Compact without the compromise: Sony’s Xperia Z5 Compact reviewed
4.8Overall Score
Price (RRP): $849 Manufacturer: Sony

Big phones are everywhere, but what if you prefer something a little more svelte, made for smaller pockets and hands that prefer to carry less weight that still want a premium phone? For that, you turn to something that calls itself a “compact”.

Features

Sony’s next handset for the year isn’t about keeping it large with the other phablets in town, and it’s not even about keeping things ordinary. Rather, it’s about being small, minimal, and made for people who aren’t all that caring for a massive phone.

Believe it or not, these people exist, because in some hands and some pockets, 5 inches and higher is just too big.

Apple still believes that with its 4.7 inch iPhone 6S, though even that can be seen as a big phone, and so for the Xperia Z5 Compact, Sony is bringing it down a notch, grabbing a 4.6 inch display and making a more compact handset, with a shorter footprint than Apple’s own iPhone.

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This 4.6 inch display runs a resolution of 1280×720, delivering around 320 pixels per inch, while the display works off of Sony’s “Triluminos” display technology, referred to by many these days as “quantum dot”.

Under this screen, all the important stuff sits, offering up Qualcomm’s eight-core Snapdragon 810 processor paired with 2GB RAM and 32GB storage, the latter of which can be upgraded with a microSD card, supporting up to a 256GB card at the moment, though with the possibility that more will be supported as time goes on.

Google’s Android 5.1 “Lollipop” arrives on the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact out of the box.

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Cameras are part and parcel of smartphones these days, and for this phone, you’ll find a 23 megapixel camera with one of Sony’s Exmor RS sensors, allowing up to ISO 12800 used in photos and put to ISO 3200 used in videos, with the video capture supporting up to 4K Ultra HD. Up front, Sony is relying on a 5 megapixel camera with an Exmor R sensor, supporting up to 1080p Full HD video.

Connections are pretty standard for a flagship phone in 2015, and while it’s a small device, it is most definitely still a flagship phone, just a smaller flagship phone.

As such, expect 802.11a/b/g/n and 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS, NFC, and 4G LTE for mobile broadband, with these the wireless technologies. Wired, however, is handled through the standard 3.5mm headset jack found at the very top of the handset, while the microUSB charge and data transfer port sits at the very bottom.

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Ports are few in number, with the aforementioned microUSB and 3.5mm headset ports on the top and bottom, while a door can be found on the left edge providing full access to a nanoSIM tray and the microSD card slot, a change in configuration from the way it was on the previous Sony Xperia Compact smartphone.

Buttons are, however, mostly kept the same, with a change in the shape of the power button (circle to rectangular), sitting above the volume rocker and camera button, all still located on the right edge. Á fresh change, however, the Xperia Z5 Compact features a fingerprint scanner built into the power button.

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All other Android-specific buttons are software based and found as part of the operating system, sitting at the bottom of the 4.6 inch display and only visible (and usable) when the phone is switched on.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the support for water-resistance, with IP65/8 resistance back for another dance, catering to a fair amount of dust- and water-proofing out of the box.

The battery is rated at 2700mAh and is not removable.

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Performance

This year, Sony is keeping the whole “compact” range going, back from when it started with the Z1 Compact early last year before fixing and making even better in the latter half of the year with the Z3 Compact.

Now it’s back, and with the smartphone game well and truly on fire, Sony has to make a dent with this one in order to show it has the guts to compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung, which are really playing for keeps.

Does the Z5 Compact have what it takes to throttle the competition?

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In the hands, much of the positivity we had for the Z5’s design has been transferred to the smaller body, with a slightly softened rectangular block that is super easy to grip and comfortable to hold.

That’s an evolution of the omni-balance design Sony has been trying to push forward with for a few years now, and while this is a refinement of that design, there are some changes.

Most notable, there is no longer a magnetic charge dock port, so you can throw those old docks away, and the door for the USB port has disappeared, and that’s because Sony has found a way to make the microUSB port cap-less and yet still be water resistant.

That’s right, you’ll be able to take this phone into the water without fear that the port will end up dying in the process, because in the Z5 Compact, Sony is offering a highly water resistant microUSB port, provided it’s freshwater you’re talking about. More on that in a moment.

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The other major change to the design is in the power button, and what was previously a small circular metal button is now a flat rectangular plastic button, but it comes with a cool improvement: a fingerprint reader.

