Sony Xperia XZ3 hands-on: Damn fine hardware, with potential pain points lurking

Sony’s strategy of releasing a new flagship phone every six months means you don’t have to wait long to see the company’s latest mobile tech. But it also means that the generation-over-generation changes are extremely subtle compared to others that refresh once a year. The Xperia XZ3 hasn’t broken that mold, but what has changed is notable and the overall product is still enticing — particularly from a hardware perspective.

It’s easy to dismiss the XZ3 as “yet another Sony phone” at first glance — and I’ll admit that was my first reaction — but believe me, there’s more to this hardware than you think. Sony’s design languages is intact, but the details dramatically change the feel of this phone. The 6-inch display makes this phone slightly larger than the XZ2, but it doesn’t feel as big or “pillowy” as I liked to refer to the XZ2.

The aluminum frame thins out around the sides of the phone, the back is flatter across the middle and the curves are more subtle. The curved screen makes a massive difference to the feel of the phone because of how it lets the glass more aggressively curve over into the thin sides. In short, it feels like the Galaxy S9+ — and that’s a really good thing. And call me crazy, but I think Sony’s execution of the metal, glass and joins is actually better than Samsung’s latest. The color selections Sony made are absolutely fantastic. Whether you go with the monolithic all-black, the pleasant sea foam green or my personal favorite white-and-silver, each one has a nice mixture of finishes and a great depth to the color.

Sony managed to notably improve on the XZ2’s hardware; it’s stunning.

The new 6-inch OLED display looked really good to my eyes, but then again you expect that in this level of device. What I didn’t expect from Sony was shrunken top and bottom bezels, which brings the XZ3’s edges closer to what the rest of the industry has reached. They’re now down to the size where you can give them a pass, at least if you consider the new and improved speakers.

The one curveball feature on the XZ3 that I can’t wrap my head around is “Side sense,” the feature not unlike HTC’s Edge Sense that lets you tap along the sides of the phone to perform actions without pressing a button. Sony has a pretty basic implementation here: you double-tap your thumb on either side of the phone, and a menu pops out with apps you can launch. It’s basically the same as using an Edge panel on a modern Galaxy phone, except you don’t have to look at the little pull-in tab all the time.

This new ‘Side sense’ feature needs some fine tuning.

Unfortunately, I spent several minutes trying to get it to consistently trigger and just couldn’t make it happen with anywhere near 100% accuracy. You need a pretty firm double-press, which can be tough on a phone with such a thin metal edge. It’s a very neat idea that could be incredibly useful if Sony fine tunes the system and makes it more configurable. And unlike the HTC U12+ it isn’t a core part of the phone’s navigation, so I’m willing to give it a “wait and see” pass for the moment.

Sony’s also shipping this phone with Android 9 Pie out of the box, which gives it a leg up over all of the phones that launched recently with Oreo. Sony’s software continues to be fast and clean, following in the footsteps of Google Pixels albeit with a little extra Sony style — something most people either love or hate.

As ever, there are (potential) caveats here. I still don’t like the fingerprint sensor placement, as just like the XZ2 it’s way too far down the back of the phone. There’s no headphone jack here, either. The display looked great in my short time with it, but Sony has a track record of screens with weak outdoor visibility — hopefully switching to OLED fixed that. I’m also concerned by the longevity of a phone this big with a 3300mAh battery. The camera, too, has potential to be a dealbreaker. Taking a few shots in the (admittedly poorly lit) Sony booth at IFA 2018, the camera was sometimes slow to capture, and the grain and chroma noise in the resulting photos was immediately noticeable — that’s just not something I can put up with in a $900 phone.

Sony made a darn nice phone, and no longer has a bunch of bone-headed mistakes.

When using the Xperia XZ3, I fell back to the usual question of whether it’s a “too little too late” situation with Sony’s flagships. The company is so saddled by the baggage of releasing expensive, subpar phones for so long that now it almost doesn’t have a chance to capture any market — even though it’s fixed most of its flaws. The Xperia XZ3 looks and feels like a phone that’s every bit as nice as — or nicer than — the high-price competition. It no longer has bone-headed mistakes like an oddly placed NFC antenna or a missing fingerprint sensor. It has most of the features that people desire (or at least complain about not having) like an SD card slot, stereo speakers, notch-free display, simple up-to-date software, wireless charging and more. I can’t yet find a critical problem here — just issues that come down to preference.

If you’re someone who doesn’t scoff at the Galaxy Note 9’s $1000 price tag, I’m not sure how you can look at the Xperia XZ3 and not think it’s at least worth considering at $900.

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