Introduction and design
When Sony announced the Xperia Z3+, many of us hoping for the Xperia Z4 were disappointed. Instead of getting a brand new flagship device with exciting new bells and whistles, we were presented with an iterative update that seemingly only brought a few updates and improvements.
While these improvements are certainly welcome, it’s no secret that Sony’s mobile division is turning in disappointing results – and a new flagship Xperia could have been the shot in the arm the company needed.
To be fair, Sony could have simply called this device the Z4 to help drum up some more excitement, but by naming it the Z3+, the Japanese company appears to be managing expectations.
These aren’t the most auspicious of circumstances for a new handset to launch in, but does the Z3+ overcome its challenges and emerge as a fine handset or is it doomed to be overlooked by the same audience who gave the Xperia Z3 a miss?
A hardware refresh and a few new features have at least allowed Sony to remain competitive without launching a whole new flagship. However, with a new handset comes a new price tag.
While the Z3 sells for about £320 ($498 and AU$675) or with monthly contracts as low as £23, the new Xperia Z3+ costs about £415 ($645 and AU$875) SIM-free, and is free with monthly contracts of £45.
That’s a pretty big difference, and it means the Z3+ has to prove that it’s enough of an upgrade to warrant the additional cost. It doesn’t help that the Z3’s price drop has helped make the older handset a more attractive sell. If you skip the Z3+, it’s now cheaper than ever to get a Sony flagship device.
If you do want the new model, it’s at least slightly cheaper than the LG G4, and a fair bit less than the Galaxy S6.
Sony has a well-earned reputation for creating attractively designed products, and the Xperia Z series of handsets did nothing to dispel this, with the OmniBalance design providing an elegant aesthetic that feels comfortable no matter how you handle the device.
Sony has kept the OmniBalance design with the Z3+, leaving you in no doubt that this is a high-end Xperia device. Its recognisable design looks a lot like the Z3, but there are a few noticeable changes.
For example, although the Z3+ has the same height and width dimensions of the Z3 (146.3 x 71.9mm), it’s also been on a bit of a diet, and now comes with a depth of just 6.9mm.
This makes the Z3+ lighter and easier to hold than its predecessor, though it comes at a price as the battery has been cut to 2900mAh (down from the Z3’s 3100mAh).
I’ll test out the battery life later on to see if this reduction in capacity results in a noticeably shorter time between charges, but from looks and feeling alone, the slimmer Xperia Z3+ is a big improvement over the Z3.
The thin bezels on either side of the screen help make the Z3+ feel comfortable to hold and use in one hand, and it also ensures that the bright, vibrant and full HD 5.2-inch IPS screen is the centre of attention.
The bezels above and below the screen are still a little chunky for my tastes. Unlike the Xperia Z3, whose top front-facing speaker and microphone on the bottom were clearly visible in the middle of the bezels, the Z3+ is far more discrete.
This is very nice from a design standpoint, but it does make the now mostly blank bezels (especially the bottom one) seem slightly redundant.
Like the Z3, the Z3+ remains a slab of glass with a metal surround, though this time the sides of the phone have a shinier and more expensive look. It’s enough to make it easy to tell the difference between the Z3 and Z3+ quickly when they’re side by side.
The Z3+ is also waterproof, and while some ports need to be covered in slightly fiddly flaps to remain water resistant, Sony has managed to make the microUSB of the Z3+ waterproof on its own.
This new feature was particularly pleasing because it meant I didn’t have to locate and prise open a flap every time I wanted to charge the handset. With the Z3 and Z3 Compact, I would often find myself scrabbling around to find the flap when plugging in the phone in the dark – so the lack of a flap (and it’s repositioning at the bottom of the handset) is certainly welcome.
That’s about as convenient as charging gets, however, as the Z3+ doesn’t support wireless charging, which is being increasingly spotted in other flagship handsets. Perhaps Sony will include it in the Z4?
Water and dust resistance
While other manufacturers have dabbled with (and then ditched) making their flagship phones waterproof, Sony has stuck to its guns by continuing to fit its smartphones in rugged casing, with the Z3+ boasting an IP68 rating. This means it can be submerged in water up to 5 feet deep for 30 minutes.
Being plunged in water for that long sounds like an extreme scenario, but like previous Sony handsets, I’m fond of the extra protection. It means I feel more confident taking the Z3+ out with me and won’t have to worry too much if I get wet (I live in a particularly soggy part of the world, after all).
When you put a fair amount of dosh down on a new handset, you often worry about taking it out with you in case it gets damaged, so it’s a relief to have a phone that feels pretty robust.
