Last year, Sony finally reached the end of the alphabet with its Xperia Z. It wasn't just that the company ran out of letters, though: With the Xperia Z, we saw Sony streamline its scattered phone strategy, piping all its attention into a single high-end device. Then, it followed up with the Z1, which brought a massive 20.7-megapixel camera.
Today, we once again have a new phone to talk about, except it's perhaps not the device you might have been expecting. Nope, this isn't a Z2, and no it doesn't bring an even higher-resolution camera. Instead, Sony's joining the small-flagship club, with the Xperia Z1 Compact. Interestingly, unlike some of its rivals, Sony is promising that you won't have to compromise on features for the sake of a more pocket-friendly handset. At £440 SIM-free in the UK, that apparently includes a no-compromise price, too. By the looks of it, though, Sony has worked hard to stick with the same specs as the original -- bar, of course, the screen size. So, is this finally proof that "mini" doesn't have to mean mediocre? We put it to the test to find out.
Sony Xperia Z1 Compact review
Xperia Z1 Compact
- Flagship-caliber specs
- Premium build quality
- Excellent performance, long battery life
- Great camera
- Improved display offers better viewing angles than older Sony handsets
- More expensive than other "mini" phones
- Minor software issues
Sony has set the benchmark for mini-flagships. With strong build quality and robust performance, the Z1 Compact will be a welcome arrival for anyone who prefers smaller devices.
At first glance the original Z1 and the Compact are nearly identical -- apart from the physical dimensions, of course. Look a little closer, however, and you'll spot a few small differences. For example, the Z1 Compact now has all the connections and ports on the left side, complete with the usual protective flaps. The microSD slot and micro-USB port sit up top, with the (micro) SIM slot hanging out on the bottom edge. (To jog your memory, the Xperia Z1's SIM port is over on the top-right edge.) Other differences: The headphone jack is ever so slightly farther inset on the top edge, and the camera flash now sits beside, not below, the lens. As you can see, we're already scraping around for significant differences. It's also worth noting that the build materials once again include glass and aluminum, so you won't have to suffer any plastic downgrade here (we're looking at you, HTC).
With the Compact, Sony stuck with its so-called OmniBalance design, which means for now, at least, it's passing on the chance to reimagine its phones. Instead, the company has been making subtle tweaks with each new device. And that's OK, too. After all, we've found little fault with the build quality and design on the Z and Z1, so why change it? As you can imagine, then, the Compact feels just as premium as the other Z-series phones, and possibly more so, given how dense it is. It's so dense, in fact, that at 137 grams, it's even heavier than some bigger flagships, like the Nexus 5.
Of course, this well-trodden design path brings many of the same trade-offs. In our Z1 review, we noted that it was something of a fluff-magnet; every time you retrieved it from your pocket, it would bring with it a renewed collection of lint. Unfortunately, that's just as true of the Compact. It's impressive to see how efficiently it extracts the finest fibers from your pocket every time you remove it. If you ever need to take photos of this phone -- say, for a review -- you'll definitely need canned air, a lint-free cloth and an abundance of patience.
Another unfortunate carryover is the speaker placement, along the bottom edge of the phone. When we were testing the original Z1, we found that holding the phone in landscape to watch a movie meant one of your hands inevitably obscured the speaker, muffling the audio. Nothing has changed this time around, which means if you're watching something in landscape, you'll want to make sure you have some headphones on hand. Granted, this is a common location for the speaker, but for some reason -- perhaps the slight recess -- it's particularly noticeable on the Compact.
On a more positive note, Sony decided to break away from its normal black, white and purple color choices. The Compact does come in black and white, but also a zesty lime hue and a fairly wild pink option. Our review unit was the lime one (though it's a very yellowish lime), and we quite like how bold it is -- a treatment we hope Sony decides to keep giving its phones. Another nice touch is that the metal edges match, or complement, the body color. On the lime one, for example, the aluminum sections are a light gold, or "champagne" tone, and it definitely gives the overall design a coherent feel. Be warned, though, that after barely three days with the Compact, we noticed a small part of the champagne finish had chipped off, revealing the true metal color beneath.
