You little beauty: Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact reviewed

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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.

Multiple keyboards, FLAC support, and the ability to change the soundscape are part of the Xperia Z3 Compact's features.

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.

This camera glitch popped up every time we wanted to use the camera. You could get past it by hitting "ok," but it was still annoying.

Conclusion

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.

Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
Reader Rating0 Votes
Built very well; Shows that a 4.6 inch phone can indeed be compact; Impressive 4G speeds; Excellent battery life; Solid performance across the board; Can be docked with Sony’s magnetic docking system; Supports upgradeable memory by way of a microSD card; Fairly loud speakers; Improved Bluetooth compared to previous Sony Xperia phones;
A fair few bugs, including some odd Exchange issues, occasional camera failures, and dictionary problems; Plastic sides; Screen could probably be a little higher resolution; Camera software still seems a little rudimentary;
4.6