Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Sony's handheld cinema is a blockbuster

The latest from the Xperia range has a glorious OLED display with cinematic gimmicks to boot

Price
£699
  • Superb OLED screen; Excellent performance
  • Unreliable fingerprint reader; Super slippery chassis

It's a shame the Sony Xperia XZ3 doesn't come with popcorn as an accessory because its new 4K HDR OLED display is like having a cinema in the palm of your hand. It even vibrates along with suspense-filled movies, tingling and pulsating through your hand in time to the score, thanks to its Dynamic Vibration System. This has been on most of the Xperia flagships released over the last few years, but it only seems a good idea now it's combined with this glorious new display. In this respect, the XZ3 is so good you can almost forget it's a phone which is primarily designed for communicating with other people.

In fact, it's the third phone to be released by Sony this year, after the XZ2 which hit shops in January and the XZ2 Premium, which is barely three months old. And, at first glance, the XZ3 doesn't look any different; Sony has kept a similar design and made only little tweaks, which largely seem to be all about its marvellous display and the range of colours it comes in. There is a different OS, but that's because it's one of the first (non-Google) phones to come with Android Pie fresh out of the box - the recently launched Samsung Galaxy Note 9 didn't.

But is any of this enough to cut it in a highly competitive smartphone market? Is this even enough of an improvement to release another instalment in the Xperia range so soon? A rushed film, with terrible acting and a weak script, will not be saved by flashy special effects. The same is true with modern smartphones - a super display will not save a device that isn't much cop in the other departments. So we have to ask: is the Xperia XZ3 one flagship device too many, or is this a smartphone blockbuster?

Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Design

The design is so familiar, the XZ3 could easily have been called the 'XZ2 Premium, Premium' because there's very little difference from Sony's last two Xperia models. It's not a bad looking phone, with the curved edges of its screen almost wrapping around the chassis - similar to the Samsung Galaxy S9 - but it doesn't really stand out. The screen is nice and large, with modest, notch free bezels at the top and bottom, although we do have one small gripe with the bottom bezel, where a Sony logo unnecessarily takes up some display space. We prefer that kind of pointless marketing on the back, where pretty much every other smartphone keeps it.

It all becomes a bit depressing when it's turned around, as the glass back cover is awful. It's curved, almost like you've got a swollen battery, which puffs the device out to 9.9mm thick. This, Sony says, gives a continuous flowing form to the design, but it actually makes it the slipperiest phone in recent memory. Indeed, the slightest hint of an angle sends it sliding down any surface. There's also a noticeable gap in the seam that almost suggests the back clips off, like in the days of removable batteries, but that's not the case here. It's just a sign of poor design.

Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Display

Sony's Bravia TV technology has been producing cinema-quality TVs for years - even cinemas themselves, like popular chain Vue, actually use Sony 4K digital projection technology - and this pedigree has made its way into the Xperia range. Although not the first to have a 4K display, the XZ3 is the first Sony phone to have an OLED screen and it produces the most incredible colour and contrast. This is backed up by its colour gamut result of 99%; a damn near perfect result which is as good as, if not better than, any device in its 700 price range.

This makes the XZ3 perfect for people who use their device as a portable TV, which is quite a lot of us. Streaming services clearly acknowledge the amount we watch on the go, as most allow you to temporarily download content to your device from their apps, conveniently saving your data. So if you watch a horror movie via Netflix over Halloween you'll be blown away (or repulsed) by the vivid detail of the films gory scenes, beautifully showcased by the XZ3's 6in display. With its QHD+ 1,440 x 2,880 resolution, it has all the right stuff to do any film justice.

Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Specs and Performance

The XZ3 can also match similarly priced rivals for power, but this is largely due to it having the same source. As with most flagship phones, its powered by an octa-core Snapdragon 845 chip, which clocks at 2.8GHz. Sony has paired this with 4GB of RAM and a healthy onboard storage of 64GB.