Much like how every other major smartphone maker is following in the footsteps of Apple with the fingerprint reader, Sony is now offering this technology itself, and has embedded it in the part of the phone you grip, the power button.

And boy, is it fast, and well designed to boot.

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While the Z5 Compact hasn’t yet been updated to Android 6.0 to take advantage of all the neat fingerprint reading tricks Android will be able to use, not like it’s Nexus cousins, the fingerprint sensor in the Compact doesn’t just have to depend on the tip of your finger, it can read a little lower, and even the joins in your finger, and it nails it nearly every time.

Simply put, you just have to grip the phone and squeeze the power button slightly if you want to unlock the phone, which is a stellar effort from a first generation biometric reader.

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In case it doesn’t work, however, you’ll still be able to apply a password or PIN, and that will certainly be necessary if you have wet fingers, because like all fingerprint readers on phones, this one has problems picking up on your friction ridges when they’re wet.

When you do unlock the phone, however, you’ll find the same Snapdragon 810 processor as what was inside the Z5, but with a drop to 2GB RAM instead of the 3GB we found in the larger Z5.

Despite this reduction in memory, the Z5 still flies, and still offers a decent amount of storage for you to work with, starting with 32GB inside the body, but allowing you to expand it using a microSD card, something some Android smartphone makers are beginning to look past much to the dismay of customers (and reviewers).

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Back to the performance, however, and we had little to no problems with the Z5 Compact, and while Android’s latest wasn’t on the phone yet, we’re told it is coming, and Sony is generally faster than some of the other big names, so we believe it.

Even without Marshmallow, the version of Lollipop the Z5 Compact relies on is still quite speedy, zipping along and feeling stable, and this is helped by a scaled back edition of Android with less overlay complexity than ever before.

It is quite clearly still not a stock Android experience, but that’s totally fine, and you’ll find the phone quite easy to use, with options for multiple home screens, a customisable shortcut dock, and apps that are easy to uninstall if need be.

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Some of the additions that make a Sony flagship different are still here, and these include the attention to sound.

If you happen to value your audio experience on a smartphone, you’ll find more settings for sound enhancements, spatial effects, and support for high-resolution audio up to 24-bit in 192kHz, meaning any high quality FLAC files you have laying around or that you bought recently for another media player will play on this phone.

A new audio trick is also here, with noise cancellation built into the handset provided you use one of Sony’s compatible headsets.

For this to work, your phone becomes the power and processing brick for the Sony-specific noise cancelling headset, and while we haven’t tried it yet, this seems like it might be a good idea, provided Sony has produced a decent pair of headphones. If not, we’ll just go to another pair of active noise cancelling cans, of which there are certainly quite a few.

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Owners of a Sony PlayStation 4 will also find they can control their console using their phone, or even pair the PS4 controller with the phone and play over a network connection (but not a mobile one) the games they’d normally have to sit in front of the telly for.

And then there’s that other trick that we always love: water resistance.

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This is something we wish more mobile manufacturers wood seriously bring into their designs, and just like it was on the Z3 and Z3 Compact, it remains on the Z5 and Z5 Compact alike.

That is to say, if you’re worried about rain killing your phone, or a splash of beer drowning it, or fearing that you’ll take a dip in the water and forget to take your phone out of your pocket destroying it without realising it and forcing you to buy the biggest bag of rice you can find to dry it out, you don’t have to worry with this handset.

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From the get go, the Sony is rated as IP65/8, which means it is mostly dust proof and highly water resistant, though these water proofing ratings have been developed for freshwater.

If you do end up taking the phone into the saltwater of the sea or chlorinated pool water, run your phone under a tap when you’re done, letting the clearwater remove any and as many impurities that may have been introduced from the not-quite-freshwater you’ve dipped the phone into.

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The camera is also fairly strong, and it should be given there’s a redeveloped 23 megapixel Exmor camera on-board, providing up to 4K video and up to 23 megapixel stills, though make sure to switch it from the 8 megapixels when you get the phone. For some reason, both Z5 variants were set to this out of the box.

Now loading the camera can occasionally through out some delays, much like we saw on the full-strength Z5, but this was by no means as frequent, and while it’s not fast as some other cameras, it still gets up all the same, offering downloadable camera modes and Sony’s neat augmented reality based modes if you need them, too.

