of the Sony logo. The layout is a mirror image of the previous three generations, and back to their original position on the original Xperia Z.
The 20.7MP camera is in the top left corner on the back, where it has been since the Z1, and so is the single-LED flash.
As we already mentioned, the Xperia Z3+ is noticeably lighter than its predecessor, and that makes for a superior in-hand experience. The phone just feels easier to handle.
What’s remained unchanged is the dual-glass design which means the grip is less than ideal. And while you could squeeze it tighter for a more secure hold, placing it on an even slightly sloped smooth surface remains a gamble.
One thing that bothered us is the ever so slight lip that the frame creates over the glass panels. You could argue that it’s there to protect the glass panels from scratches, but your fingers won’t be happy. The Z3 doesn’t have that and it’s almost as if Sony made the new device 0.4mm thinner, but kept the frame as thick as before.
5.2-inch 1080p Triluminous display
The Xperia Z3+ comes with a 5.2-inch FullHD display, which judging by those numbers alone appears to be the same as the one on the predecessor. Sony, however, claims that the new panel is even brighter than the already stellar unit on the Z3.
The display comes with the lot of Sony’s proprietary features including Triluminous tech for a wider color gamut and the X-reality engine, which dynamically enhances images. If you’re unhappy with the default output, you can manually adjust the white balance.
With Sony opting for the stock Lollipop notification shade, there’s no readily available Auto brightness switch, you have to delve into the settings.
A double-tap-to-wake feature can be enabled, but it doesn’t work the other way around and you have to use the power button to send the phone back to sleep. There’s a dedicated glove mode for the touchscreen.
The Xperia Z3+ touchscreen also responds to wet fingers in a completely satisfactory way. The Z3 wasn’t completely incapable of that either but the behavior is a lot more consistent and reliable on the Z3+.
The smart backlight control detects when you’re holding the smartphone, and prevents it from entering standby. Leave it on the table, though, and the preset inactive interval takes over.
What we noticed very quickly when we first got the Xperia Z3+, and what the more observant among you picked up, are the strips of dots covering the entire area of the screen. They are clearly visible both in the studio photos and in actual use, and when you are out and about, they would even glitter in the sun. The Xperia Z3 on the other hand doesn’t have those. We guess, that’s the price users will have to pay for the improved touch operation with wet fingers.
Our microscope shot expectedly revealed an RGB arrangement with equal amounts of red, green and blue subpixels.
The Sony Xperia Z3+ comes in both single SIM and dual SIM versions and both of those have quad-band GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 and quad-band 3G support. LTE is available too with its bands depending on the region, and our E6553 model supports no less than 12 bands. The news here is the upgrade in speed to Cat.6 for a theoretical download maximum of 300Mbps.
The rest of the connectivity features include dual-band Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac and Wi-Fi Direct. There is also support for Bluetooth v4.1 with A2DP and apt-X, GPS and GLONASS, plus an FM radio with RDS. There is also NFC connectivity with support for Android Beam for sending files to other Android devices.
The ultra-low power ANT+ connectivity protocol handles connections to various sports accessories such as heart rate monitors or bicycle speed & cadence meters.
There is a microUSB 2.0 port for charging and data connections. Media transfer mode is supported for accessing the phone’s built-in memory and microSD card over USB.
The microUSB 2.0 port can also be used in USB On-the-go mode for connecting USB peripherals such as pen drives, keyboards or real USB hard drives.
The port also has MHL support for tethering the Xperia Z3+ to your TV, and if you own a compatible HDTV, you can output your phone’s screen wirelessly via the Miracast protocol.
Battery life test
Sony equipped the Xperia Z3+ with a 2,930mAh battery, a downgrade in capacity compared to the Z3, and a result of the slimming down process. The company insists that the phone will deliver two days of uptime nonetheless.
Our tests proved that to be the case, but since the software isn’t yet final, we won’t post detailed results. For now, we’ll only say that the pre-production Xperia Z3+ managed a 74-hour endurance rating, measured according to our standardized routine, which is still an admirable achievement, even if slightly behind the Z3’s 85 hours.
As always, if you need longer battery life and are willing to sacrifice features to obtain it, you can resort to one of the Stamina modes, which we’ll revisit in more detail in the software section.
Lightly modded Android 5.0.2
The Xperia Z3+ is among the first Sony devices to boot Android Lollipop out of the box. Unlike other manufacturers, the Japanese giant has traditionally chosen to stick close to stock Android and the Xperia Z3+ stays true to that approach.
The lockscreen has a clock widget up front in Sony’s recently adopted styling with a bold hour numeral, and less striking minute digits. You can also opt for one of two other clock faces.
Lockscreen notifications debuted on Lollipop and are present on the Xperia Z3+. A double tap on one will unlock the phone and take you straight to the respective app.
