If there’s once piece of kit that I rarely leave the house without, it is my smart phone. Whether for navigating somewhere, tracking a new hiking trail for the blog, identifying a new bird sound or checking the train times, my smart phone is a vital part of my arsenal as both a blogger and as a parent.
When I travel this becomes even more important. I use my mobile for everything from currency conversion to translating menus and finding out opening times of tourist attractions. It’s my one-stop shop for keeping in touch with friends and family back home, checking email and updating social media for the blog and of course, as a camera.
On our California trip the camera issue became crucially important. I was going to be exploring solo with my two preschoolers most of the time. That meant toting around a giant SLR every day and actually using it was going to prove tricky.
Luckily, Three offered to lend me a Sony Xperia Z3 handset for the duration of our trip. I’ve never used an Android phone before but the Z3 offers 20.7MP camera with the ability to switch to manual operation and play about with things like ISO, exposure and white balance settings. With Three as the provider it also meant I could continue to use their brilliant ‘Feel at Home’ initiative (more on that in a bit). All in all it was too tempting not to give it a whirl.
Roaming with Three
I’ve been a customer with Three for quite a few years now.They won me over at a time when all the other large mobile phone companies were getting rid of their unlimited data allowances. Three continued to offer that possibility.
I expected the pay-off to come in the form of poor phone signal but was pleasantly surprised. The only place I really struggled to get signal was at home and Three are not alone there. They are the only company that have ever offered us a complimentary Home Signal box though. With that installed we have perfect indoor signal.
With £10 of complimentary credit loaded up, I headed off to California to see how far that would get me, tucking in my battered old iPhone 4S as a reserve. In the USA I was able to make use of Three’s ‘Feel at Home’ offering. ‘Feel at Home’ basically offers you the ability to use your normal talk, text and data allowance from home in any of their 19 Feel at Home destinations. As well as the USA, these also include places such as Australia, New Zealand, France, Hong Kong and Ireland, meaning you can continue to use your phone to keep in touch with relatives or share those holiday snaps with friends via social media in just the same way as you would back home. It’s a great feature for worry free travel.
£10 in California got me through a week’s worth of intensive data use (think mapping, tracking, checking schedules, emails, uploading photos to social media), plenty of texts and quick calls to my husband (also in the US & with Three) and a couple of twenty minute or so phone calls back to the UK (all crystal clear). We had wifi at our accommodation so didn’t use the allowance in the evenings and mornings but I did use 3G when out and about. I had issues getting on to the host network’s 4G though – 3G seemed a lot faster and more readily available.
When my credit ran out I switched to my normal mobile for phone calls and internet but continued to use the Sony Xperia Z3’s camera. My personal phone is on a monthly sim-only contract with Three, with unlimited data and a generous talk minutes and text allowance. This meant I got to continue to make use of Three’s ‘Feel at Home’ package and came home having spent a couple of pounds more than my base contract monthly price of under £20. My husband got a text from Three when he got home to say that he’d spent £2619.20 on his phone during our month in California! Luckily the text was just to advise him how much he had saved – being on the ‘Feel at Home’ package too meant he also didn’t spend any more than he would have done at home and thankfully that’s about £2603 less expensive that his bill would have been otherwise!
The Sony Xperia Z3
I have never attempted to be an Android girl. My husband on the other hand has been tinkering with Android for a while now and loves it for its good value phone offerings,its seamless interface with Google and the ability to easily customise his phone. I was curious to finally give Android a proper try.
The Sony Xperia Z3 offers decent value for money and importantly for an outdoor blogger, it offers dust and water resistance and massive battery life. The handset costs from around £349 outright or you can buy a 24 month contract with Three starting from £21 for 1GB of data and 300 minutes. In return you get a handset with a pretty impressive specification, particularly if you are keen to use your smartphone for photography, video/vlogging or game playing.
Straight out the box I was impressed with the streamline look of the Sony Xperia Z3. It’s sleek, pretty thin and has a decent 5.2″ display. Coming from my tiny little iPhone 4s it did seem a bit of a giant in my hand but I soon got used to it, with its crystal clear display visuals making the most of that large screen. I only really used it for entertaining Roo with some CBeebies on the plane but if you are into watching a lot of videos or gaming on your phone then the display on the Z3 would offer a pretty good experience. The speakers were fairly good too – certainly good enough quality for some on-the-go tunes and fantastic if you’re plugging in to listen to a film.
I got to grips with using Android a lot faster than I thought I would. The Sony Xperia Z3 offers Android 5.1 and it’s remarkably intuitive to use. Things have come on a long way it seems since I played with one of my hubby’s phones a few years back and dismissed the operating system as clunky. I was also pleased to see that several of my favourite outdoor apps are now available on Android too, with ViewRanger being the most crucial for mapping and tracking my hikes.
The battery life was very impressive. I’m used to getting about 6-7 hours moderate use out of my iPhone 4s. It can only track a hike for a couple of hours without back-up battery and it gives up completely if the temperature drops much below 10ºC! The Sony Xperia Z3 on the other hand was a complete dream. I set off with a full battery and it lasted the trip to the airport, a 10 1/2 hour flight and another full day of moderate use before hitting empty. I could take it out for a hike and still have enough juice to get through another day after. My poor old portable battery pack didn’t get a look in!
