Smartphones may well be getting bigger, but Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact aims to show people that a smartphone doesn’t need to be big to be powerful, boasting high-end specs in a small-scale body.
Part of Sony’s third generation of Xperia Z series — which is actually technically the fourth-generation if you include the original “Z” series — the Xperia Z3 Compact is a small model, drawing on many of the features from its brother, the Z3, but packing them into a smaller body.
As such, you’ll find similar technology, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor (AC model) clocked at 2.5GHz and paired with 2GB RAM, working with 16GB storage and letting you upgrade this using the microSD slot found inside the phone.
Connections are pretty standard for a flagship phone, offering 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, with Category 4 4G LTE for mobile connections, and then Bluetooth 4.0 with Low Energy (LE) and aptX, Near-Field Communication, and GPS, with wired connectivity handled through both a microUSB port hidden behind a door and Sony’s proprietary magnetic dock connector.
Cameras on the phone come in the form of an improved 20.7 megapixel camera on the back, capable of recording in both Ultra HD and Full HD for videos, while the front camera can handle 2.2 megapixel images with videos captured at Full HD’s 1080p.
Google’s Android operating system runs here, available in version 4.4 “KitKat” out of the box, and with Sony’s own interface sitting atop this.
All of this sits under a 4.6 inch screen running the high-definition resolution of 1280×720, also known as 720p, and displaying a pixel count of 319 pixels per inch.
Buttons on the phone are mostly handled by Android’s software, with virtual on-screen buttons taken care of by Google’s software, but there are physical buttons on the right edge of the phone, with a circular power button just above a volume rocker, and a camera shutter button at the very bottom of the handset.
Ports are equally limited, with a microUSB port hidden behind a door on the left edge, the same door that also hides the microSD slot, while the bottom door hides the nanoSIM slot, a first for Sony, which has previously used microSIM slots in its handsets.
Sony’s magnetic proprietary dock also sits along the left edge, while the 3.5mm jack sits at the top.
The battery on the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is rated for 2600mAh.
If it seems too early for a new Xperia, you’re right: Sony released new phones earlier in the year, and if you invested in one of them, there’s a good chance that you’re a little annoyed by the idea that new models are on the way to replace them.
Worse, the new models are very similar, with modest improvements meant to make the phones just that little bit better, all the while making your recently new Xperia Z2 lower in value.
But here we are with a six month refresh cycle, which Sony started last year when it replaced the Z with the Z1 at the end of the year.
This year, the Z3 is replacing the Z2, and is bringing the Z3 Compact alongside it, the latter of which we’re checking out.
This model — the Z3 Compact — is aims to be essentially what Sony’s name for it is: a compact edition of Sony’s Z3, and that’s important because so-called “compact” edition smartphones are generally not smaller iterations, but rather similar versions at a smaller size.
We say “similar” because often the speed and processor have changed, as has the memory and the feature set, resulting in products that aren’t just smaller versions, but shadows of themselves. These aren’t “compact” per-se, but totally different because they’re smaller.
But not the Z3 Compact, which on paper is — outside of the screen and battery — practically on par with the big phone, the Xperia Z3.
So is this a pint-sized Z3? And does it offer flagship performance to people with smaller hands?
In the hands, the Sony Xperia Z3 is a good fit, with soft curved edges holding together a 4.6 inch screen with a little under half an inch on either side for the bezels and a glass back.
The phone measures around 8.6mm thin and is marginally thicker than the Z2, but still comfortable all the same, with a phone size similar to Apple’s iPhone 5 and 5S, making it ideal for people who like smaller phones and have no desire to go with something bigger.
Switch the phone on using the circular button on the side and phone comes to life, the display lighting up and showing a screen that looks excellent from nearly every angle.
Sony’s version of Android is still one of the easiest we’ve used, modifying the simple several home screens, app menu, and drop down notification bar to look more like its Xrossbar interface seen on the Bravia TVs, and it’s more of the same here.
Screens have that Sony look to them, and there’s even a choice of a slightly animated background, giving you the wave effect from the PlayStation background on your phone.
Shortcut docks can all be changed too, as can the dropdown power controller shortcut bar and app menu categorisation.
It’s easy to understand and simple to get across, and thanks to the combination of Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB RAM, the phone performs very well.
In fact, we had very little lag as we worked, with apps and games loading very quickly, and multitasking letting us jump from app to app quickly and easily.
System performance isn’t a huge increase on what we’ve seen from other flagship smartphones this year, a note which will probably make people wonder why they’re paying for a new phone, but it’s a solid effort all the same, and if you own a 2012 or 2013 model, this will be an excellent update in specs alone.