Image sample from the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact

Image sample from the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact

In daylight, though, the camera really shines, and we’re still a big fan of that camera button Sony keeps around, allowing you to hit the shutter by, well, hitting the shutter.

Remember when cameras had buttons and weren’t all touchscreens? Sony’s Z5 Compact (and by association Z5) let you do just that, you can either hit the touchscreen shutter or press the button.

Images aren’t quite as strong at darker environments, though thanks to the high ISO sensitivity with a maximum of ISO 12800, you can get the shot without needing to resort to flash, it may just be a little soft, especially in the details.

Image sample from the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact

Image sample from the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact

We haven’t talked about how you’ll view these photos, though — the display — so let’s do that.

For another year, Sony has kept its 4.6 inch 720p only display, offering up the 1280×720 resolution and around 320 pixels per inch, more or less just barely hitting the resolution many describe as “Retina”, which makes it a lower pixel clarity than its Z5 brother.

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That’s pretty much bang on with what we saw in last year’s Z3 Compact, and just like we liked it then, we still like it now, though it is a little behind what other phones are now offering.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but this screen is by no means as clear and pin-prick sharp as say the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 or even Sony’s own Xperia Z5. Rather, it’s sharp enough for most people, and vibrant enough for most people, though we wouldn’t object to a higher resolution panel, since clarity is a big deal these days.

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Granted, if Sony had included a sharper screen, there’s a good chance it would have shot a few holes in the battery life, which doesn’t fare too badly, easily producing a day of life, and a little more if you’re not a power user.

Stamina mode can see you get a little further, and through our tests over the time we spend with the Z5 Compact, we found a day and a half was easily possible here when Bluetooth was switched on, telling us that without Bluetooth, two days could probably be found.

In truth, Sony’s Stamina mode can help to bring the life up, but be aware this may come at the cost of less notifications and a bit of lag between apps as they load. For some people, these may actually be features.

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And mobile 4G performance was also pretty solid, boasting speeds of between 90 and 130Mbps in Sydney’s CBD on the Telstra 4GX network.

We suspect this is a Category 6 device, that said, so if the conditions are right, you could hit speeds as high as 300Mbps, though surfing the web and downloading YouTube videos, you’re unlikely to realise it beyond feeling that the Z5 Compact is certainly fast enough.

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While we had a much more successful run with the Z5 Compact than we did with its sibling, the Z5, and found almost nothing negative to say about the handset, one interesting glitch did pop up: no matter which microUSB equipped thumb drive we would plug into the Compact, it refused to recognise it.

That’s a solid difference from what we found on the Z5, which ran it without problems. And yet here, nothing would load. Weird.

Perhaps it’s one of those “patch later” things that we suspect the Z5 suffers from, though at least it’s not a bug that can ruin your whole experience, so best not to worry. Instead, there’s this thing called the cloud…

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Conclusion

Sony has three mobiles coming this year, and we’ve already checked out one of them, with the Z5 passing through our reviews desk with considerable difficulty. Unlike this review (Z5 Compact), the Z5 was a dog, with huge performance issues, major glaring bugs, and a battery life that refused to get close to what Sony was trying to tell us was possible. The company did tell us that it might have been a preproduction issue and that we could wait, but wouldn’t provide a firm availability date, so we had to go with what we had.

That was unfortunate, as it was a phone we had been looking forward to all year.

Fortunately, the Xperia Z5 Compact appears to be Sony’s saving grace, offering none of the quirks, none of the dilemmas, and pretty much all of that performance, design, and value we had wanted in a phone this year.

Sony’s Z5 Compact also offers something else practically no other phone maker is considering anymore: a small size.

Talking to a lot of people, big may well be “in”, but quite a few people wish phone manufacturers would continue to make smaller devices, and that is something the Z5 Compact definitely is, and Sony has even managed it without making compromises. Highly recommended.

Compact without the compromise: Sony’s Xperia Z5 Compact reviewed
Price (RRP): $849 Manufacturer: Sony
Excellent construction; Perfectly and properly small in a world constantly throwing out big devices; Spec'd to perform, which it does; Upgradeable storage; Can play PlayStation 4 over a network (if you have a PS4 in the home); Supports high-res audio; Resistant to water with a capless microUSB charge port;
Screen hasn't changed much, if any; Camera can sometimes take a few seconds to load; MicroUSB drives won't load up;
Overall
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4.8Overall Score
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