Sony Xperia Z1 Compact review: Sony's Pocket Rocket

Reviews Paul Briden 17:12, 17 Mar 2014

We check out the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact to see if it delivers some Mini Magic

Rating: 
4.5
Typical Price: 
£449.00
Pros: 
Compact and easy to use, Excellent build quality, Superb display, Great camera, Very fast performance, Good battery life, Good speakers
Cons: 
Custom UI is not great, Sacrifice screen size for usability
Verdict: 
The best "Mini" on the market, the Xperia Z1 Compact pulls no punches and is just as capable as its larger cousin, but far more portable

In 2013 and 2014, phone manufacturers fully embraced the larger phone concept. I wouldn’t like to speculate on whether consumer habits are largely driven by the influence of manufacturers, or vice versa, or even if it’s a two way thing, but whatever the root cause: big phones took off in a big way over the last year and a bit.

But, crucially, smaller devices never went away and there has continued to be a clear and viable market for handsets which don’t take up so much space in the pocket or hand. Chief amongst these, of course, is Apple’s iPhone. On the Android side though, HTC and Samsung offered their respective “Mini” iterations of the current flagship models; the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4 became the HTC One Mini and the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini.

However, in both these cases (and in many others), the shrinking form factor led to a reduction in specs and a diluted experience compared to the flagship equivalents. In short, manufacturers were catering to fans of smaller devices purely in terms of scale, not in terms of a desire for a high-end, premium experience in-line with the larger flagships.

Enter Sony and the Xperia Z1 Compact. Sony very deliberately chose the name “Compact” as it said it found its research indicated consumers associate the word “Mini” with a downgrade in specs – plus, it also handily differentiates the handset from competing devices.

And make no mistake, it’s a very sensible move because this is no mere “Mini” handset. It makes the bare minimum of spec compromises to deliver that compact form factor while maintaining all the airs and graces of a premium model.

Design

It’s not surprising that Sony has aimed to retain as much as possible of the Xperia Z1’s exterior design seeing as how the latest flagship is an iconic representative of the company’s new “One Sony” brand. All of the stylish features which made the Xperia Z1 so appealing are still here. It sports a robust and premium-feeling aluminium chassis clad with ultra-tough Dragontrail glass on both front and back.

There’s IP58 water and dust proofing certification, plus a highly angular shape to the whole device with contoured corners and edges, and a panel-liked design along the sides. Sony’s signature round silver power button has made a return and there a few other silver accents around the camera lens and headphone jack. There’s also a mesh speaker grille in the base of the device.

The Xperia Z1 Compact is available in black, white, pink and “lime”, with this final hue being a sort of yellowish green. While the black version has a gunmetal grey surround, the white model has a brighter silver instead and both the pink and lime models have had their surrounds coloured to match their glass back panels.

As well as inheriting good looks and a premium feel in the hand, the Xperia Z1 Compact has a few flaws in its genes passed on by the parent model. As I said of the Xperia Z1, the Xperia Z1 Compact’s glass backing may look nice but it attracts fingerprints as easily as displays normal do, quickly resulting in a smeary mess moments after taking it out the box for the first time. Again ,the black model appears to be the worst offender here, with the white, pink and lime variants all offering some “fingerprint stealth” by not showing them up so easily.

Likewise, the covers which hide the handset’s various ports (excluding the headphone jack and proprietary charging dock contacts) and which are required for that waterproofing certification to be active are fiddly and somewhat flimsy in their attachment to the bodywork via small plastic strands. Not only do they not look particularly elegant when open (in stark contrast to the rest of the phone’s appearance) but it’s not hard to imagine them snapping off with wear and rendering your once waterproof phone very vulnerable indeed.

Considering Sony has some kind of nano-coating in place to prevent the need of a port cover on the headphone jack, you would think something similar could be done with the other ports, or, as I’ve suggested before, a more securely implemented sliding door system.

But, these are relatively minor criticisms and on the whole the handset is really very rewarding to use, it sits nicely in the hand, is much more manageable to use than its larger counterpart but still has a solid, premium and well-made feel.