Sony has demonstrated in the past that waterproof handsets don’t have to compromise on design, and once again the Z3+ wears its splashproof features in style. It still feels slim and light, and nothing like some of the bulky, ruggerised monstrosities we’ve seen in the past, such as the Cat S50.
Another nice feature, which I touched on earlier, is the waterproof microUSB port and headphone. It’s probably not a deal breaker, but it’s an extra feature that will appeal to some people.
One of the the Z3+’s biggest selling points is the 20.7 megapixel camera that’s included. Considering that Sony makes the camera sensors for a number of its smartphone competitors, it’s not much of a surprise to see it putting a headline-grabbing snapper in its latest flagship.
I say “seemingly” as there’s more to camera quality than having the highest number of megapixels. The Xperia Z3+ has the same 1/2.3-inch 20.7 MP Exmor RS, ISO12800 sensor and lens as the Xperia Z3, and when the Z3’s camera was pitted against the iPhone 6 by camera experts DxO, Apple’s flagship came out on top.
When I used the Z3 and Z3 Compact, I felt that the camera didn’t live up to expectations, so I was disappointed to find that the Z3+ comes with the same camera. Sony seems to think this snapper is good enough, but I – and others – would disagree.
Once again, Sony’s camera app comes packed with features and settings that can help you compose your photographs, and the options go beyond what many other manufacturers offer (especially the default Android photo app). If you like to tweak your images, you may be happy with the Z3+, though the absence of RAW image file support means keen photographers might want to give it a miss.
As with other Sony handsets and tablets, the Xperia Z3+ comes with PS4 Remote Play, which allows you to stream games from the PlayStation 4 to the Z3+ and play them on the phone.
I spent a week playing with the feature on the Z3+ and the Z3 for TechRadar’s Phone Week, and I can safely say that the feature works extremely well.
Games streamed from the PS4 to the Xperia Z3+’s 1080p screen look fantastic, and even when playing in other parts of my house, I felt gameplay was smooth and responsive – pretty essential if you’re using the service to play competitive games.
Setting up Remote Play is straightforward. You just need to sign the Xperia Z3+ up to the same Wi-Fi network as the PS4 and download the Remote Play app – though I’m not sure why this isn’t included with the PlayStation app that comes preinstalled.
The setup process doesn’t take long at all, and you can pair a DualShock 4 controller to the Z3+ via Bluetooth, which I recommend doing as it makes playing games far more comfortable.
Although Remote Play is no substitute for playing games on the big screen – and some types of game just don’t suit the Xperia Z3+’s small screen – it’s great when the TV is being used by someone else.
If you don’t have a PS4 and have no interest in playing console games on your smartphone, the Remote Play feature of the Z3+ will be of no interest to you. But if you do have a PS4, I really do recommend trying this feature out – and seeing as Remote Play is currently exclusive to Sony handsets, the Z3+ offers the best way to experience it.
Performance and interface
There’s been a lot of news about the performance of the Z3+ since its launch, and unfortunately it’s not all that positive. Sony’s decision to go with the SnapDragon 810 chipset, which has been affected by overheating issues, caused some concern when it was announced.
While other manufacturers ditched Qualcomm’s chipset in favour of an alternative (like Samsung’s Exynos SoC or the LG G4 going for the SnapDragon 808), Sony stuck with the 810, perhaps in hope that the higher specs would turn attention away from any heating issues.
Unfortunately that wasn’t to be the case, with news quickly emerging about how hot the Z3+ would get – especially when recording video.
When using the Z3, which has the SnapDragon 801 chipset, I found the handset would get pretty hot, especially when browsing the internet or taking 4K video (which would cause the app to shut down). To hear that the Z3+ also suffered heating problems was a disappointment, but I wanted to see (and feel it) for myself.
When browsing the internet on both 4G and Wi-Fi, it was disconcerting to feel how hot the Z3+ became after ten minutes of use. At this point the Z3+ didn’t crash, but it wasn’t a satisfactory or comfortable experience for a seemingly flagship smartphone.
There were also a few instances where I noticed the Z3+ getting hot in my pocket – usually when the screen had turned itself on and loaded up an app while I was moving. Sure, this meant I was aware that the Z3+ had accidentally been unlocked, but I’d rather a phone that didn’t warm up my thigh quite so easily.
In response to the heating issues, Sony has said that users should turn off the phone occasionally throughout the day until a fix has been released, which is far from ideal. After all, you don’t want to spend money on a new phone, only to be told that you should turn it off to keep it cool.
