Review: Sony Xperia Z3 for T-Mobile
Like many of Sony's handsets, the Xperia Z3 is a media powerhouse. As you can guess, the Google Play Store and its selection of books, magazines, music, and movies is on board. These are the same apps found on most Android devices. They have been updated lately by Google and they work well. The new features and new design are enough to make them worth checking out if you haven't seen them in a while. The phone has an FM radio, too.
Sony uses its own Walkman and video player apps for sideloaded content. The Sony Walkman app is a feature-rich music player and surpasses the Google Play Music app in terms of usability and features. I like the way it arranges playlists and albums, and it has a nice visual look and feel. It has a great equalizer for customizing the sound. The video player is similarly good.
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The Xperia Z3 also includes Sony Videos Unlimited. The Videos Unlimited service offers movie rentals. Pricing for the rentals varies by title. It's run by the Sony Entertainment Network. You need to use your existing PlayStation account in order to use it.
T-Mobile added the T-Mobile TV app. T-Mobile TV is a for-pay streaming service that offers snippets of TV shows and movies. It works best when you have a strong LTE signal available. It costs money, though, and there are better content services available.
The Z3 has a handful of compelling sound optimization tools. For example, there's ClearAudio+. You can turn it on or turn it off. I have no idea what it does, but if you turn it on, it negates any other sound effects you may have customized. The dynamic normalizer balances out volume peaks and valleys in music and videos. The Z3 also supports high-resolution audio, but you need to use USB and connect to a freaking digital-to-audio headphone amplifier. I hardly know anyone — even audiophiles — who uses a DAC headphone amplifier. You can actually tell the Z3 what type of Sony headphones you have (assuming you have Sony headphones.) This ostensibly customizes the sound further to compensate for whichever pair of Sony headphones you happen to be using.
Last, the Z3 has its own stereo speakers, which makes watching video more enjoyable when you don't have a pair of good headphones laying about. I thought the stereo sound was quite good, and there's a tool to tweak how the stereo speakers handle surround sound audio.
The Z3's camera app is more or less carried over from the Z1s and Z2. It's a solid piece of software that I find works well. One of its best features? You can wake it with a long press of the dedicated camera button. This is by far the fastest way to launch the camera, and it takes under 2 seconds. You can set the feature to launch and fire a shot, or launch and start recording video, if you wish. Cool.
On the screen, the main buttons (camera, video camera, modes) are all on the right, while buttons for the flash, user-facing camera and settings are all on the left.
The default shooting mode is called Superior Auto. It's good at detecting various types of scenes and then adjusting the settings to match what you're looking at. Basically what this means is that it can switch between macro photography (shooting close-ups), HDR photography, and regular photography automatically. It's also good at noticing low-light situations and adjusting the flash accordingly. I found Superior Auto worked incredibly well on the Z3. It's much faster than the Z1s/Z2, probably due in part to the Snapdragon 801 processor. For most people, this is the shooting mode to use.
There are 15 other shooting modes, and I find them to be overwhelming. It's just way too much to digest, even if they are fun to use and create interesting results.
Those extra modes include: Manual; Sound Photo (takes photos with background sounds); AR Fun (use virtual objects to enhance photos); Multi Camera (use both cameras at the same time); Face In (use both cameras to put your face in either photos or videos); 4K Video (obvious); Timeshift Video (high frame rate for slow-motion results); Live On YouTube (broadcast live video to YouTube); Background Defocus (blurs the background); AR Effect (take photos with virtual scenes and characters); Creative Effect (select effects - i.e., filters - for artistic photos and videos); Info-Eye (augmented reality search tool); Timeshift Burst (takes a quick burst before you press the shutter button to increase likelihood of getting good shot); Social Live (publishes directly to Facebook); and Panorama. Sound like a bit much?
Each of these individual modes works fairly well. I didn't have much luck with the Info-Eye feature, perhaps because I live in the sticks of NJ and there's nothing of interest around. The AR Fun tool will probably appeal to teenagers and those looking to be silly. I don't see much to be gained from the artistic filters in the Creative Effect tool, as so many filters are available from so many other apps. The Background Defocus function is perhaps the most useful, as it can create usable portraits. Maybe the most important addition over Sony's earlier handsets are the tools for adding yourself to the shot, because, you know, selfies.
The Z3 can also detect smiles, and can make various different shutter sounds. I like that the flash has four settings, including fill-flash. Fill-flash helps take photos when you have a light background and a dark foreground and you want to make the foreground pop a little bit (it uses a lower-power burst than the normal flash mode.)
Everything about the camera is fast. It focuses quickly, and shoots/saves images quickly.
