Sony’s downsized Z1 might just be the best small Android phone you can buy
For the past several years, high-end Android phones have followed the mantra of “go big or go home.” Five-plus-inch displays, once considered comically large, are now the standard for top-level Android handsets. And big screens definitely have their advantages, giving us more room to browse the web, play games and view photos and movies. But the transition to large displays has left a gap in the market between the 4-inch iPhone and the bulk of the high-end Android space. And that’s precisely where Sony wants to place its latest handset, the Xperia Z1 Compact.
Sony has packed all the major hardware features of the Z1 into a smaller chassis.
The Z1 Compact is in essence a shrunk-down version of the Xperia Z1, Sony’s current 5-inch, 1080p flagship. We’ve been familiarising ourselves with the Z1 since it launched late last year, and we recently reflected on our time with the phone in a three-month look-back feature. It’s one of the better Android phones out there, excelling in battery life and camera quality. But usually when a high-end handset gets a “mini” version there are compromises to be made — with the processor, camera and storage usually being first for the chop. That’s not the case with the Z1 Compact, and that’s actually the reason it’s a “Compact” and not a “Mini” — Sony tells us the “Mini” monicker has been tainted by cheaper, lower-end handsets. “Compact,” on the other hand, implies it’s the same phone in a smaller space.
Instead of cutting down specs along with the device’s footprint, Sony has packed all the major hardware features of the Z1 into a smaller chassis with a 4.3-inch 720p screen. You’ve got the same Snapdragon 800 CPU, 2GB of RAM and 20.7-megapixel rear camera found on the Z1, in a substantially reduced footprint. For that reason it offers much the same experience as its big brother, along with a few unique quirks of its own.
Join us after the break for a closer look, in our full review of the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact.
Excellent performance, display and camera. Outstanding battery life. Useful power-saving and multimedia features.
Glitchy haptic feedback, cheap-feeling plastic back and fixed screen protector. No KitKat update timetable.
Even with its weird-feeling plastic back and blocky proportions, the Xperia Z1 Compact is the best 4.3-inch Android phone you can buy, delivering all the features and performance of a high-end smartphone in a smaller design that’s easier to manage.
A continuation of Sony's 'OmniBalance' design language
The Xperia Z1 Compact’s chassis is a continuation of Sony’s “OmniBalance” design language, first introduced a year ago with the Xperia Z. While it’s nowhere near as large as other Z series phones, the Compact is just as blocky and angular. The front and back panels are completely flat, with most of the ports and buttons located around the slightly curvy aluminum trim. The trademark rounded power button is found two-thirds of the way up the right edge, within easy thumb reach, and beneath it sits the volume rocker and two-stage shutter key.
Like the Z1, the Compact’s shutter key is more useful as a shortcut into the camera app, rather than a replacement for the on-screen capture button. That’s because applying enough force to press the shutter can result in unwanted movement and motion-blurred shots. The key itself is also extremely small, making it somewhat more difficult to hit.
On the left edge are all the main ports — SIM, microSD and microUSB, all hidden behind waterproof doors, along with a magnetic charging port for use with Sony’s charging dock. And if you’re picking up a Z1 Compact, the dock is probably a wise investment, as it gives you a way to charge the device without fiddling with plastic doors. Like its big brother, the Compact is water- and dust-resistant — rated IP55/58 — meaning you can take it for a dunk in the pool or use it outside in the rain without worrying about water damage. Water-resistance basically comes as standard with all Sony's current high-end smartphones, which is great to see.
The aluminum border gives the phone a premium feel, even if other areas of it have decidedly plastic texture
The Z1 Compact is a little thicker than the Z1 — 9.5mm, up from 8.5mm — but the in-hand feel is much the same. The aluminum border gives the phone a premium feel, even if other areas of it have decidedly plastic texture. And as you’d expect, the Compact’s reduced dimensions make it significantly easier to palm, so one-handed operation isn’t as cumbersome as it is with the full-sized Z1. Overall, it’s just a hair shorter and narrower than the Moto X.
