Sony Xperia Z3 Compact review: a small phone that packs a big punch
Sony has earned a reputation – be it good or bad – for releasing new phones almost twice as fast as its competitors. While Apple, Samsung, HTC, and the handful of other globally known OEMs typically release an updated version of their various smartphone lineups once per year, Sony keeps its hero series of Xperia devices fresh with an update every five to seven months.
It’s not just the flagship Xperia Z handsets that are updated so frequently either. The smaller Compact series is updated regularly, as well. The Xperia Z1 Compact was announced and released just this January, nine months ago. Now we have the Xperia Z3 Compact.
Sony seemingly skipped the Z2 Compact as the Z1 Compact was released near the the Z1’s end of life and announced the Z3 Compact to synchronize the co-branded smartphones’ launch cycles.
But whether Sony is moving too quickly isn’t the point. It’s very gradually improving its entire mobile product lineup, piece by piece, bit by bit. And the Xperia Z3 Compact is evidence of how the struggling company plans to differentiate itself in a crowded space of all-or-nothing smartphones. In today’s market, you typically have two options: an oversized, high-end smartphone packed with everything possible for an arm, leg, and possibly your firstborn, or you can get a smaller, much more affordable smartphone with a host of compromises.
Sony is one of the first companies to offer a smaller, high-end smartphone – that is, if you don’t count Apple who, as expected, jumped on the extra large smartphone bandwagon this year, leaving those who prefer smaller phones with few options.
The real question is, can Sony capitalize on this widening gap with its competitive, miniature handset? Are there compromises with the Z3 Compact that don’t appear on paper? And is this compressed version of the Xperia Z3 worth your hard-earned cash?
We’ve been toting the Z3 Compact around for seven days now, testing, using, and abusing it. Below you will find our thoughts, expressed as fully as possible.
We want to extend one final thanks to our friends over at Clove for making this review possible. If you’d like to pick up an Xperia Z3 Compact to call your own, head over to clove.co.uk. To make the deal even sweeter, there’s a bundle going on right now which includes a free charger and case with the purchase of a Z3 Compact!
Software · Camera · Performance · Pros/Cons
Sony Xperia Z3 Compact Review Videos
Specs & Hardware
If you’ve as much as looked at a Sony smartphone in the last two years, the design of the Xperia Z3 Compact will not surprise you, nor will it blow your socks off.
While we’re not adverse to Sony’s design or its choice for sandwiching all its phones between two slabs of glass (which are just begging to be covered in scratches and fingerprints), it’s beginning to get a little played-out. Just as Samsung’s design language is growing long in the tooth, Sony’s product line is in need of a little flare.
The design of the Xperia Z3 Compact is a fusion of the Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z3, of course, on a smaller scale. Its edges are more rounded, like on the Z3, but they’re plastic, like on the Z2. But the polycarbonate edges aren’t just plastic, they’re also translucent, which isn’t uncommon for Sony. These particular edges give the sides of the Z3 Compact an odd sense of depth.
Overall, the phone feels very premium, even if it’s extra lightweight; it’s solid and just weighty enough to feel substantial. It weighs 129g, and it’s very light on bezels. With its 4.6-inch display, the phone is just 127mm tall, 64.9mm wide, and 8.6mm thick. Comparatively, that’s smaller and thinner than the Moto X, which was considered tiny for having a 4.7-inch display. It’s also much smaller than the 4.7-inch iPhone 6.
Fortunately, its size constraints have no bearing on its internals. The Xperia Z3 Compact is almost a perfect match, spec for spec, with some of the most popular flagships of the year, like the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5. It comes with 2GB of RAM, 16GB of fixed storage (with microSD expansion support for up to 128GB), a Snapdragon 801 SoC (2.5GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU with Adreno 330 GPU), and a 2,600mAh fixed battery. Around back is a 20.7-megapixel camera, there’s a 2.2-megapixel camera up front, and the hardware offers a bunch of connectivity options: NFC, Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi 802.11 ac, LTE Cat4, and USB OTG support.
Like most other Sony Mobile products, the Z3 Compact also comes with water-resistance and dust-proofing. With IP68 certifications, it’s capable of withstanding depths of water over 1m for up to 30 minutes, so long as all the ports are sealed. Our review unit put up with plenty of water exposure – rain and full-on submersion – with no trouble whatsoever.
The display is likely the biggest pain point for most potential buyers. Unlike most high-end smartphones, the Z3 Compact does not come with a 1080p display. Its 4.6-inch Triluminos IPS LCD is just 720p, which doesn’t look all that impressive on paper. But in person, the display is gorgeous. It’s extra vibrant, thanks to the X-Reality engine, black levels are extra dark, contrast is high, and it’s bright enough to see in broad daylight. However, like many other Sony devices, viewing angles are problematic. At some angles, the colors and other display elements wash away and become difficult, if not impossible, to view.
