Sony Xperia Z1 Compact review: small phone, big performance
“Where have all the small phones gone?”
“Remember when mini smartphones were actually small?”
“Why do small smartphones have to suck on the spec sheet?”
Those blurbs, taken from two years’ worth of Pocketnow editorial headlines, succinctly illustrate our historic frustration with the smartphone sizing problem. For the past few generations, average device size has skyrocketed: HTC’s HD2 was considered massive when it launched four years ago, with HTC selling it under the slogan “take the big screen with you.” Today, though, its 4.3-inch display seems almost quaint alongside flagships like Samsung’s 5-inch Galaxy S 4 or LG’s 6-inch G Flex. Apple iPhone aside, the smartphone landscape in 2014 is a brutal world of “size matters,” with small phones relegated to the mid-tier and low-end fringes. And that’s a status quo that Sony aims to shake up with the 4.3-inch Xperia Z1 Compact.
“Outstanding performance in the size for you.” That’s Sony’s tagline for the pint-sized version of its Z1 flagship, and while it’s a marked step down from the bold “no compromise” language we heard at CES 2013, the message is clear: big power, without the need for a big casing. That’s an alluring promise, but can the Xperia Z1 Compact deliver? We’ve been loaned a review unit from Clove Technology to help us find out, so let’s get to it!
Hardware & Specs
About that branding: “Compact” might not be the sexiest suffix we’ve ever heard, but if nothing else it’s accurate. This incarnation of Sony’s premium smartphone line maintains the glass sandwich build of its bigger siblings, but slims the casing down to much more palm-friendly dimensions (127 x 64.9 x 9.5 mm). The phone appears chunkier in photos -a perception helped along by the device’s somewhat “busy” sides- but what little extra girth there is helps with one-handed ergonomics.
The whole thing is wrapped up in a shatter-resistant casing that feels ultra-premium out of the box; it’s much more solid than its 137 grams would suggest. And though the glass backplate is quite easy to gunk up with skin oil and pocket lint, it’s still pretty enough that you probably won’t want to cover it up with a case. The Compact is available in pink, lime, or white finish in addition to the classic black of our demo unit, which we find quite striking. In a nice touch, the notification LED is nestled within the Compact’s tiny earpiece gap, which we think is a much more elegant integration than the one found on the Z1/Z1S.
While the port covers on the sides are just as cumbersome as ever, they’re a small price to pay for the phone’s ingress protection scores: its IP55 and IP58 ratings make it essentially invulnerable to dust penetration, water jets, and freshwater immersion. This makes the Compact an excellent companion for the swimming pool or the lake. (Just make sure the covers don’t get jostled free while underwater, as happened to our Xperia Z1S.)
Some will consider the 4.3 inch display a handicap -as mentioned above, it’s significantly smaller than most flagship screens- but what it lacks in size it makes up for in quality. At 1280 x 720 resolution, there are 342 pixels on every inch of the “TRILUMINOS” panel, driven by the “X-Reality” engine – and while these brand names are as pompous and faux-futuristic as ever, here Sony has finally earned them – because it has at long last fixed the side-visibility problems that plagued its earlier handsets. Colors on the Z1 Compact are as vibrant and beautiful viewed at 30 degrees as they are dead-on. While it’s not the best display we’ve ever seen, it’s such a vast improvement over the Z1 and Z1S that we can’t help but love it here.
Beneath that screen is one of the very best power plants you can find in a smartphone: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800. The quad-core beast is backed up by the usual suspects on the spec sheet, from the 2GB of RAM to the 16GB of storage (augmented by up to 64GB via MicroSD). Bluetooth, WiFi b/g/n/ac, NFC, Miracast, MHL, DLNA, ANT+ … about the only acronym the Compact lacks is IR, which we don’t consider a big loss.
Taking the hardware as a whole, Sony is in wonderful form here. Despite its size, this little device packs everything you’d expect from a top-of-the-line flagship – which of course is the whole idea.
“It’s in software where the device starts to stumble.” We’ve probably written that very sentence in dozens of Android reviews – and it holds true here as well. Fortunately, the stumbles are few and relatively minor, so they don’t totally destroy the experience of using the device.
As with many software skins, Sony’s is quite far-reaching, with hooks running deep into the fabric of Android. The result of that tight integration is a long lead time for development, and the result of that is the Z1 Compact shipping with Android 4.3 out of the box, instead of the newer version 4.4. Brand-new hardware with yesterday’s software isn’t a big deal to everyone, but it’s certainly not ideal – and it doesn’t portend a speedy update process in the future, either.
There are also a few bugs here. Some apps which run smoothly on other Android phones don’t do so well on the Compact. Google Maps crashes often on our demo unit, as does the local transit app Boston Busmap. The hardware camera key will sometimes succeed in waking the phone from standby to take a photo – and sometimes it won’t. The camera app itself crashed on us once, in the middle of shooting a video. Facebook Chat slows the phone to a crawl for some reason beyond our understanding. And Chrome has a strange bug that results in random zooming unless you’re using just the very tip of your finger. These are oddities we also encountered on the Xperia Z1S, so it seems pretty clear that Sony’s UI could use an update across the whole line.
Not that the Compact is a buggy mess. In fact, with the exception of the annoyances above, it’s actually quite a nice software experience. When it comes to third-party UIs, Sony’s is one of our favorites: it’s visually cohesive; it’s littered with well-thought-out tutorials that teach you how to do new things; and backed up by the beefy Snapdragon 800, it almost never bogs down – even when the phone is doing a lot of other work in the background, like downloading a long list of apps.