As with the exterior design, talking about the Compact's specs is an exercise in repetition. It's like-for-like with the original Z1, for the most part. For those of you who don't keep track of such things (that's most of you, we'd hope), the two phones share a quad-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, a 20.7-megapixel camera (1/2.3-inch sensor) and 16GB of onboard storage (expandable by 64GB via microSD). Additionally, it packs 2GB of RAM, Bluetooth 4.0 (with aptX support), ANT+, GPS/GLONASS and NFC. Our global (D5503) model supports LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 20 -- this covers almost all European networks. While there's no word on a US release, it's compatible with T-Mobile and AT&T, and potentially some areas on Verizon too. There's a bevy of media options as well, with support for Miracast, DLNA and MHL. As has become a bit of a Sony trademark, the Compact is also IP58 waterproof and dust proof, meaning it'll happily take a dunk in a bath, toilet or drink. There's no wireless charging, though, which is a shame. As usual, the battery is locked inside, so you can't swap it out and pop in a spare.
The key things to note are that the display is now 4.3 inches in size with "only" 720p resolution (the Z1 measures five inches on the nose and boasts 1080p). That sees the pixel density drop slightly from 441 pixels per inch to around the 340-ppi mark, but that's still pretty decent. Similarly, the battery now has a capacity of 2,300mAh, down from 3,000mAh in the original. The positive spin there is that a smaller display sucks less juice, so in theory, it's a technical, not functional trade-off. Given that the main difference is the size, Sony's done a fine job of shoehorning all that technology into a smaller package. We already mentioned that the Compact definitely feels denser, but it's a smidge fatter too -- about one millimeter thicker.
If you're used to using a larger phone, the Compact might not initially feel as small as you'd expect, especially with the decent-sized bezel at the top and bottom. Overall, it's probably right to call this mid-sized, rather than small or mini. (In all fairness to Sony's marketing team, "compact" is a more appropriate word.) It actually has a similar footprint to the iPhone -- which is unsurprising, given that Sony is probably going after Apple customers here. In short, Sony's managed to create something that's very easy to use one-handed, without feeling particularly small or slight.
|Sony Xperia Z1 Compact|
|Dimensions||127 x 64.9 x 9.5 mm|
|Screen size||4.3 inches|
|Screen resolution||1,280 x 720|
|Screen type||Triluminos LCD with 16 million colors|
|Battery||2,300mAh Li-ion (non-removable)|
|Internal storage||16GB (12GB free)|
|External storage||microSDXC, up to 64GB|
|Rear camera||20.7MP (1/2.3-inch sensor, f/2.0 lens with 27mm equiv. focal length)|
|Front-facing cam||2MP stills, 1080p video|
HSPA+ (850/900/1700/1900/2100); GSM GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 20)
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM8974)|
|CPU||2.2GHz quad-core Krait 400|
|Entertainment||MHL, Miracast, WiFi Direct, DLNA|
|Operating system||Android 4.3 (Sony-specific UI)|
We've already covered most of what you need to know about the display: It's 4.3 inches with 720p resolution. But, given that aspects of the displays in both the Xperia Z and Xperia Z1 have previously left us underwhelmed, it's clearly an area worth revisiting. Our primary concern until now has been the viewing angles. The Xperia Z, in particular, suffered from a terribly narrow viewing range, with the image soon fading away to unwatchable levels if you weren't standing directly in front of it. The situation didn't improve with the Z1.
At last, the Compact puts this issue to rest. The display is not only easily readable from a wider range of positions, but colors are vibrant without being oversaturated (take note, Samsung). This is no doubt thanks to Sony's X-Reality engine, which, according to the marketing, selectively processes everything you watch to make it as lifelike as possible. That might be so, but it also appears to add some slight pixelation to contrasting edges (think white text on a black background). There's also still room for improvement with the blacks, which continue to appear slightly faded. Overall, though, the display here is a clear improvement over its predecessors.
A good display is not much fun if you don't have anything exciting to view on it. That's partly where the camera comes in, and at 20.7 megapixels, this one's quite a doozy -- at least on paper. It's also the exact same Sony G Lens, 1/2.3-inch sensor with Exmor RS and BIONZ mobile image processing that we saw in the full-size Z1. Once again, there's a dedicated camera button, which also serves as a shortcut to the camera (via a long-press).