Not many people go around looking at their phone from hard angles, though, so as long as you don’t plan on lying the phone flat on a table a few feet in front of you to watch a video, the viewing angles shouldn’t be a problem.
Inside and out, this phone is one of the best miniature smartphones around. No, it is the best miniature smartphone. That’s what it was designed to be. While most other manufacturers are releasing what are intended to be smaller versions of their staple smartphones, they’re also cutting corners and forcing buyers to trade high-end specifications for a more convenient-sized smartphone. Almost every so-called “mini” smartphone has a Snapdragon 400 SoC instead of a Snapdragon 800 or 801, 1GB of RAM instead of 2GB, etc. The Xperia Z3 Compact does come with a lower-resolution display, but it still looks great, and the rest of the hardware has typical high-end specifications found in competing flagships.
The Xperia Z3 Compact is exactly what it claims to be – a compact version of the Xperia Z3. And for that, we give major props to Sony for raising the bar and carving its own path.
Sony’s software is usually hit or miss with users. People either really like it or simply don’t care for it. We here at Pocketnow have gone back and forth as Sony has mixed things up over the last two years. Ultimately, we’ve arrived here at the latest version of Sony’s UI, which is an overall improvement over past versions.
The differences are small but go a long way to improve the overall user experience.
For example, if you don’t like a crowded status bar, Sony gives you the option to remove almost all the different icons from it. You can toggle icons for Alarm, Battery (as well as percentage and STAMINA icons), Bluetooth, Time, Silent mode, Wi-Fi, and Location. Likewise, if you want to keep items in the notification shade but don’t want them cluttering the status bar, you can toggle a feature which clears all status notifications but keeps all the unread notifications in the shade. This is very helpful if don’t constantly feel like being reminded that you have a backlog of notifications but don’t want to swipe them out of the notification shade.
There are now seven pre-installed themes to choose from, but you can also add several aftermarket themes, as well.
Some third-party applications are accessible as Small apps now, too. Chrome bookmarks and a Gmail account can be opened in a floating window, alongside a floating screenshot app, calculator, timer, Sony’s default browser, calendar, and a touch block tool. Such floating windows are only somewhat useful on large devices like Sony’s Xperia Z Ultra. On a small phone like this, they make even less sense. Frankly, we’d prefer to see split-screen multitasking from Sony, just not on such a small phone.
Other useful features include Life Log – a way to track events, set goals, and log memories – and the PlayStation app for connecting to your PS4 or managing your PSN account. However, many of the pre-installed apps will go mostly unused. Sony Select and the What’s New app are Sony’s way of pushing its own content over Google Play content, something we’ve not exactly been enthused by in the past from competitors. TrackID seems rather useless, since Google Now has no trouble identifying songs (but how else would Sony push users to buy from the Sony store?).
AVG Virus, Garmin Navigation, AR Effect (a pre-installed camera app), File Commander, Kobo Reader, Live on YouTube, NeoReader, News from Socialife, and OfficeSuite are just some of the pre-installed fluff.
The appearance of Sony’s UI hasn’t really changed all that much, though. It does more closely resemble the Google Now Launcher with a simplified home screen appearance and larger icons in the app drawer, but Sony’s candy-like icons – something we could do without – are definitely still present.
The upshot is that the Z3 Compact comes running what was, until today, the very latest official software from Google – Android 4.4.4 – beneath all these customizations. And despite a lot of bloat, the UI feels very vanilla, unlike many OEM customizations, which often change the appearance for the sake of change. Sony hasn’t done that here. It has changed the appearance, but in many ways it has also improved some of the shortcomings of the default Android experience, like through allowing the user to clean all the unwanted mess out of the status bar.
Not every feature is worth its virtual weight, but we have no major complaints with the software on the Z3 Compact. It’s neither our favorite nor least favorite custom version of Android.
The camera interface is pretty minimal, with separate virtual shutter buttons for still and video capture, a selector for front or rear camera, toggle for flash, a capture mode button, and an action overflow button for additional settings.
Sony’s camera, like in the past, is great at keeping the interface very simple, hiding the many tricks the software is capable of. Tapping the mode selector will unveil the 18 pre-installed shooting modes, including Evernote, Vine, and a 4K capture mode. You can also download up to 20 additional first- and third-party camera modes.
The thing is, many of these so-called “modes” are just shortcuts to inbuilt camera features within other apps. And within certain modes, features of the stock camera app will become disabled. In the Superior Auto mode, which the camera will often revert back to, you can only shoot in 8 megapixels and select between 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios. Only by switching to the Manual shooting mode can you capture stills at max resolution, 20.7 megapixels, or in HDR. Even more, you can’t enable HDR mode in anything over 8 megapixels.