Display

I’ve consistently been impressed by Sony’s display tech and with the Xperia Z1 Compact the company has even ironed out a few problems found on previous models. It’s a smaller 4.3-inch display this time round, which should come as no surprise considering the whole handset has been miniaturised. The resolution is lower, but at this scale there isn’t a noticeable loss in clarity as a 720p HD setup gives a high pixel density of 342 pixels-per-inch (ppi) – higher than Apple’s Retina screen.

As with previous Sony screens, the X-Reality Engine and Triluminos technology ensures contrast, brightness and colour saturation are all excellent. Black depth is decent, although it’s not as dark as OLED alternatives. Whites are bright, though with a slight yellowish tint, and text is particularly clear. Meanwhile Sony has managed to solve the earlier issues with its screens appearing washed out and offering poor viewing angles – these are no longer concerns with the Xperia Z1 Compact.

And while the Xperia Z1’s larger screen is certainly a joy for watching films, playing games and various other intensely visual activities, there is a certain joy to rediscovering the versatility of the smaller display. The Xperia Z1 Compact is ideally suited to one-handed control with the thumb, while still being large enough to make browsing, gaming and multimedia consumption rewarding.

Processor

This is one of the key differentiators between the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact and rival “Mini” devices. The Xperia Z1 Compact features the same processor as the Xperia Z1 flagship which means it’s a right little powerhouse. It has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core chip (MSM8974) on the Krait 400 architecture, clocked at 2.2GHz and backed up by 2GB of RAM plus an Adreno 330 graphics processing unit (GPU).

I’ve tested this chip running on a number of handsets now and every single one has delivered virtually perfect performance. The Xperia Z1 Compact also runs very well – it’s incredible how smooth Android runs on this hardware with excellent latency for touch input and on the whole it’s a rewarding experience.

However, I did notice that with some intensive multitasking and gaming there was some heat build-up on the back panel. In one instance this seemed to cause a bit of slowdown, but it appears to have been a freak occurrence as subsequent attempts to replicate the problem were met with uninterrupted and smooth performance.

Hardware, connectivity, storage and web

Again, this is much the same as the full-size Xperia Z1, which means a raft of connectivity options. Onboard you've got full 4G and 3G mobile data capabilities, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi Hotspot, DLNA, microUSB, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS and MHL TV-out. Phew!

There's also 16GB of onboard storage and microSD support for cards up to 64GB, so while onboard space isn't vast, it is adequate for apps and games while being boosted for films, music and other files on cards.

It's worth mentioning the speakers are really quite good here, with decent sound quality even at higher volumes.

Web speeds are impressively quick in Chome and I found with a stable connection - not difficult with the Xperia Z1 Compact's extremely capable Wi-Fi and mobile data hardware - I was easily hopping between webpages in a matter of seconds, while web-dependent apps update quickly too.

Camera

The Xperia Z1 Compact uses the same Sony Exmor RS 20.7-megapixel back-illuminated camera sensor (BSI) as the Xperia Z1. This features plenty of hardware brought across from Sony's dedicated camera division – the same department responsible for full-blown compact cameras and the like.

As such, it has Sony's G-Lens technology, and f/2.0 aperture and a dedicated BIONZ imaging processor, as well as a dedicated shutter button and LED flash. Sony's imaging software suite has also been tweaked slightly but retains the useful Superior Auto mode and a number of novelty filters.

Image quality does appear to have improved from the Xperia Z1's original launch, although the flagship has since received a similar software update to enhance pictures and video captured.

Picture clarity is nice and crisp with excellent dynamic range, exposure and contrast. Images have plenty of detail and can stand to be zoomed and cropped to an extent without too much loss of quality. Meanwhile colour saturation is very good indeed, producing very natural, accurate tones.

It can still be a bit tricky to get the cameras somewhat over enthusiastic auto-adjustments to cooperate for that perfect shot on things like Macro close-ups, so it does still lack on the "point-n-shoot" ease of use many rivals get spot on, but with that said, if you persist then, goodness, are the results worth it.

Software

The Xperia Z1 Compact runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with Sony's own UI on top, an update to 4.4.2 KitKat is promised and it's expected there'll be a UI overhaul included. In the meantime, however, it's again the same deal as the Xperia Z1 with a fairly heavily customised UI approach.

