Sony Xperia Z3 Compact Review: Small But AWESOMELY Powerful

Reviews James Peckham 17:56, 10 Mar 2015

Sony is back again with a high-end smaller version of its Xperia Z3 flagship

Rating: 
4.5
Typical Price: 
£349.00
Pros: 
Excellent design, small form factor, high-end processor, good battery life, vast camera improvements
Cons: 
UI looks dated, no HD display
Verdict: 
It is an impressive update to the Xperia Z1 Compact and stands out amongst the miniature crowd. The display needs improving and the UI has some issues but overall the small package manages to pack a punch.

Sony did debut a new Xperia Z4 model at MWC 2015 as expected, however, what was unexpected was the fact that it was only one device rather than a revamp of the whole series, and it was a 10in tablet - that's right, no phones. It all occured amidst rumours that Sony has abandoned its six-month development cycle, with comments from company reps stating that it is "happy" with the Xperia Z3 line-up and has no immediate plans for a Z4 revamp across the board. That doesn't mean one isn't coming, mind, it just means it could come much later in the year as part of a regular 12-month cycle.

That also means no Xperia Z4 Compact, which means the most up-to-date mini member of the Xperia Z tribe is still the Xperia Z3 Compact. However, this is only the company's second Compact model. With the Xperia Z1, Sony decided it wanted a peice of the "Mini" handset pie to compete with offerings from Samsung and HTC. It was also adamant that a smaller model wouldn't mean a compromise on design and spec though, as it  often did with shrunken flagships from these rivals. Instead, the company introduced the Xperia Z1 Compact with mostly the same hardware setup as its larger stable-mate, save for a lower, regular HD (720p) display resolution and a smaller battery cell. The second-generation Xperia Z2 model skipped over a Compact version, but with the Xperia Z3 Compact we're treated to the same technological advances as found in the full-size Xperia Z3. That means an enhanced Triluminos IPS LCD display (again with a 720p resolution), a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon quad-core processor, and Sony's signature trick; a 21MP Exmor RS camera sensor pulled straight from its compact camera division, complete with a Sony G Lens and Bionz Image Processor.

Design

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but the Xperia Z3 Compact shares much of its design language with existing Xperia Z handsets. It's much more refined than the Xperia Z1 Compact, but perhaps a little less so than the full-size Xperia Z3 as its smaller dimensions means it has to pack the components into less space and it hasn't thinned so much around the waistline.

It is thinner than before though, almost a whole millimetre, and it's dramatically lighter. On paper it is only 8g lighter but the weight distribution has been improved significantly.

Both the front and back glass panels remain to keep the premium feel. The corners have been more rounded this time with a plastic edging that takes away a little of the square style of the phone which has been a hallmark of the Xperia Z series so far. The Xperia Z1 Compact came with metal edging giving it a premium feel that is missed on the latest version. 

Each corner now has a nylon cap which aims to save the phone from serious drops. In a few weeks of testing I’ve dropped the handset on all manner of surfaces and, so far, there is no real damage visible on the handset. The corners have allowed it to bounce to safety instead. 

The right hand side hosts the power button midway down and the volume rocker just under that. Right at the bottom of the right hand side you’ll find the dedicated camera button for when you need to quickly take a snap.

On the bottom of the handset is the hook for a lanyard, just so you can attach a little accessory or something like it’s 2006. On the top edge of the phone you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack.

The left hand side of the Z3 Compact has a microSIM slot, microUSB port for charging, and a slot for the microSD card. All these ports are covered over with flaps that ensure the phone has IP68 dust and water resistance and waterproofing.

The flaps have vastly improved on the latest round of Xperia devices and the Z3 Compact is no exception. Each is sturdier than ever before – I managed to break one of the flaps off the Z2 Tablet, but that didn't seem like such a risk here. Each is now easy to pull out for access to the connectivity options.

Sony’s IP68 dust and waterproof protection remains and allows the handset to be fully submerged in water up to depths of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes. We’ve played around with it and can attest to its protective qualities. It is really useful for those accidents where you drop the handset in the sink, or if you just want to show off to your friends and put it in a pint of water.

A big complaint with the Xperia Z1 Compact was the chunky bezel surrounding the display. It felt like wasted space and Sony has managed to trim them down all around the Z3 Compact. The top and bottom bezels have significantly shrunk down whilst the edges are a little thinner than before.

This has allowed Sony to up the screen size slightly without increasing the size of the whole device. 

Display

Sony’s Xperia Z1 Compact launched with a 4.3in display whilst the Z3 Compact has now expanded it to 4.6in. Personally I find this display size pretty bang on the mark; it offers a good size for viewing media whilst sitting comfortably in the palm of the hand without having to use two hands to reach the top of the screen.