There’s a lot to know about the Sony viewfinder software and much of it is more complicated than it needs to be. For example, it would be much more simple if Sony just allowed you to enable HDR and prompted you that it will only capture at 8 megapixels. I digress.
We’ve come to expect great things from Sony’s smartphone cameras, and the Z3 Compact doesn’t disappoint. Stills taken with the Z3 Compact are great. Focus is very sharp and in both Superior Auto and full 20.7-megapixel resolution, and it manages to capture tons of detail, leaving ample room to crop in post. The only things we’d complain about are that the contrast and saturation are a little low. Unlike competing smartphone cameras, Sony doesn’t supersaturate colors. The result is photos that often appear drab and lifeless. And they often err on the cool side.
Still photos taken with the Z3 Compact were, more often than not, fantastic. The low light capabilities of the Z3 Compact are quite good, too, depending on what you value more – light or details. Like with most low light shooters, saturation and color reproduction will suffer. But the Z3 Compact boosts light in dim scenes an incredible amount. We’ve taken pictures in near pitch black conditions and they often turn out much brighter, almost as if the flash were turned on (it definitely wasn’t). The downside is that while photos turn out exceptionally bright, they’re fuzzy and have an extremely soft focus.
Video capture, on the other hand, isn’t spectacular in any way. We had trouble with audio not being balanced and panning hard to one side or the other, the camera was very quick to over-expose, it showed the same dull colors and low contrast, and pans were jittery. There seems to be some software stabilization, too, which results in some frame warping. It’s not the worst video capture we’ve seen on a phone, but it’s certainly not the best either.
Day to day performance is where the Xperia Z3 Compact truly shines. Save for the iPhone 6, other phones around the size of the Compact are under-powered or beginning to age. It screams through normal tasks without a hitch. Pinch zooming, switching apps, and opening apps is extremely snappy, and we can’t recall any notable instances of lag.
It eats up benchmarks, hanging close with devices like the One M8 and Galaxy S5 (both of which also have Snapdragon 801s) and it puts up some spectacular performance in gaming. We were unable to bog the phone down, despite running multiple Small Apps and playing a YouTube video in the background.
Gaming is also enhanced by the front-firing speakers. But don’t be mistaken, while there are two (one above and one below the display), they’re not terribly loud and their output is rather tinny. These are no BoomSound speakers, but we’re just happy they’re located on the front and not so easy to cover by accident.
The Z3 Compact unit we have on hand isn’t carrier branded. It’s an unlocked global device, but it works just fine on T-Mobile with all the proper band support. Between Charlotte and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we’ve mustered some respectable data speeds. And call quality, we’d say, is just average. We could hear callers loud and clear and they reported no issues hearing us, though they noted hearing some background noise. but we weren’t blown away by the quality, especially using the speakerphone. Despite the dual front-facing speakers, the speakerphone was too quiet to use in just about any loud environment.
Battery life is another high note. We’ve been getting between three and five hours of screen-on time. Yes, that’s a lot of variance, because when dealing with a phone for just a week, you’re going to get a lot of variation in your data. Most of that poor battery performance can be blamed on the poor coverage where we spent the bulk of our time testing. However, over the weekend when out of town in a better coverage area, we were getting upwards of five hours of screen-on time through days of moderately heavy usage. Only once did we have to flick on the STAMINA mode, which predicted another four days and 19 hours (five days and 14 hours on standby) of use with the mode enabled. We went to sleep and woke to a prediction of just 18 hours, only eight hours later.
Point being, you can’t really trust the estimated remaining time, but the phone’s stamina is still pretty respectable. The same could be said for the performance, overall.
+ IP68 certification for protection against the elements
+ Above average camera performance
+ Great battery life
+ Very compact with a sizable display
– A considerable amount of bloat pre-installed
– Front speakers aren’t terribly loud
– Double glass panes could prove fragile
Pricing and Availability
The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact comes in four color options: white, black, orange, and green. From Sony’s online store, you can currently pre-order the Xperia Z3 Compact for $529.99, plus tax.
Our unit came from Clove, which is currently selling it for £290.83 (or about $468.21 USD) before applicable taxes. Clove is also currently bundling any purchased of the Xperia Z3 Compact with a car charger and Roxfit case for free.
After a week of using the Xperia Z3 Compact, we are left with a tiny phone that we actually like. That’s not something we’ve openly said about most other phones in this size range. OEMs are quick to shave away the great specs while not slashing the price so quickly, resulting in somewhat smaller phones that are sort of like their larger counterparts and marginally more affordable.
That’s not the case with the Z3 Compact. Yes, it’s only slightly cheaper than the full-sized Z3, but its specifications are very similar and it’s basically just a smaller version of Sony’s true flagship, not a watered-down version.
If you want a high-end smartphone without all the extra baggage, Sony has gone the extra distance to make sure this is the phone you buy, and we highly recommend it.