It's very good in the performance stakes, as it notched up single core scores of 2,400 and multicore scores of 8,950 on our Geekbench 4 tests. These scores put it slightly above the Samsung Galaxy S9 but on par with its predecessor the XZ2. This may suggest a lack of progress, but it's actually a sign of consistency, particularly as there are significant improvements elsewhere that could have taken up more juice. However, it was found to be wanting a little with its GPU performance, but that is due to its demanding 4K native resolution display, which is arguably worth the very slight sluggishness.

In contrast, the battery fared very well in our looped video tests, making it through 13hrs 3mins before conking out. That proved better than both the iPhone 8 and the Galaxy S9, which is an excellent result, despite falling short of the previous battery time the XZ2 offered - a mammoth 20hrs 5mins. These are admittedly intensive tests, and for real-time use, we found the XZ3 had no trouble making it from dawn to dusk.

Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Camera

On paper, the XZ3's 19-megapixel f/2.0 rear camera doesn't sound like much, but it's quite wonderful. It benefits from Electronic Image Stabilisation (EIS) that helps to steady your shots and a predictive phase-detect and laser autofocus that also keeps your pictures looking sharp. Recording videos is also a joy with the 4K resolution and HDR-enabled screen. It's also particularly mesmerising in super-slow motion.

Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Features

Sony's Dynamic Vibration System is not a new feature for the Xperia range, but it does finally feel like it's a worthwhile one because it's matched with such a cinematic screen. Take the film Jaws, for example, with its iconic John Williams theme: this vibration system is a perfect match for this, mimicking the slow build-up of the soundtrack with pulsating vibrations that let you really feel the suspense.

It doesn't always feel right to use, particularly if you're just watching content that doesn't call for it - like the news on your commute to work - but you can shut it off easily with the handy volume interface that pops up. This is ultimately a gimmick though - one that will perhaps only appeal to cinephiles and probably not enough to deter anyone from an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.

Another feature that isn't going to convert many to Sony's Xperia XZ3, is its fingerprint reader, which often fails to register your digit the first time. When it does recognise you, it still needs a moment to be sure. This is in contrast to the super snappy readers on the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro, or the Samsung S9, which all open with the briefest of touches. All of those devices have facial recognition too, for roughly the same price. Where a manufacturer places a fingerprint reader is subjective, but the XZ3 has placed it on the back, under the camera, which is similar in size and feel. The result is that quite often your index finger will tap the camera when it goes blindly searching for the reader.

Almost every phone released this year will have some intuitive machine learning-based feature and on the XZ3, Sony has used it as a shortcut to all your favourite apps. 'Side Sense' uses machine learning to predict which applications you want to open. It works with a simple double-tap of your finger on the side of the device and the options pop up in a little box to make it easier for your thumb to pick one. Much like the fingerprint sensor, however, the operation isn't 100% reliable and it often pops up unintentionally when you hold the device single-handed. It's also a feature that suggests Sony has forgotten that app icons are movable and people tend to customise their interface to their preference anyway.

Sony Xperia XZ3 review: Verdict

Phone manufacturers don't receive Oscars, but if they did, the Xperia XZ3 would earn Sony... a nomination, at least. This is by no means a work of art, but it is a blockbuster in its own way. For 700 you're getting a screen of immense quality, perfect for the cinema lover. But that same price doesn't come with any top-drawer technology like facial recognition. The features it does have, like the fingerprint sensor, are a bit of a flop and without a super strong case and screen protector, the phone will slide off anything and smash within the blink of an eye.

If you want to immerse yourself in a film while you're travelling, then this is your device, but if you want a bit more innovation beyond the screen there are better, more affordable options - currently, the OnePlus 6 is over 200 cheaper and it outperforms the XZ3 in most areas. So, it may not exactly be a scene stealer, but the Xperia XZ3 is going to make a good cameo in the smartphone market.

Verdict

For its price, you'd probably expect a few more high-end features from the Xperia XZ3, but its cinematic display is a real blockbuster.

Processor

Octa-core 2.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845

Screen size

6in

Screen resolution

2,960 x 1,440

Rear camera

19-megapixel

Storage (free)

64GB

Wireless data

4G

Dimensions

158 x 73 x 10mm

Weight

193g

Operating system

Android 9

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