Living with the Xperia Z3v: Sony's latest smartphone deserves your attention

Forget what you think you know about smartphone manufacturers. The Xperia Z3v proves that Sony's ready to play with the big boys -- and that its devices should not be ignored.

Sony Xperia Z3v

Some people look at technology in terms of individual pieces: What type of processor does a new phone have? How high is its display resolution? How much power can its battery hold? 

Me, I'm more of a big-picture kind of guy. Individual pieces are fine, but I'm far more interested in what type of overall user experience those pieces add up to create -- you know, what a device is actually like to use in the real world.

A lot of Android phones have the right pieces on paper, after all, but fail to create a cohesive or compelling overall user experience. It isn't something that's easy to get right; there's no single spec or formula for such an abstract yet easily recognizable concept.

Sony may not be the biggest name when it comes to smartphones in America, but let me tell you: It's got this user experience thing down better than most of the big boys. I've been living with the manufacturer's latest effort, the Verizon-only Xperia Z3v ($200 with a two-year contract), for the past several days -- and by and large, the phone has been an absolute pleasure to use.

The Xperia Z3v follows Sony's now-trademark design language, with a glass-centric construction supported by an aluminum frame. It makes for a distinctive and premium device that's sleek as can be; the Z3v is striking and stylish and should have no trouble standing out in a smartphone lineup.

Sony Xperia Z3v Verizon

The device is so beautifully constructed, in fact, that it almost looks like a piece of understated industrial art rather than an object meant to be carried in your sweaty ol' palms. And that gets at the downside of this design: Gorgeous as it is, the combination of glass and metal doesn't exactly make for an ergonomic gadget. The Xperia Z3v is a bit cold and boxy and not the most comfortable phone to hold, and with its all-glass back, I'm also slightly paranoid about the possibility of damage (I've owned a Nexus 4, so I know how these things can go).

The all-glass back is also a total fingerprint magnet, which means you have the choice of either wiping it down every time you pull it out of your pocket or having it look like a perpetually smudgy mess. The price of beauty, I guess.

The Z3v is pretty big, at least by standard smartphone sizes: At 5.9 x 2.9 x 0.35 in., it's noticeably larger than the 2014 Moto X -- despite having the same size screen. It's even larger than the HTC One (M8), in fact -- a phone that's usually the largest device in the non-plus-sized range.

Of course, it's all relative; coming from the Galaxy Note 4, the Z3v feels perfectly manageable and like a breath of fresh air to me. I'd just suggest spending some time holding it in a store to figure out if its form works for you.

Speaking of the form, the Xperia Z3v is waterproof, which is kind of cool. In addition to being able to stay under almost five feet of water for as long as 30 minutes, the phone can actually capture decent-looking photos while submerged (by way of a physical camera button on its right side). I know a lot of people who would love that feature.

There is one quirk that comes with the waterproof construction: The phone's micro-USB port is protected by a hidden flap that has to be pulled off every time you need it. Vexingly, there's no marking or obvious indication where the flap resides; the first time I tried to plug the phone in, I flipped it around about a dozen times before finally finding the tiny fingernail-sized groove that allows you to pry the secret door open.

Sony Xperia Z3v Waterproof

The good news is that this device supports standard Qi wireless charging, so you really shouldn't need to get at the USB port terribly often. And the headphone jack has a special waterproof coating, so it doesn't have any sort of flap or covering in the way.

The Z3v's 5.2-in. LCD display looks great both underwater and in more normal oxygen-based environments. My only complaint is that in direct sunlight, you can see rows of tiny white dots on the surface of panel. It's an odd and mildly annoying effect but nothing too detrimental.

The display is 1080p, and that's fine by me: Quad HD may be the marketing-friendly spec of the moment, but in reality, it doesn't do much to meaningfully add to or enhance the phone-using experience

What does add to the experience is an awesome set of speakers to accompany a standout display, and boy, does the Xperia Z3v have 'em. The phone's stereo speakers -- nearly unnoticeable slits on the top and bottom of the device's face -- are loud, clear, and full-sounding. Watching videos and listening to music is a real treat on this thing.

The same can be said for performance -- which, if you ask me, is really relevant only when it isn't up to snuff. The Z3v is consistently fast, smooth, and snappy no matter what I do with it; I've yet to give a moment of thought to its processing capabilities, and that's exactly the way it should be.