We wish there were something new to add here that we didn't go over last time. But alas, Sony's determination to make sure that you get the same experience evidently means you're getting, well, the full experience, and nothing more. At the very least, if you were a fan of Sony's homegrown camera app suite (that can provide image-based information, social sharing of your photos, etc.), you'll be glad to know it's still here in the Compact.
Sony Xperia Z1 Compact sample shots
If you weren't interested in the Z1, then you'll definitely want a quick recap of the camera performance. Sony's claim is simple: The Z1 family sports one of the highest-resolution sensors on the market. The company's also thrown in a bunch of technology borrowed from its standalone cameras, including that BIONZ image processing. It even claims that the sensor here is the "equivalent" size to that used in the firm's Cyber-shot line, but that doesn't tell us much with so many other factors involved. The idea clearly was to have media, photos and video be a central feature. The reality is that it's not the best camera we've found in a phone (that would be the Nokia Lumia 1020's PureView cam), but it's certainly one of the more capable Android cameras we've come across. If we're determined to find it a "best" title, then it's the best camera we've seen on a Android phone.
So why is that? It comes down to a number of factors, not least of which is the pixel count. There's also, of course, the fast f/2.0 27mm-equivalent G lens. That wide aperture allows plenty of light to pour in, giving it consistently solid results, even when conditions are somewhat dim. It also provides a good depth of field, ideal for those who like a bit of "bokeh" -- that blend of sharpness on the subject, and out-of-focus background.
As for noise, the usual telltale sign of a cameraphone? When viewing images at 100 percent (quite a task at 20.7 megapixels) you'll find some artifacts, along with color washout in areas around the edge of your subject, or where the lighting contrasts with the metered area (e.g., if you have the metering mode set to central, the edges might suffer). All that said, this was a small detail we noticed while checking some of our sample shots for this review. What's more, smoother edges render quite well. Clouds are an abundant resource in London at this time of year, and we were actually impressed by how the textures and moody grays came out, really showing off the rich palette at the Compact's disposal.
Photographers will most likely be happy with the camera's "Superior Auto" mode, which generally delivers pleasing results: rich colors, good white balance and even exposure. If you're more of a tinkerer, you'll want to flip into manual mode where you can take control of the ISO, exposure compensation, white balance and metering mode, et cetera, and have much finer control over the results. If video is more your thing, we'd encourage you to keep the SteadyShot feature on for everything except static objects, as camera shake will otherwise render your videos a little, well, shaky to say the least.
Historically, Sony's been relatively kind to Android users, with minimal skinning and unobtrusive add-ons. That's pretty much the case this time around, too, although the company has left a few sticky fingerprints around the interface to remind you of its presence. Mostly this means that where a Sony app or service is available, in addition to a standard Android one, you won't have to look hard to find it. That means it's "Album" instead of "Gallery," "Walkman" instead of "Google Play Music," et cetera. If you've ever used an Xperia phone, you'll most likely already be familiar with this, but it's all easy to remove, ignore or replace, should you prefer.
Unfortunately, the native onscreen keyboard here drove us crazy. Have you ever had a dream where your life depended on typing something, or dialing a number on a phone, yet for some inexplicable reason it became the hardest thing to do? That's a bit like using the swipe mode on the default keyboard. I'm experienced in both Android's stock swipe input, and third-party options like SwiftKey, and have never experienced one like this. Writing a short message frequently made me feel like I was drunk, with the words onscreen often barely resembling my intended prose. Perhaps it's a case of getting used to the slightly smaller keyboard -- maybe I was too vigorous in my swipes -- but there was definitely a lot of cussing, deleting and hunting-and-pecking.
To counter this minor annoyance, we were reminded of a neat addition to the multitask screen we've seen in previous Xperia Z models -- an understated bonus. Press the familiar double-square button, and you'll get the currently running apps all stacked on top of each other as usual. At the bottom, however, are some additional options. On the left is an arrow that, when pressed, reveals shortcuts to configurable favorites. To the right of that are buttons for some additional quick apps. We'd actually call them utilities, really, as they include a calculator, basic browser, notepad, timer, audio recorder and screen grabber.