Curiously, the glass back panel of the other Z series phones has been swapped out for a traditional glossy polycarbonate rear, to the detriment of the overall feel of the device. Other Sony phones feature a plastic shatterproof film atop tempered glass — but the Compact’s behind is just straight-up plastic, and the difference is jarring. It’s a fingerprint magnet, even more so than glass-backed Sony phones, and the plastic layer feels unpleasant and slimy in the hand, like the back of the Galaxy S4. It’s a mark against what’s otherwise a premium piece of hardware, and probably the only real physical downgrade from the Z1.
Around the front is the Z1 Compact’s 4.3-inch, 720p display, which bears Sony’s “Triluminos” branding, but has little in common with the Z1’s screen. This time Sony’s using a more traditional IPS LCD display, resulting in vastly improved viewing angles. The display isn’t perfect — dark areas appear a little over-dimmed, and the auto-brightness setting doesn’t seem to ramp up aggressively enough even when maxed out — but it’s an improvement on earlier Sony efforts for sure. And while colors on our Z1 Compact unit appeared a little cooler than they should, this was easily fixed using the built-in white balance tuner, under Settings > Display.
We recently bemoaned Sony’s use of anti-shatter film on its phone displays, and sadly the Z1 Compact continues this trend, making the glass of the display feel plasticky, collect lint and scratch more easily than other smartphones. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but if you’re using the phone over the course of a two-year contract then be prepared to pick up several hairline scratches over time.
The Compact’s internal specs almost exactly match those of the Z1
The Compact’s internal specs almost exactly match those of the Z1. You’ve got a speedy Snapdragon 800 processor inside — a quad-core 2.2GHz CPU — with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, expandable via microSD. Around the back is the same impressive 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS camera with LED flash, which we’ll look at later in this review. And there’s also a fixed 2,300mAh battery, down from the 3,000mAh unit in the Z1. But fear not — as we’ll discuss in the Battery section, the phone offers phenomenal longevity.
As we’ve come to expect from Snapdragon 800 phones, the Compact performs admirably, with quick touch responses and smooth navigation throughout the UI. And the Adreno 330 GPU, combined with the lower screen resolution, should mean you’ll have plenty of power for gaming. On the connectivity side, the European Z1 Compact we’ve been using (model number D5503) supports a bevy of LTE frequencies (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 20), as well as penta-band DC-HSDPA. In real terms that means you’re good for 3G coverage across much of the world, and 4G LTE (Cat. 4) in Europe and on T-Mobile U.S.
On top of that you’ve got Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and Wifi a/b/g/n/ac support, all of which functions as advertised.
So the Xperia Z1 Compact is a monster of a handset despite its diminutive size, taking much of what’s good (and bad) about the Z1 and cramming it into a smaller space. Besides the improved IPS display, Sony hasn’t really addressed any of our pet peeves about that device. But at the same time the company hasn’t taken anything significant away from the equation, with the exception of the cheaper plastic back.
There's a strange bug affecting the phone's vibration motor.
Here’s one curious bug we’ve noticed on the Xperia Z1 Compact: when the phone is held at a certain angle — for instance, with the screen tilting down slightly — the vibration motor will sometimes fail to fire. When this happens (it’s a relatively rare occurrence) you’ll get no haptic feedback from using the on-screen buttons, and vibration notifications won’t fire either. A quick search of Sony’s product forums reveals this is a somewhat widespread issue with an easy fix — simply tilt the phone back and forth, or give it a quick shake, and the motor will spring back to life.
It’s worth underscoring that the glitch seems dependent on the phone behind held in a certain way, and if you’re holding it normally with the screen facing up or level you probably won’t be affected. Nevertheless, it’s an annoyance we don’t recall seeing on any other handset, and so deserves a mention here. This kind of issue can probably be fixed with firmware update, in the meantime it’s a minor irritation. We’ll update this section if it’s resolved in a future software update.
Sony’s UI is pretty low-key — you’re not going to find an abundance of bright colors or large, cartoonish icons.