Elsewhere, it’s the typical skinned-Android experience. While Sony’s music and video storefronts are attractive and well-stocked, we’ve found no real reason to favor them over the Google Play Store equivalents, and that goes for the Xperia-branded Facebook and Twitter portals as well. The more blatant bloatware titles like McAfee Security and TrackID are more intrusive, anchored as they are to the homescreen at first power-on; we dumped them at the first opportunity. The small screen size means the keyboard is a little tougher to get used to at first, and you may chafe at the reduced homescreen space if you’re a fan of widgets, but once you get everything tailored to your liking, the Z1 Compact’s Android build offers a very nice playground indeed.
Taking photos with this phone is a far simpler experience to encapsulate: it’s just awesome.
Sony has obviously put a lot of work into solving its image quality problems of the past. The Compact’s 1/2.3″ Exmor RS sensor is the same 20.7 megapixel unit found in the Z1, but improvements in Sony’s image processing mean the digital noise that so bothered us during our review of that earlier device is substantially reduced. The noise can still be seen at higher zoom levels in Superior Auto mode, but those looking for smoother photos do have the option of switching to Manual mode. The latter doesn’t feature much precision -we’d like to have seen a manual focus option included among the sliders- and it also doesn’t do nearly as well at pulling detail from low-light scenes, but it gets the job done.
Elsewhere the viewfinder offers an excellent experience. Superior Auto defaults the camera to 8MP shots, and the software does a very nice job tailoring the camera’s settings for different lighting situations. You’ve got the option of playing with some fun filters to jazz up your family photos: you can superimpose a stupid party hat on your dog or let the phone dress your face up in clown paint with AR Effect, or render your subject in a crazy holographic halo with Harris Shutter. If these features aren’t enough, Sony offers third-party apps the ability to plug into the viewfinder (much as Windows Phone does with its Lenses), along with a curated catalog of compatible apps. It’s all very well thought-out and, aside from a small delay on initial start-up, it’s quite responsive.
Many of you asked us to check out the “flash bleed” problem that’s been widely reported – and we’re sorry to confirm it’s a real issue with our unit, as you can see in the distant night photo of the treetops in the flash-photo gallery below. The light bleed doesn’t show up in every shot, but you’ll probably want to avoid using the flash when taking medium-to-long range photos at night; switch to Manual mode to try amping up the exposure instead.
In camcorder mode, the Compact is impressive. Automatic shooting in good lighting produces video that’s a pleasure to watch. Colors are well balanced, automatic adjustments are speedy, and the software stabilization does quite well. Sound capture is a little muddled compared to other devices, but it’s clear enough for most circumstances (see the video review above for video samples).
Underwater, both still shots and video come out crisp and clean, with the autofocus nice and snappy. Sony’s claim of “the best camera on a waterproof compact smartphone” is awfully narrow, but as far as we can see, it’s also spot-on. Just as with Sony’s successful correction of its display problem, we’re very happy to see the enhanced photo quality here; it’s great to see the company fixing issues that have long plagued its lineup.
We tested the Z1 Compact over a six-day period between Massachusetts and Maine on T-Mobile’s 3G and 4G networks. As we reported in a dedicated piece on our T-Mobile/Z1 Compact experience, we didn’t run into many reception problems in New England, and LTE throughput was excellent – once reaching almost 40 Mbps on the downlink.
The phone’s battery life was reasonably solid during this period, though it varied a little more than we’re used to seeing. On its first charge we used it quite heavily, streaming data and taking photos constantly as we trekked across every conceivable coverage condition, and it endured for over 10 hours with over 5 hours of screen-on time. But the next charge cycle delivered screen-on time closer to 4 hours, and the one after that landed us somewhere in between. The discrepancy is likely due to variations in usage, combined with our office being in a fringe coverage area – in any case, 4 hours of screen-on time on a device this petite is nothing to sneeze at.
In terms of fundamentals, the Z1 Compact brings the usual mix of ups and downs. Voice calls are quite nice on our end, with crisp loud sidetone and plenty of earpiece volume (callers, though, don’t seem to understand us quite as well as when we use other phones). As you might expect with a Snapdragon 800 driving a sub-1080p display, gaming is excellent, and web browsing is speedy and responsive (Chrome bug notwithstanding).
About the only place the Z1 Compact is truly underwhelming is in its speakerphone: even when bone-dry, it’s a thin-sounding, tinny little module that’s easy to accidentally block with a finger despite its huge grill. As the old saying goes, you can’t win them all.
+ Powerful hardware in a petite package
+ Excellent camera
+ Water- and dust-resistant
+ Best Sony smartphone display we’ve seen
– Dated, buggy Android skin
– Quiet, low-quality speakerphone
– Limited regional availability
Pricing and Availability
The Xperia Z1 Compact isn’t currently available from any U.S. carrier, but it can be had unlocked from destinations like Clove Technology. Clove’s current price for the Z1 is £332.50, or £399.00 with VAT included (about $550 in US dollars).
For any other 4.3-inch smartphone, we’d call that asking price a pretty steep one. As it is, we’d expect nothing less than premium-level performance from the Z1 Compact, petite package or no.
Fortunately for Sony, “premium performance” is exactly what the Compact delivers. It’s not perfect: it loses points for lackluster audio performance and a buggy, slightly dated build of Android. But it gains a whole lot back for delivering on a bigger promise: that of a palm-sized smartphone that doesn’t compromise much on the spec sheet. We asked for it, and Sony delivered.
If big phones aren’t your bag and money is no object, your hunt for mid-size quality should definitely begin (and might very possibly end) with a very close look at the Xperia Z1 Compact.