The other interesting thing here is that these apps operate slightly differently than those from the main menu. If you open up the browser, for example, it launches in a new window that floats on top of whatever you are/were doing. Effectively, it brings multitasking if you want to quickly Google something, perhaps while lingering over an email. In that case, you can shift your attention briefly without ever having to close the email window. This isn't earth-shattering, of course, but it's a nice inclusion -- and one that's easy to overlook, precisely because it's mostly hidden away.
Performance and battery life
|Xperia Z1 Compact||Xperia Z1||Droid Mini|
|SunSpider 1.0 (ms, lower is better)||816||804||1,274|
|GFX Bench T-Rex 2.7 1080p Offscreen (fps)||22||N/A||16|
|Battery rundown test||11:37||12:34||6:45|
What about the phone's overall performance? This is where we take our hats off to the fine folks at Qualcomm. Whatever tea they were drinking when they came up with the 2.2GHz MSM8974 chip inside this phone, we'll take two packs. Given the shared DNA between this handset and the Z1, we expected the numbers to be similar, but to our surprise, the Compact actually bests its predecessor in some benchmarks.
This is reflected in our usage of the phone, too. We never felt like we were taxing that hefty quad-core engine. We threw video at it, along with graphically intense games like Grand Theft Auto, and the Compact took it all in stride. We did have the camera app crap out on us twice, but that was during the first five minutes, and it never happened again after a restart. Equally solid is the performance when it comes to calls and internet connectivity. All our calls sounded clear, while London's O2 network regularly delivered speeds around 30 Mbps -- definitely in the high end for my neck of the woods.
While we're handing out gold stars for performance, the Compact deserves a nod for battery life. It's one of the specifications that took a hit in the downsize, but the 2,300mAh cell actually does a sterling job. In our usual battery test (WiFi on, screen at 50 percent brightness, video looping), it managed well over 11 hours. In more conventional usage, the Compact can last well into day two before forcing you to hunt for an outlet. The even better news is that this is all in standard mode. Sony's added not one, but two power-saving modes that will let you eke out even more juice (at the cost of notifications, backlight and the other usual power-sucking suspects). We'd say you won't really need to bother with that; instead, save those options for when you're planning on staying away from civilization for a little longer than usual.
If we're talking mini flagships, we can't ignore HTC's One mini or Samsung's Galaxy S4 Mini, especially given that they both run Android. HTC's offering ran a similar price to the Compact at launch, though you can now pick it up for about £100 cheaper. That's a good thing, too, as its 1.4GHz dual-core processor and 4MP shooter (UltraPixel sensor or otherwise), will seem positively arcane compared to the Compact. Samsung's mini S4, on the other hand, falls short on the display (it's the same size, but 960 x 540), the camera (8MP), RAM (1.5GB) and processor (1.7GHz dual-core). The only saving grace is that it's cheaper than both HTC and Sony at around £250 SIM-free. While not a "mini," Motorola's Moto G might appeal to some of the same customers, if a mid-sized 720p Android phone is what they want. The £189 price helps, too. There's also, of course, the iPhone 5c, which, while not a mini, per se, falls into a similar size range.
There's no point in beating about the bush: Sony's "mini" flagship is what companies should have been doing all along. If you want a top-spec Android phone, but don't want a finger-stretching screen, this isn't just your best option; it's your only option right now. To call it a good all-rounder might sound like we're playing it down, but with the camera, software, display and processor all putting in equally solid performances, there isn't one aspect that stands out above the others. Yes, there is the odd software kink or minor design feature (fluff-attracting glass!), but even then, we're mostly playing a game of fault-finding.
Of course, you could argue that Sony missed the opportunity to improve on an already good phone (the Z1), given that some months have passed since the Z1 was first released. Instead, Sony was content to take that flagship and simply scale it down. That, it has achieved with aplomb. Even if the Z1 Compact isn't the smaller phone you've been waiting for, you should still be glad it exists: at the very least, it might inspire the competition to up their "mini" game. And that can never be a bad thing.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.