Like its larger (and much larger) siblings, the Xperia Z1 Compact runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean along with Sony’s Xperia UI. There’s no explicit timetable for getting Android 4.4 on any Sony handset at the time of writing, which has to count against its phones when the likes of Motorola, HTC and Samsung are already rolling out KitKat for their 2013 flagships. But for the most part Sony does a good job with Android 4.3, differentiating itself without bulldozing through Google’s design guidelines.
Sony’s UI is pretty low-key — you’re not going to find an abundance of bright colors or large, cartoonish icons. If anything, we might say Sony’s moved a little too far away from the flashiness of some rivals — the embossed, slightly skeuomorphic icons are starting to look a little dated when compared to the latest HTC Sense or stock Android UIs. Nevertheless, it’s clean, easy to use and inoffensive. And for those wanting to break away from the default look and feel of Xperia phones, Sony now offers downloadable themes through the Play Store, in addition to the eight colored skins loaded out of the box.
As a Sony phone, the Xperia Z1 Compact comes preloaded with apps for the company’s content ecosystems. You’ve got Music Unlimited integrated into the built-in Walkman music app, as well as PlayMemories support in the Album (gallery) app. There’s also Video Unlimited for movies and TV, as well as a stub app for PlayStation Mobile. (Unfortunately the latter is still kind of a graveyard.) That's an added convenience if you're bought into the Sony ecosystem; if not, it's all easy enough to uninstall or ignore.
“Small apps” — windowed applications accessible from the task-switching button — are included, though these are of limited use on a smaller screen. Options include a windowed web browser, notebook, calculator, timer and voice recorder, and you can also turn some regular Android widgets into windowed apps.
Like just about every other Sony phone, the Z1 Compact has Sony’s “X-Reality for mobile” image and video enhancer, toggleable through the Display menu. The main effect of this has colors becoming brighter and more saturated in the built-in Album app, as well as in video playback in general. Sony also claims it helps to cut down on visible noise, while adding extra sharpness to images. The end result seems to be images that are better-looking, though perhaps less true-to-life.
Other preloaded goodies include PlayStation 3 controller support, “Throw” support for transferring content to other Xperia devices wirelessly, and remote device security (including remote wipe) through the MyXperia service. And Sony has a full-featured power management menu within its settings app too, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
The Xperia Z1 Compact's battery offers epic longevity, rivaling the likes of the HTC One Max and Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
Whereas the Xperia Z1’s battery life was slowly improved with successive software updates, the Z1 Compact offers epic longevity out of the box. Even without utilizing the “stamina mode” setting, which cuts down on background data consumption, we found the Compact to be among the most long-lasting Android handsets, even coming close to the battery performance of oversized phones like the HTC One Max and Galaxy Note 3.
In our first week with the phone we’ve generally finished a normal working day — mostly on Wifi — with around 50 percent charge remaining. Our first day of normal use hopping between Wifi and LTE, with mixed usage consisting of web browsing, messaging and social app usage, we got more than 16 hours out of the Z1 Compact before passing the 50 percent mark, with three hours of screen-on time.
And with extremely heavy use moving between LTE and HSPA, we got to the nine and a half hour mark with 20 percent remaining, and 3 hours 20 minutes screen-on time. With that kind of use in those conditions, most Android phones we’ve tested in the past year would’ve been well and truly dead.
On both occasions we didn’t make any use of “stamina mode” to extend the Z1 Compact’s battery life. Should you wish to, you’ll find switching it on makes the phone use almost no juice at all when the screen is off. There’s also a whitelist option to allow certain apps to connect in the background even while stamina mode is enabled.
With a week of use behind us, we feel confident saying battery life is one of the Z1 Compact’s greatest strengths. It might be small, but it packs enough power to get through even the most strenuous of use cases. In this area the Compact doesn’t just match the Xperia Z1 — it surpasses it.
One of the best Android cameras, now in a smaller phone.