This isn't going to be to everyone's tastes; it is quite noisy. I also think the custom icon designs and certain menus such as Settings and the multitasking interface are quite stark, plain and a bit ugly.

But, it all works really nicely and at the end of the day you can always use a launcher if you're really at odds with Sony's aesthetic.

Features include lock-screen widgets and camera access, a suite of mini apps which can be layered over your homescreen (accessible from the multitasking carousel). There's also a suite of app search tools embedded in the app drawer and accessible with a swipe gesture.

Battery

Considering one of the few areas where the Xperia Z1's impressive spec has taken a hit is the battery, and that historically Sony's battery life on other handsets has been...well, not the best, I was expecting bad things from the Xperia Z1 Compact. As it turns out I needn't have worried, whatever tweaking and optimising Sony has done has worked wonders and the reduction of that display and its resolution has also no doubt helped things. I found I was getting similar run-time from the 2,300mAh Xperia Z1 Compact to its larger 3,000mAh cousin on a single charge.

With moderate use on social networking, browsing, texts, calls and some video, I found I would still easily get a couple of days on one charge. More intensive activity such as gaming did eat away at things more rapidly but this is always the case.

Time for The Django Test – running the entirety of Django Unchained's 2.45 hours with full brightness and both Wi-Fi and mobile data toggled on, from 100% charge. By the end of the film, the Xperia Z1 Compact had 60% charge remaining, which is really not too shabby at all and suggests you could get somewhere between 6-8 hours of continuous film playback, probably more for music and a bit less for games with touchscreen input.

This compares favourably with the Xperia Z1's 68% on the same test and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3's result of 64%.

I should note that this was without making use of Sony's Stamina mode or auto-brightness, both of which could make a difference to lifespan on a charge. Turning off other things like Wi-Fi and data could also extend battery life too.

Conclusion

The Sony Xperia Z1 was one of my favourite handsets of 2013, so it's understandable perhaps that I had high hopes for the Xperia Z1 Compact.

I'm of the opinion that this is an excellent device in its own right, but it's also one of the best-executed "Mini" handsets available to date simply because Sony has not made any compromises; the screen, camera, processing power and performance are all superb. While HTC's One Mini kept its premium build quality, compromises were made on the specs and the end user experience.

Personally, I am more of a fan of the 5-inch Xperia Z1 scale for its film-viewing prowess, but it's fair to say that Sony has done a brilliant job of optimising the smaller display for just the right visual quality at this scale.

It's also improved in terms of viewing angles and remedying that washed-out look, so despite a smaller viewing space and a lower resolution, it is, in some ways, a better screen.

While I may prefer the practicality of the larger screen for watching films, there's no getting round the fact that for the vast majority of smartphone tasks (calling, texting and other one-handed app use) the smaller screen and more manageable chassis-size is much, much better.

While the camera improvements have been software based and also distributed to the Xperia Z1, the Xperia Z1 Compact's camera has granted an excellent camera experience right out the box. I had my reservations about the Xperia Z1's camera performance and to be fair, I have not gone back to it since it was patched. If the Xperia Z1 Compact's camera is any measure though, then bravo Sony, it's worked a treat and the imaging is now truly as stunning as it should be.

Want To See It In Action?

Want more Sony Xperia Z1 Compact information? Be sure to watch our video review just below. This way you’ll get to see some of the features in action such as that almighty 20.7MP camera and we also weigh it up compared to the original Z1.

If you like the video head over to YouTube itself, hit like and subscribe and even leave a comment if you feel like it. Feedback is always appreciated.

Specifications

Length 127mm
Width 64.9mm
Thickness 9.5mm
Weight 137g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 4.3-inches
UK Launch January 2014
Phone Style Touchscreen
Typical Price £449
Website http://www.sonymobile.com/gb/products/phones/xperia-z1-compact/
Camera Resolution 20.7-megapixel
Video Resolution 1080p
Flash LED
Music Formats MP3/eAAC+/WAV/Flac
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Yes
Radio Yes

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