Unlocking works only by an upward swipe, other directions won’t cut it. You do get shortcuts to the camera and dialer, though. A double-tap-to-wake feature can be enabled in the settings.
Beyond that, there’s the usual set of homescreens, of which you can have up to seven. You can choose any one of them as Home, but you can’t rearrange them, nor do they cycle to the first one once you reach the end. A dock of four app shortcuts plus app drawer icon sit on the bottom. Naturally, folders are supported on the dock, as well as the homescreens.
There’s an extensive theming engine and although the preinstalled themes offer mostly the same Xperia look in different colors, a whole bunch of other custom themes is available online.
The app drawer displays a 4×5 grid of apps and you have a choice of small or large icons, though opting for the small ones won’t display more apps. The apps can be arranged alphabetically, by most used, or in a custom user-selected order. To change the arrangement or uninstall an app, you need to evoke the side drawer, a feature of the XperiaUI used throughout Sony’s proprietary apps.
The notification are is the stock Lollipop flavor. That means a two stage design, with notifications displayed on the first swipe, and the settings toggles available upon expanding it. A less obvious gesture, a careful two finger pull down will get you straight to the toggles.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are not mere switches, tapping on the text below will take you to the settings of the two. Editing the selection of toggles is available with a shortcut straight from the notification shade.
Like the rest of Sony’s Lollipop builds, the Xperia Z3+ uses standard Android app switcher with the added benefit of a kill-all button. There’s more to it though, and it comes in the form of Sony’s Small apps.
They pop up tiny widget-like applications on your homescreen, which you can move around and use without having to open the full-fledged app. So far, there’s a default set of ten: Active Clip, Chrome Bookmarks, Browser, Calculator, Calendar, Gmail, Google Keep, Music, Timer and Touch Block. You can launch only one instance of a Small App, but you can open multiple Small Apps simultaneously, though it can quickly become a mess.
You can download more Small Apps off the Play Store or use the option to turn your favorite widgets into Small Apps. Just hit the Plus key at the top of the list and choose a widget.
The Sony Xperia Z3+ is powered by other than the controversial Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chipset. In theory that should mean a 2 GHz quad-core Cortex-A57 plus 1.5 GHz quad-core Cortex-A53 processor, but we got lower values. It could be because of the pre-release status of the device in testing, or simply Sony’s way of dealing with the thermal issues. Either way, the processor is joined by an Adreno 430 GPU and 3GB of RAM, which make for a rather typical 2015 high-end setup.
We ran the entire battery of tests we typically do, and a few things became evident. One is that the phone quickly heats up when subjected to a serious load, but that was to be expected given the internals and the slim profile.
That said, it’s not as bad as we’ve witnessed and the phone doesn’t get as hot as to be unusable. It’s almost full blown summer at headquarters however, so the conditions are as bad as the device would encounter in moderate climates.
The second thing to note, which is a result of the heat, is that benchmark performance drops significantly with consecutive runs. That’s not surprising either, but the dip in performance meant that in Antutu, for example, the numbers plummeted from a 55K first run to as low as 46K as the runs ramped up.
The great performance in the first runs proved our initial guess that throttling down due to the heat hinders the phone’s performance.
All of the above considerations apply to our pre-production review unit. The final firmware, which will make it to commercially available devices, may adopt a different approach to handling the heat and thus produce different figures.
With that preamble, we can now move on to actual scores. First up is the CPU-centric Geekbench test, where the Xperia Z3+ managed to inch ahead of the HTC One M9 and LG G Flex2, both powered by the same Snapdragon 810. The Exynos 7420 inside the Samsung Galaxy S6 is in a league of its own here.
The phonebook on the Xperia Z3+ is called Contacts. It uses a tabbed interface, consisting of Contacts, Favorites and Groups. It is no longer bundled with the phone app, but you can still quickly jump to it from the dialer. The contact list has a dedicated search filed plus it offers a very nicely animated alphabetical scroll bar.
Single contact view opens in full screen, rather than the pop-up view of previous Xperias. You get plenty of options for adding contact details with practically unlimited number of fields.
The Xperia Z3+ had no problem with reception and we didn’t experience dropped calls or other anomalies. The volume range is rather wide and you wouldn’t want to pump it all the way up in all but the loudest surroundings.
The dialer is its own dedicated app and supports smart dialing. It doesn’t have a built-in recorder, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The Xperia Z3+ continues a trend of Sony flagships where they fail to impress with Loudspeaker loudness. The whole dust- and waterproofing might be the culprit, but the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active manages substantially better numbers, despite adhering to even more stringent specifications.