On the whole I was pretty impressed with the performance of the Z3+, with Android Lollipop 5.0.2running smoothly. Most apps opened with barely a pause, though a few more demanding ones took a moment or two to start the first time I loaded them up.
Graphically intensive games, such as Real Racing 3, performed very well, with the Adreno 430 GPU doing a good job of delivering visuals to the 1080p screen of the Z3+. In my many laps of the race course, I barely noticed any dropped frames, with the Z3+ keeping up admirably.
Of course the handset started getting hot when playing the game, which is a shame because otherwise I found the Z3+’s performance to be pretty good, with it scoring 4057 on the Geekbench 3 benchmark test. This compares pretty well with the Galaxy S6, which is a fair bit more expensive, but scores only slightly higher at 4846.
When running Geekbench 3 on the older Xperia Z3, it scored 2737, which is a decent step up from its predecessor – more so than the modest jump from the Xperia Z2 to the Z3.
The Xperia Z3+ comes with Android 5.0 Lollipop installed. This isn’t quite the latest version (some handsets are sporting Android 5.1), but it does mean you’re getting a pretty up-to-date Android experience right out of the box.
As with Sony’s previous handsets, a custom interface is installed over Android 5.0, along with a number of preinstalled apps, which many people uncharitably term ‘bloatware’.
Sometimes these apps can be useful, but on the whole, the ones that come with the Xperia Z3+ are pretty pointless – for example the “Lifelog” activity log probably won’t be used when there are so many more popular – and better – activity and health logging apps to choose from.
The “What’s New” widget is also plonked onto your home screen, telling you about films, music, apps and games that you’re unlikely to be interested in, and just makes the screen look a bit busy and ugly. A lot of what is displayed on the widget appeared on the Xperia M4 Aqua a while ago – so it doesn’t feel like it’s particularly up to date or even necessary.
Some of the other apps, such as Sony’s Music app, are a little better – especially since Sony dropped its Music Unlimited streaming service and integrated the much more popular Spotify service. However, if you don’t have a Spotify account, this again feels pointless.
The same can be said for the preinstalled PlayStation app. It’s great if you have a PlayStation 4, but if not, this is yet another app that takes up space and won’t get used.
Apart from the long list of unwanted apps, the interface is reasonably close to stock Android, with a similar app launcher. However, it doesn’t list apps alphabetically by default, which does mean finding certain apps can be a bit of a chore.
You don’t get Google’s new Material Design aesthetic either. Instead you get a live wallpaper that mimics the background of the PlayStation 3, which looks OK but nothing special.
The good news is that Sony is actively looking at overhauling its user interface, and replacing it with a new “Concept for Android” UI. From early images, it looks like this new interface will take more cues from Android Lollipop’s Material Design, and will (hopefully) lay off the preinstalled apps.
For the moment, I’ll repeat what I said about the interface of previous Xperia models: it’s fine if you’ve invested in Sony’s ecosystem and use a number of its services, but if not, you’ll find a lot of unwanted apps.
When we got the specs of the Xperia Z3+, one major thing stood out: while pretty much every other aspect of the smartphone either got a spec boost (or stayed the same), the battery of the Z3+ actually got smaller.
You read that right; while the Z3 comes with a 3100 mAh battery, the Z3+ comes with a lower capacity 2930mAh power pack.
The reason for this is because Sony has trimmed the dimensions of the Z3+, so we get a slimmer and lighter handset that could potentially not last as long between charges as its predecessor.
A smaller capacity battery doesn’t always mean shorter battery life, and Sony could have made some software and hardware tweaks to make the new handset more efficient, negating any negative impact brought on by the reduction in battery size.
For example, the Xperia Z3+ uses the Snapdragon 810 chipset to power the device. Qualcomm, the company behind the hardware, has worked hard on making the Snapdragon 810 faster while using less energy (and therefore burning through the battery slower) than the older Snapdragon 801 – which is what the Xperia Z3 uses.
With that in mind, I was keen to see how well the Z3+ would work when out and about. On an average day, with only light internet browsing, listening to a few songs, sending a few texts and making short phone calls, the Z3+ would reach 10pm with about 50% of its battery remaining.
This isn’t bad, and if you don’t plug in the Xperia Z3 to charge overnight, you’d probably get another half a day.
During a more intensive day, the battery life dropped sharply. This included heavy internet use, replying to numerous emails and text messages, writing notes and listening to music. With heavy use (which wouldn’t be out of the question for many people), the battery ended up at 14% by 6:30PM.
