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Perfect for pockets: Sony’s Xperia Z1 Compact reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 3:19 pm 21/03/2014

Not a fan of big phones? You’re not the only one, and Sony may have found the perfect middle point for someone keen on flagship specs and performance without needing to tax the pockets too much.

Features

While the big phones tend to be the flagship devices for companies, there are those who want the same technology in a smaller frame.

Sony’s take on this is to take last year’s Z1 flagship and make it compact, which it ends up being called.

As such, there’s a nearly identical specification set in the Z1 Compact, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at 2.2GHz and paired with 2GB RAM, while featuring 16GB storage and a microSD to easily expand on this.

Connection options are close to being the same too, with support for Cat4 4G LTE, WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Near-Field Communication, GPS, and Bluetooth 4.0 provided here. Like the Z1, there is no infrared port in this handset.

Sony has also made the cameras identical, with the same 20.7 megapixel rear shooter stuffed into a smaller body, while the front 2 megapixel camera is also the same.

Water and dust resistance is identical between the two units, and you’ll find a rating of IP58 applied here, making it dust-proof and water resistant for around 30 minutes of immersion.

About the only thing that has changed between the models has been the size and screen, with a much small set of dimensions leading to a shorter screen. In fact, the 5 inch Full HD screen of the Xperia Z1 drops to a 4.3 inch HD screen in this model, in turn dropping the pixel clarity from 441ppi to 342ppi, which is still higher than Apple’s Retina-grade display in the iPhone, even if it’s a marginal increase.

Ports on the Z1 Compact are covered by flaps which you’ll want to push into place if you plan on immersing the phone in water, and these cover the microUSB port, microSD slot, and microSIM slot. The 3.5mm headset jack is left uncovered and waterproof.

Most buttons on this phone are touch-based, thanks to that 4.3 inch touchscreen on the front, but there are some physical buttons hanging around, all on the right edge, in fact, with a circular power button, volume rocker, and a shutter and camera activation button down below all of them.

Android is also provided here, with 4.3 “Jelly Bean” coming preinstalled on the Z1 Compact, though an update to 4.4 “KitKat” is coming.

The battery is built into the phone and is rated for 2300mAh.

An extra docking port is provided using a proprietary port from Sony.

Performance

There was a time when a phone could fit in your pocket comfortably. It seems strange to believe that this was only a few years ago, when companies hadn’t yet explored the 5 inch mark, and were making their phones sized for hands, and not a massive window to the web and more.

Now, the world we live in features big phones, sized to provide the maximum viewing space for our online exploits, our social successes, and all the video that the visual parts of our body can possibly take in.

But not everyone wants a big phone. You might want flagship performance without the dent it does — not just to your wallet — but also to your pants and hand-hold, so compact phones are still a thing.

Enter the Z1 Compact, Sony’s answer to this quandary, providing a small handset with the guts of one of the bigger ones, borrowing from the template of the Sony Xperia Z1.

From a design point of view, Sony has practically nailed it, taking the slightly softened rectangular form of last year’s Z1 and running it under hot water until it drops in size. The result is something that is smaller, one millimetre thicker, and altogether more comfortable than what the company had last year in the Z1.

People upgrading from the iPhone will be more at ease here than anyone else, as the 4.3 inch size feels like a slight extension of the 3.5 and 4 inch sizes Apple has been using in its iPhone models.

Smaller hands will find the Z1 Compact easy to grip with the fingers wrapping around the middle power button, with the volume close by, while the 4.3 inch screen will mean your thumb doesn’t have to travel far to hitting the right buttons or swiping if you’re using the phone one-handed.

The build of the phone feels about as strong as it was on the Z1, with a mineral-strengthened front, while we think the back is glass, too. While the slickness of the materials might bother some, the phone wasn’t overly slippery for us, and with the smaller size, fit in the hands more easily, too.

Durability is just like the Z1, too, with water and dust resistance, meaning it can survive a dip in the drink, provided you keep the side ports sealed.

Use the phone, though, and you’ll find a practically identical experience to the excellent Z1.

For starters, there’s a recent version of Android running here, with the promise of an update to 4.4 “KitKat” inbound later on.