The Z3 Compact display hasn’t changed much apart from size. It keeps the same pixel resolution at 720 x 1280 pixels and therefore has a lower pixel density than before at 319ppi. That makes for display that's not quite as sharp as what we saw on the Xperia Z1 Compact.

Viewing angles and contrast are still good on the Z3 Compact. It is a shame Sony wasn’t able to up the pixel resolution to full HD but you can understand why it didn’t opt to do it. A 1080p resolution would have eaten into the battery much faster whilst 720p still does the job on a display this size at typical viewing distances.

Sony has followed HTC and LG's example to include a new tap to wake feature. You need to turn it on under the Settings first but then you can double tap the display to wake up the phone.

During testing I kept finding the Z3 Compact was double tapping on my leg whilst it was in my pocket and turning the display on. That ended up wasting precious battery life, I personally wouldn’t recommend using it.

Processor & Performance

The processor is where the Xperia Z3 Compact stands out from the rest of the miniature competition. Compare it to the Galaxy S5 Mini or the HTC One Mini 2 and the Z3 Compact blows them both away.

Sony has managed to pack in a top-of-the-range processor with a powerful set up – in fact it is exactly the same as what you'll find aboard the Xperia Z3.

It’s an MSM8974AC Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor. Those four cores are using Qualcomm's Krait 400 architecture which has been clocked at 2.5GHz. There is also an Adreno 330 graphics processing unit (GPU) on board with 2GB of RAM on top of that.

In my weeks with the Xperia Z3 Compact I never experienced any juddering and performance was impressive even when running intensive apps. Running games such as Real Racing 3 posed no real issues, you’re very unlikely to need more power than the Xperia Z3 Compact provides.

When running intensive apps for long periods of time I kept finding the back panel of the handset heating up quite a lot. This is a problem Sony has had for quite some time and sometimes it gets so bad it’s unbearable to place back in your pocket. It isn’t anything to worry about but it can be really uncomfortable on your hands or leg, especially if you are a regular gamer.

Software & UI 

The Xperia Z3 Compact comes running Android 4.4.4 KitKat. Sony’s UI is then layered on top of it and it makes Android look drastically different. The Sony UI is a major point of contention within the KYM office, some members believe it to be the worst looking Android overlay out there. Personally, I’m quite forgiving of its design.

That’s purely down to the fact I used a Sony Xperia Z1 for the best part of a year and grew used to the look and feel of it. Heading back into the Sony system after a long period away has allowed me to notice how dated the UI does look now.

Android looks really good right now – especially with the Material Design aesthetic within Android Lollipop. Compared to Sony’s minuscule steps forward in terms of design - Android L's design leaps off the screen with its bold colour choices and large-scale typography grabbing your eye. Sony's UI just feels overcomplicated with dated looking app icons filling the screen.

If you’ve never used a Sony device before, prepare for the bloatware. A lot of your memory will be taken up with Sony specific apps such as Walkman, Lifelog, What’s New, Xperia Lounge and News From Sociallife.

The Sony Xperia Z3 Compact will be receiving the update to Lollipop in a short time but it won’t bring much of a difference in the overall UI design as Sony has tweaked it quite a lot. Based on previous updates from Sony, Android takes on a completely different look when the manufacturer puts its UI over the top.

Android 5.0 Lollipop is unlikely to make much of a change to the platform apart from inside the Google Apps, which have already begun to update at the time of writing.

Will It Get Android 5.0 Lollipop?

Sony has confirmed Android 5.0 Lollipop will be coming to the Xperia Z3 Compact. The upgrade process for Sony product is set to start in January 2015 but there is no confirmed date when it will come to the Z3 Compact. However, as of January 6 2015, a senior Sony executive attending CES has confirmed the full-size Xperia Z3 will be updated at the beginning of February. Considering how similar the overall software package is across Sony's phones, and how both the Xperia Z3 and the Compact are equally high-ranking and similarly specced devices in Sony's catalogue, it seems pretty likely the Xperia Z3 Compact will be updated within a very short time of the full-size model getting a boost, if not at the same time.

Sony hasn’t confirmed what features from Android Lollipop will make the jump onto the Xperia range. We can safely say Sony will put its UI right over the top of the software meaning there won’t be much Material Design features on the handset.

We’ll keep our eyes peeled for any new details so be sure to check out our round-up here for all the latest.