The Xperia Z1 Compact’s rear camera is identical to that of the full-size Z1 — a 20.7-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor behind a Sony G lens. Because of the matching lens, sensor and internals, the Compact’s camera performs about the same as its big brother’s, and just about everything we said about the camera in our three-month feature on the Z1 applies to the Compact. You get the same great camera in a smaller device — and the reduced size and lighter weight actually make it a little easier to hold the phone steady when taking pictures.
Photo quality across the board is generally great, particularly in outdoor shots. Sony’s camera app tends to be a little aggressive in scrubbing away visible noise though, which can result in some fine detail being eliminated with it in certain conditions. But the still camera’s only real weakness is night shots — low light performance isn’t horrendous, but it’s easier than we’d like to get motion-blurred night shots, on account of the lack of hardware stabilization. On a related note, the phone's use of relatively high ISO levels for night shots produces grainer night-time images than we’d like.
The Z1 Compact has a 20.7-megapixel camera, but you'll be taking 8-megapixel shots most of the time.
Sony’s modular camera app is present and correct — by default you shoot at 8 megapixels in 16:9 orientation in Superior Auto mode. If you want to switch to 4:3, or step all the way up to 20 megapixels, you’ll need to switch to manual mode. Other shooting options include Timeshift Burst, Sweep Panorama and various gimmicky AR modes. Sony can add and update these camera modes though the Play Store, so there’s plenty of room for expansion in the future.
Whichever shooting mode you choose, we’d recommend sticking at 8 megapixels for most shots. The use of oversampling means you’re able to zoom in without losing too much detail, and 20-megapixel images generally don’t look that great anyway.
The Z1 Compact shoots video at 1080p resolution with 30 frames per second, and does a pretty good job of it. Footage doesn’t look as amazingly crisp as it does from some rivals, like the Galaxy Note 3 with its 4K-recording camera. And as with the still camera, the video recorder seems to scrub away more fine detail than we’d like. That said, 1080p video from the Z1 Compact looks decent, with a consistent frame rate and accurate colors.
All in all, the phone's 20-megapixel shooter remains one of the best on an Android phone, and you can be confident that you’re getting a capable camera with the Xperia Z1 Compact. Is there room for improvement? Sure. But Sony's doing a lot right here, particularly on the software side.
The Xperia Z1 Compact delivers on a promise broken by so many other 'mini' smartphones — bringing high-end hardware into a smaller handset. Sony's latest retains the performance, aesthetics, camera, waterproof credentials and software experience of its big brother while managing to surpass it in a couple of areas, namely display viewability and battery life. It's still kind of a chunky phone, but being a smaller chunky phone makes it infinitely easier to handle than the 5-inch Z1. If you're after a small Android handset with the best hardware around, it's kind of a no-brainer — no other "mini" Android comes close. In other ecosystems, the Compact's closest competitor is probably the iPhone.
The Z1 Compact delivers on a promise broken by so many other “mini” smartphones.
So where does the Compact fall short? The most obvious issue to point out (besides the weird vibration motor bug) is the plastic back pane, a noticeable downgrade from the glass rear of the Z1. Upgrade prospects for the device remain up in the air too, with no firm date for Android 4.4 KitKat on Sony phones. Beyond that, you're getting into issues of personal taste — do you like the muted tones of Sony's UI, or the brighter, more approachable stylings of HTC or Samsung? Are you OK with the angular design, or would the more ergonomic Moto X be a better fit?
There's also the question of whether the average Android phone buyer has outgrown 4.3-inch handsets, especially when they come with relatively hefty bezels. (We should note the Moto X fits a 4.7-inch 720p display into about the same footprint as the Z1 Compact.) Personally, my own ideal smartphone size lies somewhere between the Z1 and the Compact, but if I had to pick one to use every day, I'd absolutely choose the smaller version — glossy, fingerprinty back panel and all. The main reason for that isn't necessarily the size — instead it's the phone's highly capable camera and battery life that makes it more dependable than many larger competitors.
The Xperia Z1 Compact doesn't remedy all of our longstanding issues with Sony's smartphones, and in many ways it's been a repeat performance of our time with the original Z1. But regardless it's an excellent piece of kit, and for the moment the best Android device in its class.