As usual, Sony has provided its Xperia overlay, which takes the background from the Sony PlayStation 3 console, and provides various homescreens supporting widgets, softened icons, menus with multiple order types, and even micro-apps that can run atop everything found in the multi-tasking screen.

The drop-down notification bar can be setup with multiple quick settings options based on your own choices, so if you don’t want NFC or mobile data to be quickly controlled options, you can turn them off.

From a system performance point of view, we’re not surprised to see close to identical benchmarks, with speeds comparable in synthetic benchmarks to the Sony Z1, as well as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and LG G2, both of which rely on the same processor.

Throughout our time with the handset, we didn’t find much lag to speak of, and everything generally ran perfectly. There were a few slowdowns every so often, but not enough to cause grief in the slightest.

Mobile performance was equally impressive, and while we didn’t test it on a Cat4 LTE network, our Cat3 4G tests were just as impressive, with speeds as high as 60Mbps found on this phone, and more likely possible from the same communication technology found in the Z1.

The screen is also very good, even if it doesn’t support the same Full HD 1920×1080 resolution as the panel in its big brother. Rather, the screen on the Z1 Compact was perfectly clear with vibrant colours from all angles and enough clarity to make it possible for us to read full-size webpages on the smaller screen.

Even better than the flagship Z1 is the battery, which appears to have had a helping hand from the lower resolution screen, providing as much a day and a half of battery for us in testing. That result happened while surfing the web, making phone calls, playing games, reading and writing emails, and doing a reasonable amount of social networking.

Phone users that hammer the phone and make tons of calls will find a day of life is likely, but overall, the Z1 Compact does very well by besting its big brother, which only nets the single day from our regular test.

Overall, though, the Z1 Compact is an excellent phone, and will suit the needs of many a customer, thanks to its excellent size, weight, and performance, as it really is the Z1 flagship (for the most part) in a more pocketable form factor. Support for Blue Tick certification for better reception in regional Australia is also a bonus, though one we didn’t get to test, thanks to GadgetGuy’s city location.

Our one set of quibbles extends from the camera, and while the 20.7 megapixel camera is capable of some decent shots, it’s not like the 40 megapixel shooter in the Nokia 1020 and won’t really provide full 20 megapixel images.

Rather, you’ll find 8 megapixel photos out of this handset most of the time, with scene modes available through the so-called manual modes, but no control in the 20 megapixel option.

Essentially, Sony is taking the higher megapixel sensor and providing what should be a better quality 8 megapixels, but it doesn’t always work out that well, and we found obvious noise in our low-light shots.

An image from the Xperia Z1 Compact

For the most part, though, the camera is fast, and if you like playing around with effects, you’ll be pleased with what is provided, including the same augmented reality effects that the Z1 could do, such as having dinosaurs walk out on your scene, or butterflies suddenly appearing in the middle of the shot.

This year, though, many of the cameras we’re seeing will have 4K video support, and unfortunately the Z1 Compact is not among these.

Despite supporting near identical specs to what Samsung used in its 4K-ready Galaxy Note 3, the Z1 Compact uses the same camera from the similarly named Z1, and Sony has already confirmed to us that 4K isn’t compatible with this camera. It’ll be there in the Z2, just not something with the Z1’s innards.

At least a shutter button is provided, which will make it possible to take shots without touching the screen, and even start the camera up from any screen in the phone just by holding it down.

Thanks to Sony's augmented reality effects, dinosaurs can invade our review desk, threatening the coin in the centre with their sharp digital teeth.

Conclusion

Possibly better than its big brother, Sony’s Z1 Compact manages to get everything we liked about the Z1 into an even smaller package, making it suitable for anyone who wants something new, fast, and powerful, but also loves the size of the iPhone and doesn’t want something massive making a dent in their pockets.

Between the ruggedisation, excellent speeds, and better battery than the bigger Z1, Sony has practically nailed it with the Z1 Compact, and we look forward to seeing more like this. Recommended.

Price (RRP)

$552

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Excellent system performance; Mobile broadband speeds are solid; Fantastic design and build quality; Built to survive a chance encounter with the elements; Better battery life than its big brother;

Product Cons

Camera has load of megapixels, but will only spit out either an 8 megapixel image if you actually want controls (like the Z1); No 4K shooting;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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