The Sony Xperia Z3 Camera
It was the 20MP camera I was really interested in though. I had taken a big gamble by leaving my compact Lumix GX7 camera at home. It was either humongous SLR or mobile phone and there’s no way I can take the SLR out on a long day out or a solo hike with the girls – I have too much else to carry and manage.
The Sony Xperia Z3 was pretty good at stepping into the breach. I loved the ability to tinker with the camera settings in manual mode although to be honest when I am out without my big SLR I tend to need something that is pretty good in point-and-shoot mode. Fortunately it is a good performer there too and managed admirably in most conditions, performing particularly well with sunsets and snow.
The only thing the camera seemed to really struggle with was very bright sunlight at the beach/dusty hillsides and on macro shots. It wasn’t always obvious on a small screen but blown up on the laptop some images are quite pixelated. Low-lighting pictures weren’t too bad although I found I had to play around with the ISO settings on manual to really get the most out of them.
If you like quick and lazy options for perking up your pictures then the Sony Xperia Z3 camera has plenty of choice. There is an auto-smile detector (handy with uncooperative child models) and you can take Harry Potter style moving pictures, or record audio to accompany a snap. I particularly liked the ability to blur the background on a portrait making the subject of the photo pop creating a similar effect to taking a portrait on an SLR. The girls meanwhile enjoyed it when I added animations to photos, creating some dramatic effects!
The Sony Xperia Z3 lived up to its hype on the dust resistance side of things too. California was the perfect testing ground for this given how much time we spent engaged in sand play on the beach, exploring the desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park and hiking trails in the Santa Monica Mountains that haven’t seen significant rain for the best part of four years. Never did these environments seem to have any effect on the phone’s operation, the port covers kept all sand out of the mechanics and charging point and I didn’t notice any significant scratches or markings on the phone body although the vinyl covers that came with the phone did take a few scratches.
Having the water resistance element definitely added a lot for a family holiday. Whilst the Z3 can’t be exposed to salt water, you can use it around fresh water meaning some great shots by the pool. I had fun using the camera near a small waterfall too. There is some confusion online as to whether you can use the Z3 underwater – it’s been tested in the lab up to 1.5m deep for 30 minutes successfully and it’s handy physical camera button located on the side of the phone means that it is possible to operate the camera at times when touch screen use may be impossible but Sony do not advise you to use it for underwater photography. You can still get some pretty cool shots when in and around water that you wouldn’t normally dare expose another phone too though.
Video was good too, with the option to broadcast straight to YouTube – a handy feature for Vloggers. There is a 4k video option with the Xperia Z3 but it is data hungry and can potentially cause the phone to overheat so I didn’t really use it. Unless you have a 4k screen to view the video on too then you’re not going to really reap the reward, although it does produce greater detail on a normal screen.
The downside of the water and dust resistance is that all the ports on the phone have slightly raised covers that have to be kept in place and I did get a bit frustrated with the constant reminders to shut them that popped up on my screen. This also meant that plugging the charger and USB cables in was a bit of a faff.
The other slight negative was that I did have some issues transferring my images to my computer, with the USB cable that came with the phone refusing to cooperate. Fortunately we had a spare identical cable with us that saved the day. As for the Sony Xperia Z3 software for PC? It was ok and I loved the option to auto-synch content from a previous phone, including from non-Android devices. I found I still preferred to import my photos manually and I could never get the wireless synch to work properly.
Overall I found myself pleasantly surprised by the Sony Xperia Z3. It’s a good looking phone with a decent general spec. offered at a reasonable price. I liked the camera and its operation a lot and it beat the images taken on my meagre iPhone 4S hands down. Colour and contrast were great although some of the images I took did not enlarge as well as expected on a big screen and I did struggle with macro shots. The dust and water resistance features and the massive battery were big winners in my eyes, particularly for an outdoors enthusiast who needs their smartphone to be a bit of a hard-wearing jack-of-all-trades and crucially to not die on them halfway up a mountain! I also really liked the option to be able to add in extra memory with a microSD card. I had soon used up the internal 3GB RAM of storage but adding a microSD gives you up to to an extra 128GB. You pay a ridiculously large amount of money for that much memory on other phones!
The Android factor for this Apple girl would not put me off considering the Z3 in future – I got on with it pretty well and loved the ease of the Google interface although the app offerings are still not quite as good for wildlife. I think the only thing that would stop me switching at the moment is the fact that I’ve already invested quite a bit in paid apps on iTunes such as full blown foreign language dictionaries and nature encyclopaedias. That aside and I’d be very tempted- for its spec the Xperia Z3 offers excellent value.
As for Three? Well I didn’t need any convincing with them – I’m already a big fan of their home and overseas offerings. Our host network’s coverage in Santa Monica was not particularly good but elsewhere signal was pretty consistent. We even managed to reconnect whilst climbing Mono Rock up at 7000ft in the wilds of Sequoia National Park – it wasn’t such a safe spot to stop and phone home though…
For full technical specification of the Sony Xperia Z3 and details of contracts with Three, please visit their website. Readers should be aware that I was lent a Sony Xperia Z3 with £10 pay-as-you-go complimentary credit from Three for the purpose of this review. The handset has since been returned and all opinions, writing, photos and ramblings remain as ever entirely my own.