Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact camera review: Whilst there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with last year’s Xperia X Compact, it didn’t stay true to the product family’s roots, something Sony appears to have rectified with 2017’s XZ1 Compact.
For the most part, this pint-sized Android phone boasts all of the same internals as the larger XZ1, including its excellent 19-megapixel Exmor RS sensor-laden Motion Eye primary camera system.
The main snapper wields a respectably wide f/2.0 aperture, whilst the sensor utilises enlarged 1.22µm pixels, allowing more light in when taking shots in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Sony’s packed a wealth of other goodies into the imaging experience like gyroscope-based electronic image stabilisation and laser-based predictive phase-detection autofocus too.
The front 8-megapixel camera doesn’t offer quite the same low-light prowess as the standard XZ1’s 13-megapixel front-facer due to a narrower f/2.4 aperture, but it does still boast gyro-reinforced EIS, like the main camera and an impressive 120-degree super wide-angle lens, making it perfectly suited to group shots.
Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Camera Review: UI
The Compact sports the same familiar interface that we’ve seen since the likes of the Xperia Z1. It’s evolved over the years but it’s still unmistakably Sony.
There are only a handful of shooting controls available to you out the gate including the shutter and flash toggle, whilst a swipe (up or down in landscape, left or right in portrait) lets you change shooting mode. You can also jump to the front camera by tapping the icon in the corner of the viewfinder or swiping (left or right in landscape, up or down in portrait) too.
Zoom is handled by pinching but you can also use the volume rocker if you prefer (the behaviour of which is customisable in the camera’s settings), whilst camera settings themselves are tailored to the active shooting mode and accessible under the cog icon.
Dipping into the settings menu meanwhile gives you control over aspects like capture resolution, as well as more unique features such as Predictive Capture (which takes additional shots before you press the shutter) and Object Tracking.
Swiping into manual adds an extra button beneath the shutter that when tapped reveals a host of additional controls over white balance, exposure ISO, shutter speed and focus. It’s worth noting that unlike its rivals from Samsung’s camp, long-exposure shooting is limited to a maximum of one second, rather than ten, which is a little disappointing even if general low light performance is good.
The XZ1 Compact’s more distinctive shootings modes are labelled as Camera Apps. A couple of swipes along from Auto capture you’ll find the option to add 3D dinos to your snaps, grab sound along with your stills, capture panoramas and load on a host of stylised filters. Thankfully Sony has seen fit to move 4K video recording out of this area of the interface and simply add it to the resolution selection screen when shooting video, which makes a lot more sense.
The Compact’s camera interface makes it easy to get snapping without any real need for a user guide or explanation, but there’s an undeniable learning curve when it comes to navigation and experimentation is required to find and fine-tune all of the additional modes and settings it offers.
Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Camera Review: Photo Quality
The XZ1 Compact’s default Superior Auto capture mode is more powerful than the likes of rivals including the iPhone, simply because it adds in a few extra options such as colour temperature adjustment without overwhelming you with the full gamut of toggles and sliders found in manual mode. Even if you leave such options well alone, it’s also great at reading the scenario you’re shooting in and ensuring that you get a great photo.
With HDR capture enabled by default (it can only be disabled when shooting in manual mode) you can expect well-exposed shots across the board; with respectable amounts of detail, impressively low noise (even in low light) and accurate colours without exception.
Light and colour are, in fact, the camera’s greatest strengths made all the more apparent in low light conditions where a surprising amount of colour depth is retained within even extremely dim shots. The trade-off is, of course, detail and whilst there isn’t too much in the way of grain, the XZ1 Compact struggles to render clearly defined shapes when the lights go down, leaving the resultant photos looking a little murky.
Another unusual trait across the board is a slight distortion and blur that appears at the edge of frame in each image. It’s unclear whether this is down to the main snapper’s wide-angle lens or the sensor and image processing at play but it’ll only bother more pernickety mobile photographers.
As for the XZ1 Compact’s selfie game, the 8-megapixel front-facer takes pleasing shots in most instances, with a simple but powerful on/off soft skin toggle serving as the only means of beautification and a screen-based flash that makes for a softer, more appealing result than an LED-based effort.
There is one snag in the Compact’s otherwise excellent front-facing photography skill set and it’s to do with that impressive 120-degree wide angle lens. A toggle that presents itself when shooting with the front camera lets you jump between a more conventional portrait and an almost fisheye-like wide-angle effort that’s great for squeezing a few mates in on either side of you, however, with both types of image being captured by a single sensor, it’s clear that the regular selfies are simply cropped-in, upscaled versions of the wide-angle images.
Whilst in practice image quality is still very good, in actuality it means standard selfies are technically 3-megapixel images that have been blown up and spat out of the phone at 8-megapixels. It’s somewhat deceptive on Sony’s part, even if you’re still getting good shots.
Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Camera Review: Video Quality
Both front and back cameras offer Full HD recording at 30fps and both also benefit from the phone’s gyroscope-based EIS system, which in practice is rather exceptional – on par with the system at play on Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL.
The main snapper also gives you the option of 1080p/60fps resolution shooting, 4K/30fps shooting and, the headline 720p/960fps slow motion recording made possible by its stacked on-sensor memory, even if it can only record that insane frame rate for 0.18 seconds.
In general, footage is attractive, with exceptional motion capture, great colour reproduction, fast automated focus and contrast adjustment, and the aforementioned buttery smooth image stability. The dynamic range seems a little narrower than when shooting stills but it still gives you pleasing overall results.
Upping the resolution to 4K gives you effectively all of the same pros and cons, albeit with greater detail, which is kind of the point. Audio capture in both instances is also pleasing, with distinct directional capture and clear mids and highs.
As for the all-important super slow motion functionality, the real feat here is instilling the same great tech that we first encountered on the Xperia XZ Premium into a phone a fraction of the size. Like the Premium’s 960fps footage, it’s obviously lacking in detail due to the forced drop in resolution but watching footage under its influence is still unquestionably spellbinding.
Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact Camera Review: Verdict
Contrary to Sony’s promises, shots take a little longer to process and view than we’d like and there are definitely some rough edges when it comes to the finer points of image quality, both figuratively and literally.
The ability to shoot 4K and super slow motion video on a phone this size is arguably its biggest selling point, but the XZ1 Compact’s ability to render light and colour as well as it does, especially in dim environments, should also be applauded.
Sony’s Superior Auto mode takes a lot of the heavy-lifting out of taking a great shot on a smartphone and provided you learn the interface’s quirks and intricacies it renders the Xperia XZ1 Compact as a powerful pocketable smartphone snapper.