The Z3 has a 20.7-megapixel camera and it takes very good photos. The Z3 ranks with the best in terms of photo quality. I found images to be sharp, accurately exposed, and with proper white balance most of the time. The Superior Auto mode really does a good job, and the Z3 makes significant gains against its predecessors. I'd say it ranks just a hair under the iPhone 6 and Note 4 in terms of absolute quality. Most people will be able to rely on the Z3 for both everyday shots and special events.
By default, the Z3 shoots 1080p HD video. It can record 4K video if you want. These are your only options in terms of video resolution. Obviously 4K footage is a waste if you don't have a 4K screen on which to watch it. The 1080p footage I captured looked great. I was very pleased with the results across the board. I found the low-light results impressive, despite a small amount of grain. Focus, exposure, and white balance were all good most of the time. I'd say the Z3 is a capable video camera for all but the most important personal events.
The gallery app is another that we've seen before from Sony. It is way more fun to use than the stock gallery app from Google, that's for sure. The grid of thumbnails in the main view can be expanded and reshaped by using pinch-to-zoom gestures. By default, one thumbnail (the most recent image) is somewhat larger than the others. Grab that and do a reverse pinch gesture and it will grow to fill the screen. You can use these gestures to make all the thumbnails visible at the same time, or as few as three visible at a time. It makes dealing with the gallery more enjoyable.
Beyond this user interface, the Sony gallery has all the tools you expect to find on a modern smartphone. Individual photos and albums can be easily shared with others via messaging apps or social networks. Sony incorporated a handful of its own tools, as well. For example, you can send a photo to the Info-Eye tool for searching purposes, or to the Xperia Share service, and so on. Photos can also be cropped and rotated, as well as adjusted for exposure, etc. Sony pulled the editing tools directly from the Android gallery app.
The Google Photos app is also on board. This app can be used to backup, access, and edit any photos you've saved to Google+. This app will eventually replace the standard Android gallery app, so you may as well get used to it. It has its own editing tools that are slightly better than the stock Android app. For example, the Auto Awesome feature will adjust your images in the fly to account for exposure or other problems.
Last, Sony included an app called Sketch. Sketch lets you draw on photos, or add photos to drawings and everything in between. It offers a wide range of pen, pencil and brush tips, a variety of colors, and the ability to insert text and silly graphics. It should appeal to creative types who aren't satisfied with static, boring old photos.
There are 58 apps preinstalled on the Z3, and a fair number of them are T-Mobile-branded apps, such as Caller Name ID, Device Unlock, T-Mo My Account, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV, Track ID, and so on. Many of Sony's apps - such as Walkman and Update Center - duplicate functions that are already baked into the Android platform.
The Device Unlock app lets you know the status of your handset and when/how you'll be able to unlock it from T-Mobile's network. That's the first time we've seen that app; it's neat.
Other Sony apps worth calling out include Sony Select and Xperia Lounge. Sony Select is an app recommendation tool that works similarly to the Samsung Hub on Galaxy devices. It offers a selection of apps and games that Sony thinks you'll enjoy. The Xperia Lounge is sort of "Hey, check out all this cool Sony Xperia stuff!" news app. It is organized like a magazine and offers articles and updates on all things Sony.
The Z3's Bluetooth radio functioned well in my tests. I was able to make calls both through headsets and speakers. Voice quality through headsets and my car's hands-free system were probably below average in terms of quality, but volume was excellent. The Z3 supports the aptX Bluetooth profile, which means you'll get the best possible wireless sound from your phone and headphones and/or speaker. I was very impressed with Bluetooth music playback.
Chrome is the only browser aboard the Z3. Chrome is a solid browser. It delivered web sites quickly and rendered them well on the bright and sharp display — as long as network coverage was good. I saw much slower speeds in poor coverage areas. As always, Chrome can be used to sync browsing history and bookmarks with the desktop version of Chrome.
The lock screen clock is a white, digital clock that's positioned at the top of the display. It's a bit thicker and easier to see than the clock on earlier Z models, but it still isn't customizable. There are a number of clock widgets for the home screens, but the time is almost always displayed in the status bar at the top.
The Z3 includes only Google Maps for navigation. It's adept when it comes to planning routes and following guided directions from Point A to Point B. Google Maps is free and is very good when it comes to search. The Z3's GPS radio always found me quickly and accurately.
The Z3 is one of two smartphones to support PlayStation 4 Remote Play. This feature lets the Z3 remotely connect to the PS4 to play games. Sony envisions this feature being used most often when the TV set attached to the PS4 console is being used by others. It allows kids to play their games even if Mom and Dad are watching TV. The Z3 connects to the PS4 via Wi-Fi. The PS4 can stream the gaming content to the handset. It works with the PS4's controller and a mounting accessory (sold separately) to hold up the phone during gameplay.
The Z3 also has a separate PSN app. It hooks you into the PlayStation Network to access your PS3/PS4 and other Sony content and services. You can also access your PSN messages through this app, and conduct IM chats with other PSN users.
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