- No IR blaster
iPhones aside, you’ll be hard pressed to find a small smartphone boasting top notch hardware, unless of course you check out the new Sony Xperia Z1 Compact.
Design and display: Small, elegant and strong
Let’s be clear, in the world of smartphones and particularly Android flagships, the Z1 Compact is a small device; it’s still a handset with a 4.3-inch display – the size of a top-tier Android phone back in 2012, but in 2014, the hardware package on offer is nothing short of staggering for a phone that’s more in keeping with the size of today’s mid-rangers.
The best thing about the Compact’s design is that this space saving exercise hasn’t compromised the look of the device one bit. It’s a little thicker than its bigger brother at 9.5mm, but you can’t expect Sony to squeeze that heavily touted 20.7-megapixel camera system into a smaller body without a little compromise somewhere.
Its strong aluminium frame features flat sides, rounded corners and a number of concealed ports for the SIM card, microSD and USB port. It’s not as minimalist as an iPhone 5S, but it’s still wonderfully elegant and arguably more comfortable to hold in one hand than the conventional Xperia Z1.
Just as with the Z1, there’s still an exposed headphone jack on the top, which is as impressive as ever considering, if you wish, you can throw the Compact in the sink without fear of water damage (IP58 certification at work right there). The main hardware controls feel reassuringly solid running down the right side of the phone and the hardware shutter key is a serious bonus over older Xperias too.
The display is another highlight of the Z1 Compact’s design. The lack of Full HD resolution might upset those looking to play the numbers game, but in real-world use, you won’t notice. It’s a hell of a screen: rich colours, Sony’s TRILUMINOS technology at work and the inclusion of an IPS panel ensures viewing angles far superior to the likes of both the Xperia Z and the Z1.
If only having 720p HD resolution does irk you, consider the fact that you’re still looking at a screen with 342 pixels per inch, that’s higher than an iPhone 5S, what’s more it’s arguably one of the best screens in its class.
OS: Neat freaks apply here
Lighter than Samsung’s TouchWiz, but far from vanilla Android, the Z1 Compact offers the latest version of Sony’s take on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. It’s a clean, clear user interface, which offers plenty in the way of organisation and customisability. A swipe to the right from the first page of the apps drawer brings up all the options you could wish for in order to organise, uninstall and search for specific applications, it’s a welcome inclusion.
Sony is a vast company and over time, it’s built an array of products and services designed to fit significant aspects of your life. The Z1 Compact features a ton of pre-installed apps out-the-box, primarily made up of these services. Video Unlimited is a Netflix alternative packed with movies and TV series available to buy, rent, stream and save offline. The Walkman app is the default music player, which pulls content from both your device and Sony’s own Music Unlimited service if you’re a subscriber. They can either be convenient or intrusive, depending on what sort of user you are.
Sony’s ecosystem, similarly to Apple’s, works best when you embrace it wholly. Your enjoyment of the Z1 Compact won’t be ruined should you prefer 3rd-party alternatives, but there’s no way to remove or hide the elements you don’t want to use. Something to be aware of at the very least.
Performance: Phenomenal cosmic power. Itty-bitty living space.
Its design alone promises a powerful experience, but the best part is that it genuinely delivers.
We’re already acquainted with the Z1 Compact’s hardware, it’s nearly identical (save for display and battery capacity) to the Xperia Z1 and Z Ultra. With its lower resolution display, theoretically we should see even slicker performance.
Lag doesn’t really exist with the Z1 Compact, the UI waits for no man and even the bloomiest, motion-blurriest, graphically intensive 3D titles look and feel great to play. The 2.2GHz quad-core chip and 2GB of RAM at the centre of the compact should serve any discerning smartphone user well on your average two-year plan and even beyond, with blazing performance using any one of the phone’s many features.
Battery performance too is fantastic; we’re not sure how Sony managed to cram such a sizable 2300mAh battery into the Compact, but expect to wake up, unplug your phone and steer clear of the charger until the following lunchtime.
The Compact is also well connected, with 4G, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi, GPS, MHL support, Miracast support, microSD expandability (up to 64GB) and NFC. The only omission as far as we can see is the lack of an IR port for TV remote functionality a la HTC One, but the TV SideView app does circumvent this problem if you own a Sony TV, or a Sony tablet with an IR blaster. What’s more, gamers have the ability to connect a PlayStation controller for that added level of gaming precision thanks to the Compact’s PlayStation certification.
Camera: Excess at its best
The Xperia Z1 came out at the head of the pack in our last camera comparison, beating the likes of mighty the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5S based on it versatility and overall performance. Sony, clearly aware of this fact has taken an ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach to the Z1 Compact’s main camera.
The same 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS image sensor, paired to the same Sony G Lens and BIONZ image processing technology as before make the Z1 Compact an ideal companion for mobile photographers. A xenon flash would have really blown our minds, but in its current state, the imaging experience is still arguably one of the best around.
The simple UI lets you jump between modes easily enough and should you wish to, you can still bring out the augmented reality dinosaurs to liven up your shots. The default superior auto mode will cover you for most situations, pushing out impressive dynamic range in high contrast scenarios, plenty of colour depth and detail, and make the most of the available light in darker environments. Going full manual lets you get creative and allows you to bump shots from 8 up to 20-megapixels, but pleasing results are harder to come by. Noise and post-processing are also significantly improved over the likes of the Sony Xperia Z’s 13-megapixel photos.
Video is also pleasing, shooting in Full HD looks great, colours and movement are handled well and for a smartphone, the audio experience is pretty balanced too.
Last time we said that the Xperia Z1 is the best Android flagship on the market now in terms of imaging, the Z1 Compact upholds such a title and the smaller package makes it even more convenient.
Conclusion: It’s been a long time coming
The recent trend of increasingly large phones has been somewhat of a concern for many; the satire of Dom Jolly’s giant mobile phone sketch turning into some horrific reality, but the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact pulls us back from the brink.
Undoubtedly this handset is a feat of engineering, but it also boasts a great user experience, fixes the problems we encountered with previous Sony flagships and fills a gap that many users might not have realised needed to be filled, but will be thankful that it has.
Sure, select users will appreciate the Xperia Z Ultra or the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for their larger, higher resolution displays, but in truth bigger isn’t always better (see Apple: iPhone sales) and perhaps the Z1 Compact is the start of a new trend of pint-sized powerhouses to combat the pocket-sized phablets we’ve grown accustomed to.