I've yet to give any thought to battery life, either -- mainly because the phone always gets me through the day without even coming close to hitting empty. It's at the top of the pack in the realm of stamina; even with a full day of heavy use, including more than four hours of screen-on time, I've gone to bed with at least a quarter of the charge still remaining. The battery isn't removable, but with that kind of staying power and the ability to charge wirelessly when needed, I can't imagine most people will care.

The Z3v does have one feature Android power users often crave: an SD card slot for external storage expansion. You'll get 32GB of onboard space, meanwhile -- about 25GB of which is actually available.

You might end up needing a lot of storage, too, because the Z3v's 20.7-megapixel camera is fantastic -- easily among the best I've used on an Android device. Photos are crystal clear, with fine detail and vivid, true-to-life colors. It does exceptionally well in low-light environments as well, often picking up more detail in dark rooms than I can see with my own naked eyes.

Sony Xperia Z3v Camera
Sony Xperia Z3v Camera

Sample images taken with the Xperia Z3v (click either image to view at full-resolution)

Last but not least, a critical part of any good smartphone experience is the software -- the actual interface with which you interact. Sony's take on Android is by no means perfect, but compared to the way most manufacturers massacre the operating system, it really isn't half-bad.

To be sure, the company makes its share of arbitrary changes to the user interface -- changes that appear to be made for the very sake of change. I'd certainly rather have a Moto-esque "stock-plus" approach in which the core Android UI is left alone and only features that provide meaningful value are added on top of it, but in the grand scheme of things, the alterations here are mild enough to be tolerable -- far more so than what we see from the likes of, say, Samsung or LG.

Sony Xperia Z3v Software

Sony does follow one unfortunate trend that brings those other manufacturers to mind: It pushes its own services hard alongside the also-present (and generally superior) Google counterparts. Sony's multimedia storefronts are impossible to ignore on this device; the company has gone as far as to put a permanent link to its music, movie, and app store next to Google Now every time you swipe up from the Home button.

That's a little excessive -- I mean, give me a break: Does a secondary content store really belong in such a prominent system-level location next to Google Now? Baking the shortcut in there just feels desperate, and it's certainly not a move made with the user's interests in mind.

Sony Xperia Z3v Store

(Update: A software update pushed out on November 21st removed the aforementioned shortcut from the Z3 devices. Huzzah!)

Amidst all the silly stuff, Sony has added some legitimately valuable features into the OS -- things like being able to bring the device to your ear to answer an incoming call or being able to double-tap the display to wake the phone (something that'll be available on even more phones with the upcoming Android 5.0 Lollipop release).

The phone can also serve as a controller for a PlayStation 4 console (starting with an update next month), which is a cool idea that's sure to appeal to gamers. And its Recent Apps section gives you the ability to open any regular widget as a floating window on top of other content. Pretty clever implementation, and potentially quite useful.

Sony Xperia Z3v Small Apps

Of course, with a major OS release right around the corner, upgrades are something you have to consider. Sony is typically one of the slower manufacturers when it comes to OS upgrades, and while the company has committed to upgrading the Z3v to Lollipop at some point, there's no firm guarantee of when it'll happen -- or how much of Lollipop's new look will make it onto the phone once Sony finishes putting its stamp on the software.

The bottom line

With its distinctive and well-rounded devices, Sony has really carved out a niche for itself within the Android ecosystem. That niche has yet to take off here in the States, but with the Z3v making its way to Verizon, Sony has its strongest shot yet at capturing consumers' attention.

Unfortunately, until Sony manages to land a flagship on all the major carriers, it probably won't stand much chance of widespread success. (The Z3v has a similar cousin called the Z3 that'll be on T-Mobile later this month, but that kind of limited and carrier-specific device approach hasn't worked well for anyone in years.) As a consumer, though, you don't have to concern yourself with things like mobile market share. All you have to think about is which device works best for you.

After living with it for a week, I can tell you that the Z3v offers a compelling all-around user experience -- one of the better experiences you can get on Android today. It's by no means perfect, but it gets a lot of things right -- and with its glass-centric form and underwater photography features, among other things, there's no other phone quite like it.

If you're committed to Verizon and want a sleek and premium phone that's a pleasure to use, the Xperia Z3v is well worth considering.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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