In the end the smartphone posted an Average score, meaning you should check it out every now and then in noisy surroundings to make sure you don’t miss a call.
|Speakerphone test||Voice, dB||Pink noise/ Music, dB||Ringing phone, dB||Overall score|
|Sony Xperia M4 Aqua||60.2||57.2||64.5||Below Average|
|Apple iPhone 6 Plus||67.3||65.7||66.5||Below Average|
|Sony Xperia Z3+||66.7||66.6||67.7||Average|
|Sony Xperia Z3||69.7||66.6||67.2||Average|
|Apple iPhone 6||66.6||65.7||72.8||Average|
|HTC One M9||65.2||64.6||76.1||Average|
|Sony Xperia Z2||66.7||64.6||75.7||Average|
|Samsung Galaxy S6||68.1||66.3||73.7||Good|
|Samsung Galaxy S5 Active||73.1||69.3||76.7||Very Good|
|Samsung Galaxy Note Edge||72.7||75.7||70.8||Very Good|
|Oppo N1||73.7||67.7||78.7||Very Good|
|Samsung Galaxy Note 4||74.7||73.5||81.6||Excellent|
Messaging, email and text input
The Sony messaging app has the regular functionality with threaded view and automatic transition to MMS when attaching media. Google Hangouts is also on board.
Naturally, the Gmail client and the default Email apps are on board. Either one can sync with multiple accounts, both Google and POP/IMAP.
The Xperia keyboard has every feature you may need. It has symbols on long press, smiley key, and Swype-like gesture input. There’s also a one handed which squishes the entire keyboard to one side for easier access. There’s also a selection of three differently color skins.
We have just finished testing the company’s flagship to replace the Z3 for this season’s battles at the high end. Yet, the very name might suggest that it may not be the proper successor but rather what the Z3 should have been in the first place. That’s to say that the Z3+ is exactly spot on.
With the Xperia Z3+ Sony has refined its OmniBalance design to near perfection. The flapless microUSB port has brought the demise of the pogo pins and now there’s only one short single flap to cover the card slot. In effect, the frame has gotten much sleeker and together with the new materials exudes even more luxury. Couple that with the slimmer 6.9mm profile and the Xperia Z3+ is again one of the top choices for the vain buyer.
The smartphone is a snappy performer, even if benchmark results showed an inherent flaw of the hardware inside. Prolonged use causes lots of heating and that in turn results in the CPU throttling down and the test scores taking a hit. A good balance has been struck though, and temperature is kept in check, while performance is hardly an issue in actual use.
The display is excellent with rich colors and nice viewing angles. Sony hasn’t managed to beat the sky-high brightness of the older model, but the Z3+ is brighter than any of the high end competition. Battery endurance has seen a minor (though expected) decrease, but that may change with the final software. However, even as it is, the Xperia Z3+ will likely deliver the promised two-day autonomy.
Camera output is another area, where final software may introduce changes. As it stands now, the images come out with a lot of detail and a bit less aggressive processing, compared to the previous model – a fact that we like.
Key test findings:
- Solid build, sophisticated dual-glass design.
- Lighter than the predecessor, pleasant to handle.
- Bright display; high contrast, though a step down from the Z3; improved sunlight legibility.
- Battery life is very good, but a bit short of the Xperia Z3’s 85-hour endurance rating. We’ll retest with a retail unit as soon as we have one.
- Xperia UI doesn’t stray far from stock Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, it’s simple and fluid. There’s the added benefit of Sony’s Small apps which offer a somewhat limited take on multi-window multitasking.
- Raw performance is on par with the Snapdragon 810 rivals, it’s a definitive improvement over the previous generation but is hindered from operation at peak performance due to thermal throttling down.
- Dual stereo speakers produce clean output, though only average in loudness and sound is not as deep as on the HTC One M9 and even the Xperia Z3.
- The multimedia package is rich in features: Album is a proficient gallery app, Movies has wide codec support and great subtitle handling, Music carries on the best from the Walkman days.
- Audio quality is solid, but not as good as the Z3. We hope to retest a retail unit later on.
- Camera output is detailed, with more laid-back processing than the Z3. We’ll be more specific once we get a retail unit to play with.
- 2160p video records plenty of detail and is worthy of its name. Puzzling though it sounds, 1080p could’ve been better.
The flagship to beat at the moment is the Samsung Galaxy S6, and the Xperia Z3+ is facing a hard time here. The Samsung flagship has a gorgeous QHD AMOLED display even if a fraction smaller at 5.1 inches. The curved version on the S6 Edge is even more impressive and actually around the price Sony will be charging for the Z3+ when it launches. The Exynos 7420 inside is the undisputed performance champion, and the Xperia is no match in benchmarks. The Z3+ does have a microSD slot for expansion, which the latest-gen Galaxy S-series has sacrificed.