Camera

Sony has an entire camera dedicated division to lean back on for smartphone imaging technology. That said, ever since the Xperia Z1 we haven’t seen much of a change to the hardware. Again on the Z3 Compact it is more of the same. The 20.7MP Exmor RS CMOS 1/2.3” back-illuminated sensor (BSI) has returned alongside an LED flash, F2.0 aperture, Sony's dedicated BIONZ image processor, and a Sony G Lens.

The focal length has reduced down to 25mm following the 27mm length on the Z1 Compact. Sony has spent a lot of time improving the camera software on the latest line of mobile products. It now makes it a lot easier to get the desired shot without having to fiddle around with endless settings - you don't have to be a pro anymore. This time around Sony has also improved low light performance by adding in ISO 12800 sensitivity. Sony’s setup did struggle with low light before and it is much improved on the new range of devices.

In terms of video recording it's now capable of both 1080p HD and 4K. Considering the display is only 720p it does seem quite odd that it can capture in these higher qualities than it can playback, but you can also capture in lower resolutions including 720p if you wish (using Manual mode). Once you upload it to another screen you’ll be able to view the 4K or 1080p content as it was intended.

Here’s What The Professionals Can Do

A camera is only as good as the photographer holding it. Sony asked Greg Funnell in London, Ben Thomas is Melbourne and J.N. Silva in New York to take some snaps with either an Xperia Z3 or Xperia Z3 Compact. The shots really put our photos to shame. 

For a full look at the results check it out on the Sony Xperia Blog, down below here are some of our favourite shots from the experiment. Take note of the “tilt-shift” effect the photographers have introduced. The next shot from Sony shows off the "tilt-shift" form of photography that can get some really interesting effects.

Storage, Connectivity & Other Hardware 

There is only one storage option for the Xperia Z3 Compact: 16GB. That can then be added to with a microSD card, with the phone supporting cards up to 128GB. It may mean shelling out a little extra on a memory card but that does allow for over 140GB of space. 

On the top left hand side of the device, hidden under one of the flaps is the microUSB 2.0 port. You can connect it up for data transfer or charging. Sony would prefer for you to buy a charging dock and use the connector on the side of the device. It means you don’t have to open up the flaps every night and it’ll forever be waterproof.

Other connectivity options include 4G LTE and 3G mobile internet support. It also has dual-band Wi-Fi with Hotspot, Wi-Fi Direct, and DLNA. Bluetooth 4.0 is also onboard alongside NFC and naturally you can use the two  to quickly connect up to speakers, headsets and other accessories.

Sony has included the Xperia Z3 Compact in its new Remote Play features roll out. It means you can now play PlayStation 4 games via your Xperia Z3 Compact display. You’ll need to be on the same Wi-Fi network as your PS4 but I connected it all up with my PS4 at home over a terrible internet connection and it only disconnected once in an hour of play.

The feature is still in an early phase but it works surprisingly well. I think the display is potentially a little too small, it was quite a struggle to see subtitles running along the bottom of the screen. Hopefully it’ll work out better on the Z3 Tablet Compact. For a full look at PS4 Remote Play head to our round-up here.

Battery

Here at KYM we test smartphone batteries using either The Hobbit or Django test. This time around we chose to play The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on the device, as usual we set it to full brightness with all the connectivity on. The film clocks in at just under 2 hours 45 minutes and by the time the credits rolled the phone still had 70% battery life remaining.

Huawei’s new phablet, the Ascend Mate 7, set a new record a couple of weeks back at 76% but most flagships this year have come in between 60% and 70%. Sony’s little handset performed extremely well and means you could probably make it all the way through the entire Hobbit trilogy in one sitting, once it’s all available to buy of course. 

Sony’s Xperia Z1 Compact underwent the Django test and came out the other side with 60% battery life. That is quite a significant upgrade and the display on the Xperia Z3 Compact is even larger this time around. Some impressive work Sony!

Conclusion 

Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact is much of the same again – it isn’t going to swing you around if you’re a Sony hater but for everyone else there's plenty to like here. I’m continually impressed by how Sony manages to keep the same amount of high-end specs in such a small form factor device with its Compact range.

There are problems with it though, the 720p display really would have been nicer if it had been bumped up to 1080p. Then again the battery would have taken a big hit and that is one of the phone's defining features - it offers stunning performance compared to similar handsets. Sony’s UI also takes some serious getting used to and undeniably looks out of date. But again, on balance, if you really dislike it you can always use a launcher to hide that away.

The overall design has been refined to offer a slimmer and more durable product but has also lost a bit of the Xperia premium feel by including plastic edging. Even so, the processor in the Xperia Z3 Compact is yet again impressive; no other miniature handset offers that much computing power and offers such good performance.

If you’re looking for a powerful Android smartphone without having to handle a large display the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact is likely going to suit you down to a T.  

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