Battery performance is one area you won’t have any issues with, and while the body of the Z3 Compact is smaller than any of the flagships we’ve seen all year, Sony has managed to squeeze so much life into this phone, we’re truly surprised.
We have found roughly a day and a half was possible running the phone normally, and as many as as two full days possible with Sony’s battery saving “Stamina” mode switched on. That is a solid amount of battery life, and while you’ll probably want to charge it nightly if you’re a phone addict, the Z3 Compact will get you through the work day without any problems, that much we can attest to.
Our test had us making phone calls, sending texts, checking and sending emails, social networking, taking photos, playing games, listening to music, and generally using the phone, and the day and a half of life was from all of this.
Stamina mode (below) makes the full second day possible for our tests, offering a solid amount of life for a smartphone.
This excellent day-long battery life doesn’t seem to come at the expense of any performance, either, with virtually no lag found on the slightly faster variant of the Xperia Z2 that the Z3 Compact is, with a slight increase in processor speed, and still the highly useful 2GB RAM accompanying this.
The camera is also impressive, with some minor improvements on the excellent module already in the Z2, but shrunk down to a smaller size.
Sony has left the camera button in this smaller phone, and we’re grateful for it, but the performance is the seriously impressive part, with fantastic images in daylight and still excellent images when the light decreases and its dark outside.
Macro support isn’t the greatest, that said, so don’t expect a lot of versatility when bringing objects directly in front of the camera, but the image quality is still good all the same.
We’re pleased to see 4K Ultra HD video included as a feature in the Z3 Compact, providing yet another way to make content for the few UHD TVs out there in the world, especially useful if you’ve indulged and bought one already.
Even the front-facing camera feels a little better when taking a photo, though there hasn’t been much of an improvement to the module here, with the same 2.2 megapixel camera as last time.
Our one quibble with the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact camera comes from the software, and while it’ll let you get a shot quickly and easily most of the time, enthusiasts who want to get a little more from their 20 megapixel camera will be a touch frustrated.
That’s because the 20 megapixel shooter only lets you shoot at 20 megapixels when you’re in the 4:3 mode with virtually no controls, shooting things the way they are, but without any extra controls or manual modes.
Get into the Intelligent Auto modes and you’ll find an 8 megapixel image down-sampled from the 20 megapixel image with lots of different options, but it’s not full control of 20 megapixels, and that’s the way Sony has more or less left it the past few Xperia generations.
While Nokia and HTC both allow you to get a little close and personal with manual controls — or virtual versions, anyway — Sony still lags in the software area, only letting you do the bare basics, such as touching to focus and hitting the shutter button on either the on-screen camera icon or the hardware button along the side of the camera.
Despite the so-called manual mode, there’s no manual, aperture, or shutter speed options, and you can’t play with focus like you can on some of the other phone cameras out there.
What you can do that is different is play with some augmented reality options, which is a continuation of some of the work Sony did last time in the Z2, providing digital dinosaurs and electronic elves to enter your world, letting you take photos of these augmented creations through your phone.
This time, there’s more fun to be had, with love hearts, cartoonish stars, bubbles, and all manner of things, letting you play with your scenes rather than the scenes being automatically included in the world of the animated creatures.
It’s neat, but it’s a gimmick, and one you’ll probably quickly forget about, though we suspect the kids will find it interesting, pausing to find the bubbles on the other side of the camera, the phone seeing something they cannot see with their naked eye.
Some of the other software inclusions are nice as well, such as the ability to record the screen and not just take photos of it, something developers may find useful, as well as one thing we didn’t get to test: PS4 Remote.
This is one feature we’re most looking forward to playing with, making it possible to play games on a PlayStation 4 remotely by using the WiFi network your PS4 and smartphone are connected to. If the TV is being used by something else, this will make the PlayStation still usable, controlling it from bed or another room in the home where you don’t want to be bothered, with a PS4 DualShock controller attached using the Sony Game Control Mount (GCM10).
Unfortunately, this feature has yet to be rolled out to the PlayStation 4, with the functionality expected in November when Sony sends it to consoles as an update.
Still, we’re excited, as it means the PS4 will be usable when you’re in bed and trying to get to sleep, something we haven’t yet been able to do with our phone.
FLAC support is also here, providing audio in 192/24 and doing that whole “high resolution audio” thing Sony talked about earlier in the year, except in a phone.