Web browsing was the biggest battery guzzler here, with the battery dropping by almost 1% per minute of browsing. Image, video and GIF-heavy sites were particularly taxing, with the handset heating up noticeably when browsing.
In TechRadar’s battery benchmark test, where we looped a high definition video on full brightness for 90 minutes, the battery dropped by 38% from full to just 62%. This is quite a substantial drop, with the Z3 dropping 31%. In our Z3 review, we blamed this large drop in battery to the overly bright screen, as the Z3 and Z3+ get a lot brighter than other handsets.
There’s no denying that the battery life here is a disappointment, and if you want to use the Z3+ for watching videos and browsing the internet, then I recommend reconsidering – or at least investing in a portable battery pack.
As with previous Xperia handsets, Sony has included a number of battery saving modes which can eke out extra battery life, and on the whole these are easy to turn on, and do a decent job of prolonging the time between charges.
Unlike the battery saving mode on stock Android, the impact to performance isn’t as noticeable either, as some power saving modes deliberately make the phone run slower to save energy.
While the depth and breadth of battery saving options is welcome, it doesn’t quite make up for the relatively poor battery life of the Z3+.
Sony’s Xperia range of smartphones have been putting their camera capabilities front and centre for a while now, and on paper you can see why. As with the Z3 and Z3 Compact, the Xperia Z3+ comes with a 20.7 megapixel camera with Exmor RS sensor and an ISO rating of 12800.
If you’ve been keeping track of Sony’s flagship devices, this might leave you with a sense of deja vu, as this is exactly the same snapper that can be found in the older Z3 and Z3 Compact. It’s a bit of a shame that Sony has stuck with this setup because even if it sounds promising, it just doesn’t blow the competition out of the water.
However, the Sony Xperia Z3+ is proof that a high megapixel count doesn’t automatically equal a better camera. That’s not to say that the camera in the Z3+ is bad – far from it in fact – but it doesn’t wow quite as much as other handsets.
Part of the reason for this is that the camera of the Z3+ really benefits from being tweaked. Sony has done an admirable job of offering plenty of settings that can help improve the look of photos, but as a pick up and shoot device (which is what a lot of people want from a smartphone camera), it doesn’t quite have the impact of Apple and Samsung’s offerings.
The camera app (which can be launched by pressing and holding the dedicated camera button on the body of the Z3+) does a good job of providing plenty of options in an easy to understand interface. The default automatic mode identifies the type of shot you’re trying to compose, and you can quickly swap to manual, portrait and other modes quickly.
You can also download a number of additional modes to expand the functionality of the camera. Not all of the modes are great, but it’s a nice feature to have, and adds a bit of flexibility to the handset.
However, all of these add-ons and settings can’t hide the fact that the image quality isn’t great. Details in some areas are decent, but in others are pretty bad.
Zooming in on certain aspects of a photo taken with the Z3+ gives some shots an almost paint-like quality, which isn’t something you want with day-to-day snaps.
Indoor shots also suffer from this, though again it’s not a consistent problem. For every good shot with a high level of detail and good colour correction, there’s a shot that looks noticeably poor.
It seems like the hardware is capable, so I think the automatic settings are to blame. If you’re happy to devote some time to trying out all the manual settings then you should see an improvement.
I showed the photos to a number of people who were interested in the Z3+’s camera, and each one was far from impressed with the image quality. Most people don’t want to fiddle with their camera settings on a phone, they want to take great looking snaps in the heat of the moment – which is where the Z3+ falls short, unfortunately.
The Z3+ also shoots video, and the 1080p footage I took was smooth and clear, though some optical image stabilisation would be welcome (or I could just use a tripod next time). Like the Z3, the Z3+ can shoot 4K footage. This does cause the handset to warm up, and a message appears saying that the phone could shut down, but it’ll save your footage beforehand.
This doesn’t leave a great impression, as you want your new toy to simply work with no warnings or excuses. In the end though, I took a couple of minutes of 4K footage without any problems, and the video quality was excellent.
Pretty much any recent smartphone can handle the essentials competently and the Sony Xperia Z3+ is no different.
Phone calls come in through the Phone app, which features a few tweaks to the stock Android experience, such as including most used numbers at the top of the screen.
The dial pad is also slightly different, and more in keeping with Sony’s theme that runs throughout the interface. Call quality itself is very good, and the handset did a good job getting signal (on the EE network) even in areas where network coverage is patchy.
