"Everything you should expect from a top-end phone," and "a superb all-round performer," are just a couple of the things I said about Sony's superb flagship Xperia Z2 when it went on sale in April. Evidently not comfortable with sitting still, Sony has replaced the Z2 with a new flagship, the Z3, only six months on.
That may seem a ludicrously short time to refresh a top-of-the-line smartphone and I'm completely with you on that. Smartphone technology hasn't come on in leaps and bounds in that short space of time, so it should be no surprise that the Z3 is very much an evolution of what we've seen before, rather than an overhaul.
It keeps much of the same design cues as before, with a few physical tweaks thrown in, beefs up the processor to a 2.5GHz quad-core chip, packs in a battery that's apparently good for two days of use and chucks in a supposedly improved camera to boot.
Sony says the Z3 is due to hit shelves "globally" from October, although it wasn't willing to say exactly which countries will be delighted with its presence. Typically, the UK has been part of the first wave, with Asia following shortly. We'll have to wait and see nearer the time for availability and, indeed, how much Sony will want for the phone.
The Z3 will be available from T-Mobile in the US, online and in stores "this autumn", the carrier promises. In the UK, Vodafone is the first to confirm it will offer both the Z3 and its little bro, the Z3 Compact. In Australia, all Sony is willing to say is that it "will announce details on local pricing and availability closer to the launch of the flagship handsets".
The Xperia Z3 maintains many design cues from the previous Z2, so it's not difficult to spot the family resemblance. Both phones have a glass front and back, as well as an aluminium band running around the edge. The camera and sticking-out power button are in the same place and the minimalist Sony and Xperia branding are still on the back.
There are some changes to note though. Firstly, although it has the same 5.2-inch screen size, it's physically a bit slimmer and narrower. It's managed that by slimming down its bezel, which I'm relieved about as the wide bezel on the Z2 made the screen look squashed in. The metal edges have been rounded off and the corners have been replaced with Nylon caps, which Sony says are to protect it from drops as phones tend to land on their corners.
It's still a stunning piece of kit and feels every bit as luxurious when you hold it in your hand. As well as the usual black and white, the Z3 will be available in new copper and mint green colours, both of which I think look pretty good. The hues are cheerful, but the classy, mature aesthetic of the phone is maintained.
Like its predecessors, the Z3 is completely waterproof, letting you submerge it in up to 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) of water for up to 30 minutes. Not only does that mean it's safe from an accidental spilled drink cascading over the pub table, it allows you to safely watch Netflix in the shower (don't knock it until you've tried it) and can be used to take photos underwater when you're on holiday. The screen won't work when wet of course, but a dedicated camera shutter button lets you snap away in the surf.
The phone's 5.2-inch screen has the same full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution as its predecessor. Hawk-eyed tech fans among you will notice that Sony hasn't pushed the resolution to 2K to compete with the super high resolution LG G3. Before you cast the Z3 into the eternal pit of doomed tech, hear Sony out. It reckons that on devices of this size, a 2K is just overkill and that you can't tell the difference in clarity.
That's a very fair point and is something I found for myself when I put the LG G3's 2K screen against full HD phones -- even up close, it's almost impossible to see a difference in clarity. Secondly, a 2K screen is more power demanding. By keeping a full HD panel and using processor tweaks, Sony reckons the Z3 can achieve two days of average use. This is a huge improvement over its predecessor and more than you're likely to get from most smartphones. We'll of course be putting that to the test in the full review -- if it's true, I'd argue that avoiding a 2K panel was a good move by Sony.
Software and features
The Z3 comes with the latest version of Android, known as 4.4.4 KitKat. Sony has slapped on its own user interface though, so it looks slightly different from the stock Android experience. You'll have the usual multiple home screens and app tray, but there's a handy menu to the left of the apps that lets you easily customise the order, and Sony has added its own image and video galleries. It's the same interface you'll see on the other recent Xperias so if you're a Sony user already you'll feel right at home.
A neat new trick Sony has for the Z3 range is the ability for the phone to act as a display for your PS4 -- the idea being that if your significant other is watching TV, you can still play your PS4, using your phone as the screen. The console itself still does all the games processing, but it'll stream the video over Wi-Fi to your phone. You'll use a PS4 controller to play the game, rather than awkward on-screen buttons.
It's a cool idea and one that I can see being genuinely useful, particularly if you're in a house with lots of demands on a single TV -- or if you just want to play PS4 games while on the toilet. How this actually works will likely depend on various factors, chief among which will no doubt be your Wi-Fi setup, so I'll reserve judgement on this feature until I've properly tested it.
The back of the phone is home to a 20.7-megapixel camera. That's the same number of megapixels offered on the previous Z2, although the camera has been given a couple of tweaks on the new model. For starters, its lens now has a 25mm focal length, which means it has a wider field of view so your friends won't need to squash in quite so close when you're trying to take a group photo.
Sony also claims that it's the first phone camera that has ISO speeds up to 12,800. The higher the ISO speed, the more sensitive the image sensor is and the more sensitive it is, the more light it can take in. A high ISO speed of 12,800 then should allow for brighter pictures in low-light situations. A word of warning however: high ISO speeds mean increased image noise, particularly in smaller sensors like you'd get in a phone. I'll wait and see how good the photos look in dark areas before giving a final verdict.
Like the Z2, the Z3 is able to shoot video in 4K resolution. I liked the image quality of the 4K video on the Z2, but it was ruined by the phone's constant attempts to refocus while shooting, so hopefully Sony has sorted that out. You'll also find various scene modes and creative effects like an augmented reality mode that lets you place a walking dinosaur, among other things, onto whatever you're pointing the camera at.
There are a few new modes too, including a mode that pairs an image with a burst of recorded audio and one that takes an image with the front facing camera at the same time as the rear, placing your own face over the scene. Both modes have been lifted shamelessly from Samsung's Galaxy S4. Another mode lets you broadcast video live to YouTube.
The Sony Xperia Z3 isn't a massive upgrade from its predecessor -- which is hardly surprising, given that it's only been six months since the Z2 went on sale. The handful of tweaks it's received are welcome though. The slim bezel strikes a better compromise between screen size and body proportions and if Sony has indeed squeezed two days of battery life out of the phone thanks to not needlessly increasing the screen resolution, I for one won't be complaining that it's not a 2K screen.
The camera improvements sound good on paper too, as does the PS4 second screen feature. If everything works as Sony promises then the Xperia Z3 is likely to be a powerhouse of a phone, one that's well deserving of its flagship status.