We’re not quite sure where this leaves the Sony high-res audio dedicated Walkman running on Android, but we can’t imagine there’d be much use for it now, especially when we can use the Xperia Z3 Compact to play back our massive gigabyte albums in high resolution audiophile bliss. Support is also here to change the shape of the volume, with equaliser settings and some modes to change the sound of the “room” you’re listening to audio in, as well.
There are other positives, too, such as the Sony dock, which is still supported though also optional, and makes it easy to charge your phone while it stands horizontally, showing you a clock and shortcuts and taking a charge from the wall.
A high degree of water resistance is a strong positive too, rated at IP68 and making this phone very, very water resistant when the ports are all closed, an improvement on the last generation with one number that brings this past a metre of immersion in water for 30 minutes.
Yes, you can take this phone into water if you so choose, just make sure all the ports are blocked, otherwise your water-resistant phone will be a dead phone quick smart.
Thankfully, port blocking is easy and Sony doesn’t give you a reminder every time they’re open, something that we do see every time we use the Galaxy S5, so that’s good and not annoying, too.
The speakers on the front are also fairly loud, with two front-facing speakers, providing loud and fairly clear audio, though not quite to the extent that HTC’s One series pulls off.
Over to the negatives, and we need to applaud Sony because there are so few of these, most of which come as a result of software bugs that could just as easily be from our review unit, which may or may not be pre-production.
The plastic sides are one negative, though it’s more of a “meh” thing than something you’ll care about.
You see, on the Sony Xperia Z2 and Z3 full-size units, Sony has relied on metal frames, or on the Z3, metal with a hint of plastic in the corners to stop the phone from warping or scratching considerably. But on the Z3 Compact, Sony has ditched the metal altogether and gone with plastic for the sides.
That might sound like a reduction in quality, but only when written, because in person, the plastic edges still feel good in the hands, and Sony has still relied on glass for both the front and back, providing a strong and sturdy body regardless of the material used in the frame.
The only real downside we see from the plastic frame comes from the doors in that they don’t always pop back into place perfectly when you reseal them. We’ve had this more than once, and we’d advise you to check all the doors before immersing the phone in water, as the plastic edges don’t always feel like they’re in place all the way.
Another minor thing is the screen which sits below that Retina ppi count of 326 pixels per inch, but only marginally.
With a 4.6 inch screen running the high definition resolution of 1280×720, Sony has provided 319 pixels per inch, a virtually irrelevant difference to Retina’s resolution, though one all the same.
For most, the resolution will be beautifully clear, with sharp images and clear text visible from the regular phone using distance, but to those of you pixel peeping, it might be enough to make you go “no, I want a phone with a bigger and better display.”
Given the specs, we suspect that will be the Sony Xperia Z3, which brings the resolution up to Full HD in a 5.2 inch screen, boasting an even more impressive 424 pixels per inch. That said, the Z3 Compact’s screen is still pretty special, and we like it all the same, with solid viewing angles, great colour, and a lot of brightness to boot.
Finally, those aforementioned software bugs are the last part of our complaints, and include no Microsoft Exchange syncing outside of email, a first for us, making our calendar impossible to connect, as well as a few random bugs temporarily stopping the camera from working (it doesn’t, you just have to click “ok” and the app will continue to work) as well as the dictionary only refreshing its library of words after you restart the phone.
But outside of these bugs, the Z3 Compact is a winner, and we’re delighted to see some improvements to Sony’s Bluetooth, which struggled in the Z2 and doesn’t appear to suffer as many problems in this incarnation, though it does still offer some lag and resistance here and there.
While it has the odd bug here and there, Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact is a solid smartphone for 2014, and one of the best all year, pushing so much into a small body that it’s a hard phone to ignore.
Interestingly, the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact sends a clear message to one of Sony’s major competitors — Apple — with the notion that it is possible to build a phone with a bigger screen that keeps the size of the whole handset down. Indeed, the 4.6 inch screen on the Z3 is only marginally smaller than that of the recently launched iPhone 6, and yet the handset is so much smaller, it’s hard to even compare the two.
Most importantly, however, it’s an excellent compact smartphone for the individual that doesn’t want a big handset, and makes good on the promise of something that so few of the compact phones actually do, with pretty much every feature from its Z3 brother packed into a small size.
Indeed, this is a compact Z3, with so few differences, or noticeable differences at that. The screen is one of them, as is the plastic framing, but neither of these feel like issues, and the Z3 Compact is without a doubt one of the best phones we’ve seen all year, bringing performance and versatility to a small size.
If you want the performance of a big phone in the body of a small one, you owe it to yourself to check out Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact, achieving so much excellence in a size so small. Highly recommended.