Text messages have a slightly tweaked app, though this one is closer to the stock Android version. This time round, the newest messages get highlighted with a background picture of the contact who sent the message (if you have one assigned). It’s a little touch, but one of the few areas where I actually prefer Sony’s aesthetic choice over Google’s.
The onscreen keyboard is all right, and the larger screen of the Xperia Z3+ makes hitting the keys reasonably easy and accurate, except I kept hitting ‘.’ instead of space, which.made.sentances.look.like.this. It’s rather annoying, and I don’t seem to have that problem on other devices, so I’m inclined to blame the Z3+.
It’s arguable that browsing the internet is now just as essential to smartphones as the ability to make and receive phone calls, and the Z3+ does well in some respects when it comes to the world wide web.
Chrome is the default browser, and as it is to be expected, offers a decent web experience, with websites displaying well. The 1080p 5.2-inch screen is big enough to read text on comfortably, and the 4G and Wi-Fi connection options allow for quick internet connections no matter if you’re indoors or out and about.
However, the web browsing experience is compromised by the excessive heat generated by the Xperia Z3+, and after only a few minutes of browsing image (and gif) heavy websites, the handset became very hot to touch.
Web browsing also has a big impact on battery life, which means you’ll want to limit your browsing.
Watching and listening to media is another essential, and the bright and vibrant screen does an excellent job of displaying videos. Music and podcast playback is also very good. Sony has included a feature that identifies when you’ve got a pair of headphones plugged in and will give recommendations for sound settings so that you can achieve the best audio quality.
Sony’s commitment to audio excellence is evident with the support for Hi-Res audio as well as LDAC, which is an improved wireless streaming standard that makes listening to tunes with Bluetooth headphones or speakers much more impressive. It’s here that the Z+ really stands out from the competition, and if your smartphone is your primary method of listening to music, then there is a lot to like.
The internal storage of 32GB provides plenty of space for media storage (and puts the stingy 16GB offering of the cheapest iPhone 6 to shame), and you can expand this by a further 128GB with a microSD card.
The built-in speakers do an adequate job of playing music out loud, but they don’t quite compare to the impressive BoomSound front-facing speakers of the HTC One M9. You’d be better off getting a pair of external speakers for the best possible sound quality.
Sony’s choice to go with the Xperia Z3+ rather than a fully fledged Xperia Z4 has, as I feared, ended up feeling like a bit of a stop gap. There are some genuine improvements over last year’s Xperia Z3, such as a thinner and more attractive design and boosted internals, that give the Z3+ a real edge when it comes to performance, but there’s a lot that’s left to stagnate.
This means more of the same when it comes to Sony’s custom interface, and the same old camera that didn’t terribly impress last time around. Even worse in some cases, like the battery, it seems that the Z3+ is a step back from the Z3.
Sony’s mobile device division isn’t in amazing shape, so coming out all guns blazing with a killer flagship could have given it a new lease of life. Sadly, the Z3+ is not the handset to do it.
I’ve always liked the OmniBalance design of previous Xperia devices, so I was pleased to see that Sony has refined it with the Z3+. The thinner body and new chrome metallic colour scheme makes this a very attractive device.
I’m also glad to see that Sony has made the USB port waterproof without needing a flap – as it makes charging up the device much easier.
Finally, as a PlayStation 4 owner, I’ve been using the Remote Play feature a lot, and am impressed with how well it works.
We didn’t like
You’ve probably heard this already, but the Xperia Z3+ has a heating issue. It’s not much worse than other Snapdragon 810-powered handsets, and it’s unlikely that you’ll end up with a singed pocket, but it is an annoyance that shouldn’t be affecting a high-end phone.
Battery life is a disappointment, especially when browsing on Wi-Fi and 4G. The screen is gorgeous, but this too takes its toll on the battery.
Lastly, there are too many preinstalled apps for my liking, and I hope that Sony’s upcoming new interface addresses the bloatware problem.
Overall, the Xperia Z3+ is a bit of a disappointment.
It’s a perfectly capable handset, but that’s not what we really want at this price range, and it’s certainly not what Sony needs to reverse its mobile fortunes. There’s nothing here that would make you ditch an iPhone or Samsung for an Xperia, and there are cheaper phones, like the OnePlus 2, which promise to deliver more bang for your buck.
There’s also little incentive for Z3 owners to upgrade to the Z3+, though the performance boost is noticeable between the two handsets.
It has some good specs, a lovely screen, a nice design and a price tag that’s below some of its competitors, but these are all let down by the phone’s lacklustre battery life, disappointing camera and unambitious feel.
Let’s hope that Sony really pulls out all the stops with the Xperia Z4.
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